Engaging in competitive research before and during your SEO, PPC, Social Media, and Link Building campaigns is smart business. As they say, "information is power."

But, too much information can also cause a handicap. It's not too difficult to be so inundated with info. that you get information overload or conflicting advice. That leads to decision paralysis. You don't know the right course of action to take, or you can wind up using good information to make bad judgment calls.

Some time ago, I was working on a client's keyword research and received the following email:

We decided to optimize our website only for keywords that bring up our competitors when searched. So, what I have to do is to take every keyword that is in your research and to run a search on Google to see if our competitors are there. You'll hear back from me early next week.

I have no doubt that if this client's competitor jumped off a bridge, the client would follow. This is a great example of taking information you have and making a bad decision with it.

Now, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be ranked for the same keywords your competitors are ranked for. But, this cannot be your sole optimization campaign strategy.

Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy's Restaurant, once said he wanted to place a Wendy's across the street from every McDonald's in America. A smart strategy. It follows the same basic principles as to why car dealerships all congregate together: Customers looking for one may be swayed when the see more available options.

But, here is what Dave Thomas knew about McDonald's that I guarantee most people don't know about their own competition: McDonald's does a significant amount of research before building a new store in a new location. Thomas realized that McDonald's only enters markets where they are confident their restaurants will thrive. As Dave saw it, what was lucrative for Ronald would also be profitable for Wendy!

How SEO Smart Is Your Competition?

Before you follow your competitor off that cliff, are you sure each of your competitors have performed the right research on all their keywords? Do you know that they know that every keyword they are ranking for is bringing in traffic and conversions? Have they employed research strategies that have gotten them ranking for every possible keyword that will produce profits?

More than likely, the answer is "no" to more than one of those questions. That's not to say that any of your competitor's don't know what they are doing. In fact, they may have a very strong and successful online marketing campaign. But, chances are pretty good they are not doing all things perfectly.

Are there some targeted keywords that they are not ranking for? Do they know all the different ways a potential customer will search for their product or service? Are they investing time into keywords that produce little traffic or no conversions? If you don't know the answers to any of the questions posed above, then this may not be someone you want to blindly follow when it comes to setting the course for your own online marketing efforts.

Is Your Competition Making Mistakes?

From a competitive standpoint, it's always good to know what your competitors are doing, who they are targeting, and what areas they are venturing into. A failure to know this information can lead to developing a poor business marketing strategy. While Dave Thomas wanted to be everywhere his competitor was, he also never stopped identifying locations to put a Wendy's that McDonald's hadn't yet exploited.

We often explore our own client's competitors and see that many do not have a full grasp on what keywords they should be targeting. Part of this is ignorance. Another is the lack of insight from those running the SEO campaigns. Or it could be strictly due to lack of budget invested in SEO. Who knows.

Those that employ a "me too" marketing strategy will undoubtedly find themselves following competitors through the same mistakes, costing themselves valuable time and money. Or, in the case of the client I mentioned above, missing out on entire segments of convertable traffic solely because their competitor isn't ranking for the same phrase.

Think about what can be accomplished (and how much money can be saved) if marketing dollars are placed into a more forward thinking marketing campaign; one that doesn't solely focus on competitors but instead focuses on the audience. After all, it's not your competitors who'll be buying from you, it's your targeted consumer.

How Budget Smart is Your Competition?

But there is one area where it may be important to follow in your competitor's footsteps. That's in the area of breadth and reach of the campaign. I often hear from business owners wanting to outperform their competition in rankings both naturally and paid, but they don't want to invest the money needed to make that happen.

This is where it becomes difficult for us managing the campaigns. An SEO can only do what the budget allows. If your competition is out spending you ten to one, and they have good people managing their campaigns, there is little chance that you'll be able to out perform them, no matter how much you cross your fingers, tap your heels together, or complain to your SEO that you're not doing as well as you had hoped.

Money isn't everything in SEO, but it certainly does open the door to a greater online presence and bolder optimization strategy. A bigger investment can implement broader keyword research, more targeted link building, and a more keyword and search engine friendly site. These things matter in SEO.

That's not to say you have to match your competition dollar for dollar. Working smarter is just as good as working harder. But, unfortunately, it still takes money to make money.

Doing what your competitors do, without ever really understanding why, is a bad SEO strategy. Pay attention to what your competitors are doing, but also know why, and make sure those same goals and objectives match up with your own before following them down ANY path, including one that might require a larger investment into your online marketing campaign.

Ultimately, you want to be able to compete for business for the same keywords, provided they are the right keywords. But you also want to find and exploit areas that your competition hasn't.

