A Stalker’s Guide to Competitive Research

Note: This is a really old post I wrote somewhere else, which is no longer in existence. Some of my media assets are missing, so if you see anything referencing an image, sorry. :(

Competitive research is an area that’s either completely overlooked by a brand, or taken to an extreme level while missing the basic goals that need to be reached. Because competitive research becomes a cornerstone for strategy development, it’s important to research from inside the trees, and outside of the forest.

Overall, brands need to:

  1. Identify what others are already doing in the space, and how successful they are.
  2. Identify areas of opportunity and weaknesses within their specific vertical.
  3. Identify what tactics a competitor is using to gain a competitive advantage.

What I’m Doing:

I approach competitive research with these fundamental questions:

  1. What is their link building strategy?
  2. How are they leveraging social media?
  3. Identify areas of weakness  or opportunity in their strategy (notice whether they’re focusing strictly on their brand, or expanding into other social areas for maximum reach).
  4. How all these facets work together: focus on their overall “marketing strategy”  rather than segregating them into “search  and social.”
  5. Continuing the stalking with tips and tools.

What I’m NOT Doing

There seems to be this “screw the competitor”  mentality out there, which can hurt your brand in the long run. If you’re working on competitive research and looking to improve your brand’s overall visibility, focus on learning everything about the vertical overall, your competitors, and open opportunities to excel.

It’s not worth expending negative energy to try to destroy a competitor when there are tons of holistic and sustainable strategies to compete in most markets. Do not use this as an opportunity to call out negative tactics that a competitor might be using.  You want to understand the space and get a foothold where there’s an open opportunity.

Now, we’ll walk through the major components of gathering competitive research.

We’ll go into this guide assuming that  keyword research has been completed  across all categories of your website and a  visibility score  has been calculated so you can identify how your brand is performing across the span of keywords that you’ve researched and who your  organic competitors  are.  I emphasize organic because often times brands confuse ““brand competitors  with ““organic competitors  when many times they’re not one in the same.

A “brand competitor”  is dominant in the space and can be considered a competitor by the target demographic, or in online and offline marketing and branding efforts. It’s like saying Boscovs (Ha! Remember that store?) is a competitor to JCPenny’s because that brand might be “like” them, but they aren’t performing well enough to compete in the actual SERPs.

An “organic competitor”  is one that’s performing well in the SERPs across either your whole industry space, or across certain categorical areas that you’re focusing on, including  keywords that are money phrases or important to bringing traffic and conversions  to your site.

Skipping ahead, we’ll assume that you’ve identified your top competitors performing well over your keyword sets as a whole. Competitive research should have some  basic goals  that can help focus your effort, before you dive in and get bamboozled by all the available data and avenues that you can travel down.

Analyzing Your Competitor’s Backlinks

Internet marketing has tons of different techniques and tactics, each with their own strengths and sustainability. When researching your competitors, backlinks are going to become your best friend. If you have access to a paid backlink tool such as Majestic or Open Site Explorer, I suggest running your competitors through there and extracting their backlinks, top backlinks and anchor text data.

Let’s look at a few areas in here without diving too deep down the rabbit hole. :)

Top Backlinks

Top backlinks are a quick way to see what kinds of partnerships or relationships your competitors might be building or leveraging that are quality and/or high authority.

When looking at the top pages, make note of what kinds of sites are considered to be ““top backlinks.  Are they:

  • News sites where they may be distributing press release information?
  • Other prominent sites within the industry that they may have a relationship with?
  • Are they reaching out to large publications or networks?
  • HOW are they obtaining links on these sites? Are they contributing guest posts, or are they sending information through specific editors?

When sifting through their general backlinks:

  • Are they contributing to blogs or publications as a guest author?
  • Is content marketing a part of their strategy? If so, what types of content are they actually marketing out there?
  • Is there an abundance of site-wide or footer links?

Anchor Text

What keywords are important to your competitors? Some brands still live by the ““build tons of exact match for the phrase you want and that’s all you need to do to rank number 1  tactic. That’s unfortunate for them, but very fortunate for you when you’re snooping around.

  • What exact match phrases are they targeting? Are they targeting them excessively?
  • Are they ranking for the exact match phrases that they appear to be targeting? (This can be done with manual searching, or by using a tool such as SEMrush)
  • What percentage of those phrases are coupled with branded terms?
  • What percentage are strictly branded phrases?

Greg Boser wrote an excellent post on SERP profiling that has some incredible knowledge nuggets to aid in your competitive research.

There are many different tactics for building links and it’s important to identify what your competitors are and are not doing.

