One of the first things we do when working with a new client is to conduct an SEO competitor analysis. Doing a competitive analysis is important for many reasons and should always be part of your process. Unfortunately, most businesses conduct an SEO competitive analysis only before creating their content or SEO strategy.
In our experience working with SaaS and tech companies in highly competitive industries, keeping a close eye on your competitive landscape is essential. Thus, doing competitive research shouldn’t be a one-off procedure, but rather a part of your monthly process.
In this guide, we’re going to show you why we conduct SEO competitor analysis for our clients, how we do it and when. All the steps outlined below belong to our process and are repeated every time we conduct a competitive analysis.
Why to Conduct an SEO Competitor Analysis
The first question we’re going to answer through this guide is why you need to conduct an SEO competitor analysis in the first place. As you probably already know, when it comes to content and SEO, things are in a state of constant change. This means that something that worked a few months ago may not be working today because of a Google core update, for example.
This means that—in most cases—your website’s performance is dependent and affected by many factors beyond your control. In order to keep up with all these changes, you need to ensure that your website’s content actually adds value to visitors and that you don’t violate any of Google’s content guidelines.
Monitoring your competitors’ websites is an integral part of that process, since it allows you to identify missing opportunities, better understand your competitors, and refine your content and SEO strategy to keep up with all the changes occurring in your niche.
To put that in perspective, let’s use a simple example. Let’s assume you run a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) business, and that you have four direct competitors and several indirect ones. Using an SEO tool like Ahrefs, you can compare your domain against your competitors. To do that, we click on More > Domain comparison.
Once we do that, we insert our client’s domain (website URL), along with the domains of our client’s closest competitors.
Then, we click on the “Compare” button and wait for Ahrefs to return the results for the five domains we’ve inserted.
As you can see, Ahrefs has given us a nice table with information such as Domain Rating (or Domain Authority according to MOZ), number of Referring Domains linking back to each of the given domains, total number of competitors’ Backlinks and more. At the bottom of this analysis, we also get a nice graph that shows how the backlink profile of each of the given domains is growing over time.
In our example, the blue line depicts the backlink growth of one of our new clients, while the lines in purple, orange, green and black depict the backlink profile of four direct competitors. As is evident by this example, our competitors acquire backlinks faster than our client.
We’re not sure if those are quality backlinks—at least from this graph—but we can talk about the quantity of the links with certainty. Moreover, since the number of links a website has is a ranking factor—albeit obviously not as important as it used to be—the fact that our competitors’ backlink profiles are growing so quickly is worrisome.
Diving a bit deeper into the data (from other reports provided by Ahrefs and other SEO tools such as SEMrush), we can identify where our competitors’ domain strength comes from and uncover the exact link-building strategies our competitors are using, as well as any other tactics they might be implementing to grow their organic traffic.
This is something we need to know if we want to have a chance of beating our competitors in the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs). Of course, there are many other things we have to consider when monitoring and analyzing your competitor’s activity besides link velocity or number of referring domains.
We’ll go through these in more detail in the next section, but some of them include:
- Our competitors’ top pages
- The type of content our competitors publish
- What our competitors’ top keywords are and why
- If our competitors’ content is of high quality and why
- What sites give the most new links to our competitors,
- What types of competitor keywords have the highest commercial value
- The top landing pages our competitors have published on their site
In general, it’s essential that we have as much information as possible about what our competitors are doing. Once again, we don’t want to copy them, but simply to understand the competitive landscape better and improve our current position (e.g. improve our search rankings, get high-quality links, refine our user experience).
Last but not least, you need to know that business competition doesn’t always equal SEO competition. This means your top competitors in business may—and in most cases will—be different than your top competitors in SEO. Put simply, you may be competing with different businesses in Google Search than you are in your physical business.
All these reasons explain why conducting a competitive analysis is essential. Once again, we’d like to stress the importance of making competitor analysis a part of your routine. Doing an analysis only before you start working on an SEO campaign or a content strategy won’t help you with your content or SEO efforts.
In the following section, we’ll describe the process of conducting an SEO competitive analysis using a series of analysis tools and our own analysis template.
How to Conduct an SEO Competitor Analysis in 4 Steps
The next question we’re going to answer through our guide is how to conduct an SEO competitor analysis. Even though there are many ways to do this, we have a very specific process that we follow based on our Organic Growth Framework. This process consists of four steps that we consider to be the most important when it comes to SEO analysis.
Step 1: Review their Content
We always start with our competitors’ content. Here, we try to answer questions like:
- What is the frequency at which they are publishing content?
- How many blog posts per month are they publishing?
- Do they include images or videos in their content?
- What is the overall quality of the content?
To help you understand these points better, let’s use the example of an imaginary SaaS company that operates in the B2B Lead Generation space. Let’s further assume that one of your main competitors is B2B Lead Generation Software Albacross. To answer most of the questions above, we have to visit Albacross’ blog section.
