Grow Your Business Faster by Learning from the Competition
Every business has that one competitor that ranks for everything. No matter where you look or what you search for, there they are in the top search rankings. It can be absolutely maddening to see that and too many businesses throw their hands in the air when they realize much work it takes. Hitting those top spots doesn’t happen overnight, but you can jump start your rise to the top by doing a little competitive SEO analysis.
Here’s the deal, Google doesn’t just arbitrarily hand out their top search rankings. They’re earned through search engine optimization and great marketing. Your competitors have to be doing something right to get where they are and if you dig into their marketing efforts, literal road map to success will begin to take shape that spells out everything you need to do to grow your company. But you have to be willing to look. (Most companies aren’t, which is shocking, and then they’re surprised when they start shrinking.)
There is something to be said for separating your business from the pack, but you’re handicapping your growth if you ignore what’s already working for your competitors.
Importance of Ranking Highly in the SERP
Keywords only get searched so many times a day and the further from the top of page one you are, the less traffic you can potentially get. There have been numerous studies on click distribution based on SERP position and 43%-76% of traffic clicks on one of the first five results (depending on which study you look at).
To put that into perspective, every day that you don’t rank well, you’re missing out on reaching thousands of potential customers that are actively looking for you! They want what you’re offering, but they can’t find you.
Goal of Competitive Analysis
The beauty of taking cues from your competitors is that you have the clarity of hindsight without having to do any of the actual work. You didn’t have to spend hours upon hours researching keyword opportunities, planning out your content strategy, or experimenting, testing, and tweaking to figure out what pushes the needle and then scaling it out. You get to capitalize on their wins and ignore their failures while pushing your growth to the next level at a faster pace.
That’s really what the whole point of these checks, speeding up your growth. Chasing the top spots in Google is making up for lost time. The people at the top of the SERP have months and months and months, if not years, of organic marketing on you. You’re going to need every edge and advantage you can get to usurp their positioning and claim their traffic as your own, which is why it’s so important to take your wins wherever you can find them.
You don’t have time to waste with the age old blank page conundrum waiting for marketing ideas to come to you. Follow in their footsteps to put your growth in the fast lane.
Don’t Lose Sight of the Big Picture
Competitive analysis can be a double edged sword. You can look at the wrong competitor or a bad practice by a good competitor and put damaging marketing tactics into practice. Never forget that correlation does not equal causation. Just because a competing website ranks for a keyword or two, that doesn’t mean that they’re a good competitor or that they’re doing something right. Google’s algorithms aren’t perfect and there are websites still rank that realistically shouldn’t.
How do you know which competitors are worth your time and which ones aren’t? Tons of research and data analysis. That’s how. You may groan at the prospect of doing hours and hours of research, but like the saying goes, measure twice, cut once.
Metrics to Help Identify Legitimate Competitors
There are a number of metrics that you need to take into consideration when figuring out which competitors are worth your time (and will benefit your business). Ultimately, all of the metrics below measure the same thing, Site Authority, just in different ways. No single one is the magic bullet that will rocket you to the top, but they contribute to the whole. Remember, big picture. Don’t get lost in the weeds because you latched onto a single detail. Weigh all of the metrics below when doing your analysis, not just one or two.
Disclaimer: There isn’t a hard and fast rule for what makes a site an Authority, i.e. you don’t become the website when your Domain Authority (DA) gets in the 40s or 50s. A competitor’s Authority “level” is in relation to its own competitors.
The single most important metric to consider in your competitive SEO analysis is a site’s Site Authority and the quickest way to find this out is to look at the Page Authority (PA) of their homepage and their overall Domain Authority (DA). Developed by Moz, these scores range from 1 – 100 and while they may look like arbitrary numbers, they’re actually a pretty accurate “prediction” on how well a site should rank in the search engines.
Search engines are designed to serve up the most authoritative content based on a search query. The higher the PA & DA scores, the more authoritative the site. The more authoritative the site, the higher they rank in the search engines. The higher they rank in the search engines, the more likely they are to be good competitor to analyze.
While site age used to be a moderate ranking factor in previous search algorithm versions (which fueled a ton of domain hunting), it’s more of a sanity check now. When you check out a website’s “age”, you’re really looking at how long the website has been around and relevant more so than it’s actual age. You’ll want to look at how long they’ve been posting blog content, how long have they been posting on social media, their actual domain age, and how long they’ve been getting steady inbound organic traffic. SEMRush has a solid historical traffic profile, but I’ll go into more detail on that in the tools section of this article.
