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Jennifer Slegg

How to Do an SEO Competitive Analysis

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Jennifer Slegg
This post is in English
Competitor Analysis Tips and Strategies for SEO

Competitive analysis is something that all site owners should be doing, yet far too many are either not doing it all, or are doing it haphazardly. A thorough competitive analysis can be turned into your roadmap of what you need to do to improve your site to be as good as your competitors. 

It can also be used to identify the strengths and weaknesses of both your site and your competitors' sites for everything from SEO to search feature wins. Utilizing this information, you can discover the areas you are weak that you can improve upon them, as well as identifying the areas where your competitors are weak, and then capitalize on their weaknesses for your site and search performance.

Why Competitive Analysis is Important

With competitive analysis, you will be taking a step back and looking at the overall market area, where you stand, who the competitors are, and what the search landscape looks like for crucial keywords.

Even if you are already ranking at the top of the search results for all your most important keywords, there will always be another site that is trying to take over your rankings and capitalizing on your own site’s weaknesses.

Your Roadmap for Success

Competitive analysis can be used as a roadmap for what you need to do to improve your search rankings and the user experience for the visitors to your site. You will always discover things about what your competitors are doing that is superior to your own site, such as better search rankings. You might also discover they are doing better at specific aspects of the search results, such as dominating all the featured snippets or having an immense number of pages that show up in people also ask.

Even if you are ranking number one for what you think are your most important keywords, if they dominate in featured snippets, you are missing out on a considerable amount of potential traffic. 

Page by Page Details

A proper analysis will give you the opportunity to look closer at what your competitors are doing on a page by page basis. This helps identify any potential gaps your site might have when compared to your competitors.

Perhaps you will discover they have a blog that is doing well with how to type articles that get lots of shares and links, something that is lacking on your site. Or you might discover that one competitor is getting a lot of traffic through videos they are creating and sharing, while your site is lacking in that department.

Who are the Actual Competitors?

When looking at competitive analysis, it is also important that you consider that your biggest competitor might be one you think of as smaller because they lack top rankings on the” money keywords.” Still, they could be cleaning up on the long tail. Or vice versa may be right.

If you focus solely on the money keywords, your competitive analysis could be very skewed. 

The same is also true when it comes to going by your client’s word when it comes to who their biggest competitors are. Again, they often focus on the big money keywords and don’t realize that there may be a competitor they deem insignificant, but that is dominating segments of their market or the long tail. Unless you are doing competitive analysis for a local client, always do your research into exactly who their real competitors are.

Examine Organic Competitors for Specializations - Not Just General Terms

For example, Home Depot and Lowes were ranking number one and number two for a huge cross-section of keywords related to building supplies and home repairs. But for something more specialized, it turned out that entirely different competitors were ranking at the top for the searches around particular subsets of their products. 

If you are not examining specific areas that could be dominated by lesser-known competitors, you could be missing out on a considerable amount of traffic and conversions.

Finding unknown competitors in competitive analysis.

Things to Consider

When you drill down through the above list of competitors, you can spot the sites that are targeting a particular niche of Home Depot’s overall market area, such as Best Buy, Costco, and Bed Bath & Beyond. Even those wouldn’t necessarily be considered huge competitors for their business as a whole, but they are still impactful for specific segments of their market. 

So whenever doing competitive analysis, it is vital not just to consider those that are competitors to your entire business model, but even those that are only targeting a segment of the overall market too.

Deciding Who Not to Compete With

You want to identify the competitors that may rank above you in the SERPs but are not a true competitor, and Identify sites that might not be as important for you to outrank compared to others. Sometimes it is not worth the time investment when the only site ranking above you is Wikipedia or Pinterest for certain keywords. Instead, look at other keywords that actual competitors are outranking you on that result in lost traffic. 

You also want to ensure that your keyword research is backing up who you believe those competitors are.

Finding Keyword Gaps

Pay special attention to the keywords that you already rank for, but where you are lagging behind your competitors, particularly when you are only a position or two behind your primary competitor for a particular keyword phrase.

For example, if I was Home Depot, I can identify some keyword phrases where I am only one position away from the top spot, such as for “swing sets” and “air compressor” phrases (see image below), both of which have a fairly large search volume.

Keyword ranking comparison for competitors

Again, don’t just look at your main competitor. For example, while Home Depot dominates on many of the search terms that are shared by all competitors, it isn’t just Lowe’s that has earned the number one rankings, sometimes it is Walmart or companies selling similar products. 

