When it comes to competitive analysis, you need to get in touch with your inner octopus.
Deep at the bottom of the ocean, creeping stealthily through the murky depths, the octopus is a master of detection and capture. Little can escape the clutches of those eight tenacious tentacles.
Don’t blob around in the shallows thinking that catching the odd bit of plankton will nourish your strategy. The only way you will thrive in the food chain is by diving deep, getting stealthy and launching an eight-pronged attack to gobble up your rivals…
The Eight Tentacles of Success…
Put your major fathead terms into Google. Which domains dominate your results? The top 5 appearing sites need to be investigated further. Look at metrics such as:
• Title Tags
• Meta Description
• URL Naming Convention
• Are they specifically targeting the keywords they are showing up for?
What other terms are they targeting / do they rank for? Should these be on your keyword list?
2. Online Presence
Look beyond the organic SERPs. Are those top domains enhancing their performance with PPC?
How socially engaged are your competitors? How strong are their profiles? What does their strategy seem to be (if any) and is it feeding into their overall SEO?
• Blogs – how have they set up their blog? What’s the content like? How engaged are people with it?
• Twitter – how many followers / tweets
• Facebook – how many likes / posts
• Site page shares – is there an option to share / like / +1 their homepage or any other site content?
• Video / Infographics
• Social bookmarking – look around on sites like Digg and StumbleUpon to see if/how people are sharing the site or blog’s content
4. Link Building
This is a hugely important part of competitive analysis. Try to find out…
• Quantity AND quality of competitor links
• Does the link building look purposeful and strategic or organic and incidental?
• Is there an over-abundance of particular anchor text?
• Is there a bias towards one type of link: directory / forum / news etc?
• Is the external content shared / commented upon / tweeted etc?
• Do they seem to have a press release strategy?
• Have they been successful in teaming with educational sites that give them .edu links?
• What does their blogger outreach campaign seem to be (if any)?
Moving on from this, a specific focus of your link building research will be backlink analysis, particularly top backlinks on high quality, high authority sites.
• What category do these top pages tend to fit into – news sites? Industry sites? Public Networks?
• Can you decipher how they are obtaining links on these sites? Guest posts or relationships?
• What types of content are they relying on?
• Do site-wide or footer links dominate?
6. Google Places
There is an increasing focus on local search, especially if you and your rival businesses have physical locations or locales. Use Google Places to help navigate this one, by running a brand query with your location in the customised search view.
• Do your competitors have Google Places pages?
• How are they using the ‘Descriptions’ and ‘Categories’ options?
• How many star ratings / reviews are they getting?
• Look on their site and social media channels. Are they actively asking customers for reviews or incentivising them in any way?
7. Site Review
Stay on their website for a while now and conduct an SEO MOT. Mark Jackson has this handy checklist for site structure:
• Check indexing of images and videos
• Look for Facebook/Twitter profiles (to identify what their “winning content” is; video, shopping feeds, local/map listings, and news/PR)
• Check whether competitors are operating a blog (and how they have this set up, whether it’s on a separate domain, subdomain or sub-directory)
• Look at the competitor’s titles, H1s, meta descriptions, meta keywords
• Look at keyword density on ranking pages
• Evaluate URL structures, to see if “top competitors” are pushing content as close as they can to the root (www.example.com/page-name-here) or whether they’re letting the website’s structure determine the file depth of a given page (www.example.com/category/page-name-here)
8. Strategy Review
Pull all of your observations and insight together to map out your estimation of what their overall strategy might be.
• How are the different 7 elements working together (or working against each other)?
• What weaknesses can you see in their strategy?
• What opportunities can you spot for you to learn from or move into?
• What’s your intuition about the SEO in general? How switched on are they? Have they made any silly mistakes or are they at risk of over-optimisation?
What Should You Digest?
It’s not just a case of gobbling them up and spitting them out. Competitive analysis is all about learning from others who are excelling in your vertical. Useful things to digest and use as positive energy include:
• How effective is your own keyword list? Do you need to add or amend it? What’s your prioritisation?
• How can you improve your link building? What types of content do you need to work on
• Is your social media working for you?
• ‘Borrow’ ideas and potential placements for content marketing
• Motivation. Just as you are checking up on other people, other people are checking up on you. Can you feel satisfied with what they are finding? Which parts would you rather keep hidden under the carpet? Do you know where your weaknesses are?
• Are you successfully synchronising your online and offline activity?
Use Those Tentacles for Good
Even octopi need friends. Sometimes the best source of SEO growth will be through finding creative ways to partner those dominating domains or link with them in some way, rather than plot a deep-sea ambush. We like what Selena Narayanasamy says in her article ‘A Stalker’s Guide to Competitive Research’:
“There seems to be this “screw the competitor” mentality, which can hurt your brand in the long run. If you’re working on competitive research and looking to improve your brand’s overall visibility, focus on learning everything about the vertical overall, your competitors, and open opportunities to excel. It’s not worth expending negative energy to try to destroy a competitor when there are tons of holistic and sustainable strategies to compete in most markets. Do not use this as an opportunity to call out negative tactics that a competitor might be using. You want to understand the space and get a foothold where there’s an open opportunity.”