How to Discover and Choose Competitors for an SEO Project

August 30th, 2012 | Analysis 1 comment

One of the first things you should do when you get a new client with an established SEO program is do competition research and a content audit so you can plan a cohesive strategy. Correctly identifying the true competitors in your search query spaces is important because they often provide good indicators of what type of content works best with your audience, what techniques and the extent of usage in the niche and which Social Networks/sites are being used and the degree of difficulty in gainingfollowers/friends and engagement with a new audience.

Competitor Analysis and Brand/Entity Bias

Competition research is similar to keywords research in that your client will think they know who their competition is but often it is the case that they are very wrong. Smart clients realize early that success is often budget driven so real SERP competitors are ignored because the budget isn’t there to compete. Sometimes the client buys into the “Google has a brand bias” or “I can’t compete with a big online brand” attitude so then you have to try to educate them in using the concept of entities not brands.

We look at it differently in that we understand it is not a bias but rather the characteristics of the site such as age and larger online/offline marketing budgets. When I see advertisements with no URL I smile because this is a direct result of Search Marketers becoming hip to the fact when someone searches for your brand name or products that affects rankings in a positive way!

You are likely asking yourself; how is that?

Simple, Search Engines analyze query data looking for user actions that indicate the success of the query in completing the task. Therefore when users enter your brand in a query it could be used with the user history or search session and be seen as an indication. Brand searches and successful completion of tasks made in context of a search session play a role in determining rankings and most important, the stores and/or brands the recommendation engine recommends at the top of some very transactional query spaces.

An established SEO program enables you to use traffic and conversion data from the old campaign in the research for the new campaign. For us the choice of competitors is very important. Monitoring rankings of these “benchmarks” enables you to determine if flux in rankings on your site is the result of something you did or just a change in how Google is ranking your query space. Since you have a track record you can do the following to generate a competitor “benchmark” list:

1. Choose 4 keywords from the top 20% of converting terms (generally comprise about 80% of sales)
2. Choose 4 keywords with highest traffic but don’t convert because they are usually informational queries at the beginning of the sales cycle
3. Choose the top 2 long tail converting terms

You should add more keywords once you start the campaign but for now we are just trying to learn as much about each type of query space as we can. We like to start with this method because each type of query space ( Navigational, Informational and Transactional ) generally has different requirements so often you see each query type has a different set of “players“. We don’t need as many benchmarks at this point because we are only at the research phase so using a smaller set of competitors is more cost effective. To some extent this process never stops when you are monitoring your competitors as a means of understanding SERP flux and recon when events like Panda and Penguin occur!

Build Your list of “Benchmark” Competitors

Now you can add these keywords to your favorite programs. I suggest using more than one program because with all tools each one often gives different results. We use Searchmetrics benchmark tool and Citation Labs Link Prospector. Comparing the results from two or more programs provides data that the other doesn’t so by using both we get a deeper look into what the sites are doing to rank for these terms.

We like Searchmetrics because it is part of a bigger set of analytic and research tools and provides us with ongoing search visibility analysis for the competitors. After we have chosen the initial “benchmarks” we add more keywords and get an even larger set of data. Searchmetrics also has a very unique rank checker and the largest list of search indexes you can use in your monitoring. Also important for International clients who are working with several unique country indexes.

We use as a secondary tool in the research phase to augment and verify the data and competitors we are provided by Searchmetrics. We use link analysis to get an idea of what the competition is doing, the types of content they used etc. to rank for the keyword terms selected.

For Searchmetrics users I suggest that you do this early in the Project setup because as you add more keywords you are broadening the SERPs so you may be including sites beyond where the competition is greatest. Using a larger keyword set results in false positives because they have been included by ranking for a lot of less competitive terms. The reason for restricting the keywords to this small set is so you can control the influence of each basket of keyword phrases on the results. Lets just say that I am not in the camp that believes targeting long tail terms is a long term solution for success. IMO, long tail is covered by using a lot of modifiers and descriptive terms in your copy and or product descriptions.

Conclusions On Choosing Competitor “Benchmarks”

To some extent this method is the result of using a few methods over the last 17 years. I have always used rankings and overall search visibility in some manner in my competition analysis. One of the things that I’ve learned is that generally you see that each competitor has chosen one of the 3 baskets with only a few cases where you see a competitor in more than one basket. Often you will see that the SEO techniques used to rank in each basket will differ widely from basket to basket but that generally those in each basket tend to be using the same techniques indicating reliance on just those techniques limits your ability to rank.

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Terry Van Horne has been developing and marketing websites since the early 90's in various marketing and development positions including working as internet marketing manager for one of Canada's largest real estate developers; SEO for an award winning real estate search engine and marketing manager for ecommerce stores in the apparel and musical instruments. In 2007 he developed a YouTube Marketing Strategy and to date those 300+ videos have received over I8,000,000+ downloads . He is currently a partner with David Harry in Reliable SEO, a Search and Social Media Marketing Agency, and the award winning SEO Training Dojo, a learning community as well as three other marketing and industry news sites. Terry is Director Of SEO Dojo Radio and co-hosts 2 hour long podcasts "Search Geeks Speak," an hour with luminaries and up and comers in Search Engine Marketing as well as "The Regulators," an hour of Industry News. Terry founded SeoPros.org, the first consumer advocacy organization for purchasers of search engine optimization and is currently a Director of the NFP organization OSEOP that grew out of it.
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  1. 2012/11/29

    [...] If you are not monitoring these sites it is harder to understand the major SERP changes and gauge the risk or gain information that can be used in future proofing your SEO. We monitor competitors using Searchmetrics competitor tool. I described the methodology we use to discover the competitors for benchmarking KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators) here. [...]

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