When you think about it, there are only two ways by which you can exponentially boost your organic traffic.

The first one is to use various keyword research strategies to create new content that could help you rank better for those phrases.

The other — and this is the method I want to talk about in this post — is to figure out what’s working for your competitors and use that insight to drive your next actions.

This is the SEO competitive intelligence framework

Competitive keyword research requires little effort to complete, and it delivers incredible results easily and swiftly. Not to mention that you can do this without having to go through a trial-and-error ordeal to achieve similar results otherwise.

So, in this post, you’ll learn how to use competitor analysis to uncover keywords and create content that can compete against your competitors’ organic traffic. Specifically, I will cover: 

Before we dive deep into the strategy, let’s cover some basic information that will help you understand the concept and the process better.

What Is an SEO Competitor Analysis?

In the simplest terms, the SEO competitor analysis is a process of a) understanding who your actual online competitors are, and b) identifying what specific keywords or topics drive their success. Naturally, your goal is to find out new phrases, the ones that help your competitor achieve organic growth but you haven’t identified yet.

That last sentence above also explains the greatest benefit from this strategy — uncovering new opportunities fast and learning from someone else’s experience.

But a correctly conducted competitor analysis will also help you answer some of the most burning questions you may have about your competitors:

  • For one, it will reveal what keywords drive their success (but you are not ranking for). 
  • Competitor analysis can also tell you what topics should you be focusing on in your content. This insight alone can greatly improve the success of your content marketing and SEO strategy
  • You can also discover which of your competitors' links you could recreate easily. Or which links you should aim to have as well, even if it means investing a lot of resources into obtaining them.
  • Finally, the SEO competitor analysis will also answer what else could you do to beat the competition. It will help you broaden your horizons, and reveal strategies that you may not have considered yet.

Why Is Competitor Analysis So Critical for SEO Success?

First, the strategy helps uncover tactics that work in the industry, in general. One of the biggest challenges I hear SEOs have when trying to identify new opportunities is their inability to comprehend the entire industry.

But that’s only natural! Unless you work in an extremely small and limited niche, you have to face a wide scope of market potential, one that translates to thousands, if not more, of keywords, phrases, search queries and topics. You can’t encompass it all by yourself, of course. Or at least, it will take a long time to do so.

Analyzing the competitors' keywords simply helps speed up the process.

The research will also uncover new strategies you could use. Your competition, most likely, uses more than a single method to win the search visibility, after all. Reverse engineering their success will tell you all about it and give you ideas you mightn’t discover otherwise.

Finally, a thorough competitive analysis will also help you prioritize SEO efforts. Knowing what has worked for the other companies in your industry will signal what strategies you should be paying attention to as well.

How to Perform an SEO Competitor Analysis: Our 6-Step Approach

Here’s what you need to do to analyze the competitive keywords fully.

  1. You must identify your true competitors. Companies you compete for the market share with might not be targeting the same online audiences as you, after all (jump to step 1).
  2. Then, you need to find competitors' keywords (jump to step 2).
  3. Analyze those original keywords to uncover top opportunities and identify content gaps (jump to step 3).
  4. Analyze what makes the pages rank for their target phrases (jump to step 4).
  5. Evaluate additional ranking factors that impact your content (jump to step 5).
  6. Study the backlink profiles of you compared to your competition (jump to step 6).


Keyword Difficulty, Relevance, and Authority

Before we get to the workflow, I believe we should address these three concepts of competitive keyword research.

Keyword Difficulty

Keyword difficulty aims to help determine how competitive a keyword might be to rank for.

Most software providers calculate this based on domain authority and the quantity of backlinks. This paints a fuzzy picture. 

Don't worry! At seoClarity, we bring rankings, search volume, backlinks, intent, and more metrics all together for a comprehensive score. 

You can also evaluate a keyword’s difficulty by analyzing other metrics, like cost per click. Or, look at user intent to help determine whether you can rank for the phrase with the content you have already – something far easier to do than creating a brand-new page. Seasonality, on the other hand, will reveal when to start working on the keyword.

