SEO Competition analysis


Do you know who your competitors are? Do you need to? Absolutely!
Finding and analyzing your competition is one of the most important steps of the search engine optimization (SEO) process.

In this article we’ll teach you how to conduct a complete SEO Competition Analysis. We’ll start with a single keyword phrase, find the competitors for that keyword phrase, and then analyze the various search engine optimizations strategies of the corresponding top competitors.

By following the tactics outlined in this article you will know who your competitors are, what they are doing right and, more importantly, what they are not doing right. Knowing what they are doing right can help you catch up with them. Knowing what they are not doing right can help you beat them! That is because there are so many parameters leading to a well-positioned web site that even the smallest “win” for one of them can become a tiebreaker and put you ahead of a competitor.

For this tutorial, we will be using the SEO for Firefox plugin for data collection and analysis. This tool provides an array of vital SEO factors and data right on the search engine results page (SERP), significantly saving on research time.

What is SEO Competitive Analysis?

Let’s assume for a moment that you own a company in Orange, New Jersey that manufactures and sells widgets. When you use a search engine and type in any variation of the term “orange nj widgets”, you want your company’s web site to be the first one listed on the SERP.

If your company isn’t #1 on the SERP, why not? What do the higher ranked web sites have that yours doesn’t? Or better yet, what do the higher ranked web sites lack? The only way to find the answer to these questions is to conduct a SEO Competitive Analysis.

By taking that single keyword phrase- orange nj widgets- each competitor may be located and analyzed via the use of that keyword phrase. Special online tools can be used to analyze the SEO techniques each competitor has used. Doing this research often results in the discovery of gaps in the competitors’ techniques that can be exploited to place your web site ahead of its competitors in the SERPs.

Simply put, analyzing a competitor site consists of finding out the strategies used by that site to rank high for a particular keyword.
Competitor research utilizes a formal methodology that consists of 3 main steps. The first step involves the identification of one’s true competitors. The second step involves competitor analysis through the use of online tools that generate data about competitor on-site and off-site strengths/weaknesses. The third step involves the organization of the generated data into a matrix that is easy to read and manipulate.

What Keywords Convert Traffic to Sales?
There’s more to SEO than simply having a lot of traffic on your web site. Increased traffic may look good, but unless those visitors become customers, all you’re doing is wasting money for general optimization and extra bandwidth.

There is no reason to despair. The truly dedicated search engine optimizer can, to some degree, reverse-engineer some of the search engine ranking calculation algorithms with the help of the many free online SEO tools available. For the purposes of this tutorial, we’ll be using a free Firefox plugin called SEO for Firefox. This plugin is created and distributed by SEObook.com. The tool provides users with an array of useful SEO factors and data right on the SERP, greatly saving on time and effort.

To really squeeze the competition and make the most of your web presence, you’ll need to find out what keywords and phrases really matter, who your real competitors are, and why they’re winning in the SEO game. Let’s get started.

In order to begin your competitive analysis, you’ll need to understand which keywords on your web site actually convert to sales.

To locate your sales-generating keywords, you will need to obtain a list of all the keywords that your web site utilizes- those found in the content, titles, headings, the web site’s log files, and those located in your pay-per-click campaigns. By compiling all these keywords and comparing them to your online sales reports, you can find out just how each buyer found your web site.

Without some kind of Web analysis tool, this can be a very daunting task. Thankfully, there are some very useful and free online tools to help you. Google Analytics, for example, offers some wonderful tools for understanding which are the most valuable keywords on your web site. Even more importantly, these tools provide the list of keywords used by your visitors to find your site.

If you do not yet have access to the conversion rates for specific keywords, or if your web site is new, then you should continue using the keywords you selected as your primary keywords. These keywords should be the terms that best describe your line of products or services. For more information on how to select keywords for your site, read our in-depth keyword selection tutorial).

Who are your True Competitors?

With your list of keywords and key phrases in hand, you can begin to understand who your true competitors are on the Web. What does this mean? Simply put, just because a web site ranks highly using your chosen keywords, it doesn’t mean that it is a “true” competitor.