In the case of “appliance stores,” none of the four competitor examples I showed were ranking number one for that phrase, although they were each in the top 10 or 20. Instead, it was Sears Outlet that took the top spot.

You should pay attention to keywords that all your competitors are ranking for, but you are not.

  • Why are they ranking and not you?
  • Do they have better supplementary content for those particular keywords? 
  • Do they have an exceptionally higher number of backlinks to those specific pages that are helping them rank higher? 

When you can identify these keyword gaps, you can work on closing that gap. What do you need to do on your site so that you can have pages targeting those individual keywords? Sometimes it is an easy fix where you just need to create content or adjust current content for the keywords, and rankings will usually follow.

Discovering Popular Pages

Just like you want to know the most important keywords your competitors are ranking for, it is also essential to identify which pages are their most popular.

The things to take note of:

  • Which pages rank for the most keywords?
  • Which pages have the most traffic?
  • Which pages have the highest percentage of their overall traffic?

Sometimes competitors can have a huge amount of traffic to a certain page or set of pages. For example, the third most popular page on Home Depot has nothing to do with building supplies or construction, but rather a page about wallpaper.

Organic Research of top pages data from SEMrush for competitor analysis

Never assume you just know what the most popular pages on any competitor sites are. Research it as part of the competitive analysis process and expect some surprises.

Identifying Strengths and Weaknesses

What are the differences in strengths and weaknesses between you and each one of your competitors? Where do they excel that you are weak on?

While often people think their site is the most wonderful site to exist on the planet and it is all Google’s fault they are not ranking better, site owners should be able to identify their weaknesses when it comes to their site and brand.

Every website will have a weak point, or multiple weak points, even massive ecommerce sites such as Amazon or eBay.

If you are struggling to determine where the weak areas are with your site, ask employees what they see, especially if there front-facing and dealing with customers who may have voiced complaints. You can also create a consumer survey.

Sometimes you need to step back and think about what you perceive to be your strengths and discover if those strengths could also be present in your competitors' sites but they are just a little bit better.

Identify the weak points of each of your competitors, and then determine what you can do to take advantage of those areas.

Authority

  • How authoritative is your site compared to your competitors? 
  • Do they have many important links coming into the site?
  • Are they from a well-known brand authority?

If your competitor has a much higher authority than your site does, you will have a harder time beating them when it comes to highly competitive keywords; this is where it is essential to look at keyword gaps. 

Look at less popular terms that still see the decent amount of search volume, or look at longer-tail queries that you can target specifically but that they are not targeting. As you build your authority, then you can start being more successful in targeting some of these more popular and competitive keywords.

Content

  • Do they have excellent quality content?
  • Does their content tend to be thinner and less thorough?
  • Do they simply focus on product pages and not have any supporting pages?

Look for areas where they are lacking, so you can gain an advantage over them in those areas too.

eCommerce

Look at their product pages for e-commerce sites and drill down exactly what it is about their product pages that are better than what you are doing.

  • Do they have links to help guides or supports for the product?
  • Do they have lots of how-to’s related to the product?
  • Are they suggesting relevant similar products or products that are often bought together with it?
  • How are they showing their ratings and reviews for the product?
  • How easy is it to purchase their product versus yours? 

For everything that they are doing better than you, add it to the list of things to change on your site.

Technical Issues

Do they have any technical issues on their site that are hindering their search performance?

If you are both suffering from the same technical SEO issues or having coding issues that makes it harder for Google to crawl pages effectively, making those improvements to your site can result in more visibility.

Don’t forget to check page speed as well. As sites get larger, they can get bogged down by legacy code or large scripts than can slow down the site.

Mobile

Visit each competitor’s site from a mobile phone, and navigate around their more popular sections or pages. Sometimes you will spot shortcomings in your competitor’s mobile site that you can take advantage of with your strong mobile presence.

When you have a technically sound website, it is easier to focus on other issues with ranking wins, such as improving content. 

Internal Linking Issues

Internal linking and hierarchy of the site help Google when it comes to crawling, indexing, and ranking. Site architecture is an essential aspect of SEO, and like technical issues, if a site suffers from a lack of a robust internal linking structure, you can take advantage of that if your own is solid. 

Examine how competitors have structured their site, including URLs, breadcrumbs and anchor text. If theirs is strong, and yours is lacking, then it should be one of the tasks prioritized for fixing. 

If they have an entire section or subsection of the site that is not adequately linked internally, consider promoting your similar content to take advantage of those weakness.

