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How to Hack Competitors’ Marketing Strategies




Ross: Hello, everyone, and welcome to another SEMrush webinar. Today we're going to be talking about how to hack your competitor's marketing strategies. And today we have an absolutely star-studded lineup of some of the most heavyweight SEOs I've ever seen in my life. First up, we've got Mr. Bill Hunt. Hi, Bill. How's it going?

Bill: I'm doing well. Thanks for having me. 

Ross: Bill is the CEO of Back Azimuth Consulting and he has been in search marketing for over 20 years. Specializing in data mining and understanding the searcher journey, Bill has helped some of the biggest enterprise companies in the world scale their Google search programs. 

Ross: We've also got Igal Stolpner, here from investing.com. He is a VP of marketing there. How are you doing Igal?

Igal: Hey, Ross, how you doing? Thanks for having me.

Bill: And we've also got, the wonderful Judith Lewis here, the head and founder of the Decabbit Consultancy. How are you doing Judith?

Judith: I'm very good, thank you. 

Ross: I'm going to hand over to Bill who's going to be running us through today's presentation. So over to you, Bill, take away. 

Why Analyze a Competitor’s Marketing Strategies?

Bill: Okay, great. There's a couple of really big questions when you're starting out with any kind of competitor analysis; why do you care what they're doing? I mean, what's the reason you're going to spend time and resources on doing it? And then more importantly, what can we do with that information?


This is why I have such negativity against doing this analysis because in companies where I've been the main search person or as a consultant, I've had to spend so much time producing insights that nobody did anything with. If we're going to do something with it... great? If not, then it's just answering a question.

Let's look at what can help us what we can do with them. I think first and foremost; it helps us explain from an SEO standpoint, this idea that we have competitors other than the people that they name; meaning that, they're non-ranking. There's a thing I'll show you a little later that we look at to find and help management understand that other than, say if I'm at IBM, that Oracle is a competitor.


The number one thing we can do is increase budget based on competitive spending or their focus. We can refocus IT efforts. This is probably the biggest place I use it. 

Identify shifts in competitor focus. Because a lot of times, some of the companies I work with, we do things because our competitors are doing it. I see this a lot with paid search. Looking at where they may be shifting away from something as opposed to shifting to something can be very insightful. 

This is a report from actually from 2003. This is one that I used to use when I was at IBM, this executive search scorecard where they wanted to know how we performed. Rather than showing them a rank report that we rank number one and somebody else ranked number three, I aggregated it against a business unit.


This was the early days of really trying to understand words related to a category. Now we've got a lot of focus around, intent and categories and people are saying that keywords are dead. 

We were focusing on clusters in a category and for a set of words for a brand or a business unit, how many of the words did we have representation for? The key benefit of a report like this is it really tells you how important your content is amongst all these different classifications. This is one of the ways I was able to use competitive insights to justify expenditures for specific content creation and content optimization. 

Another report that I really, really like is trying to understand the context of their ads. This is two examples from IBM where they have 191 words in one ad group and 97 in another about automated file transfers. This tells me that they're really going top of the funnel. It's almost carpet bombing this category. This something that obviously, they've identified a demand for.


If we have a similar opportunity, we can go after it. But looking at some of the different keyword groups, clustering of where they're targeting, especially now with display ads, gives us a lot of insight and things that are important to them and things that are targeting.

Which leads to another one that I've never heard anybody, other than the SEMrush team ever talk about this report is the landing page report. Now, this is for Smirnoff, and if I was Absolut or one or the other vodkas, I'd like to know where they get their traffic from. Most of the time, I don't really care about this. But this specific report helps me make a case for something else. 

We can see here that their biggest source of traffic is referrals and direct, very little from organic search, a fair bit from paid and almost nothing in social. It's very interesting for a brand like that that they're not doing more on social. I think this is one of the things that we can show why we need to double up our efforts around social.

Because the brand that I work with does very well in organic search, we don't have to spend much in paid. It's another interesting way, to emphasize what they're trying to do. 

Assessing the SERP ‘Shelf Space’


That leads me to one of the reports that I do use. It's one that I built myself called the SERP Shelf space. Interestingly enough, I built this report, almost 18 years ago for a large travel site that had almost 20,000 affiliates. We wanted to see, us and them, how many of the affiliates were taking up the shelf space in Google? 

Looking at this really quickly for the tier one words, the words that are most important to this particular client. 429 words and we're represented 81% of the time. For the same set of words, these aren't branded words; these are generic words, our competitors are only there 36% of the time. That shows that what we're doing is working very well. 

Interestingly enough, the people that sell these products were only there about 50% of the time. So that opens a key question of what is the gap, who is not there?

