How competitive research fits into SEO
“Write Clear, Understandable Content.”
Have you heard this before?
It’s a classic quote from Google in regards to how to rank well and avoid penalties or negative effects from algorithm updates.
What is good content though?
There are a lot of good guides out there when it comes to how to optimize your page for Google organic search. The thing is that they in many cases look at the page as an isolated node on the web. To answer what is good, my take is that we must compare ourselves with others. We might believe that we have quality content, but when we compare ourselves with the competition we might find that we have missed something.
Benefits from competitive research
When people are typing in a query in Google search, they are of course searching for something that will provide them with value in regards to what they are looking for. This “something” we continuously in this article will refer to as searcher intent.
The main benefit from competitive research in organic search is that you can answer if you’re missing something valuable in your offering or communication in regards to searcher intent.
Optimizing towards searcher intent will align your work with what Google wants to serve (best result for the search query) while also increasing the possibility for your brand and content to satisfy your potential customers.
A framework for competitive research
There are so many aspects we can take a look at but to get a grip around this I believe that the best way to review this is by following the three pillars of SEO.
This framework states that you should make sure to first have a technical foundation that enables crawling and indexation of the document itself. The performance of the document should also be up to par with what Google expects you to deliver for a good user experience.
If we have a solid technical foundation, the next step is to review common on-page aspects that help Google in understanding the association towards the query. The big aspect here is also to review if we are missing information or value that the competition provides.
Finally, if the above aspects are implemented and we still don’t climb in rankings, we look into the backlink profile for our page in regards to the competition.
A checklist for competitive research in SEO
The following points present a checklist for what you could take a look at in regards to analysing your competition and hence provide insights in how you could strengthen the relevancy of your content. One important note is that you really shouldn’t copy your competitors’ content. That could in the long run do more harm than good. Rather look at the competition for inspiration and see if you can build upon that to make it your own.
It assumes that you already have selected a query/topic and a page to optimize against. It also assumes that you have some basic knowledge/experience around SEO since we won’t deep dive into what every single aspect is but rather how it can be used for competitive research.
It is broken down into the following chapters:
- Understanding searcher intent
- Document performance health checks
- Meta information
- Visible content
- Backlink analysis
With that said, let’s start!
Understanding searcher intent
Understanding what the intent behind the search query is helps us a lot.
Google is constantly trying to provide the most relevant results for search queries. Therefore, we want to provide the value that the searcher is looking for when searching for a specific term since it increases our chances of high positions in the search results.
It also helps us prioritize our work so that we don’t optimize for keywords that wont give us the results we want. For example, spending a lot of resources optimizing for a search query we believe will lead to transactions but where the searcher only is looking for quick information that is already supported by an answer box.
How can we find the intent of the query you want to optimize for?
Type in the search query yourself in Google (Incognito mode) and review what kind of results that are ranking high. Are they blog-posts, ecommerce product pages, ecommerce category pages or other types of results. What value do these pages have in common and what questions do they answer?
If you want to rank high for that search query, this is the kind of information you should provide.
Performance health checks
Core Web Vitals
In May 2020, Google released a statement where they explain that Core Web Vitals are:
“a set of metrics related to speed, responsiveness and visual stability, to help site owners measure user experience on the web.”
Another quote here from Google is:
“A good page experience doesn’t override having great, relevant content. However, in cases where there are multiple pages that have similar content, page experience becomes much more important for visibility in Search.”
So if you only can provide just as good content as the competitors and the backlink profile looks the same, this will be where the battlefield takes place.
It is recommended to read this documentation around Core Web Vitals to understand what the metrics mean and how to optimize for them so that you can get better results than your competitors.
Apart from the core web vitals. Also especially review these two aspects and how they stack up with your competition:
Google has moved towards judging your content based on what appears on a mobile screen. Earlier this has been based on the desktop version, but in 2018 they decided to switch to evaluating the mobile version instead. Hence, all information you consider important and optimize for should be based on the mobile version of your page.
Utilize the mobile friendly test for this.
Google needs to find your page in order to save it (and then serve it in search results). A great way to find if your page can be crawled is by using the URL Inspection Tool in Google Search Console. Paste the URL you want to optimize for and review if Google shows that crawling is allowed. If not, then you have a problem since the page won’t be updated or saved in Google.
If you consider the page you’re optimizing for to be important, then it should also be easy to find from the homepage of your website. It should take as few clicks as possible to find the page.
With indexability, we’re looking to see if Google can store the page in it’s index correctly. For example, there could be problems that means that Google can find the page, but not save it correctly. It could be that the page can’t be saved at all, or only that parts of the page can be saved.
If this is the case, you’re limiting the kind of information Google can see which means that Google might consider the page to not be valuable towards a search query. Even if the information is there. It’s just the case that Google can’t see it. To review this, use the URL Inspection Tool in Google Search Console. Review if indexing is allowed. Then click on “View Crawled Page”. Check the rendered HTML and if Google can see everything that you can see in your browser.
Page titles or “title-tags” are html-elements which are put into the head-section of the html-document. Google uses these tags to understand what the page is about, but also to output information about the page in search results (the clickable link in Google).
What we want is that page titles effectively communicate what the page is about, associate it with the primary search term, and provides an incentive to click in comparison with the competition.
Page titles should include the primary search term as well as an USP in regards to searcher intent. It should be clearly understood what the page is about and it should try to drive clicks. Look at the competing pages in the search results, how are their title-tags written? Could you write something better and more “click-friendly” than theirs? You can preview how your page titles will look in Google by using this tool.
