Rule one in business and marketing is to know your audience and where you can find them.
Rule two is to know who your competitors are, what they are doing, and how you measure against them.
In this step-by-step guide, you will learn how to conduct a competitive analysis to understand your marketplace, so you can create a better marketing strategy.
What Is a Competitive Analysis?
Competitive analysis (also known as competitor analysis) is the act of identifying and evaluating your competitor’s strengths and weaknesses and their marketing strategies. Competitive analysis will provide a better understanding of your industry and inform your marketing strategy.
A simple competitive analysis definition would be:
By analyzing what others are doing, you can learn to avoid their mistakes, replicate their success, and get one step ahead.
A competitive analysis will also help you define your unique value proposition, and it will allow you to benchmark yourself in the industry to measure your growth.
Competitive analysis isn’t a process to blindly follow and directly replicate what your competitors are doing. You do not know what is or isn’t working for them, and you could fall into the trap of making the same costly mistakes that they are.
Competitive analysis is to understand the marketplace and use this to inspire and make informed judgments in your marketing strategy.
If you do the same things that others are doing, you're not doing enough. Your aim is to improve on what others are doing so you can overtake them.
Why Do a Competitive Analysis in Marketing?
Research is to marketing what training and nutrition are to athletes. It makes you better and moves you towards your goals.
You can’t be an athlete without training and feeding your body the right nutritional value.
You can’t create a marketing strategy without research and quality data input. Anything else is just guesswork, and that’s not a sustainable marketing strategy.
And this is where the competitive analysis steps up.
Analyzing your competitors can provide inspiration, uncover insights and help you to:
Find new markets and opportunities.
Find gaps in current product offerings.
Find what your audience really wants and needs.
Understand market conditions for better planning.
Identify seasonal trends that you need to factor in.
Find new marketing channels you had not considered.
Avoid being derailed by any indirect competitors or other threats.
Be aware of negative or positive reactions to products and services.
All of this information will help you be better and more agile to gain an advantage over your competitors.
How To Do a Competitive Analysis
The benefits of identifying your competitors and evaluating their strategies to determine how you can create a better marketing strategy is hopefully now clear. So, how do we actually gather information and intelligence?
Talk to your customers
Talk to your sales team
Talk to your customer services team
Use publicly available information and data
Talk to your competitors (yes, this is an option)
Use a competitor analysis tool (and save a lot of time)
What Is in a Competitive Analysis?
The following guide will walk you through 17 steps to analyze your competitor using Semrush and show you how to write a competitive analysis.
Pro tip: create a spreadsheet to record your data and information as you are researching. Create a column for each competitor and rows for each of the stages listed below.
Or, you can download this free competitive analysis template in Google Sheets we created for you.
Your competitor analysis can be broken down into four stages:
Identify your competitors
Analyze your competitors
Review your information
Identify Your Competitors
Before you can begin any analysis, you need to know who your competitors are. And this might not be as obvious as you think. A competitor is any other business that could stop or influence your customer from choosing your product or service.
Who Are Your Three Types of Competitor?
Direct competitors are the easiest to identify, and you probably already know some (if not most of them). Direct competitors are anyone that offers the same product or service that could easily pass for your product or service. Usually, this would be in the same geographical area - that could be as local as the same city or as broad as the US, UK, or Asia.
Indirect competitors are the businesses that offer a product or service that is in the same category as yours and fulfills the same need, but a different type.
Replacement competitors are other products or services of a different type and in different categories that your customer could choose instead of yours.
The direct competitor of an Apple iPhone is a Samsung Galaxy.
The indirect competitor of an Apple iPhone is a Samsung tablet.
The replacement competitor of an Apple iPhone is Zoom.
You might be primarily focused on your direct competitors, but it’s essential to also be aware of replacement competitors so that you can manage any unknown risks coming down the line.
If Kodak had been more aware of their replacement competitor (mobile phones and digital images), they would have responded to iPhone's impact on traditional cameras. And they could have pivoted their business before it all went wrong for such a robust brand.
