In The Art of War, Sun-Tzu writes: “If you know the enemy and you know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”

The famous Chinese military strategist clearly didn’t have digital marketing and SEO in mind when he penned these words, but the message he intended toward generals and soldiers can actually be used by marketers.

Every single one of us has the tendency to get trapped in bubbles of our own creation. We get bogged down by our own industry jargon, for example, and fail to think about how the world is perceived by others.

You see it happen all the time. Mechanics, HVAC specialists, the “Geniuses” at the Apple Store – they’re all guilty of confounding their customers by explaining the work they did using terms and concepts laymen have never heard of.

There’s a basic tenet in marketing – find out the mindset of your customers and speak their language. That’s easier said than done. An entrepreneur who’s been chest-deep in his own product or service for the last few years will struggle to walk in the shoes of a person who’s never heard of what it is he’s selling.

But that’s what marketers do: we get to know the market so that we can bridge the gap between the audience and the product or service being sold.

Getting to know the market is a huge part of what it means to run a successful business. It’s the foundation of such buzzwords as buyer persona or keyword research. So, it’s fair to say, most marketers know how to research their targeted audience.

But how many business owners apply that same level of research and attention to detail to their competitors?

super-target-storeAs important as it is to know your audience (so you can sell to them), it’s important to know your competitors (so you can beat them to the punch).

Long before the word “digital” preceded marketing, companies ventured into the “know they enemy” approach with simple tactics. It would not be uncommon, for example, for a Wal-Mart representative to walk the aisles of Target to not only compare prices but to take note of store layout, customer service tactics, décor and more.

Fast forward to today, and while companies can – and still do – put boots on the ground, one of the most effective ways to learn about your competitors is through the power of online data.

With a few keystrokes, mouse clicks and scans of the screen, you can gain access to an incredible amount of data that you then can use to boost the SEO strategy of your franchise or business.

But where do you begin?

Your first step is identifying your competitors

Before you can take down your competitors, you need to know who they are. For local businesses, the instinct is to assume that competitors are just the handful of like-minded businesses within a 10+ mile radius of their own storefront.

But your competitors could extend further than that when you remove yourself from the equation and think about the mindset of your prospective customers. Who’s to say that the people you’re trying to target in your local community aren’t, for some reason, drawn to a competitor in a completely different town or county?

And when it comes to the mindset and behaviors of your competitors, what you need to do is conduct simple Google searches.

What keywords or terms do you want to rank for? If you have a PPC campaign manager, he or she can help you narrow this down, but you also don’t have to overthink this.

Take, for example, a local auto body shop. What key terms might this business owner want to rank for? At first blush, we might consider terms and phrases like:

  • Car Mechanic in [Location]
  • Where can I get my car fixed
  • Trust worthy car mechanic near me
  • Auto body repair shop

Common sense can lead you to some good keywords or terms, but the more data-backed evidence you can use during this process, the better. Google’s Keyword Research Tool remains one of the most effective ways to know which terms are gaining the most traffic. The only caveat we’d offer is when you conduct keyword research using that tool, start your search using a local term (town, city, etc.) in the key phrase.

For example, we opted to use: Car Mechanic in Tulsa as our primary key phrase from which Google would then offer related terms. These are just some of the terms that popped up:

google keyword research

This is a pretty good list and included some terms we didn’t even think of at first (like tires, windshield repair, and paint repair).

We then take any of the terms that applied to our business and type them into Google to see what comes up. For this example, we typed in “Honda Repair Tulsa”, but we would likely do this same process for a handful of terms (if not more). Here’s what came up on Google:

google results page

This list represents just some of the potential competitors our imaginary auto shop owner has to contend with. The longer (and more specific) key phrases you use, the more accurate a list you’ll compile.

But we don’t just want any old list filled with riff-raff. We want a list made up of our strongest competitors, right? That way you’re not wasting your time (with these next steps) on businesses who you likely already out-compete.

That’s when you turn to third-party tools, like Advanced Web Ranking. AWR delivers localized rankings, meaning you can determine how well a site ranks for your local audience.

But AWR isn’t alone. You have your fair share of other tools you can use to determine the “authority” of a website.

Here’s a look at Moz’s Open Site Explorer for “FourStarImportOK.com”:

site explorer

This little tidbit of information shows us that this site – that ranked at #1 for our term “Honda Repair Tulsa” does not have much authority.

This could mean one of two things:

  • Either there are other companies in this space that have higher authority, and so you should find these companies and target them with the steps below, or
  • There really isn’t much heavyweight competition in this space, meaning you could really make your mark

We also like SEM Rush’s features. In SEM, under their Keyword Analytics tab, we typed in “auto body repair Tulsa”. The page that follows offers a ton of great data, but for our current purpose, we scrolled down to the Organic Search Results section:

sem rush keyword analytics

This list demonstrates some of the top sites ranking for this phrase, meaning some of these sites are very likely competitors of our imaginary body shop owner.

Now that you have this extensive list of worthy competitors, it’s time to check them out.

