I’ve worked on teams where we actively dove into competitors’ sites and others where people were allergic to their pages. I much prefer the former to the latter because other sites can provide hints and clues about SEO ideas to help a website rank better in search engines.
Rather than reinventing the wheel when I sit down to perform competitor analysis, I’ve put together a roadmap for my work. These strategies can be used in part or whole, depending on the use case. The insight gained from looking at your competitors’ websites can be put to use when choosing the strategies for your site.
The Questions I Try to Answer
Competitor analysis looks different depending on what you’re trying to discover.
For example, if I’m working on a link building campaign and looking for ideas, then I’d be looking for the pages on the website with the highest number of links, rather than diving into the source code of each page.
Or if I was analyzing their keyword focus, then I would spend much more time across different pages looking for keyword patterns. This gives me the ability to maximize my time and effectiveness by mining the data that really matters. By focusing on a subset of pages, you’ll cruise through competitor analysis at your computer like:
Before starting competitor analysis, note what you’re looking for or write down the questions you’re trying to answer, like:
- What is their overall backlink strategy?
- What types of websites do the majority of their backlinks come from?
- What kind of tactics are they using to acquire backlinks?
- How is their site structured?
- What is the difference between keywords that we use on our website versus our competitors?
- How do they crosslink between pages on their website?
Once you have a list of the questions you’d like answered, write a list 3-5 competitors who are ranking for a handful of the most valuable keywords in your industry. These are the websites you’ll be analyzing.
How I Analyze Their Backlink Strategy
Backlink analysis is one of the most compelling parts of this process. All my SEOs out there, this is also one of the most tedious tasks we have to do. Now, more than ever, is time to be obsessive about your spreadsheet structure.
The majority of my time doing backlink analysis, I’ve used Moz Open Site Explorer to find the URLs of websites linking back to the site I’m working on. You can also use the tool to examine anchor text, measure domain authority, and compare the number of linking root domains between competitors.
If you’re a smaller business or website, then I also think Monitor Backlinks is a good option and one I’ve been using more often. You can use the coupon code MB2MF4MAYS to get your first 3 months for the price of one! When you’re putting together the parts of a competitor’s backlink strategy, export all linking root domains to a spreadsheet and keep the following data:
- The URL of the linking page.
- The anchor text the website uses to link back to your site.
- The domain authority of the linking site.
- URL of the page the website is linking to on your site.
Once you have your spreadsheet organized, you’re ready to start analyzing data. Your job is to find patterns between the linking sites. What kind of link is it — editorial, a resource directory, or part of a press release? To make backlink data more manageable, I also like to:
- Organize competitor’s websites by domain authority to find the most trustworthy sites passing authority to our competitor.
- Create a ‘Link Building Type’ or ‘Notes’ column to record link building strategies that the site is using. My most often used categories include: guest posts, sponsored posts, press releases, resource directories, content marketing campaigns, natural mentions, and other.
If it’s a big backlink profile and you’re working alone or in a small team, you’ll want to tackle this incrementally. Backlink research is often one of the most time consuming parts of SEO, so make sure that you save time to put your learnings into practice.
Dissecting their Site Hierarchy
I reviewed a big list of websites this month and found that it’s true for 99% of them: the homepage earns the most links and the more links, the higher the authority (unless they’re spam). Since your homepage is the most authoritative page on your website, you want to create a lean architecture, flowing authority to your most important pages.
The less links you have on the homepage, the better you’re able control the flow of link authority throughout your site. And you can use the hierarchy when trying to evaluate where to link to a given page. The less revenue opportunity for a keyword or page, the further down the hierarchy it goes.
When looking at your competitor’s website, makes sure to go through their navigation and visit different pages. Make a note of the links on the homepage, the anchor text of those links, and write down the keywords they’re using.
This is one of the first steps to unraveling a competitor’s strategy. Make sure to travel one or two steps down the hierarchy to see the secondary and tertiary keywords on your competitor’s minds.
Record these keywords in a spreadsheet and enter them into Google Keyword Planner to find their search volume.
Diving Into Their Code
Aside from looking at their backlink strategy and site structure, I’ll also take a look at their technical SEO features, whether or not they’re using AMP pages, the structure of their canonical logic, and whether they’re using special meta tags to prevent certain pages from being indexed.
In order to dissect their SEO foundation, I go straight to the source code — tearing through my favorite HTML tags to find their strategies. If you’re using a Mac, then press ⌘ + alt + u to see the source code. Separate their website into page types and record the features on each different page type. In the source code, make sure to look for the presence and placement of the following:
- Title tag
- Meta description
- Canonical tag
Write out the context in which some of these tags are used on the page to get more insight into their purpose. Is the canonical tag used to prevent duplicate content somewhere? Is there a reason this page, of all others, would have a NoIndex, NoFollow tag?
And, if you’re lucky, they might just leave you a breadcrumb trail by including the word SEO in their source code.
How I Look for Keywords?
Similar to how I review the technical SEO on each page type, I’ll also read through the text to find keywords they’re targeting. The easiest way to do this is to look for repetition. What words are used in the title tag, meta description, and across the page? Are there words that are similar which they might be using that are relevant?
When it comes to a website’s product or service page the keyword focus is usually fairly obvious, but I find that discerning top of funnel content can be slightly more difficult. Often not everything on a blog is written for SEO, so you’ll need to determine the purpose of a blog post to avoid spending time on analyzing webpages with no keyword focus.
I find a system of reduction easier than trying to meet a set of criteria. To remove the cruff, I’ll put the title tags of their latest 50-100 posts in a spreadsheet and read each one to look for the intent. If the post titles contain any of the following, then I remove them from my list:
- Personal/company news or updates.
- List, top 10, and any other ‘click-bait’ looking titles, often including numbers, hyperbolic words, and maybe even a promise.
The keywords you’re left with will vary widely by industry. For some, it might be a list of traditional how to posts, while for others it will be information about a niche topic — like things to do in Boston or different types of coffee.
Once I have a list of keywords, I’ll head back to the Google Keyword Planner to find which of them have search volume. You can use the keywords you find to find to create content. Make sure to look at the competitors who are raking for top of funnel content to find keywords that you can compete on.
Your competitors websites are there to offer inspiration for SEO campaigns to work on in the future. When you’re putting together your SEO strategy, whether it be for one month or one quarter, you can use competitor data you gathered to provide insight into what strategies you want to use.
To synthesize what you learned, write down 3-5 observations from each category: backlinks, site structure, technical SEO, and content. Then, write down a goal related to the most important of these categories and how you’ll accomplish it. With a plan in hand, informed by your competitors with a twist of your own, you’ll have an SEO plan that’s actionable and easier to measure.