Cycling Competition

Market research is always a crucial step in the development of any marketing strategy or plan. To use a sporting analogy, without competitor research, it’s like entering a league without knowing who you’re up against. You don’t know how your team stacks up against the competition. You can’t develop tactics that take into account your competitors’ strengths and weaknesses. You don’t even know if you’ve entered the correct league.

Why is competitor research important?

Competitor research isn’t just about knowing who your competitors are. It goes much deeper than that. In fact, whilst researching competitors for SEO purposes, you can gain data that can influence messaging and overall business strategy. We’ll dive into all of these below, but to summarise for all you skim reading this:
 
  • Understand key selling points of competitors
  • Spot opportunities or gaps in the market, both in terms of product/service offering as well as SEO targeting. Conversely, we can then see areas where the market is saturated.
  • Identify where competitors have successes (and failures), adapting your plans accordingly
  • Differentiate between market competitors and those competing within search
  • Provides clarity on your positioning within the market. Subsequently, this allows for more accurate messaging and targeting of your audience.

What are we trying to achieve from competitor research?

We’re not here to create more hoops for you to jump through. Nobody wants that. Instead, we’re looking to provide you with actionable tips to get your SEO campaign up and running. With that in mind, we should be clear on what we’re trying to achieve with competitor research.

Opportunities

If our research does not surface opportunities, we’ve done something wrong. We need to gain a clear picture on the players in your marketplace. In turn, this enables us to weigh up the pros and cons of different audiences and targeting strategies.
 
It may transpire that some of the target topics that have been earmarked for your content plan have already been covered by competitors. Armed with this knowledge, you can search for topics where there may be less competition. It may even influence areas such as product development.

Learn from the incumbents

The first-mover advantage is often lauded through cherry picking examples. There are certainly pros to being first, but there are also significant downsides. Part of our competitor research is to exploit these downsides. This can come in a variety of forms. We can see where competitors have focussed their campaigns and therefore seize opportunities. We can also ‘one-up’ them on their targeting through lessons learned from our analysis.

Confirm our strategy & plan

We’ve already looked at buyer personas and keyword research. We’ve likely already conducted a portion of competitor research during these phases anyway. By dedicating time to our competitor research, we can sign off on our strategies and plans safe in the knowledge that we have done our due diligence.

How to conduct SEO competitor research

A lot of the top ranking articles literature on Google are from SEO analytics platforms like Ahrefs, SEMrush and SpyFu.
 
That’s not to take any merit away from these articles. They follow a process and give valuable advice. The issue is that these articles are often dressing up their advice as selling opportunities for their platforms. That’s completely understandable, but somewhat difficult if you’re not a paying subscriber.
Searching Competitor Research
As such, we’ll be looking at a process that can be conducted (for the large part) without a paid subscription.
 
Remember that SEO competitor research is not a stand alone practice. We’ve already covered buyer persona and keyword research which will come in handy during this process. Furthermore, we’re still relatively early in the SEO process. As such, we’ll focus on gaining a market overview, with more specific research included in later guides.

Step One: Identify Competitors

Obviously we need to understand who we’re up against. Tools can help to automate this process somewhat. Rest assured though that you can run this process manually, it’ll just take a little longer.

Use Search

The first step is to search your target keywords and make a note of the usual competitors, i.e those that keep coming up in the SERPs. The usual suspects if you will.
 
Tip: You need to find a way to prioritise these competitors. For example, you may operate in an industry where there are handful of clearly high value search terms. In this instance, the competitors for these searches will be more important than others.
SERP for indoor bike trainer

Explore topics, not just keywords

Whilst individual keywords are important, as per the keyword research process, you want to explore topics. SEO has evolved past a handful of high value searches to a more topic based environment. We live in a world of semantic search. Make use of your brainstorming as well as autosuggest and the ‘people also asked’ accordions. Follow those rabbit holes.

Related searches in SERPs

Differentiate your competitors

You can either focus on target search terms (i.e transactional) and then rinse and repeat for informational searches. On the other hand, you may want to use this exploration of topics to make note of different types of competitors.

