Competitor Analysis: A Structured Approach

This blog post is for you if you need a structured way to do competitor analysis that allows you to focus and prioritise tasks without missing out on any important information. It’s also for you if you’ve never done a competitor analysis before or don’t know why you might need to do one.

Some of the reasons you may want to do a competitor analysis are:

  • You used to be the winner in organic search results but you are not anymore
  • You're expanding in a new market (geographically or with a category/service/product)
  • Competitors always outrank you
  • You’re ahead of the game but want to discover why certain competitors are growing

I came up with this method because last year one of our clients asked us to do a competitor analysis but with a very specific question in mind: they were interested only in the Japanese competition, and more specifically they wanted to get this done on their Japanese website. I do not speak Japanese! Nor does anyone else at Distilled (yet!). So, I had to focus on data, numbers, and graphs to get the answers I wanted.

I think of competitor analysis as a set of tasks divided into these two phases:

  1. Discover problems
  2. Find Solutions

The part about finding solutions will vary depending on the problems you discover, which is why I can’t include it here. The steps I include in this method are about discovering problems and as in every SEO project there are multiple tasks you may want to include as part of the analysis. I built a list of steps that are possible to execute regardless of the site’s industry, language, or size; they are listed in a specific order to make sure you don’t get to the end of the puzzle with missing pieces. I’ll go over why and how to do each in detail later on, but here are the things I include in EVERY competitor analysis:

  1. Track keywords targeted on a rank tracker
  2. Analyse ranking results
  3. Backlink analysis (this is nowhere close to a backlink audit)
  4. Topic searches and trends

Let’s dive right in.

Track keywords targeted on a rank tracker

For this step, you will need a list of keywords targeted. If you are doing this for a site in a language you don’t speak, as it was the case for me, you may have to ask your client or you may have someone on the team who has this list. If you’re expanding into a new market and are not sure what keywords to actually target you may want to use a keyword research tool. For example, you can use Ahrefs, Moz, or Semrush, to research keywords used to look for the product/service you are offering (given that you can speak the site’s language).

If you’ve never used a rank tracker before, or cannot pay for one, here is a useful post on how to create your own ranking monitor. At Distilled we use Stat and during this task, I discovered that it can track keywords in different languages, including Japanese, which was great news!

Whenever possible, when I track keywords I categorise them in one or more of the following ways:

  • The page/category/site section they are targeting
  • The topic they belong to
  • Whether they are informational or transactional keywords

In my specific case, due to the language barrier, I couldn’t categorise them. A word of warning - if you are in the same position and you are tempted to use Google Translate - don’t! It will execute some translation pretty accurately but it doesn’t have the level of nuance that we need for informative keywords targeting.

Even though I couldn’t categorise my keywords, I could exclude the branded ones and still obtain a really clear picture of ranking results for the site as a whole. The next step will cover how to analyse results.

Analyse ranking results

With this step I always have in mind two specific goals:

  • Discover all organic ranking competitors: you or your client may have a specific list of sites they think they are or should be ranking against. However, who your client is actually up against on organic results may include sites that were not considered before. Your search competitors are not necessarily your business competitors! This may be true for transactional and informational keywords depending on the content overlap with sites that do not belong to your industry but are still providing relevant information for your customers.
  • Analyse how much traffic competitors are getting: for this I used a simple calculation multiplying search volume by CTR (click-through-rate) based on the position at which each URL is ranking for that keyword.

When I downloaded the traffic data from the rank tracker I compared the number of keywords each competitor was ranking (within the first 20 results) and how much traffic they were getting. When I plot results on a graph, I obtained an output like this:

Above: Comparison of number of times each competitor ranks and amount of traffic they get

What I discovered with this graph was the following:

  1. Competitors A&B had little-to-nothing to do with the industry. This is also good to know at the beginning of the analysis because now:
    1. You know which organic ranking competitors to actually focus on
    2. You might discover in this list of competitors players that you didn’t think of
    3. You may want to discuss with your client some of the keywords targeted (language permitting!)
  2. Competitor H was my client and needless to say the worst performing. This opened up a number of questions and possibilities that is good to discover at the beginning of every competitor analysis. For example, are pages not optimised well enough for the keywords targeted? Are pages optimised but competitors are using additional features, such as structured data, to rank better? This is just the tip of the iceberg.

