In marketing, most competitor analysis is a useless exploration of the obvious. At best, it’s a waste of time. At worst, it’s a catastrophic obsession with the wrong person (your competitors, not your buyers).
Why is most competitive research so vague, obvious, or obtuse in digital marketing?
Because without concrete data, it’s impossible to tell what works or why.
Last time I checked, your competitors weren’t lining up to share their results with you.
In SEO, however, competitive analysis is a humongous tree blooming with low-hanging fruit.
Unlike other forms of competitor analysis, with SEO competitive analysis, tons of tools exist that provide a treasure trove of accurate (or near accurate) data points about your competitors’ SEO performance.
The “secret sauce” is out in the open for everyone to see. All you have to do is collect it.
But once you do, you can use that data to reverse engineer your own SEO success.
In this article, that’s exactly what we’re going to show you how to do.
- What is SEO competitor analysis?
- Why is competitor analysis important for SEO?
- When should you conduct competitor analysis?
- Who are your real SEO competitors?
- Finding your SEO competitors
- How to conduct competitive analysis for SEO
- 1. Unearth ranking opportunities
- 2. Analyze competitors’ content
- 3. Steal competitors’ backlinks
- 4. Assess rankability of keywords
- 5. Find money keywords
- 6. Identify the winning formula
- Beat the competition
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What is SEO competitor analysis?
Competitive analysis in SEO refers to the process of identifying, exploring, and analyzing websites that rank beside you in organic search results for your target keywords.
If they’re not SERP rivals, then they’re not SEO competitors, then it’s not SEO competitive research.
Why is competitor analysis important for SEO?
The goal of a competitive analysis is to uncover opportunities, diagnose potential weaknesses, assess keyword difficulty, and strengthen your SEO strategy by finding out what’s already working (or not working) for your competitors.
With competitive analysis, you can do all of the following better, faster, and stronger (queue Daft Punk):
- Keyword research
- Meta descriptions
- Content strategy
- Link building
- On-page optimization
- User experience SEO
- SEO strategy
When should you conduct competitor analysis?
In SEO, competitive analysis isn’t a one-time job; it’s something you should revisit frequently.
Though you may kick off a new SEO campaign with a thorough analysis of the competition, every time you write a new blog post, optimize a new page, or seek out new backlinks, you should revisit competitive analysis to help inform your strategy.
At the very least, you should revisit competitive analysis at the following times:
When doing keyword research. Find out who’s ranking already, identify long-tail keywords your competitors have overlooked, and assess how rankable a potential keyword is (aka “keyword difficulty”).
When link building. Make a list of the high-quality backlinks your competition has acquired that you haven’t so you can target them with outreach.
When creating a content strategy. Identify what content your competitors rank for but you don’t, devise a content strategy that fills an underserved niche, and pinpoints the exact type of content (e.g. list, course, guide, long-form, etc.) you’ll need to rank.
After a ranking drop. Did your rankings drop significantly overnight? If so, how did your competitors’ fare over the same timeframe? Use competitive insights to better diagnose the culprit of your dip.
If there’s a shift in domain authority. Domain authority is a relative metric, so if yours drops, you better check to see if your competitors dropped too.
When there’s an algorithm update. It’s always a good idea to monitor the competition after Google rolls out a core update, especially if you saw significant movements in rankings, up or down.
Who are your real SEO competitors?
In SEO, you have two types of competitors: direct rivals and content competitors. Well, three if you count Google, but we’ll shelf that conversation for another day.
Direct rivals include businesses that offer the same products and services as you.
Content competitors include businesses, blogs, and publishers who compete for the same search rankings as you, whether or not they sell what you sell.
For example, let’s look at the competition for the keyword “pH balance of skin” and let’s pretend we’re Dermstore, a store that sells skincare products.
Out of the ten organic snippets on page one of Google, only two of those spots compete directly with Dermstore (i.e. they sell skincare products).
