Optimization and the Competitive Analysis Audit

by Alan Eggleston

In my last article, I talked about how to conduct a search audit. Those are very useful for determining your site ranking and whether your site is optimized for search. However, they won’t help you position yourself against your competitors as much as a competitive analysis audit will. This article is about how you can do that.

Photo: Pixaby, creative common license in the public domain.

Photo: Pixaby, creative common license in the public domain.

1. Who are your competitors?

First, identify your top two or three competitors (or perhaps it’s one big competitor). Compare your website rankings against theirs for the keywords or keyword phrases for which you optimize your site. If you rank higher than any of them, great! Then you should work on improving your ranking if you don’t already occupy the top spot.

On the other hand, if any of your competitors rank higher than you, you need to analyze why. That means examining their source code, links, and social media.

  • Compare search rankings on Google, Bing, Yahoo, and any other search engine that drives significant traffic to your sites. Look for their sponsored ads on various search engines, too. Because results that show up in sponsored ads can bring quick response, you may need to invest in them, too, to be competitive.
  • In a competitor’s source code, look for agreement between title tags, description tags, and body text (and on Yahoo, keyword lists); look also for use of alt tags on graphics and images, text links at the bottom of the page, file names using keywords, image names using keywords, and such elements as positioning of keywords in headlines, paragraphs, and so on. Do they use H1 and H2 tags on headlines? In short, what are their SEO best practices? Also, what are their SEO “black hat” practices – do they violate any guidelines*? How can you perform even better on your site?

*In a very competitive market, when someone violates guidelines they put all others at an unfair disadvantage, especially if others are following the guidelines. Be aware that if you report a competitor and they find out, retaliation is always possible, even if you aren’t doing anything wrong. Reporting is anonymous, but that doesn’t mean competitors won’t find out.

  • Look for your competitors on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. There are others, too, but let’s start there. Are they engaging customers there and leading them to their website? It can be a big advantage you should consider jumping into if you aren’t already. Look on their home page for icons linking to other social media sites.

2. How do you compare in a search?

Second, look at the meta tags on competitor sites and do a search audit to see who ranks highest for their keywords or keyword phrases. If you don’t use or optimize for their keywords, should you? Does this give them a competitive advantage if you don’t?

  • Make sure any keywords you optimize for are true to your business and your message.
  • Look for ways to best them for relevancy. For instance, can you mention the keywords earlier on the page than they do? Can you position keywords for a phrase in a more logical order? Is there any “low hanging fruit” you can take advantage of, such as using H tags on headlines where they don’t? Do they not use unique page titles and descriptions on their pages? Optimize better than they do!
  • If location is key to your business success or if you’re considered a local business or organization, is your location (most usually city) part of your keyword string and prominent on your home page? If you have multiple locations, do you have location pages to support that?

3. Where else do competitors have a presence?

Third, look for competitors in directories like search engine maps and registries (such as Google Places), business registries (like Merchant Circle and Local First), and industry or professional registries. You should consider registering with them especially if your competitors are there.

  • Most directories are free but you can buy higher postings. Look for your competitors in the choice spots. If they show up there, you may need to invest in the same choice spots to be competitive.
  • If your site gets a lot of mobile business, make sure you register with Google Maps and Google Places, and even if you don’t get much attention on Bing or Yahoo, register with Bing Maps and Yahoo Maps to make mobile search easier.
  • Register for multiple categories where available. For instance, if you’re a hardware store, don’t just settle for hardware. Register for plumbing, electrical, building, and any other area the registry may cover.

4. Keep your eye on your competition.

Finally, conduct your competitive analysis audit periodically. As the saying goes, “This is a marathon, not a sprint.” Your competitors may be doing the same thing and making adjustments that you’ll need to counter. New competitors may enter the market, or competitors who weren’t a factor before may suddenly surface. I would at least compare rankings monthly for a few months and then do a more thorough audit if ranking results are volatile.

Build on Your Own Strengths!

Note: Most small businesses and organizations aren’t SEO-savvy enough to do an audit so when you do one you have the advantage. However, some hire SEO companies to conduct campaigns for them and they will be savvy. The important thing is to learn what your competitors’ optimization strengths and weaknesses are and then counter them by building on your own strengths and reducing your own weaknesses.

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