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Competitor Research - The Ultimate Search Engine Optimization Solution
If you’re designing a new online venture, or are simply sick and tired of losing to competitors in organic search, then you need to do an SEO competitor analysis.
You can learn many things from your competitor. In fact competitors are a goldmine of information that can inform you about every aspect of your SEO strategy and help to increase your website’s organic traffic.
In solid terms, performing an SEO competitor analysis lets you:
- Learn what works and what doesn’t in your industry.
- Find competitors’ weaknesses, and capitalize on them.
- Find competitors’ strengths, and replicate them.
- Understand what SEO tasks to prioritize going forward.
- Understand how difficult outperforming competitors in the SERPs are likely to be.
Here, I will run through the SEO competitive analysis process for a hypothetical new infographic design tool—Minimagraphic.com.
Minimagraphic.com — a hypothetical new infographic design tool launching soon (maybe).
We have also added a competitive analysis template so you can follow along with your site.
Things to Keep In Mind
You can do this complete process with only two tools
- Ahrefs (take a 7‑day trial)
- This Google Sheets template (IMPORTANT: make a copy!)
It would be great if you also make a copy of the completed sheet for our hypothetical website, as that may come in handy for clarification if any of the instructions given below feel unclear. (Hopefully, they won’t!)
You can do that here.
Got it? Let’s get started
First we need to identify our main competitors than we should proceed further
These are the websites struggling for our desired keywords in organic search.
Some competitors that come to our mind are Canva, Piktochart, Infogram, easel.ly, and Visme regarding our hypothetical infographic design tool However, our organic search competitors may not be the same as our direct business competitors.
So let’s first look at how potential customers would search for our service.
I thought that this would be something like “infographic design tool,” but it appears that I was wrong as when I search for this in Ahrefs Keywords Explorer, it tells me there is no search volume.
So let’s inspect the “Also rank for” report and see if we can find a better keyword.
It seems like “infographic maker” is the most famous way people search for such tools.
Now let’s see the SERP overview to see who currently ranks in the top five.
Not an Ahrefs user?
Run a Google search instead.
It appears that our top five competitors are Piktochart, Venngage, Canva, Visme, and Infogram.
The interesting thing is, Easel.ly didn’t make the cut as they don’t rank in the top 10.
This is why you should not always rely on your instincts for direct business competitors because they’re not always competitors when it comes to SEO.
SEO is like another world, imagine that a person has a butcher business in a small town. The business that keeps him awake at night is the other small butcher down the road. However, when it’s come to SEO, they’re no competitors because they don’t even have a website.
I will note these five competitors to my spreadsheet.
If you are trying to find competitors for a blog or ecommerce site, then looking for sites that rank for a single keyword may not be the best way to go about things.
That is because you are probably targeting hundreds or thousands of keywords and topics across many pages.
So it is good to see who is competing with you across the board.
For this, you can use the Competing domains report in Ahrefs Site Explorer.
Site Explorer > enter your domain > Organic search > Competing domains
Analyze the Competitive Landscape
Next, we have a high-level view of the competitive landscape.
To do that, we will pull a small number of key stats and SEO metrics which should give us an idea as to how established the competition is.
Let’s use Ahrefs Batch Analysis tool to do this for all competitors’ websites at once.
Batch Analysis > Enter competitors’ domains > Analyze
Batch Analysis will return many useful stats for each site, and I am interested in:
- Domain Rating (DR)
- Ahrefs Rank (AR)
- Number of referring domains
- Estimated organic search traffic
- Estimated number of keyword rankings
Now add them to our sheet.
To explain these SEO metrics a bit more:
Domain Rating (DR):
Having a high DR score means that the website has a solid backlink profile. Instead of considering DR absolutely you should judge it relatively. For your understanding let’s take an example, suppose that your website is DR30 and your competitor is DR50, that is a bit higher. If your website is DR30 whereas yours competitor site is DR90 that is similar comparing your mom and pop store to Walmart—they aren’t your competitor.
Ahrefs Rank (AR):
Having a low Ahrefs rank means that the website is strong. AR explains the same thing as DR but with more details. For example, if you have two competitors with the same DR like DR33 websites, you can use AR to see which is the stronger of the two sites.
If your links are of good quality then having a large number of referring domains could also mean that the website is strong A high number of referring domains can also indicate a strong site—provided that those links aren’t low-quality. However, keep in mind that grabbing DR is always useful as this takes into account both the quality and quantity of links to a website.
