When it comes to SEO, your competitors are a wealth of information that can help you build out your entire strategy and drive qualified traffic to your site.
There’s almost always someone ranking higher than you across multiple search terms, and performing a competitive analysis allows you to learn from their success.
An SEO competitor analysis allows you to learn which tactics work best in your industry and identify your competitors’ strengths and weaknesses.
In this article, I’m going to go over 10 steps for running an SEO competitive analysis, reverse engineering your competitors’ strategy, and using that intel as a roadmap for your entire SEO strategy.
What You’ll Learn:
- How to identify your top terms
- How to identify your competitors
- How to export your competitors’ top terms
- How to export your competitors’ links
- How to identify your competitors’ page templates
- How to find where competitors are getting social shares
- How to check competitors’ HTML and XML sitemaps
- Find out which demographics your competitors serve
- How to use a monitoring tool to get alerts on competition
- How to create a competitor analysis plan
1. Identify Your Top Terms
The first thing that you want to do is identify your top terms. What are those 10, 20, 30 search terms you’d like to target and rank for on Google?
You can uncover search terms with a variety of tools–start with free research tools like Google Keyword Planner or Google Search Console to uncover terms that relate to your brand. Paid tools like SEMRush, Moz, and Ahrefs are all great options, as well.
2. Determine Your Competitors
After you’ve defined your target search terms, you’ll want to size up the competition.
The best way to do that is to use a handful of tools–I recommend SEMRush, Similar Web, and SpyFu–to identify your top competitors.
You might even take a look at Alexa, which still offers some really great data, including a tool that allows users to find competitor sites and identify where your audiences overlap.
SimilarWeb comes with a market mapping and benchmarking tool, designed to spot key players, trends, and rising and falling players.
Additionally, a simple Google search can help you identify who is ranking for your terms by seeing which domains rise to the top, then tracking your most popular search terms in a spreadsheet. Keep in mind, taking a manual approach is fine if you’re only tracking 10 or 20 terms at a time–otherwise, this can become a time-consuming, inaccurate process.
The point is, you’ll want to explore the competitive landscape from multiple angles to get a clear picture of who ALL of your competitors are.
3. Export Your Competitors Top Terms
Next, you’ll want to export every term that your competitors rank for, then organize it in the following ways:
- Organize by Conversion Intent--What this means is, are these keywords actually able to convert? Can they drive the business forward? Do they signal the intent to buy?
- Traffic Volume—How much traffic do they have? Then organize them by the various stages in the buyer’s journey–awareness, consideration, conversion, post-conversion. This allows you to get a picture of your keywords as they relate to the entire funnel.
- Segment—What are the subject segments of the keywords–what topics do they relate to?
Altogether, you’ll be able to put together this whole competitive universe of all the different terms you can go after to drive great traffic just like your competitors.
4. Export Competitors’ Links
Let’s look at the other side of the equation–your competitors’ external links.
So, you’re going to want to export your competitor links, then, as we’ve done in the last step, organize them into a few different categories. This makes it easier to build a strong off-page SEO strategy down the road.
I recommend breaking these up as follows:
- Top Links–These are the most powerful links coming from sites with high authority–think sites like the New York Times or the Washington Post, as well as popular blogs and respected industry publications. Tools like Ahrefs and Majestic work really well for identifying these.
- Links to Top Pages–These are the pages ranking highest in Google and have the most authority. Majestic works well here, too, as does SEMRush.
- Review Top Linking Trends–When I say linking trends, I mean, is this domain getting a lot of links from news channels or education sites? Where are these bulk links coming from and why? Once you understand that, you’ll be able to dissect how these sites are getting those links–more on that later.
- Highest Anchor Texts–This is actually a really important one. You might find that a certain term keeps coming up, and that’s a sign that a competitor is trying to link-build for that term (and in some cases, may indicate there’s some black hat activity going on).
For more on link-building for SEO, this article covers tools and best practices you can use to inform your backlinking strategy.
5. Review Page Templates
Reviewing your competitors’ page templates is an overlooked, yet super important piece of your SEO analysis.
What kind of templates are they using for the following types of pages:
- Service Page
- Home Page
Gaining an understanding of the templates your competitors are using essentially allows you to take a look inside the website’s wireframe, which can help you figure out how to structure your pages for better results.
