Research Your Competition for SEO

If you plan to start a new website commercially or enter a new business niche, you’d best be prepared to do some research. It’s one thing to build a hobby site as a labor of love, but if you want to make some money and aren’t familiar with the competition, you might as well be going into battle blindfolded. So how do you get started?

First, you need to know who your competitors are. They may not be who you think. If you’re starting from scratch, you shouldn’t be going after the McDonald’s or Wal-Mart equivalent in your space. These are the 500-pound gorillas. You know what I’m talking about: they have been around forever, they have huge websites with lots of content, they have incredible brand penetration so everyone knows who they are, and they have tons of money to throw at any new initiative they deem necessary.

I’ve seen more than one SEO professional describe the idea of going after that kind of site when you’re just entering a space as “fighting outside your weight class.” So let the George Foremen of the world take on the Muhammad Alis, and find yourself some good featherweights. If you’re really new to the space, you may even learn something.

Internet time speeds everything up, so if you’re brand new you’ll want to find several successful sites that have been in the space you want to enter for a relatively short period (say two  years or less) – not the ones that have been at the top of Google forever. Ann Smarty recently wrote an article for Search Engine Journal in which she advises looking at youthful competitors’ sites for several reasons.

  • You’ll have an easier time figuring out their link building strategy, because there will be fewer back links to sift through.
  • Successful new sites should have fewer “legacy” techniques; they got their good position using techniques that work now, not three or five or seven years ago.
  • Since these sites are probably using new techniques, you may see a few you haven’t seen before, which should help further your SEO education (and quite probably your knowledge of the new space you’re entering).

This article will give you an overview of how to approach doing competitive research. There are a number of tools out there that can make the process easier; I will try to focus on what you can do for free, with minimal tool use, since many tools for competitive analysis will charge a fee.

{mospagebreak title=Start Your Examination}

First, you’ll need to check out your competitors’ content. Don’t just look for keywords, though those are important. In fact, you’ll need to use those in part to determine who your competitors are.

If you aren’t sure who these rivals are, Ann Smarty recommends putting all your keywords into a spreadsheet and adding the following information:

  • Google’s daily/monthly estimated reach. Wordtracker has a free keyword suggestion tool that can help you with this.
  • Overall number of results in Google (broad match).
  • The site ranked number one for each term.
  • The number of results when you use the “intitle:” command for that keyword.
  • The number of results when you use the “inanchor:” command for that keyword.
  • The number of results for intitle:”keyword” and inanchor:”keyword.” The sites that come up for this are your direct competition: they are in your field and have engaged in SEO.

Now, when you have a keyword where you find that the reach is high, the overall results in Google are low, and the last three bullet points are very low, you have a keyword which is potentially very competitive for you.

But for the moment, let’s get back to your competitors’ content. Consider both the quality and quantity of their content. If you’ve recently entered the field and you’re trying to determine why your competitors outrank you on the search engine results pages (SERPs), this could be the biggest reason right here.

Before you rush out to add more pages to your site, please remember that search engines still can’t see everything as far as content goes. They like text, and they particularly like relevant content. If you’re using video to enhance your web site, for example, put that video on the same page as lots of relevant text; you can even include a transcript of the video.

Also check out your competitors’ navigation. Spiders use navigation to find out what a site is about. Make sure your own navigation is at least as well-structured as that of your rivals – and if you can do better, by all means do so. Imagine a human user clicking through your site, looking for relevant content. It should be set up to subtly guide the visitor to content in which they would be interested. For example, if I was building a web site that hosted a variety of crafts projects, I might divide it up by the media chiefly used (fiber, wood, metal, clay, etc.) and/or difficulty of the projects, or cost of materials, or – well, you get the idea.

The next thing you need to consider is how many links your rivals have, and where they come from. We have a Link Popularity Tool here at SEO Chat. You can put in a valid URL and it will query Google, Yahoo, and MSN to find the links to that URL. It will only return numbers, however. If you want to find the actual links, you can go to Google and use the “link:” operator. This operator also works for Yahoo – and Yahoo shows more links than Google. Just use the format

{mospagebreak title=Digging Deeper}

The next step is to get a little more technical. View your most successful competitor’s source code and check out what they’re doing in terms of on-site optimization. This means looking at their titles, H1 and H2 tags, internal site architecture, meta tags, and so forth. Here, if you’ve been an SEO for a while, you may be at risk of falling into the “I can do MUCH better than that!” trap. Yes, you probably can, but right now you’re not trying to do better; you’re trying to find out what your competition did to get where they currently are.

The real trick, when you analyze your competitor’s SEO, is to find a balance between learning from your rival’s mistakes and getting too dismissive of their efforts. As Ann Smarty observed, “The art of seeing mistakes and at the same time being able to keep from underestimating [your competitor’s efforts] always brings [you] to the right solution in the end.”

Once you’ve analyzed your competitor’s on-page optimization, make a list of what you spotted. You’ll want to be able to refer to this as you put your own site together. You should also make notes on what you think you can do better.

The next step is to examine your competitor’s link building strategy. Yes, you already looked at the overall picture in the previous section, but now we’re going to get a little more specific. Go to Yahoo and perform the following search: keyword

You might or might not get overwhelmed. I tried it for SEO Chat for the keyword SEO and got something on the order of 649,000 results. Of course, SEO Chat is a well-established site with several years’ worth of content; we’ve been publishing three articles a week for quite some time now. Ann Smarty recommends a plug-in called SEOquake that will let you sort results based on the age of the page, back link data and PageRank.

{mospagebreak title=Now What?}

Hopefully, after you’ve gone through all this, you have a picture of what your competitors are doing, both on and off-site, to rank for their chosen keywords. You have also given some consideration to how you can do better than they can. If you haven’t, go back and think about it, because if you’re in this to make money, you should be thinking about it.

You should also be thinking about how much effort it is going to take. Do you have a good handle on the field? Can you write (or pay someone else to write) good, unique, relevant content that is better than your rivals’? Can you show that you’re an expert in your field, by blogging, making relevant comments to blogs, posting in forums, giving interviews, etc.?

If you already have a web site up and running, you may find it helpful to run the same analysis on it that you just ran on your competition, and compare and contrast the two sites. If you’ve been pulling your hair out over how your competition could possibly be doing better than you, the results might be revealing. Maybe your rival has more content that the search engines can see more easily – that’s even likely if your web site is mostly composed of images and videos. Maybe he has more quality links. Maybe he has done a better job of optimizing his web site.

That last could actually be a blessing in disguise. If your strongest rival has optimized extensively for one particular keyword or key phrase, it may mean that they’re vulnerable to someone going for the long tail. Ross Dunn wrote an excellent article about a year and a half ago that explains this point and others to watch for when analyzing a competitor’s website. It’s still valid today.

After you have compared your own site and your competitors in the areas of content, site structure, links, and optimization, you will know what areas you need to work on to improve your site’s ranking in the SERPs. You may find some frustrating issues; for example, maybe your rival has been able to index more pages in the search engines than you. That means you will have to look at your site structure to make sure that the search engines can get to all the appropriate pages in your site. In any case, you’ll have a better idea of what you need to do to improve your site’s visibility in the SERPs and hopefully increase your traffic. Good luck!

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