Aspirations Of Incompetence: Benchmarking Competitors

Why oh why do we obsess over our competitors’ SEO strategies and tactics?

Business leaders, frequently molded from concentrated Type-A material, can’t help but obsess over performance relative to competitors.

They celebrate gains in market share, the thrill of stealing a client and the schadenfreude of a competitor’s stock decline. When introduced to SEO, they obsesses over comparative ranking reports.

And yet, none of this really makes any sense from an SEO perspective.

Following a competitor’s SEO lead, especially around specific tactics, can lead you to striving to be just as bad as they are.

Most Industry Leaders Aren’t Industry Leaders Because Of SEO

Generally, the market leader of a given industry (and I speak in very broad brush strokes here) was established well before the SEO game arrived in the corporate board room agenda. “Quarterly Board Room Meeting Minutes: We need to put some more SEO on our website. Motion passed.”

These big, clunky industry leaders’ market dominance comes from decades of business success — so benchmarking (and copying tactics) for SEO doesn’t make sense.

I’ve had the privilege (and horror) of being exposed to SEO discussions of some very large organizations. It is shocking to know just how confused their thinking is and how deep their problems run.

Competitors May Not Use Best Practices

Following the industry leader’s online tactics assumes they are implementing best practices. The reality is, they may experience success for a variety of reasons that you can’t replicate. They are a well-known offline brand; they have a very old, established domain; they have tons of legacy links; etc.

These factors may drive their success regardless of how poor their SEO tactics are or how antiquated their technology platform is. Copying these worst-of-breed tactics without their non-SEO strengths is a very dangerous practice.

Even Market Leaders Play Dirty

The ugly cousin of “not using best practices” is deliberately (or unknowingly) employing black hat tactics. It’s tempting to assume that market leaders employ only white hat tactics. Yet every six months, like clockwork, we hear about yet another well-known, established brand blowing it all.

J.C. Penney anyone? BMW? FindLaw? Of course, big brands can quickly throw their SEO consultancy under the press bus, but why do we think it’s a good idea to copy their tactics? Benchmarking competitors may get you banned. And if you are a small site, this ban may be forever.

Competitors Have A Very Different Link Profile

The aforementioned Type-A business leaders, with enough SEO understanding to be dangerous but not useful, often operate from a simplistic perspective.

How many of you have heard a variation of this: “We’re both in the same industry; they have a PageRank 7 site; they are the market leader; all we need to do is to get a PageRank 8.” 

Presumably, if you are reading this, you already know this is a massive oversimplification, bordering on stupidity. Obviously, the nuances around the link profile for two sites can be very different — number of links, plus ones, domain diversity, deep links, anchor text, links from Digg, tweets, links from Chelsea Clinton’s fan page.

Yet, how many engagements or in-house conversations involve discussion around the PageRank of your competitors?

Ranking Reports Are Useless Competitive Benchmarks

I’ve written a diatribe against ranking reports here, but suffice to say, benchmarking competitors against specific terms is extremely short-sighted.

In summary: Ranking reports don’t take into account search personalization, variations of search queries, the long tail and search volume, and they encourage short-sighted (read: black hat) tactics.

The Solution: Cross Industry Benchmarking

I’m not suggesting that you should never look at other companies’ approaches to SEO. In fact, staying up to speed with the constantly changing landscape requires a healthy dose of watching what others companies do.

The important nuance here is that those benchmarked companies aren’t necessarily the market leaders of your industry.

Consider the following:

When the market research team for gun and ammo manufacturer Remington came back with a study that customers wanted shinier shells, the product development group struggled unsuccessfully to cost-effectively build shiny shell casings.

“Sorry marketing, it can’t be done.”

They failed, that is, until they took a tour of a Maybelline factory, literally across the street, that had been churning out shiny lipstick packaging for years.

When FedEx wanted to improve its on-ground turn-around times, it benchmarked its tactics against the best practices employed by Indy Racing pit crews. Had it looked at the airline industry market leader instead, it would have aspired to be just as bad as its own industry.

The value of cross industry benchmarking holds true online. Want to benchmark best practices for social media outreach? Watch Zappos. Want a benchmark for an awesome approach to user-generated content? Spy on Seeking Alpha. Need a kick in the link building arse? Do a thorough analysis of TripAdvisor.

Hundreds of companies out there are applying cutting-edge SEO best practices. It’s highly unlikely that the leader in your industry is one of them.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Search Marketing | In House Search Marketing


About The Author: is the founder of Atticus Marketing - a search agency dedicated exclusively to the legal profession. Prior to Atticus, Conrad ran marketing for Urbanspoon and the legal directory Avvo, which rose from concept to market leader under his watch.

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  • George Michie

    Terrific post, Conrad. Similarly, the fact that Harvard (insert name of other great school at your preference) produces the best students does not mean that Harvard is the best school. They also only take the best students. The best school is the one that has the greatest differential between the students that come in and those same students when they leave. In the SEO world the excellent shops may be the ones that make greatest strides with the least help from legacy marketing and brand recognition.


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