competitive intelligence 101

Competitive Intelligence 101: Do You Know Who Your Online Competitors Are?

Do you know who your competitors are? They may not be who you think. Learn how to find your competitors, and what to do once you know who they are.

Who are your online competitors? Do you know? Are you sure? As an agency, we often find that many clients have no real idea who they’re fighting for the top position in the search results. Competitive intelligence is your key to answering those questions.

What is a competitor?

We’ve often looked at our onboarding form and seen “We don’t have any competitors…” in the answer to “Who are your competitors.” Still, I think most of us know that almost any business has some type of competitive market and wants a bigger market share. Simply put, a “competitor” is a business you compete with in some way – generally in the products or services you provide.

It’s simple, but the line can get a little muddled regarding online competition. The problem is the “online” factor. With physical businesses, it’s clear cut. If you sell medical supplies, other companies that sell them are your competitors. It’s not so clear-cut with Internet marketing.

Identifying Your Online Competitors

The first thing competitive intelligence does is define who your actual competition is. Against whom are you competing? Good question.

Your competitors vary depending on where you are in your industry’s food chain. For example, looking at Barnes and Noble as your competitor is unrealistic if you’re starting at the bottom as a new website owner selling books. In fact, your first competitor may not even be someone who sells books. Instead of competing against other booksellers, you’re competing for search engine placement, with SEO as the main way to wrestle your way to the top of the SERP dog pile.

As we’ve said before, your online competition may not be who you think they are. Your online competitors are those shown in the SERPs for your key terms. Plain and simple. The frustrating part is that your competition can include places you wouldn’t think of. For example:

  • Government websites
  • Wikipedia
  • Informational websites

These are the three most common competitors for a given search term. Most of the time, they aren’t even selling a product or service; they’ve simply been chosen by us informavores as the best places for information about XYZ. Bummer. Your biggest competition may be the online equivalent of a teacher or library.

What is competitive intelligence?

Conducting competitive Intelligence (or CI) is something you can’t do without if you’re going to have an online business. It’s the act of learning what your competitors are doing that you aren’t, and doing it better than them. Locating this information is done by competitive analysis, via your chosen tools.

Analyzing your competitors’ websites is something you had better be doing; you have to know your competition before you can beat them. It’s why General Paton read Rommel’s book in World War 2: he knew he’d have to get into Rommel’s head if he was going to win the war.

Doing the Research

You already know your industry, so think about the key terms someone might use to find you. Start broad, but then narrow it down as much as you can. For example, a bookseller might use:

  • Bookseller
  • Book dealer
  • Dealer of rare books
  • Paperback books for sale
  • Hardback books for sale
  • And so on

You should have a fairly comprehensive list of terms to use when everything is said and done. There are several competitive intelligence tools to help you do mundane, time-intensive tasks. From there, it’s just a few simple steps:

  1. Choose as many terms as you want to check – the more terms, the better
  2. Put the keyword or phrase in the search bar and see how many results appear. The number of results is your overall competition.
  3. Write down (or copy/paste into Word) the top three sites for each search phrase you use.
  4. Use the same keyword search with the “intitle:” command and “inanchor:” command.
  5. Write down the top three sites that come up in these results.
  6. Review the list of sites to find the ones that appear more than once. The more often a site shows up, the higher it should rise in your list of competitors.

When you’re finished, your competitor list might look something like this:

  1. (showed up 20x)
  2. (showed up 15x)
  3. (showed up 12x)
  4. (showed up 10x)

The completed list is a broad idea of who you’re fighting for the top position in search. Are you surprised by who’s on it? If so, you aren’t alone. So are many others.

Spying on the Competition

Okay, come on. It’s not as bad as it sounds; think of it as gaining a competitive edge. And anyway, it’s your chance to be James Bond, right?

Now that you know your competition, the next step is finding out what they’re doing that makes their site visible. You have to measure their threat level, and we do that by measuring the sites. To do this, first look over their content.

  • Is it informative, interesting, and high quality?
  • Does it stand out?
  • How is it different from yours?

Look at their navigation and take in the details. If yours is more complicated, perhaps that’s an issue. You want your navigation to be as uncomplicated as possible but set up in such a way as to guide your visitors to interesting places on your site.

Next, we look over the technical aspects of the site.

You can use Majestic SEOOpen Site Explorer, or any number of other tools. Run them on the competition and your site to find out your strengths and weaknesses. Export the information to an Excel file for easy categorizing, sorting, and comparisons:

  • How many links (who has the most?)
  • Quality of pages with the link
  • Page Authority of pages with the link
  • Page Authority of ranking competitor page
  • Anchor text
  • Type of links (widgets, badges, mentions, press releases, guest blogs, etc)
  • Social reach
  • Page speed tests (nice list of page speed tools)

Competitive Monitoring

Once you gain some insight into your competition, you don’t want to lose it, right? Monitoring your competition is part of gathering competitive intelligence. There are plenty of page monitoring tools available.

Page monitoring tools can help you stay updated on any changes your competitors may make to their site. For example, does your competitor have a particularly heavy-duty landing page kicking yours out of the water? Set your chosen tool to monitor changes and send you an alert.

What you get is immediate notification when your competitor changes something, giving you a chance to respond quickly with your own changes (if necessary). Think legal insider trading.

Social Monitoring

Turn on your high-tech cloaking device (browser) and visit their social accounts:

  • What are they talking about?
  • What hashtags (#key term) are they using?
  • What pages on Facebook have they fanned?
  • What types of links are they sharing, and from what sites?
  • Do they seem to be actively engaging their community?
  • Have they posted a new sale?

Finding Where Your Competitors Rock (and You Don’t)

Yes, it’s not all about the competition. If you don’t know already, you need to find out how your site stacks up to the competition. Essentially, you’re running a competitive analysis on your own site. What do your link profile, social reach, and online content look like?

One of the actions that SEMRush does well is allow you to compare key areas of your marketing information to key areas of your competitors. Find out how many links they have on their ranking page. Learn what key terms their page is ranking for that yours isn’t or which they’re ranking higher up for. All of this information gives you a direction to beat the competition.

Putting the Information to Work

All of this information gathering will help you strengthen your SEO campaign. For example, if your competitor has 1 Million + links and you only have 19, competitor intelligence has shown you that link building needs to be part of your campaign.

You now have information about your competitors’ high-quality links and anchor text. Instead of going for low-quality, you can target high-quality links. Here’s a hint: you’ll have to have tons more low-level links to make up for a few high-quality ones.

If your competitor is heavy into social and a lot of their pages have been tweeted and bookmarked, you’ll need to look at how your social campaigns compare. If you’re way behind on page speed, it’s time to talk seriously with your webmaster about how page speed matters in ranking.

Don’t automatically copy your competitors’ strategies. Take a long look at each one and decide what would be best for your company in the long term; not every strategy will work for you.


Competitive intelligence isn’t as glamorous as real spy work, but it is part of a sound business strategy. It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. We don’t recommend ignoring this step in creating an online marketing campaign; this isn’t one of those “optional” things. Without knowing who your competition is, what they’re doing, and how they’re doing it (all things a good SEO specialist should be able to tell you), every campaign will just be guesswork.

It’s your turn. Have you done any competitive intelligence for your key terms? If so, were you surprised by who turned out to be your competition? If not, please tell us why you chose to bypass this step. Share your thoughts and experiences with us on Twitter and Facebook.

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Do you know who your competitors are? They may not be who you think. Learn how to find your competitors, and what to do once you know who they are.

Today's Author


Interested in Guest Posting?
Read our guest posting guidelines.

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