Competitive SEO Research: A Comprehensive Practical Guide

Competitive SEO research: a comprehensive practical guide
By: Oleg Triers

SEO is all about following the best practices.

From keyword research to building internal links — there's the right way to do everything.

Yet sometimes a webmaster can use all the proclaimed "best" practices, implement every point of Google's SEO guide — and still trail behind the covetous top-3 results.

This is why competition research exists. Some best practices don't really work and others aren't written down, since they only exist within a particular niche.

Only one thing's for sure: websites ranking above you are doing something better than you. Luckily, following the right recipe, you can find out what.

In this step-by-step guide, I'll go over the difference between business and SEO competition; how you can identify your SEO competitors with ease; how to plunder their webpages for optimization pointers, and backlink prospects; and why it's important to track them continuously.

1. SEO competition vs business competition.

First things first: who are your SEO competitors?

Fact: your business rivals are not always your SEO competitors; likewise, your SEO competitors aren't always your business rivals.

When we're talking about your SEO competitors, we're specifically talking about people who compete with you for a place in the SERPs.

E.g. at SEO PowerSuite, our business rivals are other SEO software companies like Screaming Frog or SEMrush.

However, as I'm writing this particular page, my SEO competitors are the webpages that currently occupy the first SERP for the query: "SEO competition research".

And, sure, there are pages from other SEO software companies in the SERP. But there are also articles from industry publications, bloggers, and SEO agencies educating their clients.

Here's a handy diagram.

Remember you've got to focus on the guys that belong to the blue circle. Not the green one, and not just the part where they intersect. The entire blue circle.

 

If your business competitor does not rank in the SERPs you're targeting, you don't need to worry about them as far as SEO competition is concerned.

Now you know whom you'll be studying.

2. Identify your SEO competitors.

There are two types of SEO competitors by scale:

  1. Domain competitors — those are the websites that target the same keywords as you over all of their webpages. To find domain competitors, you start with your domain and all of the keywords relevant to your niche and get a list of the domains that rank for these keywords.
  2. Topic competitors — those are specific webpages, not entire websites, ranking for your chosen topics. To find topic competitors, you start with a particular group of keywords and find all of the ranking webpages targeting them.

Both are crucial for SEO strategy.

By identifying and tracking your domain competitors, you'll be the first to see huge fluctuations in rankings across your niche. You also get to monitor how successful domains build their content strategy.

Knowing your topic competitors, in turn, is vital when you're creating new webpages. Always get a list of the highest-ranked, most-clicked webpages on your topic before actually creating your page.

 

That way, you will get a clear idea of what the search engines, and, more importantly, the users themselves, expect to see on successful pages covering your topic.

Let's cover domain competitors first.

Find domain competitors.

If you have Rank Tracker, all you need to find your domain competition is go to Competitor research > Domain competitors and add the URL of your project.

Let the tool run its tasks, and you'll get a handy list with your competitors organized neatly in columns.

You can always adjust the search parameters, e.g. changing the search engine you'd like to check.

Note especially that you can configure the range of SERPs you're searching for competitors in. You can choose to only search the top ten results of each of your target SERPs, or go all the way to the top hundred.

Say you need to figure out who the top dogs of your industry are — to learn (and steal) the SEO and marketing strategies that keep them on top, you probably don't need to scour the top hundred.

Sort the list of competitors by the percentage of shared keywords, organic traffic, or the number of their unique keywords that you aren't ranking for.

"Organic traffic" is an especially useful metric. Sorting by it, you'll see if your industry has any bona fide giants that you can glean strategies from, both for your SEO and general marketing.

Once you've figured out whom you want to track, hover to their line and add them as a competitor to your project.

Granted, sometimes you might want to track a specific competitor website, without looking for it in automatic suggestions. In that case, you can add domain competitors manually by going to Preferences > Competitors > Add.

You can also get additional domain competitor suggestions on this screen by clicking "Suggest". This particular approach will be more granular and it assumes you already know the seed keywords for your website.

Instead of analyzing all of your ranking keywords and looking for corresponding competitors, this method will first give you a list of all of your tracked keywords.