Organic traffic & keywords:
This is quite obvious that the higher these numbers are, the better the website is performing in organic search.
In simple words the more distance between your stats and yours competitor stats, the more you have to struggle.
Still these metrics don’t explain everything about our competitors’ SEO progress.
Study Backlink Growth
We have studied approximately 930 million pages and it appears to us that link popularity is a clear SEO “ranking factor”
That is why we have to learn more about our competitors’ link building efforts.
Let’s look at the speed with which they acquire new referring domains (linking sites), as this gives us an approximate target to shoot for with our link building.
To do this, we’ll use Ahrefs Site Explorer.
Site Explorer > Enter domain > Overview > Referring Domains graph > Set to ‘One year’
For each participant, we take the number of all referring domains that today have minus the same number from a year ago, and then divide it by twelve to get the average monthly value.
Here is the calculation for Visme:
(7,603 — 5,599) / 12 = 167 new referring domains per month (on average)
Also keep in mind that this is the cumulative growth or decline in referring domains. For example, if a competitor gets links from a hundred new RDs in a month but loses links from ten existing RDs, their cumulative growth is ninety.
Let’s also inspect the growth trend for our other competitors.
We need to check if there is an element of consistency or not, In other words, do their link profiles show consistent or inconsistent growth or decline?
For Venngage, besides from a small irregularity earlier this year, their growth has been relatively consistent.
This might be natural, or it might be the byproduct of long-term link building efforts.
Whatever the case is, it would be worth following these two articles to go deeper into their backlink profile to see what we can learn… once finished with the basic competitive analysis, of course.
For Piktochart, their growth seems more inconsistent.
They have gained the experience of “hockey stick” growth between May and July last year, which may be the indication of a specific piece of content performing well, or them ramping up their existing link building efforts. It could also provide an indication of negative SEO attacks.
To get a sense of which, we can check the New referring domains report.
Site Explorer > Referring domains > New > use the date range to filter for that period
It is probably a negative SEO attack if most of the domains look like spam. (Hint: Confirm this by looking at the New backlinks report for the same date range)
It is probably down to a particular piece of content doing well if most of the links point to the same web page. If the spike happened recently, use the Best by Link Growth report in Site Explorer to help identify which piece of content attracted the links.
It’s likely the ramping up of existing link building efforts if you find lots of links from a specific type of content—e.g., guest posts, resource pages, etc.
For now, I am going to add some growth-related stats for each competitor to my spreadsheet.
Those who have linked to our competitors on multiple occasions are called Superfans. These are people with whom it is easy for us to build relationships because they tend to link out to websites they like regularly.
In order to find these people, we can check the Referring domains report in Ahrefs Site Explorer.
Site Explorer > Referring Domains > add a “dofollow” filter > sort by “links to target / dofollow”
Now we will go through the list for industry blogs.
Here is just one that stood out for Canva:
If we hit the caret, we can see that this site links numerous times across many blog posts.
By just spending five seconds on the website we found that this is a single author blog by a woman named Elaine—she is the one with whom we may want to build a relationship and introduce to our product.
Now look for five superfans for each of our competitors and add them to our sheet.
Find Broken Pages
Have you ever heard the saying that one person’s junk is another person’s treasure?
That saying is true on the web too.
So now we need to see if our competitors’ websites for a specific type of junk: broken pages.
To this task we will use the Best by links report in Ahrefs Site Explorer.
Site Explorer > enter competitors domain > Best by links > add a “404 not found” filter > sort by the Referring domains column (high to low)
Sidenote: I am searching for content on a subdomain here so that I only see dead informational pages—e.g., blog posts, infographics, etc.
If we see broken pages on our competitors’ websites, that have backlinks, and are also somewhat relevant to our business, then we may be able to take advantage of such pages by:
- Figuring out what the dead page used to be;
- Publishing something similar, but better;
- Finding everyone linking to the dead resource (use the Backlinks report in Site Explorer)
- Asking them to swap out the dead link in favor of our working resource.
Learn how to carry out this strategy in our broken link building guide.
Now we are going to focus on competitive analysis and not link building, let’s just add any related broken pages from our five competitors to the spreadsheet.
Quick Note: In Following step (6 , 7 and 8) we will focus on organic traffic
By having a knowledge of which countries our competitors get the bulk of their organic traffic from can help us to understand where the opportunity lies in this niche.
For this, we will use Ahrefs Site Explorer.
Site Explorer > enter competitor’s domain > Overview > Organic search tab
Let’s add the top five countries along with their traffic percentages to our spreadsheet.
