Competitor analysis is an essential step of any SEO strategy, and especially in the early stage of planning your SEO initiatives. Yet, more often than not, many marketers and SEO practitioners skipped this process and neglect the importance of competitive analysis.
Understanding who our competitors are, and how they approach their SEO strategies, can lead to better insights on how we should approach our own strategy, what our goals should be, and whether there will be any opportunities and gaps.
Let us begin by discussing the benefits of competitor analysis in SEO.
Why Competitive Analysis Is Very Important In SEO
Although the goal of most, if not all marketing activities is to outperform, outsmart, and outdo your competitors, arguably it is even more important for SEO. Why, because ranking above your competitor(s) is a tangible success metric of SEO activities. This is why competitor analysis is extremely important in SEO with three main benefits:
Find out your competitor’s approach, what they are doing well, and why they are doing well
You can find backlink opportunities. More often than not, the sites that link your competitors will also link yours.
You can find out the areas where your competitors are lacking, as well as areas they haven’t explored. Here is how you find strategic opportunities.
In short, SEO competitor analysis allows us to gain insights about which tactics are working in your specific niche/industry, the opportunities you can exploit, and areas you can improve upon.
Also, knowing the strengths of your competitors and the difficulty to outperform them can help you in deciding the number of resources you will need to invest in your SEO activities.
For the rest of this guide, we will discuss the key elements you will need to analyze when performing competitor analysis for SEO. Let us begin with the first one.
1. Identify Key Competitors
Although ideally, we would want to analyze all of our competitors, unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of unlimited resources and time. That’s why, we should focus our attention on the top three or four competitors, and identifying them will be the focus of this step.
First, we should understand that it is quite often our competitors on the search engine result can be different compared to our real world (or direct business) competitors. Mainly this happens due to the global nature of the search engine: you might be competing online against businesses from another town, state, or even other countries, which we often don’t consider as direct competitors.
You can identify key competitors by using keyword analytics tools like SEMRush or Ahrefs. Simply enter your own domain name, find sections labeled “Organic Competitors” (on SEMRUsh), and view the full report. This way, you can find the list of your top competitors.
If you still need to filter the result, use the total number of traffic and common keywords to decide the most relevant competitors you will need to analyze.
2. Analyze Their Keywords
Now that you’ve got the competitors you’re going to analyze, a key step is to analyze what keyword(s) they are targeting. This way, you can decide whether you will pursue the same keywords or you will try to find other opportunities. Some keywords can be too difficult/saturated/expensive to pursue, even when your competitors are successful with them.
Again, you can use tools like SEMRush or Ahrefs to find competitors’ keywords fairly easily. Simply enter your competitor’s URL into the search bar, and you can see the top keywords your competitors are ranking for, complete with the search volume, keyword difficulty, and CPC.
Also, we can use the same tools to analyze keyword gaps, which is finding out the keywords where your competitors rank fairly high when your own website does not. This can be an important approach to find new sources of traffic for your business: rather than doing the guesswork of which keywords could be relevant for your industry, this way you can find potentially hundreds of keywords that are already proven to work.
Once you’ve found these keyword gaps, we analyze why our competition is ranking well on these keywords, and how we can also rank for these keywords. It can be developing a new content, revamping existing ones, optimizing metadata, adjusting the overall site architecture, or getting more backlinks.
As you can see, this approach can also help when developing a content calendar, as you’ll find the relevant keywords -and topics- along the way.
3. Analyzing Content
SEO is all about content, period. Pages with better content simply rank higher. Pages with more content pieces also rank better.
So, the main goal of our SEO activities is essentially to create a site/landing page with more and better content pieces that what is currently ranking for the target keyword. This is why when doing a competitor analysis for SEO, analyzing their content pieces is also a very important aspect. Here are several key elements to analyze:
Before 2011, we can get away with thin, even copy-pasted content pieces to rank well on Google. That’s no longer the case ever since Google implemented the Panda algorithm update, as well as other algorithm updates affecting content uniqueness and quality after that.
Simply put, your content should be different than your competitors, and simply passing Copyscape or other content plagiarism checkers won’t cut it. The content must be unique enough on the relevant reader’s eyes: well-researched, uniquely crafted, and valuable.
According to Backlinko’s report in 2016, the average word count for sites that ranked the first page on Google is 1,890 words. You can use various keyword density tools to check the word length of your competitors’ content pieces. Don’t forget to average multiple results to get a clearer picture.
What if the competitor’s content is already at the ideal length? You might opt to write a longer piece, but remember that the content should always be focused and comprehensive.
Check whether your competitors are using images, infographics, video, and audio on their content pieces, and whether they are optimized. Your aim is simply to outperform them whether in quantity or (even better) in quality.
