Times have certainly changed since the beginning of SEO, where the objective to winning the game was to just concentrate on a few keywords. Today, it’s also about researching your competitors – both direct and indirect – to see where they’re ranking and what they’re doing to get there.
Fortunately there are a plethora of tools out there now to help us dig deeper to find out not only what keywords rank well in general but what keywords your competitors are using, what backlinks may be helping them, as well as which of their web pages are getting the most attention. This allows you to leverage that information and make tweaks to your own site and content so you can beat the competition and rank higher in search.
If you find a competitor is ranking higher than you and you just can’t figure out why, maybe the problem is that they are doing a better job at answering the intention of the searcher than you are. So don’t go reinventing the wheel, see what they’re doing as a jumping off point, and then do it better.
Rich: Jason McGovern is an Associate Director of SEO at Starcom Mediavest Group, one of the world’s largest media networks. For the past 12 years he has helped brands win in search – including Novartis, Kraft/Heinz, MetLife, Forex, and P&G– by combining his expertise, marketing savvy, and technical skills. He’s a hands-on team leader with a current focus in data-driven SEO, process optimization, and training. Jason lives in my hometown of Scarborough, Maine with his family. And when not ranking websites enjoys cooking, obstacle racing, and golfing. Jason, welcome to the show.
Jason: Welcome, thank you for having me.
Rich: It’s good to have you. So let’s start off with a little bit of background. How did you get into SEO, what drew you to SEO?
Jason: It’s really funny. I was working for a company importing lab equipment from other companies and selling it in the United States and I had just read HTML For Dummies, which in the late ‘90’s meant that I was by far and away the most qualified person to be “web master”, so I started taking over a lot of the website duties. In full disclosure, I was also a copywriter at the time, and so anything that got my copy in front of more people I was generally for that.
And then I can remember I was working and my boss handed me this article that he had photocopied from the New York Times about making your website sticky and really wanting me to look a little bit more into web marketing. And that sort of blossomed into a lot of research about how I brought more traffic into the site, how I could keep people there. Organic search kept on coming up and it’s something I just started focusing on more and more as I worked through that job and then moved on from there.
Rich: Awesome. Well as everybody knows in search engine optimization, three can only be one #1 result. We’re all in constant battle with our competitions for that one spot. So understanding who your competitors are and what they’re up to can help us take that top spot. You talk about both direct and indirect competitors. Can you shed some light on what you mean by that?
Jason: I think direct and indirect competitors is something that is automatically intuitive to people. But I think once they kind of understand what we’re talking about they get a much better view of the lay of the land and it really dramatically opens up how much data you have available to yourself to leverage.
And when I talk about direct and indirect competitors, direct competitors are the people that you think of everyday They’re your product competitors, they’re the people that you’re competing with for sales, they’re the people you’re competing with for mindshare, attention share, and so on.
Indirect competitors is something that is a little bit sort of counter intuitive which is people who you’re not necessarily competing with in terms of sales, but these are people who are competing for rankings on the same keywords that you’re focusing on.
So a really good example would be if you’re the Chicago Cubs a direct competitor would be the St. Louis Cardinals. This is a team that you’re going to play everyday, but you also have to compete for ticket sales and attention share with teams like the White Sox and the Bears, those would be your indirect competitors.
To take it another step further is if you’re a company and you sold iPhones, obviously Best Buy and anyone else that sells iPhones would be your direct competitors. But you still need to worry about the Apple-related blogs, the iPhone related sites, and even apple.com because those are sites that are kind of competing for that same 10 spots on the search results page.
Rich: Ok, that makes a lot of sense. And I think that each of us are going to have different of those indirect competitors. So maybe if you just think about going to the search engines and searching for some of the keywords you wish you came up for and you can probably find a collection of your direct competitors and these indirect competitors, correct?
Jason: Yeah. And I think the indirect competitors are really great for a couple of different reasons. I think first off a lot of business managers and brand owners, it’s very easy that you only benchmark against your direct competitors in which case is you’re sort of not paying attention to all the players on the field. So that’s something you definitely want to keep in mind.
