If you’re in the early stages of developing a search engine optimization (SEO) campaign, you’ve likely learned one of the hardest aspects of making a campaign successful: dealing with the competition.
Even if you’re in a niche industry, or if you’ve come up with a fundamentally new idea, you’re probably going to have competitors clamoring to rank for the same keywords or appeal to the same audience as you. And if you don’t now, you will soon.
Thankfully, there are plenty of strategies you can use to manage your competition—but everything starts with an SEO competitor analysis.
An SEO competitor analysis can take a few different forms, but the basic idea is the same. You’ll identify and study the companies and individuals most likely to compete with your business in search engine results pages (SERPs), learning not only how they’re performing, but which tactics they’re currently using.
What’s the point?
It’s not just to satisfy your curiosity. Analyzing your competition will help your SEO campaign in several ways:
You’ll bring all these pieces of information together to choose new strategic targets, and tweak your execution.
Before you can analyze your competitors, you need to know who your competitors are. In this phase, you’ll create a definitive list of your top competitors. Make sure you identify at least one or two; if you’re looking for something more exhaustive, you may look at five or more competitors.
You can start this step with some simple brainstorming. What are some of the most prominent companies that operate in the same space as you? Who do you initially consider to be your biggest competition?
From there, you can conduct a handful of searches for keywords related to your business. For example, you might search for something like “cloud storage services” or “law firms in Kentucky.” When you search for multiple related terms, which brands and websites seem to appear most frequently?
You can also add new competitors to your analysis in the future; for now, jot down the competitors who present the biggest threat to your online visibility.
This step and the next several steps can be completed in any order, realistically. But for our purposes, we’re going to look at keywords next.
For each competitor, you’re going to break down the current keywords they’re targeting, the keywords and phrases for which they’re currently ranking, and more.
You can try to do this manually, but it’s much easier to use a keyword research tool like SEMRush or Ahrefs. Most tools, including these, allow you to gain access to a limited amount of information for free; you may have to sign up for a free account and/or begin a free trial. After that, you’ll need to pay for their services.
If you’re doing a preliminary competitive analysis, or making a one-time research effort, the free option should be sufficient.
Most platforms work similarly, but we’ll look at SEMRush as an example for how to conduct a competitive keyword analysis. You’ll start by entering your competitor’s domain, or a specific page you want to know more about.
From there, you’ll be able to open the “Organic Research” tab on the left, and click on Positions. There, you’ll be able to see a breakdown of which keywords and keyword phrases this domain is currently ranking for. You’ll also be able to see specific metrics, like their exact current position, the typical search volume for the term, and the cost per click (CPC) associated with the term.
Additionally, you’ll want to look at “Position Changes.” Here, you’ll be able to see major changes in your competitors’ strategies; for example, if you see fast ranking growth within a specific family of keywords, there’s a good chance they’re targeting those keywords in their latest push. If their rankings for a different family of keywords seems to be falling, they may be moving away from them.
Take note of both general trends and outliers:
Note that most keyword research tools also have a built-in competitive analysis tool. Here, you can enter your own domain and generate a list of competitors and keywords they’re ranking for, as generated by the tool itself. Don’t exclusively depend on this, but feel free to use it as a complement to your own independent efforts.
By now, you should know that content is the heart of any SEO strategy. It serves several distinct purposes; it provides you a medium for including keywords on your site, it improves your authority, it helps you earn and build links, and it even influences your onsite user behavior. Accordingly, there are both objective and subjective variables to consider.
We’ve already taken a look at one objective factor (keywords) and will look at links (which are related to content) in step five. In the meantime, let’s do a subjective competitive analysis of your competitors’ content.
The best way to start is to read your competitor’s blog, and see what kind of offsite content they’re promoting. Ask yourself:
If you want to take a deeper dive, you can use a tool like BuzzSumo to conduct a search on a specific domain. You’ll be able to review a wide range of content, analyzing it in terms of social media performance, number of links, and a “total engagement” score that attempts to estimate its overall performance.
There’s a lot you can learn here, and not just for your SEO strategy; what success factors can you attempt to replicate for your own campaign? What weaknesses do you see?
Social media doesn’t have much of a direct effect on your SEO success, but it plays a powerful secondary role in promoting your content, earning you links, and generally improving your brand presence.
None of them will have the following of Justin Bieber:
But, it’s still worth competitively analyzing.
Again, the best place to start is at the source. Ask yourself:
You can use BuzzSumo’s Facebook profile analyzer to get more details, or another tool to get an objective rundown of their social media accounts.
This is arguably the most important step of your competitive analysis, and in many ways, the most exhaustive. This is because link building is the crux of any SEO strategy; without links, it’s nearly impossible to improve your domain authority.
If you’re interested in doing a deep dive into backlink profile analysis, be sure to check out our complete guide on the subject. We’ll touch on some of the high-level points here.
Essentially, you’ll be performing a backlink profile analysis on each of your competitors. To do this, you’ll need the help of a tool. We like to use Ahrefs Keyword Explorer or Moz’s Link Explorer, but there are many backlink analysis tools that function similarly.
With both Keywords Explorer and Link Explorer, you’ll get a ton of information about each domain you enter. You’ll learn its domain authority, number of linking domains, number of inbound links, and top ranking keywords. You’ll also be able to do a deep dive to study the individual links pointed to the domain, and export data to perform more exhaustive analyses.
I actually like to build a keyword matrix like this:
A keyword matrix maps your competitors, their keywords (and the relative difficulty of the keywords) juxtaposed against your landing pages you want to rank. This will provide you with more of an action plan on anchor text, landing pages and an overall SEO link building strategy.
Ultimately, you’ll want to answer these questions:
During your analysis, remember that correlation doesn’t equal causation; just because your competitor is using a specific tactic and doing well doesn’t mean that tactic is responsible for their success. In many cases, you’ll find a competitor using a wide variety of different strategies, some of which are questionable and some of which are objectionable; consider many factors when forming your conclusions.
At this point, you’ll have a ton of data about your competitors’ SEO strategies, including the tactics that are working and the ones that are failing. What are you supposed to do with this information?
There are several possibilities:
SEO competitor analyses can help you better understand your competition in the realm of SEO, and work actively to either avoid or directly challenge those competitors. It’s not a one-time strategy; it’s an analysis you’ll want to conduct periodically as you learn more about SEO and adjust your campaign. But once you’ve got some competitive information in your analysis, you’ll be much better equipped to dominate the SERPs.