Search engine optimization (SEO) is a competition. For any given keyword or topic, your content is battling thousands of others for limited (and constantly shrinking!) real estate.

Here’s how small the victor’s podium is: 

  • The top three organic search results receive more than 2/3rds of the clicks
  • The top result receives more clicks than the 3rd-10th combined
  • In searches with a featured snippet, the snippet has a 43% click through rate

With such a narrow target to hit, it’s not enough to optimize your content, or even your site, without comparing it to the content you’re competing against.

An SEO competitor analysis can help you develop a strong strategy that makes your content stronger and takes advantage of your competitor’s underdeveloped content and blind spots. Here’s what you need to know.

What is SEO competitor analysis?

SEO competitor analysis is the practice of evaluating the content and websites of other companies in your industry. The goal is to find opportunities for your content to better suit specific search queries. You’re looking for places where your competitors are lacking content completely for relevant keywords, and especially where they’re getting good rankings with thin content. 

How to perform SEO competitor analysis

There are multiple steps to a comprehensive competitor analysis. Some are a lot easier with tools like Semrush, but at the base level, you can begin with just your browser and Google.

Step 1: Identify competitors

This may seem like too small of a first step; if you’ve been in business any time at all, you know who you’re competing with for customers. But it’s important to identify your search competition.

Your SEO competitors aren’t just the businesses that offer similar products or services; they’re also those vying for the same keywords and search engine real estate. These can include:

  • Direct competitors: Start with your existing list of businesses in your industry who are going after similar customers. These are your direct competitors, and they’re likely targeting the same audience and keywords as you.
  • Indirect competitors: These businesses may not offer the same products or services but still compete for your audience’s attention. For example, if you sell a logistics solution, your indirect competitors could include shipping and trucking companies. Anyone who is targeting the same keywords and/or audience should be on your radar. 
  • SERP competitors: To narrow the field a little, take a look at who is already ranking in the search engine results pages (SERPs) for keywords relevant to your business. These are the ones you’re directly competing with for visibility and clicks. 
  • Keyword competitors: Use keyword research tools to identify competitors who are targeting the same keywords as you. Look for businesses ranking for your target keywords and analyze their content and backlink profiles.

Step 2: Run a keyword gap analysis

A gap analysis involves identifying keywords that your competitors are ranking for, but you aren’t — and vice versa. These gaps are untapped opportunities to capture more rankings, and ultimately more traffic. There are three types of opportunities to look for:

  • Keywords your competitors are ranking for: Use SEO tools like Semrush, Ahrefs, or Moz to identify these keywords and assess their search volume, difficulty, and relevance to your business.
  • Keywords your competitors have lost: Keep an eye out for keywords that your competitors may have lost rankings for over time. These could indicate shifts in the competitive landscape or changes in search engine algorithms. Either way, you could be able to swoop in and fill the space. 
  • Keywords without robust high-ranking content: Some of the most powerful opportunities are for long-tail keywords that have no long-form, high-quality content in the SERP. A keyword like “Logistics solutions” might be challenging to rank for, but one like “Logistics solutions for sporting goods stores” might have meager results. These represent opportunities to create targeted, high-quality content that can rank well and attract organic traffic.

Step 3: Identify your niche

Establishing your niche involves identifying the specific topics, keywords, and audience segments that align with your brand and differentiate you from competitors. Essentially, you’re choosing a smaller part of the vast search landscape to try and stake a claim on. Instead of thin content aimed at hundreds of generic queries, you can focus on a few pillar pieces written for specific keywords and topics. 

Start by defining what sets your brand apart from the competition. What unique advice or insight can you offer that your competitors can’t? What’s your area of specialization in your field? Resist the urge to think in terms of business differentiators, such as products and services. Look for the differentiators in value that your content can offer.

After these first three steps, you should have a clearer idea of what search terms you plan to target.

Step 4: Analyze the SERP for user intent

Before you start putting together a content plan, it’s important to understand the user intent behind your targeted keywords. 

Consider a blanket term like “international shipping.” Keywords including this term might have a variety of intents:

  • “International shipping rates” would be seeking a specific piece of information
  • “Trends in international shipping” would be seeking industry insight
  • “Safest international shipping providers” would be evaluating vendors to engage with
  • “International shipping fanfic competition” would be seeking information about a writing contest in which fans write about pop culture characters forming relationships.

Even if that last keyword has 10x the search volume of the others, it’s clear the intent is not a good match for your shipping logistics company. But the intent isn’t always so cut-and-dried. It’s important to look at the top-ranking content for each term to make sure it matches the presumed intent. Keyword analysis tools can provide further insight and detail around search intent.