We know our competitors aren't doing well. We also now know our E-commerce partners are not doing well. This gives us an idea of where we can go focus our efforts. When we look at this: who is in the top 10, who is on the shelf, who has representation, we found people that we never even considered before. 

These are people that we can go out to and do a variety of things with. What we found from that single report that I just showed you, the pivot table of the top 10 positions for 430 words, many of our competitors were not represented. That tells us that they're not either not doing well in paid or they're not emphasizing paid. Also, our e-commerce partners sites are not. 

When we dug into this, we found that many times the feed we were giving them was not optimized for their particular site. So we're telling them about the product, but it wasn't matching their character links. We ended up with 223 sites that were new to us that we could go out to, to do partnerships with or links. 

A very simple report that shows who is there gave us a significant amount of insight.  That was sort of the nexus of my mini-rant is that this one report, spending a day analyzing something that's true, what is on the shelf and what's not on the shelf of Google gave me far more insights than knowing whether somebody ranked or didn't rank for a particular phrase. 

Some of the key takeaways and things I want to leave you with before we bring the rest of the group in is, sign up for their (competitor’s) email and social media feeds. This is an interesting thing, ‘oh, this is search, why would I sign up for those?’ Well, a lot of times these two aren't in sync.

Many times, things will be out in email campaigns or social media campaigns long before they end up in search. Interestingly enough, if you look at the words, things they're focusing on in social media, they translate into keywords that can give you some really cool insights of product launches and things like that. 

I guarantee you from working in one vertical I've worked with, six of the top 10 companies in that vertical and they all have the same problems. They all have the same challenges. That's why we can't assume that there are any smarter than we are. 

The Starting Point for Competitor Analysis

Ross: Fantastic. Thank you so much, Bill. You talked about actually looking at the landing pages and seeing what products they’re pushing out. Can you take that a step further and first, for example, start looking at some creative leads and things like that and start working out why they're doing that? I find it fascinating that you went to display and outside of search. Typically, at a board level, do they care? What do they care about and what are you showing them?

Bill: Well I think the last part, the board level, I don't think they really care most of the time. But the people in the middle, so the people that are allocating budget and resources, if we can show about our competitors...what messages were they using? What was their objective, were they top of the funnel? Were they bottom of the funnel? Were they trying to get people to sign up? 

Those are the things that we were looking at when we can see the ads, and that's what's brilliant when a tool like SEMrush sort of scrapes the ads or you at least see the messaging or the landing page. It gives you an idea what they're trying to do. 

This is an interesting thing now; I look at it because of answer boxes. Are we or they answering the question? Who's answering the question people are asking? If I see that a competitor is sending people to a Gartner report or some other report and they're just using it as bait, I don't really care about those because they're not going to convert people most of the time. They missed the intent to the query. 

That's why I like to look at that and understand what are they trying to do at the end and can we use any of that if they're doing it smartly, can we integrate it into our process?

Ross: I like that. So if they're using some third-party reporting as like lead magnets or something like that, and that's on those landing pages, those can probably be discounted inside of a search strategy because it's so generic that is something that you can duplicate, and it's not really giving them a competitive advantage.

Bill: Yeah. 

Ross: The answer box thing is fascinating. So Igal with investing.com you have several million pages, is that right? So if you are using, so just as Bill’s explained about looking at different contents as to see what they're doing and see what the competitive advantages, how do you do that when you literally have, I don't know how many pages you have indexed, a few million? 

Where do you begin to do competitor content? Like competitive analysis, what's the starting point for you, and what do you care about?

Igal: The size of the site doesn't really matter in that case for me because eventually everything is broken into categories, into parts and sections, according to things that make sense. Even if I speak about keywords, everything is broken into clusters. 

The site is large, it's very large, and it has lots of subdomains in different languages. But if I'll just speak about the English one for a second, eventually we know exactly what works for our top competitors. Eventually, it's 20 questions, like a small group of keywords, a small group of pages are responsible for the majority of the traffic. That's where we focus, and that's where we're also looking at our competitors.

Part of the competitive analysis is also to understand the trends and things that we don't even understand. For instance, recently we added a section for weed stocks. Okay. And it's a new thing relatively speaking. It's a big thing in Canada.

How to Make Stakeholders Understand SEO Insights

Ross: Once we've got these kinds of bits of competitive information, we've aggregated them out, we understand where it's all coming from... you've even worked with governments to shape digital policy. How do you wrap that up in a way that's understandable to stakeholders that can make sense for them? 

Because as SEO people, we've got real tendency to just say like consume the data. How do you go about actually getting that into a meaningful state?

Judith: Got to be one of the most difficult things that anyone does I think in SEO is try to take in all of that information but put it out in a way that the C-suite or even just management who are signing off the budgets understand.

