Author: Lidia Infante
In the world of SEO, ranking on Google is not just a matter of having great content, some backlinks, and good technical optimization. There is limited space on the search engine results page (SERP) and not everyone can make it to the top.
You’re not ranking in a vacuum. As the word suggests, “ranking” involves comparing content against other content and ordering them by how likely it is that a given page satisfies the user’s intent. This means that “ranking” is actually about outranking your search competitors.
When you think about it this way, an awareness of the context in which you’re trying to rank is absolutely essential.
That’s where an SEO gap analysis comes in. In this guide, I’ll explain what an SEO gap analysis is, how it can help you outrank your competitors, and how to conduct your analysis across three essential areas of SEO: content, technical SEO, and backlinks.
Table of contents:
Why conduct an SEO gap analysis?
An SEO gap analysis helps you identify areas where you’re falling behind your competitors and gives you actionable insights to improve your SEO strategy. By identifying gaps in your SEO efforts and opportunities to improve, you can get ahead of your competitors and rank higher on SERPs.
Through an SEO gap analysis, I aim to understand how my brand is performing against competitors. I like to divide my analysis into three categories:
Segmenting my competitor analysis this way helps me identify my weakest area so that I can create a strategy to improve it.
The idea behind this approach is that there is a ceiling to how much optimizing one aspect of your SEO can improve your rankings. Be it content, technical SEO, or links, the returns on your SEO activities diminish as you become better and better at one particular area.
So, if you have the best content but it’s still not ranking, improving it further is probably not going to make a substantial impact, and it would be best to explore optimizing your technical SEO setup or building some links.
The 3 pillars of SEO
Content, technical SEO, and backlinks: I intentionally divide my SEO gap analyses this way because they’re what’s referred to as the “three pillars of SEO”—the three primary subdisciplines of SEO that must come together if you want to show up for relevant searches.
Let’s briefly explore the three pillars of SEO so that you can apply it to benchmarking your site.
Content is at the core of what we do, because it’s what will satisfy the user’s intent. Through content, we help users get the job done, whether that means helping them buy a product, decide on a holiday destination, or simply reach the Amazon homepage.
There are two sides to technical SEO:
Ensuring that search engines can find, understand, and index the right content
Allowing users to enjoy that content
Technical SEO includes activities like crawl budget optimization, faceted navigation (especially for eCommerce stores), web performance optimization, and managing indexation. Enriching your web pages with structured data might also fall under this SEO pillar as well.
Backlinks vouch for your content. In the very early days of its ranking algorithm, Google extrapolated the way that the world of academia uses citations (the more cited a study is, the more one can trust it). Then, it started using links in a similar way.
The way Google evaluates and uses links has evolved over time, but their role continues to be the same: to crowdsource content evaluation to the masses.
Step 1: Identify your competitors
There are many different approaches you can take to figure out who your SEO competitors are—the most rudimentary being a simple SERP analysis for relevant keywords. You can also use an SEO tool to identify which brands mainly rank for your keywords. You can even develop a workflow that includes a combination of both methods.
I have covered this extensively in my guide to finding your real SEO competitors.
Step 2: Benchmark your SEO performance
Now, let’s review your SEO performance so that you have something to compare against your competitors later on. My favorite way to do this is using a spreadsheet, so I’ve provided an empty template of my gap analysis for anyone to use.
Just access this file, make a copy, and follow along with this guide.
It’s best to use an SEO tool to get most of this data. I recommend that you use the same tool for every metric so that your numbers stay consistent across the board.
Personally, I like to use Semrush because of how easy it is to find link and traffic metrics without having to download them into a separate spreadsheet. Other tools that you can use for this analysis include Ahrefs, Moz, and Sistrix.
Evaluating content performance is more of an art rather than an exact science, but it can be a very informative, revealing exercise.
Here are some basic metrics to get an overview of your competitors content performance (and your own, for that matter).
Estimated monthly traffic
In most SEO tools, you can find this data in the overview section for the site.
Explore your competitor’s site and find where they’re hosting their editorial content.
This will likely be in a subdirectory named “blog,” “articles,” or “resources.” If your competitor is on Wix, their blog posts will most likely be in /posts/.
Number of keywords
Look at the total number of keywords that your competitors rank for and then take a deeper dive by position.
You can expect to see most of the keywords your competitors are targeting by looking at the number of keywords ranking at positions 1–30. Their winning keywords will be in positions 1–3.
Now that you have an overview of the content landscape across competitors, you can take it a step further and look at what kind of traffic they are focusing on to develop your own content strategy.
Branded traffic — On your chosen SEO tool, filter your competitor’s ranking keywords to the ones containing their brand name (and variations). Write down the traffic estimated for these keywords in your spreadsheet.
Editorial traffic — Look at the estimated traffic that your competitors are receiving on their editorial URLs (as explained above) and note it down.
Editorial efficiency — You can divide the estimated editorial traffic by the number or editorial URLs to gain an understanding of how effective your competitors are at getting search traffic through their content.