Of course, this doesn’t mean casually browsing each site and taking stock in what you like or don’t like. It’s about closely examining a wide variety of aspects that make up the success (or failures) of each site.

URL Structure

How are the URLs defined? Check out the unique URL structure (at the top of the image) for one of the main pages of “Body Works of Tulsa”:

body works of tulsa

Take note of this structure; do other competitors follow the same, complicated suit (we doubt it, but only research will tell).

Some companies use long URL structures. Others try to keep their URLs as short as possible. Some companies clearly focus on keywords within URLs; others aren’t so concerned by that. Record your observations and see if you determine a common thread among the top-ranking sites.

Readability

How is the text on each page constructed? Is the text simple to read? Are there long sentences and paragraphs? Is there a lot of industry jargon peppered throughout, or could a third-grader understand it?

Readability isn’t just about the actual words on the page. It’s also about how that content flows. Whitespace. Sidebars. Padding. All of this impacts the “attractiveness” of a site.

One tip we’d suggest is to conduct this readability audit on both desktop and mobile screens. Examine how your top competitors alter their sites for a mobile audience and think about how you could do better.

Sitemap

Take a look at the pages your competitor chose to include in their site. Often times, businesses list out pages in their footer section, as was done by 44fixit.com:

website footer

But you can also go the XML sitemap route. Put in domain.com/sitemap.xml or domain.com/sitemap_index.xml, and more times than not you’ll find the sitemap for that competitor (but not always).

The sitemap is a pretty powerful tool to gain access to, as it often reveals the entire SEO structure of a company. Sitemaps will reveal hierarchies and allow you to examine how your competitors aimed to funnel visitors toward certain pages.

Do your competitors create service/product-specific page? Do they build out several pages around the same topics, or do they stick to just one page per primary keyword?

How do their sitemap structures differ from yours? Do you have too many pages? Not enough? Are some of your pages actually competing with one another and, thus, are canceling each other out?

Categorization

Your competitor’s categories will help you determine how their website is organized, such as the tags they use, retail categories, and the overall segmentation of their site’s content.

If the site is content heavy on e-commerce, the categories will help you understand their organization and user navigation.

Site Usability

How easily can you navigate through each site? Is the site user-friendly? If you’re looking for a specific product or service, how easily can you find it? How quickly can you contact the company directly (either through a form or through a link to call/email)?

This audit is similar to examining the sitemap; however, it brings a more human element into the fray. Think like a customer. Are you stymied by the construct of the site or it designed in a way where you are seldom lost or lacking for the right answers?

Design

What types of designs do your competitors use? Are these websites minimalistic? Are they flooded with colors, buttons, and offers? How do your competitors’ sites differ from yours?

Don’t underestimate the power of color and font. The average consumer conducts countless subconscious decisions before actually converting; color and font choice could actually influence these decisions.

Do you see a trend among your most successful competitors? Do they tend to use a certain color palette? Do their font types look similar? Do they use a lot of imagery on their pages?

Check demographics

You can use Alexa and Quantcast to analyze important demographic, geographic, and lifestyle information about the audiences your competitors are targeting, as well as who they’re actually attracting.

quantcast know your audience

We can’t stress enough how important this step is. By now you should know who you’d like to target. And you have a good understanding of who you think your best competitors are. However, what if these competitors – and their high-ranking sites – aren’t even attracting your ideal prospects?

Examining your competitors’ demographics will separate the wheat from the chaff and ensure, in the end, that your attention is committed to the folks who are really interrupting your growth.

Review blogging strategies

Do any of your competitors have blogs? Through your other research, did you find that any articles from those blogs are ranking well or getting a fair amount of traffic?

If you find some of your competitors’ blog posts ranking well, then look at the topics that are covered. Is the content a clear attempt at keyword ranking, or are these blogs appealing to their audience?

For example – our imagined car mechanic should determine whether articles like How to repair a windshield in Tulsa, OK (which is clearly written to target keywords and location) are gaining more traffic than a blog post like The Do’s and Don’ts of Windshield Repair.

Monitor posting frequency; are you posting at the same rate as your top competitors? What length are these articles? What types of strategies are used (external/internal linking, use of video, etc.).

Chances are your top competitors have a pretty substantial blogging strategy in place. Mirror some of their approaches, without stealing any of their ideas.

See how well your competitors’ content trends

Use BuzzSumo to see how well your competitors’ content ranks. If their content does rank well, examine that content and take note of what they’re doing differently than you.

analyze content

Analyze the keywords used by your competitors

As you spend time crawling your competitors’ sites, you want to take stock of the keywords they use. Your goal is to be able to identify the commonly used keywords and how they’re used.

How do you determine which keywords your competitors are targeting? Again, you can turn to a tool like SEMRush to handle that.

Not only will you find out about targeted keywords, but you’re also likely to discover a few keywords you’d never thought of before. In fact, you might even end up with some keywords that your competitors hadn’t even considered.

