Many who are eager to "get ahead" with their search engine optimization (SEO) program are typically consumed with the latest and greatest SEO techniques, how they are sure to work as well as fantasizing over their list of targeted keyword terms.
Competitive analysis should also take a position of high importance. Don’t get me wrong, proper keyword research, the predecessor to competitive analysis, is important. We know where we want to rank and we know who is ranking there, but how will we get there?
At the onset of your dive into SEO competitive analysis, it's important you segment your analysis into three areas: content, authority, and opportunity.
Content is king, right? You betcha, and the more you or a competitor have the more likely it is to have enhanced visibility in search engines.
The starting point is your keyword target list. Find the most important terms to your company/site theme and review the search results.
Who comes up consistently in organic results? You may find that your online competition may be quite different than your brick-and-mortar competitors.
Once you've found the top 3-5 regularly appearing sites, review their results to identify if they have a keen grasp on title tags, meta description, and URL naming convention best practices. Are they obviously targeting the terms they are showing up for?
Next, take a deeper look at their online presence as there is much more than just the organic SERP. Are they supplementing their SERP presence with PPC? Perform site:www.competitorname.com queries in Google Images, Video, News, Places.
Content isn’t just text. Have they optimized these digital/local/press contextual elements to take advantage of universal search?
Don’t forget channel coverage. Take a look at their social profiles (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn) and assess for presence, content delivery, engagement, and their fan base. Since citations are an algorithmic factor there is more now to the process than simply feeding the engines.
Your competitor has tons of content, but let’s see if it's good content that gets links and shares, and if it has authority via inbound links.
This is also an important stage as we have to decipher competitor engagement with link building. A tool here is Open Site Explorer simply because you can easily review several competitors across multiple trust/authority factors.
Compare the domain authority of the competitors’ sites as well as the page authority of top pages. Also consider the amount of links coming to the site and the number of unique linking domains.
Is the content on the site shared, tweeted, etc.? Is there an overabundance of a certain anchor text phrase or a dominance in any one type of linking site, directories, forums, news, etc.?
Judging these metrics closely is going to tell you what types of content you may need, how well you need to push your content, and where you may need to make up any ground between you and the competitors.
Moving forward you can use a tool such as the SEOmoz Competitive Link Finder to find potential linking options to help even the score.
This is basically an on-site review. This is an opportunity to assess the structure of the site to see where improvement is needed.
Look at on-page keyword targeting of site pages in areas such as titles, copy, heading, alt tags and internal link anchor text. What is the overall hierarchy of content on the site? Is this an advantageous information architecture? Do they utilize sitemaps to deliver content to search engines and are they using up to date techniques such as HTML5 and schema markups?
To gauge their SEO savviness it may also help to review their robots.txt to see if they are withholding certain content accidently or making other flubs such as duplicate content. This can be a good indicator of how in touch they are with SEO and their site.
The elements of review for competitive analysis can vary from marketer to marketer based on how deep they want to analyze competitors. The areas above are a good way to not skimp on competitive insight but to not exceed a few hours.
It will be imperative moving forward that you continue to monitor your competitors. This provides content topics and channel ideas as well as a way to stay ahead of the game. It can help to decipher content by type gaps whether they are digital or textual, blogging, articles, how-to’s, etc.
You should use competitive link tools as mentioned above, but also utilize tools such as Linkdex that can monitor changes in your competitors’ rankings and traffic estimations.
If you're extremely strapped for time, spend 30 seconds and set up a Google Alert for your competitor’s name. You may find that Google is noticing them more than you think, showing you that you need to spend more time on the offensive.