Then, you can add/remove as many keywords as you want, and the tool will only look for the domain competitors for those. This method is great if you "accidentally" rank for non-relevant words and need to narrow down the competitor search.

N.B.: Rank Tracker's free version lets you monitor one competitor per project. The Professional version lets you add five, and Rank Tracker Enterprise lets you add up to twenty competitors.
 

That's it — you've added your top SEO competitors to your Rank Tracker project. From now on, every time you check rankings, competitors' ranks will be updated at the same time.

This will let you quickly spot any changes in competitors' visibility and see how your website's performance compares to theirs.

Find topic competitors.

You analyze your topic competitors to find out what works on your target SERPs right now. The way your ranking competitors set up their webpages will likely be what search engines expect from a relevant page.

You check the results getting the highest positions, see how they structure their content, write their URLs, and present their titles.

Plenty of webmasters settle for doing it manually: simply googling the keywords they want to target one by one, studying the SERP, filling out a huge Excel spreadsheet.

To avoid the laborious process, use the Topic competitors module in Rank Tracker. Add the keywords you're targeting, and analyze the top ten results in SERPs.

Once the tool is done, you'll end up with a neat list of the highest-ranking URLs currently raking in traffic via your target keywords.

For this particular article, my main competitors are a few blogs, a couple of listicles, and the homepage of an entire SEO software suite.

You'll see a backlink count for every competitor found by the tool. This gives you a much fuller picture of the SERPs you're trying to break into.

Example: All of your topic competitors have an awful lot of backlinks — this probably means that you're targeting a very competitive vertical, and a heavy link building campaign is probably in order if you want to break into the top three.

Alternatively, some results, such as the aforementioned homepage, will naturally have more backlinks than everybody else on the SERP. This, in turn, will influence its position in the rankings.

 

But if the rest of the SERP is okay, and you aren't working to rank your homepage for non-branded keywords, it makes sense to exclude that particular result from your competitive SEO analysis.

Once you've found the topic competitors, you can click on any one of them and see all of their ranking keywords.

3. Analyze competitors' content.

Now that you know who your competitors are, it's time to take a look at how they create their content. By analyzing the content strategies that brought them high rankings you'll get to:

 
  1. Improve the rankings of the pages you already have.
  2. Find new ideas for your own content plan.

Close the keyword gaps.

Keyword gaps are the keywords that your competitors rank highly for, but your own website either doesn't rank at all or ranks low.

Say you have a page that isn't ranking as highly as you'd like it to. This can be caused by your page's lack of relevance. Relevance is expressed through certain keyword clusters that were covered by your competition, but not by you. As a result, the search engine doesn't consider you as relevant a source as other pages.

To diagnose the problem, you head over to Rank Tracker's Keyword Gap module, put in your own webpage, and then a bunch of top-ranking competitors collected through the Topic competitors module.

There, you adjust what keywords you're looking for (in our case, the keywords used by competitor pages and not us), and the tool comes back to you with a list.

Now you'll know exactly what you missed when creating your webpage. By adding the keywords and entire topics that you've skipped, you can do two things at once:

 
  1. Boost your page's relevance, since you're now fully covering the chosen topics.
  2. Increase your search traffic, since you'll now start getting into new SERPs thanks to added keywords.

Use just the right amount of keywords with TF-IDF.

Another approach to boosting your own content by analyzing competition is the TF-IDF tool. You start with your target keywords. The tool then goes and analyzes all of the top-ranking pages for those keywords, and comes back to you with frequency analysis.

The benefit of this is twofold: on the one hand, you can avoid keyword stuffing (big no-no since time immemorial); on the other, you have reliable data on which keywords/topics are an absolute must when you're creating this page, as those topics are covered by all of your top-ranking competitors, and is what the search engine will expect to be covered.

In Rank Tracker, go to Keyword research > TF-IDF Explorer, and enter a list of keywords you want your webpage to cover.

In return, you get a list of keywords, sorted by the number of competitors that use every keyword, the frequency with which the word is used, the keyword difficulty, and the cost per click information.

 

Use it to create a set of keywords you're going to be looking at when creating a new page. That way, you'll ensure your content's relevance level.

