It is essential when planning any marketing effort to know who you’re up against. By failing to understand your competitor you undermine the hard work you put into SEO and risk missing out on sales. You could also give your customers the wrong message about what you offer, and why they should choose you over the next highest Google result.

Competitor analysis is relatively simple for local services and bricks-and-mortar businesses, as their customer base can be limited by geographic area: all you need to do is walk down your local High Street, and see what is or isn’t missing. Chances are, convenience of location will translate into success. Online businesses have to compete in a global marketplace, whether the services they offer are locally-based or not. Small enterprises risk losing to big-budget competition, even though their more bespoke services may be more suitable for the customer’s needs.

An in-depth competitive analysis, performed regularly, will ensure you stay at the top of search results and ahead of the crowd in your field. In short, keeping an eye on the competition will help your site perform better.

Research Your Keywords

Every business wants to be the best in the world, but this isn’t always achievable. Similarly, many businesses say they want to rank #1 for their product or service – unfortunately, with the size of the web, this is next to impossible.

When you choose keywords for your site like ‘pizza’ or ‘watches’, while these make good general indicators as to what your site is about, they are not the keywords you should focus on. Companies such as Domino’s and Rolex will always top search engines for these broad keywords. Besides – are they really your competition?

It is rare nowadays that anyone simply searches for ‘pizza’, but rather adds ‘recipe’ or their home location to narrow down results. The first step to creating an effective online marketing campaign is to find a viable niche, unfulfilled by the very large companies. Sometimes this is as simple as providing just the same product or service as them, but cheaper, or handmade.

You can even use mindmapping to deepen your search for keywords, and may even find new directions to take your business if you notice a large enough need your competitors aren’t serving. Devote a large chunk of time to researching keywords, but don’t get mired down: once you have a list of three or four high quality terms you would like to rank for, it’s time to hit the search engines.

Who Are Your Top Competitors?

Now you have your list of keywords, begin doing some Google research. Identify those names that pop up again and again on the first page of results. These are sites that have effectively used keywords – the very ones you have chosen – to rank highly in their niche. They are your competitors, and you need to find out everything about them that you can.

Consider using an additional SEO tool to get more information about these results. SEMRush lets you enter any domain to view statistics such as organic keywords, traffic and rank. Authoritative domains have more keywords ranking alongside a high search volume, meaning those keywords have been very successful for their campaign.

Remember not to include large brands in your analysis, as realistically you will not be competing with them, no matter how many keywords they dominate. Remember to focus your search with long tail terms and niche keywords.

If you come up with ten or more competitors, this is a problem. Either you have chosen an overcrowded market and need to niche down further with more targeted keywords, or you need to look again at what makes your service unique.

Imagine your ideal targeted customer, and cross off all your competitors they would think twice about being associated with. You may get a ‘gut feeling’, which is really an indicator of some long-forgotten advice signalling what you already know. Perhaps one of your competitors subtly targets an older demographic, or is associated with the opposite sex: companies will always strive to attract both sexes, but may lean towards one over the other.

Investigate Competitors’ Data

Once you have identified your main competitors, it’s time to do some serious in-depth investigation. Determine their Alexa rank, and use tools such as LinkResearchTools’ Juice Tool to see their domain’s age, number of social shares, and inbound links.

Backlinks are an essential part of any online marketing campaign. Using Ahrefs’ free service, you can enter any domain to view their backlinks in order of authority by searching by Domain Rank. By looking at these numbers, you get an idea of how many quality links you may have to build in order to successfully outstrip your competition and generate more talk and social shares around your campaign.Don’t forget about the power of word of mouth. If your competitors are localised, or offer a service that your friends and peers may use, ask a few questions. Is the company name known among your social group, if they’re part of the target market? What is its general reputation? You can often get a lot of valuable information from informal sources that won’t show up in numbers. For instance, a website may be getting a lot of traffic, but if it’s through spammy and annoying means that tricks people into clicking it will not be popular no matter how much traffic they actually get: its name will be toxic. This will open up a niche market for the same service, delivered honestly and without spam.

You can also search Google for articles and reviews, which will give you a holistic outlook. Be on the lookout for reviews which seem fake or paid for, as this could mean the company is inexperienced, is covering up bad customer experiences, or simply hasn’t made enough of a splash with their own campaigns to attract genuine testimonials.

Audit their Social Media and Content

This step is the easiest to follow up on regularly, as it’s easy to follow your competitors via social media and their updates are sometimes best viewed through the eyes of a consumer in the context of a normal newsfeed. Scrolling through daily may reveal something about your competitor you might otherwise have missed.

