Once you have your basic keyword research complete, you are then ready to take a look at your competitors. Competitor analysis is the process of deconstructing a competitor’s online marketing strategy to discover their strategies and techniques for ranking well.

Why is Competitor Research Important?

You may be asking yourself... Why do we want to research our competitors? Is it worth the time and effort? I would say most definitely.

While it may be very tempting to save time and money by skipping this phase of your SEO campaign, you can gain some invaluable insights into your competitors’ strategies that can help you improve your own results. You will be able to learn from their strengths and identify their deficiencies to see where you can gain the advantage.

Search engine optimization is as much an art as it is a science. While there are fundamental factors that should always be included in an SEO strategy, it is also important to understand what nuances there are in a particular industry or niche and how others in that same area have succeeded.

Which Competitors To Research?

We have limited time and so we cannot look at everyone. So, you want to be very selective in deciding which competitors to review. Most businesses can list a number of “traditional” competitors. However, in the SEO world, we primarily want to focus on our online competitors – specifically those who rank well for our target keyword phrases.

What do we look at? Some Key Considerations:

We can’t cover the full list of items to look at, but here are some sample areas to analyze for each competitor. You primarily want to keep an eye out for anything that appears intentional, what their linking structure is, and their content strategy.

Page Title Tag

Are their page title tags optimized? Are they unique for each page? Do they appropriately describe the subject of the given page?

Heading Tags

Are they using proper heading tags (h1, h2, h3, etc.)? Do they have a single level 1 heading (h1) or multiple level 1 headings? What keywords (if any) are they using in the headings?

Meta Descriptions

Are they including proper meta descriptions for each page? Does the description include a call-to-action or how is it structured? While the meta description does not generally help to rank the page, it is often displayed in the search engine results page (SERP) and can improve the click-through rate.

Content Quality

Are they providing high-quality content? Is their content targeting the end-user or does it appear to be targeting the search engines? Is the content for each page unique, or do they duplicate content on more than one page?

Robots.txt and sitemap.xml files

Do they have a robots.txt file as well as a sitemap.xml file? These are used to help the search engines better index the content and are a sign that the competitor is doing at least some minimal optimization.

Overall Quality of the Site

Is the site designed well or does it appear old and out-of-date? Does it use well-structured, semantic html, or does it use a table-based layout? Does it have a consistent, text-based navigation that is available without Javascript and does not use Flash (in other words, a navigation that is search engine friendly)? How is the site structured?

Use of Any Spammy (“Black Hat”) Techniques

Are they using any “spammy” techniques such as keyword stuffing, hidden text, cloaking, etc.? These techniques may get them short-term rankings, but will likely hurt them in the long run. So, you don’t want to copy these techniques, but it is helpful to know what strategies they are using.

Social Presence

What types of Social Media are they using (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, etc.)? How engaged are they in terms of “Likes” and “Tweets?” Do they have a blog and how active are they? What other types of content are they using such as video, infographics, podcasts, etc.?

Link Strategy

How are they linking internally within their own site? What anchor text (eg the text displayed in the link) do they link on? What is their inbound linking strategy? How many inbound links (links from other websites) do they have? How “authoritative” are those external sites? What anchor text is used? Are those external sites ones that they own? Are they listed in directory sites such as Yelp and Google Places or any industry specific directories? If so, which ones?

Bringing Back The Focus

So now you will hopefully understand why competitive analysis is important and what it includes. As you do more competitive analyses, you will start to see patterns for strategies and techniques that can help you successfully improve your search engine strategy within your industry or niche. Is competitor research the golden ticket to number 1 ranking? No, but it is certainly an important component. You still have to implement by developing a quality website with quality, audience-centered content.

Stay tuned for next week when we look at Link Building - an off-site strategy for improving your search traffic.