Steal great content ideas from your competitors.

If you need some help finding direction for your content plan, one of the tried and true methods is simply taking inspiration from the kind of pages your competitors publish.

Doing so by hand is totally possible, of course, as many blogs and even e-commerce websites let you see their most popular pages. In that case, you can easily see what's selling and trending best right now for your competitor without resorting to a tool.

But you can simplify the job tenfold by using Rank Tracker's Top Pages feature. There, simply add the website you'd like to analyze, and you'll get a list of its highest-ranking pages. You'll see how many ranking keywords every page has and the dollar value those keywords bring in.

Scan the list of the pages along the Top keyword column, and you'll see what each ranking page is most likely about. Note the pages that are high in traffic and covering topics that you haven't yet covered.

Once you've added the valuable topic ideas to your content plan, research the competitor's pages: put them through the Keyword gap method along with its own competition, see what they haven't covered, and make sure to cover those on your own webpage.

 

Ideally, you'll both get some great content ideas, and know exactly how to create that content to outrank your opponent.

 

SEO writing consists of two separate, but equally important activities. Analyzing the currently ranking pages for optimization hints, and actually writing the page itself in a word processor.

To take care of both these tasks at once, turn to WebSite Auditor's Content Editor. It's basically a word processor that uses SEO data to give you a full, detailed view of what you need to do to boost your optimization.

You give Content Editor the list of all your target keywords, it analyzes your ranking competitors for those keywords and provides you with automatic and customized advice based on that analysis.

The tool gives you a list of high-traffic competitors so you can see exactly how they use their target keywords. Based on those competitors, you'll get SEO recommendations.

You'll know the optimal word count needed to rank, which keywords your text could use to be more in-line with other pages. You'll also get an overview of the topics and questions covered in the target SERPs' "People also ask" boxes to help you make your page the most comprehensive and relevant result the search engine can display.

And to help you avoid on-page mistakes, the tool will provide an overall optimization score, alerting you if you've overstuffed your keywords anywhere, skipped the alt text, or done anything else to harm your ranking chances.

 

4. Analyze competitors' backlinks to find new prospects.

Backlinks in general, and referring domains in particular, are one of the strongest indicators of a site's authority to search engines. This is why link building is so crucial for long-term ranking success.

And one of the biggest parts of any link building campaign is to analyze your competitors' backlink profiles to find high-quality new backlink opportunities.

What you do is you find all of the websites that link to two or more of your domain competitors. If a website's already linked back to four or five of your niche's websites, there's a pretty good chance they'll link to you, as well.

Obviously, if you want to boost your rankings, look specifically at websites that provide "dofollow" links.

Some websites mark all their outgoing links "nofollow" indiscriminately (which you shouldn't do, by the way) — backlinks from those might bring some users over to your pages, but not help your ranking.

Once you've found websites that link to two or more of your competitors, you'll need to do some legwork. Go to the pages linking to your competition and see the context for those backlinks.

For example, they might have linked to your competitors as part of a listicle about your industry — then you can contact them and offer your own product for a similar review.

Or they only linked to your competitor to say that your industry is useless and their products shouldn't be used by anyone — the point is, knowing the context will help you determine your chances of getting a backlink.

Once you've gathered a list of potential quality backlinks, you can confidently start a reach-out campaign.

To handle all of your competitor backlink research needs, use SEO SpyGlass.

To start, go to the Domain Comparison > Summary module, and click Add Domains. In a window that pops up, enter the URLs of the websites of your competitors that you already discovered with Rank Tracker.

Note: You can add two competitors in the free version, five with SEO SpyGlass Professional, and ten with Enterprise.

The tool will give you a table comparing your link profile with the profiles of your competitors. When one of the domains is ahead of everybody else, their stats are highlighted in green.

What you want for higher rankings is to focus on the total number of backlinks (particularly dofollow links) and linking domains, and the diversity of IPs and C-blocks in your link profile.

Increasing those metrics will signal to the search engine that you are a trusted, authoritative website.

Use this table to figure out how much effort and time you're going to have to invest in order to be on the same playing field links-wise as your main competitors.

