The ability to spot small wins (or fails) in your SEO strategy can be invaluable. In this guide, 38 experts share SEO metrics they track on a daily basis.
Marketing | Mar 30
Elise Dopson on March 2, 2020 (last modified on March 16, 2020) • 24 minute read
The bad news?
Somebody needs to take those spots–and sometimes, it won’t be your website. It might be your competitor’s.
In those situations, what can you do?
A good first step is understanding the things they’re doing right, as well as the opportunities from things they’re missing, by conducting an SEO competitive analysis.
So where do you start? We polled more than 100 marketing pros for the tools and tips they rely on most.
Before we dive in, let’s cover exactly what a competitor analysis is.
An SEO competitive analysis looks at your competitor’s most important SEO metrics to figure out how (and why) they’re doing what they’re doing.
This can provide two unique opportunities, as Chris Love of Love2Dev explains: “When I review mine or my client’s competition I try to deduce what the other guys are trying to accomplish. Is this something we should be doing as well? Or is the competition aimed in the wrong direction and how can we exploit that weakness.”
Now we know what an SEO competitor analysis is, you might be wondering how often to look at your competitors’ strategy to find hidden opportunities to overtake them.
The majority of experts we polled said they run analyses monthly or quarterly:
However, Jeremie Carroll of Smart Exposure Marketing says: “I do these analyses at the very beginning of a new client relationship and roughly every year after that. A quality SEO strategy will take about a year to really be effective and followup research can reveal additional opportunities.”
You can’t do an SEO competitor analysis without knowing who you should be comparing your strategy to.
“The easiest way to find direct competitors is to look up what your business provides and see who else offers the same product,” writes Melanie Musson of QuickQuote.com.
“If you do some keyword searches and find certain of those direct competitors popping up frequently, they’re the ones to watch. Similarly, if you see an indirect competitor showing up in those same keyword searches, add them to your tracking.”
Clixsy‘s Allen Levings adds: “If you aren’t selling something on your site, don’t compare your site to Amazon or Walmart. Similarly, if you aren’t a directory, don’t include Thumbtack, Expertise, and other directories in your competitor analysis.”
DealNews‘ Gennady Lager agrees: “If you run a small blog, do not compare your site to massive, well-known blogs with vastly different goals, resources, budgets, revenue models, and publication calendars. You want to try and make your analysis as like-for-like as you can.”
“The metrics around a large site and why it ranks well may be completely different than those for a smaller site. I recommend hand-picking who you are competing against in your analysis and try to punch one or two weight classes up. You also want to provide analysis on sites with similar targets.”
“For example, if you run a local news website, doing on analysis on Reuters is probably not a good use of your time as the primary targets are very different,” Lager says.
Dan Young of Loud Digital advises to “be realistic with the size of competitors you analyze, find competitors you can actually compete with when it comes to budget, so you set achievable goals.”
However, Kiwi Creative‘s Giselle Bardwell says: “A tidbit we tell our clients that is often a surprise to them is that their industry competitors are not the same as SEO competitors.”
“Many of our clients know who their industry competitors are, but do not realize there is a difference between industry competitors and those with whom they compete in search engine results pages (SERPs).”
There’s also an easier way to do this for agencies, as Blue Fusion Digital‘s Shane Hampson explains: “Don’t assume you know who the top competitors are for your client (potential client) let them give you insights as to why they believe are their top competitors in addition to what your toolsets will reveal to you.”
“Digital marketing and SEO have breached a new point in technology making it easier and more effective for businesses to advertise in an online world,” Sarah Franklin of Blue Tree AI explains.
“It is very important to run SEO competitive analysis reports to gain insight into what is working and what is not in a particular industry.”
So, how do you run an effective SEO competitor analysis? And what things should your report include?
We asked 60+ experts to share their opinions, which included:
According to Carolyn Thomson of Wealth Grow Wisdom, “the one tip for running an effective SEO competitive analysis report is to outline your overall objective.”
“Having an objective for the analysis will enable you to determine how broad you should go in your analysis (direct competitors only or larger competition). It will also enable you to look into the areas that most interest you.”
Thomson explains: “For instance, if the objective for the competitive analysis is to determine the communications axis of each competitor in order to come up with positioning for a brand, we will look at their organic content, visuals, copy, etc. If the objective is to check if our product/service pricing is right, we will look at the competition’s pricing.”
“It seems like a no-brainer but it is sometimes overlooked, leading to broad analyses which are not very insightful.”
