Before you enter a competitive online market, you’ll need to understand who the major players are so you can (a) fly under the radar and learn from the trail they left behind and (b) look for patterns to formulate ranking strategies for SEO based on their site and their nearest competitors.
Like any good SEO management campaign, it starts with strategic planning, but without knowing what to look for when assessing the competition, then how can you possibly expect to surpass them?
What are some of the most common criteria or typical areas SEO’s analyze when gauging how competitive an industry or the players in it are?
The number of pages in the site: This can provide insight to the underlying relevance factors based on themed information (more on this later), recurring semantic synonyms or what ranking strategies a website employs.
Age of domain: You can determine somethings present and future course, to some degree based on where it has been. So having a blueprint that unravels the history of how competitors initiated their relationship with search engines at your fingertips can provide a solid foundation to initiate a structured investigation. Archive.org also known as The Wayback Machine is a logical starting point to take a peek behind the scenes.
The Hosting Environment: Determining when the name was domain was registered, for how long, who the site is registered to and what type of hosting environment can be gleaned from using DomainTools.com . Let’s just call this a mandatory step in the evaluation process as one of the core components that can lead to other useful discoveries (such as other domains or linking patterns for example).
Site Structure: One of the key facets of optimization is hinged on the site structure and how optimized it is. Are there clearly defined naming conventions? are they employing keyword-rich sub folders, information silos or using virtual theming with their internal links? (like Wikipedia employs anchor text like an index to other key pages).
Don’t know?, then take a look at their site map and get to know your way around. You can derive a great deal based on internal links and site structure when combined with link mining to assess how the competition distributes their internal link weight.
Internal Links: Are they deep linking to folders to strengthen each page in the folder? Employ a link:domainname.com/foldername/ command for the folder in Yahoo Site Explorer if you do not own custom SEO Tools. Another tip, look at how many pages are in a folder in Google by using this advanced search command site:domainname.com/foldername/* and all of the contents of that folder that are indexed are listed (to aid in reverse engineering the silo or link profile). Xenu link sleuth is a tool than can make this a snap (if they haven’t blocked it from crawling their content).
With a few pots of coffee, a spreadsheet to record your progress and an ambitious disposition, you could essentially unearth your competitors’ authority link treasure trove with these simple techniques (archive.org, sitemap analysis, link analysis, and index content in the folder) to conduct further research.
Not only can it determine if potential linking opportunities are available for your content (from trolling your competitors links), but you can see how they structured their site (or at least what they want crawled).
Number of inbound links and the anchor text in the links: This obviously is a a key factor to assess the link reputation of the site in question. Even though the site could be about black widgets, if enough sites link to them with the anchor text brown widgets, the target site will rank for that phrase as well.
Ratio of Anchor Text to Domain Name URL Links: While conducting research on two of the highest ranking SEO companies in the industry (names obviously excluded). I noticed something rather extraordinary, although both had built links based on key modifiers (main keyword, modifier, modifier, main keyword modifier, etc.) with their top ranking keywords included, each also had a high concentration of links for their domain name without link text (sitename.com) or (company name) as the link anchors.
Around 33% proportionately to links that had anchor text by comparison. These two companies rank for hundreds of the most competitive phrases in our industry, so the fact that the similarity was there was a relation. Although getting there may be half the battle, defending your position / relevance is equally important.
Is there something more to using your brand / company name as a dominant anchor versus your main keywords or proportionately having a high percentage of inbound links to the homepage with that tactic that translates into domain authority? Perhaps, perhaps not, but in any case, finding similarities are always nice for heuristic analysis down the road.
Both companies focused on a tight niche of primary phrases, neither strayed much as far as anchor text diversity and they appeared to use the domain as the way to drive the rankings home (www.sitename.com)
Search Volume of Keywords: Using keyword research or analytics software you can gather and populate competitive metrics on search volume for anticipated keywords.
This alone is one of the most important factors to gauge the competition, just look at the keyword concentration of their pages, the root phrase saturation ratios and the flow of their internal links SEO Elite is not a bad tool for gleaning this data (this is not a sponsored ad or review). It is just a simple tool to effectively measure the respective ratios of data, look at the anchor text or linking patterns of the competition.
Things to look for: recurring keywords, linking patterns, similarities, consistencies (such as deep links to a sub folder with the domain name) to reinforce link weight. What you gain is ultimately up to deeply you delve into multiple facets, we are just covering some basic tactics in this post.
Other factors such as: Is it a trusted domain, how is their link profile? Mostly directories in high numbers to augment relevance? Do they have links from trusted sites like the chamber of commerce, edu’s, off-line media resources or their online equivalents? or perhaps they have built their foundation from sites that carry tremendous link weight and only have a few hundred links compared to other competitors who have thousands. I have outlined in the past how to find others authority links while performing competitive research and analysis as well as other tips for assessing the competition.
On Page / Off Page Ratios: Additionally there are ratios that provide an adequate snapshot such as allinanchor, allintitle, allintext, allinurl relevance. Essentially these indicators help you determine the degree of optimization and strength of (a) the use of the title tag (b) if the domain name impacts rankings as a result of keywords present in the domain (c) how frequent the keywords appear in the text (d) and how many keywords are pointed at the site via inbound links.
Engagement Metrics, Traffic: It never hurts to see how much traffic an industry leader is getting so you can reverse engineer the trails they leave behind. You can use compete.com to provide details about user engagement as well as monthly traffic as an initial step to at least know what you are up against.
Social Media Engagement Traces: Are your competitors leveraging social media, press releases or other unknown marketing channels? You can always use Google blogsearch and set up alerts for their domain name or company name to keep tabs on their link velocity. Another useful tool is social scan, which skims social media sites for URLs.
Without giving away the farm, I am only allowed to scratch the surface of some of the more general methods for assessing competition. Although each individual has their method, the end result is measured in results, search engine result page results that is. Having the information is not enough, it is what you do with it that matters.