It is true that older websites appear to be “favored” more by search engines than new ones, that’s a bit of a false attribution. Older websites tend to rank better than new websites because they’ve had years of marketing poured into them, not simply because they’re older.
I tend to ignore “new” companies until they’ve been around for a while because what’s built quickly can fall apart just as quickly. I try to reiterate this point into new clients as much as possible because everyone wants fast results and to rank well tomorrow, but 9 times out of 10, those new companies are a flash in the pan. You’ll see them for a while and then they’ll disappear forever because they were gaming the system to get quick results.
Even in a Post-Penguin world, inbound links are still the gold standard for sending authoritative ranking signals to Google. Put bluntly, you will not rank for relevant keywords unless you have a healthy and natural inbound link profile.
However, the Penguin algorithm has made it so that you need to be very picky when it comes to who links to you. That’s a topic for a different article, but when it comes to checking out a competitor’s link profile, what should you be looking for?
HEALTHY INBOUND LINK PROFILE METRICS
- Total # of Links: More is always better, provided they don’t come from site wide backlinks which are very, very bad.
- # of Linking Root Domains: More is always better as it shows that more individual sites link to a website.
- Anchor Text Distribution: You want to see a variety of keywords mixed between target keyword, branded, and generic, non-focused terms.
- Quality of Linking Website: A single link from a good website outweighs hundreds from low-quality sites.
- Follow vs. NoFollow: Most inbound links will be followed links, but having a small percentage of nofollow links is organic.
- # of Deep Links: Deep links are links to pages that aren’t the homepage. An organic link profile does not center on single pages so you want to see a healthy distribution of deep links.
While that isn’t a comprehensive list of metrics to check out, it’s a solid surface level analysis that will quickly expose any worrisome red flags. Going deeper than this is overkill.
Social Media Following & Engagement
There is a very common misconception that social media signals help websites rank higher in search engines. This is not true. There is a correlational relationship between high social media engagement and high search engine rankings, but there is not a direct relationship between them. The reality is that ranking websites typically have great marketing teams (or agencies) that also know how to push engagement in the social space.
That being said, social media is a great driver of return traffic and customer loyalty which ultimately drives authority. Having an engaged audience that keeps coming back to your website sends amazing on-site engagement signals to Google which tells them that you have high quality content that matters to users looking for your product.
However, one thing to keep in mind is that you can buy social media engagement so take a large following (likes, follows, subscribers, etc.) at face value. What you want to look at is social media engagement. Not only will this tell you whether or not their following is genuine, it’s also a great place to mine for content ideas. If a specific piece of content gets a lot of likes, comments, etc., that could be a great topic for you to create content on for your website.
Ranks Well for Most (if Not All) Industry Keywords
The easiest way to tell whether or not a competing website is worth your time is to find out how many keywords they rank for. If you find that a website only ranks for one or two keywords in your competitive SEO analysis, they’re not a legit competitor. You may feel like they are, but they’re really not. Besides, do you want to rank for a handful of keywords or all of them?
Think of it this way, if you were to take investing advice, would you take it from a random guy you bumped into on the street or Warren Buffett? You want to model your site off of the Warren Buffetts of your industry.
Now, you can do this with an automated tool, but since you’re going to be simultaneously evaluating multiple competitors, it’s easier to do it manually. What you’ll want to do is compile an exhaustive list of all your industry’s keywords, not just the ones you’re targeting. Punch them into Google one at a time and check the top 10 search results for your competitors and log who ranks where and for what. (A simple Excel table or Google Sheet is more than enough for this.)
Once you’ve run through all of the keywords, go back and review the data. You’ll quickly see who is a worthy competitor and who isn’t.
Tools to Use for Competitive SEO Analysis
Alexa – Site Authority
Alexa is often overlooked because the free version gives you very high level data about specific domains which, to the layman, appears to be too generic to be of any use.
However, once you dig a little bit deeper, you’re able to collect data about where a domain ranks against other websites both worldwide and in your country, top keywords they rank for, top linking domains, and general demographic data about the site’s users.
The data you can view without a profile is solid stuff, but it’s limited in both the number of results, i.e. you can only see the top 5 for list based metrics, as well as the number of metrics themselves. Most of them are locked behind a paywall so to get the really good data that’ll help you build out your marketing strategy, you need to buy a subscription which will run you < $49/mo depending on which plan you go with.