Directive‘s Brendan Hufford agrees: “One thing that almost nobody talks about (and few think about) is asking yourself a core question before getting started, “What do I want to get out of this information?”
“Sometimes, we look at competitor data to benchmark against them, but why are we SPECIFICALLY looking? It could be a specific product line, or their blog is taking off, of link-building tactics they’re using, etc.”
“The key here is to have a GOAL when doing a competitive analysis report versus overwhelming yourself with a ton of non-actionable information.”
David Gossage of lookfantastic summarizes: “Have a clear idea of the desired outcome. Competitor analysis can throw up massive amounts of data and be hellishly time-consuming. Having a clear goal before you start can help prevent a lot of wasted time, increase automation opportunities to avoid the dreaded question, “so what?”
“The first and foremost tip for running an effective SEO competitive analysis report is to identify the keywords that your website can target in your niche,” 10Web‘s Armine Hayrapetyan advises.
“Our SEO team runs competitive analysis on a weekly basis for blog post strategy, i.e. find top 10 pages that rank on the first page of Google with specific keywords, try to outrank them by developing deeper and longer content and acquiring more backlinks than your competitors.”
Peter Song of Haki Review Mashup has a tactic for using this competitor data: “Basically, I try to find those that have low search results but high search volume. Then, I rank it by the keyword value from the highest and to the lowest. I target higher keywords for SEO.”
In fact, the vast majority of SEO experts say that keyword competition is either ‘somewhat’ or ‘very’ important to their strategy:
Gary Hyman also recommends to “quantify competitor keyword traffic. In other words, understand the volume that your competitors’ primary keyword phrases are pulling into their website.”
Trevan Marden of Predictable Growth Marketing adds: “Dig deep into the keywords your competitors are targeting – what are their strategies and what tactics are they implementing and how do they compare to your own company.”
“Try to find out if they are being successful or chasing empty results. You do not want to emulate their failings. Seek opportunities the competition may have missed.”
Max Allegro of Intuitive Digital summarizes: “Reports are able to track the performance of your domain compared to your competitors in terms of total keywords, most valuable keywords, and keyword overlap for the terms you are competing with directly.”
“This will give you a good idea for how competitive some of the keywords you are targeting are, as well as help you identify some gaps in your current keyword strategy.”
Not all of our experts advise looking at keywords in an SEO competitor analysis.
“When running SEO competition analysis I often see people being to focused/zoomed in on a few keywords instead of grasping the topic and all surrounding phrases that are included,” says Igor Buyseech.
“Studies have shown that an average 1st place ranking in the SERPs is ranking for 1000+ keywords, which doesn’t happen by accident. The content itself is of course not filled with 1000 instances of that keyword, but if the main variations are placed in the correct places (metadata, h-tags, img alts etc.) it will cover the broader aspect.”
“I therefore always check the top ranking sites for my main variations and reverse engineer their rankings via tools like Ahrefs to see what their specific sites/URLs actually rank for.”
Buyseech explains: “Once I established what they rank for and get a list of keywords I can check the power and continue with a more detailed analysis of the pages that are ranking for the most keywords, preferably with the least backlinks and authority. Why? Because those pages are doing a lot of things correctly on the on-page/content side of things and are ranking because of it.”
“So my main advice is to always check the broader picture of what the competitors ranking above you are ranking for, and not to get caught up in 1 or 2 main keywords and stuffing them across the board.”
This can impact your entire keyword research strategy, as Digimark‘s Steven Jaenke explains: “One of the things that I’ve found over the years is that if my team and I run a competitive analysis before we do keyword research, the competitive analysis corrupts our objectivity.”
“Now we do keyword research first, then the competitive analysis and add any keywords from the analysis to our keyword research spreadsheet.”
“One thing that never goes out of style is site traffic,” Beekeeper‘s Alexandra Zamolo says. “It’s always essential to check the site traffic for certain topics that you’re hoping will rank, backed by a good SEO strategy. By checking competitor’s site traffic on the same topics or pages through Ahrefs, you can see how you measure up.”
Aleksi Halsas of Trustmary recommends to “check competitor websites on what content they are getting the most traffic from [because] focusing too much on different metrics just takes away focus.”
Lance Beaudry of Avalanche Creative explains: “Once you’ve identified your competition, filter their traffic by traffic percentage. Find the pages that are driving the most valuable traffic that are non-branded. Look at the content, see if you can compete.”