Site and Topic Relevance

Did you notice that, often, the highest-ranking domain isn’t the most authoritative (measured by its Domain Authority, for example)? How is this possible?

It’s simple: The site is a bigger authority on the topic.

A friend of mine, the owner of a law marketing agency, constantly outperforms much stronger domains. His site ranks in the top three positions for many legal marketing-related terms, in spite of having ridiculously low DA (compared to other agencies.)

But he covers only law marketing topics on the site. You’ll find no fluff, steering off-topic, personal stories, company updates, or newsworthy content on his site, just marketing advice for lawyers.

As a result, Google considers his site as the authority and rewards them with top rankings.

Content Authority

Similarly, creating content that matches the user intent will also result in higher rankings. Why? Because Google rewards pages that best cover the topic with the highest spots in the search engine results pages.

Tools to Use

It’s good to know what tools to use to identify competitors' keywords.

In general, any tool that's capable of evaluating the competition’s keyword set would do the job. Of course, the quality of the insights you collect would largely depend on the type and the amount of data the tool delivers. If you're working on a small website, then, a basic tool could suffice, at least at the beginning. 

However, if you want to evaluate large keyword sets, and do this at a scale, you will need an enterprise-level SEO platform. The platform should be capable of handling large datasets, delivering a whole set of data required, and also, as in the case of our platform — seoClarity — support your efforts with AI-driven insights to deliver more information to drive your strategies.

Step #1. Identify Your Real Online Competitors

I bet you already have a long list of companies your organization battles with for the market share. These could be your direct competitors, offering similar products to the same target audience. Or actual manufacturers that sell directly of the products you sell or offline competitors. But although these are the companies you compete with regularly, they might not necessarily be your direct competitors according to Google.

Many other organizations might be trying to attract your target audience as well. These could be firms providing complementary services or products to yours, that position their sites for similar keywords. And even be non-commercial websites (i.e. Wikipedia) that attract traffic away from you.

Take a look at this breakdown of online competitors for a particular set of keywords. If you were an enterprise-level store, I’m sure you wouldn’t count Google Image or Etsy or even Polyvore as your competitors.

I agree that you probably wouldn’t try to analyze Google Images’ SEO. However, Etsy and Polyvore, for instance, could provide some insight into new opportunities even though you wouldn't normally battle for the market share from them directly.

The important thing to understand about online competitors is that these domains receive traffic that could be yours.

The good news is that they could also provide you with the insight you need to turn the tables around.

So, the first step in any competitive analysis is to discover what companies to focus on to close the content gaps and win traffic from.

We can do this in just a few clicks with seoClarity’s Research Grid. Enter your target keyword and see the top ranking URLs (they may be a surprise to you!).

Research Grid for Graphic Tees
(Uncovering the competition in seoClarity’s Research Grid.)

You’ll also see those URLs’ unique domains, backlinks, total keyword rankings, and more.

Step #2. Find Competitors' Keywords

Once you know who your ranking competitors are, start by analyzing those domains. 

Returning to Research Grid, now enter a URL or domain instead of a specific keyword. It will report on various metrics regarding the domain’s performance, including a list of keywords for which it ranks.

Keyowrd Research HM Domain

 

(Uncovering a domain's ranking keywords and their respective URLs.)

You can also use filters like rank, estimated traffic, industry, and SERP features to fine-tune the search. The key thing is that the capability allows me to learn what phrases drive traffic to my competitors.

Step #3. Identify the Content Gaps

Next, evaluate which of those keywords you don't rank for yet. This approach is called closing the content gap. And it’s as simple as comparing two or more domains’ keyword sets to find common and individual phrases for which they rank.

Below is a result of content gap analysis in seoClarity between two domains:

Content Gaps
(Content Gaps - that is, opportunity! - between two domains.)

Note the difference! Although both domains share a significant number of keywords, there are more than 1 million opportunities!