I actually have a template of slides that I take myself through where I deliberately slow down and I think, right, if I'm running a company and it's my money and money in money out, what do I need to know? For instance, I took in thousands and thousands of lines of data about some keywords from SEMrush.

I uncovered a competitor's strategy to launch a new product by analyzing the spending pattern and seeing the spending pattern change off of certain key terms. We alerted the client with two weeks to spare in the real estate vertical and we managed to trump them in a number of different markets, and we won a lot of money from sales off of that.

But it was because I could show the data in a graphical form and think about how the client actually wants to use it. If you own a company or if it's your business, how do you want to see that data presented so that you've got five minutes, you need to see all the top things within that five minutes? Like I said, I've got a cheat sheet of things I take myself through to stop myself from getting too geeky with the numbers.

Ross: Yeah. I think that was good. Having like a framework so you can just constantly follow it and it's kind of consistent output. Before you run all this competitor analysis; there's no lack of data here. 

How to Know What Competitor Data to Focus on

If you're consulting for a business, how'd you get to know what they actually need and the first place? Are you going in typically just surveying the landscape and seeing realistically this is what you need and pushing that? Or are you interviewing stakeholders?

Bill: On the data mining side, you're right, there's no shortage of data. But how do we focus? One of the first things that I do is I look at the company's annual report or their quarterly report. It's like, what did they tell the market they were going to do? 

From there, how are they doing it? I've been in meetings with big companies that, I said, well look, you said you're going to target Russia, but there's not a single campaign or even an SEO initiative targeting Russia. So who's doing that? Then we're able to go in, and we're able to show the data that why somebody decided to target that market was because there was data to support it.

There's something, there's usually a trigger or some sort of stimuli that tells us to look at it. One last week we happened to see a report that came out where Cisco was going to spend like a billion dollars in Southeast Asia to help grow e-commerce and Internet businesses, they were doing an investment fund.

Right away we went out, and we said, okay, so what around this IT company are the six or eight markets that have the highest query volume? Because we were able to show that there was query volume related to this in these markets, now they're looking at, okay, how can we leverage the content we have to target these markets? It is usually some sort of stimuli from a discussion or a report or something like that helps us.

Pivoting From Big Brand Marketing Strategies

Ross: I love the whole “go look at their market report”. That's very, very smart. There are some really interesting questions coming in from Carlos. One of the things he's saying is “I struggle with the competitor's brand authority in the market and no matter how much information on their market strategy I get, it seems impossible to at least achieve the same results.” 

Judith: This is actually something that we looked at for that big competitor where we identified one of their competitors pulling spend on a search site. We looked at perceived competitors in the marketplace and then found some, as Bill has shown, unexpected ones, one of the unexpected ones. 

We took a look into what they were actually doing and we were able to see that they'd gotten really smart and instead of taking one of the three biggest in the market head-on, what they had done was pivot slightly and think like a consumer and thought about what else consumers we're looking, we're using to look for properties either for rent or for sale.

Sometimes to beat the competitors, what you have to do is get really creative and just think if you were a consumer, what else are you looking at? It's all keyword research, but don't just look at competitor audits. Like Bill said, they're not necessarily smarter than you. If that little competitor had only looked at the big three, they would have just given up.

But instead, they did research around what consumers were thinking about and looking at and then used that to optimize on. Sometimes you need to not take them head-on, you need to pivot and look at what other angles you can come at and beat them at their own game. Find out what their consumers aren't finding them for and then optimize on that.

Bill: We see a lot of people want to go head to head with a big brand. What is it that people want and what are the big guys missing? Why did you think your product has a place in the market? 

Analyzing Branded SEO Queries

Igal: I want to mention about branding, in general, it's also interesting to kind of understand how powerful this branding really is from an SEO perspective.

One thing that I'd really like to do is also to look at the search volume of the branded searches that competitors have because that's kind of gets you the whole idea of not only how powerful the brand is but also what are they associated with? 

Like what kind of items, categories, topics really, this brand is really powerful for and then obviously what it's not very known for because all of that information at the end of the day, it lies within keyword data.

Ross: That's really interesting because typically we're all very focused on the generic because the idea being that when we optimize things, we can actually optimize for the generic keyword. 

But what you're saying is focus in on what brand searches over time as an indicator of... how difficult it might be to actually fight these guys in the SERPs. If you've got huge brand search with associated product line it’s probably going to be much harder to break in. 

Bill: So I think these are some of the interesting things we encounter, right? You take a branded query and you look at in search console, and you'll see you may be getting a 5% click rate on your brand name. Well, that means 95% wanted what you do, and they wanted it from you, but they didn't click on you. 

So where did they go? Did they go to a partner? Did they go to E-commerce? I think when we get into branded queries and competitive analysis, that's something should try to look at is for a branded query, what do they show up for? 