Here’s a look at a search of DannyMyers.com’s keywords:

sem rush demo

As you browse through all potential keywords, categorize them into short, mid, and long-term keywords. Look for keywords that have the highest search volume, relevance, and profitability. Make these your core focus at the start, so that your content efforts reap substantial rewards. Then, as you flesh out this strategy, you can turn to harder-to-target keywords.

Examine your competitors’ backlinks

Quality backlinks are an enormous part of your search engine rankings. When a site with some clout links back to your own site, Google takes that as an incredible vote of confidence and will reward you accordingly.

Majestic SEO gives a detailed analysis of competitor links and the size of their index. Quickly compare sites to see external links, anchor texts, and dive deep into links for specific pages.

Also, analyze both backlink and domain link counts to understand what your competition is doing to track performance.

backlinks analyzer

Monitor the top 3 pages of each competitor

Once you’ve identified your top competitors, continue to monitor their top 3 pages for any change. Monitor what they are doing and the performance of the pages to make adjustments to your own SEO strategies to accommodate the changes.

You can do that pretty easily with ChangeDetection.com.

change detection page monitor

ChangeDetecion.com is perfect for tracking pages because it allows you to see what changes have been made by creating a change log for specific pages. You can be alerted by email or text to view change reports for text changes, such as updated metas or keywords on specific pages.

All in all, this little exercise can help you decide how best to modify your own site. If certain features work well for your competitors, you might also benefit by integrating something similar.

With this information under your belt, it’s time to put your own Search Engine Optimization strategy into place.

Develop – or redevelop – your own site structure

With all that information you’ve gathered from your competitors, it’s time to create or improve upon your own website.

Your goal is to make modifications to your site’s technical, aesthetic, and functional aspects. The design of your site structure will determine how search engines and users view your site.

A good technical structure will promote the flow of link juice and distribute link equity, which will, in turn, give your site authority.

At the same time, the look of your site will build engagement, usability, and conversions.

Of course, your website, alone, won’t deliver results. That’s why, before you officially launch (or re-launch) your site, you need to establish your keyword, content, social media, and link building strategies.

That’s why the notes you take when auditing your competitors is so important.

  • What keywords do they use, that you could build pages and SEO campaigns around?
  • Better yet, which keywords seem to have gone under the radar, that you can capitalize on?
  • What forms of content should you create? If you say blogs, then what kind? Short content? Long? Should you focus on video first? Podcasts? Graphics?
  • What type of social media presence should you take? Will you be casual? Authoritative? Which platforms are worth your time heavily investing in?

Your website is the hub of your marketing wheel. Without it, nothing rolls forward. However, the other elements listed above are the spokes of that wheel – equally important in the success of the digital marketing efforts for your franchise or business. Make sure your entire “marketing wheel” is in good form before you put the car in drive.

Commit to a link building strategy

Link building has a huge impact on how well your site ranks on Google. You want to gauge the link-building of your competitors and develop your own, unique, strategy that abides by Google’s algorithm criteria.

Content and outreach make up about 91% of link building (with paid links making up a mere 19%). The higher the quality of content you produce, the more backlinks you’ll generate. This is the main focus of our Atlanta SEO Agency when it comes to link building acquisition SEO campaigns for restaurants and other businesses.

Your tendency might be to copy the link-building strategy of your competitors. Fight that urge. Duplication here will only slow down your growth. Instead, carve out your own path to earn links from influential sites.

We suggest you look to syndicate your content with major industry websites, rather than trying to build your traffic solely from your own site.

Look at the image below:

life lanes screenshot

This is a snapshot of Life Lanes, the blog produced by insurance company Progressive. Companies like Progressive have embraced the idea of content marketing, and are able to keep up with demand by getting people outside of their business to produce content.

As an insurance company, Progressive impacts a lot of people’s lives. Folks looking to buy a home; folks who drive; families traveling. The list is virtually endless, making Life Lanes a great resource for business owners looking to reach these audiences.

By publishing an article on Life Lanes for example, a real estate agent could earn new business from readers while gaining valuable backlinks from a high authority site like Progressive.

Keep at it

You won’t beat your competition overnight. This approach is a long-game strategy. But with persistence and consistency, you should see yourself inch past your competitors over time, in a manner that abides by the whims of Google.

And, at the same time, you’ll discover that this approach to marketing establishes trusting relationships between your brand and customers. A trusting relationship is a key ingredient in turning one-time customers into lifelong evangelists.

We also suggest you turn to analytics tools such as Google Analytics, SEM Rush, Crazy Egg, and/or Hot Jar to monitor your site’s performance. That way you’ll be able to see what’s working and what’s not and make adjustments accordingly.

Alex Membrillo Cardinal CEO

Alex Membrillo

Founder and CEO

Alex Membrillo is the CEO of Cardinal, a digital marketing agency focused on growing multi location companies. His work as CEO of Cardinal also recently earned him the honor of being selected as a 2015 and 2016 Top 20 Entrepreneur of metro Atlanta by TiE Atlanta, Atlanta Business Chronicle’s 2016 Small Business Person of the Year (Rising Star), and the 2015 Digital Marketer of the Year by Technology Association of Georgia (TAG).