Author: Lidia Infante
Competitor analysis is one of the most fundamental marketing strategies, yet many businesses miss the mark, which could ultimately lead to uninformed decisions and lost revenue. Often, this comes down to incorrectly identifying competitors.
This is true for search marketers and SEOs, too. Competitor analysis is key to developing an effective SEO strategy, but your idea of who your competitors are could be just the tip of the iceberg, or worse yet, completely off.
When trying to identify our competitors, many of our own biases can get in the way. We might overestimate how significant a competitor is if we’re familiar with that brand or let our ego get in the way by thinking we’re competing against bigger fish than we really are.
The solution to biases in competitor identification is adopting a data-led approach.
In this article, I will cover the different ways you can identify search competitors and how to choose the right method for your business.
Table of contents:
Why does competitor identification matter?
SEO is a zero-sum game. Every position you gain in the rankings is a position that someone else loses. Your ranking efforts don’t happen in a vacuum, so understanding who your competitors are and what they are doing is completely essential.
Competitor identification is a foundational step in various SEO techniques, like an SEO gap analysis, a content gap analysis, tracking your share of search, and different link building techniques.
I cannot stress this enough: you are not alone in the SERPs and every part of your SEO strategy is context-dependent.
What constitutes an SEO competitor?
Most organizations have a clear view of who they think their commercial competitors are. An SEO competitor is a little bit different, though.
For a brand to be a real SEO competitor for your business, it needs to meet these three criteria:
01. The business targets the same keywords as your brand
This is the most obvious piece of criteria, but it’s often mistaken as the only criteria.
An SEO competitor is a brand that’s trying to gain visibility in the same SERPs as you. This is independent of how the business chooses to rank, be it a blue link, a local search listing, or a video.
02. The business speaks to your target audience
I will illustrate this with an example: a B2C eCommerce brand probably does not need to worry about big B2B distributors, even if they’re ranking for the same keywords. This is because they are targeting different audiences and different types of buyers.
In practice, even if a B2B brand ranks number one, the intent of the B2C consumer will not be met and they will move on to the next result.
03. The business answers the same consumer needs
This is closely related to point number two, but it’s important enough to give it a section of its own.
To understand this, let’s consider an example. A user is looking to buy a bodysuit and two different results come up at the top of the SERP:
The first result is a product listing from an eCommerce store, with all the relevant information, like product description, reviews, size and color options, and price.
The next results are opinion articles about the product, as tested by various individuals.
The user is looking to buy the product, so the second result does not address the same consumer needs, even if it’s technically about the same product.
How to identify your SEO competitors
You can identify your real SEO competitors via a manual analysis or using data.
Let’s take a look at these methods in more detail.
Manual analysis is the process of conducting a manual search for your target keywords and then skimming the results to identify your SEO competitors.
It’s possible for this approach to lead to a biased or inaccurate competitor list, but even so, this method is not without merit. Manually browsing SERPs for your target keywords and getting familiar with what they look like can have a ton of value.
Who this is for
This approach is best for businesses with a small pool of target keywords or a limited marketing budget.
Pros and cons
This analysis is completely free to perform (since it doesn’t require any paid tools) and provides a great overview of what users see when they interact with your brand in search.
Unfortunately, this approach is the most likely to result in an inaccurate or biased list of competitors.
This approach is more quantitative than the manual method above, which could help you create a more compelling case with stakeholders that might need to approve additional resources for you to take on the competitors you’ve identified.
Who this is for
This approach is best for new sites that aren’t currently ranking for many of their target keywords and for businesses with a broad set of products or keywords.
Pros and cons
This method is slow, but provides the most accurate results. Since it’s driven by tools, it can keep marketers a little bit in the dark when it comes to what actual users see when they search.
Another wonderful advantage of this process is being able to analyze competition by topic and surface the SERP features that Google shows users.
How to conduct a bottom-up competitor analysis
01. Identify target keywords and group them into topics or clusters.
02. Download SERP results. For each keyword, you are going to download the SERP results, including the top 10 and the first results page. You can do this with most SEO tools, such as Semrush, Moz or Ahrefs. We will cover these in a later section.
03. Analyze your SERP data. Analyze the data to surface what websites show up in your search results more often. The more frequently a given business appears, the more relevant they are as SEO competitors.