At first, Albacross’ main blog page seems simple and clean. The team appears to be dividing the content they have published in the following categories:
- Lead Generation
- Sales Marketing
- ABM (Account Based Marketing)
This makes the content easier to discover and the pages easier to navigate. The blog also has a Search function that allows people to search for specific content, thus speeding up the discovery of content.
If you click on one of Albacross’ blog posts (for example, the one about Inbound Marketing), you’ll notice that the content is easy to read (2-3 line sentences) and aesthetically appealing, as it has custom graphics that are aligned with Albacross’ brand and aesthetics.
We can also see that the content team is using internal jumplinks, which—among other things—can make the content piece easier to navigate and improve the user experience.
Image Source: Albacross
Thus, we could say that the overall quality of their content is good. Moving forward, we want to see how often they’re publishing new content. To do that, we visit the XML Sitemap in the URL https://albacross.com/sitemap.xml.
Taking a look at the “lastmod” dates, we can see that the team is publishing 2-4 new content pieces each month. We consider this to be good practice—it shows us that Albacross is more focused on the quality of the content rather than publishing more of the same thing.
Diving a bit deeper, we may want to check the organic performance of their content. In other words, we want to see if they are getting any search traffic from content and what their top-performing content pieces are. To do that, we copy the folder in which their content lives at (in this case, https://albacross.com/newsroom/) and paste it into Ahrefs’ Site Explorer.
Then, we click on the “Top pages” report and get a list of top-performing pages from the website’s blog.
We’re mostly interested in the 6 top-performing pages (according to Ahrefs), and we’ll also check those pages for number of backlinks, on-page optimization, number of words and Schema Markup.
For that last one, Schema Markup, we use Google’s Structured Data Testing Tool. The only thing we have to do here is insert the URL we’re interested in into the window that pops up and click “Run Test”.
There are two interesting facts that come up as a result of this test: 1) the NewsArticle Schema that is detected is wrong, since we’re talking about Article Schema and 2) the team is using an FAQPage Schema—a very good way to give answers to important questions that are covered in the content piece.
When we click on the FAQPage Schema, we can see that it indeed covers some very critical questions such as “what is lead generation?”, “what is lead generation strategy” and “what is lead qualification?”. This could potentially give more visibility to that page, if the top keywords that the page was ranking for had a Featured Snippet in the SERPs.
Throughout this process, we can see that Albacross is doing a good job with their content efforts but that there is definitely room for improvement. There are some additional Checkpoints we review in terms of content, but won’t cover them in this guide.
Step 2: Review their SEO Efforts
Next, we’re interested in learning more about our competitors’ organic visibility and SEO in general. Some of the questions that we’re trying to answer here include:
- How many keywords are our competitors ranking for? (And, how many of them are branded keywords?)
- How many of those keywords are common to our client’s keywords?
- In what positions are they usually ranking for?
- How many pages have our competitors indexed, if they have a Robots.txt file or XML Sitemap?
Essentially, in this step, we try to see what our client’s competitors do from an SEO standpoint. We also try to identify the tactics they use that may be helping them, or alternatively, the things they miss out on that may be hurting them. In general, this is a takedown of the competitors’ SEO strategies.
The software we’re using to review the keyword profile of our client’s competitors is Ahrefs. By using Ahrefs’ Site Explorer, we gain a clear view over our competitors’ organic footprint and whether or not that’s growing over time. Below, you can see the website of one of our client’s main competitors.
It is evident that this competitor is growing over time. However, what about its organic footprint? We can see that the number of keywords this competitor is ranking for is also growing over time—with the exception of the period in which the number of keywords significantly decreased, possibly following a Google Update or some major change to the website.
If we take a closer look at the data though, we’ll notice that although the competitor’s organic footprint may be growing, this occurs mostly for positions #11-100. Thus, the impact that the growing profile of keywords can have in the overall traffic can’t be as big. This shows us that the growth in organic traffic may be occurring for other reasons.
Taking a look at the Organic Keywords report under Site Explorer in Ahrefs, we can see that it is in fact that the correlation between the growing profile of keywords doesn’t impact the organic growth of the company as much. The reason why the company grows is because its brand is growing.
The estimated search volume for the first keyword—which is also the top keyword displayed in the screenshot above—is for a branded term. This shows us that this company invests heavily into building a brand, and thus has managed to create demand based on its brand rather than on search terms.
This is something we should and have to know in order to make more decisions on behalf of our client.
Diving a bit deeper, we’ll compare the keywords our client ranks for with those four its main competitors are ranking for. At this point, we don’t want to identify content gaps yet (this comes later on in the process based on our Organic Growth Framework), but instead see how bigger our competitors are in terms of their overall organic visibility.