Ironically, your direct rivals may not be content competitors at all (not every direct rival invests in search engine optimization), but you’ll always have content competitors.
For example, as an SEO agency, let’s assume we want to rank for the keyword “link building.” If you analyze the websites competing for that keyword, you’ll notice that none of them include our direct rivals; they’re mostly blogs, software companies, or Wikipedia.
While most of you can likely name a handful of your direct rivals and content competitors off the top of your head, some websites have hundreds, even thousands, of content competitors they’ve never discovered before.
So the first step of SEO competitive analysis is to identify your real competitors within search engine results pages (SERPs), both direct and content.
Finding your SEO competitors
How do you find your SEO competitors?
The easy way or the hard way: with tools or without tools.
First, you can manually check SERPs for specific keywords you want to rank for and see who occupies the first page of Google.
Want to rank for “vitamin C serum”?
Cool, just type it in Google and see who ranks on page one. Those are your keyword competitors.
Or you can use a tool such as Ahrefs or SEMRush (the easy way).
Not only can you analyze direct competitors’ domains or search for individual keywords within most SEO tools (like you would on Google), but you can also find domain-level competitors easily. Domain-level competitors are those who have the most keywords in common with yours, sitewide.
Keyword competitors might fluctuate, but domain-level competitors are usually the group of competitors who consistently appear next to you in SERPs.
Using Ahrefs, if we navigate to site explorer > enter domain URL > competing domains, you’ll get a list of competing domains, from most similar to least.
Pretty cool, right?
Most SEO tools offer a similar feature. If you want to learn more about finding the right tool for your competitive analysis, we wrote an entire article that covers the 50 best SEO tools. For the purposes of this article, we’re going to be using Ahrefs.
Whichever tool you use, once you have your competitors identified, we recommend adding them to a spreadsheet where you can collect more data and keep competitor analysis organized and shareable.
Good news: most tools make it easy to export a batch of competitors in one .CSV file, along with their important SEO vitals like domain authority, linking root domains, organic traffic volume, and keyword rankings.
Here’s a batch export example from Ahrefs:
How to conduct competitive analysis for SEO
With your competition identified, it’s time to start the analysis.
Like we mentioned earlier, competitive analysis is an asynchronous process; you can call on certain recipes for certain jobs at certain times.
Instead of outlining a step-by-step guide that doesn’t really exist, we’re going to highlight the six most useful jobs competitive analysis can accomplish for you:
1. Unearth ranking opportunities
The lowest of the low-hanging SEO fruit is finding out which keywords your competitors rank for so you can unearth opportunities that might not have been on your radar.
- Competitor top ranking keywords
- Content gap analysis
Competitor top keywords
This one’s simple: what keywords do your direct rivals already rank, how much organic traffic do those keywords drive, and which pages do the ranking?
Using Ahrefs, navigate to site explorer > input URL of competitor > organic keywords:
You can filter results by keyword difficulty, position, search volume, region, and organic traffic.
Using this Allure example, we can filter by traffic to see which keywords drive the most visitors. If you’re an Allure competitor, this is invaluable information.
Content gap analysis
A content gap analysis identifies which keywords your competitors rank for, but you don’t.
Using Ahrefs, navigate to content gap > input the URLs of your competitors > input your URL as the “target URL” > show keywords:
In this example, Ahrefs has uncovered 13,470 keywords that they don’t rank for, but their competitors do.
You can also run a content gap analysis to find out which keywords-specific articles rank for on page one.
For example, we pulled the top three competitors for the keyword “backlinks,” pasted them into Ahrefs (left the target website blank this time), and discovered a long list of additional keywords that these articles also rank for organically.
Armed with this intelligence, you can formulate a blog outline that incorporates a family of semantically-related keywords like:
- Authority backlinks
- Backlink importance
- What is a backlink?
- Creating backlinks
2. Analyze competitors’ content
Wouldn’t it be nice if you could easily find out which competitor pages generate the most traffic, social media shares, and backlinks?
