SEO Competitive Intelligence : Learn From Your SEO Rivals

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Understanding what your competitors are doing online is a must and absolute priority when launching a new website that is entering a competitive space and also when established websites want to keep an eye on their competition. By knowing what your rivals are doing in their SEO and social media space, not only will you have a better knowledge of their online marketing strategy, but you can also emulate what is working for them, and generate internal ideas to stay proactive.

Furthermore, by understanding what your competition is doing in terms of on-site SEO, link building, social media marketing, developing third party properties and other search marketing tactics; you can also identify potential new threats which are making it up the rankings and also unearth tactics which are working from them (or not working for them), that you can improve upon, and thrive from in your overall marketing strategy.

And doesn’t everyone love playing spy every once in a while?

Identifying the Competition

The first step in identifying your online competition is checking out the search results for your most popular keywords. Do not look only at keywords which drive the most traffic, but also your longtail keyterms and also the keyterms which convert the most sales, leads or phone calls.

By comparing the sites which you compete with in these various groups of keyterms, you will more or less identify different styles of competition that you can learn from and monitor. Here are some types of sites which may not appear for your basic keyterms in the serps, that you need to monitor.

  • Affiliate sites are your competition. Not only sites which run the affiliate ads of your rivals, but also your own affiliate ads, because if they are ranking above your company’s site, they are taking money out of your pocket (or the search division’s pocket) by driving traffic and sales that you should be driving. Furthermore, affiliates don’t have to deal with internal regulations and beauracracy, so they can more or less get away with more tactics like publishing loads of content, paid linking, and taking full advantage of the social media outlets your management or PR division is not letting you tackle. Affiliates are the ninjas, mercenaries and dark armies of your industry, learn from them.
  • Offline competitors sometimes don’t do the best SEO, maybe they just launch a flash site or brochure page and don’t rank at all, but they may have an advertising agency with a massive creative team building up their social media presence, hold contests or sweepstakes, build up Facebook followings, have a massive PPC budget and spend a lot of money on site advertising and sponsorships. By monitoring what the do in online advertising, you can identify keyterms and copy which work for them in their PPC campaign and also find out the sites or networks where they are serving graphic advertising, and contact those same networks about striking a deal which will assist with your SEO or linking. If your competition is serving ads there, then those sites hit your target market.

On-Site Competitive Intelligence

Now that you have identified the sites you need to monitor as part of your competitive intel strategy, now start looking into the on-site factors which help them rank in the search engines. You may find not only what they are doing right, but what you are doing wrong. When performing a competitive intel report, I suggest including your own site in the report and even having a third eye, like an SEO consultant or internal staff member, do the research on your own site.

  • Site URL Structure : By tracking the URL structure and file naming structure of competitors, you can determine the best route to gain a competitive advantage over other companies.
  • Site Development and Coding Structure : Which language is the site being coded in. Are there any conflicts in programming language or separate IP’s? This information is vital to SEO competitive intel.
  • Use of Analytics : Is the competitor tracking user behavior and referrals via Google Analytics, Hitbot, Omniture? Looking into their analytics systems help give an idea of how much information they are capturing from their visitors and how advanced their internal tracking is – which may define how advanced their SEO team is.
  • The directory files and URL structures of listings pages : This will be used to determine which techniques these competitors are using for their individual pages, their content, meta and URL structures, and how these reflect in the Google, Yahoo and MSN rankings.
  • Page Title and META Title Review: Page titles are one of the most influential HTML elements used in an optimization campaign. Since the optimization of this variable is connected to rankings and actual links in the Search Engine Results Pages (or “SERPs”), an analysis has been conducted to provide which sites use a preferred title structure and which just use repetition of their company name.
  • META Tag Review (Description / Keywords): META tags have limited relevance to rankings, but do play a part in that search results often feature the META Description tag. Knowing this, an optimized description that instigates action from the searcher is preferred. Further, integrating the targeted keywords allows for them to be bold or otherwise emphasized in the listings – which helps to convert more clicks in the SERPs through to the optimized site.
  • Navigational System Review: Search engines spider, or seek out new content based on the links they find to resources on a page. Navigation systems are the most consistent manner for building internal link popularity, so research evaluates the overall strength of these systems used. For example, a Flash based navigational system is horrible for SEO, whereas consistent keyword driven links with keywords integrated are optimal.
  • Broken Links : If a site has broken links, broken files or lists non-existant pages, then Google will lower the ranking of that site because the engine believes that the site is under construction. Run a link check using Xenu Link Sleuth to see if your competition is overlooking such linking and internal navigation issues.
  • HTML Code Validity: Using the W3C Validation tools, your competitors’’ web sites have been reviewed. This allows the engines to promote sites that deliver a consistent and predictable user experience. Run each site through the validation tool, and reported back the number of errors noted.
  • Design & SEO Integration: Similar to the internal navigational structure, the use of some HTML elements are preferred over others for SEO purposes. Our research and analysis of competing site designs have been provided in this document.