Open Site Explorer (Moz) – Inbound Link Profile
Open Site Explorer (OSE) is a tool you get access to (among many others) with a Moz Pro subscription and it gives you a treasure trove of information about a website’s link profile regardless of whether or not you own said domain. This makes it perfect for competitive SEO analysis as you gain access to information that would otherwise be out of reach.
Fair warning, if you’re a layman or inbound links / link building isn’t your strong suit, this is all going to be Greek to you. There are a ton of reports you can drill into and you’ll be swimming in a sea of confusion if you aren’t capable of analyzing link profiles.
However, OSE’s reports give you fantastic information about a website’s inbound links, anchor text distribution, linking root domains, c-blocks, link spam scores, link opportunities, and a competitive analysis dashboard so you don’t have to pull data manually. You just enter your competitors and their domains into the comparison table and it’ll populate all the link profile data you need.
Moz Pro will run you at least $99/mo, but it is hands down one of the best and most useful SEO tools I’ve ever used. It’s money well-spent and if you’re taking your online organic presence seriously, you need Moz Pro.
SEMRush – SEO
SEMRush is like Alexa insofar that it has a free version and a paid version. The difference is that SEMRush’s free data is more useful on the SEO side of things, i.e. rankings, keywords, etc.
The main data metrics to pull from here cover organic keywords performance, organic keyword position distribution, and approximate inbound organic traffic. While the data is not exact (they deal in approximations), it is accurate across websites meaning that while the information in SEMRush may not match up what you have in Google Analytics, it is accurate when you compare company A to company B.
A SEMRush Pro account will cost you $99/mo and while I love the tool, you don’t really need the Pro version if you’re not A) a marketing agency, or B) devoting your full attention to broadening your website’s organic search footprint. If you don’t fall under one of those two umbrellas, the free reports will be more than enough for you.
Buzzsumo – Content
In today’s online marketing landscape, content is king and if you aren’t producing stellar content, you aren’t going to grow. Buzzsumo gives you immediate insight into your competitors’ content marketing efforts by telling you exactly which pieces of their content have been shared the most on social media as well as how many links they’ve earned. You can also search for a specific topic to see what other businesses have already written on the subject.
Unfortunately, it’s basically a paid tool. You only get to see the top 5 results for your domain / topic search. If you want to see more, you’ll have to get on one of their plans with the cheapest plan being $79/mo, but only if you’re billed annually ($948). Like SEMRush, this tool is very helpful, but you have to be willing to go all in on content marketing (for at least a year) to get the most out of your subscription.
GOLDEN RULE: Stick to Google Webmaster Guidelines
Even though Google has made great strides in refining their search algorithms over the last decade, your competitors can still rank well despite violating Google’s Webmaster guidelines. I know that it may be tempting to just say, “Screw it!” and take the shortcuts, but following their lead will not guarantee the same positive results. More often than not, they’re ranking well in spite of having that on their domain.
Trust me, I’ve seen it all. I’ve been doing competitive analyses for over 5 years now. I’ve found websites ranking in the top 3 spots for all of an industry’s keywords despite having doorway pages, duplicate content, and a debatably unnatural link profile. I’ve found websites that have locked down the entire local pack through spammy tactics when they should be shuffled into oblivion. It happens. Google is not perfect and it would be fabulous if their algorithm works as intended everywhere. It doesn’t.
However, it is always, always, aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaalways better to stay on the right side of Google because you never know when an algorithm update is going to come along and obliterate websites that engage in those manipulative marketing schemes. You may be willing to take the chance, but remember, recovering from an algorithm penalty isn’t guaranteed and can take years for you to get back to where you were before.
Don’t take shortcuts. Be better than your competitors.
Competitive Analysis Recap
There is something to be said for companies that pull themselves up by their bootstraps and do everything on their own. It’s a very admirable thing. However, every day that passes where you aren’t ranking higher in the SERP is another day that your competitors are scooping up potential customers that you just don’t have access to. They are, quite simply, taking business away from you.
Competitive SEO analysis, on the right competitors, gives you a literal road map on how to get where they are on a much shorter time table. You get to capitalize on all of their triumphs and bypass all of their failures. Getting to those top search results isn’t difficult, it just take a lot of work over a long time period. You will get there if you put in the work, but most will never even try.