I’ll then do the same for our other competitors.
Here’s what we get:
Seems like the United States is where the bulk of the traffic opportunity lies in this niche, as this is where our competitors get approximately 31% of their traffic from on average.
There is some opportunity in other English-speaking countries like the UK and Canada too.
So we now know that we should almost certainly prioritize content creation for folks in these countries, as this is where we see the bulk of search demand.
However, the fact that there is traffic potential in Latin America and Asia has got me thinking: perhaps it would make sense to translate our landing pages into Spanish, Indian, and possibly Indonesian?
We could even launch a multilingual blog to maximize traffic from these countries.
That’s what we did here at Ahrefs—we have a Spanish blog and a Chinese blog.
The Spanish version of the Ahrefs Blog.
The Chinese version of the Ahrefs Blog.
Many of our landing pages are available in multiple languages too.
Organic traffic is not always representative of traffic value. It might be misleading to look solely at organic traffic numbers.
For example, Visme gets roughly the same amount of search traffic from the UK and Mexico.
But if we look at the traffic value for Mexico VS UK, We see that UK traffic is worth 700%+ more!
So it probably makes sense for us to prioritize UK traffic growth.
Break it Down
What Are The Different Types Of SEO?
At Syndiket, we believe four types of SEO exist – and we have an acronym to represent those 4 types of SEO. The acronym is T.R.A.P.
“T” stands for Technical, “R” stands for Relevancy, “A” stands for Authority, and “P” stands for popularity. Search engine optimization has many smaller divisions within the 4 types, but all of them can be placed into one of these 4 buckets.
Generally, technical SEO for local businesses carry the least importance for ranking. Technical SEO has a bare minimum that is required and this usually includes things like site speed, indexation issues, crawlability, and schema. Once the core technical parts are done, minimal upkeep is required.
Relevancy is one of trivium elements of SEO. It has equal importance with popularity signals and authority signals. Relevancy signals are based on algorithmic learning principles. Bots crawl the internet every time a searcher has a search. Each search is given a relevancy score and the URLs that pop up for a query. The higher the relevancy score you attain, the greater your aggregated rating becomes in Google’s eyes. Digital marketing is a strange thing in 2020, and ranking a website requires the website to be relevant on many fronts.
Google’s Co-creator, Larry Page, had a unique idea in 1998 which has led to the modern-day Google Empire. “Page Rank”, named after Larry Page himself, was the algorithm that established Google as a search engine giant. The algorithm ranked websites by authority.
Every page of a website has authority and the sum of all pages has another authority metric. The authority metric is largely determined by how many people link to them (backlinks). The aggregate score of all pages pointing to a domain creates the domain score, which is what Syndiket calls “Domain Rating”, per Ahrefs metrics. The more a site is referenced, the more authority it has. But, the real improvement to the algorithm came when Google began to classify authority weight.
If Tony Hawk endorsed Syndiket for skateboarding, it would carry a lot more authority than 5 random high school kids endorsing Syndiket. This differentiation in authority happened in 2012 with the Penguin update. Authority SEO is complicated but VERY important.
Popularity signals are especially strong for GMB or local SEO, but popularity and engagement are used for all rankings. The goal of this signal is for Google to verify its own algorithm. You can check off all the boxes, but if your content is something real people hate, Google has ways to measure that. Syndiket has proprietary methods of controlling CTR (click-through rate) but we also infuse CRO methods into our work to make sure people actually like the content. Social shares and likes are also included in this bucket.
Continued . . .
Spy on Competitors’ Organic Keywords
Next, we need to find out which keywords are currently driving organic traffic to our competitors’ sites.
We can do it by running the Organic keywords report for each domain.
Site Explorer > enter competitor’s domain > Organic search > Organic keywords
Above we can see that visme.co currently ranks for 133,667 keywords in the US.
By default, the Organic Keywords report shows keyword rankings for the country that generates the most search traffic. And that is not a problem, but if you want to see keyword data for a different country, hit “more” and choose from any of the 150+ countries in our database.
Now look for some juicy keywords that might be worth targeting.
There are some that jump out right away such as “infographic maker,” “infographic creator,” etc. But there are also a lot of unrelated results muddying the waters.
So now first exclude all branded keywords with the “exclude” function.
I will also try to filter only for keywords for which our competitor ranks in the top 10 so that we only see the most relevant keywords.
Let’s keep things simple for now and note down the top five relevant, non-branded keywords sending the most traffic to our competitors, and their search volumes.