“The best tip for running an effective SEO competitive analysis report is to examine their backlink profile and the rate at which they produce quality content,” says Christopher Grozdon of DASH-SEO.
“These two factors (backlink quality/quantity and fresh/consistent content) are one of the strongest influencers when it comes to ranking high within search engines. Continue to acquire backlinks and also produce consistent, high-quality content. From there, you’ll eventually surpass your competition.”
Pelicoin‘s Sam Olmsted explains why this is important: “Links are a sign of “trustworthiness” for search engines like Google and Bing. The more quality links a site has, the more authoritative that site becomes. By understanding your competition’s link profile, you can see how aggressive you need to be in your link building efforts.”
“For example, by getting a list of the websites linking to your competitors, you can not only see which sites in your vertical are likely to give backlinks and go after them but also check the type of content that works for your competitors and the strategies they use to get those backlinks,” Glassdoor‘s Ophélie Marten-Jeanroy explains.
That’s why ZooWho‘s Claire Shaner recommends to “see which backlinks they have in common. Are those same sites also linking to you? If not, you’ve just discovered a site to pitch to or an industry-specific directory.”
However, Copygun‘s Valerio Puggioni says: “Many people simply plug in a website into a backlinks checker and pull backlink reports without really knowing what they’re doing, aimlessly plugging away at what’s being shown.”
“They tend to neglect the most important step, which is to analyze the backlink profile of each competitor carefully, trying to determine HOW a competitor’s overall link-building strategy looks like.”
“This way, we can quickly gauge which sites are actually worth reaching out to, which ones will be paid (my team doesn’t pay for links), and which ones are spammy, and shouldn’t be pursued,” Puggioni adds.
Bonus: “While running a competitive analysis and finding backlinks to replicate make sure the links are not from their [connections],” says SendX‘s Christeen Paul.
“If you dig a bit deeper and find links repeated from the same domain. You can understand that some links will be from their connections or clients. Make sure you remove these from your report.”
“My one tip for an effective SEO competitive analysis is to remember to focus on internal link-building and overall website architecture,” Billig Fitness‘ Michael Kirkegaard Clausen says.
“With the right internal link-structure, you will create a better balance to your website and the most valuable pages will get a better PageRank. If a page with a few referring domains are ranking well, it might be thanks to a strong internal-link-structure.”
Faizan Ali of WPBeginner agrees: “We also keep a close look on their internal linking strategy with the help of an audit tool.”
“One thing that we do for our clients is to do checks on Google News for their niche or city to see what other businesses are doing for PR,” says Sam Romain of Romain Berg.
“Knowing what your competitors are doing for their PR can give insights. This can also flush out competitors you didn’t know existed which you can then plug into tools like SEMRush to do a deeper dive on their keywords, content, and link building strategies.”
“One tip I would suggest is to develop a nice looking templated report and then utilize an industry-leading tool to fill in the data,” writes RKD‘s Bryan Coles.
“If you can automate some of this via custom report building or API into your own system, even better. With that said ensure that you have some areas for personalization to the client.”
*Editor’s note: Don’t waste time creating your own templates. We’ve got a bunch of pre-made SEO dashboards that sync with the tools you’re already using, pulling data from various software to see all in one place:
Tom Jager of bestessays.com agrees that it is “important to conduct an effective SEO competitive analysis report, and although there are many ways to do so, you can score them according to a checklist.”
“The checklist you use must be based on the sites of the competition, so you need to know who you are competing with. Once you have that data, you can score the websites of the top 5 competitors you have. You can check things such as its technical optimization, content creation, and curation, content sharing options, call to actions and the overall user experience.”
“The scorecard can then form part of your SEO competitive analysis report and help you identify where you can improve. For example, you could possibly improve on content sharing options by including more social media buttons to easily share the content,” Jager continues.
“It is crucial to know what the competition is up to so you won’t be too far behind. Conducting an effective SEO competitive analysis report will keep you up to date and ready to adapt to new strategies.”
It’s easy to focus on the most important SEO KPIs when comparing your website to competitors. However, Jeremy Cross of Team Building Las Vegas recommends: “Instead of just focusing on the numbers, also include some soft analysis.”
“For example, search two or three of the main competitors and look at what they are doing. Is competition publishing more or less frequently? Using higher quality images? Updating their directory listings?”
“Analysis like this can show you not just where you stand compared to the competition now, but also help predict where you may be in a few month’s time,” Cross explains.