So, let’s find our different types of customers…
In Semrush, go to the Market Explorer Tool.
Imagine your brand was IKEA and enter your domain.
On the Growth Quadrant, you can see who your direct competitors are and where you are positioned.
Go to the ‘Competitors’ tab, and you can see traffic statistics.
To find more competitors, go to the Organic Research Tool and the ‘Competitors’ tab.
Scroll down to see a full list of organic competitors and export the data to excel or CSV.
Go to the Advertising Research Tool and the PLA Research Tool and repeat the process.
Take all this data and drop it into one spreadsheet. Remove any duplicates and then sort the document by the competition level column.
The competitors that have filtered to the top of the list are more likely to be direct, and lower down the list will be a collection of indirect and replacement competitors.
You will need to manually review the list to tag each domain.
How many competitors should you analyze?
From all your data, you will have a large list of possible competitors. But, you don’t need to do deep analysis on all of them – unless you have unlimited resources.
Out of your list of three types of competitors, a small business should consider analyzing at least five competitors from each of the groups.
Gather the Basic Information About Your Competitor:
First of all, it’s useful to have an overview of your competitor’s company as it might influence some of your choices later in the process.
For example, if you are a small startup and up against an established behemoth of 10,000 employees, you will need to be agile and disruptive to compete.
Start by collecting the basic information such as:
Date company founded
Number of employees
Locations of all offices
Number of clients/customers
It’s also useful to get a grasp of where your competitors are in their growth cycles. Are they growing and expanding, or are they contracting and on a downward curve?
Let’s use the Traffic Analytics Tool to get an overview of the history of their website:
What Markets Do Your Competitors Operate In?
Knowing the locations that your competitors are operating in can uncover new opportunities and potential markets that you might not have considered.
This is important for considering your growth potential and setting goals to expand. It might be that you have saturated your existing market, and the only way to expand is to find new markets to leverage.
Without a market research tool, it could take days to track down this information (if at all). But we can grab all of this information at the click of a button.
To find out where your competitors are operating, view the Geo Distribution tab under the Traffic Analytics Tool.
Above, we can see that IKEA has a global presence, but if we look below at bedbathandbeyond.com, their dominant markets of the US and Canada are obvious.
Make a note of the territories your competitor operates in and add this under the basic information.
What Products and Pricing Strategy Does Your Competitor Have?
To really understand the level of competition you are facing, you need to know exactly what products and services are on offer in your space.
It might be difficult to make direct comparisons as there could be differences in the products. So, just note the full features of your competitor’s products as this can help to highlight any areas for opportunity.
Some businesses avoid having their prices listed publicly. In this case, you would have to do a little covert research, contacting your competitors to get quotes and prices.
Your aim to understand about competitors:
Are their existing products successful?
Do they have established products that are market leaders?
Are they heavily investing in launching new products?
Are they phasing out products and discounting these products?
So, your next step is to take your list of competitors and start to deep-dive on each of them.
Review their site to find all of their products and services and note their pricing strategy.
Pay attention to any sales or discounts (you should regularly monitor your competitors to track seasonal products and price changes).
Don’t forget things like referral schemes or free trial offers.
Postage costs are also essential to record and compare. You must ensure that you are not positioning yourself out of the market. Free shipping is a general expectation from customers today and can be a differentiating factor to close your sale.
Let’s look where you can start to collect pricing information:
In the Advertising Tool, drop in a competitor’s domain, and we can review their paid Google Ads for discount and special sales.
If we look at Ad History, we can see that BedBathandBeyond has bid on the keyword ‘bed bath and beyond coupon’ keyword, making it really easy for us.
In the PLA Research Tool, we can view the product listing ads (PLA). If you filter by product type such as ‘sofa,’ you get a convenient list of all sofa prices listed in PLAs.
How Strong Is Your Competitor's Website and Can You Compete?
