Generating a keyword portfolio is so much more than knowing your brand and products.
It means putting in the work to better understand your digital ecosystem — what space you fill, who else is in that space, and who is above and below you in the SERPs.
You also need to consider both competitor and semantic searcher intent, and what you can do to attract qualified searchers as well as those with a general interest in your niche.
This article offers seven essential strategic thinking tips for identifying your competitors for better keyword research.
In this column, you’ll find insight and tips on finding all of your potential competitors before you start popping URLs and keywords into competitor analysis and keyword tools.
1. Understanding Relevancy and Defining Competition
The world of digital competition is filled with a diversity of players. In many ways, virtual and natural ecosystems are similar; for example, there are many organisms in the natural world seeking the same food source. It doesn’t matter if they are from the same genus and species – they are still competitors.
The same laws of nature can be applied to the virtual world. Those competing for the same visibility as you are your competitors, and it’s highly valuable to your keyword research to consider the relevancy of the space.
Your relevant competitors include:
- Direct competitors: Those that sell the same products and services to the same target audience as you.
- Indirect competitors: Those that may sell the same product, but to a different audience or market. Or those that sell a different product or service, but the relevance of their product is so close, you are competing for a similar audience.
- Semantic competitors: These competitors may not even sell a product, they may just offer juicy and edgy, newsworthy, or essential information to earn visibility from the same audience you are targeting.
An Example of Identification in Practice
If you sell professional photo editing software, for example:
- Direct competitors would be Adobe or Skylum Luminar. These companies provide professional-grade photo editing software.
- Indirect competitors may be Snapseed or VSCO. These companies provide photoshopping apps that can be downloaded to a phone for mobile use.
- Semantic competitors may be online magazines that are trying to capture the attention and serve the target audience of photographers. This may include Digital Photo or Photo District News (PDN).
It can open up a world of unique opportunities in keyword research when you realize the breadth of your contenders.
2. Leaning Into Indirect Competitors
While most businesses and marketers can point to their obvious and direct competitors, learning how to pinpoint your indirect and semantic competitors may take a bit more finesse, creative thinking, and understanding of relevance.
Using the previous example, if you provide photo editing software that is meant for a desktop platform, an obvious indirect competitor would be an app that does a similar thing, just specifically for a mobile platform.
Your indirect competitors may not always be one step away from your product or purpose, but include those that are trying to reach the same visibility in the eyes of your target audience.
Another indirect competitor could be a camera company that is selling the product every photographer needs well before they need your software.
In trying to capture the attention of a photographer, you both may employ similar techniques and target similar essential and relevant keywords that build authority for the knowledge, industry, and niche of photography.
3. Learning From Semantic Competitors
Moreso, if you want to know what industry trends are on the rise in your niche, it’s vital to keep an eye on popular industry publications and semantic competitors.
There is so much value to be gained by going where your audience goes to stay up to date on the latest trends.
These semantic competitors can give you insight into the rise and fall of keyword trends and how searcher queries may change over time.
Semantic competitors can also give you valuable insight into the rise of lesser-known or less established competitors.
If you see a publication discussing a new product or service that is in direct competition with yours, this is a new competitor for you to analyze. Keep your eyes peeled for these competitor insight freebies.
4. Manual Searches and Analyzing the Top of the Food Chain
When considering competitors, look for those at the top of the food chain with a manual search.
This is easily done by using Google to search an essential term and investigating the snippet and SERP with a critical analysis of who shows up. Then take a deeper dive into how they organize and deliver content with purpose and intent.
In addition to looking at the organic rankings, take note of what ads appear at the top of the SERP.
These paid results indicate that the business or webmaster of a site is bidding and paying for that keyword.
Any business willing to pay for visibility in the same space as you is definitely a competitor. Take a look at the content they are creating and the keywords they are not only targeting but paying for.
Looking at who ranks in your general space can give you key insight into how these competitors – direct, indirect, and semantic – are approaching content and serving the searcher.