This is where we need to understand the difference between Broad Match and Phrase Match keyword searches. Broad Match searches occur when you type a keyword into a search engine query box (e.g. Google) without quotation marks. For example:

orange nj widgets

Phrase Match searches occur when you type the searched words with surrounding quotation marks, like this:

“orange nj widgets”

Broad matches are what you normally obtain when you type your keyword into a search engine. For example, when you do a broad match search for the words ‘orange nj widgets’, you will likely get a list of web sites which sell or make widgets in Orange, New Jersey. However, you’ll also obtain matches for web pages that merely use the words “orange”, “nj”, and “widgets” somewhere within their content. Such content could be describing a produce distributor in New Jersey or a widget producer in Orange County, California. Such web sites are not really your competitors; they are targeting a different market and coincidentally use the same or similar keywords.

To generate a more accurate list of your true competitors, you must use Phrase Match searches. To conduct a phrase match search, enter your keywords into the search engine with quotes around them, like this: “orange nj widgets”. This ensures that the only results shown by the search engine are pages that contain these words, and that the words are grouped in the same order as the order used in the search field.

When you perform a phrase match search, you will only find web sites that have this particular keyword in the specified order within their pages.
The sites ranking using the “phrase match” search type are more likely to be your true competitors because sites that mention your keyword in the same order have a natural ranking advantage.

When you perform a phrase match search of your keyword phrase, the top 10-15 results for that keyword can be considered your true competitors for that keyword. Record which web pages come up for each one of your keywords. This will give you an idea of who you are dealing with. Given that information, you’ll soon understand why some sites are consistently higher-ranked than your web site and what you can do to outrank one of them and take his place on the first SERP.

Conducting Competitive Analysis

Before you begin your competitive analysis, you’ll need to know what parameters each of the major search engines use in order to rank web sites. As stated previously, these ranking calculation algorithms used are secret- but only on the surface. With a little ingenuity you can start to discover some of the secrets the search engines are keeping.

The best place to start is at each search engine’s respective user-support page. This is the place where the search engine will provide a sample of what is being used to calculate search results. For Google, check out the Google Webmaster Guidelines page. For Yahoo!, try the Yahoo! Search Content Quality Guidelines. For Bing, check out the Bing webmaster guidelines for successful indexing.

You’ll find during your analysis that the major factors that contribute to search ranking can be broken down into two main categories: on-site and off-site.

On-Site Factors
On-site factors are those parameters that are visible on your or your competitor’s web site. These factors include: Page Titles; Meta TAG Descriptions; Alt Tags; Content; Heading Tags (H1, H2, H3); Keyword Density; and many others.

Off-Site Factors
Off-site factors that influence search engine results are mostly related to inbound links, but can also include many other parameters. An off-site factor may include: Domain Name Age; Inbound Links; Internet “Buzz”; the quality/rank of web pages that are referencing your web site and vice versa; and many other less obvious factors. These are the factors that you’ll be discovering when you conduct your competitive analysis.

Tools
With a basic idea of what is being calculated by search engine algorithms, you can now test some hypotheses with the help of free Web-based analytical tools such as the one we referenced at the beginning of this article- the SEO for Firefox plugin. This tool is immensely useful; it provides quick access to a variety of on-site and off-site parameters that are critical for search engine ranking.

For example, when you enter keywords into each respective search engine query field, the SEO for Firefox plugin will display all the critical off-site ranking parameters, including:

– Number of BackLinks
– Yahoo! Directory (yes/no)
– Last Date Indexed by Google
– Alexa Ranking
– Traffic Volume
– Age of the Domain
– Number of .GOV and .EDU BackLinks
– Twitter Links
– Del.icio.us Links
– Digg Links
– Wikipedia Pages
– Whois Profile
– IP Information
– and More

These statistical parameters appear below each search engine result.

