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Competitor Research 101: 15 Questions to Unravel Your Competitor’s Online Marketing Strategy

If you are at a loss on how competitors are outranking you or your clients, then competitor research is the way to go. By researching the competitors overall online marketing portfolio (i.e., not just their backlinks), you will get a broader idea of what it takes to holistically make a dent in that particular industry….

If you are at a loss on how competitors are outranking you or your clients, then competitor research is the way to go. By researching the competitors overall online marketing portfolio (i.e., not just their backlinks), you will get a broader idea of what it takes to holistically make a dent in that particular industry. The following are fifteen questions that, once answered, will give you an almost complete view of your competitor’s marketing strategy. They go beyond the basic PageRank, Alexa rank, and other basic statistics that you’ve probably already gathered anyway to tell help you with actual strategy.

Content Strategies

As we all know, content is the way to go if you want to give your visitors a great user experience and help ward off the big bad Panda – Google Panda, that is. Here are five simple questions to help you see how a competitor is using content in their online marketing strategy.

1. Do they have a blog?

Competitive Analysis - Blog Research

One of the best content strategies any business can utilize is maintaining a company blog. Find out if your competitor has a blog and note some important things like whether their blog is on their own domain (domain.com/blog), a subdomain (blog.domain.com), or a separate site altogether (companyblog.com or companyblog.wordpress.com).

2. How often and how much do they post?

Does your competitor blog daily? Weekly? Monthly? Are the posts standard length (up to 600 words) or longer? Note your competitor’s content production frequency and quality, plus additional details such as topics they blog about.

3. Who writes for their blog?

Does your competitor have their employees writing blog posts? Do they invite guest bloggers or industry experts? Are they hiring freelance writers? The latter might be hard to tell, especially since some companies hire freelancers and use them as ghostwriters by having the writer produce the content and the company slaps their name on it as the author. But noting how your competitor creates great content for their blog will give you an idea on how you can get great content for yours.

4. Do they produce other kinds of content?

Aside from blog posts, what other content does your competitor have on their website? Do they produce videos, infographics, webinars, eBooks, reports, whitepapers, tutorials, or case studies? If they do, check out a few of them, note the kind of topics they create these different types of content for, and see how successful they are in terms of gaining social sharing and backlinks. This can help you determine what types of content you should be producing and whether it will resonate with your audience.

5. Do they write for other websites?

This one you might not discover until you do some backlink checking later on, but see if your competitor writes articles for other sites including general article directories, niche article directories, industry blogs, or industry news sites. Guest blogging in particular can be a great way to build links and incoming traffic to their website which means if they are doing it, you probably should be too!

SEM Strategies

Once you’ve gotten a glimpse into your competitor’s basic content strategy, you will want to dig around in their search engine marketing practices. Here are some key things to look for.

Onsite SEO

Most people think competitor research and SEO just has to do with checking backlinks, but first, we want to take a peek into their on-site optimization strategy. Here, you’re looking for just the basics.

6. What keywords do they target?

If your competitor has done any on-site optimization (good or bad) they’ve likely left a nice trail of keywords that they are targeting in their website’s title tag, meta description, and meta keywords. And particularly, if they haven’t had their website updated in a couple of years since an over-zealous SEO got a hold of it, you might find some keywords stuffed in the footer too!

7. How do they write their title tag / meta description?

Competitive Analysis - Onsite SEO Research

Going beyond their keywords, now you will want to look at the title tags and meta descriptions for the homepage plus key internal pages. Extensions like Google Chrome’s SEO Site Tools make it easy to view meta tags on any page you are visiting. Here, you are looking to see what kind of verbiage they use to attract clicks to their website from search results. Remember that while meta descriptions may not count for SEO value any more, they do often appear as the snippet in search results which makes them important for click through conversion rates.

8. How many pages do they have on their website?

Answering this question will simply give you a better grasp for how large your competitor’s site really is (and how much content they have on it). You can go to Google.com and enter site:domain.com in the search box to see just how many pages Google indexes from your competitor’s site. Note that they might have a higher amount of indexed pages if their blog is on their domain vs. on a subdomain or offsite.

Link Building

Next on the list of competitor exploration is backlinks. Some great tools to use for this include Link Diagnosis and Link Detective.