Offsite Competitive SEO Elements

Not only do onsite tactics assist with the ranking of a website, but sometimes more importantly offsite tactics can benefit the competitive advantage to boost a site from the bottom of the front page on Google, to the top three traffic driving positions.

By monitoring offsite SEO tactics, and social media tactics, you can get a rounded feel for the link building strategies your competitors are using, their participation in blogs, sites they may own which are harnessing social media equity and directing it to their main site, if paid linking is working for them, and how they’re doing on Delicious, Digg and in vertically targeted social networks. All of these factors have a direct influence on search engine rankings and you will not only learn what your competition is doing, but what they are not. And by identifying these holes, oversights or even genius ideas … and applying them to your marketing strategy, you can further excel within your industry.

  • Local Listings : Determine the local SEO listings that your competition has made on Yahoo Local, Citypages, BOTW Local, MSN Live and other local search engines or local profiles. These differ from the results shown in organic web search sometimes and can be an indicator of local seo techniques used or overlooked by the competition.
  • Number of Inbound Links: Using Yahoo! Site Explorer, report on the number of inbound links to each of the analyzed web sites. As a rule, the more links and the more relevancy – the better. Search Engines like Google use inbound links to help shape the overall level of authority of a web site.
  • Linkbait or Viral Marketing : How are these competitors building links? Are they running link baiting programs and actively having articles submitted to Digg & StumbleUpon? Are they using any Viral Marketing techniques like videos, widgets or badges which link back to them and assist with their rankings. Dig into their campaigns to find out what they are using, and monitor the social networks to identify future social linking campaigns.
  • Social Media : Do they actively use social media to market their business? Does their company have a Wikipedia page? How do they rank for their own brand name and are social profiles served in these results? Have they even secured their brand across social networks? Do they distribute online video? This research will help determine a social media plan and also identify competitive advantages that you can use to your advantage.
  • Blogging : Do these companies blog and who is doing their blogging? Are the blogs on a subdomain, a whole other website or in an internal directory file. How often do they post? How many subscribers will they have? This information will assist you construct your blogging strategy and possibly unearth some ideas.
  • Paid Link Research: It is difficult to say with certainty that an inbound link has been purchased. There are however signs where common systems like Paid Directories and Link Networks are used on a site. Research of inbound, paid links to your competitors from sidebars, ads on newspaper sites or bad paid linking in footer links may give you some insight as to which anchors they are targeting and what is working for them.
  • Site visits and Traffic : Using a mix of data from Alexa, Compete and other web traffic estimation tools, estimate the traffic of the competitors in terms of visitors, time spent on site, top referrals and other information driven by third party tools.
  • Page Rank and other Metrics : Compile a list of competitive metrics including Google PageRank, SEOmoz PageStrength, Delicious Bookmarks, StumbleUpon voting, Google Page Indexing, Google Competitive Indexing.
  • Competitive Rankings : Last but not least, run a ranking check using a search engine friendly software for each of the terms which you have determined for targeted SEO keyterms via your comeptitive research. Check the rankings for these sites and terms in Google, Yahoo,, Bing and maybe some engines which are used specifically by your industry.

This may sound like a lot of information to monitor, and you’ll probably want to add more industry specific metrics to your research dependent upon how SEO savvy your market is. But in the long run by documenting this information now, and revisiting it once a quarter, you will have a pinpoint idea of the tactics your search rivals are utilizing, what they are not, and even what they are picking up.

I also recommend monitoring their listings on and other job search engines to identify the internal positions they are hiring for or have, like SEO Manager or Social Media Marketing Assistant, this way, you may gather some insight as to what they are planning in the future, which may assist you with getting the internal go ahead from your CEO or CMO to embark on a smart social media campaign, before the competition does.

If you need any help with the tools needed to perform a lot of this research, please contact me via email or Twitter (in my profile box at the top of this post) or check out our SEO Tools post for some ideas.

Are there any other competitive intel tactics you recommend? Please feel free to share them in the comments below.

Loren Baker
Loren Baker is the Founder of SEJ, an Advisor at Alpha Brand Media and runs Foundation Digital, a digital marketing strategy & development agency.
Loren Baker
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  • a lot of interesting insight here, i have been following the competitiion on twitter and facebook for a deeper understanding of what others are up to recently

  • Wow, good post. I read it 2 times and took notes.
    In order to find some more competitors you can use and see similar sites to yours.

    • Thanks AG, and I’ve been checking out SimilarSites. It looks pretty cool and I think we’ll post something on it in the future 🙂

  • You may also want to look into copywriting the content of your site. You can copyright your entire site, specific pages, or components of pages. More at

  • Wow. That’s an awesome list. How many weeks did it take you to write this post? One interesting thing I note is your mention of offline competitors. So ften I have a hard time getting clients to understand that their competition from an SEO perspective has nothing to do with their competition at the trade shows.

