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BACK TO BASICS: Competitor Research – How to Beat Giants in the Search Results

by Paula Allen, August 21, 2013

Audience: Site Owners, Organic Search Marketers

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Takeaways:

  • Competitor research lets you analyze what the search engines are rewarding.
  • SEO strategies to compete with "giants" include having competing content, keyword targeting and optimizing for longer keywords.

David and GoliathWhat does it take to beat a giant? Sometimes trying to fight your way up the ranks of search results may feel like an impossible battle; no matter how much you improve your site, establish quality connections and wait patiently, those giant sites above you simply will not budge.

Competitive research strengthens any marketing project, but for search engine optimization, you can't do without it. The search engines rank highest those sites they consider the most relevant, trustworthy and high-quality for a given user’s search query and perceived intent. So what better way to find out what the search engines will reward than to look at the victors?

Once you've identified your top competitors, you’ll want to use a tool to save time with your research and determine what the search engines are rewarding for that keyword. It’s amazing how much of an opponent’s optimization strategy you can see and analyze in an instant. Tools such as our SEOToolSet® can expose all kinds of details about a website, as well as track your SEO progress over time. For a quick analysis, try free options such as these for starters:

Now that you’re better armed for battle, we’ll look at how to beat the giants through some strategic competitor research. (Disclaimer: This article deals primarily with on-page attributes you can research and optimize. There are also other SEO factors that contribute to rankings.)

Sizing up the giants

The top 10 organic (non-paid) search results are the ones you want to examine for your competitive research. You may think that only businesses offering the same service, product or information you do should qualify as true competitors. But in the search engine results pages (SERPs), those first-page results are ALL competing to take your place. And so far, they may be winning!

So, who are those unbeatable websites among the top 10 competitors for your targeted keywords? Let’s look at four types of giants and what you can do to better compete.

#1: Wikipedia

This information giant often squats in the second or third position of search results. Is it a competitor? Not in the sense that you offer the same things (unless your site is an encyclopedia). But you may be competing against it for placement on the SERP.

Can you beat Wikipedia? Depending on the searcher’s intent, possibly yes. As Bruce Clay points out in his training courses, Wikipedia answers the who, what and when, but seldom addresses the how. That could be your edge. But to satisfy the search engines, your content must still cover the subject equally well for research-oriented searches.

First, visit the page that’s ranking for your keyword for an in-person look. Then plug the URL into your research tool and answer these questions:

  • How much text does Wikipedia have on the topic compared to your site? You should be able to see total words on the page in your research tool; also notice how many pages support this topic.
  • How targeted is the article on the specific keyword? Looking at the Single Page Analyzer's (or other tool's) analysis, you can see what words and phrases are repeated and included in the important page elements like the title, Meta Description, and headings down the page. Seeing these on-page keywords should give you a good picture of how focused the page is on your targeted keyword phrase.
  • What information/research terms does the Wiki page include? Phrases like “history of,” “for further information,” and others help make a page relevant for research queries. Include these naturally in your text.
  • If you can provide an equally thorough treatment of the subject that’s more focused on the keyword phrase, you have a chance to trump a giant.

#2: Ehow, EzineArticles, Yahoo! Answers, Wikihow, etc.

These user-submission sites offer practical how-tos that search engines often rank high for information-based queries. Like Wikipedia, these results may not seem like real competitors. But if Google thinks an Ehow article is more relevant than your website for a targeted keyword, you should find out why.

  • What how-to information might be missing on your website that would be useful for visitors?
  • Analyze the page using a tool like our free Single Page Analyzer to see the on-page elements. How often is the keyword phrase used, and is it in the important places? If the keyword is not strongly supported, you may have a chance to knock it down.
  • What additional pages or engagement objects do you need to support your web page targeted to this keyword? Examine the Ehow.com page’s links, subpages, diagrams, videos, charts, pictures, and so forth for ideas of ways to make your coverage of the same topic more robust.

#3. Brands

What kind of competitor research will help if you’re a David going up against a Goliath brand name? Google gives a lot of weight to well-known brands. But you know how the battle ended for David, so it may still be worth a shot.

Here are some suggestions for an SEO strategy that could at least keep you alive on the same SERP with a giant brand:

  • If you both provide the exact same product or service, you’ll need a lot of original content to have a chance of competing with an established site. In particular, avoid using generic product descriptions from manufacturers, or if you can’t avoid them contractually, supplement them with lots of original text. Boilerplate text looks like duplicate content to a search engine, and you can be sure that your site, not the brand site, would be the duplicate that gets filtered out of the results.
  • Determine how much content the brand site has to support its individual keyword rankings. For instance, how many words are in the body copy of each product page? You’ll need to match or exceed that amount (sorry).
  • Do the brand sites include helpful extras like diagrams, photos, tutorials, videos, etc.? You’ll need to make your site at least as full-featured to be competitive.
  • What about user reviews and ratings? Implement a way for customers to rate or review your products and set up rich snippets on your site pages so that the search engines can recognize and display this information in your listings.
  • Add supporting article pages to your product pages that are optimized for long-tail versions of your targeted keywords. For example, if your business sells frozen yogurt dispensers, write articles about things fro-yo stores might find helpful like, “How to Install a Frozen Yogurt Dispenser.” This will have the double SEO benefit of increasing your relevance for the main keyword and potentially ranking for some long-tail phrases that will bring new traffic to your site.
  • Brands often struggle ranking for searches with local intent (e.g., “lawn furniture Pomona”). Take advantage of that weakness by optimizing your site for local search.

#4. Authority .gov and .edu sites

Official authority sites are hard to beat in direct combat. Government and university websites may have PageRank as high as 7 or 8 (on Google’s scale of 1 to 10), giving them tremendous clout in the search results. Nevertheless, remember that ranking comes down to quality content, trustworthiness, and relevance to a particular user’s query and perceived intent. You probably can’t beat a .gov site for trustworthiness; however, in the areas of content and relevance, you have a chance. Here’s what to look for:

  • How targeted is the ranking page on the desired keyword? If it’s only a weak association, there may be room for your site to squeeze past if you can produce high quality, substantial content that’s squarely centered on the theme.
  • What if the web page seems well optimized for the keyword? In that case, you could change your battle plan. The authority site might be unbeatable because the keyword is too broad and overly competitive. Pick up your slingshot and load it with a longer-tail keyword variation instead.
  • For example, a search for the broad term “car repossession” brings back first-page results including .gov titans like the FTC, the Dept. of Justice and the Dept. of Consumer Affairs. Why waste your SEO efforts battling in that league? A better strategy would be to target a less-competitive variation of the keyword. The long-tail query “how to avoid car repossession,” for instance, removes all but one of the .gov sites from the first page.

Pre-battle pep talk: The best way to use competitor research for SEO

Of course, what you don’t want to do is copy a competing site’s content. Not only would that be unethical, but it also wouldn’t help you rank. Search engines can detect duplicate content, and you can be sure that your site, not your high-ranking competitor, would be the one filtered out of the results.

So what should you do with the behind-enemy-lines intel you gather through competitor research? As you watch your website competitors’ maneuvers, count their troops and assess their weaponry, you’ll find out their strengths and weaknesses. More importantly, you’ll see the on-page areas you need to improve in order to compete better in the search engines. And you’ll develop an SEO battle plan to do what they do, only better.

 

 

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