How to do competitor research in SEO

Emily Bailie | 3rd November 2023 | Organic

What is competitor research?

In SEO, competitor research is the process of understanding and learning from the brands that are competing against you (and often performing well) for your target keywords. Essentially, it’s about leveraging the competitors that are currently outperforming you to better inform your next strategy. It allows you to understand where other brands are focusing their budget and digital activity, what works in your space and what Google rewards.

Finding your online competitors

So, you want to get started with competitor research? The first step is identifying the brands that you’re competing with online. In SEO, your competitors are websites that you’re competing with organically, i.e. ranking for terms that your target audience is searching. It’s important not to assume that your online competitors are the same as your industry competitors. You may compete against a like-for-like brand offline that has very little online visibility.

To find your competitors, start by creating a keyword list of the search terms that are most important to you and your brand. These should be terms that you want to rank well for and are relevant to the services or products you offer. 

Once you have your list, you’ll need to begin analysing the keywords. Do this by searching for each keyword on Google and exploring the search results, looking at who is ranking in each space; specifically, you’re looking for websites that aren’t ranking consistently well (and consistently higher than you).

You can also use tools like Ahrefs, which has features to help quickly identify your online competitors based on the keywords you currently rank for. This can be a quick and effective approach if you’re looking at terms you already rank well for, but it isn’t as useful if you’re conducting your keyword research before optimising your website.

Although you may be reviewing the search results on a keyword-by-keyword basis, it’s important to take a holistic view of your industry online. Which brands consistently rank in the top spots? Which brands are often found ranking above your website? Understanding your wider search landscape will help you make better-informed decisions and gain better insights.

Once you have found your competitors and before you action any changes from your research,  remember to benchmark your current performance so you can easily measure any performance changes.

How to identify competitor strengths

Now that you know who your organic competitors are, you can start researching. Here are some of the main areas to look into to get the most effective insights:

Content gap analysis

Content gap analysis involves identifying keywords that your competitors are ranking for that you aren’t. This is often step 1 in the research journey as it will give you a quick and easy overview of keyword performance. The important part of this activity is to look for patterns; are your competitors talking about topics that you aren’t? Do they target terms that you don’t have landing pages for? Does each competitor perform particularly well in certain categories? Do they use certain page types that you don’t, e.g. resources, blog content, sub-categories?

On-page optimisation and keyword targeting 

One of the biggest elements of competitor research is monitoring keyword performance – keeping track of the different keywords they target, when they change targeting, and what effects those changes have on their rankings. Again, you can use a tool like Ahrefs or SEMrush to get the list of keywords that your competing brands are ranking for. Next, look at their metadata and on-page optimisation – what are the primary keywords they are targeting in headings and page titles? Are these keywords you should be targeting more aggressively?

Another great thing to keep an eye out for is movement within the search results. If your competitor suddenly jumps in the ranks, you may be able to identify what they changed or did to achieve this, which you can then incorporate into your strategy. Alternatively, if they suddenly experience a drop in ranks, it could be a good opportunity to act fast and capitalise on their loss.

Link profiles 

Competitor link analysis involves reverse engineering your competitor’s links. This gives you insight into the types of links they have gained, which is an indicator of authoritativeness and continues to be a vital ranking factor. You should look for content types that gain links (such as blog content, press releases, data-led studies), websites that often link to your competitors, how frequently they gain links and how they internally link from their highly-linked pages through to their ‘money’ pages.

Internal linking

You can crawl your competitor’s websites using tools such as Screaming Frog, which will give you an overview of their internal linking structure and anchor text use. This helps you understand the linking relationship between pages on their website, as well as what keywords they see as important, as these (and variants of them) will often be used as the anchor text. Are your competitors prioritising pages in their internal linking that you’re not? If so, and if they’re outranking you, this is a good area to start optimising.

What are the best tools to use for competitor research? 

  • Ahrefs: a user-friendly, all-in-one tool ideal for competitor research. From identifying content gaps, conducting further keyword research and understanding link profiles, this tool can bring a lot of valuable information to your competitor research. 
  • SEMrush: this research tool has a great feature called the competitive positioning map that places your competitors on a visual map by organic traffic and the number of keywords they are ranking for in the top 20 results. This is a visually simple yet valuable way to monitor how the competitive landscape changes.
  • Screaming Frog: a website crawling application that can crawl a site at a URL level, flagging technical SEO issues and revealing internal linking structures. For competitor research, this tool is useful for investigating types of internal liking patterns and best practice anchor text choices. 
  • Sistrix: this online tool allows you to keep an eye on competitors’ visibility. It works by sampling the top 100 search positions for one million keywords and generates a visibility index based on a website’s current position and the keyword’s search volume. This is a valuable visual resource that helps notice fluctuating landscapes and can also give you an idea of which competitors are likely to overtake you. 

Things to avoid when conducting competitor research 

So now you know what you should do when conducting competitor research. It is also important to keep in mind the things you should not do. Here are some common competitor research mistakes that you should avoid: 

  • Focusing on direct competitors: offline you may compete with mainstream high street brands, but online, you may be fighting other battles. Don’t assume your direct competitors will also be competing with you online.
  • Not refreshing your competitor’s list: don’t assume that your original set of competitors will stay the same throughout the year (or years!). Google search results are constantly changing, and with that, new players may enter the scene.
  • Picking websites that aren’t like-for-like: don’t fall into the habit of only reviewing the websites that take the top positions. Brands such as Amazon, eBay and Wikipedia will often rank in the top positions due to how powerful their domains are. Focus your research on websites that perform well but are closer to your brand.
  • Copying their strategy too closely: as a general rule, don’t ever copy exactly what your competitors are doing. You should always focus on being better than the competition, so make sure to use your learnings to inform your strategy but also look to include things that the others aren’t.
  • Looking only at the positives: it can be a great learning opportunity to look for flaws in your competitors’ SEO strategy. Their weaknesses can become your strengths if you can capitalise on them.
  • Forgetting to think long term: remember to be mindful of traffic when looking at strong competitors. Yes, they might be doing well from a month-on-month perspective, but they could be in decline year-on-year, which is a massive red flag.

Understanding your industry’s competitive landscape and learning from key competitors is an integral part of a successful SEO strategy. Performing in-depth competitor research exposes you to what works and what does not work in your niche. From this, you can optimise your strategy based on competitors’ experiences – both good and bad – therefore helping to leverage your organic ranks and performance.

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