Step 5: Evaluate competing content

You’ve looked at how your competitors’ content is ranking. Now it’s time to look at the content itself, analyzing it with human intuition. Consider these elements as you look at the content at the top of the SERP:

  • Content quality and relevance: Is the content well-written, informative, and easily skimmed? Does it provide value to the reader and address their needs and pain points? Identify areas where your competitor’s content excels and where it falls short.
  • Content format and structure: Is most of the content text, video, visual, or interactive? How is information organized and presented? Look for opportunities to differentiate your content by experimenting with different formats and structures.
  • Keyword optimization: Are they targeting relevant keywords and incorporating them naturally into their content? You can use keyword research tools to identify the keywords your competitors are targeting and assess their search volume and competitiveness.
  • Content gaps and opportunities: Are there topics or keywords that they’re not covering? Can you provide unique perspectives or additional value on existing topics? Use these insights to inform your own content strategy and create content that fills gaps and better meets the needs of your target audience.

Step 6: Analyze competitors’ backlinks

While backlinks have taken on less importance in the wake of Google’s latest algorithm updates, high-quality backlinks are still a ranking factor. It’s worth making backlink strategy part of your content planning.

Start by identifying the backlinks pointing to your competitor’s website. Use backlink analysis tools like Ahrefs, Semrush, or Moz to generate a comprehensive list of backlinks. Pay attention to their quantity, quality, and diversity.

Assess the quality of your competitors’ backlinks with factors such as domain authority, relevance, and anchor text. High-quality backlinks from authoritative websites are more valuable than low-quality backlinks from spammy or irrelevant sites.

It’s important to also look at the domains that are linking to your competitor’s website. Are they from reputable sources within your industry, or are they from unrelated websites? Analyzing the linking domains can help you identify potential opportunities for building relationships and earning backlinks from similar websites. 

Consider the link-building strategies your competitors are using to earn backlinks. Are they guest posting on industry blogs, participating in online forums, or leveraging social media for link acquisition? Understanding their tactics can inspire ideas for your own link-building campaigns.

Finally, identify any gaps or opportunities in your competitor’s backlink profile. Are there high-authority websites that are linking to your competitors but not to you? Can you create more useful content for key topics in order to earn backlinks from these sites? 

Step 7: Analyze competitors’ site experience

User experience can affect a site’s rankings. If a site is slow, hard to navigate, confusing or misleading, users will bounce. This signals the algorithm that their content shouldn’t be highly ranked. It’s worth seeing how your competitors are doing in the UX department, and how you can do better:

Start by evaluating the overall user experience of your competitor’s website. See whether it is easy to navigate, visually appealing, mobile-friendly and accessible. Consider factors such as site layout, navigation menus, font readability, and visual design elements. 

Next, see how easy it is to find what you’re looking for on the site. Can users easily find what they’re looking for, or do they get lost in a maze of confusing menus and dead-end links? Pay attention to the clarity of navigation labels, the accessibility of important pages, and the presence of breadcrumbs or search functionality.

Speed is a crucial part of user experience now. Evaluate the loading speed of your competitor’s website across different devices and internet connections. Then see whether  your competitor’s website is responsive and optimized for mobile devices, as mobile-friendliness is a key ranking factor for search engines.

Finally, take a look at the technical aspects of competitor sites. This will involve looking at the page source code. Look at meta tags, schema markup, canonicalization, and sitemap structure. Analyzing these technical SEO factors can uncover opportunities for optimization and improvement on your own site.

Use this guide to help with your analysis: What to Look for in an SEO Analysis of a Website.

From audit to action

Once you’ve completed the competitor audit, you will know:

  • What unique long-tail keywords to target
  • What type of content is performing best for these topics
  • Which keywords best match your search intent
  • Where you can earn rankings above your competitors
  • How to improve your own site experience

All of this information can help build your content plan for strategic SERP domination. 

TopRank Marketing can help you get a handle on your SEO, including competitor analysis and auditing your own site. Request a free SEO scorecard to see what we can do.

About the author

Joshua Nite is dedicated to bringing humanity, empathy, and humor to content marketing. His two ironclad rules: Never settle for commodity content, and never write anything you wouldn’t want to read. Great writing takes heart, soul, guts and rhythm. Josh is also the once and future Pundamonium Pun Slam champion, a stand-up comedian and storyteller, and is getting pretty good at electric guitar. His only weakness: Extreme self-consciousness when writing about himself in the third person.