The First Step in SEM Research: Get to Know the Competition

The First Step in SEM Research: Get to Know the Competition

Posted on December 13, 2016 Mary Merritt

Search engine marketing research methodologies can vary greatly. Not every project requires 20 hours of intense keyword research, and research goals are often quite different from project to project. Despite the inherent variations, one of the core practices that always proves helpful during the research phase (whether you're a business owner or a search engine specialist), is to get to know how the competition presents themselves online.

Competitive research is one of those instinctual activities - how have your competitors set themselves up on the web? What are they doing well, and what are they failing at? Taking a casual glance at the competition is something everyone does occasionally, with or without the help of a search marketing company. It can sometimes be a fun activity that helps boost your esteem, but it can also be an overwhelming activity that leaves you feeling behind and unprepared to do competitive business on the web.

Because we aren't experts in your business, we often kick off our SEM projects with a round of competitive research and two goals in mind: familiarize ourselves with your industry, and highlight winning SEM strategies that are already being employed by your competitors. Thankfully, it never hurts for you to learn more about your competitors as well, and the more information you can provide a search marketing company with, the better off they will be when they start working with you.

Here are a few of the questions you can ask to narrow the scope, if you'd like to research your competition:

  • Which competitors are targeting the same audiences and geographic regions that you are? Often someone may have the same services, but they are targeting an entirely different niche of customers. Of course, you can still learn from examining their online presence, but in the end your strategy may end up being completely different from theirs.
  • Do your competitors offer services that you don't have, or vice versa?
  • What differentiates you from your competitors? How are you making your unique features clear to potential customers?

Hopefully you've been able to identify a handful of companies that are similar enough to your own that a deeper analysis will be beneficial. Here are a few questions that will get you started analyzing their marketing:

  • Is your competitor targeting specific keyword phrases on their web pages? (Check for repeated key phrases in the page titles, URLs, headings, and copy)
  • Is your competitor regularly writing unique & fresh content about specific topics (look for themes in blog posts and newly published content)?
  • Which keywords (organic and paid) is your competitor performing well on? You can use tools like SEMrush to give you insights here.
  • Explore how your competitor has engaged on social platforms - are they connecting to audiences on Twitter, Facebook, etc?
  • Explore the backlink profile of your competitor's domain via tools like Majestic SEO & ahrefs - which websites have they gained authoritative backlinks on?
  • Are they presenting a professional and modern website to their users? Is their website responsive (making it mobile friendly)? Does it load quickly? Are they funneling users toward obvious conversion goals?
  • Do they have a strong presence in local business listings?

Before you get too deep into the details, it helps to realize that this phase of your research usually serves as a great place to jump start the brainstorming and creative thought processes that go into crafting a unique and successful search marketing campaign for yourself. Try not to get bogged down by the huge number of tools available and all of the little details of each competitor; instead try to form a portrait of each competitor's overall search marketing campaign (if they have one at all), and how your efforts will improve upon and go beyond what they've accomplished.

Hopefully this exercise has helped you establish a more complete mental picture of who your competition is, and what they are doing to succeed on the web - and if you're ready, it's now time for the fun part: figure out how you can do it better.

(photo courtesy of Dineshraj Goomany)