As we can see from the search results for ‘indoor bike trainers’ the first result is from Halfords, a retailer of bikes. However, the second and third results are articles comparing various trainers. This demonstrates that the SERPs are often deliver results that seemingly fulfil different searcher intents. Fear not, whilst this adds complexity, it is important information for your targeting.
 
Whichever process you use, the point remains valid. We want to differentiate our competitors into those that compete for transactional terms and those that compete for informational terms. In this way we can adjust the focus of our research depending on the environment within which we compete. Typically, those that rank for informational terms will also rank for transactional terms and vice versa. High value content is a key ranking signal for Google so it makes sense that they would compete across the board.

Add Your Heading Text Here

As SEOs we rely heavily on data to influence our decision making process. This is great, but it’s also useful to get real world feedback as well. Speak to your customers. Speak to your prospects. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.
 
We do want to keep this SEO focussed though. It is therefore important to clarify how your customers/prospects found you. If the answer is search then great, if it was by other means it may make their answers less useful from a search standpoint. Still useful, but not as useful for your SEO campaign.
 
The point here is this: competitors in search can differ drastically from competitors in other channels or the market in general. It’s the competitors in search that will be most appropriate for this process. That might sound overly obvious but you’d be surprised at how many people fail to make the distinction! Clarify what type of competitor you are talking about….
 

Step Two: Analyse your competitor's targeting strategies

Right. Now we have a list of SERP competitors. It’s a bunch of names on a spreadsheet. Useful to know, but so far not that useful when it comes to your SEO campaign.
 
Our next step is to analyse our competitors in order spot opportunities and gain a deeper understanding of the search market. This is a beginner’s guide to SEO competitor research so we’ll keep it relatively overarching.
 
We want to understand what priority search terms our competitors are targeting. We’ll already have an idea of this because they’ll have been returned as a result for our target keywords. We’re double checking in order to:
 
  • Ensure that we haven’t missed any large opportunities during the keyword research phase
  • Gain an understanding of which competitors are targeting which keywords.
  • Identify the most targeted search terms amongst competitors. In this way we can analyse whether alternate searches may offer better short term opportunities.

Title Tags

We’ll cover title tags during our onsite optimisation for beginners. For the intent and purposes of this article, they are one of the first pieces of optimisation that you implement. As such, they are a good giveaway as to which search terms your competition are targeting.
 
You can see the search terms that your competition are using in their title tags through a few (manual) methods:
 
  • Simply load a page and check the browser tab, in browsers such as Chrome they will display the title tag
  • Load the page, right click and select ‘page source’. The title tag can be found between thetags
  • Go to Google and search site:”example.com”. This will show the pages that Google has indexed, and the title tags will be the blue links.
site: search using Google

Headings and Content

Much like title tags, headings and content will give you a fairly clear idea of the type of search terms and topics targeted by competitors. It makes sense, as major areas for optimisation, you can’t hide the type of content being produced!

Using Tools

We did say that these would be more manual checks, but if you do have a subscription to a platform you may as well make use of it. Most major platforms provide competitor analysis. This gives you insight into the search terms your competitors are ranking for. In addition, a function like the domain overview in SEMrush can also be used.

Step Three: Repeat or Differentiate

As we’ve already discussed, we need to differentiate between transactional and informational searches. The transactional search types will likely be utilised by your main landing pages. The more informational searches will be targeted through content.
 
The first two steps can still be used for informational searches. In addition, you can use an SEO platform to judge which content has performed best for your competitors. In turn, we can use this information when creating a content strategy. It follows the same principles as research into transactional terms: we’re looking for opportunities in the market.

Step Four: Compare with your own keyword research

Use any (or all) of these tips to create a map of which competitors are targeting which search terms and topics. As a result, we will be able to identify which ones are saturated and which ones are less competitive. That doesn’t mean that you should ignore the most competitive/saturated terms. There’s probably a good reason they are heavily targeted. Though it may influence your short term and long term targeting strategies.
 