If you search a few keyword terms that are essential to your brand and each search result provides you with a list of usual suspects, it’s highly likely that they are targeting the necessary keyword spaces.
Not only are they on target, but are also likely producing content that serves the searcher time and time again.
Ranking Competitor Copycat — But With Your Own Stripes
The proverbs “imitation is a form of flattery” and “there is nothing new under the sun” both hold a valuable lesson here, but do have to be “taken with a grain of salt.”
If ranking competitors have valuable content that creates engagement and promotes visibility with your target audience, it’s essential to target those keywords.
You can look at how the winners in the snippet and SERP are composing that content, and utilize the main information and the themes you see represented in the ranking articles.
However, this is not an exercise in copy-paste – content never should be. Ever.
You can find keyword opportunities and mimic the content of your competitors by ensuring you deliver similar information with the same intent, or mine their content for more long-tail query opportunities.
Your content should include a more comprehensive and relevant take that works to fully explore the topic through a unique lens, to provide a similar but original asset that deserves to represent and answer a query for a searcher.
In essence, do what ranking competitors do. Just do it better.
5. Getting Social
Get social and go right to the source. Discover what social platforms your audience typically uses, join those platforms, and use social media to identify your competition.
You can also take a back seat approach and simply observe your followers and your target audience.
Look at who they follow and ask yourself why. Then, look at the content of those competitors and dive into what keywords they target with their content and reflect on if you are providing the same or similar value with your own keyword portfolio.
If you are brave enough, and you craft it correctly, you can even use your own socials to poll your followers and audience and ask what other sources they look to for information or indirect competitor products.
You can also investigate other social forums such as Reddit, Quora, or niche groups and websites to gain insight on what your audience is talking about. See who they are looking to when making decisions for both seeking information and making a purchase.
6. Track the Local Pack
If your goal is to rank in a local search, an essential step in creating a local keyword portfolio is to track the positions, results, and keywords in the local pack.
The local pack is the box of results that is positioned at the top of the SERP for a “near me” query.
There are so many factors that Google uses when evaluating local content to serve in the snack pack.
Earning a position in the local pack is not only going to include updating, monitoring, and optimizing your GMB profile, but will also depend on your relevance, distance, and prominence.
To meet your local ranking goal and make it in the local pack, you need to take a critical look at who shows up and how these positions move. As you continuously monitor the local pack for its rankings, make note of all of those competitors and do a deep analysis of their keyword portfolios.
Look for similarities and differences in the specific keyword queries they target and include them in your content strategy.
Look to the local links your competitors are earning for other relevant opportunities, too. Ask yourself why their keyword content is worthy of earning local links, and whether there are opportunities for you to do something similar yet unique.
Google’s constant updating of the local pack will also give you some guidance on which competitor is your best contender for keyword research.
If they are a usual suspect, it means they are doing something right – such as targeting the right local keywords and truly serving searcher intent and consumer needs.
7. Following Links and Mentions
Another strategy to identify competitors is to look for links and mentions. This may include looking to review sites and even affiliate-focused blogs to see who is making it (either paid or organically) into valuable online conversations.
It’s even better if you can find reputable and authoritative sites and publications with a large following that are providing links and mentions in their content.
This strategy can help you to discover not only highly authoritative or well-known competitors but also unique and up-and-coming ones that did something clever or unique enough to make themselves worthy of mention early on.
Once you find those sites and discover the competitors listed there, follow the link to the competitor page and perform keyword analysis.
Analyze their on-page optimization and look for how their content was positioned not just to serve searcher intent, but how it catered to the audience in a way that made it link-worthy.
Final Thoughts on Competitor Identification and Keyword Research
Researching your competition is an essential aspect of managing your online presence, but it isn’t a cut-and-dry operation.
If you are only looking at a top result or direct competitor, you could be missing out on other highly valuable opportunities.
Just like many other aspects of SEO, the nuance is in the details. Competition for space and visibility takes a comprehensive approach.
As in the natural world, if you want to survive in the digital ecosystem, you’ve got to strategically adapt to thrive.