For ecommerce, SaaS, or other internet-first businesses, the strength of your website is critical to your business success. And, by extension, the strength of your competitor’s site is critical to your success.
Start with a manual visual assessment of your competitor’s site:
Do they have a blog?
Do they have fresh content?
What message are they projecting?
How many pages does the site have?
What is the design and UX like on the site?
Is the site intuitive and slick, or a basic, clunky site?
Is it an ecommerce site or a supportive ‘brochure’ site?
Part of your competitor analysis is to assess who has the strongest website. By benchmarking your site against your competitors, you can measure if you can reasonably compete. Or, consider if you need to find other disruptive ways to compete.
You can do this easily with the Traffic Analytics Tool. Go to the bulk analysis tab and add your domain (ikea.com) and the top 199 domains from your list of competitors.
If you then select four of our direct competitors from your list compiled earlier, you can see a direct comparison of site traffic.
IKEA’s site traffic shows a strong dominance against the other four competitors.
What Is the General Sentiment Towards Competitors in the Marketplace?
When conducting your research, never assume that just because a competitor has a presence in the market that they are well-received or successful.
A competitor might have a shiny product with a fancy website. But, it doesn’t mean anyone is buying their product.
It’s a costly mistake to blindly copy a competitor without understanding your target audience's wants, needs, or thoughts.
Start by checking reviews or comments directly on the competitor’s site and check relevant known review sites, such as Trusted Reviews.
Glassdoor is also a useful site to review to get a feel for employee sentiment inside the company.
Also, check Google reviews by searching for the brand name and looking at the competitor’s GMB page.
You can also go to the Brand Monitoring Tool. It shows you a breakdown of positive, negative, and neutral sentiment.
Enter the competitor’s URL and look at the overview tab; there is a graph that shows the distribution of positive, negative, and neutral sentiment.
We can see that IKEA falls right in the middle of neutral.
Check the Mentions tab to read comments and filter by positive or negative sentiment.
Select negative, and you can see what issues people are complaining about online about IKEA. To read what people like about IKEA, reverse this to positive.
Analyze Your Competitors
Now that you have a good understanding and feel for who your competitors are, the next stage is the analysis. Reviewing how your competitors attract their audience and who they are connected to.
Who Is Your Competitor’s Audience?
Central to any business is their audience.
You can analyze your competitor’s audience to look for opportunities to improve personas for your own target audience.
You may have a slightly different brand positioning from your competitor, so look to identify those differences that could inform your unique selling proposition (USP) and strengthen your brand tone of voice.
Look for overlaps between your audience and your competitor to see where you directly compete and what you could do better to gain more market share.
Look at the Traffic Analytics Tool and the Audience Overlap graph to compare your direct competitors.
Scroll down, and the graph will show you what other sites your audience visited, which can help you to build a picture of what interests your audience has.
This tool can also help you to find other competitors.
Market Explorer Tool has a powerful feature that shows the interests of the market for a URL. You can run your domain through this tool and then check the domain of competitors to see how they compare.
From here, we can see that people who shop at IKEA are focused on sofas and chairs and fall into a 25-34 age group.
What Tone of Voice and Language Does Your Competitor Use?
Observing the industry's general tone is a critical part of research to ensure that you connect with your audience.
Every niche has its nuances and colloquial language that is commonly used, and your audience will resonate with that language.
Outliers that try a radically different approach to communication can be successful. But, to do anything differently, you must first understand how and why it was done historically.
You can only break a rule if you first understand the rule.
Review your competitor’s site and review their content. Pay attention to:
The words they use
The message they project
Sentiment and emotion
The reading level
Extend this review to all their advertising and social media channels to build a full picture of how a competitor speaks to their audience.
Also, note if your competitor uses the same tone across all channels, or is it varied?
What Market Share Do Your Competitors Have in Comparison to Yours?
The market share leader will control product pricing and influence how the market receives the product. They hold a great deal of power.