  • Do they have a press release strategy?
  • Can you find any links that look “paid”?
  • Are they submitting their site to directories?
  • Are they utilizing blogger outreach and content marketing?
  • Are they building partnerships or sponsoring events with universities or schools that might contribute to .edu links in their backlink portfolio?

If you’re new to digging through data dumps, there are quite a few ways to make it sexy so it’s not such an eyesore, and you can find exactly what it is you’re looking for. If you set up your data into a table, you can segment the URL column and start sorting.

Press Releases

A press release strategy is an old, but still common, strategy amongst established brands and a great place to dig for competitive intel.

Analyzing these can give you a good idea of the dates that they’ve done product launches, promotions or made strategic shifts in business. There are plenty of free and paid press release services that you should look for in your competitor’s backlinks.

Sort your “Source URL” column for the domains below. These just touch the surface of press release sites but can help move the process along:

  • Prweb.com
  • Newswire.com
  • PRnewswire.com
  • PRlog.org
  • Free-press-release.com
  • i-newswire.com
  • Onlineprnews.com

Directory Submissions

Niche directories can be useful to actually gain clients/customers that might be searching for specific businesses if you’re actually using one that actually gets traffic.

  • What directories have they submitted their site to?
  • Are they using brand or exact match anchors? Note: some directories are extremely particular in the anchor text used.
  • Are they listed in niche directories?
  • If they have physical locations, are they listed in local directories which can also serve as citations?

For industries/verticals with physical locations:

Because citations are so important in establishing authority and confirming that your business is “real” and located where it’s listed in Google Places, getting citations wherever possible is a tactic that you need to consider. Finding out where competitors are listed can be an excellent starting point for where to submit your business for citations.

Here’s a great list of 50 local directories where you can start queries for your competitors if the backlinks are too daunting to sift through.

Blogger Outreach

Blogger outreach comes in many different shapes, sizes and colors, and the ability to build links this way requires competitors to leverage current relationships or build new ones. It’s apparent when brands are trying to link build without really having strong relationships in the industry, because the quality of the sites aren’t always the best or as relevant as they should be.

While some marketers (WARNING: big generalization) think that “any link”  is a “good link”,  that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

For outreach in general, look at:

  • What’s the domain authority of the sites where they’re obtaining links?
  • What’s the overall quality of the site  and relevancy of the links?
  • Is the same editor working with this brand or does it look like there isn’t an established and strong relationship with one editor in particular?
  • Does the blog look to be catering only to that particular brand in its vertical? Could they have an exclusivity agreement with them?

Often times, editors are open to working with more than one brand in that particular vertical because they’re interested in bringing fresh news and industry updates to their readership. Unless they have an exclusivity agreement with that particular brand, they’ll be open to working with your brand, too, over time.

If you spend some time sorting and sifting through the backlinks, you’ll be able to identify sites where the brand might have contributed guest posts or reached out for brand coverage. If you  take blogger outreach tactics and reverse engineer them, you can start to get into your competitor’s heads and profile their marketing strategy.

When looking through their backlinks, you should be able to recognize industry blogs that they’re posting on.

Content Marketing & Promotion

It’s no surprise that content marketing has become a household name even though it’s really just dressing up an old (and reliable) tactic with new, shiny techniques. It’s been an ongoing diamond in the rough that many brands weren’t taking advantage of in their strategy, and now with new technologies (HTML5, etc) there are more ways to use content to tell a beautiful story.

Understanding your competitor’s content marketing strategy both on-site and off-site can help kick start your brainstorming on potential topics to create by using what’s been successful and also looking at areas that haven’t been covered.

Looking into your competitor’s content strategy can:

  1. Give you an idea of what topics are interesting to their target demographic.
  2. Determine how socially successful these pieces were.
  3. Uncover what networks their blog/site content is being shared on.
  4. Identify areas of opportunity in content marketing that you may not have otherwise considered.
  5. Understand what off-topic content was successful.
  6. Discover if they’re creating content to share on-site, or on third party sites.

Infographics

I know, we’re all sick of hearing about these. BUT when it comes to competitive research, it’s still a useful avenue to dig through. There are a couple of infographic sites (IE: Visual.ly, Good.is) that you can search manually to see if a specific brand is submitting infographics on their own, if others are submitting infographics they’ve created and shared on their site, or what infographics are being created that integrate their brand.

 

Social Bookmarking

You can also try manual queries on sites like Digg and StumbleUpon to see what content on their actual blog/website is being shared socially. This can give you an idea of what their target market finds interesting enough to share with others.

