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SEO Competitor Analysis: Step-By-Step Guide

By | December 1, 2015

Have you ever wondered why your competitors are outranking you in every search, even though you’ve seemingly optimized every aspect of your site and targeted all of your top keywords?

SEO and all of its associated algorithms can seem shrouded in mystery even at the best of times. But this 5-step guide to SEO competitor analysis is your key to finally getting it right and consistently ranking top on search engines. 

You’ll find out exactly why your competitors are outranking you, and the exact steps you can take to rise to the top and claim that market share for yourself. 

And no, it doesn’t involve paid tools with hefty price tags. Keep reading to get an in-depth guide on SEO competitor analysis (including some cool free tools).

What is SEO Competitor Analysis?

SEO competitor analysis is the process of researching your competitors’ search engine rankings in order to make your own SEO strategy more successful.

This analysis allows you to identify the backlinks, keywords, and type of content that is helping others in your niche to achieve a high search engine ranking. 

Think of it as reverse-engineering the most successful aspects of industry leaders’ strategies, and bagging a bit of that success for yourself!

Why is SEO competitive research so important?

SEO competitive analysis can offer a plethora of benefits to your business, even going beyond boosting your search engine ranking.

These benefits include:

  • Getting a better idea of your competitive landscape and what’s out there.
  • Heightening your SEO efforts and finding opportunities to overtake competition on search engines.
  • Learning more about what differentiates you from your competition, utilizing that to harness more organic traffic and conversions. 

Easy Step-by-step Guide To SEO Competitive Analysis:

Identifying your competitors

The best place to start is by identifying your competitors in the real world. It’s important to note though that some real-life competitors aren’t necessarily online competitors. SEO and social might not be their focus yet. But by establishing that, you’ve just identified a gap you can exploit. 

Next, if you’ve got a list of your target keywords, begin by typing each of them into Google and seeing who appears on the first page for each one. This gives you a good idea of who you will be going up against. 

Infographic on How to do SEO Competitor Analysis

Consider the 4 types of competitors:

Direct competitors: Direct competitors are the most obvious ones – the companies that offer the same products or services as you. Think Microsoft and Apple. Or CVS and Walgreens. You probably already know who these direct competitors are.

Indirect competitors: Your indirect competitors are businesses that sell the same products as you, but also operate in other areas. For instance, Canon is an indirect competitor to BestBuy, as they both sell digital cameras, but BestBuy offers them amongst a much wider range of products. Using a competitor analysis tool or a simple keyword research tool will help you identify these indirect targets.

Replacement/perceived: These are the really hard-to-find competitors. They don’t necessarily offer the same product or service as you, but they do compete for the same resources or customer base. 

Mobile phones operate in a different market to digital cameras, and yet the crossover happened the minute the first camera phone was released. Crossover interests can lurk within any market, some analytic tools can help to uncover these, while customer surveys can also help you find out what real people are thinking. 

Get the help of an analysis tool

The HOTH’s Free Search Competition Tool

Of course, we have to start with a cheeky plug for our very own SEO competitor analysis tool. But we promise we wouldn’t be recommending it if we didn’t believe it was one of the handiest and most user-friendly tools on the web!

Image of TheHoth's Free Search Competition Tool

All you need to do is type in your website’s URL to receive a full competition report that will include:

  • Your top competitors.
  • Common keywords you share with top competitors.
  • Organic keywords.
  • Organic traffic.
  • Organic cost.
  • Adwords keywords.

SEMrush’s Market Explorer Tool

SEMrush’s Market Explorer tool is available for free once you register for an account. Once you’re signed up, you’ll be able to view 10 free Market Explorer reports per day. The tool provides an instant market overview, estimates the division of market share, and provides added customization tools to narrow down your analysis. 

The extent of your report includes:

  • Leaders and game-changers in your market.
  • The traffic size for the market.
  • Traffic trends.
  • Audience demographic.
  • Key competitors.
  • How your competitors generate their traffic.
  • Audience gaps.