“You should be actively reviewing user experience of your top competitors to see if that is assisting their growth,” Cody Bollerman adds. “Sign up for their newsletters to review their content, keep an eye on things from a customer perspective as well instead of just sticking to the software.”
CloudApp‘s Maile Waite agrees: “Instead of hyper-focusing on specific data points, try to look at all of the data holistically and ask “why?”
“Think of why the keyword density, word count, etc. on a competitor’s site makes their content valuable. So often, competitive analyses focus on individual components without answering why certain sites are successfully ranking.”
Jordie Black of Coffee and Check summarizes: “It’s no good just seeing that a competitor ranks higher than you. Instead, look at why they rank higher – what is it about their content that Google likes. Does it have more backlinks etc.”
“When you do this, you’ll be much better equipped to work out how you can use your analysis report to improve your content.”
Toni JV of JVT Media says that when you’re conducting an SEO competitive analysis, “the one question you have to ask yourself is: “Can I add something better and/or different to these search results?”
“Even if your domain authority is lower (within reason, of course), if you can add something that’s 5-10 times better than the top ranking page, or even better, something that’s different from that article, you can compete for it.”
JV puts that into action: “Maybe the top ranking blog is 5 years old and you could come in with a freshly updated article? Maybe it’s got a viewpoint that you highly disagree with, and you can create a blog about the opposing viewpoint, and thus be polarizing and stand out? Maybe the top ranking blog is only 1000 words long, and you can create a 5000-word article with quality information that adds 10 times the value to the end-user?”
“Remember, Google simply wants to give searchers the best result for their query. If you can satisfy this better than anyone else, you’re well on your way.”
That’s why Jeremy Lopatin of Climb Marketing says: “Keep up on the competitions’ rankings for specific keywords, but remain aware of your overall “footprint” of your organic visibility, and how it compares to that of the completion.”
You’ll likely feel the temptation to copy your competitor’s SEO strategy if you uncover a hidden gem.
But Best Company‘s Alice Stevens warns: “Be careful with how much you let your competitor analysis inform your strategy. You want to be different and stand out from your competitors, so focus on your goals and priorities first.”
“In fact, your competitors may be taking short-cuts that will not be beneficial in the long-run. If your strategy is too dependent on your competitors, you’ll probably fall into the same traps.”
“One is just not enough,” says Rishikesh Fulari of Hashtag Technologies. “Go through as many competitor sites as possible. In the process, you will discover a lot more opportunities that you didn’t notice before.”
Austin Shong of Blip Billboards adds: “Of course, it’s important to keep an eye on your direct competitors, but don’t forget about indirect competitors.”
“Periodically, I like to do a broader analysis and check in on potential substitutes that we don’t directly compete with. This is good for keeping a thumb on what direction they’re headed and can potentially give good ideas on what keywords to go after next.”
That’s also why SEO Locale‘s Nick Quirke recommends to “analyze 10 competitors and leverage the data you pull for an on-page and off-page strategy. SEO isn’t just one strategy for every client. We tweak our strategy every week for all of our clients in different industries.”
You might have different competitors for each feature, product, or service you provide.
For this reason, Software Pundit‘s Bruce Hogan says: “When running the analysis, separate your competitors into established leaders and newer, fast-growing websites.”
“The keywords that the newer, fast-growing website is capturing are both relevant to your website, and easier to capture. You have a better chance of competing with websites with lower domain authority, than an established player that is many years ahead of your website.”
Joshua Ballard of Paradox Marketing explains: “You should be placing domains into one of three camps:
“This step is important as it is really allowing you to filter between what will end up being your competitors, and what could actually end up becoming your collaborators.
“Other companies who are writing for the same audience as you, but do not have a competing service or product offering are actually far more useful for you to identify than direct competitors,” Ballard adds.
When running your SEO competitive analysis, Luke Eales of Seven Star Digital advises against being “seduced by competitive-analysis-by-numbers.”
“It’s great to have standardized reports that objectively track competitor KPIs, but the qualitative factors and overriding narrative provide far more insight.”
Eales explains: “This means you shouldn’t simply outsource laborious competitor analysis to a junior team-member or third party. Instead, ensure your best minds have the time and space to dig into the competitor landscape, make sense of what they’re seeing and respond accordingly.”
According to Smartoperations‘ Olivier Houart, you might be missing a competitor with tons of SEO data to browse through: “There is an angle there where you can find interesting pages in the references and external links sections of your keyword search in Wikipedia.”
“You will find interesting links and if you use them in the SEO tool of our choice where you can increase your list of websites, keywords people and blogs you can relate to. You have a high chance to stumble over competitors you haven’t identified yet.”