Side Note: Frequently, ranking losses can be attributed to technical or poor internal linking that makes the site less Googlebot-friendly, meaning it is not necessarily from a Google algorithm change.

See some internal linking mistakes to avoid. 

Lost and Declined Keyword Rankings

You also want to be sure you research any keywords that your competitors have recently lost, focusing on those with the highest search volume first. 

You could also look at the pages that used to rank for the keywords and see if there is a reason why they are not ranking any longer — it could be a wide range of issues from a technical crawl issue to a spam issue.

Competitor Lost Rankings

When a competitor has significantly lost rankings for specific keywords, it can be easy to capitalize on those losses and turn them into your wins. You can find those losses in the SEMrush Organic Research tool

Organic research tool data on lost keyword rankings

Have a look at where they are declining in the search rankings. This can present some opportunities for your site to take advantage of, particularly when the competitor hasn’t noticed their losses and are not working to fix whatever caused the ranking drops in the first place.

New Keyword Rankings

Looking at new keyword rankings is another important aspect of competitive analysis, but it should also be done fairly regularly for general SEO purposes.

You always want to know any new pages or new rankings that your competitors are earning, so this is an easy way to see anything new there focusing on. For ecommerce sites, it can be an insight into any new products or product types that could potentially become popular that you want to know about.

Organic position ranking changes for competitor analysis

New keyword rankings competitive analysis

One word that stands out here is "bidet", a keyword that has seen a massive surge in popularity due to toilet paper shortage. 

As I do further researched this particular new ranking for the term bidet, I noticed that this site is not ranking with a product page, but is instead ranking with a “how to use a bidet” guide, which then links through to products.

What exactly is ranking?

It is essential to understand not just what keywords a competitor is ranking for, but the page type that is ranked, because many could have possibly made the wrong assumption that they were ranking for a product page. This would also be helpful to know if you are adding your own competing pages; you would want to focus on not just product pages for bidet, but also how to type pages as well.

Analyzing On a Page by Page Basis

Once you have identified specific keywords and search results, then you need to start looking on a page by page basis comparing your pages to the pages of the competitors that are outranking you.

Comparing pages will help you identify individual issues on each page that are resulting in your competitors ranking higher than you. It will also help you understand what you should be doing better on those particular pages.

Titles

While Google does rewrite title tags for the search results based on a query, the majority of the time, it is simply for things such as adding the site named to the title tag or putting emphasis on the particular keywords being searched for — particularly if Google considers the page relevant for the keywords but the keywords are not in the title. So look at both the title from the title tag, and the title as Google adjusts it for specific keyword searches.

Do be aware that if you are doing a "site: search" for your competitor, the titles Google shows are highly skewed. So instead, make sure you are taking the title tag either directly from the page itself or the one that Google is showing for the particular keyword search without "site:".

Meta Description Tag

Google may or may not use the description set in the meta-description tag, but it is important to consider what is in the description tag for analysis purposes; this is often something that tends to get overlooked, particularly on large sites. 

While sometimes it will be useless because it is a generic description tag, sometimes the description will be well written, and it is worth noting how your competitors are utilizing theirs versus your site for the pages in question.

Meta Keywords Tag

I mention this not because Google uses the meta-keywords tag for ranking purposes, but because it can give insight into the keywords your competitor is targeting for that page or the site overall. Sometimes it will be useless because they use the same set of keywords for every page on the entire site, but other times it can be insightful if someone has put time into the keyword tag for non-Google SEO.

H1s and other Headings

We do know that for SEO purposes, Google does give weight to <h> tags. Be sure your site is using real <h> tags and not defining headers via CSS. 

Google can also use these headings for featured snippet usage and other search features, so it is important to compare to your competitors and see how they are using them and if it has any impact on their search features.

Breadcrumbs / URL Structure

Utilizing breadcrumbs and a strong URL structure can help Google understand the hierarchy of content within the site and rank it accordingly. 

If you ensure yours is strong, and without any technical issues, it can be an advantage over a competitor that is lacking in that area. While looking at this should be part of your overall competitive analysis for each site, it is also essential to look at how it relates to specific pages that you are trying to get higher rankings for as well.

Content & Keywords

  • How are your competitors utilizing their keywords within their content? 
  • Are they using some similar keywords you should be adding within your content? 
  • What about the quality of the content itself?
  • Do your competitors use a high higher or lower word count compared to you? 
  • Is your readability score very different from other competitors in the market?

