This is the fourth post in our How to Conduct an SEO Audit in 2020 series. If you’re just joining us, we recommend starting at the introductory post.
As a business, you likely know who your primary competitors are, big and small, both locally and globally. Hopefully, you’ve established a unique value proposition to set yourself apart from those businesses. What’s important for you to do now is understand where you stand against them with regards to your web presence. They key goals here are to understand where they have authority with search engines, to contrast and validate your keywords against theirs, and ultimately use this information to find opportunities that will help you accelerate your search engine optimization strategy.
Why do we analyze competitors when conducting an SEO audit?
When conducting a successful SEO audit, there are three reasons you want to analyze your competitors:
- To determine if certain keywords are too competitive to rank for (right now, of course!) As I mentioned previously, you don’t want to expend resources on unobtainable keyword goals; focus on what you can rank for right now, and then refocus on more difficult targets as your search engine authority grows.
- To understand the ‘wins’ of your competition. You want to learn what types of content have been performing well so you can use that information when building your SEO strategy
- To grab and examine the link profile of your competitors in order to identify possible link-building opportunities. Backlinks are gold, so if there are opportunities for link-building that provide your business backlinks while taking them away from the competition, you definitely want to know and take advantage of it.
Additionally, you should be using the results of this analysis to validate your own keyword selections. Are you being too ambitious and trying to rank for something that is far out of your reach, at least for now? Or are your keywords too targeted and conservative? You can use the analysis of successful competitors as a tool to check that you’re on the right path with your own keyword strategy.
It’s important to note that your SEO keyword strategy should be unique - never copy a competitor’s keyword strategy one-for-one. It will only hinder your SEO efforts.
How to conduct a keyword analysis of your competitors
There are six key steps to conducting a successful competitor analysis:
- Audit Your Competitor’s Keywords
- On-Site SEO Analysis
- Content Review
- Design Review
- Social Media
- Offline, Traditional, & Outbound Marketing
- Link Profile Analysis
Each of these requires a different amount of time, set of tools, and skills. Just be aware that depending on your industry and location, the analysis of your competitors can be a time-and-resource-intensive process.
Competitor Keyword Audit
The first step to understanding your competitors and their success is to examine what keywords they are targeting. There are a number of tools that can help you extract this information, but I’m a big fan of SEM Rush and Ahrefs. For this entry in our SEO Audit series, we’ll focus on SEM Rush since they offer an entirely free (albeit limited) solution, whereas Ahrefs starts at $99/month after a 14-day free trial.
I’ll walk you through the process using coffee bean marketplaces as an example because (as any person who works in digital strategy knows!) I really like my coffee.
The site we’re going to focus on is homegrounds.co.
On SEM Rush, the first thing you’ll do is enter the URL of your competitor into their search bar and hit search.
You’ll be presented with this dashboard:
There’s a lot of valuable information readily available from the dashboard, and if you’re new to SEO it’s probably a bit overwhelming, but right now we’re interested in their organic search positions. To get there click on “Organic Research” in the left-hand menu.
This will take you to the Organic Research Overview dashboard.
Now here you’re given a list of keywords your competitor ranks for, their position, the keyword volume, keyword difficulty, the CPC for a given keyword, the URL that appears for a given keyword, the percent of traffic a given keyword drives to the site, along with some other data you shouldn’t worry about right now.
Let’s look at the Keyword Positions detail tab, which details the following:
- The keywords your competitor is ranking for
- SERP page features for a given keyword, like rich snippets.
- The SERP positions of individual keywords
- Position changes over a given time period
- Percent of traffic to the site for a given keyword
- Volume of monthly searches for keywords
- Estimated keyword ranking difficulty
- Average CPC for PPC for keywords
- The highest ranking URL for our analyzed site for a given keyword
- A snapshot of the SERP page for keywords
In this table we’re most interested in they keywords they’re ranking for, the position, the keyword difficulty, and the traffic %.
- The keyword tells you what they are ranking for.
- The position tells you where they rank. A 1 means they rank first on Google for that search term, a 2 means they rank second, etc.
- The keyword difficulty tells you how hard it would be to rank for a given keyword organically. This number is out of 100, and the higher it is, the more difficult it will be to rank for it.
- The traffic % tells you how much traffic a certain keyword is driving to the site.
Knowing these four things, you can take your own ideal keyword strategy and begin prioritizing. If one of your keywords has a high keyword difficulty (depending on your existing domain authority we typically target between 30 and 50 as a cutoff), then it’s best to put it on the back burner. However, if your competitor has a lot of traffic coming from a keyword with a low difficulty, that’s a prime opportunity to come in and optimize for that keyword to drive that traffic to your site and win business that would otherwise go to your competitor.
