Marketing your SMB with Time & Elbow Grease

I'm really sick of hearing how horrible the economy is. It's pretty obvious everyone is hurting and everyone is tightening their belts where they can. One of the hardest things to grasp as a small business owner is where to tighten that belt, and how tight is too tight.

I'm committing to a series of articles for Little Biz that will give actionable advice on how to improve your rankings or revenue from search with no dollar investments -- aside from the time it takes to research and implement these changes.

Today, we'll talk about how the competitors that outrank you can actually help you move into a better position through "competitive intelligence." We'll talk concepts and techniques, then I'll throw in some free tools you can use to gather the info you need to succeed.

What Are They Doing Right Now to Outrank You?

I'm guilty of it -- I get tunnel vision on my own Web sites and my client's Web sites and forget to look at what our competitors are actually doing to outrank us. Every set of keywords and every market has unique factors that seem to make things rank better than others.

Look at what the best ranking competitor is doing to outrank you. This is sometimes painful, but it needs to be done. Some things you might look at are:

  • Quality incoming links.

  • Number of pages with unique and useful content.

  • Internal linking techniques (how they link to other pages in the site).

Make a list of the top five competitor's home page PageRanks, number of backlinks in Google, and number of pages Google is indexing. Then compare the same data from your own site. Are you seeing a significant gap? Work to close that gap by writing more relevant content or building some links.

The more "equal" your site is to the top sites, the better chance you have to move up in the search results. If you can do more, you might even pass them.

Keep in mind: huge sites, such as Wikipedia or About.com, are really hard to outrank, so pick competitors you can work against and overcome them -- then work on the big boys. There's no guarantee doing all the same things will definitely help, but it certainly can't hurt as long as you keep within Google's guidelines.

Competitive Intelligence Tools

My friend and fellow travel SEO junkie, John Ellis of ResortQuest, helped me out with a few ideas for free competitive intelligence products:

  • SpyFu -- gives an estimate of how much your competitors are paying for PPC, and also a brief list of organic and paid keywords they're ranking for.

  • Compete -- has a paid and free version, data is limited for small competitors.

  • Quantcast -- has a paid and free version, data is limited for small competitors.

  • Alexa -- I'm not a huge fan of Alexa, but they have a neat "related sites" link that shows what other sites your visitors have been to.

I would also add:

  • Google Alerts -- Set up a Google alert for your top competitor's brand name and domain so you can see where they are, when they add content, and what they're up to with regards to link building and buzz marketing.

  • Google's "Site:" Operator -- If you do a Google search for "site:domain.com" you can see how many pages Google indexes and might show as search results. This is an indicator of how large of a site you're competing with.

  • Google's "Link:" Operator -- If you do a Google search for "link:domain.com" you will see the number of links Google gives your competitors "credit" for. This is a sampling -- and doesn't show every "Google-friendly" link -- but you can get some great ideas for relevant link building or directory submissions for your own site by doing this.

  • Yahoo Site Explorer -- Yahoo will tell us all of the backlinks pointing at a competitor's Web site, which can be handy for finding good link building or directory opportunities that Google hasn't given them credit for -- or just hasn't listed in their own back link profile.

Sometimes a little research goes a long way in solving your ranking problems. Using your competitor's sites to learn what you need to do to improve isn't that hard, and it's relatively inexpensive if you use the free tools listed above and some common sense. You may find links, content, and opportunities you didn't know existed -- and gain some valuable perspective on what you're offering your customers.