Competitor Research

The final step of keyword research and getting started on SEO is to do some competitor research. Here you want to know who your online competition is, how authoritative their sites and pages are, and how well optimized their sites and pages are.

This information will tell you how difficult it will be rank for given keywords, and could even change your SEO strategy: if your competition is much stronger than you had thought, you might switch to a long tail strategy and not worry about your head terms at the beginning, or you might set some keywords aside to work on after your site has grown in authority.

There are a lot of tools out there to help you with competitor research: some of them have value, and others are just a waste of your time. Happily, the very best method of evaluating competition is completely free: just look at the SERPs yourself.

Who is your competition?

When I was working in an agency just about every other client I had completely misunderstood who their competition was. These guys were generally brick & mortal businesses: retail or service or manufacturing. When we asked about their competition they inevitably listed the guys down the street or the big players in their industry. But most of the time these were not their online competition.

If someone is searching on Google for your products, service, or information, then those people clearly don’t already know where to go. To them, the only options are the sites that come up on the top of the search results. Those sites are your competition.

So when you’re scouting the competition, what you’re really looking for is the sites that rank in the top 5-10 results for the searches that you’re going after.

Finding Your Real Competitors

A good way of evaluating your competition is to sit down with your list of keywords that you developed in the keyword research phase, and search in Google for each of those keywords. Make sure you have personalization turned off for this (how to do that is explained on xxx).

For each keyword you’re targeting, make a note of what sites are in the top five position (or top 10 if you’re being very thorough). Remember we’re only looking at organic results here, and not paid ads.

Once you’ve gone through all your keywords, now take a look and see what sites appear most often on your list. Those top five or ten sites are your online competition. Those are the guys that you’re trying to outrank.

Evaluating the Competition

Now go back to some of your keywords and go visit the sites that are ranking in the top three positions. Check out the page that’s ranking and see how well optimized the page is: does it have good title tags, URL, keyword use on the page, and how long is the article or page? If the page is fairly weak in on-page optimization, that’s great news — this indicates that you can make a far better page and easily get better topicality signals, which means you will need lower authority signals to outrank that page.

The next step is to evaluate the authority of the site as a whole, and the page that’s ranking in specific. To do this you have to use some tools (which you generally have to pay for with a subscription) that evaluate the links to a page or site. The simplest route is to measure the Domain Authority of the page and the site’s homepage. Better answers can come from evaluating the number of linking domains pointing to the page,. We’ll talk about what tools are available in xxx.

Evaluating Page Authority

Evaluating the authority of the ranking pages is the most important part of competitor research. Unless they have very weak on-page optimization, you can generally assume that you will need authority signals at least as strong as theirs to have a chance of outranking them.

If you come across a page that’s Page Authority 50 with 200 linking domains pointing at the target page… that page is not going to be something you’re likely to outrank with a new site, not for a long time. It is going to take a lot of time to build up hundreds of linking domains to a specific interior page (there are shortcuts, of course, but these are generally against the rules and are likely to get a site penalized).

Evaluating Domain Authority

The overall authority of competing domains is also going to give you an idea of how much authority your site is going to need to do well in your niche. Take all of the top sites on your competitor list and check out the number of linking domains to their entire site. While you’re at it, spot check their linking domains to make sure most of them are legitimate links (many sites have a large number of garbage links that aren’t really helping them much — links from directories, scrapers, press releases, or article sites). In general, your SEO goal is going to be to get more linking domains than your competition has, and to get those links from sites that are at least as authoritative as the sites linking to the competition.

If your competition are all Domain Authority 20 or 30 sites with a couple hundred linking domains — good news! You should have no problem building something more authoritative over the course of a year.

If the competition are at Domain Authority 40 or 50 and have 800 or more linking domains, then you’re going to have a lot of work. It will likely take a couple years to build up to that level, and you’re going to have to invest significant time, and likely some money, into marketing and outreach.

If your competition is at Domain Authority 60+ and has thousands of linking domains, then they are a truly large site with substantial authority. You’re going to need to be an equally large site with similar reach and marketing budgets, or you’re going to have to have something go viral, and you’re going to have to be smarter than them at SEO.

Page Authority Can Beat Massive Domain Authority

Keep in mind, however, that you’re comparing the Page Authority or linking domains of the page that is ranking (not the entire site) against the page on your site that you want to rank. Sure, Amazon is an Authority behemoth, but I’ve worked on dozens of sites that have moved up to outrank for their searches. While Amazon has massive authority (and often pretty darned good topicality), the specific page that you’re competing against may not.

I’ve see Domain Authority 20 sites climb up and pass rankings — but against pages on that only have a few or no linking domains pointing to the page.

The big lesson to take home from your competitor research is that you should come out of it with a realistic expectation of how much work and time it will take for you to start ranking well in your niche.

The good news is that it’s not an all or nothing game.You don’t have to outrank Amazon to start driving SEO traffic.

As you start optimizing your site and building your authority, you’ll slowly start gaining in long tail, and then torso rankings. Long before you’re able to compete for your head terms you’ll be getting good amounts of search engine traffic from all the rest of your terms – and always remember that those long tail terms represent far more traffic than the big intimidating head terms.

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