Here is an example of what you would see if you used the SEO for Firefox plugin. Typing in the keyword “Outdoor Lighting”, the first generated result contained the following data:

#1 | PR: 1 | Google Cache Date: Nov 1 2009 | Traffic Value: 112,459 | Age: 01-1999 | del.icio.us: – | del.icio.us Page Bookmarks: – | Diggs: 0 | Digg’s Popular Stories: 0 | Stumbleupon: – | Twitter: 0 | Y! Links: 654 | Y! .edu Links: ? | Y! .gov Links: 0 | Y! Page Links: 625 | Y! .edu Page Links: 0 | Technorati: – | Alexa: 1,052,134 | Compete.com Rank: 267,249 | Compete.com Uniques: 5,341 | Trends | Cached: 9,260 | dmoz: 0 | Bloglines: 0 | Page blog links: – | dir.yahoo.com: 644 | Botw: ? | Business | Whois | Sktool | Google position: 1 | Yahoo position: 88 | Majestic SEO linkdomain: 312

For each parameter, the data result, if available is displayed as a number or string of characters (e.g., 312 or “Nov 1 2009”). If there is a question mark, it means that in your plugin options, the data for this parameter was not set to be automatically displayed. You may click on the question mark in order to retrieve the corresponding value. The fetch process is dynamic, it will get and display the requested data without any page reload.

Each of these data items are invaluable when you are attempting to establish which off-site factors make one web site more valuable than another. For example, if you notice that a high-ranking competitor’s web site has no .EDU backlinks, then you could use this information to your advantage. By acquiring just one .EDU backlink on your own web site, you gain an advantage over that opponent, which may be just enough to place you ahead of this competitor.

While every ranking factor is important, we do not know the weight assigned to each of them in the algorithms used by search engines. However, these data do help you to discover which aspects of your web site you should be developing in order to have it outrank your competitors’ sites.

If, say, many of the highest ranked competitor sites use a domain name that is more than five years old, this may indicates that the domain age may play an important role in the site rank calculation for that particular keyword.

To work around this, take a look at the top 15 results on the SERP that are relatively new, or which do not even have a domain age displayed because the site was recently made public. By looking at these sites that have attained a high ranking, you can find out what other factors, aside from age, have given them this advantage and discover the one you can exploit to outrank them.

For example, let’s say that one of the web sites is quite new and highly ranked. Upon analysis, you find out that this site has an extremely high number of Twitter and Digg links, but it is not listed in the Yahoo! directory. Rather than trying to compete in an area where your competitor’s site is strong- namely, backlinks- attack the site’s known weakness, which is its lack of Yahoo! directory membership. By paying just $299 per year in order to be listed on the Yahoo! directory, you may be able to jump ahead of that competitor.

Likewise, you may discover that, while a web site’s home page is very well optimized and consistently maintains a high rank, its internal pages located on second and even third level are only minimally optimized. This gives you an opportunity to conduct broad optimization of your own web site in order to take your competitor’s place in the search engine results.

Putting It All Together

Naturally, it’s exciting to locate weaknesses in web sites that had previously appeared untouchable with regard to site ranking. However, knowing competitor web site weaknesses, and effectively taking advantage of those weaknesses, are two different matters altogether. This is why you need to sit down and create a chart of all the critical competitor ranking statistics, so that you can better understand what to do in your own SEO process. This will help you effectively squeeze out your competitors’ sites from the top positions of the SERP.

Using spreadsheets, we will now show you how you can create a catalog of your data, making it easy to read and understand. In this way, you can easily start to analyze your competitors.

Start by opening a clean spreadsheet. For the purposes of this article we’re going to be using Microsoft Excel. For every keyword phrase create a new tab in the spreadsheet document and name it after the keyword that is being analyzed.

Create as many rows as there are competitors displayed in the top 10 results of the SERP for the chosen keyword. In this example, that keyword is “orange nj widgets”. Provide each row with the domain name and URL of the competing web page.

Next, create 16 columns with the following titles: Search Engine Ranking rankings(SER); Page Rank(PR); Domain Name Age(DA); Page Backlinks(BLP); Domain Backlinks(BLD); Page Backlinks from .EDU(BLE); Page Backlinks from .GOV(BLG); Yahoo Directory membership(YD); DMOZ Directory membership(MOZ); Keyword in Page Title(KPT); Keyword in URL(KURL); Keyword in META Tag description(KMD); Keyword in header tags(KHT); Keyword in ALT Tags(KAT); Keyword Density(KD); Google Cache Page(GC); and Miscellaneous.