Product traffic — Traffic that does not fall into the editorial or branded categories is likely to fall under the product umbrella. This might not be the case for you, so make sure you check what your competitors’ site looks like.
Each vertical will also likely have some specific traffic types to look at. eCommerce businesses, for example, might also want to analyze category traffic. A SaaS business, on the other hand, might want to look at the performance of their documentation or partner pages.
If you find that you’re significantly underperforming in content compared to your competitors, you might want to execute a content gap analysis, too.
The next area to focus on is backlinks. Here’s what you should look for when analyzing your competitors’ links:
Link gap analysis
Look at the number of links and referring domains that point to your competitors.
You can do some simple math to estimate the difference, but you’ll also need to take notes about the quality/relevance of the referring domains to get a fuller picture.
Analyze how many links your competitors had 6 or 12 months ago and calculate the percentage of growth.
This will give you insights into how aggressive your competitors are when it comes to link building and help you understand how fast a competitor can potentially catch up with your link profile.
You can take a look at the distribution of authority across your competitors link profile (as well as your own).
Using branded authority metrics like DA, DR, or AS, you can add a column to your spreadsheet focused on the gap at a certain level of authority.
At this point of the benchmark, I like to get an idea of how popular my competitor’s brand is by looking at:
Branded search — Check how many people are looking for your competitors' brands to understand your level of brand awareness compared to theirs.
Branded traffic — Take a look at your branded traffic and how it relates to your brand search volume. If you’re on the lower end of the benchmark for branded traffic, but on the higher end for branded searches, this might indicate that your customers are not able to find answers about your brand within your site and are getting this information elsewhere. If this is the case, you should consider building out content that answers these questions. They tend to be around the topic of pricing, reviews, promotional codes, or how reliable your services are. They can also include support questions about your product(s) that could be answered with support content or documentation.
Benchmarking technical SEO
Finally, the third area to focus on is technical SEO, which can be really difficult to assess. I can provide a few ideas of what to look at, but each industry and tech stack has its own challenges.
The metrics below can give you an idea of how much your competitors are investing in technical SEO.
Site audit scores
Most SEO tools offer some form of site auditing and give you an overall score for the site.
Website owners often neglect little things like redirect chains or 404 errors that drive these scores down. A website with a healthy score is a giveaway that their owners are investing in its SEO.
I approach this by using the Chrome UX (CrUX) report in Google Looker Studio to extract my competitor’s CWV numbers.
To make it easier to analyze, I like to note down their number of “good” URLs for each score and calculate an average.
Step 3: Identify your weakest pillar
Now that you have all of your competitors’ performance data in a nice spreadsheet, it’s time to draw some insights. If you have been using my SEO gap analysis template, this will be straightforward, as the conditional formatting that comes built in will point out your weakest pillar (in red or dark orange).
Take a look at the numbers and identify the areas where you are below average or average compared to your competitors. Ideally, you would work on the weakest pillar, but this decision can get a little bit more complex.
If you’re lacking in technical SEO, but your web development department is overwhelmed, you might want to start working on your second-weakest pillar. If you are new at a company and you see that working on links is your biggest opportunity, but you don’t have your stakeholders’ trust yet to lead a project like that, start with the next pillar.
Now that you’ve selected the right pillar to focus on, it’s worth your time to look a little bit deeper into the numbers to understand what the right strategies for your brand are.
Analyzing your weakest SEO pillar
If your chosen pillar is content, you can:
Perform a content gap analysis and target the keywords that are performing well for your competitors.
Evaluate how you’re highlighting the expertise of your authors.
Audit your on-page optimizations for existing content.
Run a workshop for other content creators in your organization about the importance of search in content discovery.
If your chosen pillar is backlinks, you can:
Perform a link gap analysis to find valuable links that your competitors have and that you’re lacking.
Analyze your competitor’s link profile to find what types of content are most popular in your industry.
Use a tool (like Buzzsumo, for example) to research the types of content that get the most links and engagement by topic.
Find out if your competitors are leveraging their internal experts to provide commentary to journalists and content creators.
If your chosen pillar is technical SEO, you can:
Perform a technical audit on your site.
Meet with your developers to evaluate potential WPO opportunities.
Research opportunities to get more content indexed by surfacing categories and filters.
Understand the opportunities and limitations within your current tech stack.
Next steps: If you fail to plan, you plan to fail
Congratulations, you have completed an SEO gap analysis! While this is a huge milestone in itself, all of the data and knowledge that you’ve gathered will yield you no results unless it sparks some action. That means it’s time to make an implementation plan.
Use your competitor’s performance to set some SMART goals and work backwards from them to create a list of actions to perform on your end. Make a plan that covers the next three to six months, and then reevaluate your chosen pillar.
Competitor data can be very useful for you to show your leadership how you’re bridging the gap (or creating a larger one in your favor) and bringing value to the business, so make sure you share your results with relevant stakeholders!
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