Welcome to part two in this ten part SEO series.
What is a Competitor Analysis?
Have you ever wondered how a particular competitor always does so much better than you do in the search engines or online overall? A competitor analysis is one very effective method of deconstructing their online marketing strategy to discover how they are doing so well.
What Exactly Can a Competitor Analysis Reveal?
This is a very common question because many site owners don’t know the lengths that a competitor may have gone to obtain top rankings. The following examples are some of the discoveries I have uncovered in a typical competitor analysis:
By examining a competitor’s link structure I have found that many of the links with the most credibility came from websites the competitor actually owned. (Determining the ownership of the domain names required some sleuthing because the whois information was ‘private’ but ultimately the info became available.) In a couple of cases several of these domains had legitimate websites and this prompted some great ideas for my client to attain more traffic.
While researching a competitor I noticed that although the competitor’s website was very similar to my client’s, there was one major difference; the competitor’s website structure was far better optimized. By outlining the structure the competitor used and improving on it with my own expertise our client had the information he needed to apply changes to his own site.
In another instance I provided a client the list of all the pay per click keywords and organic keywords that each competitor was currently using. The client was flabbergasted when she realized just how many keywords she had missed promoting for her own comparable services.
The Basics of Conducting Your Own Competitor Analysis
Now that you have seen some examples of what can be gleaned from a competitor analysis you might want to conduct one of your own. For the purpose of this tutorial I am assuming that you are fairly new to SEO so I created a basic plan that works for most users; but even this will require a little preparative reading. The following is a list of essential reading material:
Is Your Website Search Engine Friendly? Your Personal Checklist
This article will show you what elements of a website make it search engine friendly and this will help you see which optimizations your competitor used.
The 10 Minute Search Engine Optimization (Updated in 2007 from 2004)
A refresher on the proper elements of optimization.
15 Shades of Spam ( Jim Hedger wrote this back in 2006 to increase awareness of the types of Spam that can get webmasters into hot water. It is an excellent refresher to help you identify them.)
Many more free SEO tutorials are available if you find yourself needing more information. The following is an outline of the most revealing steps with the least amount of technical expertise required. Please keep in mind that the objective of this competitor analysis is to compare what you find to your own website later on. What you find may not seem earth shattering (or it might) but this analysis is meant to show you what you might be missing:
Grab a piece of paper and a pen and while you walk through your competitor’s website look for any particularly obvious search engine optimization techniques. Here are some elements you should check:
Does the title tag appear well written and if so is there a common syntax used throughout the website?
Look at the source code of the home page and search for “H1”, “H2” or “H3”. Do any of these tags show up? If so that means the competitor is using heading tags within the page. Now try identifying the text they used in the heading. Likely you will find the competitor’s Keyphrase is found within the tag.
Check if the navigation is search engine friendly. Sometimes the navigation is a drop-down menu; make sure it is a type that is search engine friendly. If not, check the footer of the page and see if a text menu is placed there.
Keep an eye out for a pattern of keywords being used in text links. Certain words are likely to appear more often and these are likely some of the target phrases your competitor has decided to focus on.
Look for nofollow tags. No follow tags are often used to channel Page Rank efficiently throughout a website. This is called a themed structure and it can have incredible ranking benefits. If you see a pattern of nofollow tag use then you can be relatively certain your competitor has/had a well-informed SEO firm on hire.
While you roam through the site look for pages that have particularly high Google PageRank and try to identify why. In most cases these pages have information that visitors decided to link to. Perhaps this will give you some ideas for creating similar quality content for your website.
Check the site for the presence of an XML sitemap. Usually it will reside at the root of the website so try typing in the basic URL of the competitor’s website and add (minus the quotes) “sitemap.xml” on the end. The details within the sitemap might be a little confusing to you but just acknowledging that the competitor has one is noteworthy.
Have you found any incidences of spam throughout the site? Take note, I have lost count how many competitors succeeded using shady tactics. This doesn’t mean you copy them, however, but it may at least give you yet another indication of what helped the competitor attain rankings. Believe me, in most cases these sites will get caught with their hands in the cookie jar at which point you won’t want to be associated with the same tactics.
I can’t possibly list everything you need to keep an eye out for when walking through a competitor’s website; at least not in an article format. Just keep an eye out for anything that looks particularly purposeful in the site and linking structure as well as the content of the website. If you find something you can’t be sure is worth noting, then try researching it online; chances are someone has written about the topic/concept or can provide you advice in a forum.