After all, Wikipedia is one of the most powerful websites in the world, SEO-wise:
As Assisted‘s Tristan James explains, professional SEO competitor analysis tools “give you a range of ways to collect and analyze competitor information that you otherwise wouldn’t have.”
“It can make the difference between creating a surface-level report and a deeper analysis that will give you a much better idea of what your competitor is up to.”
So, which tools should you have in your toolkit to make SEO competitor analysis ten times easier?
Our experts recommend:
Spencer Andrews of Integritive prefers Moz’s Open Site Explorer tool because it “allows you to view a competitor’s domain authority, how many backlinks they have and where they are from, and their rankings for keywords.”
“This allows you to compare yourself to competitors and see where you initially stand before or after completing on and off-page SEO work.”
*Editor’s note: Keep an eye on how your competitors’ SEO strategy chances with our Moz Competitor Overview dashboard. It shows how key metrics–including Domain Authority and the number of linking root domains-change over time:
“Ahrefs’ Site Explorer tool allows you to simply enter the URL of your competitor(s) against your own site to get a detailed breakdown of where your competitors rank, for which keyword, to help you identify which keywords to pursue and create/optimize content around,” says Tim Dugan of Zero Gravity Marketing.
This is the Content Gap feature–something Dugan thinks that by analyzing, “you can identify what keywords your competition is ranking, for which page and at which position.”
Michael Keenan adds: “Filter out the top volume keywords with low keyword difficulty and referral domains (using Ahrefs or another tool), and plan to create better articles than them for those keywords.”
Christina Pigol explains: “For example, CIENCE specializes in outbound B2B lead generation, and when I perform content gap research, I usually include Hubspot (CRM provider for both inbound and outbound marketers), SalesHacker (B2B sales-related media) and other more narrowly specialized companies (e.g. MailChimp or Woodpecker who provide email software).”
“To see the most complete picture, I recommend analyzing all 10 websites that Ahrefs allows, with 2-4 being influencers, not competitors, and choose the option to show 3 or more target intersections.”
Ever Increasing Circles‘ Alistair Dodds also explains how use Ahrefs to find opportunities to overtake your SEO competitors: “Use Ahrefs to research their search numbers, find the top 10 competitors per term and export the table to excel. Order by URL, filter by do-follow links and then filter out sites your competitors have built or do the marketing work for.”
“Then work through red-lining anything that’s non-industry or location related, anything that’s spam or clearly a paid submission and then see what’s left with a reasonable UR and DR combination.
“Those are your top tier targets. Are they realistic for you to achieve?”
(There’s a reason why Ahrefs was found to be the most popular SEO competitor analysis tool.)
Annalisa Hilliard of Data Dames Marketing thinks “SEMrush is a great tool to help with competitor analysis, as is performing searches on client keywords on various search engines, social networks and video platforms (like YouTube and Vimeo) to see who their competitors are on each of those platforms and what those competitors are creating that’s working.”
According to Daniel Noakes, the team at UClimb think “Similar Web is a great tool for any kind of competitive analysis comparison report, including SEO.”
“It’s a very expensive tool if you want to use it regularly (over £7k a year), but they offer a free trial, so for the occasional report ad-hoc it’s a great free tool.”
These tools provide tons of data for you to dive into.
However, David Kranker of Budget Branders says: “The one tip I would provide would be to use as many different data sources as you have available to you when it comes to seeing what content is performing well for competitors and what links they have.”
“Different tools operate differently and may provide different estimates or find different links. For instance, Majestic has a great historical link database and can provide more historical link information than other tools like Ahrefs can.”
“When you run your competitors through multiple tools, you’ll be able to fill in gaps and get a more complete picture,” Kranker adds.
As Alexander Rodrigues of Semântico says: “Do not rely on tools blindly. Look at the site as a whole, open the code and understand what they are doing and, most importantly, understand how they create the content of the site.”
But regardless of the tool(s) you’re using, Reef Digital‘s Piotr Olesson says: “My one main tip would be to refresh your skills on these tools or tools of your choice before running your next competitive report. This will certainly be an invaluable exercise because you never know what new insight or feature you might discover.”
“If you want to get ahead of the competition in SEO, it is critical you know what you are up against,” Stan Mead of Summit Home Buyers LLC summarizes.
Use these tips to find your competitors, and try to uncover their SEO strategy. You’ll soon start to overtake them.
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