Most importantly, having the market share doesn’t mean that a product or service is the best. Market share means they control the market.
Understanding the order of market share will help you to identify who is controlling your space and benchmark yourself against them to measure your levels of competition.
If you find you are the market leader already, your strategy would be best to lean to be defensive to maintain that position rather than trying anything radical.
If you hold very little market share, you can take more risks and be disruptive in product or messaging and seek to change how something is done.
To calculate market share is a deceptively simple formula but takes a lot of data research:
Market share = company sales/overall industry sales
You can also use the Market Explorer Tool benchmarking tab to see the market share by channel.
Know the Different Marketing Channels
By looking at the different channels your competitor has a source of traffic from, you can make assumptions to then drill into:
Direct - your competitor is conducting offline marketing or has strong brand awareness as users already know the brand name to navigate directly.
Referral - your competitor is paying for prominence on other sites (banner ads), investing in Digital PR for brand mentions and links on other sites, investing in content posted on other sites, or running cross-promotions with other sites.
Search - your competitor is investing in on-page technical SEO, keyword/content strategy, and most likely link building.
Social - your competitor is active on social media.
Paid - your competitor is spending budget on paid advertising, most likely from Google Ads.
First of all, within Traffic Analytics, use Traffic Journey to see the split between Direct, Referral, Search, Social, and Paid.
This graph shows that IKEA and Home Depot both have strong brand recall and a strong organic presence.
Home Depot appears to be investing in off-page content on other sites and paid ads.
On the Traffic Journey graph, we can see that most of IKEA’s traffic is direct or from organic traffic. Reflecting a strong investment into their brand.
This graph also shows that 32.72% of visitors are likely using PayPal as a payment method.
32.15% are navigating to Facebook. Is this to check the IKEA Facebook page for coupons and offers? Or, is the IKEA audience heavily active on Facebook? So, this is where they should be placing ads?
The Market Traffic graph shows us the industry average splits for each marketing channel. A deceptively powerful tool that can show us where we need to pay attention.
In IKEA’s niche, we can see that direct traffic is the strongest channel showing us that investment into the brand is essential.
Finally, do a manual review of the social media channels your competitors are most active on and pay attention to engagement on each channel.
Don’t forget to look at any influencer activity on competitors' social channels, as this can indicate they are leveraging paid influencer marketing.
What Is Your Competitor’s Online Advertising Strategy?
Following on from marketing channels, the next stage is to drill deeper into what paid advertising your competitor is doing online.
The focus here is Google Ads (PPC), display ads, and Product Listing Ads (PLA).
Knowing what keywords your competitors are spending money on will give you an insight into what products and services are popular in your market. If there are paid ads appearing in the SERP on a keyword, this indicates that clicks convert.
Go back into the Advertising Research Tool to see a summary of what keywords your competitors are targeting.
Repeat this in the PLA Research Tool and the Display Advertising Tool to get a full review of where your competitors are spending their paid marketing budget.
For ecommerce brands, reviewing PLAs will help inform your pricing strategy and indicate what products are selling for your competitor.
Use the PLA Research Tool to see what keywords ecommerce stores are targeting and the Display Advertising Tool to see their display ads.
You can also refer back to the information you collected earlier from paid advertising that shows discounts and sales.
Don’t forget: just because someone else is doing something doesn’t mean it’s working for them or that it will work for you.
Just because competitors are using certain paid channels doesn’t mean we have to rush to be there. But, we need to consider why they are using it, if it would be a good fit for your brand, and see if it would provide a good return on investment.
What Is Your Competitor’s Content Marketing Strategy?
Reviewing the content on your competitor’s site will help you to break down the content strategy they are undertaking.
Knowing what content is working for your competitor tells you what content your audience is responding to and offers clues to how you should structure your content strategy.
Types of content they might be producing:
Aside from content types, also look at the frequency and quality of production. Are they posting blogs daily, weekly, or monthly? Is their content posted often but lacking in quality or value? Or, do they only post in-depth articles that have a considerable amount of time investment?
