Search Engines and Competitive Research

Search engines can tell you a lot about your competition, if you know what to look for. A panel of experts offers tips on profiling your competition.

A special report from the Search Engine Strategies Conference, New York City.

“Where do your competitors receive their traffic from, and what search engines are they working with?” asked Bill Tancer, VP of Research at Hitwise. “What search terms drive the most traffic to your competitors’ sites and the industry? When you have answers to these questions, you can use this data to gain a competitive edge.”

Keyword research and ad campaigns

A competitive analysis always begins with keyword research. “Search for your most obvious terms, including your brands and trademarks on the search engines,” said Cam Balzer, Director of Search Strategy at Performics. “If you see your competitors consistently showing up in both natural and pay-per-click (PPC) search results, you know you are dealing with search-savvy competitors.”

“PPC ads tell you what terms are important to your competition,” said Allan Dick, General Manager of Vintage Tub and Bath.

Based on this keyword research, Balzer recommended building a matrix of both keywords and competitors. “With PPC campaigns, you can estimate your competitors’ spend,” he said. “You can view current cost-per-clicks from Overture’s search interface, and you can calculate total costs based on the number of estimated searches per month, and estimated CTR baselines (5% for position one, 3% for position two, 1% for position three).”

“If the competition is aggressively bidding for the first position, it may make sense to manage against positions two and three and also managing against acquisition metrics,” advised David Williams, Chief Strategist and Co-Founder of 360i.

Balzer also recommended a number of competitive tests to determine how sophisticated your competitors are. For example, you can bid high dollar amounts for a short time period to determine the maximum bid amount your competitors will use, and you can bid aggressively for a month and watch for end-of-month drop offs.

“Your competitors might not be paying attention if they do not respond quickly to bid gaps, or if they do not respond quickly to modified maximum bids,” Balzer explained. “If you run up your bid above your competitor’s maximum bid amount, do they drop down their minimum bid? Do they stay one cent below your bid?”

Balzer added that changing bid amounts during different times of the day indicates that your competitors use dayparting as part of their search advertising strategies.

Search engine optimization campaigns

Monitoring search engine ads are not the only way to gather competitive information. Natural search results can also provide information about link development strategies and keyword research.

“With natural search results, you can extract keywords from the titles, meta tags, headings, etc. on your competitors’ actual Web pages,” said Balzer.

Allan Dick uses natural search results to determine distributor information, manufacturing contacts, newspaper/magazine articles, and the marketing firms competitors use. For example, if you want to find your competitors’ distributors, search for the manufacturer name and product name in a title, using Google’s advanced search page.

Dick also uses eBay for competitive research. “Using your top keywords, search through the listings and find up-and-coming sellers, new product offerings, and different product terms,” he said. “Take a look at your competitor’s feedback for useful information.”

You can also determine if your competition is using paid inclusion or an XML feed program. “For example, if you right click on a listing in a Yahoo search result, the Properties pop-up window can reveal if a listing is paid or not,” said Williams.

Search engine results pages (SERPs) also provide information on a site’s link development. Many Advanced Search pages on any of the major search engines have a feature which will show the links pointing to a specific URL pointing to a Web site.

Based on this information, you can see where your competitors are listed on the major human-based search engines (directories) and industry-related sites. What categories are your competitors listed under? Are your competitors listed on one or more categories? What keywords are they using in their descriptions? How many words are used in their company descriptions? Are there keyword or category opportunities that your competitors might have missed?

In addition, many newspaper and magazine articles appear in reverse link look-ups, indicating your competitors’ PR campaign strategies. “Look at the anchor text of some of the links,” said Williams. “If the competitor has more links with anchor text that includes the targeted terms, then the site is much more likely to rank for the targeted terms.”

Search engines offer a plethora of information about your own site and your competitors’ sites, ranging from advertising, SEO, to publicity campaigns. Understanding how to search and diligently monitoring search results often provides valuable information about the players in your industry.

Want to discuss this article? Join the Search Marketing and Competitive Intelligence discussion in the Search Engine Watch forums.

Related articles

Measuring Search Engine Success
SearchDay, March 9, 2004

The Art of Advanced Link Building
SearchDay, November 11, 2003

The Lunchtime Effect
ClickZ, February 5, 2003

Shari Thurow is the Marketing Director at Grantastic Designs, Inc. and the author of the book Search Engine Visibility.

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