I think also is sometimes as a marketer and business person, direct competitors sometimes tend to use the same language and the same sales speak whereas if you look at what your indirect competitors are doing there are many occasions out there where they’re actually going to use a language that’s much more customer centric and much more likely what customers are going to be searching on. So that’s something that you can discover by looking at them and what they’re doing.
Rich: I’m thinking about being here in Portland, Maine right now and thinking about all the tourists that I pass every day when I’m walking by. That’s one thing to do in town is one of these Duck Tours or Beer Tours, but that’s just one of many things that people could do in Portland, Maine, and obviously you might have some indirect competitors in there as well.
Jason: Yeah, exactly. If you’re a tour operator and you go out on Casco Bay and you do a boat tour, that could be competing against a Duck Tour and things like that are your indirect competitors. And if you look at their site they may be targeting things to do in Portland, whereas you’re focusing so much on these tour keywords that you’re not seeing other opportunities.
Rich: Ironically almost every restaurant in town competes with Agents of Change because one of our top posts that we wrote years ago and continually update is, Places to Eat in Portland, Maine While You’re at the Agents of Change Conference. And unfortunately that’s our most popular page on the entire website and has been for years. I do know that people find that search all the time.
Alright, let’s move on because I want to talk about you, you definitely like your tools and I’d like you to tell us a little bit about some of the tools that you use to do your competitive analysis and kind of how you use those tools.
Jason: I like a lot of toys when I do SEO. It’s a little bit of a sickness – I blame the fact that it’s very similar to why I like golf – there’s lots of devices and tools. Boiling it down to the top 3 tools, for search in general and especially if you’re trying to do any sort of competitive analysis or competitive intelligence.
The first one would be the tool called Screaming Frog. That’s a Spider crawling tool, in and of itself it’s not going to open any doors for you, but it helps you sort of process data faster and get that second and third level data that’s going to really help you make meaningful, actionable insights.
I think secondarily it is SEMrush, which is one of my favorite tools in the world. What they do is they track top ranking pages across millions of Google keywords. Say if you sell lacrosse equipment in Portland, Maine and you want to know what type of lacrosse keywords that Dick’s Sporting Goods is ranking for, that’s a good way of getting that information and really drawing some meaningful insights.
And then the third one is a tool called Open Site Explorer. That might be kind of the old school way of talking about it, it’s part of the Moz.com suite of tools. What SEO does for keywords this does for links, where you can do a search for your domain or the domain of a competitor and you get an idea of how many people are linking to them. And then more importantly with a little bit of digging you can even find out which pages on their sites are getting the most links and getting the most attention from other websites.
Rich: Ok, so you mentioned three tools to use for competitive analysis. I want to go back to the first one you mentioned, Screaming Frog. Now I took a brief look at this before we got online. How might we use this? For example, flyte new media web design and digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, I know who my competitors are. How would I use Screaming Frog to get more information? Do I use it on my own website, do I use it on their websites, how would you use that?
Jason: I think if you’re talking from a purely SEO context I think there are some maintenance issues with Screaming Frog that could be very beneficial. So I think that there is a role there. I think in the context of this conversation it’s more of a competitive intelligence perspective. I think what it really lets you do is look at your competitor’s websites, you can look at dozens of pages and gather data on them very quickly.
So you enter in their URLs, you click one button, and all of a sudden you can get information as to how long the pages take to load, are they fast or slow, are the title tags properly optimized, are they brand heavy, are they heavy things of that nature. You can extrapolate the main keywords that they’re going for. If you’re an ecommerce site you can actually get glimpses into how many products that category pages have and things of that nature.
So really what it does is it takes a website that if you go through it manually is possible and takes a lot of time, but what it does is it takes all the data and aggregates it into a spreadsheet that you can then use to analyze and make your own strategic competitive insights on and act on it in less than an hour.
Rich: Ok, so that’s what Screaming Frog does. SEMrush – and I think we use Moz tools for what you’re using – that’s going to help us with some on page optimization and competitive analysis, and Open Site Explorer will help us with off page research for competitive analysis.
Rich: Ok, so once we’ve gone through this – and I’m guessing we go through this with 3-5 of our top competitors – how do we discover information that’s going to help us, how do we discover where our competitors are beating us?