Ahrefs Batch Analysis Tool

Here comes the paid option! Offering in-depth SEO metrics for up to 200 URLs – it’s certainly worth the investment. If you’re looking to analyze a long list of URLs by bulk, this is the tool for you. The batch analysis provides:

  • An Ahrefs rank.
  • The domain rating.
  • The number of referring domains.
  • Number of backlinks.
  • Social metrics.
  • Organic search traffic.

Image of Ahref's Batch Analysis Tool

Depending on the analysis tool you’ve decided to use, your interpretation of the results may be slightly different. Some tools, such as the HOTH and Ahrefs ones provide a list of in-depth rankings and statistics that you may not know what to do with. Whereas the SEMrush tool already divides up your results into groups of established players, leaders, game changers, and niche players. But how should you be interpreting your results?

Just because one company is hogging all the rankings, doesn’t necessarily mean that they are your top competitor. Competitors may vary for different segments of your market. Look at who is ranking high for some of your niche, long-tail keywords. As well as other websites that offer similar services.

How to decide who to compete with

When it comes to outdoing your SEO competitors, you’re going to need to choose your battles wisely. 

Depending on the scale of your business, outranking some top-ranking sites may not even be an option. Ask yourself:

  • Are they currently dominating first-page rankings?
  • Are they a huge corporation with significantly more resources than you?

If the answer is yes to both of these questions, it probably won’t be worth your time and effort to compete with them.

Instead, decide who to compete with by looking at who is impacting your traffic sources the most – regardless of whether they are actual business competitors. As a general rule, if they are ranking on the first page for your target keywords – they’re a competitor you should be focusing on.

You should also pay close attention to the SERP landscape revealed by this research. Do some of your target keywords offer search results dominated by videos? That means you should be looking to make some video content. 

2. Analyze on-page SEO

With the results of your competitor’s SEO analysis, you are able to take a closer look at your competitor’s on-page and on-site SEO for their top pages.

Pay attention to:

  • How often your competitors are putting out content.
  • The type of content that they are pushing out.
  • The keywords that they are actively targeting.
  • The headline lengths, title keywords, and title tags that they are using.
  • The metadata that they are using for their pages and posts.
  • The internal links that they are using.

Not only does this provide you with an effective template to base your own content and SEO efforts on, but it may also reveal gaps in your competitors’ content that you will be able to exploit with your own content marketing plan.

For instance:

  • Do they fail to cover certain topics in significant detail?
  • Are they failing to push out certain types of content and media?
  • Do some posts and pages have a low word count?

Google’s algorithm pays attention to all of these factors.

3. Competitor keyword analysis

Analyzing competitor keywords is pivotal in evaluating the strength of each of your competitors, and locating the weak points that will offer you a way in. 

In theory, it’s possible to beat any competitor on the market, rising to the top of the rankings for any search. However, this theory relies upon an unstoppable amount of resources, money, time, and expertise. 

Opting to analyze your competitor’s keyword results will help you find more feasible avenues to the top, without breaking the bank. 

This process will require going back to the results offered by your chosen analysis tool, focusing most on the competitors with a lower overall score that is ranking highly for niche keywords.

We’ve broken this keyword analysis down into opportunities and gaps.

Identify keyword opportunities

This part of the process will help you enhance your existing target keyword list, providing you with some new keywords that are working well for your competitors. You can then use these keywords to further optimize your content for search engines.

Now that you have compiled your list of competitors from step 1, you can execute a TF-IDF (term frequency-inverse document analysis) to look for the keywords a competitor is using in a page, how often the keyword appears on that page, and discover low-competition keywords that might not already be noted in your strategy.

You can use a free TF-IDF tool to find out how often a keyword appears on a particular page, calculated against how often it is expected to appear on said page. 

The evaluation may reveal that your competitor’s page includes other related terms and phrases that you don’t include on your list. By including these specific keywords and phrases you could boost your position in the rankings. 

Find keyword gaps

When it comes to keyword rankings and solidifying your domain authority, you’re going to need to pay close attention to your own keyword gaps, as well as the keyword gaps in your competitor’s content. 

