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Competitor research has been crucial as long as competing businesses have existed, and it seems like every professional has developed their own way to deal with it.
However, it’s not uncommon for marketers and business owners to feel lost and confused facing it.
The big questions are what should you start your competitor research with? What are the key steps you absolutely can’t skip? How can you optimize your time and efforts?
Let me help you with these and even more issues that are fundamental for insightful competitor research. In this article, I will guide you through the key steps of competitor analysis, refer to some useful tools and draw your attention to the main principles of successful research.
Before You Get Started
Before you actually jump straight into competitor research, you’d better answer these questions.
- What do you expect to get from the research?
While this may sound redundant, it’s important to know exactly what you want to look for and how you’re planning to use the information. Otherwise, you’ll likely be pulling random metrics that seem important but don’t give you the accurate picture that you need to create an actionable strategy based on the data at hand.
So first, decide which goals you want to focus on. Do you want to monitor your competitor’s PPC campaigns? Are you trying to outrank them with SEO, or to snag some of their best content marketing strategies? Be relatively specific, and use a segmented approach to competitor research based on the framework.
- What is your company aimed at?
Before you begin researching your competitors, it’s important to articulate your own business’s goals and strategies. What areas are you trying to grow in, and where could you use some help? If you know that your PPC campaigns are dominating, for example, but that your overall SERP positioning is low, the latter would be a good place to focus.
- What’s the market situation in general and how do you fit in?
In addition to checking on your company’s individual goals, look at the market as a whole. Are there any new trends that you should be aware of, and do you know where you fit into it? Can you identify direct and indirect competitors right off the bat?
Assess whether your goals are realistic or even attainable. It’s not uncommon for a lot of small businesses to rush to the market and insist that they want the top-ranking in the SERPs to point to their products, even when they’re competing directly against long-time mega competitors like Staples, Nike, or the Food Network. This isn’t realistic, and focusing on something that isn’t possible at this point in time actually hurts their potential to find other avenues of success.
Once you’ve examined your own business, your goals, and your standing in the market, you can start to dive into competitor research.
Relevant: Read my detailed review of SEMrush here
First Steps of Competitor Research
Depending on your goals, you may decide to focus on competitors’ current standing in the market, their revenue, customer relations, brand awareness or specific marketing campaigns.
In any case, you will always want to start with a strong action plan before you dive in. This will keep you focused and on target.
While there is some variation, I know from experience that almost all competitor research journeys will involve five key steps. Let’s take a look at each of them, understand why they are important and learn to execute them well using SEMrush Competitive Research tools.
1. Find Your Competitors
You can’t do adequate competitor research if you don’t actually know who your competitors are. You’ll want to find both direct competitors (those competing for your exact customers) and indirect competitors (those competing for audiences similar to yours).
How many competitors should there be on the list?
SEMrush recently took a poll of the users of SEMrush Competitive Research toolkit — there were CEOs (25%), CMOs and senior SEO experts (20.8% each), strategists, consultants, and other chief officers. More than half of these professionals only monitored up to five competitors on a regular basis, and one-third of respondents kept an eye on five to ten rivals.
This means that in some cases a wider net can help you get a more comprehensive view of the overall landscape. Other times, you’d better narrow the focus.
There is a tool that can help you in both cases — SEMrush Market Explorer. To begin with, when you enter just one company’s website, the tool will map out the entire competitive landscape in the form of the Growth Quadrant. You will see relevant players’ market positions determined by their audience size (Traffic Volume) and growth rate (Traffic Growth). This is particularly valuable when you are preparing for a new market launch in the domain with a strong online presence or benchmarking your progress against your current niche. You can switch between Top 30, Top 20, and Top 10, as well as between “All Market” and “Narrow Focus”. The latter reveals a shortlist of the closest competitors in terms of website visibility.
You can scroll down and see who is dominating the market online, which platforms they’re using for successful promotion, and what kind of audience they attract.
2. Categorize Your Competitors
To pull more accurate data and leverage it correctly, break down the full list of competitors into different segments.
Here are several ways to categorize your rivals:
- Brand competitors fighting for your target audience to purchase vs. organic competitors who are fighting for the same users’ attention in the search engines
- Organic competitors can be assessed by their market positions and growth rate.
Looking at the Growth Quadrant above, you may want to explore Leaders, Game Changers, Niche Players, and Established Players more. Depending on their place in the competitive landscape, you can either choose them as your role models in digital marketing or study them as anti-examples.
- Primary competitors who are targeting the same customer with the same solution, secondary competitors who are only targeting the same customers but using a different solution, and tertiary competitors who are competing with the same solution but targeting different customers. Imagine one shoe brand that promises original design and another one offering comfort and arch support. Customer/solution fit won’t be the same for them, and neither will be their marketing strategies.