Heck, that sounds like a pretty good way to prioritize keywords: start with the keywords that build the most authority, give the most reach, and drive the most organic visitors.
Well, with a few clicks inside an SEO tool, you find just that:
- Top performing pages ($$$)
- Most shared articles that rank
- Most linked to pages
Top performing pages ($$$)
Within Ahrefs, you can easily find your competitors' top-performing content (i.e. most popular and valuable pages) with one click.
Navigate to site explorer > input competitor URL > top pages:
What I especially love about this report is that you can filter results by estimated value in dollars.
Ahrefs bases value on paid traffic value. In other words, if you were to pay Google (PPC) for those clicks instead, it would have cost you X-amount of dollars. That’s the value they use for organic ranking value.
You can take this data a step further and identify high-traffic pages with high dollar value that don’t have a ton of backlinks already (since the more backlinks, the harder the competition). These pages provide the most upside: high value, but not too difficult to rank.
Most shared content on social
It’s always a good idea to see which keywords and topics generate the most viral buzz.
Aside from just rankings in search, producing content around these topics can help amplify your brand awareness to new audiences.
Within Ahrefs, navigate to site explorer > input competitor URL > top content (not to be confused with “top pages”):
Most linked to pages
Which of your competitors' blog pages generate the most backlinks?
Within Ahrefs, navigate to site explorer > input competitor URL > Best by links:
Certain topics generate more mentions and backlinks than others.
With a little competitive research, you can prioritize topics and keywords that get linked to the most often using your competitors’ backlink profile as a benchmark.
3. Steal competitors’ backlinks
Ok, maybe “steal” is the wrong word.
But you can definitely use competitive analysis to find out which websites link to your competitors’ sites and which backlinks your competitors have acquired, but you haven’t. Then you can put together a plan to go get them.
- Linking root domains
- Link intersect
- Broken backlinks
Linking root domains
Linking root domains refers to the number of unique websites that link back to another website.
During competitive analysis, you can explore all of the backlinks that link to a specific competitor, or you can analyze individual pages and their respective backlinks. Either way, you can use this data to amass a target list for your own link building campaign.
Using Ahrefs, navigate to site explorer > enter competitors URL > backlinks:
From here, you can drill down into individual pages, or you can enter a specific page in site explorer (i.e. not the home page).
This is one of the greatest competitive analysis tools available: type in your competitors and see which backlinks they share but that you don’t.
If a website links to all of your competitors, there’s a good chance they’ll link to you too.
In Ahrefs, navigate to link intersect, insert your competitors’ URLs, then hit “show link opportunities”:
Broken backlinks are backlinks to your competitors’ websites that point to pages that no longer exist. For example, if a page moves permanently (301) or no longer exists (404), that’s a broken page.
If you can amass a list of websites that link to broken pages on your competitors' websites, then you can reach out to those websites and ask them to link to the relevant page on your website instead.
If you don’t have a relevant page, you can create one and then conduct outreach to all of the domains that link to those broken pages. Easy peasy.
In Ahrefs, easily find broken backlinks through site explorer: site explorer > input competitor URL > broken backlinks:
4. Assess rankability of keywords
How do you know which keywords to choose and which to avoid?
Analyze the competition.
If the competition proves too stiff for a certain keyword, move on to the next.
To assess keyword competitiveness, analyze three factors:
- Keyword difficulty
- Domain authority
- Content requirements
Good news: we wrote an entire article on assessing keyword difficulty.
Here’s the high-level recap:
Keyword difficulty (KD) is a metric that uses the quantity and quality of backlinks to spotlight competitive keywords.
For example, if a keyword has a difficulty score of 95, it’s going to be more difficult to rank for than a keyword with a difficulty score of 25.
Using Ahrefs, you can type in a keyword into their keyword explorer, and they’ll spit out a keyword difficulty score (most SEO tools provide a keyword difficulty score).
Use KD to assess the overall competitiveness of a keyword.