Another important metric to be aware of is volume. This tells you the average number of people who have searched for that keyword in a month. You will undoubtedly find keywords that have very low difficulty but also have incredibly low volume as well. If you’re in a niche market, or your keywords are based on locale, then it’s okay to target those. However, in other cases, it’s best to avoid targeting low-volume keywords since the return-on-investment and return-on-time simply are not enough. Your individual situation will vary, and it’s up to you to use this data along with the goals we set and your knowledge of your market and business to make the most informed decisions.
Now, you’re probably wondering what to do with this information. As we said, it’s a great way to refine your keyword strategy. But to gain deeper insight, you have to look at your competitor’s on-page/on-site SEO for the URLs they’re ranking for.
On-Site SEO Analysis
Learning what your competitors are ranking for is a great first step in building a strategy to beat them in the rankings game. But the most important step is understanding how they’re ranking for those keywords.
There are plenty of ways to approach this; we’ll cover a few of the easiest.
Rankings and keywords are determined by search engine crawlers looking through a page’s content. It used to be that you could shove your keyword on your page countless times and you could rank for that term in no time flat. This is known as keyword stuffing, but search engines got wise to that practice and today it’s not only just obsolete strategy - it can actively hurt your SEO if you attempt it.
That being said, it’s still important to ensure your keywords appear on your page, just make sure they’re relevant and topical. If your competitor is ranking highly, it’s safe to assume they are clearly structuring their page content correctly with the right keywords at an effective frequency.
Knowing this, let’s take a look at how we can translate this into quantitative data using a keyword density analysis tool. SmallSEOTools has a great density tool here.
To use the tool, just go to the site and plug in the URL you want to analyze.
This will give you a huge list of 1, 2, and 3-word phrases ordered by their density on the page, and will also give you a density percentage. I analyzed the top-ranking page for homegrounds.co’s number-one keyword: “coffee beans”.
With our example, we can see that “coffee bean” and “coffee beans”, and “best coffee” appear in the Title, Description, and in H* level tags, as well as the body. And, they’re able to target three two-word keywords by using “Best Coffee Beans” as their primary focus.
Thse two-word keyword have a density between 1.81% (best coffee) and 3.63% (coffee bean), and the longer “Best COffee Beans” has a density of 1.01%.
I want to stress again before this next statement: there is no optimal keyword density.
However, these numbers are in line with the data that naturally written content with a keyword density in the range of 1-3% performs well in SERPs.
Again: there is no “right” keyword density.
And this is why we conduct multiple audits on multiple competitors - in order to establish a baseline of what is successful for a group of topics in an industry, and to see what we’re going to be trying to rank against.
I’d recommend looking at the this data for 3-5 competitors, although if you have the time (or an intern) it wouldn’t hurt to collect the data for 10 or 15! Record the density for they target keywords for each and then average them. This will give you a starting point to aim for when generating your own content.
Always remember though: Quality, relevant content comes first. It’s far better to provide your users with a helpful, useful, meaningful, and enjoyable experience that they’re encouraged to share and proliferate across the web organically than trying to game the SERP algorithms. It may take more time and effort up-front, but you’ll end up with stronger, long-lasting results.
While the Keyword Density tool we mentioned will take this into account, it’s good to dive in a bit further. This requires a bit of familiarity with Chrome or Firefox’s developer tools (or some helpful extensions). If you don’t know how to do this there are plenty of resources online that will walk you through it.
You want to look for a number of things:
- Do they have a meta title?
- Do they have a meta description?
- Do they have OpenGraph meta tags?
- Are they utilizing Schema.org meta tags correctly?
- Where relevant, are they targeting keywords in their meta tags?
While most of these tags do not contribute directly to ranking - google has said meta description is not a factor - writing effective tags can help with your click through rates. Understanding what your competitors are doing and what they’re focusing on can tell you important information regarding their targeted audience, and help you identify strengths and weaknesses, and let you locate opportunities for unsaturated or less-focused-on keywords.
A note about meta title and meta description tags: These are what will show up on Google’s SERP page, so when you go to write yours, you should be writing copy that convinces your audience to click your links rather than trying to shoehorn keywords in. Be mindful of length as well, as tags that are too long will be cut off with elipsis.
It’s no secret - content that is quality, relevant, and helpful to the user is what wins. It wins with search engines because they’re now smart enough to recognize good content. But more importantly, it wins with your users because it’s actually useful and helps them!
To this end, you need to review and understand your competitors’ content to understand what they’re doing right - which is something you can learn from - and where they’re weak - which is where you can be one step ahead and beat them.
There are a number of factors that go into a content review, and as with everything in business it’s often industry specific, but there are three factors that are always relevant.
1. Word Count
Short content does not perform well in Google. A 200-word fluff post will not be helping your readers, nor will it help your SERP rankings.
