If you run an online business you probably spend a lot of time researching your potential customers.
You'll know their interests, what they search for, where they hang out online, their problems, their favourite flavour of 'Ben & Jerry's'...
You might even have multiple personas and storylines mapping out every step of their journey from information gatherer to customer.
But here's the thing:
If you want to be #1 in your niche, then you should spend at least as much time researching your competitors as you do your customers.
Because your competitors can be a goldmine of information that can inform every aspect of your marketing and rocket your site to the top of Google.
So here's the good news.
With the right tools, performing an in-depth competitive analysis of your niche is super easy.
And today I'm going to walk you through a 5-step process that will give you:
- The inside track on exactly what's required to drive traffic and rank in your niche
- The knowledge you need to, not just catch, but overtake your competitors
Then let's get started.
To run a competitive analysis we need a niche to analyse.
So for the purposes of this walk-through, I'm going to imagine that I'm just about to launch a brand new infographic design tool.
And niche selected, it's time to see what we're up against.
The first thing we need to do is identify our main competitors.
To do that we need to know exactly how potential customers will search for our service.
I figured that would be something like ‘infographic design tool’. But turns out I was wrong.
Because when I search for ‘infographic design tool’ in Ahrefs Keywords Explorer (and click on 'Also Rank For'), we can see that the search with the highest volume is actually ‘infographic maker’.
With a KD (keyword difficulty) score of 93, it’s going to be tough to rank for. But if we want to be the biggest in the infographic design business, then that’s got to be our ultimate aim.
Now let’s run a Google search and see who’s ranking.
Looks like the 3 guys I’ve highlighted under ‘organic search’ are going to be our top competition in search. But I’m also interested in the two companies who are running ads on the keyword.
So, I'm going to grab all 5 and add them to a new spreadsheet:
Now let’s pull some key stats to see what we’re up against.
Pulling Key Stats For Each Competitor
To give us an idea of how entrenched the competition is (and how tough it will be to break into the niche) we’re going to pull some stats and metrics for each of our competitor’s domains.
First, let’s find out how much overall authority (power) each site has.
We can use Ahrefs Domain Comparison tool to analyse all 5 domains at once.
Tools > Domain Comparison > Enter competitors' domains > Compare
We’ll get a load of useful stats back for each site. But for now I’m interested in:
- The Domain Rating for each site
- The total number of referring domains (Ref Domains).
A high DR score indicates that the site has good authority and is likely to rank well in search.
A high number of referring domains could also be an indicator of a strong site - provided those links are not low quality.
At a later stage we'll want to figure out whether that's because the site/service is organically popular, or if they have a particularly effective link building/PR strategy. Either way, we'll be able to gain an insight by fully analysing their backlink profile (here's how to do it).
But for now I’ll add the figures to my spreadsheet.
As you can see, all of the sites have a high number of referring domains and good authority.
SEO metrics give you an indication of the overall competitiveness of a niche.
When your competitors have a high DR score they are likely to have been around for a while and acquired a solid backlink profile.
In a nutshell:
More quality links = higher DR score = more trust from Google.
So what does this mean?
In simple terms, if 2 sites launch a piece of content targeting the same keyword, then the site with the higher DR score will (probably) rank highest.
Which sucks when your site is new.
But the good news is that’s not the end of the story.
Because when we analysed over 2 million keywords, we also found that it was possible to outrank sites with higher DR scores by building backlinks to individual pages.
So if your site is new and is in a competitive niche with high DR scores, then your initial plan should be to build links directly to pages you want to rank.
And as you do that…
Your DR score will also start to increase!
Domain Rating scores are exponential, so it’s easier to get from DR10 to DR20 than it is to get from DR20 to DR30 (and so on). Which means a site with a DR score of 80 isn’t twice as powerful as a site with DR40 - it could be many times more powerful.
I should also point out that Google deny overall domain authority influences rankings, however, all our testing finds a strong positive correlation between DR and rankings. That being said, as we also found links to individual pages trump overall DR it could be that this is caused by sites with higher DR naturally attracting more backlinks to individual pages. Remember, correlation is not necessarily causation.
Analysing Competitor Link Growth
Next I want to get a feel for how many new referring domains each site is acquiring per month.
Because your competitors won’t stand still.