While backlinks (inbound links) is the best indicator of the content’s credibility, we will have a separate section discussing it. Rather, outbound links can improve the authority and credibility of the content, as well as helping you in building relationships (and possibly, getting backlinks in return). Check the sites your competitors are linking out to, and you can either do the same, or do better.
4. Analyze On-Site Optimization
This aspect is often overlooked by many marketers and SEO practitioners. Yet, there are actually a lot of valuable insights you can get by analyzing your competitors’ approaches for on-site optimization (or sometimes, the lack of any optimization)
Here are the key areas to analyze:
As mentioned, above, there are various keyword density tools you can use for this analysis. Most are fairly easy to use, simple enter your competitor’s URL, and voila. Check out the keyword density for the relevant target keywords. You might want to check several different competitors that rank on the first page, and average the keyword density to get a better picture on the acceptable keyword density for this specific keyword.
Internal linking can tremendously help the site’s authority. Check out your competitors’ internal linking tactics, and see whether you can emulate or outperform them. The goal of internal linking is to improve your site’s architecture and authority to get the most of your backlinks. If your architecture is well-optimized, you can rank high even with just a few number of quality backlinks.
Analyze how your competitors are approaching their META description. Is there a clear CTA included? Is the overall copy engaging? And so on. META description is now especially important in improving click-through rate (CTR), which is a very important ranking signal. Check out our previous guide about Google RankBrain to learn more about the correlation of CTR and SEO.
5. Analyze UX and Design Elements
Yes, the website’s design and UX matter to SEO, especially because a site with a high bounce rate won’t rank as well compared to a less-optimized site with a better bounce rate.
If your competitors have great and intuitive website design, you might need to invest your money to adjust yours. Also, there are two very important areas to analyze: mobile-responsive design and load speed.
Another important aspect to look at is the site’s indexation and accessibility, which in essence, is how the site optimizes itself to be crawled by Google bots. You might want to check out this article by Search Engine Land about website design and SEO.
6. Analyze Inbound Links (Backlinks)
Even today, backlinks are still the most important factor in achieving SEO success. In regards to SEO competitive analysis, there are two main benefits in performing a backlinks analysis:
- Finding backlink opportunities, there is a high likelihood you can get backlinks from the same sites when targeting the same keyword
- To determine whether pursuing the same links is the correct approach, and decide on the alternatives when necessary
It is generally a good idea to pursue the same backlinks as your competitors, because in theory, you should get similar results if you have the exact same backlinks. Yet, there are two major considerations whether you should pursue this approach:
- Whether their links are high-quality. Quality worth a lot more than quantity in today’s backlinks ecosystem.
- Bad Links. Obviously, we should avoid purchased/scam links used by our competitors.
Remember that the best links are also the hardest ones to get. The best approach you can do from this analysis is to create a list of high-quality sites linking to your competitors, and slowly build relationships with them until you earn those backlinks.
We should also consider several different factors when analyzing backlinks.
1. Deep backlinks
Backlinks linking to “deep” pages, such as a piece of content, are worth more than a backlink to your homepage or landing page. If your competitors have a lot of backlinks linking to their “deep” pages, you should aim to do the same, and even better, outperform them both in quantity and quality. To achieve this, the best approach is to develop high-quality contents.
2. Anchor Text
In general SEO best practices, anchor text should be relevant to the linked page, rather than just random, generic text. On the other hand, using exact match anchor text too aggressively can trigger Google’s spam filter.
Analyze how your top competitors are approaching their anchor texts: are they using semantically-related words? What’s their ratio between exact-match words and generic ones?
301 redirect is one of the most effective link building tactics available, and that is precisely why you should analyze whether your competitors are using the various 301 redirect tactics. Generally, there are three different types of redirects to look for:
- Traditional redirect: the most common approach, where a brand redirects their old/existing site to the new site
- Link Shorteners: using short links as redirects is sometimes considered a black hat technique, yet is still commonly used
- Merger: where your competitors redirect a relevant but expired site to their own website
4. Hidden Links
You may see cases where a competitor is ranking really high but has no inbound links whatsoever. In these cases, typically your competitors are hiding their links. More often than not, this is done when your competitors are using a Private Blog Network (PBN) as their link building tactic, which is often considered as grey-hat tactic. This is done mainly to prevent competitors from reporting their PBN tactic.
5. Sitewide Links
Sitewide backlinking is now a fairly obsolete tactic after Google’s Penguin update. Yet, it can still be an effective tactic if you do it properly and carefully. Check whether your competitors are implementing this tactic so you can decide whether to emulate or try a different approach. Generally, you should avoid this tactic if you are an SEO beginner.
Competitor analysis for SEO is a very important aspect not only in planning your SEO strategy, but also SEO services. By understanding the strengths and weaknesses of our competitors’ SEO strategies, we can better plan our own strategy based on the available data and insights.
The keys to success here is to choose the right competitors, gather as much data as possible, and carefully analyze the available data.