To find the websites that already link to your competition, there's a handy Link Intersection dashboard in SEO SpyGlass that will help you big time with your link building efforts.

In the Link Intersection dashboard, click on the All domains menu and choose Prospective domains. This is a filtered view for domains that link to your competitors, but not to your site.

Hit the download button located above on the right above the list, and you've just got yourself a list of potential backlink opportunities, all in a couple of clicks.

From there, go through this list link by link to find the context of the backlink, and contact the prospect to strike up a deal. You can also check out the best link building practices our colleagues in SEO use to lasso in new backlinks.

Remember: links take time to build, and it takes even longer for the search engines to start really counting them towards your rankings.

 

At the same time, receiving a lot of low-quality backlinks all at once might even lead to a ranking penalty as you'll be suspected of simply buying them.

5. Keep tracking your competitors' rankings and backlinks.

 

Monitoring your competition is not a one-and-done thing. Once you've got everything you could from their content and their backlink profiles, you still need to keep an eye on them, as things in SEO change very quickly.

Monitor competitors' rankings.

There is a couple of reasons why monitoring your competitors' rankings continuously is important.

First, you'll immediately notice if there are major algorithms changes that are shaking up your industry. Each year, there is a few major algorithm updates and thousands of minor ones.

This means that in any given year, you'll see plenty of fluctuations, as different factors gain and lose weight, or as Google revamps their calculations. Keeping an eye on those shifts is crucial for a better and quicker diagnosis of your own ranking shifts.

The second benefit of monitoring your competition's rankings is that you'll get to learn about their optimization efforts almost immediately. If you refresh the competitor's rankings and see their visibility and rankings shoot up — it's time to go in and investigate.

In Rank Tracker, you'll find the change in your competitors' visibility in Target keywords> Ranking summary. There, you'll get a general view of how their websites' rankings changed.

The tool will also provide you with the timeline of previous rank checks, so you'll be able to catch when their optimization started bearing fruit, down to a day.

On a more granular level, in Target keywords > Rank tracking, there is a menu dedicated to tracking ranking progress for a particular chosen keyword among you and your competitors, presented as a graph.

 

If you see a competitor's page shoot up in ranking for a keyword, you need to run a full-scale analysis. Analyze their backlinks, and use something like Internet Archive's Wayback machine — it has hundreds of billions of webpages cached, so if your competition did a huge content overhaul, you'll know.

See how competitors' backlink profiles changed.

Of course, if your competition's rankings improved considerably, the answer might be not in their content, but in their backlink profiles.

To check if your competition suddenly came across hundreds of new backlinks, turn to the Historical data module in SEO SpyGlass. There, you'll get a clear picture of how their backlink profile changed.

 

Analyze both their new backlinks themselves and the new referring domains they've found for their content.

 

In an aggressive and highly competitive ranking vertical, monitoring your opponents by hand is simply exhausting. To ease the pain a bit, both in Rank Tracker and in SEO SpyGlass you can set up scheduled tasks and alerts.

You can create a project (they are unlimited even in the free versions of the software) for your competitor's website.

Then, you schedule for Rank Tracker to run ranking checks, and for SEO SpyGlass to check their backlinks regularly. Say, a couple of times a week.

But you won't be getting a notification every time a tool ran a check. Instead, you set up how much a competitor's position would need to change for you to get an alert email.

In Rank Tracker, you can set up to be notified when their keyword positions change or when they enter (or drop out of) the top ten results of your target SERPs — you'll get an email the moment those changes take place.

In SEO SpyGlass, you can set up to get emails as soon as your competitor gains or loses even a single new backlink from a single new referring domain.

Once you set up those alerts, you won't have to worry about missing your competitor's sudden ranking and backlink boosts.

 

Conclusion

Competition exists in any industry and any professional field. It's normal. In SEO, however, competition can be beneficial beyond the simple mantra of "competition spurs innovation".

Because as webmasters and optimization specialists, we can use our competitors' rises and falls in rankings to figure out what actually works. By taking a glance at their content and backlink profiles, we get a fuller view into what search engines really value and expect to see on the pages they already rank highly.