    That being said, I also tell them not to worry about the competion, to keep their eyes focused on the ball. We might want to do a lot of what the competition does (and for that reason we do pay attention), but th only way to surpass the competition with a head start on us is to do more, faster and better than them.

  • Good post. You can learn a lot about what you should do SEO-wise by monitoring your top competitors. In addition, you can take advantages of areas that your competition has yet to capitalize on!

  • An excellent check-list, Loren, and certainly worth doing for important websites and their competition.

    If I had to choose the very minimal evaluation, then I would do two things:
    a) a Xenu analysis of their website looking only at internal links, and
    b) a Yahoo site explorer evaluation of their inbound external links.
    Very rapidly you know whether you have a savvy competitor or not. If that competitor is doing useful ‘stuff’ then it can be very effective to steal those ideas.

  • Wow, I’m impressed. Couple years experience SEO in one article for free.

  • Excelent post. I use most of the tatics shown here and I’m having good results.

  • This is a good post.

    It is actually a fact that you should learn from your competitors, learn how they make their move.

    This is a good post to munch on.

    Thanks for sharing your years of SEO experience.

    Looking forward to more of your posts.

  • jon

    That’s really exhaustive. Competitive intelligence has always been part of my strategy but I’ve never really took such a comprehensive and structured attitude to it. Many thanks for the check-list, Loren, you saved us all a lot of time and brain cells.

    Btw. I’ve found a couple of useful tools for researching your competition that I’d like to share. SEO SpyGlass helps a lot in finding and analyzing the competion’s backlinks and WebSite Auditor saves time on content analysis. If anyone’s interested you can find the tools here

  • Most of my clients never even think about competitive intelligence until I explain how important it is to them: You can’t get to the top of any search without taking into account how others got there before you.

  • I think we can learn from not only our seo rivals but also all sites which have good rank in the search engine

  • I had to laugh while reading your post. You spell out, quite nicely, why was created! We launch on Sept 15, 2009. What is Heardable? A real-time social-search listening platform providing actionable analytics to help brands get heard. We help empower marketers to take actionable steps to improve the effectiveness of their online brands—from conversation to conversion. Well written, Loren!

  • Ed

    HTML Code Validity as a competitive factor?

    Sorry Loren, but that is utter nonsense and waste of time to include in your competitive research strategy.

  • I think there is quite a bit to digest here. What you use has to do with the size of the company and your market place. What resources you have available and your competition.

    In essence it is applying basic sales techniques to Web marketing. Assess the strengths and weaknesses of the major players in your arena. Only the information is readily available and the tools are at your disposal.

    Once you gauge the competition, use your key strengths to leverage your position and go after your niche market..

    Listen, we cannot close them all; but we can shoot for a higher percentage!

  • I do wonder how I will go about dissecting the competition but this helps a lot. Need to try and apply each one since it seems like the number 1 competitor has been very stagnant in terms of SEO.

  • Good post. Thank you so much

  • I have seen a lot of advertising offering to make my site show in 1st 10 in Google withing a day, is that true, the reason i ask is because changes I made it shows in Google days if not weeks later, how do they do it?, how can i do it?

  • Nice competitor analysis tips from an SEO perspective. If you are not an SEO but more focused on your competitors overall marketing efforts ( SEO is just one component )
    A very useful free tool like Google Alerts does a great job to gather / spy on your competition.

    I’ve written a detailed post on using Google Alerts to spy on your competitor here;

    Hope this helps

    • Thats not a bad idea, but you might just end up with a ton of junk with Google Alerts. Thats the sort of thing that, in my brief experience, really needs to be fine tuned in order to weed out the useless junk that you’ll get through the alerts. Then again, I suppose your post is probably focused on doing just that, so I’ll be stopping by. 😉

  • I think the article takes competitor analysis to the extreme. For most law firms, this type of research would be exhaustive and costly. As an owner of 9 businesses, consultant, professor of New Product and Service Development at NYU, this tactics will typically produce two outcomes. 1) a me too product. Look at your competition long enough and you will mirror them. 2) the efforts should be directed outward to solving tomorrows challenges as a law firm and this tactic looks at yesterdays solutions. Thoughts??

  • Nice, but you didn’t say anything about Twitter…
    This is a really good tools for Spying your competitors.

  • Yeap, you have forgotten Twitter and all other sites that in some way are directly related with it, like tweetmeme.

  • Dear Loren Baker,
    Really your articles are so useful. I’m your fan. In this article you defined so much useful tips to promote any site. Yes, Competitive Rankings is one of the most important task.

  • Thank you for this, Loren. I love the idea of finding the number of inbound links using Yahoo! Site Explorer, but I’m not seeing a way to do that on the site. Would you please share more details? Thanks, ann