The Potential Pitfalls of Competitor Analysis

I view competitor analysis as something of a necessary evil. You need to do *some* competitor analysis in order to benchmark yourself versus your competitors and shape your strategy moving forward. But I do think that the pitfalls are plentiful, so don your hard hats and safety goggles - let’s do this.


1) It’s tempting to kid yourself that you’re doing SEO

This is the most common trap. Competitor analysis can be useful, but remember that you’re not actively improving your site. It’s fine to spend a little time on competitor analysis exercises in order to help you formulate a strategy, but don’t kid yourself that this is the best use of your time.

Assuming a site’s technical foundations are solid, there’s nothing you can do for your site that is more beneficial than building links. That time you spent doing that competitor analysis? It would have been better spent building links.

No one has ever seen their rankings increase as a direct result of spending hours and hours and hours on a piece of competitor analysis.


2) Expending energy in the wrong place

So one of your competitors is buying links - getting angry about it is pretty pointless. As is submitting endless spam reports to Google.

Focus your time and energy on your own site, not your competitor’s activity. You can’t control what they do, you can only control what happens on your own site.


3) Failing to be SMART

SMART means:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound
Before you embark on a competitor analysis project you need a ‘SMART’ brief to keep you focused.

Set out:

  • Which competitors
  • Which keywords
  • Your scope (e.g. on-page / off-page / content strategy)
  • You should be trying to answer a question - e.g. How do I rank for blue widgets?
Answering hard questions  becomes much easier once you start to break it down e.g.:
  • How competitive is the keyword?
  • Does the SERP correlate with Moz Metrics (or whichever tools you favour)
  • Is social coming into play?
  • How important is on-page for this keyword?
  • What content do you need?
  • Is it realistic for you to rank for this term?
  • Etc, etc, etc

4) Over-emphasis on link strength

Raw link strength isn’t necessarily the most important factor to look at. I also like to check:

  • The percentage of branded versus keyword rich anchor text
  • Percentage split of links by domain authority
  • Followed versus no-followed links
  • C Blocks
  • Social (ooooh lovely tools)
I also like to check what I call brand strength by looking at the exact match search volume in Google’s keyword tool - it’s clearly not a precise measurement, but it’s a quick and dirty way of checking which brands are the major players in the market.


5) Offering ‘insight’ rather than providing actions

This shouldn’t be an academic exercise. Insight into what your competitor’s are up to might be interesting, but good competitor analysis should offer up a list of specific actions.

Knowing your competitor’s back link profiles are packed to the gills with nasty looking spam-tastic paid links probably isn’t terribly useful if you want to keep your nose clean and not buy links.

Actions might include - improve on-page targeting, create new pages to target these new keywords, build more high DA links with branded anchor text, etc.



Agree / disagree on the pitfalls front? Have any competitor analysis tips you’d care to share? Do let me know via the comments.

Image credit - Hard Hat

Hannah Smith

Hannah Smith

Hannah joined Distilled in September 2010 as a Consultant and is now on the Content Strategy team. Prior to this she spent over 7 years in offline marketing (point of sale, press advertising, direct mail & sponsorship), until her fairy godmother...   read more

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  1. I think you have a great point about interesting things and implementing the actionable things.

    Thanks for this Hannah.

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  2. "No one has ever seen their rankings increase as a direct result of spending hours and hours and hours on a piece of competitor analysis."

    I would say this is a very wild assumption.

    I Completely agree with you on being SMART. But this approach applies to all SEO tasks. So why single out just competitive analysis. If you work smartly then there are no pitfalls of competitor analysis. Such analysis infact speed up keyword research, content development and link building. In an agency environment 'competitive analysis' is an absolute must.

    reply >
    • Hannah

      Hi Himanshu,

      I don't think it's a wild assumption to say that no one has seen their rankings increase as a result of completing a piece of competitor analysis. Perhaps I didn't explain clearly :)

      The actions taken - i.e. reviewing competitors, running data, drawing conclusions and compiling a document - whilst being a worthy exercise - don't actually change your own (or your client's site) for the better.

      Sure, the actions taken post this analysis (one would hope) will improve rankings, but the act of compiling the competitor analysis documentation will not. Hence my point about it being something of a potential pitfall.


  3. Love the less-is-more approach. When we follow our competitors, we'll always be behind them.

    reply >
  4. Megan

    I love the short and sweet post- #2 and #5 hit entirely too close to home! thanks!

    reply >
  5. Joe

    I completely agree, I often find myself consuming information rather that creating new content and links. There is a certain amount of information and data we need to take in to make educated, data driven decisions, but we often get sucked into the research and finding more and more information to the point where we've expended all of our energy on searching and none on creating, as you mentioned.

    If anyone has read the 4 Hour Workweek, this aligns with the low input high output philosophy.

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  6. The SMART bullet points are good to consider when taking on a new client.

    Per competitor research, it's important to undertake to get an idea of the landscape and how your client's strengths can penetrate a market. However, we really have no way to know whether a competitor's tactics are contributing to their bottom line.

    Maybe they are involved in social media, but what is their definition of success?

    That's why focusing mostly on doing the right thing based on your client's USP is a good way to approach.

    Have a great 2012!

    reply >
  7. M Atlas

    Nice article Hannah,

    I really agree with what's been said here. You really can't do much about what the competitor does. The best way to outdo them is to outdo ourselves.

    I'm just curious as about one thing though. You've mentioned that competitor analysis should seemingly take second precedence to SEO. While I agree with this, would you say it would be a good idea to hire an external firm to handle the competitor analysis but conduct SEO ourself? For instance, I know this one company among others called SQM ( which provides such a service. What are your thoughts on this?

    In any case, thanks for sharing this.

    reply >

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