The above report doesn’t suggest that you have to target all those keywords, of course. However, analyzing the content gap further will help you uncover great opportunities to increase your online visibility.

In fact, I recommend that you review keywords for relevance with your products or services. You can, then, prioritize them by the user intent, targeting phrases with commercial intent first.

Step #4. Analyze What Content Gives Those Domains the Competitive Advantage

Identifying the competition and the keywords used for their organic campaigns is just the beginning. 

Next, you need to find out what makes those pages rank so high for their phrases.

For example, a quick look at these domains shows me that both rank for the same keyword, but one outranks the other quite significantly.

Competitive Analysis
(Identifying where one domain ranks in the top rank position.)

Looking at their ranking page, however, I can assess:

  • What content they feature on that page,
  • Its structure, and keyword optimization, and many others.

In this particular example, I found that the competitor includes lengthy category description that naturally helps boost the on-page optimization.

(This category description makes for a good user experience.)

But, why only content?

To rank a page, you need more than just engaging content, of course. Backlinks, domain authority and other elements play a critical role in the process too. However, in this exercise, we’re trying to quickly level the playing field, something that isn’t as easy to do when it comes to increasing the number of linking domains, for example.

Step #5. Check What Other Factors Make It Rank So High

Once you gain the knowledge about your competitors’ best keywords and content strategies, it’s time to act on these other insights: backlinks, domain authority, and other factors that affect where a particular page ends up in the SERPs.

Research the competition’s  best content’s backlink profiles to uncover their content promotion strategies with the Research Grid’s Backlinks capability. Enter in a domain, subdomain or URL to view the backlink profile, as we see here:

Backlink Profile Competition(Analyzing a backlink profile in the seoClarity platform.)

This approach works particularly well for non-commercial pages like blogs, articles, and any other educational content.

When you analyze the backlink profile, you can assess if your competitor engages in any link building strategies to boost their pages in search. Or if they simply aim to create the best content in the hope that others will reference it in the search results.

Step #6. Analyze Link Gaps Between You and Your Competitors' Backlink Profiles

Link gaps analysis is a process similar to what we've done with keywords in step #2. It aims to discover the most powerful links in your competitors' link profiles that you could also obtain. 

But why conduct link gaps analysis as part of this competitive research? Well, for one, because links are one of the most critical ranking factors. With all other factors - keywords or content quality, for example - being equal, it is the link profile that will determine which domain will rank better. 

However, not all links are the same, and it is important to focus on quality, good links, rather than a high volume of average or poor quality ones. 

The problem? Good links are difficult to get, and knowing which such links your competitors' have managed to get can inspire your link building strategies. 

Enter link gap analysis. The process involves comparing two or more domains' link profiles to identify common links and gaps in the companies link profiles. 

For example, here's a quick report comparing referring domains of four competing companies.

Link-Gaps Competitive Analysis
(Link gaps analysis over time.)

If we assume that one of them is my domain, then, I can use the report to discover how much effort my competitors have been putting in building out their link profiles. 

Digging deeper, I can evaluate common links between my competitors, and discover potential opportunities for building more links for my brand.

Link-Gaps Domain Opportunities
(Link building opportunities: domain, relevance, and trust flow.)

The rest of the process involves reviewing the list of opportunities manually to identify which of those links I could recreate, prioritizing them, and getting to work.

Summary

You can of course boost your organic traffic in many ways. For example, use data to identify new content opportunities and earn more listings on the search engine results pages. 

Or, identify and then improve on the strategies that already work for your competitors. These approaches work equally well when you tear apart your competitors' content strategies; it is often the simplest way to gain results fast.

Not to mention, you can do this without having to go through a lengthy trial-and-error cycle. And hopefully, after reading this post, you have an idea where to start with conducting a competitive analysis for SEO of your own.


Editor's Note: This post was originally published in May 2017 and has been updated with the latest and most accurate information to help you successfully discover your competitors' keywords.