Especially look for any lead generation type content with a direct action, such as a download or contact. Where is this positioned in their conversion process?
Subscribe to their content and review the sign-up process. What is the newsletter like?
Open up the Traffic Analytics Tool and navigate to the Top Pages tab.
By looking at the top pages on a competitor’s site, we can begin to see what content is working, and this can offer valuable insights and inspiration for you to consider.
Pro Tip: Filter into pages. This sample was filtered by /us all pages on the US site. You can also use this to drill into content sections such as /blogs.
Above, you can see that ‘bedrooms’ is the top category page on the IKEA US site.
If we look at Home Depot, you can see that one of their top pages is their project calculators page which has strong visibility in organic results.
Drilling into the calculator page, it has 215 referring domains which indicates this has been a successful content page for home depot.
By identifying content pages in the 'top pages’ and then checking the backlinks, we can deconstruct the competitor’s content strategies and look for inspiration.
How Much Engagement Does Your Competitor’s Content Get?
Just because a site produces content frequently doesn’t mean the audience is responding. Review on-page and off-page indicators:
On page: Manually check the page to see if it has reader counts, share counts, or comments.
Check page-level traffic and links in the Domain Overview Tool in Semrush.
Home Depot’s Project Calculators page has 4,500 visits a month from organic search and 215 referring domains. This suggests it’s a topic that is resonating with their target audience.
By drilling into the links and reviewing what people are saying about the content they are linking to, you can get a feel for what is resonating with your target audience.
Create a Competitive Analysis Matrix/Grid for Finding Growth Opportunities
A competitive analysis matrix is a tool that visually benchmarks you against your competitors. The matrix grid positions businesses in relation to each other across a set of four quadrants based on various factors.
The competitive matrix is useful as the visual representation can quickly offer insight into what companies might be disruptors and rising stars growing fast.
Also, you can see who are the mature companies, market leaders, established companies, and emergent companies that could be your future direct competitors.
Go to the Market Explorer Growth Quadrant:
As noted earlier, Growth Quadrant can help you to review which competitors you should be analyzing in-depth and which competitors you need to keep an eye on.
Especially rising stars and disruptors.
Rising stars are a source of inspiration to mine for content strategy ideas. Any company that is rising fast indicates recent marketing investment.
In the Growth Quadrant for IKEA.com, we can see crateandbarrel.com is one of the fastest-growing competitors.
Take that competitor and review recent links to the site and what content pages have the most links to look for digital PR activity. This will give you clues towards what content is working for them to potentially incorporate into your own content strategy.
For Crate and Barrel, we can see that their Gift Ideas page has 228 referring domains. This could be something to replicate.
Analyze the Information
Now that you have a wealth of information, it’s time to organize it. This way, you don't get overwhelmed by analyzing it.
Categorize Your Information Into the Following Groups:
Products and pricing
Use Mind Mapping Tools to Visually Compare Information
Visual information is much easier to review than written text. For each group above, create a visual board with a tool like Miro to compare the information at a glance.
On the board, use keywords and sentences to represent more complex information and insert graphs downloaded from each stage above.
Use this in combination with your spreadsheet to deep dive into relevant pieces of information.
Complete a SWOT analysis for yourself and your competitors
Use all the information to compile a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats analysis (SWOT) for each competitor.
Conduct analysis on your own site to determine your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.
All this research and analysis has been building towards showing the key areas of opportunity and threat in your industry and your business.
Your marketing strategy should support and counter all of these points to ensure that you know exactly what is coming down the road and how you can overtake your competitors.
The final stage of analysis is to benchmark yourself against your competitors to create goals and measure your growth and track your progress.
Review your analysis regularly and update the information periodically. That could be every quarter or even every month. Don’t forget to look for new up-and-coming competitors.
Remember: competitive analysis is an investment, but it’s an essential investment.