If your online marketing campaign is simply a reaction, you'll never be ahead of them. You'll always be playing catch-up. Instead of being the "me too" guy, you can become the industry authority, leaving the others playing catch up and trying to be like you.

March 9, 2011

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.


Right on, brother! Beautiful article!

I've had this discussion with clients and SEOs many times through the years. People often get confused by the competitive intelligence. They start out just wanting to know what their competitors are doing and then seeing all those top rankings makes them think, "WOW! This guy's on to something!" They don't bother to see if there is any traffic for those great rankings.

That's NOT how to optimize for search. You optimize for search by looking at the BIG picture, not your competitor's picture, and then focusing on what is both achievable and offers a return on investment.

Couldn't agree with you more.

I try and discourage clients from looking at the competition until after we have decided on keywords and onsite optimisation. Then I look at the competition to see what linking strategies they are using and how competitive the keywords are.

Who said the competition even knows what they are doing in terms of SEO.

Great article. I am a personal web business owner and have no budget or employees but I can transpose your information to my situation pretty well. Just don't take my competitors work as pure gold without any knowledge of its effectiveness. Thanks Guy.

I do look at competition data, but do not use it in isolation. As Michael said, it's pointless chasing keywords that don't have any volume. But for Link Building, for example, high ranking competitors for your keywords that you know attract traffic can offer a few ideas.

I completely agree with you. It's perfectly acceptable to look at your competitors' SEO efforts to figure out where they've got you beat and where there is room for improvement for your own site. They may even have a few good ideas that you can tweak and use for your site, but using someone else's strategy as the end-all-be-all design for yours is a waste of time and effort. How does doing the same thing as someone else help you stand out?

The Wendy's example is just great! I think that it is the natural thing to do to, in a sense, copy your competitors. It probably is the most effective and cost-efficient way to get your feet off the ground.

But the key is to not stop there and develop a more expansive approach to SEO and business.

I personally think you have to look at what your competitors are doing to not only find out what they are doing good but also to find out what they are doing that is bad. I'd then do this to about 10 top competitors and then when i have all the facts, I’d add the best of what they are doing to my own strategy. It's always worked really well for me and it's exciting to find out what people are doing, it can only help you think of better ways to outsmart them.

You can always strive to surpass the competition. There are so many area's today to tackle from on-page, off-page, social media, paid search and media buys that unless you have the right skills or go to person, you can easily fall into issues.

Just stay with the white hat tricks, use networking and build links naturally to effectively build up your presence over time.

I agree with this totally, It's good to know what keywords they are using, but someone that just copies their competitors probably is the kind of person that clicks on their competitions PPC ads. (bad form)

Good article. All too often I see this happen. I suggest people to start their keyword research by putting themselved in the customer's point of view and then expand from there with synonyms, similar terms, etc. Only after you have a good set of keywords do you start looking at what the competitors are doing because if you do it the other way around you may miss a lot of important keywords. Doing it my way it's almost impossible that you'll miss anything. The only reason you should really research what your competitors are doing is to see how much work you should put in for each keyword.

Excellent information. I see all the time as well as they small businesses will search their competitors and want to copy everything that they are doing, I believe that it is our job as SEO consultants to make sure that we are guiding our clients correctly and with the best information possible. After that is why they contacted a SEO person in the first place. Any time you work as a consultant in any field, that should be your primary goal. Many times it is hard to get business owners to see a new perspective if they believe that they are correct, but that is what separates a successful SEO company apart from the fly by night companies that are always popping up.

I think the Wendy's example is a great business strategy not necessarily a great seo strategy. When it comes to seo I think it's better to see what you're competitors are doing for branding rather than trying to copy their link building strategy.

i also look at competitor data, but i think the use of every strategy plus that little bit extra is the best strategy!

thanks for the heads up. I was going to duplicate my opponents backlinks, I guess its a pretty bad idea. We should diversify our seo techniques instead of copying.

Awesome post!!! Great points you have here Stoney! I totally agree with this one and no questions asked!!! Keep up the great writing. Hope to read a lot more from you...

I always find it interesting to view what my competitors are doing to differentiate themselves in the market. I am always impressed at their progress and at my own companies growth over the last few years.

Really each business must have its strengths and weaknesses and and you should focus on your strengths first and foremost before worrying about what others are doing.

I completely agree with you. Its good to look at competitor's seo efforts & plan your strategy. This helps in revealing the weak points your competitor may have but copying the strategy will not help much. Thanks stoney.

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