edit Michelle Knight on October 26, 2011
edit SEO Competitive Analysis: Looking Through Your Customers' Eyes
When people search for something on the Web, they want to find it quickly. If you've done a good job of making your website friendly to search engines, someone looking for what you sell may find you right away. If not, a seeker may turn to a competitor.
How do you ensure that your product reaches customers who are looking for it? You need to understand how your customers use search engines, and how the results challenge your business. You need to figure out the strengths and weaknesses of your competitors, what to copy from them and what to do differently. You need to see this information through your customers' eyes.
edit A Plan For Assessing Your Competition
You need to have a plan to understand your competition. First you need to know how your customers will be likely to find you. To come up with a list of competitors, try the following:
- Search for your products using the terms you anticipate your customers would use on popular search engines, such as Google. Look at the search results and list your rivals.
- Go to websites that your customers frequently visit, such as industry organizations' sites, blogs, social networking sites, magazines or even general information sites. See what resources are listed there, and who's advertising there.
- Talk with your customers and find out who they think has a strong Web presence in your industry.
- Note which sites your customers link to from their own sites.
Once you have a list of competitors, you may want to analyze which keywords they use on their website and which keywords they rank well for in search engines. This could be a good time to do some keyword research of your own. (Note: You can use the AboutUs Site Report to track how well you rank in Google for your 20 most important keywords over time. You can also track how your competitors are doing on those same keywords.)
Check out how your competitor presents their website content, and what they do to make it easy for their customers to find what they need. Try to find who hosts their site, who built their site, and whether they mention any technology partners. Much of this information can be seen at the bottom of a site's home page.
If this analysis seems cumbersome or too time-consuming, you may wish to hire an analyst to provide you a high level summary of your competition and their strategies.
edit When To Copy Competitors
Now that you have assessed your competition, look through your customer's eyes to see how your competitor has made it easy to find information quickly on their site. If a competitor is doing something your own customers would appreciate, then it may make sense to do it yourself. Some strategies you may wish to adopt include:
- Selecting keywords that your competitors are using successfully, and using them more often yourself. For maximum SEO effect, place keywords in your web page titles, H1 headings and alt text.
- Don't forget about meta descriptions. Though search engines don't use these to rank web pages, people will see the keywords in your meta description when they're scanning a page of search results, and that can help them decide to click on your site, rather than a competitor's site.
- Clean display of your web page content and easy navigation. Uncluttered web pages make it easier for both people and search engines to find your content, and will help your pages rank better in search results.
- Find who links to your competitors. This can give you some ideas for where to get good inbound links to your own site. To find links to a site, type "link:Example.com" into the Google search bar.
If you find that some of your competitors are using shady or "black hat" SEO tactics - like buying links from dubious sites, for example - ignore these ploys. They will not help you over the long term, as search engines are always finding out about these tactics and discounting them for ranking purposes. Only copy strategies that will maintain your business integrity and create real value for your customer.
edit When To Avoid Competitors' Tactics
It may seem like a good idea to strive to become the top contender, ranking above your competitors for as many keywords as you can. However, this is not the case.
Think about it from the customer's perspective. If they are searching for unpasteurized milk and your business only has a small quantity to offer, then they are going to be annoyed when you appear at the top of the search results and they can't actually buy that unpasteurized milk from you. The article Search Optimization and Its Dirty Little Secrets sounds a wise warning and examples of such tactics.
Don't copy text from your competitors (or anyone else, for that matter). Doing so could result in legal and copyright violations. Do not copy the overall look and feel of your competitors, either. Keep the look and feel of your website and web pages true to your business and true to your customers.
Do not copy technologies that your customers do not use. For example, if you are selling sailboats to customers that live in remote areas, it would probably not be a good strategy to focus on search engines for mobile devices. Your customers could easily be out of range from any cell phone tower. If your customers are not going to use the technology to find you, then it does not benefit you to copy your competitors' use of it.
Do not base the SEO strategies you adopt solely on what website analytics and tools say about you and your competitors. Analytics may tell you a page gets high traffic, but that may not be because customers like it. It could be because people have to go to that page over and over to get the results or information they want, and you're irritating them. Use your common sense and take a sharp eye to website statistics.
edit Revisit Competitive Analysis Regularly
SEO competitive analysis isn't a one-off thing. When you look through your customers' eyes six months from now, you may see different competitors in your market space. You may see different keywords, content, technologies, and links that you need to take account of to stay competitive. Make sure you do competitive analysis as often as it makes sense for your industry.