Jason: So to start with, a very traditional use in SEMrush is – and there’s a lot of merit to this, it’s not quite as easy as I’m going to lay it out – it is pretty straight forward. If you have a site and you have sites that you’re competing with – maybe they’re bigger players or smaller players – the first thing you can do is find out what keywords they’re buying.
So if you sell gray widgets, for example, and you find out that a company is buying the keyword “widget manufacturer” for $5 a click, if you can take that intelligence and then create target organic pages for that keyword, all of a sudden traffic that they’re paying $5 a person for you’re getting for free. So assuming that you can leverage that traffic into leads, sales, and attention on your own, you’re getting a huge competitive advantage right there. So that’s the first thing that I would do.
Rich: And Jason, if I can pause you there, the assumption here is id somebody is spending money on Google ads, we’re hoping our competitors are intelligent enough that they’re not just throwing money down the drain. So they’ve already done some work so we’re piggybacking on their work already and then we’re going to create good, organic content to compete with their paid search. Correct?
Rich: Ok. So that was the first thing you would do, and then I think I interrupted you.
Jason: I think that secondarily is if you look at SEMrush, another thing that they do that is really powerful is they have charts on their site that show you what their organic growth is in terms of traffic or number of rankings and things like that. So that’s really helpful in terms of benchmarking.
So say that you are a small site like Stonewall Kitchen and you could actually look up “Stonewall Kitchen” and see how much growth they’ve had year over year in organic search and then you can use that to set expectations on how much growth you should shoot for. And then kind of take that information and go back to their site and sort of break it down so you can figure out exactly how they got to those milestones. So that would be option #2.
Option #3 is you can take all of their organic data that SEMrush has and they’ll list hundreds if not thousands of keywords for a particular domain. And what you can do is you can download that data and using Excel pretty easily find out which pages get the most rank for the most popular keywords. And this actually ends up being a little bit of a double benefit to you.
First off is you have a idea of a model that works of what the top performing organic pages are in your competitive space that you can disassemble and reassemble on your own site and take advantage of that information. And also a lot of times we find out what’s happening is a lot of people when they think of SEO they think of it in terms of one keyword and one page. And what we find out now is that thematic groups of keywords can often rank with the same page.
So you might be focusing on “blue widgets” but there may be “blue widgets with a pop top”, and you can find all the derivatives that your competitors are ranking for that maybe you didn’t think about that you’d want to target and you’d want to have the keywords appear on that page and try and rank for organically.
Rich: Alright, so that makes a lot of sense and yet I’m still not sure once I’ve got all this data how do I exactly put it to use. What’s the next step that we should be taking?
Jason: Well there’s a couple different next steps. I think the first next step is once you kind of know where your competitors are I think it’s much easier to find out spots where you can fit in So you find out where they’re weak and you’re comparatively strong and you take advantage of it that way.
So I think a good example of that is years ago I was doing SEO for an insurance company and we found out that they were pretty strong everywhere except the quote section where other competitors are performing better. So we were able to really focus all our attention and it basically boiled our SEO campaign down into how are we going to rank for these quote related keywords. And once we were able to do that we drove really fantastic results for the client.
I think secondarily what you’re going to do is you can take what your competitors are doing in terms of their page content and break it down and say how can I make this page better and make my page more valuable to searchers and therefore more likely to rank to Google. The thing you can do is you can take what your competitors are doing in terms of their page content, break it down and say how can I make this page better and make my page more valuable to searches and therefore more likely to rank to Google.
So that’s really what it is, it’s just sort of giving you the focus to guide your on page SEO strategy in terms of keywords and keyword themes that will drive traffic.
Rich: Alright. Can we use this – you’ve talked a lot about some stuff that we can do for on page – can we use this same competitive analysis for off page or link building?
Jason: Yeah, you can. There’s a lot, it can be very tricky and if you’re not careful there are opportunities where you can get into trouble, and we’ll get into that in a second. But definitely Moz has a great tool for that and there are other great tools as well, but it’s very easy to go online and download what your competitor link profiles look like and then extrapolate a link acquisition strategy or an authority building strategy from that.
It’s very easy for some people to sort of chase individual URLs for individual pages and I would actually advise against that. What you really want to do is get a sense of what types of sites are linking to your competitors and which ones make sense for you to go after as well.