To do this, you can use a free keyword and content gap tool. These tools usually work by comparing your domain with a competitor’s domain (typically up to 3). You will then receive an analysis of the keywords that you and your competitors have in common, as well as the ones that you do not have in common. 

Where the competitor analysis tools of step 1 provided a high-level view of the competitive landscape, this step offers a more detailed view of the competitive search landscape and potential avenues to rise through the Google search rankings. 

You should use your keyword gap analysis results to note two things:

  • See where you are lacking –

Are there any keywords that all of your competitors’ sites are ranking for and you aren’t? To find out why this is you should begin by looking at how much content they offer for those specific keywords. It could be that they offer an exceptional amount of information and resources for the relevant search queries, or have more backlinks leading back to their page. This should offer valuable points of improvement for your own website and digital marketing plan.

  • Competitor gaps for top keywords –

Are there any keywords with a high search volume that you are already closing in on with your content? If your analysis reveals weaknesses in competitors’ websites, such as their social signals, backlink data, domain authority, or traffic volume – this opens up a potential avenue for you to pursue and overtake them.

Close keyword gaps

Your identification of keyword gaps may have revealed a number of steps that your competitors are taking to attain and maintain their market share. They could have dedicated landing pages that address searchers’ queries and offer their products or services as a solution. Or they might be presenting their products in more interesting and eye-catching ways. Both of which are sure to not only boost their position in the algorithm but increase conversions and sales too.

Either way, your gap-filling process is likely to involve the development of new content, and liaising with other areas of your business to ensure as many gaps are closed as possible.

4. Reviewing competitor backlinks

Backlink analysis is designed to reveal which competitors have a better backlink profile than you, and how many more high-quality backlinks they have than you. This should then give you the pointers you need to improve your backlink profile and be in a more competitive position for ranking on search engines.

To truly understand how to interpret your competitors’ backlinks, we should first establish a deep understanding of why and how they are an important part of SEO.

How Google’s algorithm uses backlinks

In the up-to-date Google algorithm, backlinks are prioritized in order of the most reputable sources. This is due to Google’s efforts to improve its user experience and provide searchers with the most trustworthy information and resources.

Previously, many digital marketers went down the route of quantity over quality. Directing a plethora of backlinks to their site from social media pages, catalogs, directories, and more. These days, Google’s algorithm will view these links as low-quality and they will serve little to no purpose in their page ranking. 

When reviewing your competitors’ link profiles, beware of any links that lack authority or look like spam. Instead pay attention to links from authorized sources from the media, well-known blogs, publications, and more.

Improving your link building efforts

When you analyze your competitors’ backlink profiles, you will want to pay attention to their quality backlinks and how you can reverse engineer their strategy for yourself.

The questions you should be asking are:

  • Have they been recommended and referred to by authorities in their industry? How do they seem to have achieved this and can you do the same?
  • Have they appeared in news stories or press releases? How could it be possible to do the same for yourself?
  • Have they contributed to reputable articles and received a credit? Are there similar crowdsourced articles that you could contribute to with your expertise?

This backlink analysis could also reveal easy gaps for you to achieve a few quick wins. Are several of your competitors receiving backlinks from a certain article or website? This could be a sign that you might be able to get yourself a link there too. 

Several of the SEO tools mentioned in step 1 offer link profile insights, although you may want to also use a backlink checker tool

BackLink Checker

5. Identifying available gaps in the market

Your analysis should also point out essential differences between you and your competitors. These could be weak points in your competitors’ strategies that you can exploit or USPs that help you stand out in your market.

Try to analyze each of these 6 factors: Brand authority, content marketing, SEO, mobile experience, linking issues, and lost rankings.

Brand authority

The first port of call in comparing your site to that of your competitors is to assess their authority. This includes whether or not they are a known name in the industry, a name that others refer to as a source of news, information, and authoritative resources. 

You may also want to compare how authoritative your site is as opposed to theirs – do you offer more trustworthy, well-researched, fact-based resources than them? As well as other authority factors that the Google algorithm takes into account, like backlinks referring to pages on their site. 