Meta Descriptions are the texts explaining what the page is about in Google. They do not by themselves affect rankings, but might affect CTR (which in turn might affect rankings).
Meta Descriptions should describe what your page is about. It is also an opportunity to further explain your USP directly in the search results. A great meta description makes people want to click and stands out in the search results. Look at your competition. Can you write something that stands out from the crowd and properly communicate your value to the user? You can preview how your meta descriptions will look in Google by using this tool.
Canonical tags are HTML-elements that you put into the head of an HTML-document. The purpose of these are to show which URL that is the primary version which you want to show in search results. You could for example have filter-functionality on category pages which generates new url-structures. If you don’t want these to be indexed (saved) by Google, then you should provide a canonical tag in your HTML-code that links back to the “clean” URL that you want to show in Google.
Structured data is data that can be included in the HTML-file. It is there to more easily communicate what the data means on a page. For example, it might not be easy for search engines to understand what number on a page that represents the price is of a product. By implementing structured data, you can more easily tell Google and other search engines that your product page is about a certain product, and what the price is. This increases the possibility that Google will show rich results together with your listed pages, which in turn might increase CTR.
Review what kind of structured data your competition has implemented by pasting their urls in the structured data testing tool as well as the rich results test (for smartphone). If you find any common denominators, you probably want to implement this as well.
Before we start optimizing our content, we need to review what type of content we provide for our targeted search query. It needs to align with the intent of that query to be able to provide value and as a result, create value for us.
A simplified process for this should be:
- Find the intent behind the query
- Research the value that your competition provides
- Provide as good or better value towards the searcher
The rest of the on-page optimization of visible content is to help Google in understanding that this page has a strong connection to a specific search term. However, the provided value is what really helps you in the long run.
There is strong evidence that Google measures user-behavior to draw conclusions related to how well your page fits the searcher intent. It then reorders positions accordingly over time. Hence, the provided value is what will give you a competitive advantage over time, so make sure you are the best alternative among the ones that rank for the search term.
Your images can both provide context to the topic of the page, but also rank on their own in image search. Google extracts information about the subject matter of the image from the content of the page, including captions and image titles. Wherever possible, make sure images are placed near relevant text and on pages that are relevant to the image subject matter. If possible, also review what type of images the competition provides and if they have implemented relevant alt-tags.
Headings are HTML-elements which are used to show headings in a HTML-document. The sizes range from H1 to H6 where H1 is the biggest (main) heading and the H6 is the smallest subheading. Google recommends that we should use heading tags to emphasize important text. It is therefore important that we include our primary search term in our H1 if possible since this increases the interpreted relevance of our document towards that search term. Review if your top-ranking competition is writing their headings differently from you and if there is some value you can use to make the heading more relevant.
Since Google, Bing & Yahoo at the moment mainly are text based search engines, the actual text on a page is what they use to extract what the page might be about. When it comes to the text, review how your high ranking competition has written texts on their pages. What amount of text have they written and where is it placed on the pages? Do not focus too much on writing “SEO-friendly text” but instead write for your users. What kind of aspects can your text help with to solve the problem for a user?
Written texts present an opportunity to communicate your USPs and what value your page provides in comparison to competition. Use this opportunity to provide value for your users. Try to include your targeted search term in the text somewhere.
The amount of internal links together with where they are placed signals how important you consider your page to be. If you have a page with a high amount of backlinks pointing to it, it will pass more “link-juice” to the pages it’s linking to than other similar pages without quality backlinks. Hence, if you consider the page your optimizing to be especially important, review how you can link to it more from your website.
Anchor texts are the written texts that you click on to get to another page. What is written there helps Google in understanding what the page is about. If you can do it in a natural way, see if there is a possibility to add your primary search term in anchor texts pointing to the page you’re optimizing. Review your competition and see how they link to their pages and see if you are missing out on a specific naming convention.
External links could signal quality of content due to backing up your statements by showing your references. Think of it like a research paper. External links are mostly common for informational content. The best way to review if external links could be taken into consideration for rankings is to review your competition and see if they have linked externally and to what resources.
If you’ve implemented all of the above and can’t find any more ways to add value but still don’t see any traffic or position improvement, it’s time to take a look at the backlink profile.
You can use external tools to determine how strong the domain is as a whole. Personally I prefer the DR-metric from Ahrefs but it’s up to you what to use.
If you see a strong deviation between you and your competitors here, what this means is that the authority of the competing domains could be the reason why you aren’t climbing above them. Even if they (in your eyes) would have inferior content.
The solution for this is to work with long-term link building.
It could also be that you via external tools find that the competitors have more relevant backlinks or referring domains pointing to their pages. If this is the case, review which they are and see if you can try to get placements there as well or within the same theme of the websites they are getting backlinks from.
The Eric Ward methodology
The final step that I recommend is to follow the Eric Ward methodology. What I mean here is to think in the following manner:
– Where would I like to have backlinks from to this page if search engines didn’t exist?
This forces you to think more strategically around target audiences and automatically creates relevance in your backlink profile.
Following these steps should help you find value that you can improve upon to help more people find your page.
Not just that, but you’re probably also helping people by delivering the best offering on the web. Iterating this approach over all queries and pages should make you more competitive in a sense that you are more relevant towards the people who are looking for what you’re offering.
Hope this guide provided some new information and insights which you can take action on to not just improve your rankings, but also your business.
Thanks for taking the time!