Rich: So how do we discern that, because I know that link building – in my opinion – has to be the most tedious part of SEO, just constantly emailing different sites and asking for links and then following up ad nauseum? What can competitive analysis do to help us maybe use our time more wisely?
Jason: I think there’s a couple different things you can do, I think first off especially if you’re a business owner and you’re not doing SEO or focusing in link building for large chunks of your day, what I would do is go the opposite of what I think the normal default reaction would be. It’s really just look at the top 50 to 100 sites that are linking to your competitors.
So what that’s going to do from the start it’s going to limit a lot of the noise and a lot of the junky links that you probably don’t want to chase down anyway. So that’s the first step.
I think secondarily is you can scan that list and you can actually get pretty in depth from it pretty quickly and get an idea of the types of sites that are linking to your competitors. So for example if you’re a food site like a Stonewall Kitchen and you can look at your competitors, and maybe they’re sponsoring a lot of local food festivals. So all of a sudden you’ve sort of pivoted from a very tedious perspective of trying to chase down individual URLs to asking the question of how you can incorporate more food festivals into your marketing mix that will hopefully generate links back to your site.
So that’s how I would approach it and sort of not only make it more palatable and actual, but also make it less tedious and more of a marketing exercise and a promotional exercise than just purely chasing links.
Rich: Alright. So this is obviously a very selfish question, but let’s say you own a website development company, one of the things I’ve noticed is when I look at our own rankings, we do fairly well in a number of categories but there are definitely some people who rank above us that I just don’t get why. I’ll sit there and I’ll look at their pages and think they maybe mention Maine a couple more times than I did but I don’t think that’s all that important. They haven’t been in business all that long or they don’t have a lot of inbound links compared to us. Is there a point where there’s just nothing you can do on a competitive analysis, or is there always more information that we should be looking at, and maybe even specifically to local search, because I know a lot of people are interested that local search component?
Jason: I think when you come up to those sites that occupy a site at the top of the listing for reasons that you can’t quite fathom, I think the default question you have to ask yourself is not are they more relevant than me and do they have more links than me, but are they the best site that’s answering the intention of the searcher. And sometimes it’s really easy because as search marketers part of our job is to presuppose or to get in the mind of the searchers and try and figure out what their intent is, and we don’t always know that 100%.
But I think a lot of times it’s sites that aren’t particularly relevant by traditional terms and aren’t authoritative by conventional means. I think they score very well in unwritten consumer service or visitor service metrics that Google keeps an eye on. This is all very touchy feely and more quantitative than qualitative but I think they just answer the query so well it’s very hard to displace them.
I think the question as a marketer and business person that you have to ask is once you’ve sort of gone after that keyword any maybe not displace them and the question you need to ask yourself is are there better opportunities I should be focusing on for my business.
Rich: Oh that’s a tough question to ask yourself but I think it’s an excellent one, no doubt about it. ANd it’s obviously easier to move from position 15 to position 9 or 8 or something like that, than it is to go from position 5 to position 1. It’s almost like trying to get to the front row of a general admission concert, at a certain point it just gets more and more crowded up front and you just have to realize that you’re only going to be in the third row no matter how much you push forward.
Jason: Exactly. And sometimes, too, it’s very easy in search to get laser focused on a keyword and you don’t get the movement you want. And if you’re lucky you look at another opportunity that’s related to it that ends up having less traffic but higher conversion rate, in which case ultimately you drive more revenue. As painful as it is to kind of go sometimes, the reward for doing so can actually be really compelling.
Rich: Great advice. This has been great, Jason, I really want to thank you for your time today. If people want to dig a little bit deeper and find out a little bit more about you and what you do, where can we send them online?
Jason: I’m on Twitter, on Instagram. I think maybe the best way to get ahold of me is my website homepage which is synapseweb.net.
Rich: Awesome. Jason thank you again for your time today.
Jason: Thank you so much.
Jason McGovern has a more than a few tricks up his sleeve when it comes to SEO for your business. Check out what he’s doing at his website, or follow him on Twitter.
Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, creator of the Agents of Change Digital Marketing Conference, and author of a new book, The Lead Machine. He loves helping businesses fine tune their strategies for digital marketing in the areas of search, social and mobile.