If the answers to these questions conclude that a competitor has far more authority than you, this tells you that it will be harder to beat them in search rankings. The next move here will be to pay closer attention to closing keyword gaps, as mentioned in step 3.

Content marketing

The next step is to analyze the content marketing efforts pursued by your competitors. This step goes beyond the analysis tools used previously in this article, you will need to take time to manually browse your top competitors’ websites and see the types of content they are publishing. 

Ask the questions: Do they create high-quality content backed up by research, authority, and plentiful sources? Is their content thorough, user-friendly, and attentive to all potential browser questions? Do they offer supplementary supporting pages for their product pages? Do they use multiple different content marketing channels?

Make a note of where the weaknesses are in each competitor’s content so that you can fulfill these needs for browsers instead. 

Furthermore, don’t leave yourself out of a content analysis like this. Use these same parameters to measure your own content marketing efforts, noting the gaps that you need to fill. 

eCommerce sites will have different content needs and expectations to those of other types of business. Ensure your products are supported with extensive how-to guides, reviews, and support options.

Technical SEO

Beyond a website’s use of keywords, Google’s crawlers analyze multiple other technical factors to decide which pages to rank highest. Considering technical SEO factors as part of your analysis will help you spot more vulnerable competitors, while also ensuring your own site is up to scratch.

You should take note of the following elements on both your and your competitors’ websites:

  • Page speed

The bigger a site gets, and the more laden it becomes with content and product pages, the slower it can become. Google interprets this as a measure of the site’s user-friendliness and is less likely to recommend it to its searchers. 

  • Duplicating content

Are you or your competitors duplicating content from elsewhere on the web? This is a big no-no in the algorithm and acts as a negative ranking factor. 

  • Broken links

Are there any broken internal and external links on the website’s pages? This is also interpreted by Google as a sign of a site that isn’t user-friendly. 

Make sure your site is as user-friendly and crawl-friendly as possible so that you already have a step up over competitors that are falling behind.

Mobile experience

Did you know 63% of Google visitors are searching from a mobile phone? So there’s no wonder that Google takes your website’s mobile experience seriously! They wouldn’t want to rank a search result in prime position at the top of the page, only for their mobile searcher to have a bad experience navigating the site. 

How do your competitors score in terms of mobile experience? Is their site hard to navigate, slow, or hard to read? If your site is primed and prepped for converting mobile users you will already be one step ahead of them!

Linking issues

As an extension of the technical SEO factors mentioned earlier, internal linking is a crucial factor in the crawlability of a site. 

A website should be structured with easily accessible URLs, the correct meta tags for pages and articles, breadcrumbs, anchor text, and snippets. 

If your site is structured well according to all of those factors, you will be Googlebot-friendly. If you find that your competitors are not matching up to the above criteria, you could stand in good stead to overtake them.

Lost rankings

Your SEO competitor analysis from step 1 will have revealed the keywords that your competitors are ranking for, as well as where they rank and how their rank is trending. This is where you can focus on the keywords they are losing their rank for, and try to investigate why that is. It might be the case that you can take advantage of their declining ranking and steal the prime position for yourself. 

If there’s an easy solution, e.g. they are failing to provide up-to-date content for a keyword. You could provide the up-to-date article on your own site before they even realize they’ve dropped.

Takeaways

A competitor analysis may seem like an exhaustive process, but it is absolutely essential if you want to rise to the top (and stay on top!) of the search engine game. In fact, you should be trying to schedule an analysis like this around every 6 months to ensure you keep up with algorithm changes and fresh competition. 

There are also a range of free tools out there designed to make this process more pain-free, and if you have any additional questions why not schedule a free call with one of our experts today? They’re here to help guide your business to SEO success. 


Clayton Johnson is the CMO of The HOTH SEO company. He has over 8+ years experience in the SEO industry and has spoken at events like SEJ Summit. The HOTH has been featured in Inc 5000, Forbes, SMX, Pubcon, Content Marketing World, Affiliate Summit, Brighton and more.

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