Lastly, we analyze important SEO Checkpoints—XML Sitemap, Robots.txt and number of pages indexed—to try to uncover more opportunities and understand how our competitors are doing things.
Even though it doesn’t belong to organic visibility, the fact that our client’s competitors may invest in PPC is something we want to know as well. The number of PPC keywords and what those keywords are is important as well. Running PPC ads doesn’t directly affect your organic visibility, but they can have an indirect effect.
Let’s put that in perspective with a simple example. Let’s assume you’re looking for the term “online course builder”—a term with obvious commercial value—on Google. These are the top paid results displayed above any Featured Snippets or the organic results.
Those ads may not directly affect the organic results, but they can indirectly have an impact on them. When you see an advertisement by company X, it’s likely you’ll click on one of the company’s organic results (if they rank high enough) for that or a similar search.
Thus, besides the organic visibility and the organic footprint, we’re also very interested in learning what our competitors are doing in terms of their paid efforts—what are the keywords that interest them and why, and how many keywords are they targeting?
To do this for any website we want to check, we use Ahrefs’ PPC keywords report under the Site Explorer report. Here’s what the results look like:
Author’s Note: For that process, you can also use a tool like SpyFu.
This way, we get an idea of what our competitors are doing, what pages they’re driving traffic to and what their overall organic footprint is. Let’s move on to the next step, which is the audit of our competitors’ backlink profiles.
Step 3: Audit their Backlink Profile
Auditing our client’s competitors in terms of their backlink profiles and link velocity is critical to help us explain the performance of those competitors. It’s also a way to identify link opportunities for the Stage of Amplification, which is the fifth Stage in our Organic Growth Framework.
Trying to find correlations between backlink growth and search traffic growth is essential in this step. To put that in perspective, take a look at the following chart, which depicts the way in which referring domains for a given website are growing over time.
This chart may not tell us anything about the website’s performance. However, if we look at it side-by-side with the search traffic for that same website’s historic performance, we can see that there is a high correlation between the level at which the company acquires links (or gets mentioned online) and the level its organic traffic grows.
This is something we’re interested in learning and therefore try to identify when conducting an audit for a client. Some of the questions that we generally try to answer in this step are:
- What are the competitors’ link velocity for the last 30 days?
- What are the referring domains sending the most links to our competitors?
- What are their most linked pages—is there something special about those pages?
- Are there any patterns emerging from the way our competitors are building links?
As you can see, we’re trying to understand here how our client’s competitors are amplifying their content. Are they actively building links? What are the tactics they’re using? What can we learn from them so we can shape our own strategy accordingly?
For example, we may understand that one of our competitors is building links through guest posting. This could be an opportunity for us—an opportunity that we have to evaluate.
Step 4: Review their Business
In the final step, we conduct a review of the business of our client’s competitors as a whole. We try to better understand basic aspects of any given business, such as:
- What is the company’s value proposition?
- How old is the business and the domain the business it’s using?
- Is there a dedicated content and SEO team helping the competitor?
- What are their main features and is there any search volume for them?
- Has the company raised any money yet and if so, where are they investing it?
- How is the company performing on social media and are they using paid social?
Besides the content and SEO aspect of things, being well-informed about our client’s competitor businesses is also critical. The more information we can get, the better. This is what’s going to help us understand the competitive landscape in-depth and point our client in the right direction.
When to Conduct an SEO Competitive Analysis
One of the most commonly asked questions when it comes to conducting an SEO competitive analysis is when to do it. We always conduct an analysis as soon as we’re working with a new client as part of the first Stage of our Organic Growth Framework—the stage of Understanding.
The reason why the competitive analysis is one of the first things that we do is because we acknowledge the importance of the process and its contribution to the overall success of a new campaign. It’s critical to understand that the competitive process is completely dynamic and doesn’t end.
For us here at MINUTTIA, the competitive analysis—in different forms—occurs:
- In the Onboarding process
- In the Stage of Understanding
- Once every month (at the end of the month)
- Once every six months (at the end of the six-month period)
Let’s explain why we break down the competitive analysis process like this.
1) In the Onboarding Process
The Onboarding process is one of the most important steps in our relationship with our clients. The better the onboarding process, the better the communication and overall cooperation will be in the following months of working with a new client. This is part of Client Onboarding Checklist in Asana:
Even though most tasks are blurred, the one that isn’t reads, “Confirm Client Onboarding Questions Are Complete”. The Onboarding Questions is a set of more than 50 questions in Google Sheets.
Throughout this template, we ask many different questions, from purely business to more content-related ones, and even some questions that have to do with paid advertising and the overall cooperation between us and the client.
We are aware of the fact that giving an answer to each of those questions may be a bit difficult, but we always stress the importance of taking the time to fill in the questionnaire to all our new clients. To give you an idea of what this questionnaire looks like, here are some of the questions we include:
- Give us a list of keywords that you think are important to your business.
