SEO, by nature, is a competition where you try to outrank other sites. This is why an initial competitive analysis is an essential part of any SEO implementation. When done correctly, you can get valuable insights into how your competitors are approaching their SEO strategy, which can generate various benefits such as:
Get inspirations and ideas on how to build better content, which backlinks you should pursue and how, and which keywords that can be good opportunities, among other aspects
Figure out your competitors’ strengths and weaknesses, and so you can find out how to outdo or outsmart them
Find your competitor’s secret tactics and strategies you can “steal”.
Improve your own SEO strategy based on real, collected data. This way, you avoid assumptions when planning your strategy
These are just some of the benefits you can have by performing an SEO analysis, and in this guide, we will learn how.
We will divide this guide into four major sections, from identifying your key competitors to finally analyzing their backlinks profile. Let us begin with the first one: identifying and validating your competitors.
Identify and Validate Your Competitors
The first step of a successful competitive analysis is knowing whom to analyze, which is this case, your competitors. Depending on the size of your industry, you can have very few to so many competitors.
On the other hand, obviously, we don’t have the time and resources to analyze all of our competitors, and so there are two layers to this step: identify your competitors, and validate the ones that are worth analyzing. First, let us discuss the key principles in identifying your competitors.
1.Identifying Key Competitors
Generally, there are three main approaches to determining your potential, most relevant SEO competitors:
The obvious industry competitor sites
This can range from the market leaders of your industry, your closest competitors, and so on. Here, you are using common sense and the data you’ve gathered from market research.
Top sites in your industry
The top sites in your industry can belong to the market leaders, which we have discussed above. However, there are cases when these top sites don’t belong to major brands. You can use Alexa and Similarweb, among other tools to check these top sites.
This is probably the most accurate approach in relations to SEO. Here, we use keyword research tools like Ahrefs and SEMRush to check our target keywords, and the top ranking sites for these keywords are our competitors. Obviously, here you will need to figure out your target keywords beforehand, and you might want to check out this guide by Backlinko here.
These three are the main approaches in finding your key competitors. Now, how can we validate them to make sure we are using our resources and time for the most important ones? This is where the validation process comes in.
The main approach in validating your SEO competitors is through keyword research: you would want to target competitors that are targeting, or are currently ranking on your target keywords.
Check your current positions for your target keywords
Check these competitors’ ranked keywords, their positions, and analyze their content pieces whether they are targeting the same audiences as yours
Based on these, you should prioritize competitors who are targeting the same target keywords as yours. Depending on your available resources, you should focus on three to five key competitors to analyze.
Analyze Your Competitors’ Target Keywords
Now that you’ve selected and validated several key competitors, we should first analyze their target keywords. The purpose of this is to figure out our opportunities: we can decide whether we can target the same keywords or find other opportunities based on this data. There are several factors to consider in this step:
The keyword difficulty (KD) of the keywords. Even if your competitors are successful with a certain keyword, it’s probably not a good idea to pursue it if the KD is too high.
Find keyword gaps, which is, keywords where your competitors rank for when your site does not. This can be an effective approach to find new target keywords.
There can be opportunities in your competitors’ branded keywords. For example, if your competitor, X, is the market leader of your industry, the keyword “X alternative” or “alternative for X” can be good opportunities. Similarly, you might want to target “X vs your brand name” keyword and its alternatives.
You can use keyword research tools like SEMRush of Ahrefs to figure out your competitors’ keywords easily. With these tools, you simply need to enter your competitors’ URL into the search bar, and they will display important metrics like search volume, CPC, and keyword difficulty (KD).
Analyzing Competitors’ Sites and Content
The purpose of this step is to figure out how your competitors are approaching their on-site SEO optimization, which can be divided into two things: their technical on-site optimizations and their content optimizations.
First, let us discuss several important aspects of technical optimizations you should analyze:
The page’s load speed. It this competitor’s site is currently ranking, especially for popular keywords, you should aim to have similar loading speed, if not faster.
Use of Schema.org or other structured data markups.
URL structure and XML sitemap
Metadata optimizations, like how your competitors are optimizing their title tags, meta descriptions, and image/video optimizations
As you might have guessed, the purpose of analyzing these technical aspects is so that you can emulate their efforts, or find areas where you can do better than them. With that being said, let’s see what we can analyze in the content department:
The most important thing to analyze is how they are optimizing the target keyword(s) within the content. Especially pay close attention to their titles and subheadings. Also, analyze their keyword density using various available tools.
Examine their content types. Are they using videos, images, or podcasts to enhance the textual content?
How optimized are their landing pages, including sales pages if it’s an e-commerce site.