StumbleUpon is pretty annoying to search from the site (unless you’re just stumbling for the hell of it) so setting up a simple query in Google can help you find if posts or pages on your competitor’s sites are being added.

Adding the site: operator into a Google search will allow you to search for specific keywords or URLs within a site. If you want to search StumbleUpon for, say, Ikeahackers.net to see what posts have been shared off their site:

(enter your competitor’s URL here) site:stumbleupon.com

Free tactic

Once you identify the name or an infographic piece or linkbait article that was shared, you can also search that title to see if you can identify the trail of other sites that have picked it up. Also use Tineye or Google Image Search.

Paid tactic

You can also drop the original URL in tools like Majestic or Open Site Explorer to see what sites have linked to that particular piece of content. These can be sites that you add into your blogger outreach campaigns as well.

Twitter

You can also manually search individual links on Twitter to see where they’ve been shared. This is another way to check out the reach and scope of your competitors on other social networks. It can also give you an idea of users that you should start following and engaging with if you plan on reaching out and marketing your own content.

Simply put the URL of your competitor’s post in the search field on Twitter or Topsy, and the rest will take care of itself. :)

Google Places

This is especially important if you and your competitors own a local business or have physical locations. Doing a brand query in Google, with the location set to whatever city their physical building is located in, can bring up a Google Places page.

  1. Do your competitors have Google Places pages for their physical locations?
  2. Are they gaining reviews/star ratings?
  3. Do they have calls to action on other social networks or their own site to encourage customers to review them?
  4. Are they taking advantage of the descriptions and categories area, which are areas annotated in the screenshot below?

Below is an example of sites that are leveraging their current customers and clients for Google Places reviews:

The above location is asking for reviews, while the company below is offering loyalty points for those that review them. This is not only helping to solidify their authority, but it’s also giving current clients/customers an incentive to visit them again.

When working as a search marketer, you may not pay as much attention to a competitor’s social strategy. With social signals and engagement playing a bigger factor in G+ personalization and rankings when users are logged in, it’s also important to dig out what’s being done on major social networks a competitor is participating in, and what niche networks they (or you) might be missing out on.

This could really be a whole ‘nother beast, so here’s a boiled down version for you…

The Spot Check

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s take one basic step that can help pave the way for the remainder of the social research. Do a quick spot check on their site. This can save time trying to find competitors on social networks since some don’t use their actual brand name for a handle.

This is a great way to tell what social networks these brands are extremely active on, and what they consider important to their own social strategy.

Are they allowing users to  socially share the homepage  in specific? In the image above, you’ll see that Search Engine Land is allowing users to publicly +1 their  homepage.

Gaining +1s to your homepage not only allows it to show up within a user’s profile, shown in the screenshot above, but the amount also reflects in the search results below. It’s still unclear how much personalization and +1s are going to affect the search results, but a competitor who is encouraging +1s and sharing of their site might potentially have a lead on your brand that isn’t.

If your competitors tend to use the same name across all networks, you can also use tools like  NameChk or Knowem to get a quick bird’s eye view of what other popular or obscure networks they’re using.

Social Factors to Consider

It’s important to understand the ins and outs of what they’re doing, who they’re following, how they’re engaging, what types of content they’re sharing successfully and more importantly:  what is their reach and who is listening?

Really understanding how your competitors are  leveraging social media successfully  (or unsuccessfully) can give you a solid understanding of what your target audience will be receptive to.  Once you’ve located the social networks where they’re most active, examine the following:

  1. What are the networks listed on their site that they consider important to their strategy?
  2. Are they on any  niche networks  that your brand could potentially build a presence on?
  3. How often are they  sharing  and  engaging  on these networks?
  4. What  types of content  are they sharing? Is it self-centered and self-serving, or is it industry related? Off topic?
  5. For  Twitter, what kinds of lists are they curating? Are they on any lists? How are they engaging?
  6. For  Facebook, are they taking advantage of all the features such as the photostrip, applications, tagging, etc? Who are their featured likes?
  7. Are they leveraging these platforms to aid in any kind of  promotions  or  contests  they’re running?
  8. Competitor’s YouTube channels can be an excellent opportunity to learn what topics the YouTube audience in your vertical respond to.

There’s an exponential amount of other factors to look into socially, especially with the personalization and changes that Google + is bringing to the table. The key takeaway from social is that all things equal, having a strong social strategy could be what’s giving your competitor a leg up over your brand.

Did you think that once you did your initial research, you were done? Well, you’re not.

You’re not. This isn’t a “said it and forget it”  deal. Just like you, your competitors will be continuously changing and adapting their marketing strategies.