The first step is to follow each and every competitor on every platform they publish on. It’s normal practice for companies to do this so don’t worry about being ‘found out’, however if you feel more comfortable distancing yourself, or maybe do not want to see their updates in your personal feed, you can create a second account anonymously or under your company name.

What platforms they choose should tell you about their social media strategy straightaway. Are they on Instagram and Pinterest? Do they use young platforms such as Vine and Snapchat, or stick to the stalwarts of Twitter and Facebook? Or do they only have a stagnant page that was last updated three months ago? Skim their timelines, saving interesting links for later.

Notice if their tone comes across as professional and distant, or if there’s a definite personality – perhaps even a named member of staff – behind tweets. Use of humour is very relevant to a company’s social media presence, as is the type of humour: whether they share any random funny video, office in-jokes or only content and updates relating to their industry.

It is also a good idea to track mentions, and hashtags used by your competitors to get an idea of how customers interact with the business. Clear indicators of shortfalls would include complaints and criticism, but it’s also important to notice if they don’t interact at all.

It is important to realise that on social media, where people are increasingly blending brands with friends, that use of humour, abbreviations or even slang is not necessarily a sign that the company has a poorly executed social media strategy.

Many young start-ups gain huge audiences by communicating on their level, and many established businesses lose followers on social media by trying to make every tweet ‘sell’. In-jokes and office selfies have the power to alienate followers as well as bring them into a company’s culture and make them feel welcome.

So, before you discount a competitor’s updates as ‘silly’ or ‘irrelevant’, take the time to investigate why they have chosen that particular voice. If you can, trace it back, and see if a dramatic change in tone or shared updates creates a spike or dip in engagement.

Plan Your Competitor Analysis Strategy

While living, breathing and eating your competition may seem like a good idea, remember the most effective competitor analysis is achieved with tandem of two viewpoints: creator and consumer. Sometimes it is best to view or interact with your competition from the standpoint of one of your shared customer base, then go ‘behind-the-scenes’ and deconstruct their strategy from the point of view of a fellow creator and marketer.

Once you have a thorough understanding of your competitors’ strategies, you’ll easily be able to identify where your marketing campaign will fit in. There will be gaps in their markets, segments of the audience they can’t serve, and things they might not even have thought about. With a little bit of brainstorming it won’t be hard to come up with a unique campaign that can compete successfully.

The next thing you need to do is determine how many links you need to build in order to start showing up in search results. This will be based on the statistics of those sites you found that rank for your chosen keywords, e.g. your list of competitors.

Focus on niche-specific keywords in your marketing campaign, but when it comes to content and social media, don’t be afraid of using the more general terms used by the big businesses. Using popular keywords that target your market helps search engines who may not be able to put two and two together. Sprinkle these general keywords throughout your campaign as additional support, but build your campaign around fewer, solid niche keywords.

Next, determine your content and social media strategy. This aspect of your campaign will require particular attention, as it isn’t always obvious whether you should ‘pattern-interrupt’ and do the opposite of what your competition is doing to stand out, or fall into a routine your target market is used to. Ultimately it depends on your customer base, their needs and habits, and whether you are targeting a niche whose needs – those that aren’t being met by your competitors – can be influenced by what times you post, or how often, etc.

If you are offering a product or service that is simply cheaper or better-made than your competitors’, but otherwise similar, then it may be wise to ‘piggyback’ off their strategy and post where and when customers are used to seeing advertisements.

However, if you find yourself targeting a niche overlooked by your competitors, you will be targeting a market they are not who might not have the same social media habits. For example, you provide training for security personnel. Your competitors offer entry-level security training, targeted at school leavers and career-changers.

However, you have identified a niche market, and offer new advanced training for security guards wanting a promotion or to improve their skills. Typically, established security professionals often work long, quiet hours at night, while your competitors’ market are on social media during the day. Therefore, you will attract more of your target niche posting updates at night.

This is an effective way of almost removing competition whatsoever – without a targeted campaign, your product is just another security training course. However, once you identify a market and show that you cater for their needs, they no longer see your competitor as an option. This is an excellent strategy for not only creating, but dominating your own market.

Time spent analysing your competitors is one of the most valuable things you can do for your business and your marketing campaigns. Employ it in a one-off scenario if you are driving a particularly targeted campaign, but it is always a good idea to stay informed about what the competition is up to, so be sure to check their updates and rankings regularly.

We Can Undertake Competitor Analysis

Contact Smarter Digital Marketing today today to find out more about competitor analysis, SEO campaigns and online marketing strategy.