Have they got a nice pretty set of site links? And maybe we don't. So these are some of the things that I think if we just step back and say, why are we doing this? What's the purpose? Then, what can we do with this insight? 

Can You Hide Your Own SEO Strategy from Competitors?

Ross: Thomas came into the chat and said, “does anyone take steps to hide your SEO strategies or make them less obvious so that this type of competitive analysis is obfuscated or harder for the competition", anyone wants to jump in that?

Judith: I think it's really difficult. One of the things that's beautiful about online is that I can find anything bar your actual analytics and there might be ways of doing that, but bar your actual analytics and doing the right things that are white hat and good, I can see and do almost anything to anyone. 

I can touch any website and using SEMrush and other tools; I can find out whatever I want. That means that it's very hard to hide anything from me. If you're hiding your strategy for me, you're hiding it from Google and Bing and everyone's. 

In order to be visible, you have to make your strategy visible, which means that I can see it. You can create noise that makes it more difficult for someone like me to extract your actual strategy. But in the end, it's just data analysis.

Less Common Competitor Marketing Metrics to Track

Ross: One of the guys has asked about some less common metrics that we use to track competitors that are important, just as important as the better-known ones. Igal did you track anything that would be considered a bit strange, a bit odd when you're looking at your competitors' stuff? 

Igal: One thing that I really like to do is to look at the SERPs and basically go one website by another. We're going through a list of things. So, for example, we would always write down what is the content type, and that's always something we start with. 

Then, how often is it being updated from a freshness perspective? On-page optimization is another one, and I think that maybe my most favorite one is something that I simply called satisfaction. That means that you're able to be in the user's shoes for a minute and basically asked yourself the question, “what is my satisfaction rate from every single one of these (websites?)” 

Ross: I love that. That is their point. Also, freshness is something that I don't think anyone looks at as much nowadays when it comes to the amount of content they're actually publishing over time. Bill, have you seen any kind of weird and wonderful things that people are tracking internally when they're looking at their competitors? 

Bill: Well, we've been doing more and more for two sites is looking at the delta between their mobile performance in their desktop performance. Because one of these verticals, about 90% of the traffic is being done on mobile and we're finding interestingly enough that the bigger the brand, the less likely they are performing well on mobile for the obvious reasons. Bloated sites and graphics and all that stuff. 

Does it answer the question on a mobile device? We've been able to build a business case that we need to be brutal on mobile and mobile experience. It's allowed us to demonstrate that none of our branded competitors are even on the first page for about 250 words because in mobile because they've not done the things we've done. 

Judith: I use SEMrush to track features in the SERPs and who's owning the featured snippet. Are there images, are there videos? What's the featured snippet, who has the featured snippet and why is it a table?

Igal: Absolutely.

Bill: Another one of my little pet peeves was, how many CEOs never look at the search results. We do everything through the lens of a tool report, but we never actually do a search in the search engine to see what shows up. When we look at that, we either find that yes, we're still number one in organic, but we're not ticking the box either for an answer box or a featured snippet. 

That's why I think the human eyes need to come back into the equation in the brain as opposed to just relying… on the tools to give you that insight. 

Having the Featured Snippet and Answer Box

Ross: As an aside, just as we were talking about answer boxes and things like that. Recently seen a piece that came out... it said that 48% of all searches did not contain any clicks outside of a Google property because of answer boxes and instant answers. 

Judith: With regards to zero clicks, you're still getting brand awareness so that featured snippet or that top of the page, that's still getting you the brand awareness.

It's harder to attribute to SEO as a channel, and it means that channel attribution becomes much more difficult especially for SEO. But if we take channel attribution out of it, then having that search result and getting that peace of mind so that we're front of mind. When people make the choice in-store, that's still a win.

Igal: Ross, I really think that it's crucial for us to make sure that the clients, company, CEOs; they get the fact that Google is changing. 

Bill: I think a lot of times people hear this and they panic instead of stepping back and saying, what can I do? A lot of times they've gotten away with some of this laziness. We need to work harder or think more strategically about how to capture that shelf space. Go beyond just some of the low-hanging fruit.

Competitor Marketing Research for Small Businesses

Ross: Mark Wilcox has asked, how do you change your competitor research style when working with a small business or even a local business? 

Bill: I won't change at all. It's exactly the same. We get caught up in this “big company, little company”. What we look at is exactly the same. It's usually who you're reporting to, not what you do.

Ross: Guys, we're getting towards the end of everything, everyone watching at the moment. If anyone is looking for the recording of this Webinar, it will be on the Youtube channel afterward. Guys, thank you so much for taking the time and have a lovely evening or morning. Depending on where you are in the world.

Bill: Thank you, Ross.

Igal: Great. Thanks.

Judith: Thank you so much, Ross.


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