- What are the search queries someone would use to search for you online?
- What have you done in terms of content marketing in the past? What has worked?
Besides asking for our client’s opinion on their target keywords, some of the questions included have to do with their competitors—or, to be more accurate, how our clients think of their competition. Many times—and this is something we’ve discussed earlier—our client’s business competitors are different than their content and SEO competitors.
Moreover, the perception that clients have of their competitors’ performance is sometimes different than what comes up as a result of our analysis. The Onboarding Questionnaire is the first step toward understanding what our clients think of their competitors, and is also the first way for us to get information about the competitive landscape we’re going to analyze.
2) In the Stage of Understanding
As we mentioned earlier, the Stage of Understanding—the second Stage in our Organic Growth Framework—is where we conduct an analysis of our client’s assets and their competitors and try to uncover opportunities for growth. We call this stage “Understanding” because it allows us to do exactly that: understand our client’s current position in order to help them perform better.
Part of that is the analysis of the competitive landscape—the landscape in which our clients operate and have to deal with. As we mentioned in the previous section, some of the processes that we implement while in this stage include auditing competitors’:
- Overall content quality—What kind of content our competitors publish, its overall quality (e.g. average word count), what seems to work best.
- Organic visibility—How visible our competitors are online, what their organic footprint is and what that tells us.
- Backlink profiles—Whether our competitors are actively building links, and if so for what web pages (e.g. homepage) and with what anchor texts (e.g., branded).
- Keyword profiles—What keywords that drive the most traffic for our competitors and why.
The reason we do this in the first stage is because it will help us make decisions on the strategy we’re going to follow. Back to the example that we mentioned in the first section, if we know (through our analysis) that our competitors are actively building links to promote some their best assets, it tells us that:
- These assets must have some commercial value, since our competitors are investing time, effort and money into building links for them.
- We may have to consider better content if we haven’t yet created something around that topic/keyword in our blog.
- If we have competing content on our website—based on their link velocity and our current position in the SERPs—we have to build x amount of links every month.
Thus, as is evident, this analysis will have a big impact on our strategy and also on our understanding of how our competitors grow. Of course, there are times when that “what” behind a competitor’s growth isn’t as clear, but most of the time, our process helps us uncover their tactics so we can use them in our strategy.
3) Once every month (at the end of the month)
In the previous section, we mentioned how we use our competitor analysis template to analyze the performance of our clients before we create the strategy for a new client. Apart from that, we also advise all our clients to run a monthly competitive analysis report to keep up with any changes in the competitive landscape.
For this, we use the SEO Competitive Monitoring Template, a simple template in Google Sheets format to help our clients gather all the information they need on a monthly basis. This is how the template looks:
The template includes the following columns:
- How to Find?
- Competitor #1
- Competitor #2
- Competitor #3
- Competitor #4
Essentially, we’re checking several checkpoints for four of our client’s direct competitors. For each of these checkpoints, we include instructions for how the person conducting the analysis can find the data. This is particularly useful for our clients, since they can assign this task to a junior-level employee inside the company.
In contrast with the the competitive analysis we carry out before we start working with a new client, here we’re mostly interested in things like:
- Identifying our competitors’ top pages
- Reviewing their backlinking efforts
- Auditing their top keywords
Some additional resources and templates you might want to check out and use for your own monthly competitive analysis are:
- SEO Competitor Analysis Template by Ahrefs
- The SEO Competitive Analysis Template by The Blueprint Training
4) Once every six months (at the end of the six-month period)
The last type of SEO competitor analysis we conduct is one every six months, at the end of the six-month period. In the SaaS and tech world, six months is a long time, and thus we conduct a full competitive analysis at this point, just as we do before starting work with a new client.
There are many things that may change within a six-month period. For example, a competitor may have added a new feature and started publishing new content around it. Alternatively, a competitor may have changed their content strategy and started focusing on new content formats (e.g. video content) and distribution channels.
In any case, we want to identify what has changed during those six months, and thus may have to adjust some things in our strategy. Conducting a complete competitive analysis is one of our starting points.
Finally, let’s close this article with some final thoughts.
By now, you’ve realized that spying on your competitors’ blog posts and watching their keyword rankings on Ahrefs’ Site Explorer isn’t productive or efficient, and nor will it give you the data intelligence you need. We at MINUTTIA believe in healthy competition, and always support our clients in their efforts to try to understand their competitive landscape in-depth.
Since everything we do is process-focused, the SEO competitor analysis we conduct is entirely based on the process that we’ve set up, having experimented with different SaaS and tech companies in various industries. In this context, SEO analysis is essential—it’s a powerful tool which (if used properly) can give us deep insights that will affect our strategy.
We hope that this step-by-step guide helped you understand why, how and when you need to analyze your competitors’ sites more effectively, and without the need to use sophisticated research tools.