Keywords to URL mapping

At this stage is also where you can do a keyword-to-URL mapping, matching URLs with the keywords they are ranking for. From the URL, you should be able to tell what the page is about. If the URL is also in a different language you can check hreflang to find the English version of it.

(Tip: if you actually need to check hreflang, scanning the list of URLs on a crawler such a Screaming Frog will easily extract for you the hreflang values.)

When matching keywords to URLs, one of the most important things to think about is whether URLs could and should rank for the keywords they are targeting and ranking for. Think about this:

  • What is the search intent for that keyword?
  • Who has a better page result for that intent?

Backlink Analysis

With this step, I wanted to compare the backlink profile quality among competitors and discover how my client could become more suitable for new high-quality backlinks. I know you may be thinking that comparing domain authority could be just enough to know which domain is stronger. However, Tom Capper, a senior consultant here at Distilled recently wrote a blog post explaining how domain authority is not the right metric for reporting on link building. This is because Google will not rank your pages based on the quality of the domain but based on the quality of the single page.

The main goal with this step is to find opportunities: high-quality pages linking to your competitors more often than to you or your client. I’ve written a blog post explaining how to analyse your competitor's backlinks. By the end of this step, you should have a list of:

  • Quality domains to target to obtain new backlinks - if they link to your competitors they are interested in the industry and likely to link to your client’s site as well
  • Pages that should be improved to make them more suitable for new backlinks
  • Topics to target when creating new content

So far you’ve collected a lot of information about your client and its competitors. It’s important to start a competitor analysis with these steps because they allow you to get a full picture of the most important competitors and what they are doing better. This is what will lead you to find solutions in the second phase of the competitor analysis.

For the last step of finding problems, I list topic searches and trends because that’s another check to discovering problems before you can find solutions. It’s also another step where the language is not a barrier.

Topic searches and Trends

At this point, you should have a clear idea of:

  • Who the most important competitors are
  • Where they are stronger: topics they target, categories heavily linked externally, site sections with better content

When we are making decisions based on search volumes, it is important that we take into account the trend in that search volume. Is this topic something which is popular year round? Is it only popular in the month we happened to do this investigation? Was there a massive spike in interest a few months ago, which is now rapidly declining?

I usually check trends over a 12 months period of time so that I can find out about seasonality. Seasonal content should be strategically built a month or two before the upward trend to make sure Google has enough time to crawl and index it.  Examples of seasonal topics can be anything such as:

  • “What to buy on Valentine’s Day?”
  • “What to write on Mother’s Day card?”

Ideally, you’d want to find evergreen content with a stable interest trend over time. The trend may also look like it had a spike at some point and then levelled down, but the interest remained high and is still relevant:

Google search trend over 12 months within a specific geographic region

A topic like this could be something like “electric vehicles”. This may have had an interest spike when the technology became popular which then levelled down but over time the interest remained because it’s a topic and product that people still search.

Increasing trends are the ideal scenario, however, these are not easy to find and there is no guarantee the increasing trend will continue:

Google search trend over 12 months within a specific geographic region

Stable, high trends are solid topics to target, however, they may be quite competitive:

Google search trend over 12 months within a specific geographic region

While it’s a good idea to target a topic like this, unless you have the strongest domain out of all your competitors it’s worth considering long tail keywords to find a niche audience to target.

By the end of this step you should have:

  • A list of solid topics to target
  • A plan on how to prioritise them based on seasonality and any other information you might have found

Wrapping it all up

You’ve made it to the end of the list and should have a clear picture of the competitor's strengths and areas where your client can improve.  From here is where you can start finding solutions. For example, if the ranking results you discovered show pages ranking for the keywords they should not, page optimisation could be a solution, or keywords research for retargeting could be another. There are many other ways to provide solutions which I will expand on my next blog post.

What did you think? Have I missed anything? What else would you include to discover problems in a competitor analysis for a site, whether you speak the language or not? Let me know in the comments below.

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About the author
Paola Didone

Paola Didone

Paola joined Distilled in May 2018 as an Analyst. Originally Italian, Paola spent eight years in San Francisco Bay Area where she attended the University of California, Berkeley - Haas School of Business. Before joining Distilled, she worked in...   read more