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How To Compile A Top-Notch Competitive Analysis For Search
In order to beat the competition in search engine rankings, you must first know what they're doing. Columnist Brian Harnish shares his tips for putting together a solid competitor analysis.
When it comes to search engine optimization (SEO), it’s crucial to research your competition. Knowing where you stand in relation to your competitors will help inform the strategy and tactics needed to achieve your client’s SEO goals, allowing you to focus your efforts and set realistic expectations.
Who are the top competitors? What is driving their results that you are not doing? When do they publish content? Where do they share their content? Why do they do what they do? And how do they do it? All of these questions should be answered thoroughly, because their answers will be a driving force in your optimization strategy.
Unfortunately, putting together a competitor analysis can be a tricky and time-consuming endeavor. But if you follow the steps below, analyzing your competitors just got a little easier.
1. Always Find Out What The Client Wants
The true measurement of any competitor analysis’ success is how well it helps the client achieve their primary objective(s). Whether it’s obtaining new leads, increasing brand perception, driving traffic for dollar conversions or something else, one thing is certain: success must be measurable.
Accurate reporting of clearly established success metrics is essential in communicating to the client that their goals and objectives have actually been achieved. Errors in interpretation of data from any campaign can turn to failure what otherwise would be a great success.
This is why it is important to find out the client’s main objective in the beginning and always make sure to keep it top of mind during the analysis.
2. Determining Your Competitors
When you create a competitor analysis, you are taking a magnifying glass to what is driving rankings for websites that appear above your client’s in search results for your target keywords. Thus, you’ll want to find out what your client wants to rank for and build your competitor analysis around that.
Note: My advice is to limit this list of target keywords to 10 or fewer. While everyone would like to rank for many keyword phrases on Google, timely completion of a competitor analysis can mean the difference between success and failure — so you have to have a limit in place.
Your client may need you to advise on which keywords are worth targeting, and you should be prepared to provide some recommendations. Of course, choosing target keywords has gotten a bit more complex in recent years.
In the early days of SEO, you wrote a bunch of content focused on a keyword phrase, and that would be it. Now, it’s more important to choose topics that are of interest to your audience and build your keyword strategy around that.
Decide which topic or topics are relevant to your client, then perform your keyword research around those topics. Find the keywords related to your topic that have good search volume and are not impossibly competitive. (If you have a massive budget and can afford to get your site into the top echelon of those competitive keyword phrases, then sure — go after them! But don’t expect it to be easy or quick.)
Once you have developed your keyword list, you can then identify the top 10 competitors for each. Perform a search for each target keyword, and note the websites that appear on the first page of search results.
When we identify these sites, we are only creating an initial list of competitors. The list can later be narrowed down to include just the biggest “threats,” or it can be edited to include specific competitors if the client requests them.
Once we’ve identified our client’s main competitors, we can begin our analysis.
3. Find Out How Many Indexed Pages The Competition Has
The number of indexed pages is an important metric to pinpoint. Why? Because the more indexed pages a website has, the more Google is — generally — going to crawl it (especially if the site is updated regularly).
To find out how many pages of a website are indexed in Google or Bing, you can perform a “site:” search from within the search box. So, for example, you would type “site:domain.com” into the search box and see how many results came up.
Keep in mind that indexed pages impact crawling, not rankings. Sheer quantity of content, just like sheer quantity of links, is never a guarantee of high rankings. You can make 300 content updates a month and still only get 100,000 visitors a year; conversely, you can make 15 content updates a month and drive more than 500,000 visitors a year. It all depends on how good your SEO is.
In terms of a competitor analysis, a high number of indexed pages doesn’t always mean that a site is impossible to beat. It doesn’t always equal better site authority or better rankings. (Matt Cutts, Google’s former head of web spam, talks about this here: More Pages Does Not Equal Higher Rankings.) However, these can certainly be correlated.
Discovering how many indexed pages a competitor’s site has will give you an idea of what you’re up against in terms of content to compete with. And that brings us to our next section.
4. Look At What Your Competitors Are Writing About
By looking at your competition’s content, you can find out what your audience is willing to read, how much they are willing to read, what they are willing to share, when they read it, when they are willing to share and why they shared the content they shared. You can also get a general word count of their top-ranking articles to get an idea of what performs best in your industry.
It is a good idea to observe the content that’s out there and work to create what Moz’s Rand Fishkin calls “10x content” to beat them. Fishkin defines 10x as content that is “10 times better than anything I can find in the search results today. If I don’t think I can do that, then I’m not going to try and rank for those keywords.”
Looking at your competitions’ content, you can answer the most important question your client will have: What is my competitor writing that is performing well virally, socially and organically?
- Virally: Look at content that has gained the most reads, shares and overall positive feedback across your client’s industry. This will give you a clue to the kind of content that will perform well. Remember, though, that just because one idea goes viral, it doesn’t always mean that it will go viral again. What we are looking for here is resonance: how that content speaks to readers and how they react to it. Once we find out what content resonates with your audience, we can write content that may garner a similar reaction.
- Socially: Using a tool called BuzzSumo, it is possible to find out the social reach of a piece of content. Looking at BuzzSumo for keywords and domain names, one can find out exactly the share potential of a piece of content. If you’re looking to write something, find out how the topic has done in the past across all the major social networks by using this tool.
- Organically: Looking at search engine results pages (SERPs) for a given keyword, you can figure out how well content has done organically. Finding out how well content has done organically is important because you want to find out how Google views that kind of content. However, keep in mind that just because one site’s content is ranking well in SERPs, it doesn’t mean that your similar content will perform the same way. We are simply assessing things like word count, who wrote the content, what was written that performed well, when it was written, why it was written and how it was written. This way, you can create 10x content that can beat them.
5. Examine Your Competitors’ Link Profiles
How many inbound links do your competitors have? And more importantly, where are they coming from?
Just like content, sheer link quantity is not the way to build a solid link profile. If a competitor has 300,000 links, what are those links doing? Do they look like this?
- 50,000 links from low-quality directories.
- 20,000 links from article marketing sites.
- 100,000 links from gambling sites with high PageRank.
- 100,000 links from porn sites with high PageRank.
- 30,000 links from no-follow blog comment spam.
Or do they look more like this?
- 50,000 links from .EDU sites.
- 50,000 links from .GOV sites.
- 50,000 links from niche authority sites.
- 50,000 links from press releases.
- 50,000 links from miscellaneous sites.
- 50,000 links from niche blogs that aren’t comment spam.
You can have 300,000 links and nonetheless have an awful link profile, as in the first example. Low-quality directories, article marketing sites, gambling sites, porn sites and no-follow blog comment spam are bad sites to have.
Links like these are considered “link schemes,” and they have the potential to result in a penalty that decreases search engine visibility. Such links are often artifacts of SEO tactics from years gone by, when Google’s spam detection was less sophisticated.
The main takeaway here is that if you want to emulate a competitor’s link-building strategy, make sure that you aren’t doing anything so egregiously bad that could cause your site to fall under a penalty.
Examine the competitor’s link profile for healthy link ratios, sites that are not spam and solid Google-friendly link-building strategy. If the competition is using bad link profiles to get their rankings, you want to differentiate your site from theirs by following a healthier path.
Don’t always assume that the competition is doing things the right way. This is how most inexperienced SEOs get themselves into trouble.
Putting It All Together
By examining your competitors and improving upon their strengths (while avoiding their weaknesses), it is possible to formulate a strategy that will help propel your next project to #1 in the SERPs.
Don’t ever be afraid to dig deep into the rabbit hole. You may be surprised at what you find.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.