A few of those keywords would be a good match for our homepage. Others would make better blog posts (For example “what is an infographic?”).
Note: If you’re following along and are only interested in finding keyword ideas for your homepage, use the “URL” mode in Site Explorer as opposed to “*.domain/*”. That way, you will only see keyword suggestions from the homepage instead of the whole site. And don’t forget to exclude branded searches from the report!
Some of the keywords that I noted down have high Keyword Difficulty (KD) scores, which mean that they will be hard to rank for without building lots of links.
For example, “infographic maker” has a KD score of 73 … and will need backlinks from approximately 235 domains to rank in the top 10.
Recommended reading: Learn more about how we calculate Keyword Difficulty.
I am not really concerned about this right now as I am looking more for “ultimate goal” keywords.
If you are following along and would prefer to find keywords that you stand a chance at ranking for in the short-to-medium-term, feel free to filter for keywords with a low KD score.
Spy on Competitors’ Featured Snippets
One additional thing you should pay attention to while analyzing your competitor’s organic traffic:
SERP features for which your competitors rank.
Featured snippets alone show up for approximately 12% of search queries, as per our study…
… And they get approximately 9% of clicks from the results on the first page:
So let’s keep things simple and focus solely on those.
The first thing is that I need to know which featured snippets our competitors own and for that, I’ll use Ahrefs Site Explorer.
Site Explorer > enter competitors domain > Organic search > Organic keywords > SERP features filter > Featured snippets > Only linking to target
Piktochart owns 87 snippets in the US right now and gets a fair amount of traffic as a result.
Visme owns 216.
I will add these numbers to my sheet for each competitor.
To be honest, if our competitors rank for a lot of featured snippets, there could be an opportunity for us to do the same.
This can even be easy traffic because it’s not always the #1 ranking page that owns the snippet.
59.2% of featured snippets come from pages ranking in positions 2–5.
In other words, even if the SERP is competitive, there’s still a chance of owning the snippet provided that we can make it to the top 5.
Recommended reading: How to Optimize for Google’s Featured Snippets in 2020
In the few steps (#9, #10, and #11), we’ll delve deeper into competitors’ content.
Find Content Gaps
If you look at a particular site for some information that is not there, this is what a content gap is.
Content gaps in SEO are keywords for which your competitors rank, but you don’t, that is a gap you will probably want to fill.
To find content gaps, we can use Ahrefs Content Gap tool.
Site Explorer > enter your domain > Content gap
You can see that this prefills the “But the following target doesn’t rank for” field with our domain.
Now we need to fill the other fields with competitors.
I will then set it to “Show keywords that all of the below targets rank for,” tick the “at least one of the targets should rank in the top 10” box, and run the search.
You can see that this returns some quite relevant keywords above.
Sidenote: If you are following along and don’t see any relevant keywords, feel free to loosen the settings a little and find keywords for which two, three, or four of your competitors rank, rather than all of them.
We have limited resources therefore targeting all these keywords is an impossible task.
Let’s use the filters to focus in on low/medium difficulty, high-volume opportunities.
Having low difficulty scores means that it would be easy to rank for whereas the solid search volume means that ranking will give a nice bump to our search traffic.
However, some of these keywords look to be ones we already found in the previous step.
So I am just going to add the five most relevant new keywords to my sheet.
Find Competitors’ Most Popular Content
There is no doubt that keyword search is a critical part of SEO but these days, Google’s understanding of the intent behind searches is arguably better than ever.
This is why; one page can easily rank for hundreds or even thousands of long-tail keywords.
By finding our competitors’ top pages, we can figure out which of their articles are:
- ranking for a ton of keywords
- pulling in loads of traffic
Then we can write about these overarching topics and earn some traffic.
For this, we can use the Top Pages report in Ahrefs Site Explorer.
Keep in mind that we are interested in finding blog posts here so if possible, we actually need to search the blog folder URL/subdomain as opposed to the entire domain.
Site Explorer > enter competitor’s domain > select “prefix” mode > Top pages
If you are not sure where your competitor’s blog is located?
Check the Top subfolders report in Site Explorer and look for their blog path.
If you don’t find anything, check the Top subdomains report instead. Some websites host their blog on a subdomain.
Either way, make sure the traffic percentage for the subfolder/subfolder is in the doubt digits. If it isn’t, then it’s likely that their blog posts aren’t nested within that URL structure.
In which case, stick with a domain search.
Now one thing to note about this report is that the pages on sites with the most organic traffic often tend to have a lot of referring domains. That is hardly surprising, as backlinks are a strong ranking factor.