These are all things to consider when choosing keywords and creating content. Below you can see the recommendations provided by the SEO Content Template. It will provide related links to rivals, semantic keywords to consider, readability information and more. 

Data provided by the SEO content template

Backlinks: What You Need to Know

Analyzing backlinks is an important part of competitive analysis. When a competitor has a significantly better backlink profile, especially high-quality backlinks from reputable websites, it will mean you will have a harder time competing against them until you can build up a similar backlink profile.

It is also important to distinguish between high-quality backlinks versus low-quality backlinks.

Because of the way Google changed how they handle low-quality links with the Penguin update, if you see a competitor has a high number of low-quality links, those links may not be helping them whatsoever.

If you follow in their footsteps and go for quantity over quality with links, you could actually harm your own SEO. Because you can’t see what your competitor’s disavowal file is, be wary of wanting to copy competitors directly when it comes to spammier links.

High-Quality Backlinks

You want to focus on high-quality backlinks, such as those from important news sites, high profile sites or experts in your market areas. When looking at competitors' backlinks, consider these questions:

  • Have they received press in major news organizations? If so, is there any way you can get yourself into similar stories?
  • Are they a recommended source on high-profile but noncommercial sites in your industry?
  • How can you get yourself to be part of those recommended resources?

Nofollow vs. Followed Backlinks — Both Can Be Good

You also want to check for nofollow versus followed links. While Google technically doesn’t use nofollow links for their algorithms, so they won’t necessarily help from an SEO standpoint.

However, they can be an important source of traffic that can build upon your brand awareness, increase traffic, and result in conversions. So do not ignore high-quality links simply because they are nofollow. While the SEO value may not be there, there can be a lot of non-SEO value in all of those links.

Backlink Gaps

You want to look for important gaps in your backlinks, especially links that multiple competitors have from the same page or site. If they have linked to many of your competitors, it is often easy to get yourself listed as well.

Don't forget to check backlinks to strong internal pages of your competitors too. Many only consider links to the homepage when it comes to a competitive analysis, but links to internal pages can be just as important. Some of their strongest performing internal pages could have incoming links that are a major factor in those pages ranking well.

Backlink gap tool data for competitor analysis.


Analyzing Types of Content

How do you stack up with different kinds of content compared to your competitors?

For ecommerce sites, product pages are the primary page to compare, but also look at supporting content each competitor has and how well they are ranking compared to you. This includes news content, blog articles, help / support / how to content, videos, images, etc. Check anything that could be considered content that is ranking in the search results.

Identify areas where you lack compared to competitors.

  • Do they have a regularly published blog that tends to get lots of shares and links? 
  • Are they making videos? 
  • Infographics?
  • Popular live streams? 
  • Podcasts? 

When you identify competitors that are significantly better for these content types, you can then explore whether you need to add these content types to your site as well, but you do want to make sure that they add value to your site.

If your competitor has a podcast, yet you can see it has only a handful of downloads, then either your market area does not necessarily need podcasts, or they are doing a lousy job at it. If you can do a vastly superior podcast, then you might discover that you can fill that niche.

Search Features

You also want to keep in mind that sometimes these types of content can play a big role when it comes to search features. If Google is displaying these content types in the search results for your top keywords, then it would become a higher priority to make sure you appear in each of the search features to lock down as much of the search result real estate as possible, especially if your competitors do the same.

Identifying Search Features

Something that many overlook when doing a competitor analysis is the presence or absence of search features in search results.

SERP feature data for HomeDeport.com from the SEMrush Organic Research tool SERP feature data for HomeDeport.com from the SEMrush Organic Research tool

While ranking third in the search results might be a great result for some searches, it might not be if the search result is heavily dominated with search features, such as videos, people also ask, and images. You may need to budget more into those keywords to rank number one while also investing in the type of content that shows in features.

An Opportunity for Ranking

You will often find in these types of search results that there is potential to take over a significant portion of the search results by adding video they could rank on the page, or tailoring content that would appear in People Also Ask. See what the features there are, and note where you and your competitors appear.

For example, in this search result, you can see the considerable dominance a position 1 ranking would have over even the second result, because of the “People Also Ask” feature. If I were #2 or beyond, I would escalate the goal to work on both getting the top result as well as appearing in “People Also Ask”. 

Google SERP results with features including people also ask.

Side Note: Since this snapshot, those two top positions have already swapped.

For this type of search results with multiple search features, there is a greater importance on that first position. The second result isn’t that great when People Also Ask appears above it, and the third result isn’t even seen above the fold on desktop.