- Competitors in terms of pricing: Apart from offering a different (or the same) solution to a different (or the same) audience, your competitor may do it for a different (or the same) price.
Sure, it’s not always the price that consumers care about — it’s more value for money. So, put your competitors on the graphs considering that and see where your offering is placed compared to your rivals’.
3. Identify Your Competitors’ Market Positioning
Would you snag a strategy from someone struggling to survive in the market or someone dominating it? Don’t rush: the second option may be as tricky since well-known companies’ moves may not work for a smaller, not-yet-as-established brand.
You can try to detect your competitor’s place in the market in many ways: you can quickly assess their online market share in the SEMrush Market Explorer tool or compile all the information you have on them manually in a spreadsheet (like in the example below).
To truly understand a company’s positioning and potential, you will need to research the aspects listed below — and not just once. Monitoring changes can help you derive more insights than ad hoc research.
4. Determine What Products They Offer
A quick way to reveal focus products or services is to check out the Top Pages tab in SEMrush Traffic Analytics. The report can show you the product/service/category pages that drive the most visits. You can easily shorten the list of most visited pages by the keyword that interests you the most. For example, I filtered the list of Top Pages on macys.com by researching women’s items.
This way, you can discover the popularity of the entire product category and even reveal sources of traffic to its subcategories (in the GIF you can see women’s coats, for example).
To understand your competitors’ product and pricing strategy even better:
- Get back to pricing. Are these most popular products of your competitors more affordable or more high-cost than yours?
- Review the message on these top product pages. Are CTAs targeted at one-off purchases, high-volume sales, or retaining clients? Are these items sold individually or in a package? What type of customers do they target and what do those customers need? You can get the first clues by assessing the tone of voice in these messages and the general style of branding.
5. Research Your Competitors’ Sales Tactics and Results
Once you’ve adjusted the focus, it’s time to find out what your closest competitors’ sales tactics are, and how they are driving results.
A sales analysis can be tricky, but finding the answers to these questions can help:
- What does their sales process look like? How does it seem like they’re moving users through the online sales funnel? Once again, refer to the Top Pages report in the SEMrush Traffic Analytics tool and filter the list by keywords like “basket”, “cart”, “payment”, “checkout”, “confirm”, etc. You may reveal the numbers of users that get to this particular stage in the funnel.
- At what point, if any, is a salesperson involved in the process?
- What marketing channels do they use? Look at content marketing, referral and affiliate marketing, social marketing, SEO, and PPC campaigns right off the bat; these are easy to identify with the Traffic Sources report in SEMrush Traffic Analytics and the “Entrance Sources” column in the Top Pages tab.
- Does it seem like they are expanding, scaling down, or staying stagnant? (You can guesstimate the situation by observing the traffic dynamics in Traffic Analytics + don’t ignore any trustworthy news sources that you come across)
- What is their annual revenue each year? Some corporations publish this online, while others make part of compiled industry reports
- How do they incentivize purchases? Do they regularly discount their products or services, or offer free shipping, free samples, or free returns? Look at their ads to find out.
A big part of these findings can be gained with the right tools. Nevertheless, an astonishing 30% of professionals still gather competitor data manually, as our poll revealed.
Sure, no software will replace a good analyst completely, but why waste employees’ precious time on something that can be automated?
6. Explore Your Rivals’ Marketing Campaigns and Performance
Try to understand how your competitors build relations with their customers — and borrow a couple of successful techniques, of course.
Fortunately, the SEMrush Competitive Research bundle offers solutions to look at your rivals’ online tactics from every angle: SEO & organic traffic, PPC channels, social media, and content marketing.
+ Bonus Recommendation: Keep the Competitor Research Part of the Routine
You need to focus on a competitive strategy when it comes to promoting your business, and that means a routine part of your overall marketing work. 57% of our surveyed users said that continual monitoring of changes was one of their biggest struggles in competitor research. Nevertheless, analysis has to be done regularly to reveal trends and the overall market situation more accurately. Monthly Competitor Analysis Template in My Reports is one of the ways to meet this challenge.
Even if at the moment your marketing campaigns seem to be working, and the business is going well, you may always be aiming at something higher than that.
Even the basics of competitor analysis can alert you to any changes in the market and help you ensure that you’re using cutting-edge strategies to outperform your competition.
If you liked this post, learn about more resources and guides that I have created on SEO here:
- Understanding the basics of programmatic SEO
- Top 11 On-page SEO tips
- What are the must-have Off-page SEO factors?
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