On the other hand, you don’t want to go overboard! Throwing an eBook-quantity of information into a weekly blog post will end up with your users making it a quarter of the way through your article, and then leaving. We all only have so many hours in the day.
So, you’ll want to know what average density performs well with your target audience(s). We recommend analyzing competitors in the space, building robust and thorough buyer personas, and you can even go so far as A/B testing posts to compare engagement and conversions.
Are your competitors utilizing multimedia in their content? Is it primarily text? Or are they taking advantage of images and videos to enrich their content? Some types of content are better suited to using media, but you can still use rich, non-text elements to help break up your content, which improves the user experience by making your content more digestible.
3. Outbound Link Profile
How often do your competitors use outbound links to support their content? Outbound links to authoritative sources are essentially the web’s version of the citations and bibliography of a well-researched academic paper. It shows search engines - and your users - that you’ve researched the topic and are supporting your content with well-known sources that have authority on the topic.
If your competitors aren’t utilizing outbound links, then you should.
If they are, then you should do it better than they are!
While the technical factors of this SEO audit matter immensely, there is one thing that search engines can’t see and don’t take into account directly.
Even though search engines cannot view your site’s aesthetics, the design of your site will have an impact on user behavior and interaction, and search engines are able to and do measure and understand this.
If you and your competitor are both ranking similarly, but their site offers a gorgeous design and a better user experience, you will ultimately lose out on potential business. However, if they are ranking higher than you but their site gives the user a poor experience, you have an opportunity to beat them on the design front. This will result in higher and more valuable engagement on your site, which will help with your rankings.
Design applies especially to local businesses, as well as professional B2B businesses that have relied primarily on word-of-mouth to be successful. On average, approximately 60% of web traffic is from mobile devices, and in some industries - like food, beverage, & restaurants - that number jumps up to almost 75%. This means if your website is not mobile-friendly, you will be losing out on a lot of potential business!
While social media’s impact on SEO is a contentious topic at best, it cannot be argued that social media has a huge impact on engagement with customers and provides marketing and growth opportunities not available in other channels.
Like with many other points in this audit, if your competitors are utilizing social media well, then you need to utilize it better. If they aren’t using it at all, then you have a prime opportunity for an easy win to accelerate your growth with minimal competition.
While most people are aware of the standard social media channels, not every industry can take advantage of all of them effectively. In order to focus your limited resources on the right networks, you need to understand your audience, which channels they use, and why (remember your buyer personas!).
For your convenience, we’ve included a list and links to the most common social media platforms:
Offline, Traditional, & Outbound Marketing
Hold up - I thought we were talking about SEO? What’s the marketing business?
The impact of external factors that are not direct SEO factors is often overlooked - don’t fall into that trap!
This is possibly the most difficult portion of analyzing your competitor’s SEO, but it can reveal much about the business and their strategies. While SEO typically focuses on organic search terms and traditional ranking factors, it’s also important to understand direct, branded searches. This is what offline marketing typically drives.
A branded search is simply where a user searches explicitly for your brand name, and it has an effect on your SEO in two ways:
- It improves your CTR in the eyes of Google
- It shows Google people are interested in your brand
Both of these are important, and you should do everything you can to determine what your competitors are doing offline. This can range from mailers, postcards, newspaper advertisements, billboard and public transport ads, radio and TV ads, and more.
There’s no easy way to know what they’re doing outside of seeing things for yourself, but with a little clever snooping and searching, such as “Brand + Ad” or “Brand + Billboard”, you can often discover a fair bit about what your competitors have been doing offline.
If they’ve been doing a lot, you may consider tapping into other channels that they haven’t. If they haven’t been doing much, then it’s an opportunity for you to get yet another leg up!
Link Profile Analysis
Analyzing a competitor’s backlink profile deserves an article to itself, but we’ll cover the basics of how to begin the analysis and what you can do with the information you find.
There is a wide selection of tools you can use, but we’d recommend the following tools since they’re free and don’t require a large monetary commitment.
The basic principle of using these tools is to plug your competitor’s URL into their search and examine the results. You’ll be given a list of links. You’ll see the title and URL of the linking page as well as the anchor text and the link URL.
You can use this information to do two things.
The first is to mirror their backlink profile. Your competitor has a certain link profile that’s helping them rank highly, so it stands to reason that if you build a similar profile with sites of similar authority you’ll see an improvement in rankings. This can and will take a long time, it’s not an overnight process, and is time consuming and can potentially be costly.
The second is that you can identify broken backlinks and potentially acquire them. This helps you gain an immediate edge over competitors since you’re acquiring an established link from an established source.
Backlink building is a complex subject, but these tips should get you set on the right path.
The next step in your SEO Audit is taking a look at optimizing the technical factors that impact your site’s rankings. Be sure to keep your developer’s number handy - you may need it!