As Roman poet Ovid said “A horse never runs so fast as when he has other horses to catch up and outpace.” Competition is what fuels business. As marketers we are constantly trying to understand what the customer wants as well as staying ahead of the competition. Most businesses that I work with, whether it be for SEO, PPC or online research, have a list of competitors that they watch closely. Everytime I get this competitor list, I set it aside and then I go to Google. I search for the site’s most important keywords and most of the time I build a list of competitors that is completely unique from the list I received. That is because of one important fact, your competitors online are not always the same as your competitors offline.
Read that again. Your competitors online are not always the same as your competitors offline. It’s crucial to understand what the online and search environment is for your industry. Watching and evaluating which sites are popping up for all the categories, services and/or products that you sell is the only way to stay ahead in our ever growing digital world.
In Part One of our Online Data series, we talked about Data Driven Decision Making: The Power of Online Data. Today we are going to dive into how you can do online competitive research and why working with a digital agency can be a fast track to getting ahead of the pack.
How To Discover Your Online Competition
We know that discovering your online competitors is important, but how do you find them? I’m going to give you 5 steps to find and manage an online competitor list:
- Build a List of Business Specific Topics/Keywords
- Google Those Terms (using Google’s Incognito)
- Research Using Additional Tools
- Generate a Living List
Step 1: Build a List of Business Specific Topics/Keywords
To start this process, you need a list of topics or keywords that are key to your business. You may have this list already, which is great, or you may generate this from scratch. You should start by looking at how your business is categorized and break it down from there.
For example, if you sell tires maybe you have tires for trucks, tires for winter, tires for sports cars and low cost tires. Then think about brands of tires that people may want to buy and if your product is local. Do you need to include specific cities or can anyone buy this product online? All of these keywords, topics and brands should be the basis of your list. As a caveat, you can include general terms like tires but you will get more of a clear competitive picture if you use more specific keywords with buying intent. Here is the topic seed you you could develop for this example:
- Tires for trucks
- tires for winter
- tires for sports cars
- low cost tires
- Best tires
- Tire shops
- Tire shops in Chicago
Voilà! You have your seed list and can jump into the research.
Step 2: Google It
Sounds simple, right? Just Google those terms and see what pops up. Not so fast! Many people don’t understand just how much Google personalizes search results. Everything in your result is based on your location, your previous search history, what you’ve clicked and other sites you have visited and more. So if you’ve been to your business’s website over and over, you may be more likely to see your site pop up and the same goes with a specific competitor. There is no way to get a fully clear and unpersonalized result; however, we have found that using Google Incognito provides a slightly cleaner picture.
Once you open up that Incognito browser, start to search for each of the identified search terms. Make a list in Excel of the sites that are showing on the first and second page. Feel free to click on the sites to determine if they are actually a competitor. If we go back to the tire example, you want to look at places that sell tires not sites that rate tires or sites that write blogs about sports cars. The focus is finding competitors that could realistically compete for the same product or service.
Step 3: Verify Competitors with Tools
Now that you have a list based on Google research, I like to use tools like Ahrefs, SEMRush or SEOMonitor to verify that list. These are all paid tools that we have access to, so this may be a step that some businesses have to skip. As a side note, this is one benefit to having a digital agency on retainer. We can help build this information, verify and maintain it much quicker than folks that are less comfortable with the process and that lack the needed tools.
Once you get into the third party tools, go through the same process of plugging in the search terms and noting the results. This will also show you how your results were skewed based on past history and location.
Add any new competitors discovered in the step to your list and remove any that seem less important.
Step 4: Generate and Maintain a Living List
Competitor research is never done! This list is a starting point but isn’t ever final. As new products, services, pages or trends pop up this list may change. New competitors may jump into the space and others may fall out. It’s important to understand how the environment is changing, which will help you make better business decisions across the board.
I find that when I do optimizations or other SEO research, I come across new or different competitors all the time. Always update the list!
How to Use Competitor Data to Fuel Your Business
Now you have an ever evolving list of competitors, what’s next? What can you do with this list? First, you should visit all the competitor sites and make notes about things like what’s listed in the top navigation, what products/services they provide, what is better about this site compared to yours, what is worse, are they targeting local markets, and how they are performing in search. That last point is best investigated with those third party tools I mentioned earlier but all the other questions can be based on observations.
Once all these observations and notes are developed, use these to make decisions about your site and business. Are there new pages or content that should be added? Should the research and development teams be investigating a new idea? How can your business and site look and feel better than the rest? All the information found in this research project should generate more questions to bring to the bigger team to help your business gain more ground against online and offline competition.
The final step in this process is to revisit. I recommend constantly tracking and evaluating competitors keyword ranks if possible. I also recommend revisiting all the information you found once a quarter and at least twice a year. Here are some questions to consider when reevaluating your living list:
- Have products and services changed?
- Has their site been updated or rebranded? (major changes)
- Have they added anything new to their site like a blog or resource center?
- Are they showing up more or less than before?
The process of discovering your online competitors and better understanding those competitors will help you build and grow a more successful business. Use this powerful data and information to outpace everyone else in the race.