04. Filter out false competitors. Review your results to weed out irrelevant sites that do not match the SEO competitor criteria listed above.
05. Analyze your competition by topic. Group your SERP results data by topic cluster and pick your top competitor(s) by product/topic.
From here, you can drill down even further to classify the SERP features that are showing for each cluster. This can help you identify whether your best strategy might include infographics, video, images, or other formats.
Since you’ll be working through several steps and a lot of data, I’ve provided a free template that you can use for the bottom-up approach.
The top-down method is the fastest data-driven method you can use. However, unlike the bottom-up method, it emphasizes organizational knowledge as opposed to relying so heavily on the SERP.
Who this is for
This method is best for established sites that are already ranking for their core keywords. This will work best if you have a clear idea of who your product and commercial competitors are.
Pros and cons
A very interesting advantage of this approach is that it can help you foster stronger connections and communication across departments. It may even increase your stakeholder buy-in, since other teams will have contributed to your efforts.
However, the results will not be as detailed at the bottom-up approach, with the inability to dig deep into topics.
How to conduct a top-down competitor analysis
01. Ask other departments. Connect with the teams in your organization that are in charge of sales, product, support, and marketing, and ask them who they think your brand’s competitors are.
02. Prioritize the list. Sort the list by how often each competitor comes up in each department’s responses (from the first step above). The more a competitor is mentioned, the higher up the list it goes.
03. Compare it with an SEO research tool. Use an SEO research tool and read through the list of SEO competitors it provides (more on this in the section below). Cross-reference it with your prioritized list and find the overlap.
Competitor research tools
There are many SEO tools available that you can use for competitor research. In fact, most SEO tools offer some form of competitor research capability.
Below, I’ve shared some of my favorites and why I love them—and no, these are not sponsored mentions.
Semrush has the broadest offering I’ve seen in the market for competitor identification, tracking, and market analysis. When it comes to competitor identification, it offers the basics, like a list of SEO competitors and a rich database for PPC competitors, which makes it a solid choice.
When it comes to competitor tracking once you’ve identified them, Semrush offers tracking for both organic rankings and paid keywords in search, as well as social media tracking.
What really makes it stand out for me is the traffic analytics for any domain, segmented by channel, and the market explorer feature for analyzing your competitor’s audience and benchmarking your traffic.
I use Semrush Eye On to schedule a weekly report that gets sent to my whole team. The report shows new pages, blog posts, or ads that our competitors have published in the last week.
I have tried Moz’s True Competitor tool and it’s really effective. I used it a few times as part of my top-down approach and I was surprised to find that it delivered very similar results to my bottom-up approach.
If you’re short on time, but need more accuracy than the top-down approach provides, this would be my tool of choice.
SISTRIX stands out when it comes to competitor analysis and identification thanks to its Visibility Index. This proprietary metric combines search volume and expected CTR for a domain’s main keywords and allows you to compare your visibility against your competitors’ over time.
Ahrefs is very efficient when it comes to analyzing competitors using a bottom-up approach. Its ability to export SERP results in bulk for your selected keywords into a CSV file makes this method work a little faster without losing accuracy.
The export also includes SERP features and the parent topic for each keyword, which can facilitate clustering and analysis of your target search results.
Now that you know who you’re up against…
Now that you have a clear idea of who your competitors are, you can get started with a few different SEO techniques to grow your organic traffic.
If you’re looking to create a full SEO strategy from scratch, you should look into performing an SEO gap analysis. This will help you uncover the most impactful tactics to help you reach your audience online. You might find that you need to invest in your technical SEO, that you need to create more content, or that you need to get to work on building your brand.
If you have a solid strategy in place and you’re looking for content ideas, a content gap analysis will be an excellent next step.
You will also want to set up some form of tracking for your closest competitors. I recommend that you keep an eye on the closest competitors performing both below and above you, as well as an aspirational competitor. This way, you can keep an eye out for the underdog trying to take over your rankings, as well as gain inspiration from the businesses that are doing well in your industry.
Lidia Infante - Senior SEO Manager at Sanity.io
Lidia has been working in SEO for almost a decade, helping businesses in SaaS, media and eCommerce grow online. She has a BSC in Psychology and a Master in Digital Business, and is a regular speaker at international SEO events such as MozCon, BrightonSEO, and WTSFest. Twitter | Linkedin