In this article, we'll explore the process of competitive research and give you the tools and methods to perform your first analysis. We'll look at why competitive analysis and keyword research are linked, how to evaluate what your competitors are doing with their SEO, and how to decide what terms are realistic for your website to rank for.
Step 1: Identify your closest competition
Start by typing your main keywords into Google—the most obvious ones that people would associate with your business. You’ll want to search for many keywords so that you can start looking for patterns—what sites show up often for various keywords? Those will be some of the most competitive sites.
You may want to start by selecting just five of your most relevant competitors to avoid getting bogged down in this initial phase. Be discriminating. If Walmart.com shows up often, you won’t want to include it in your list of competitors. Ignore the mega brands and focus on sites that are similar to yours—offering a similar product or service, or competing in the same niche.
Tip: Another way to find competitors is to use the "related" search on Google. Type "related" with a colon after it, then the url of the website (e.g. related:www.jimdo.com). This will pull up other sites that Google considers similar, thus quickly/easily expanding your list.
An SEO tool that can be of assistance here is SEMrush. If you type in one of your main competitors into SEMrush, it will give you a list of competitors (scroll down to “Main Competitors” and click “view full report.”)
Click on the results in the Common Keywords column to find out which keywords your competitors are ranking for. Click on those keywords and explore a little further, and you’ll you see a list of other sites that are ranking for those same keywords. Add these sites to your list to review and determine if they are direct competitors.
The number in the SE Keywords column can also be of great assistance, as you can use it to determine which sites have a strong presence on Google.
Once again, don’t include large retailers like Amazon and Walmart to avoid corrupting your metrics.
Note: SEMrush is free for the first few searches you do. After that you will need to register or upgrade to a paid package.
Step 2: Research your keywords
Once you have identified top competitors, your next step is to start mining for keyword gold. You’ll need to determine what keywords your site has a realistic chance of targeting. Let’s take the example of a company selling gift baskets. The term “gift baskets” is incredibly competitive and will be almost impossible for a small business to rank for. This is where it’s important to think laterally.
Instead of looking for keywords with the words “gift baskets” included—which is what everyone else will be doing—what other terms could you appear for that could bring relevant traffic? A strong term to start looking at might be “gift certificates.” You know that people looking for gift certificates would be amenable to buying a gift basket. If you type the words “gift certificates” into Google, at the bottom you’ll see suggestions for other terms including: “gift certificate template” and “custom gift certificates.” Both of these terms could potentially be used to optimize.
Using this strategy, you are thinking laterally and moving away from the same terms everyone in your industry is advertising for. Then, by using Google’s suggestions at the bottom of the page, you can focus on more specific, long tail keywords that Google deems categorically relevant.
For more step-by-step details on how to get started with keyword research, check out our post How to Do Keyword Research Using Keyword Planner
Next, analyze the sites ranking for these terms. Make sure that the sites you include are similar in size as yours.
Develop a list of keywords your competitors are ranking for
Once again, we can rely heavily on SEMrush for this part of the process. When you type in a competitor’s URL, SEMrush will give you a list of the keywords that this site is ranking for in Google:
You’ll also get important metrics, such as volume, cost per click, and results. These metrics will help you to find keywords that you can target:
- Volume: How many times is that keyword searched for every month on Google? You want to find keywords that have high enough volume, but not so high that the competition will be impossible.
- CPC (Cost per Click): How much is the average bid for that keyword? If it’s very high, then you’ll know that companies are willing to pay top dollar for visibility of that keyword. If your site is new and has low authority, you may choose to avoid these.
- Results: How many pages does Google have in their index containing those terms? The higher it is, the more competitive and difficult it will be to rank.
They key here is to find the right balance between volume and competition. A high volume keyword (short-tail) that you don’t have the authority to rank for will be a complete waste of time. And a low volume keyword that nobody searches for won’t do you any good either. Start by targeting long-tail keywords—keyword phrases that are very specific and include multiple words—until your site has enough authority to compete for short-tail keywords. Spend the necessary time to target those “golden keywords”—the ones with decent volume and low competition.
Use Google’s Keyword Planner
If you don’t have access to paid tools, you can also use Google’s Keyword Planner. This tool will give you suggestions for keywords, and much of the same data mentioned above. You’ll also get related terms that perhaps hadn’t occurred to you.
The combination of Keyword Planner and SEMrush should be enough to help you create a comprehensive list of keywords; enough to get the ball rolling.
Step 3: Run an analysis on your competitors
Now that you have chosen the keywords you want to target and know who your competitors are, you need to analyze their metrics. How authoritative are they? What is the average number of inbound links that they have? How popular is that site on social media?
The easiest way to perform this analysis is to use a free Chrome extension called MozBar. With this extension, you can check the domain authority of your competitors, as well as their spam score and social media shares. Domain authority is a metric similar to Pagerank, which can be used to evaluate how much potential a site has to rank.
If you have the budget, you can do a deep dive into each competitor’s backlink profile on a more granular level. Here are three great tools you can use:
- Use Ahrefs to download their backlink profile. Sort the results from most to least authoritative.
- Use Majestic's backlink tool to analyze their topical authority and understand their semantic link profile.
- JimdoPro and JimdoBusiness users can also sign up for rankingCoach through their Site Admin. This service lets you track up to 5 competitors and compare your SEO with theirs.
All three offer free trials so you can do all of your competitive research during the trial phase.
By performing these steps, you’ll become familiar with each site’s strategy, their profiles, and what they’ve done to gain their current visibility with Google. You’ll also know what sites you can actually beat, and which sites are out of your reach—at least in the first few months.
Step 4: Audit your competitors' content and social media
Use this social media audit questionnaire to research your competitors' social media and content strategies. Evaluate their blogs and their Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Pinterest accounts to see how many followers they have, how often they share updates and to determine their engagement ratio. This will help you determine how active you have to be, what your engagement ratio should be and how many followers you should be seeking to acquire.
Step 5: Determine your strategy
Now that you've determined which keywords you can compete on, start incorporating them into your own website—in your Page Titles, meta descriptions, and most importantly in the content of the website itself.
Next, you’ll need to determine how many quality backlinks you’ll need in order to start appearing for your target keywords. Your ability to earn links will be closely connected with the content you share on your site. Before starting this process, make sure you know what to AVOID so you can earn links without accumulating penalties.
As you build content and earn links, continue working on your social presence. Focus on building relationships with key influencers in your industry, as a few strong influencers are more valuable than thousands of inactive followers.
Competitive analysis can seem overwhelming, but it is an important first step towards improving your visibility. Your SEO strategy will be based on the data you uncover through your competitor analysis and research. If you skip this important step, you'll squander resources and time without getting as much bang for your SEO buck.