9. Where are they getting their links?

Depending on the amount of time you have, you can click on several of the competitor’s backlinks to determine their overall link strategy such as mostly article networks, guest blog posts, link exchanges (look for those words on “resource pages” where their link appears), blogroll links, blog comments, forum posts, directories, and so forth. If a competitor is outranking you, then you might want to consider a similar linking strategy unless the competitor is going after low-quality links. While they might outrank you with those now, Google is cracking down on sites with unnatural / spammy backlinks.

10. Do links look like they are paid or natural?

This is sometimes hard to spot, but if you notice that your competitor’s links often show up next to other companies that don’t make sense on one website after another, it could be a sign that they are paying for them. Links in a blogroll or footer are typical areas where people sell links – within guest posts that have nothing to do with the competitor (aside from their anchor text) is another paid link warning flag.

11. What type of anchor text do they use?

Competitive Analysis - Link Building Research

If you see the same keywords over and over in the Anchor text column of your competitor’s backlinks, then you will know that those are the keywords they are targeting the strongest. Remember that no matter what they do, you don’t want to follow their lead if they are over-optimizing by building lots of links to only a few specific keyword phrases. It’s best to mix it up and use branded anchor text as well.

Social Strategies

Last, but not least in your competitor research is their social media marketing strategy. These next few questions will help you find out what social networks and strategies are working best for your competitor.

12. What social networks do your competitors use?

You can start by looking at your competitor’s website or blog to find links to their main social networks (typically Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn and, lately, Pinterest). If that doesn’t work, you can simply search your competitor’s name on Google to find their top social networks. You can also try entering the username they use at KnowEm to see what networks they have reserved for themselves.

13. How do they brand their social profiles?

Competitive Analysis - Social Media Research

Chances are, your competitor has everything branded with their company name. But branding goes deeper. Do they use a company logo, well-recognized personal, CEO, or product as their main image? Do they use individual employee profiles to communicate or do they always communicate as their brand? What does their Twitter and YouTube background look like? Is their main profile link pointing back to the homepage or another internal page? Looking at these elements can help you see how your potential audience will respond to your brand based on personal or corporate interactions.

14. How often do they post on each main network?

Different social networks require a different rate of updates. You might notice that your competitor tweets more than they update their Facebook page, and they might post videos less often than they add new pictures to Pinterest.

15. What types of posts do they share?

A successful social media strategy usually involves a variety of update types including plain status updates, links, videos, and photos. You can gauge how well different types of updates are received by their audience by looking at comments, likes, +1′s, repins, and other reactions.

Now it’s your turn. Aside from basic stats, what other information do you gather about competitors to determine their actual online marketing strategy? How do you use this information to shape your own tactics? Please share in the comments!

  • http://www.internetmarketing-seo.co.uk/ Alan Charnock

    With latest Penguin update I have seen some very small websites with little content and next to no links moving up the rankings. I think in the next few months we will need to take a look at not only the above factors you mention but anomalies and factor in some non seo methods, and when I say non seo methods I mean leaving a site alone to gain natural strength. 

    • http://kikolani.com/ Kristi Hines

      There are always flukes in the system.  Google says to do one thing, but sites doing something else still seem to dominate.  I’d like to think they’re working those kinks out and that ultimately, the sites doing what they are supposed to will come out as the winners.

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  • http://redpointhq.com/ John Hannah

    Great post, Kristi and thanks for the tip on Link Detective. I hadn’t seen that service before and it looks like a keeper.

    • http://kikolani.com/ Kristi Hines

      Thanks John!  Hope it helps in your link building journey!  :)

  • http://www.BlogAid.net MaAnna

    Thanks for all the nice tool links, kristi. Makes actually taking these steps a lot easier.

    • http://kikolani.com/ Kristi Hines

      You’re welcome MaAnna!  Hope they help with your business!  :)

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  • http://www.mazero.com/ Behavioural Targeting

    Big thanks for you Kristi. I appreciate you work in providing us the tips and tools that we can use in our business. It is now more understandable and easier.

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    Just discovered  your site via link from seomoz.  Nice info here and exploring the rest of your site.  Thanks for sharing.

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    This is a great reminder to keep on top of it. Thanks for sharing the different tools too.

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