Basic steps for building your SEO Competitive Intelligence.

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This article is a quick overview of some basic steps to follow in order to get an idea where you stand in comparison to your competitors.

Before you can really start making any real decisions regarding your organic search performance and strategy, you need to have a look at where you are playing from a keyword perspective and also who you are playing against.  You need competitive intelligence for SEO. Knowing your competition and knowing where you stand in relation to them is extremely important.

Here are a few basic steps to get started which we’ll explain in detail below:

  1. Know your ONLINE competitors
  2. You are competing page against page not necessarily site against site.
  3. Understand your Keyword Competition
  4. Watch your competition’s position and content over time
  5. Look at your competition’s Backlinks
  6. Compare your onsite factors to your competition
  7. Watch for Self Competition

Know your ONLINE competitors

The first thing to understand is that your competitions offline might not be the same competitors you have online.  On a really basic level – your competitors online are anyone who is ranking higher than you are for your keyword phrase.  So once you’ve decided what your keyword phrases are, you can start doing searches to determine who is ranking higher than you (and especially ranking on the first page) and adding these pages (sites) to your competitor list.

You are competing page against page not necessarily site against site

The search engine result pages display the most relevant pages for a search query, not the most relevant site and your competition will be individual pages from various sites. This is a critical thing to understand – you are not competing site to site but rather page to page for your keyword phrases.

Keyword Competition

Bearing in mind that the longest-tail keywords are going to be the easiest to rank for and have the least competition – what about the terms that might be a more in the middle?  The best way to figure out if you should try to compete for a middle-of-the-road term (read:no long-tail) is to determine what the actual competition is.  You can do this a few different ways: one would be to do a search for the phrase in the search engines (try Exact and Broad match both) and have a look at how many results show up.  Obviously a lot of results means your competition is high.

Another way to determine competition is to use a tool like Googles Keyword Tool or gShift Labs’ Web Presence Optimizer to have a look at how often the search is performed as well as what the “potential” competition is for the phrase.  Both of these tools will provide a competition view and a count of monthly search volume.  In a perfect world, you are looking for the terms with the highest search volume and lowest competition.

Compare position and content over time

This is a fairly obvious one, but watch your position and the position of your competitors over time.  As time goes on, you’ll start to see patterns of fluctuation in the position results.  By also watching the content changes your competition is making (or other changes such as increase in quality backlinks to the site) you can start making conclusions on what content (and type) along with update frequency is working for your competition in comparison to yourself.

If your competitors are raising in rank compared to you for a phrase – look at how they are using that phrase in the content on the page; are they using the phrase more effectively than you (in titles, headings, backlinks), are they updating content with these keywords more often than you are? are they distributing the content through social networks or news/pr syndication services?

Look at Backlinks

Ultimately, still one of the most important factors for any site is the number of quality backlinks to the site pages.  Have a look at your competition’s backlinks and determine if they have more than you do or not and then look specifically at the quality of the links.

You can use tools such as SEOMoz’s Linkscape or gShift’s Web Presence Optimizer to look at things like: the Quality of the link, Quality of the domain doing the linking, Authority of the Page or Domain along with other key factors such as: is the link a Follow or No-follow?  Does the anchor text match the keyword phrases you’d expect for the destination page?  Is the destination page matching the content of the link and also optimized for the phrase?  Comparing all of these factors to your own backlinks will very quickly give you a picture of whether or not you are competing well with your competition.

At the end of the day, if they have more high quality or high authority links to their site pages they will be ranking higher than you in the search engines.

Look at onsite factors

This one can be a little tougher for the non-html savvy but having a look at your site structure (Information Architecture/Navigation file structure) and coding can indicate any deficits in your site that might affect your ability to rank.  More than that though, being able to look at simple things such as the titles your competition is using on their pages compared to your titles (i.e. do they use keywords, do they duplicate) is also a great indicator of performance.

Often, the difference between two pages that should rank similarly due to content might come down to one page having an appropriate title with the appropriate keywords.   Other factors to look for are how deep a page is hidden on the site, linking structures within pages and the speed of page load (all of which affect the ability to rank).

Watch for Self Competition

Lastly, you need to really watch for self-competition.  The most common form of self-competition is not properly 301 redirecting one canonical version of your site to the other (i.e. redirecting your non-www domain to the www version) so that you don’t have two versions of your site potentially being crawled and indexed.

Other ways you might compete with yourself is by having multiple pages optimized for the same keyword phrases and thus competing with eachother for the same traffic.  In some cases, this might be great, especially if you are owning the top-spots for these phrases – on the other hand, if you are lower in the rankings it is much easier to optimize single content areas or pages for individual phrases when attempting to rank for them.

Lastly – a very common form of self-competition is using duplicate title tags on multiple pages.  It is extremely important for each page to have unique titles and meta descriptions, not only from a self-competition standpoint but also from the fact that titles and descriptions are what show in the search results and really need to be targeted to the content on the page while also being enticing enough for a potential visitor to click on it.

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