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SEO Competitive Analysis – 2011 Edition

Mark Jackson
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Sometimes I have to laugh at how far the SEO industry has come, even if the laugh is pointed directly at a column I wrote years ago.

Today, I conducted a search for [seo competitive analysis] to see what had been written about this topic to avoid potentially writing something that’s already been beaten to death. Funny enough, Google is – still today – ranking a column that I wrote in 2008, which was titled, plainly, “SEO Competitive Analysis.”

Some of my “major insights” were to “determine your competitors, and don’t listen to the CMO,” and to “determine how to compete for these keywords by looking at the age of the domain, pages indexed and linking.”

Wow. Deep stuff, huh? Ha!

I still agree with some of this column (especially the part about most of my prospects wanting to call “direct competitors” their competitors in organic search), but things have certainly changed. Hey, it was three years ago. SEO is always changing.

Flash forward to 2011 and what kind of stuff should you be considering when compiling an SEO competitive analysis? That depends a bit on how we define SEO nowadays.

To me, SEO in 2011 is the optimization of all content. If you really want to deep dive on a competitive analysis, you could be busy for quite some time.

But what remains true is that the foundation of SEO is your website. So, let’s start there.

The main components of an SEO competitive analysis are:

  1. Top Keywords
  2. Site Structure 
  3. Linking Initiatives / Authority
  4. Social Presence

You’ll also need to collect all this information for your site to understand how you stack up with the competition. Let’s dive in.

semrush-main-report-vizion

1. Top Keywords

SEMRush is helpful for identifying “top keywords.” This tool saves loads of time by helping you determine the valuable traffic that you, or your competitors, are getting across many keywords. It will evaluate the value based upon the estimated cost per click, if you were to buy this traffic via AdWords and show you a total estimated value by keyword, as well as a running estimated total value for all organic search traffic.

The folks at SEMRush have also been very good about launching their program for several countries (including the U.S., UK, Russia, France, Brazil, and Australia, to name a few), and I want to thank them for that. There’s nothing that will help to sell SEO to the C-level folks than to see the dollar value of organic search traffic for top competitors. I typically use this valuation as a method of determining the “real” competitors for our SEO efforts.

Once you know some of the valuable keywords worth targeting, you can put those on your “hit list” and continue on with the analysis (SEMRush is exportable to CSV and Excel).

After you’ve identified those competitors that are the most relevant to your business and driving the most amount of valued organic traffic, it’s time to begin the process of peeling back the reasons why their website may have a stronger presence in the search engines than yours.

2. Site Structure

Some of the same competitive analysis items from three years ago remain worth consideration today. Namely, you want to check to see how many pages these websites have indexed in Google and Bing (I would have mentioned that you should use Yahoo Site Explorer, but – sadly – that will be going away, soon).

Simply use the site: operator (site:www.example.com) and check indexation. Though these are estimates (and some might say “bad estimates”), it can give you a general sense as to the depth of a competitor’s website/pages of content. I’m beginning to use Screaming Frog, nowadays.

For today’s SEO, you will want to check out the indexing of other digital assets to find areas of opportunity:

  • Check indexing of images and videos.
  • Look for Facebook/Twitter profiles for the competitors (to identify what their “winning content” is; video, shopping feeds, local/map listings, and news/PR).
  • Check whether competitors are operating a blog (and how they have this set up, whether it’s on a separate domain, subdomain or sub-directory).
  • Look at the competitor’s titles, H1s, meta descriptions, meta keywords (all of which can be pulled using Screaming Frog).
  • Look at keyword density on ranking pages.
  • Evaluate URL structures, to see if “top competitors” are pushing content as close as they can to the root (www.example.com/page-name-here) or whether they’re letting the website’s structure determine the file depth of a given page (www.example.com/category/page-name-here).

3. Linking Initiatives / Authority

Back in 2008, I might have wanted to find out who has been most successful at gaining the most keyword-rich, anchor text backlinks pointing to specific pages. Linking has certainly changed a lot in a relatively short period of time.

Nowadays, when you’re analyzing competitors that are doing well in the SERPs, analyzing anchor text usage is of interest, but also notice the mix of branded links versus keyword-rich links. Look at domain and page authority, and the number of unique linking domains (how many different websites are linking to the competitor’s site).

Analyze the diversity of the links. See if links are coming from press releases, article syndication, social bookmarking, widgets, or what else they may be doing to be successful. While several tools track links, I tend to gravitate to OpenSiteExplorer and Majestic SEO.

4. Social Presence

To me, the foundation of a social presence is a blog. See how the competitor has set up their blog, the categorization of the blog (what are they writing about; do you need to develop an editorial calendar of your own?), and see how they are developing community for their social content.

Is your competition developing strictly textual content, or are they involved in infographics and/or video?

See if these competitors are engaged with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and see how many Facebook Page likes, homepage likes, Facebook comments, Twitter followers and tweets, and videos/views are showing for the competitors, to get a sense of how engaged they are in social and whether they seem to be using these synergistically with their SEO efforts.

SEO Competitive Analysis in 2011

Suffice it to say, an SEO competitive analysis today is a bit different than you might have pulled together just a few short years ago. And frankly, we’ve only scratched the surface.

Hopefully this article was helpful for those of you who are trying to determine the best way to identify “best practices,” so that you have a good sense as to what you need to do to be successful with your own SEO efforts.


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