Now you’re ready to begin filling in your data points. See below for more information about the meaning of these factors and where to find each piece of information.

– (SER) Search Engine Rankings – The actual position of a web site on the SERP. SER is provided in the first data field by the SEO for Firefox plugin.

– (PR) Page Rank: – Based on a logarithmic 1-10 scale, the PR is used by Google to rank a web site’s value. The more valuable that Google finds your web site to be, the higher the PR that will be assigned. For example, the New York Times web site, which has millions of page views per day, as well as fresh content and numerous backlinks, has a PR of 9.

– (DA) Domain Name Age – This is the age of the domain name, according to the first registered date in the WHOIS records.

– (BLP) Page Backlinks – (Y! Page Links) – This is the total number of external links (also known as inbound links) directing the user to a specific page URL. This number does not include any links originating from any other pages of the same domain.

– (BLD) Domain Backlinks – (Y! Links) – This is the total number of external links pointing to any page on that domain. That would include deeply nested pages. It does not include any links originating from any other page of the same domain.

A note on Backlinks:
Backlinks are essential to any well-optimized web site, and are defined as the number of external links leading to a web site. These links provide search engines with an indication of how well known the web site is. And, much like Mom always said, search engines judge web sites by the company that they keep. That is why web sites with inbound links from sites with high PR, or from educational or government web sites, will tend to rank better.

– (BLE) Backlinks from .EDU – (Y! .edu Page Links) – This is the number of page backinks originating from .EDU domains

– (BLG) Page Backlinks from .GOV (**) – This is the number of page backinks originating from.GOV domains

(**)SEO for Firefox does not provide this value. You can find this number by going through the Yahoo! URL: http://siteexplorer.seach.yahoo.com.

For example, if the page URL is www.domain_name.com/page.html, type in the following:

link:http://www.domain_name.com, with the site name being domain_name.com, domain_name.gov, domain_name.govt, domain_name.fgov, or domain_name.gouv

Yahoo! will then display all the inbound links to that page that are coming from .gov, .govt, .fgov, or .gouv domains.

A note on external links from .EDU and .GOV domains :
The .EDU backlinks are inbound links from educational web sites like those of colleges, schools, and academic organizations. .GOV backlinks are inbound links from official government web sites. These two types of backlinks are regarded as more valuable than other backlinks because they are difficult to obtain.

– (YD) Yahoo Directory membership – (dir.yahoo.com) – This factor indicates whether the site is listed in the Yahoo directory. If the variable “dir.yahoo.com” returned by the SEO Firefox plugin is greater than 0, then the site is a member of the Yahoo directory. This factor is important for search engine rankings because a listing in the Yahoo! directory indicates that the web site owner is dedicated to the web site and did not hesitate to make a sizeable investment ($299/year) in subscribing to this directory.

– (MOZ) DMOZ Directory membership (dmoz) – The DMOZ Directory is “the largest, most comprehensive human-edited directory of the Web”. This directory is indexed by topic and is easily searchable. If the value of “dmoz” is greater than 0, then the site belongs to the DMOZ directory.

– (KPT) Keyword in Page Title – Is the keyword under analysis included in the competitor’s page title?

– (KURL) Keyword in URL – Is the keyword analyzed included in the competitor’s page URL?

– (KMD) Keyword in META Tag description – Is the keyword under analysis included in the competitor’s Page Meta tag description?

– (KHT) Keyword in header tags – Is the keyword under analysis included in any Header tag (H1, H2, H3) on the competitor’s content page?

– (KAT) Keyword in ALT Tags – Is the keyword under analysis included in any image ALT* tag on the competitor page?
(ALT Tags are the keywords that appear when image display has been disabled, when a viewer activates text-to-voice applications, or when the mouse rolls over an image).

– (KD) Keyword Density – Keyword density is the frequency that a specific keyword appears on a web page. This information can be gleaned in one of two ways. One way is to count the total number of times a keyword appears in the text of the page and then divide that by the number of total words on the page. The result is the percentage – or density – of the page that is made up of the target keyword. Another way is to use a free keyword density analyzer like the one found at keyworddensity.com.