For instance, you might find that a top competitor uses WAY more screenshots in their content or has more professional-looking images on their product pages. You might also look at layout, formatting, etc. to learn which on-page elements get the best results.
6. Pages with the Most Social Shares
Next, you’ll want to look at where your competitors are getting the most social shares. This will help you:
- Build both a content strategy and a PR strategy.
- See which platforms your competitors are using.
- Understand how they’re using these platforms.
- ID gaps in your social strategy.
So, you’ll want to use a tool like BuzzSumo to identify which content is most successful on social media. You might try searching by topic or keyword, as they’ve done below:
A few areas to examine:
- Are competitors getting more shares from evergreen content versus trending news stories?
- What types of content are competitors consistently creating that keeps getting shares? Put that into your roadmap, so you can take a similar approach.
- Additionally, how are they tapping into trending topics? In this case, pay attention to how well-competing brands leverage current events in an authentic way.
- Finally, look for how your competitors are using industry studies. This is actually a strategy we use a lot at Ignite. Look at which studies get the most play to identify potential content for blog posts or industry studies of your own.
The goal here, overall, is to discover your competitors’ top content, then create your own content that improves on their most-shared pieces.
Keep in mind, the idea isn’t to recreate competitive content in your own voice, rather, you’ll want to offer up your own take on a particular topic, and include better visuals, more data, answers to more questions, etc. so that you can provide a more useful resource to readers.
7. HTML & XML Sitemap
This next step gets a bit more technical.
Here, the goal is to learn more about how your competitors structure their website navigation, URLs, and whether they’ve got an international SEO strategy. All of these elements contribute to how efficiently a site can be indexed by Google’s crawlers.
A few areas to look at:
- XML Sitemap. You can look at the XML Sitemap and figure out every URL on their website and reveal how your competitors’ are structuring their URLs.
- HTML Sitemap.The HTML sitemap allows you to see all of their most important pages so that you can create them for your own site.
- txt file. The robots.txt file will show you what your competitors are blocking and what they’re allowing into the index, which can be really indicative of any potential issues that they have on their website.
- Hreflang Tags. Another thing you’ll want to look for is something called Hreflang tags in their code. So, if you go into the code, then the view source, hit CTRL-F (WIN) or CMD-F (MAC), and type in hreflang, that’s going to show you if a competitor is doing international SEO. Look for tags with different country and language codes to find out where they’re doing business.
- Built With/Deepcrawl/ScreamingFrog. Finally, you’ll want to look into a tool called BuiltWith, which shows you all of the different plugins and technologies they’re working with. You’ll also want to crawl your site with either Deepcrawl or Screaming Frog, one of these tools that will show you all the ways a site is built.
The next thing you’ll want to do is find out which demographics your competitors serve. Tools like Alexa, SimilarWeb, and Quantcast can help uncover which groups consume your competitors’ content.
You can plug in your competitor domains to see exactly what kinds of people are coming to these websites by age, occupation, location, interests, etc.–then use that information to identify new potential markets to target in your own strategy.
You might also want to set up a monitoring tool for a competitor analysis.
So, something like Mention.com or Google Alerts can tip you off to competitor brand mentions.
This allows you to learn what drives mentions so you can create those opportunities for yourself.
Find out what journalists, influencers, or bloggers are working with your competitors and use that information to create a list of media contacts to reach out to for guest posting opportunities or press mentions.
Another tool, visualping.com tracks changes at the website level and sends alerts when competitors add new pages, update their copy, and so on.
The benefit here is, you’ll be able to look at that information and monitor its impact on their SEO performance–and by extension, work those insights into your own SEO strategy.
10. Create a Plan
The final step is putting it all together to create a plan.
With all of the information you’ve gathered in steps 1-9, you’re going to want to put everything together and create a plan based on the framework:
- Project Plan
By taking your insights and laying it out in this format, you’re going to create the perfect SEO roadmap for your brand.
Then you’ll also want to structure your roadmap into the following buckets:
This set-up allows you to break all of your findings into a series of actionable steps, which ultimately allow you to better serve your target audience across every channel.
So, those are my top ten tips for performing a competitive analysis for SEO.
While it’s worth mentioning that doing a competitor analysis takes time, this framework offers a systematic approach to identifying your competitors and their strategies, then actually putting those insights to work.
Follow these steps and you’re bound to see some serious improvements to your traffic–and by extension, your bottom line.