So let’s skim this report for each competitor and eyeball the RD column.
What we are looking for are pages with lots of traffic but not too many referring domains, as these are likely to be much easier to compete with.
I will add five relevant pages that fit the bill to my sheet, plus their traffic.
Sidenote: If you are interested in the individual keywords for which these top pages rank, click the caret in the keywords column.
Find Competitors’ Most Linked Content
Links mean referrals and often as a result, more organic search traffic.
So we know we need to build links, but where do we begin?
We will see what is working for our competitors.
The Best by links report in Ahrefs Site Explorer shows competitors’ most linked content. If it worked for them, then something similar will probably work for us.
Site Explorer > enter competitor’s blog subfolder/subdomain > Organic search > Best by links
Sidenote: If you are doing this for a competitor whose blog posts aren’t nested under a subdomain (e.g., blog.domain.com/…) or subfolder (e.g., domain.com/blog/…) then use their domain instead. You will have to be a little more vigilant when browsing the report.
Here, I will add the URLs of the five most relevant top pages from each competitor, the number of referring domains to each page, and what “type” of content it is to my sheet.
Now we can find at a glance what types of content work best for each competitor and in general.
For example, 60% of the most linked pages articles from Venngage are listicles, and it’s a similar story for Visme too.
Sidenote: Not every niche is the same. You may see that a different type of content is more popular in your niche.
On the other side, gaps can also present opportunities.
For example, Canva has a lot of links to text-heavy content. Such content could be simplified as an infographic and possibly attract even more links.
We could also use what is commonly known as the ‘skyscraper’ technique to attract links:
- Create a similar but even better piece of content
- Show it to everyone who links to our competitor’s now inferior content
- Ask them to swap out the link in favor of our superior content
If you are wondering how we can find out who links to our competitor’s content, all we need to do is click the number under the Referring domains column, and we will be able to see all the sites linking to that page.
In other words, our competitor has kindly created a list of prospects for us.
Find Competitors’ PPC Keywords
Analyzing competitors’ PPC activity can be perceptive when it comes to planning an SEO strategy for one simple reason:
If they’re paying for traffic from a keyword, then that keyword is most likely profitable.
To find our competitors’ PPC keywords, let’s use the PPC keywords report in Ahrefs Site Explorer.
Site Explorer > enter competitors domain > Paid search > PPC keywords
It looks like Venngage is bidding on a lot of infographic-related terms.
Which lead me to another point:
If you look at the competitors’ PPC data, you can find small volumes of keywords with high conversion, which can be easily omitted when conducting keyword research.
For example, a keyword like “make infographics online” (70 searches per month) is likely to have a much higher conversion rate than “creator of free infographics” (600 searches per month).
If the conversion rate for a keyword of 70 search queries per month is 20%, and the conversion rate for a keyword of 600 search queries per month is 2%, what do you think is the most appropriate keyword to rank?
I’m sure you’ve already done the math. That low-volume keyword will make more money.
Following this logic, I’m going to add five PPC keywords for each participant to my sheet, but I will intentionally choose keywords that, in my opinion, can convert well.
DISCLAIMER Take this idea with a pinch of salt. Just because a competitor spends money on a checkpoint does not necessarily know what they are doing. Before using PPC, you can check any keywords you find before trying to get a ranking for yourself.
Learn From Competitors’ PPC Ads
Viewing an ad copy of PPC members can help write title tags and descriptions that increase CTR.
This is because competitors pay cold cash to attract customers with specific keywords, and Google encourages more relevant ads with lower CPCs.
So it’s in their interest to make sure their ads win the click!
To use the PPC keyword report, look again at the copy of your competitor for the keyword for which we want to assign a rating, “Infographic maker:”
Site Explorer > enter competitors domain > Paid search > PPC keywords
To preview an ad for a keyword, hover over the yellow ‘Ad’ icon.
They seem to use speed, cost (or lack thereof) and ingenuity to lure clicks.
These are all things we could incorporate into our meta titles and descriptions to generate more traffic from organic search.
Recommended reading: How to Craft the Perfect SEO Title Tag (Our 4-Step Process)
Competitive analysis is a vast field; everything mentioned above is just the tip of the iceberg.
If you are familiar with Ahrefs, then you know that there are many additional reports in which we can dive deeper into the overall strategy of our competitors in the field of marketing, content and link building.
You just need to follow the process described above and then use other reports to delve into any Ahrefs area of interest (and possibly other competitive analysis tools).
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