It may be a mental stretch to think of the online, virtual world of information in terms of concrete market analysis, but there is actually a very strong parallel. The point of SEO is to gain space in an ever-changing envelope of attention. On one level, you have the traditional competition to gain customers and profits; on another level, you are competing to get eyeballs and wallets to your site.
Before we can sell our products or services, we have to be visible. Getting attention is the goal. We compete not just on price or service (the traditional metrics) but to reach customers in the first place. Think of Google as the yellow pages, only so vast that only a few people will drill down past the first dozen or so entries for whatever interests them. It’s a tough battle to become one of those on the shortlist, and your business competitors are working just as hard as you are to get there – at least the savvy ones are.
Although the territory only exists on a computer screen, the business dictum of “location is everything” still comes into play. You start by looking to see where your competitors are and what they are doing to get a sense of how you can draw clicks and what it will cost you to do so. This means that as soon as you have a handle on what your customer looks like and what they are looking for, it’s time to research your competition.
This article will focus on common strategies for targeting the existing websites in ranking. It is very similar to acquiring market share in the real world. First, we want to answer some basic questions. What are my competitors doing and how successful are their efforts? Where can I most effectively enter the marketplace – on both a cost and a results basis? What can I realistically expect to accomplish for my budget? How will I track the results of my own efforts?
Although we will cover the basics in general, we use a certain toolkit to find and track information. The specifics will not be discussed because they help our company maintain a competitive advantage. However, we do use the following techniques, as do all serious online marketers. That said, let’s jump in.
This starts by tracking your site as it is. It will serve as a useful benchmark to see how well different techniques are working. The basic info will include generating and testing various keywords and phrases to find existing rank order, identifying strengths and weaknesses of meta tags and site content, and creating a focused picture of what the site is meant to accomplish. Your site statistics will tell a story about who came there, where they came from, and what they did before they clicked away. These metrics will show what’s working and what isn’t.
After figuring out who we are trying to reach and why, it’s time to take a peek at competitors. Often, they aren’t exactly who you think. For instance, someone selling playing cards may be competing for space against those selling greeting cards or business cards simply because some of the keywords will overlap. These businesses may not be in competition in the traditional offline sense, but remember, we need to go after eyeballs and clicks before we get to the sales.
So, baseline research is looking over keywords, keyword combinations and site metrics to see what comes up. When looking at keywords, there will generally be good placement on Google, shared by a few top players for the more popular terms. That leads to the next step…
It isn’t just the top entry on Google that is a valid target. Anything that appears on the first page of your search results is worth a good look. We want to find out which sites show up and why. The “why” is part science and part art.
The science comes from observing the numbers of visitors to the site. The art starts to come into play when you evaluate how those visitors got there. Not all of them come directly from search engines, not all of them find what they wanted, and not all of them make a purchase.
Once we have determined who your competitors are, we examine their sites and look at their content, keywords, and links to see what they are up to. We aren’t out to steal their ideas, we are looking for opportunities – and they must exist. Why? No single site can be all things to all people. There will always be some combination of keywords and content to exploit, partly because every business is unique in some way and partly because the Internet is so vast. Even if your niche is only a fraction of a percent of the market, that’s enough to pay off handsomely.
We record what the competition is doing right and wrong, and we take that as a starting point for our optimization. It also guides us toward the most effective use of our resources. Why attack the market where it is strongest and already too crowded?
Because Google examines not just site statistics alone, we need to look at the network picture. This means finding out who your competitor is linking to and where their links are coming from. Often, they will have affiliate arrangements or feature prominently in a directory. Backlink research includes looking for keywords in anchor text and presence on social media or forums. We use link tracking software to find this out.
In some cases, backlink research will reveal keywords to exploit that aren’t linked directly from Google to the competitor’s site. An example would be a wiki page on greeting cards that has a site as a reference. Google takes them to wiki and wiki links them to the site. This is why it is important to research traffic independently of Google.
SEO competitor research doesn’t end with the first examination of the terrain. The Internet is fluid, and information goes stale with time. Rankings will fall and rise depending on what your competitors are doing. This requires follow-up research, not just to compare to baseline, but to see what else has changed in your area.