Rule of thumb: If a KD score is over 70, that means the competition is fierce. Tread lightly.
Domain authority and page authority
Keyword difficulty is a good start, but what you really want to know is whether or not your domain authority falls within the range of your competitors' domain authority. If it doesn’t, you won’t outrank them.
We wrote an entire article on domain authority as well, so I won’t go in-depth here.
Domain authority (DA) refers to the strength of a website’s link profile and it's used to predict rankings (similar to a keyword difficulty score). In other words, websites with high DA are more likely to outrank websites with low DA, all else being equal.
Page authority (PA) is the same metric, only at the page level: pages with higher PA are more likely to outrank pages with lower PA, all else being equal.
Important: DA/PA is a relative metric. That means you should only compare your DA/PA to your competitors, not those in other verticals or industries. For example, YouTube has a DA of 100. Ours is 56—so what. We’re not competing against YouTube.
Moz invented both metrics, but many tools like Ahrefs and SEMRush have their own versions.
We like to use Moz to assess DA/PA for two reasons: like we said, they invented both metrics so their predictions are the most precise; and second, they have a nifty Mozbar browser extension you can download that lets you view DA/PA directly from within SERPs.
Let’s take a look:
In this example, we can see that the top three websites ranking on page one for the keyword “SEO” all have PAs in the high 60s to low 70s, and DAs in the 90s.
If I want to rank for the same keyword, before I even get started, I need to at least have a DA/PA within the same range. If, for example, my DA is in the low 40s, slim chance I’ll have outranking Google at DA 95.
Often overlooked, but equally important when assessing the rankability of keywords.
Certain keywords require certain types of content to rank. Period.
For example, if you want to rank on page one for “keyword research tools,” you’re going to need a keyword research tool (like, an actual piece of software).
That’s because Google has determined that people who search for this query are looking for a tool, not a list or a long-form article.
Best to know content requirements before you mount an attack.
How? Manually check the SERPs.
Before you pursue a keyword, manually check every competitor on page one and label the type of content they use to rank.
Is it a course? A guide? A long-form blog post? A video series? A tool? Something else?
5. Find money keywords
If you run your own PPC ads, then you have access to all the data you need to figure out which keywords lead to revenue.
But if you don’t, you either need to launch a PPC campaign, or you're stuck in the dark.
If your competitors run ads, you can investigate which keywords they bid on to figure out which keywords drive revenue.
This isn’t an exact science, but if your competitors are willing to pay money for rankings, they likely have a high value. At the very least, you can identify which keywords your competitors value more than others, which provides a glimpse into their search engine marketing (SEM) strategy.
Using a tool like Ahrefs, you can input your competitors URL into site explorer, then navigate to PPC keywords, and voilà:
An exportable list of all the keywords your competitors bid on.
6. Identify the winning formula
This one’s my favorite. Using the family of data points we just mentioned, you can make an educated guess about what it takes to rank for a certain keyword.
- How many backlinks and from who?
- What type of content and how thorough?
- Which family of keywords satisfy the searcher’s intent?
- What level of domain authority needed to compete?
- How fast will it take to rank?
- How much traffic can I expect to generate?
Using a collection of competitor insights, you can hypothesize the winning formula, estimate a timeframe for ranking, gauge the number of resources needed, and decide whether or not a certain keyword is worthy of pursuit.
Do you realize how much time and money people have wasted pursuing keywords that 20 minutes of competitive research would have revealed as unworthy?
Beat the competition
When it comes to SEO, we all have competitors.
Good news: unlike other forms of competitive analysis that usually end up in the marketing strategy waste bin, SEO competitive analysis is practical, insightful, and actionable.
The best part? With the right tool, it’s actually pretty easy.
We outlined the most popular competitor analysis tips in this article, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. You can use competitive research to
- optimize meta descriptions and title tags
- identify search intent
- compare your technical SEO like page speed and so much more
What’s your favorite SEO competitor analysis tip? Let us know!