Knowing who your competitors are and what kind of time and monetary investment they are making into their online marketing is nearly as essential as implementing your own marketing strategy. If you have a good idea of what you're up against can make better decisions about where and how to invest your own time and money. You will also have a decent indicator of how quickly you might be able to see results from your efforts.
It's possible to develop a decent SEO strategy without looking at your competitors simply by having a firm grasp of the online competitive landscape. However there will always certain aspects of your campaign that will need to be tailored specifically to outperform those you are up against. It's important to learn as much as you can as early as you can so the bulk of your marketing campaign will be focused in the right direction. No sense starting down one path only to have to back track and go down another because you missed an important piece of information.
When analyzing your competition, be sure to try to fully grasp what they are doing and why. They may target an audience slightly different than what you are compatible with, or they could simply be doing the wrong thing entirely. You want to learn from them but not mimic them. Build your own strategy based on the knowledge gained.
Accessing the competition will give you a good idea of who they are, where they are, what they are doing, what's right or wrong about their campaign and what is or isn't effective. This data can then be assimilated into the other areas of your research to help you develop an optimization campaign that will help you succeed, not just with the search engines but for your visitors as well.
When analyzing your competition there are three types of competitors you should review: Those naturally ranked in the search results, those dominating the paid ad results, and those that are offline but targeting your same audience.
Naturally ranked competitors
Who's dominating the top results for your keywords? Run several searches for a variety of keyword phrases to see who keeps coming up. While performing these searches you'll often find that certain keywords end up producing results entirely different from what you had expected. You may even find that some of these keywords simply are not worth going after. This is not because of the quality of the competition, but because the search results are so far removed from hitting your target audience. It makes no sense to invest in phrases that your audience will never search for.
Once you find keywords that produce a good list of competitors you can then move to analyzing the competition itself. Look for patterns of one or more sites routinely showing up in the top 10 for quality phrases.
What do you see? Are these sites small with little or no name recognition or are they the giants of your industry? The difference between the two can mean a substantial difference in the marketing investment you need to make. Smaller, lesser-known sites won't have deep pockets, while the giants certainly do, and likely invest quite a bit in their marketing efforts.
Once you know what you are up against for all your various keywords you have a choice to make. Will you compete on the same level as those with large marketing budgets? Or will you compete on a smaller level against other sites in that same range?
If you have deep enough pockets then by all means, compete on that level. If not, then don't try to be a David up against Goliath. A good strategy is to begin your efforts on a more manageable scale that will ultimately start bringing in returns sooner rather than later, producing quality results and increased sales. Once you have that foundation, you can begin to work into the more competitive realms.
Paid Placement Competition
Along with your natural ranked competitors you also want to check out the sites positioned highly in the paid results. The research process above also applies here.
You want to find out which sites engage in active paid advertising campaigns. You'll also want to know what positions they usually appear in, the average cost of those keywords in those positions and how frequently their ads show up. This information will give you a good idea of the budget that is being employed to maintain those ads.
There are also a number of tools you can use that will give you this competitive data without having to perform multiple searches yourself. I suggest using these tools as you perform your competitive analysis into PPC campaigns.
You might want to monitor these results several times a day over the course of a couple of weeks, noticing how often the ads rolling in and out. Advertisers can set daily budget limits that prevent the ads from being clicked on too many times each day, keeping the advertiser on budget. Unless you check the results repeatedly over several days, at various time intervals you could be missing important competitive data.
Be aware that click through rates can be as much as 10-15% or as low as 1/2 of a percent depending on the individual ad. If your competitor has a poor performing ad they may be spending less than you would assume. You'll also be able find out which competitors appear in both the natural and paid results, which again will tell you somethign about their overall investment and competitive level.
Don't forget about your offline competitors. You may not be competing against them today, at least online, but it likely won't be long until they too jump online and start investing dollars to optimize their sites for the same keywords you are going after.
Keep an eye on your offline competition and develop plans to compete against them at some point in the future. If you get online before them then you have an advantage. However if you're not invested heavily enough, they can come in with more money and push right past you. This needs to be a factor in your decision making process.
How you move forward against your competition is up to you, however the mindset you have will be crucial to your success. If you expect to implement a small budget against sites using big budgets, you'll be frustrated by your "lack of success". However, if you fully understand what you're competing against you can set reasonable expectations for success and continue to build on that success over time.
Having competitive knowledge can be extremely helpful in determining a course of action with your online marketing campaigns, and setting appropriate expectations. Lacking in budget doesn't mean you have to plan to fail, it simply means you have to be more strategic with the resources you do have. Plan carefully and use your resources wisely. Above all, having an arsenal of competitive knowledge will let you establish achievable goals for success.
Stoney deGeyter is the President of Pole Position Marketing, a leading search engine optimization and marketing firm helping businesses grow since 1998. Stoney is a frequent speaker at website marketing conferences and has published hundreds of helpful SEO, SEM and small business articles.
If you'd like Stoney deGeyter to speak at your conference, seminar, workshop or provide in-house training to your team, contact him via his site or by phone at 866-685-3374.
Stoney pioneered the concept of Destination Search Engine Marketing which is the driving philosophy of how Pole Position Marketing helps clients expand their online presence and grow their businesses. Stoney is Associate Editor at Search Engine Guide and has written several SEO and SEM e-books including E-Marketing Performance; The Best Damn Web Marketing Checklist, Period!; Keyword Research and Selection, Destination Search Engine Marketing, and more.
Stoney has five wonderful children and spends his free time reviewing restaurants and other things to do in Canton, Ohio.
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