Choosing a Featured to Focus On

If I decide that the most important search feature for my site is featured snippets, then I would look at each of my competitors and identify their featured snippets. Then, look at the URL the snippet links to and see if I have a comparable URL that I feel would be a good fit for taking over the featured snippet. 

How can each page be tweaked so Google would select it as a featured snippet?

Here is data looking at Home Depot’s featured snippets sorted by keyword volume.

Tracking SERP feature changes in a competitor analysis.

Looking at the above list, a few things stand out. While Home Depot has a lot of featured snippets, they are missing out on the majority of the other search features aside from a few “People Also Ask.”

So if I was Home Depot’s competitor, I would look heavily at trying to get some of those search features that Home Depot is missing out on, while also trying to beat them in the ten blue links.

Comparing Lowe’s to Home Depot, while Lowe’s has much fewer featured snippets, they appear in many more video carousels than Home Depot does. So each of your competitors may have a handle on a different part of the Google search results, and it is important to note each for a thorough analysis.

Going Beyond Keywords — Providing Solutions

It is worth noting that when you are doing competitive research, you do not want to only look at the “buy” or product keywords. For example, Home Depot has several "how-to" keywords ranking with a significant search volume.

The search results for “how to unclog a sink” has a prominently featured snippet for Home Depot that would entice click-throughs. It leads to a help page with links to products used in the video or in the step-by-step, which would generate revenue.

Side Note: Not all search features are available in all countries. So ensure that the search features you are targeting display within the country you are targeting.

Schema Tips

While some search features are extracted from content on the page, other search features use schema. For search features that are schema-based, it often makes sense to add the appropriate schema to a page if you are updating it, even if Google doesn’t currently support it as an active search feature in their search results.

Once Google actually turns on a search feature that uses that particular schema, you will be ahead of the game, and your site will be one of the first in your industry to have it. Likewise, you want to keep an eye on your competitor’s important pages to see if they are doing the same by implementing schema before Google officially uses it. 

Researching Featured Snippets

Featured snippets can sometimes be much easier to take over from a competitor compared to a number one rankings. Google wants to ensure that featured snippets are accurate, concise, and give the searcher what they are looking for.

So as you look at competitor’s featured snippets, see how you can adjust your content for pages that are ranking in the same SERP, to take over the featured snippet.

Using Home Depot as an example, you can see they have been mostly increasing the number of featured snippets monthly, so chances are pretty high they are actively optimizing for it.

Tracking changes in a competitor analysis

However, looking at Lowe's, it shows they have been losing many of theirs, so likely some of those snippets would be easy to take over from them.

Position changes in competitor analysis.


What to Do After Major Algorithm Updates

Whenever there is a major Google algorithm update, it is vital that you go back and reevaluate your most important keywords.

  • Did you retain your rankings?
  • Did one of your competitors come out of nowhere and are suddenly ranking at the top for your keywords?
  • Did another competitor completely drop out of the space, and you can capitalize on that?

Competitive analysis will never be complete; it should never be one and done.

While doing an in-depth analysis, take the time to analyze every aspect of all sites in your market area; don’t forget that it is a continuing process. As things change with algo updates, site migrations, new pages and new search features being released, it is essential to revisit and see what has changed since the last deep dive.

And sometimes it is not even that your competitors have suddenly changed things to make them rank higher when an algorithm update comes. It could have been something that they were doing better all along, but Google slightly tweaked something to reward that. 

With competitive analysis, you hopefully could identify whatever it is that your competitors are doing better earlier, and then make the changes before an algorithm update happens.

Final Thoughts

Depending on the size of your site and the number of active competitors, you will want to rerun a competitor analysis every six months to one year. Parts of it you should perform every month to remain competitive. Keep an eye on changes competitors are making so you can react to their strategies quickly. 

Whether it is watching for new pages, new keywords, or a rise in search features such as featured snippets, competitive analysis will never technically be complete. As sites evolve and as search results evolve, keeping an eye on your competitors with competitive analysis means you will know what they doing better and hopefully stay one step ahead of them…and hope they aren’t doing the same thorough competitive analysis on you too.

Jennifer Slegg
Master

A veteran community member.

Jennifer Slegg is a longtime speaker and expert in search engine marketing, working in the industry for over 20 years. When she isn't sitting at her desk writing and working, she can be found grabbing a latte at her local Starbucks or planning her next trip to Disneyland. She regularly speaks at Pubcon, SMX, State of Search, Brighton SEO and more, and has been presenting at conferences for over a decade.
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