– (GCP) Google Cache Page – (Google Cache Date) – This is the number of days since Google last re-indexed the competitor page listed in the SERP. A low number is a positive sign for the site listed; however, you should not rely on this variable too much.

– Miscellaneous – This is where you can put the rest of the material provided by the SEO for Firefox plugin. You can create additional columns to place the off-site factors that are neither intentional optimization by the competitor nor the variety of random optimization created by the site’s visitors – i.e., social media inbound links.

Other examples may include:

Twitter Links: 234
Del.icio.us Links: 5,000
Digg Favorites: 128

Some other items you may want to include are the following:

Majestic SEO Data – Yes/No – This information provides the number of sub-domains, pages, internal/external links, and other valuable information about a specific web site. The presence of this information not only means that a site is well established, but the information itself provides a valuable insight into site structure. If it is available, print out this information and keep it with the spreadsheet.

Whois Record – This information – which provides the geographic location of the Web site owner/host – can be useful in analyzing whether or not geographical factors impact search rankings.

Are there other factors that you suspect of influencing search rankings? Include this information here and you can compare the data against the high- and low-ranked competitors to analyze the value of your hypotheses. Just be sure to include quantifiable data and be sure to maintain consistency throughout your analysis.

Once you’ve completed this process for every competitor, you can repeat it for another keyword, or you can move on to data analysis.

Data Analysis

Now that you have all the data collected for each competitor, you may begin comparing and contrasting your results. This is where critical thinking comes into play. Start with the first optimization factor you charted and compare it across every competitor. How does each competitor differ? Do higher ranking web sites have a significantly different level of that factor?

Next, find what each competitor’s weakness is. In your spreadsheet, use a fill color for each competitor’s cell for that factor. For every optimization factor where a competitor is weak, mark that cell green. For factors where a competitor is strong, mark that cell red.

Continue this process until you get through each factor and each competitor. When you’re done, you should have a fairly complete picture of what makes your competitors succeed or fail with regards to search engine optimization efforts.

See the picture below for an example of how this might look. Shown below is an example of what you might see if you were to choose the 14 most important optimization factors and do an SEO competition analysis for the keyword “outdoor lighting”.

SEO competitive matrix

Putting the Analysis to Work

After conducting this analysis you will have two vital pieces of information:

1. You will know what optimization factors matter to search engines.
2. With the Green/Red color codes, you can quickly and visually detect area of your competitors’ matrix that can be used to optimize your site and potentially outrank one or more of the competitor listed.

In very rare cases, this matrix may be marked all in RED. If faced with such a situation, you will need to make a decision: is this keyword worth the extra work, or should you move on to a different keyword? By “choosing your battles” wisely, you may save yourself much work and a lot of precious time.

To further evaluate how well optimized a competitor really is, you need to analyze the value of the competitor site’s backlinks. Using free tools on such sites as www.backlinkwatch.com and www.seomoz.org will provide you with lists of inbound links as well as the PR of the sites from which these links are originating. What you will most likely discover is that many of the competitors that have a high number of backlinks, have received these links from low PR sites (1 or 0). If this is the case, then there is still hope for your site to outrank this competitor’s site for that particular keyword. However, if all of the first 10-12 competitor sites have backlinks from high PR sites, then you will need to work on acquiring many quality inbound links. To learn more about inbound links, please read our in-depth off-site optimization tutorial.

Determine just where the weaknesses of your competitors are located, and optimize your own web site in those areas. Over time, you will begin to see your web site climbing the rungs of the search engine results ladder. By proxy, you should also start seeing more revenue being generated as a result of this optimization.

Keep Doing It

The most important thing to remember when all is said and done is: the price of good SEO is constant vigilance. Search engine algorithms change regularly, and what generated a high ranking for a web site one day may not improve its ranking the next. That is why it is important to maintain a regular schedule for performing periodic search engine optimization competitive analysis.

Learn more about Search Engine Optimization.



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