To stay on your toes, you’re going to need to consistently monitor what your competitors are doing. There are a bunch of paid tools that can be used, but I’ll go over some free tips and tactics that can be used for monitoring.

Tracking Search Queries on Twitter

Tracking a competitor’s brand mentions in Twitter can help you understand the conversation around the brand and their audience’s perception of them. Twitter has since pulled the ability to grab RSS feeds from searches, but you can use this URL and change out the blue query at the end for your specific search term. It’ll bring you to an RSS page where you can change the method to Google and have it pulled into your reader.

http://search.twitter.com/search.atom?q=selenavidya

Saving Searches In LinkedIn

You can save any kind of search that you do on LinkedIn, so if you’re interested in keeping tabs on employees and who is joining/leaving the company, short of stalking their brand page, this would be an easy way to do it. Depending on who joins and leaves the company, you can get a good idea of the direction a company might be going in. For instance,   if Linkedin reflected that Apple hired the VP of Marketing at Pepsi, it might tip you off that they’re moving into a stronger product marketing cycle.

You can query the brand name under “people” and it’ll list everyone that has that particular brand listed in their profiles.

On the search results stream, click “Save” on the top right, and you’ll be prompted to choose a “name” and “frequency” for which you want to receive these updates.

Also, you can stalk their  actual company page  to keep up with new hires and departures.

Set up Google Alerts

Google Alerts is pretty overlooked, but it’s one of the easiest and quickest ways to keep many eyes on competitors. Track variations of your competitors’ brand names so you’ll be able to see where they’re gaining mentions, if they’re making the news for something positive/negative, if they’re releasing a new product or update, etc. There’s no limit to how many alerts you can set, so you should also set some for your own brand.

You can set the types of results you want to monitor.

As well as the frequency so you’re not getting more email alerts than you can handle. Plus, we all get enough email right?

Pull an RSS of Search Queries

Not many people know that you can pull RSS feeds from various services to keep track of certain search queries. Google reader (or any other RSS feed tracker) can pull these into one easy place for your viewing pleasure. Anything with an RSS feed can be tracked.

Using Google News as an example:

Enter in the search query you’re interested in. If you’re tracking strictly brand mentions, try different variations in quotes so you’re minimizing the chances of getting irrelevant results.

Scroll down to the RSS Feed button at the bottom of the SERPs. You can also create an email alert, but having it in an RSS feed allows you to view everything all at once. And plus, we all get enough email don’t we? :)

Grab the appropriate links to pull the feed into Google Reader. For Google News, you’ll want to grab the actual URL after you click the RSS feed button, as shown in the screenshot below.

Add the subscription into Google Reader.

Custom Queries

Of course, there’s also good ol’ manual searching.

You can use the search parameter link: to find all sites that are linking to the URL of your choice. If you’re looking for recent news, limit the date span to the past week or month to weed out irrelevant and dated results.

link:(competitor’s URL)

To tie up this extremely long post, here are a few other tools and sites that haven’t been mentioned above to help you research your competitors.

Social Mention

Social Mention   allows you to search brand mentions across various social and blog platforms. You can also setup email alerts or grab an RSS feed from there for constant monitoring of your competitors.

Ghostery

Ghostery is an awesome plugin that allows you to see what plugins, pixels, trackers, ad networks or tools a competitor might be using to gather private data. For one, it allows you to see what analytics platform they’re using, so you can get a good idea of how in depth their segmenting and analysis of traffic is.

Wappalyzer

Wappalyzer is another great tool allows you to see what your competitor is using as a CMS, their framework, server, analytics platform, etc.

So what now?

Be Where They Are

Look into forums, Linkedin groups, Twitter chats and other areas that the brands are participating in. Subscribe and participate so you can get a better view of what’s going on in the industry, and what they find is important to share and participate in.

Look for Opportunities

Finding your competitors weaknesses and their areas of success can open the door to strategic brainstorming to expand the scope and reach of your marketing.

Competitive research is an extremely lengthy, time-consuming and constant process. After reading this post, you should be  better equipped to research what your competitors are doing throughout the online marketing space, using  (mostly) free resources.

The main thing to remember is that every channel affects the other. It’s not enough to only concentrate on competitive research in search without understanding what a competitor is doing socially as well. While there are instances where you want to drill down and look into very specific things, overall competitive research should encompass each facet of Internet marketing as a whole.

Remember, it’s important to research from inside the trees, and outside of the forest.

Comments

    • Selena says

      Thanks for reading! I’m well overdue to update this since it’s a few years old. :)

      I’ll work on updating the headings. I tweaked the color of the background slightly a few months ago and didn’t realize the H2s were also grey. Good catch!

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