Competitor Research Using Search Operators | A Launch Point For Beginners

When identifying keywords for your website or a client's website, have you considered how competitors seek to earn organic traffic? Researching your competitors can provide crucial insights into new opportunities for your business. You’ll be able to spot gaps in the market and possibly identify opportunities that you never even considered.

However, the process itself can seem daunting. What exactly are you looking for? How will you find this? And how long will it take?

All these questions can lead to “analysis paralysis”… you end up doing nothing. 

Fortunately search operators can make research quick and easy. This article aims to provide a launch point for you to be more efficient with your efforts.

What is a search operator?

Simply put, a search operator is a character or a string of characters used to narrow the focus of a search when dealing with a search engine.

However, before search operators can be used, we need to know what we’re looking for in the first place. While there are many different search operators, let’s look at specific ones that can help kick-start your research.

How to identify which keywords your competitors are targeting

The presence of a title tag can be verified by checking a URL’s source code and looking for the text between <title></title>. But doing this for hundreds or thousands of pages is not an efficient use of time. Search operators can help you to quickly and easily cut down the number of pages to look at, while simultaneously see how Google displays indexed URLs and title tags in the SERPs. A quick look at the results and you’ll have a high level understanding of what the competitive landscape looks like for your desired query.

Here are three search operators I find useful:

site:

Use this and a subdomain or domain to pull (nearly) all of Google’s indexed pages for that subdomain or domain. For example, the image below shows a site search on the domain moz.com:

The image shows that approximately 219,000 pages are indexed, which is quite a lot, but I won’t need to go searching through all of them at this time. I’m looking for the keywords that appear in the title tags because a well-optimized site will have its target keywords located there. The reason for this is that title tags are the strongest on-page ranking signal for Google. However, not every site is well-optimized, so this tactic is best used as a quick snapshot of the site, rather than a full analysis.

intitle:

From the top result above, we can see that one of the keywords that Moz would like to rank for is “SEO software”. We can use the intitle: search operator to quickly find all of the pages on the domain that include ‘SEO software’ in the title tag.

Actually, we need to be a bit more specific here because there are two ways this can go.

One way to conduct the search is to put into the search bar site:moz.com intitle:seo software. Doing this will present the following results:

In the red rectangle, the words SEO and software are adjacent, but this isn’t the case in the green rectangle. Performing the site search like we did above is a general search that will look for the words anywhere within the title, though it does not need to contain the entire query within the page title.

But what happens if we want to search for all of the pages that contain SEO software within the page title on Moz’s domain in that order? For that purpose, we’d use quotes so our search query would look like this:

site:moz.com intitle:“seo software”

As can be seen, all of the results contain the keywords SEO software exactly in that order. Now why are these searches useful? Well, from our individual competitors, we can now identify the strongest pages they have for specific keywords and we can analyze their page metrics using Open Site Explorer.

With these metrics, we can see how likely it may be for potential URLs to rank for a given keyword. This is potential because if there were a page already targeting a specific keyword, you’d know how the page would rank in comparison. If the competition is very strong for a particular keyword, it might be a better idea to de-prioritize that query and focus more on keywords where there is a greater likelihood of ranking. Oftentimes, the best way to achieve higher rankings as a young, relatively untrusted site by Google is to employ long-tail keywords, which are typically 3-5 keywords in length. Long-tail keywords tend to get fewer searches than short-tail keywords (queries involving 1 or 2 keywords), but are often more transactional as they are more specific than short-tail keywords. Due to Google’s advancement in understanding semantic intent, there are real opportunities to be seized around keywords that include the likes of benefits/disadvantages/causes of XX or ‘what is XX?’.

How to identify your other competitors in search

More often than not, companies realize that other companies within their own industry are not the only entities competing for the desired search queries. We also must realize that there are companies or organizations that offer a different suite of products or services that are likely competing for the same terms.

inurl:

Use the inurl: operator to identify all of the URLs that include a specific string. Using the example of inurl:sailboats, I took this screenshot to show all of the URLs indexed by Google that include “sailboats” within the URL. Though it does not necessarily imply that a URL will rank for a specific keyword without a search operator, it might be able to quickly tell you the websites that are making sailboats a focus.

This is particularly useful when double-checking sites that may not have ideal SEO structure. Many sites, especially new ones with little knowledge of SEO, will not have optimized title tags for specific keywords. It may be more obvious for the webmaster to create a URL and leave the traces of what the page is about in the URL. For this reason, merely checking title tags alone is not enough to identify what competitors are looking for.

-XX

Going back to our sailboat example from above, let’s imagine that we’re focusing on informational websites and want to remove brands that sell them, like Beneteau from the aforementioned example. We can employ a search like this: inurl:sailboats -beneteau.

 

Granted, filtering out Beneteau now shows Jenneau Yard at the top of the rankings, so we’re not totally in the clear yet, but we can just continue to add on more negative filters to make our search look like inurl:sailboats -beneteau -jeanneau. This will leave us with more of the informational sites that Google deems relevant to the query and could be potential industry or search competitors.


Any combination of the search operators listed above can be used together and they do have more utility than just competitor keyword research. For this particular blog post, I wanted to give new SEOs some of the tools available to expedite their keyword research and make it more accurate than perhaps it may have been before.

Want to learn more? This article talks through a whole plethora of search operators. Or perhaps you’d like to hear more about how operators affect Google Adwords? If so, check out this article by Trenton Greener.

And if you want more in-depth info on keyword research, our DistilledU modules may be of interest.

Lastly, if you have other operators you like to use for these purposes or know other great spin-offs, please feel free to share.

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About the author
Jeremy Gottlieb

Jeremy Gottlieb

Jeremy came to Distilled after honing his skills in user acquisition and growth at startups in Oakland and New York City. At his previous stops he was responsible for technical SEO, content marketing, email marketing, paid search, remarketing and...   read more