The structure of their content. How long is the blog post? How are they maintaining engagement and readability of the content?
How many links are included in each content for both external and internal links? Analyze how they are using the anchor texts.
How are they approaching their content according to their audience’s search intent?
To get better SEO results, you should first and foremost aim to create better content than the top-ranking sites. So, this step is especially important. Hire an SEO consultant to analyze how your competitors are approaching their content, analyze their content promotion strategy, and aim to outdo them.
Backlinks are still one of the most important ranking signals in SEO. In relations to SEO competitive analysis, there are two main purposes in analyzing your competitors’ backlinks:
Figuring out backlinks opportunities. You can aim to get the same backlinks when targeting the same keywords.
Figuring out whether pursuing these same links are beneficial for your site. For example, are some backlinks going to be really hard to get yourself? In this case, you would also want to decide on the alternatives.
In most cases, however, it’s a good idea to pursue the same backlinks as your competitors. In theory, you should at least similar results when you have the exact same backlinks profile. However, there are two major factors when determining whether you should pursue the backlinks:
Links quality. Nowadays, the quality of your links is far more important than quantity. So, you might not want to pursue backlinks that are low in quality.
Bad links and broken links. Obviously, you should avoid these two. Broken links are simply backlinks from sites or pages that are no longer operational for one reason or another. Bad links are generally purchased links or links built through blackhat tactics.
However, remember that the higher the quality, generally the harder it will be to get the inbound link. You can build a list from these high-quality backlinks, and start building your relationships with these sites until you earn these backlinks. You might want to check out this guide by Backlinko on more about link building tactics.
When analyzing your competitors’ backlinks, here are a few key areas to focus on:
1. Finding backlinks gap
Here, your aim is to find sites which are linking to your competitors’ sites but not yours, especially on pages where you are targeting the same keywords. There are various tools available that can help you in this aspect, and this list by Neil Patel is a good place to start.
2.The number of deep backlinks
Backlinks that are linking to “deep” pages have more value for SEO than a backlink to your landing page or homepage. For example, a backlink that is pointing to a content page can be considered as “deep”.
The goal of this is to find out whether your competitors have a lot of these backlinks. If the answer is yes, you will need to do the same—if not better—to rank for the same keywords. The best way to get these deep backlinks is to develop relevant, high-quality content pieces and build backlinks for each of them.
3. Anchor text usage
In SEO best practices, anchor texts should always be relevant to the content of the linked page. However, using exact-match anchor text too heavily can get you penalized by Google.
So, analyze how your competitors are using their anchor texts, as well as the anchor texts of the backlinks linking to their sites. Check the ratio between exact-match texts and generic anchors, as well as the usage of semantically-related texts.
4. Sitewide backlinks
A sitewide link is, in a nutshell, links placed throughout the whole site, commonly in the sidebar, footer, or header. Using sitewide backlinks aggressively nowadays can induce a Google Penalty due to the Penguin update. However, it can still be effective when done properly. Check out whether your competitors are getting sitewide backlinks, and you can either aim to emulate them or find different opportunities.
Using 301 redirects is one of the most common (and effective) link building tactics. This is why you should analyze whether your competitors are using redirect tactics to get their backlinks, and find similar opportunities.
There are three different redirects to look for:
Traditional 301 redirects: where a brand redirects their existing/old site to the new site, generating a backlink in the process.
Using link shorteners: can be considered a black hat tactic, but is still quite common
Merger redirects: where your competitor redirects an expired, but still relevant site to their site
6. Hidden links
There might be cases where a competitor is ranking really high, but has very little to no backlinks at all. In this case, there is a high probability that your competitors are hiding their backlinks.
Quite often, these sites are hiding their backlinks because they are using grey hat tactics like using a Private Blog Network (PBN) or even black hat tactics.
End Words: Learning From Your Competitors
As we have mentioned, SEO competitive analysis should be an integral part of any SEO strategy. A proper competitive analysis can provide very valuable information about your competitors’ performances and their strategies to achieve them.
By collecting this data, you can, in turn, plan your own SEO campaign without relying on instincts and assumptions, that will drive better results. As the old saying goes: knowing your enemy is half the battle, and by knowing how your key competitors are approaching their SEO, you have a much better chance in outranking them.
I'm an SEO Consultant with over 10 years' experience, including both SEO agency-side and in-house SEO expert. I work predominantly with B2B, startups, SAAS, IT, technology and software companies who are looking to acquire new customers and add zeros to the revenue with SEO and content marketing. If you are looking for someone who is results orientated and has experience in growth marketing and sales pipelines, then connect with me on LinkedIn and schedule a free SEO and content marketing session!