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Competitive SEO Analysis: Data, Creativity & Understanding the Competitive Landscape

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Competition in search engine optimization (SEO) will be composed of both the traditional organizations that vie for business in your market and the websites and domains ranking predominantly for keyword phrases important to your SEO strategy. They may be the same, they may be different.

The Competitive SEO Tools session at SES New York brought together a panel of search experts to discuss ways and means of evaluating your own website in comparison to the competitive search landscape.

Moderated by Richard Zwicky (@rzwicky), Chairman of BlueGlass, panel members focused on competitive analysis through site monitoring, integrating tools not necessarily known for SEO, and taking into focus internal strengths (and weaknesses) when overcoming the competitive search landscape.

Data Driven Competitive Analysis

Marcus Tober (@linkvendor), CTO of SearchMetrics emphasized data driven competitive analysis.

Critical questions to ask in competitive analysis:

  • Who are my competitors? 
  • Where are they getting their traffic from? 
  • What are possible traffic sources? 
  • Are they active in universal search? 
  • What are their off-page strategies
  • What is working in social networks? 
  • What are people sharing?
  • What is content with value for users?

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Tober focused on evaluating trending data over time to make assessments towards competitive strengths and weaknesses. Some of the key data points and characteristics of the competitive landscape to watch for included:

  • SEO visibility – how does your site compare against others for keyword targets and overall traffic (Searchmetrics solution uses a proprietary algorithm for this) 
  • What happens if competitors move content, change structure, etc? 
  • Strategic site/domain initiatives such as organization of content and sub-domain use 
  • Where competitors are obtaining traffic. Free sources such as Alexa and Google Insights (for brand based search visibility) can help.

Tober stressed the importance of using multiple SEO tools to compare information, in an effort to avoid inaccurate assumptions or anomalies, particularly with free to access data. No single tool gives you all the information.

Monitor the competition regularly, since this can become a great source of information, especially when they are expanding, re-launching or even for reverse engineering.

For off-page (link building and social media) competitive analysis, Marcus offered the following advice and key questions to ask about each competitive target:

  • How many backlinks from unique domains each competitor have? 
  • Which pages receive the most backlinks? 
  • Which anchor text is used? 
  • Which type of Links they get (forum, web directory, blogs, etc.) 
  • Do they use widgets, free tools, affiliate stuff that can easily integrated into a site or viral content? 
  • If competitors cheat, think about diversification or other options 
  • Which social strategy your competitors is using (Facebook, Twitter, Google+, StumbleUpon etc) 
  • What type of pages is the user engaged? Do you have the same content with less engagement? Can you copy the strategy / content?

There are so Many Tools…

Kristjan Mar Hauksson (@optimizeyourweb), Founder, Search & Online Comm., Nordic eMarketing presentation focused on how to use non-traditional tools to help your SEO efforts and overcome competitive barriers.

Mar Hauksson stressed more critical and creative thought process in evaluating site performance for search engine optimization.

His opinion on the best kept secrets for SEO testing? Zoom Search Engine. One may not necessarily think about using another search engine as a mechanism for competitive analysis but Kristhan made some compelling arguments for thinking otherwise.

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  • Use Zoom Search Engine to crawl competitive sites, in an effort to understand file structure, how the competitor stores data, and site dynamics. 
  • Evaluate image assets, PDF files, flash files, etc for crawlability and SEO implementation. 
  • Regularly crawl competitive sites for changes in SEO or overall site strategy

The most interesting aspect of Zoom Search Engine was the ability to attempt to reverse engineer algorithmic factors to better understand reasons competitors might be performing well. By changing the weighting of traditional SEO factors like page titles, headings, and file names, SEO professionals can get a better understanding of what may have more significant impacts on their own site versus the competition.

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Direct, Indirect & Internal Competitive Research

Rob Garner (@robgarner), Vice President, Strategy, at iCrossing wrapped up the session with a candid look at direct, indirect, and internal competitive assessments.

At a high level, what should you be looking for?

  • Evaluate past and current marketing programs 
  • Perform SWOT analysis (strength, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) 
  • Set goals 
  • Identify primary and secondary metrics 
  • Perform in-depth keyword and market research 
  • Analyze market research and identify opportunities 
  • Evaluate and customize dashboards and analytics platforms to accommodate new metrics

Garner emphasized that competition not only comes from direct (typical traditional competitors) and indirect (sites performing well in search engines) competitors, but internal factors as well. Some of the key issues internally can include:

  • Becoming overly obsessed with “pet rankings” (favorites with little business impact) 
  • Lack of education on the value and returns of SEO 
  • Lack of implementation of the proper tools and analytics for benchmarking success 
  • Inability to break down barriers that prevent effective SEO 
  • Not knowing your site’s SEO and content value inside and out

In evaluating one’s content strategy, Rob offered some of the following key metrics to consider.

  • How many unique pages reside within your domain, or domains? 
  • How many pages within your site match a given phrase or set of phrases? 
  • How much of your site’s content is duplicated or repurposed in other parts of your site, or on other sites outside of your domain? 
  • How well your content inventory matches up to your targeted keyword lists (in other words, does your content literally support your keywords, at the page and site theme levels)? 
  • Consider optimization for social sharing, as well as freshness of material and RSS and XML feed availability

From a keyword perspective, don’t forget that if you want to compete, “You have to have at least one page in the game”. Use the search query, site:yourdomain.com intitle:”KEYWORD” to see how many pages of your site (or your competitors) are listed in Google’s index.

Garner ended the presentation with an important summation of characteristics in highly visible sites to keep in mind.

  • Highly visible sites are well-written, and well-edited 
  • Significant word counts at both the page-level, and site level 
  • Provide substantial content that backs up the theme of the site, as it relates to the respective keyword set 
  • The content is generally engaging, and good enough that people would want to link and share it without being asked. 
  • Each site has a high number of high-quality unique pages within the domain

Wrap Up

Zwicky asked the panelists if there were a set number of competitors they preferred measuring against when performing a competitive analysis. All three agreed that a set number of competitors would be really hard to define, since keyword targets and strategies are unique to individual situations.

Bottom line: review as many competitors as needed to get enough actionable information as possible to make decisions on your SEO program initiatives.

The question of keyword rankings also came up. While none of the panelists would advocate for focusing explicitly on this, Tober emphasized that monitoring rankings over time could certainly be important when assessing the overarching competitive landscape and identifying improvements or changes of interest.


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