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Any Excuse To Do Competitive Research

August 23rd, 2010 | | Basic SEO Tips, Nuts & Bolts of Optimization

We all understand that SEO isn’t performed in a vacuum.  In addition to the on-site optimizations you must continue refining and expanding throughout the life of a website, there are external linking opportunities, linkbait campaigns, social media integration, and all of the other relationship-building activities that help your site gain respect and popularity. You have to interact with other people and understand what they need from you in order to fully leverage the power of SEO. When it comes down to it, you’re probably doing SEO for a business reason. You want people to find your site so they can buy your stuff. But: unless you’ve been lucky enough to invent Awesome Item X and no one else sells it, there are probably a million other people who also want people to find their site and buy the same stuff.  So if you really want to take advantage of all of the opportunities available to you, you’ve gotta mind not only your own business but everyone else’s too. SEO: where it pays to be nosy.

The main drawback here is that being nosy can be a lot of work. You’re trying to write some copy and set up Website Optimizer tests and do all of the stuff you need to do on your own site, and it can feel a bit like being lazy when you stop to take a few minutes to browse other peoples’ websites. But it’s such an important part of SEO, as it can give you valuable insight into industry standard website features, competing special offers, keywords to target, and new industry players. The point of it all is: if you haven’t checked out what everyone else is doing lately, now is as good a time as any. Stop character counting your meta descriptions for an hour, grab a Mai Tai and a blank Excel workbook, and sit back and start snooping.

There are as many ways to approach competitive research as there are people doing it, but here are a few ideas, ranging from free and very high-level to paid and more detailed:

Look up your keywords in search engines. This is pretty easy. You have your target keyword list? Look all of them up! Click on the sites in the SERPs. For those site which are ranking more highly than your own, take notes on anything that they are doing differently. It wouldn’t hurt to keep track of which sites are appearing for each keyword, too, as there will likely be a significant pattern of overlap where the same sites show up for multiple target keywords, and tracking those sites which appear in high positions repeatedly can give you an idea of your biggest competitors.

If you know who your competition is, or only want a high-level analysis of opportunities available, there are free SEO tools like those which you can find at www.compete.com or SEOmoz such as Open Site Explorer that you can use to comparatively analyze various measures of rankability. Both also have reasonably priced paid versions of their tools, and really, I think it’s worth it to pay a bit for a group of tools that will vastly improve your ability to analyze your site for internal improvements and search for competitive advantages.

We’ve been using Advanced Web Ranking to track our own rankings and for competitive analysis for over a year, and it’s turned out to be a very useful tool that will do a lot of things for you at once, saving you time in gathering data so you can focus your energy on analyzing it! If you’re unfamiliar with the tool, it basically takes your specified keyword list and your domain and determines the rank of each of those keywords on any specified search engines you choose. It also, helpfully, will indicate exactly which page of your site is ranking for those keywords, as well as which other sites are ranking for each keyword and where they are in comparison to you. Additionally, it offers comparative metrics between any dates on which you ran a ranking analysis and data about keyword density in copy, meta elements, alt tags, titles, and links.

Here are a few of its most useful features, and how you can use this data to create a pretty excellent internal analysis and competitive profile for your site.

Current Rank:

This handy tab shows you your position, previous position, and URL on which your keywords rank in each search engine. You can see data for all keywords collectively for one or more websites for any two dates on which you pulled ranking information. This allows you to determine exactly which page is ranking for which keyword for each search engine- sometimes there are surprises and the page you intended to rank for Keyword A isn’t ranking for it at all, so this is a good SEO double-check to ensure that the pages that you hope are best-optimized for a particular term are in fact the best-ranking.

Search Engine Rank:

This tab will show you, on an individual keyword basis, your position, previous position, and URL for which you are ranking for all search engines simultaneously. They’re interestingly not always the same URLs in each search engine, so this report is especially useful for identifying areas where you have large ranking gaps between various search engines and can help you develop a plan to address them individually to the extent possible.

Top Sites:

Very useful! This is a lot of info, but super important and neat. For each search engine, and each keyword you identify, you can see the top 10 ranking URLs and their change from the previous run date. Much like running your own search on Google, but everything is done for you and all you have to do is download this report in Excel format and analyze. Also, you don’t have to remember to do it at any set time increment, and you won’t run out of minutes in the day to sit down with your Mai Tai and search, because you can schedule the updates to run in any increment of time you’d like and the data will just be waiting for you when you’re ready to analyze.

Keyword Analysis:

This report needs to be run separately from the ranking update, but it analyzes your site’s text, titles, meta elements, links, and alt tags for keyword density and prominence and then scores them. Similar tools are available through SEOmoz’s paid subscription, but if you’re buying AWR you may as well use this one too! It’s good for identifying pages on which you are missing image alt tags or meta descriptions, as it will report them, and also good for identifying possible “oops” keywords- if the keywords it identifies your site as being dense with are not those which you intend to rank for, you should reanalyze your on-site SEO strategy.

Overview Report:

Most of the reports that can be run in the AWR interface can also be saved as HTML files, PDFs, or Excel files, and this is one of the most useful for high-level comparison and client reporting as well. This report will list your keywords and their performance for your specified URL for a comparative date range. If you have an identified competitor, you can add their URL to your list of sites to pull keyword rankability for and generate the same report which will compare your performance. This report is also very useful in identifying trends that occur after significant algorithm changes in the search engines, such as Google Caffeine introduction or the Yahoo-Bing merger.

Using a paid tool to manage your competitive research is much more streamlined and convenient than manually searching out competitors, but no matter your strategy it’s an important exercise to complete at least occasionally to ensure that you’re not falling behind in features, offers, or usability and that your rankings are remaining comparable. Please let us know if you have any favorite competitive research tools or other rank-tracking methods!

Jessica is an Account Supervisor at Hanapin Marketing, a search engine marketing firm focused on generating results through PPC and SEO.

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