This portion of the analysis will require that you use one of the following link analysis tools: (not free but my first choice) or Backlink Analyzer from SEO Book (free). In each case these tools have excellent help files that I suggest reading in order to get the best results from the data they generate.
In this particular stage you are going to use your new tool to analyze the first 1000 backlinks of your competitor’s domain.
Program Setup Note: Be certain to set up the software to acquire Google Rank and Alexa Rank information for each backlink and filter out any rel=nofollow links. The setting is easily found on the front of both applications with the exception of the rel=nofollow which is an option in Optilink but automatically checked in Backlink Analyzer.
When the report is completed sort the backlinks by both PageRank and then Alexa Rank; examine each sorting separately.
Why Are Both PageRank and Alexa Rank Used?
The reason both are used is because they each have notable disadvantages and advantages. PageRank is notoriously unreliable especially lately since Google now penalizes the PageRank of any site with any relation to link buying. As a result, sites with low PR could be missed as a quality site. Furthermore Alexa Rank is a decent indicator of a site’s popularity but I can’t rely on it since it is not an established indicator of how well a site is regarded in Google. Between the two stats, however, we can glean a good indication of the sites that have the best reputation for link building.
Creating a List of Authority Competitor Backlinks
Using Excel or another spreadsheet application copy and paste the data you received from OptiLink or Backlink Analyzer into a worksheet. Then create a copy of the sheet so that you have an exact copy of all the data on a single sheet. Now follow these steps:
1.On the first worksheet sort the data by Google PageRank (PR) from highest numbers to lowest. Now remove all of the pages that had less than a PageRank of 4 so you are left with the best sites according to this data. OR just separate the lower PageRanked sites so they don’t get in the way.
2.On the second worksheet sort the data first by Alexa Ranking (sort lowest to highest numbers) and then do a secondary sort by the Google PageRank (highest to lowest numbers). Delete or remove all sites that have a negative Alexa Ranking (“nm” is how it shows in OptiLink) or otherwise partition them from your other more valuable data.
Now you have two excellent worksheets that provide lists of authority pages that have links pointing to your competitor.
How to Use the Backlink Data
Take some time now to filter the links by domain and you will see just how many links per domain each competitor has. If you see a website that appears to be linking to a website a lot it is usually because either the competitor owns the website or has purchased a link on the website. To find out if your competitor owns the website try running a Whois on the domain.
Also check the content of the link data for how many pages listed are from the competitors own website. If you see a great deal from their own website then you can be relatively assured they have good content which is important to note; perhaps you need to focus on better content on your own website OR how to get others to notice your good content.
Now the most logical step is to figure out which links are worth getting for yourself. Chances are a decent number of the links you found are from pages that would be willing to link to you as well.
Don’t Lose Focus on Your Own Website
So now you have a few tools to conduct a cursory competitor analysis. You will likely find some very useful data that you can act on but is this all you need to do? Is a competitor analysis going to be the golden key to increased profits? No. I have a great deal of faith in competitor analysis because I know determining what a competitor is doing successfully can improve a marketing plan dramatically. That said, you also have to pay close attention to your own website and the quality information that can be gained from using free tools like Google Analytics or handy paid tools like ClickTracks Professional.
Using a quality analytics program will allow you to get as granular as monitoring the success of each page in your website with details such as: where did visitors come from (somewhere in your site or from another?), how long on average visitors stayed at a particular page, what keywords led visitors to the page (if any), and much more.
With proper analytics you can actually compare and contrast the effects of minor edits to a page’s content; this is called multivariate testing. For example you can run tests to see if you can improve the retention of visitors by adding a better image or a better tag line because you noticed that many visitors were entering at a page deep within your site that was not originally designed as an entry page.
Truly, the sky is the limit with analytics and it would be irresponsible for me to state that competitor analysis is more important than making your own website run smoothly. Do yourself a favour, if you haven’t already got an analytics program running on your site, get it done now or learn how to use the one you have; it will pay off in the long run. Especially when you want to monitor the success of the tactics you applied to your site from your competitor analysis findings.
About the author:
Ross Dunn is the owner of StepForth Web Marketing and an all-round good guy and good SEO.