Don’t worry if this process doesn’t result in meaningful changes to your targeting strategy. That means that you’ve completed your keyword research thoroughly. Instead, view it as due diligence. A confirmation of your research and planning.

Step Five: Dive a little deeper

Look at the usual suspects. You will have analysed the search engine results pages for a whole swathe of search terms by now. You’ll likely have started to spot patterns. A certain company may dominate for a set of search terms. Another may be a constant presence for a particular type of content.
 
Without an SEO platform (and with limited SEO knowledge) it can be difficult to analyse these usual suspects. After all, you don’t necessarily know what you’re looking for. Don’t worry, we’ll cover these specifics in later guides.
 
For now it will suffice to spot these trends. Look at whether these businesses focus on a particular area of the market. What type of content are they producing that is helping them dominate a topic? Has this translated to rankings for transactional terms?

Additional Steps:

There are a number of other metrics that can be useful during our competitor research. Bear in mind though, that these require the use of tools, although most do not need a premium subscription.

Overarching Metrics

It’s always useful to understand the inherent authority of your competitors. Domain Authority (DA) is a metric provided by Moz and possibly the most used metric in the industry. It’s a score out of 100 on a logarithmic scale, the higher the number the more authoritative the site.
 
If you have an allegiance to Ahrefs you can use their Domain Rating (DR) as well. Majestic do offer Trustflow and Citationflow but this is based more on backlinks than a hybrid of metrics.
 
Generally speaking, the higher a website’s authority the harder it will be to outrank them. That might sound like bad news, but better to be forewarned. If you have overlapping target search terms with a website of particularly high authority, you can then adapt your targeting. It can prevent wasted effort when you could target less competitive search terms, gaining better results in the short/mdeium term.

Scale of competitor websites

If you’ve already used a platform to analyse your competitors, you should have a good idea of their scale. You’ll know how many total keywords they rank for, amount of top 10 rankings, general traffic levels.
 
We can also use Screaming Frog to take a crawl of competitors and list their pages. Note that the free version is limited to 500 URLs with a premium subscription coming in at £149 per year (around $200).

Backlink Profiles

Again, this is something that we cover in our link building guide but whilst we’re here we may as well take note of our competitors’ backlink profiles. After all, it is one of the most important ranking factors for Google.
 
Unsurprisingly you’ll only be able to get overarching data from platforms with no paid subscription. At this stage though, overarching data is sufficient. We want to gain an overview of our competitors.
 
Depending on your preferences, you can use any of the following:
 

Competitor's offering & messaging

On a slightly different tact to SEO specific research, we can use this opportunity to make note of different offerings and messaging. This can of course be tackled at a later date, but it is something to bear in mind.
 
This is especially pertinent if you are a startup.
 
The window for you to adapt a product or service offering will narrow as you become more established. Use this opportunity to loop in other team members and educate them about competitors within search. This can be a really useful exercise in establishing your positioning within the market, regardless of SEO.

Using SEO Competitor Research

You may have noticed throughout this article that we have focussed on establishing your target search terms and topics. There are more specific types of competitor research that relate to content creation and link building.
 
At this stage in the process though, we’re doing our due diligence on the work conducted up to this point. In essence, we’re using it to solidify our targeting strategy.
 
Use this data to create a picture of which competitors are targeting which searches and topics. We should also have an understanding of the inherent authority and scale of competitors. These two factors are essential in building out your target keywords.
 
You will have to make judgement calls and we appreciate that is no easy task as a beginner.
 
That’s why this research is important. We need to know what we are up against.
 
As we progress through these guides, we’ll dive deeper into competitor research. We’ll look at how to identify specific opportunities within content such as featured snippets and SERP features. We’ll look at how we use backlink analysis to mould your own linkbuilding strategy.
 
For the moment, and with this process, we now have an overview of the market. We know which search terms and topics are most competitive. We can make educated decisions on where to focus our targeting. Whilst some of this information may not feel hugely impactful at the moment, it will come in useful very shortly!
 

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