Why bother about your competitors? Well, a stupid question, I know. You can’t possibly think that you can enter a new niche and get on top without looking into what has been done before you. When done properly, competitor analysis will answer your most important strategic planning questions:
- Is it worth trying to enter this niche? Will I be able to overdo my competitors? How fast? Will long and hard victory be worth the effort? What’s my expected ROI?
- What should I do to succeed in this niche? What shouldn’t I?
- Who are my perspective readers/customers? What are they used to? What do they like?
- Well, and many more, but I will stop here for now not to miss the point.
Step 1. Evaluating your overall competition.
You can either do it ‘at home’ using Google search and Excel or try paid tools returning complete competitor’s report. I usually perform all possible ways of analysis because I (1) cannot fully rely on reports compiled by someone else (be it an automatic tool or another person); (2) do not feel I have the full understanding of a niche unless I spend long hours on searching Google and compiling data into tables (yep, preferably multiple ones, and then combining tables into one table; but that’s just me, you can safely get along with a single solid report).
The idea is simple: you throw all your keywords into a spreadsheet and add the following information:
- Google daily/monthly estimated reach (I was using data provided by Aaron’s keyword research tool);
- Overall number of results in Google (broad match);
- The site ranked #1 for each term;
- Number of results for [intitle:keyword];
- Number of results for [inanchor:keyword];
- Number of results for both [intitle:"keyword" and inanchor:"keyword"] (hat tip to Ciaran) – this is your exact competition, i.e. those who use SEO (optimized titles and incoming links anchor text).
To save time you can get this information via SEOMoz keyword difficulty tool (it will also provide you with lots of other useful information: average PageRank of the top 10 sites, how many root URLs can be found in top 10 results, etc). Naturally, the best combination is when #1 is high, #2 is low (not necessarily) and #4, #5 and #6 are the lowest possible – the cases framed in green:
Step 2. Finding your direct competitors
After you compiled your targeted keyword list, you can sort by ‘#1 in G‘ column and see the sites that is most often ranked high in Google for your chosen keywords:
Be sure to explore your most successful competitor’s on-site optimization: titles, H1 and H2 tags, internal site architecture, etc. I have singled out two approaches that help me to perform this kind of analysis:
- Don’t be too skeptical. Unfortunately most often experienced SEOs analyzing onpage optimization think they can do much better. This thought can bring you to wrongful conclusions.
- Learn from their mistakes. (I know, this somehow interferes with the first one, so the most important is balancing between the two.) We all know how to do it right. So analyzing what a competitor did well doesn’t help a lot. The art of seeing mistakes and at the same time being able to keep from underestimating (see #1) always brings to the right solution in the end.
And now a few tools that can also prove helpful:
1. Google Adwords Keyword Tool (free) is useful for comparing Google advertisers’ competition data and your own findings and also for differentiating commercial terms from non-commercial ones. Keywords enjoying high advertisers‘ competition are most likely targeting potential customers (while more informative [and hence less competitive] phrases usually attract people who are collecting information rather than are really willing to buy). A good way to overcome high competition while sticking to more commercial phrases is to turn (moderately) commercial phrases into long tail (e.g. per our table: ‘Tennessee fsbo‘ into ‘townsend Tennessee fsbo‘).
2. Compete.com (paid with a few trial searches) also provides some helpful type of analysis that can help you to evaluate your competition:
- “Keyword Share” shows the percentage of total referrals a site receives from a particular keyword compared to its other referrals (= this keyword referrals/other keywords referrals).
- “Keyword Engagement” shows the average time visitors tend to spend on the site after being referred by this keyword.
- “Keyword Effectiveness” all people referred by this term/total time spent on the site.
While these metrics represented by Compete.com look really promising and useful, I mostly use them for self-education and out of curiosity – just because I am more used to ‘old school’ method of looking into my referrals and learn people’s actual behavior in practice. However this can still be very useful for learning the competitors’ referrals and visitors’ [probable] behavior.