Keen to keep close tabs on your competition and stay ahead of the curve? Our ultimate guide to online competitor research and analysis will help you go undercover to discover who’s doing what and how you can better them. Just don’t expect any mirrored shades or eyeholes in newspapers…
You’re doing great, why do you need to compare yourself to others? It’s a good question. Individuality and following your own nose is well-worn route to success in a crowded, homogenous industry, but knowing what you’re up against is essential. After all, knowledge is power.
The benefits of competitor research really depend on your approach to it. If you go into this task looking to give yourself a big pat on the back, chances are you’ll not squeeze much value from the process. Equally, if you start researching your competitors in order to play copycat, you probably won’t learn much either.
Instead, approach this process with an open mind and an analytical spirit. You’re here to learn, not judge or poach. Remember this and your competitor research could generate new ideas, new directions and confirmation of some of your tactics. Above all, it should function as a source of inspiration, uncovering areas for improvement you might not have thought of and encouraging you to capitalize on your strengths.
Open up your toolbox
Now you’ve been briefed on your mission, it’s time to open up your analytical toolkit. There are all sorts of tools available for the competition analyst – some free, some paid for. This list isn’t exhaustive and won’t be perfect for every online business, but does include a few very handy bits of kit…
Take a look at Positionly for a better idea of where your competitors are ranking – and for what! Primary keywords may be more-or-less dead thanks to conversational search and (not provided) – (it’s much tougher to track them, and really, no one keyword should be doing all of your business), but discovering where your competitors show up on SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages) can help you uncover new areas to target and areas you’re getting left behind.
Top Tip: We know we told you not to use competitor research to poach, but there are some helpful bits and pieces you can pick up to make use of along the way. Fire up Positionly, enter a few key competitors, and you can generate collate reports that track your rankings adjacent to those you’re going head to head with across the phrases you mutually target.
You can even see, at a glance, how your average positioning stacks up:
And for ongoing analysis, quickly adjust the date range of the data you’ve collected to see not only position, but movements, phrases that are new to the top 10 and phrases that have fallen out for both you and your competitors.
This can reveal new areas of focus, changes in competitor strategy – or even show you how your adjustments on your side are panning out relative to the competition.
Tackling SEO on a pure “links and rankings” basis may be over, but page rank is still a helpful indicator of the reach of a competitor site. A high page rank usually means a better ranking website overall. Pulling this number is easy, and can be a helpful “finger in the air” for how you stack up.
Dodgy backlinks are very bad news these days, but high quality links cultivated in a natural authority-building way are great for SEO. Seeing where your competitors have been building relationships and showing off their stuff is very handy inside information indeed.
Majestic can also reveal trending over time with their “Backlinks History” feature. Watch for trends: Are the competitions’ link numbers tapering off, or growing? If you see sudden spikes in links, are those successful resources – or not-so-successful spam tactics? Have they ramped up their link building efforts as of late? Should you do the same?
Top Tip: If you’re looking for authority-building opportunities and online PR prospects, take a closer look at the authoritative links pointing to your direct competitors’ sites.
For those who prefer to get a lot of data in just one place, Positionly also pulls in backlinks over time:
To really get into the data and make it work for you, export it as an excel spreadsheet and splice it up to your heart’s content.
Remember, anything your competitors do, you can do better. Compile a list of the best sites pointing to your competitors and record the type of content that contains the link. Whether they appear as part of a blogger outreach programme, a picked up press release or a timely guest blog, use this intelligence to win links of your own and assess your own online PR tactics. Should you be setting your sights higher, for instance? Should you be chasing more ambitious links?
Google has been pushing web developers and designers to build speedier and speedier sites of late. It’s even a ranking factor these days. Finding out how fast your competitors are will give you a good idea of how on-the-ball they are technically too – and it will probably give you a good idea of the state of their relationship with their web devs which is becoming increasingly crucial for online businesses who want to compete.
With these tools in your tool box, it’s time to get down to work!
Identify Your Competition
So who do you need to keep your eye on? Draw on your personal knowledge first (after all, how knows your industry better than you?), next turn your attention to any companies showing up in organic and PPC results for your key terms. If you’ve run customer research in the form of surveys etc., you may also like to look at businesses your customers see as your competition. Finally, don’t forget to branch out. Take a closer look at online businesses who are outside of your industry but who work with your target demographic – or indeed whose style you admire.
How Do You Stack Up?
Now it’s time to get down to the nitty gritty. You may not want to research all of these factors – and there may be a few we’ve overlooked which are important to your unique business – but here are our key areas to consider…
Rank & Traffic
Take a closer look at who is ranking for which keywords and how much estimated traffic they’re getting. These figures will be ballpark, but they’ll help you gain some insight into how much of your market your competitors are attracting.
Although heavily focusing on “primary keywords” is becoming a relic of the past, identifying the businesses who are showing up for key searches will help you get a better idea of what you need to be doing to follow suit.
SEO & On-site Content
This is the biggest factor anyone conducting online competitor research needs to evaluate. Take a close look at the content competitors are putting out on site. How often are they blogging? Are they including multimedia content? Have they made helpful downloads available to visitors? How are they setting themselves apart in the market? Is their site copy engaging and well-written or bog-standard and keyword stuffed?
The answers to these questions will tell you how up-to-the-minute your competitors are. If they’re neglecting regular blogging, multimedia resources and quality on site content, they’re behind the times. However, if they’re doing something special it could help inspire you to find new ways to connect with your target market.
Next up, dig into your competitors’ social activity. You can use tools like Topsy to find brand mentions and discover which influencers your competitors have managed to capture the attention of.
Topsy can even sort by influencer, video, links, tweets and photos – so you can dissect the competition’s most successful media to discover not only their reach, but places you ought to be active, too.
Some other things to take note of:
- How many social platforms are they using?
- Which ones?
- How regularly?
- How much interaction are they experiencing with customers and with key influencers in your industry?
- And, as already mentioned: What are their most shared posts/resources?
This should give you an idea of your position – and inspire you to create more sharable content. Unless you’re already ahead of the game, in which case – bravo!
UX & Mobile
The more user-friendly the site, the more brownie points earned from Google. A lot of UX is pretty abstract and tricky to measure but there are a couple of more concrete factors. Take a look at competitors’ site speed and their mobile responsiveness (a great responsive design trounces a mobile site every time).
To get a real handle on ‘softer’ UX/UI factors, you may need a bigger budget. Eye tracking tests will help you determine how usable and easy to navigate a website is; otherwise you may need to use your best judgment to determine how usable, interactive and engaging a site is.
It can be very useful to look at the offline branding and marketing of competitors. Look closely at whether online and offline activity is happening concurrently or whether offline marketing is ahead of what’s happening on site.
This will let you know how linked up your competitors are – it could also give you some indication of where their digital direction could be heading next. Is an online rebrand in the pipeline?
Set ‘em up, knock ‘em down
It doesn’t need to get too complicated or technical. Pop all your results and findings in a simple spreadsheet and let the facts do the talking.
Don’t less all of this juicy data go stale though. Make sure you share it with key people in your organization pronto to put all of this carefully mined data goes to good use. Put together a quick presentation to run through your comparative position in the market and the alternative approaches in each category. Then discuss what you can take from the exercise before hitting on concrete changes and preparing for total online world domination!