So, if one of your competitors is acquiring 200 new referring domains each month, then you’ll probably need to build more than that just to catch them.
This is not an exact science, but if we take an average over the past few months we can get an idea of how things are moving.
We can do that by running the ‘New Referring domains’ report in Ahrefs Site Explorer and setting the period accordingly.
Site Explorer > Enter domain > Explore > Referring domains > New > Set custom period > Show New referring domains
Looks like easel.y acquired 672 new referring domains in the 3 month period between August and October. So that’s an average of 224 per month.
I’ll run this report for each of our competitors and add the numbers to my spreadsheet.
Checking The Link Acquisition Curve
It’s also worth checking out if your competitor’s link growth is consistent, or if they have experienced a big growth over a short period.
The ‘Referring domains’ graph on the Site Explorer Overview page shows us link growth over the past year in a nice visual format.
For example, we can see that Venngage’s link growth has been consistent.
While Visme have had a big spike in referring domains over the past few months.
That could be the sign of an active SEO campaign. So we might want to take a closer look at their recent backlinks to find out what they’ve been up to.
We can nip back to the ‘New referring domains’ report and select a period to analyse. Below I have filtered the report to show referring domains for October (view individual links by clicking the ‘Backlinks’ button).
I’ll probably want to export this report for later analysis.
Link popularity remains the biggest single SEO ranking factor.
Which means that over time you’ll want to build a link profile which is on a par with (or ideally better than) your competitors.
Understanding the rate at which your competitors are acquiring new referring domains (linking sites) gives you a rough target to shoot for with your link building.
In my example niche, the number of new linking sites each month is pretty high. But in other niches you’ll find link growth is slower, or even static.
Either way, your aim should be to acquire links faster than your competitors.
We know who our competitors are. We've grabbed their key metrics. It’s now time to take a look at their traffic.
Here’s what we want to find out:
- Where they get their traffic
- Which countries provide their traffic
- Which sites provide the most referrals
- Total monthly traffic & key stats (pages/session, time on page, bounce rate)
We can pull all that information from a great competitor analysis tool called Similarweb.
Let’s walk through the process for one of our competitors (Easel.ly).
We’ll start by entering their domain into the Website Analysis search box.
Clicking the site takes us to an overview page, which has lots of useful stats.
But for a bit more detail, we’ll run some specific reports.
Where Do They Get Their Traffic (Sources)?
If you’re familiar with Google Analytics, you’ll know that Google splits traffic sources into the following channels:
- Organic search (traffic from search engines: Google, Bing etc)
- Referral (clicks to your website from links on other sites)
- Direct (typed in URLs, bookmarks, clicks from messages etc)
- Paid search (Google adwords, Bing ads etc)
- Social (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest etc)
- Email (clicks to your website from emails. Your email list is likely to be #1 source here)
- Other (unidentified traffic sources, some feeds)
Now, in an ideal world, we’d be able to take a peek at our competitor’s Google Analytics account to find out which channels are driving their traffic...
...but as that’s about as likely as Scotland winning the World Cup, the next best thing is to get an approximation from SimilarWeb.
We can do that by running the Traffic Sources Overview report.
We’ll get a percentage figure for each channel.
And we’ll also get a chart showing estimated traffic volumes.
Of course ‘Social’ doesn’t really tell us much. So the good news is we can click through to get an actual breakdown by platform.
Understanding which sources provide the most traffic to your competitors will help you decide where to focus your marketing efforts.
For example, in certain niches, there might be huge traffic from social media.
If we look at publishing giant Buzzfeed’s traffic sources, we can see that they get over 50% of their traffic from social:
So if you were launching a site in the publishing space you’d want to make sure your content was highly shareable.
In other niches, organic search might be the biggy.
Travel site TripAdvisor get two thirds of their traffic from search, with just 1% coming from social:
And if you’re running an Ecommerce site, then you might find your competitors are spending more on ads.
Online beauty retailers LookFantastic pick up around 14% of their traffic from paid search:
As you can see traffic sources vary from niche to niche, so it’s essential that you know exactly where the traffic is in yours.
What The Traffic Sources Data Tells Us
Here are the traffic sources for our 5 competitors.
While there is some variation from site-to-site, we can infer a general trend and rank traffic sources for the niche:
- Direct Traffic
- Search Traffic
- Referral Traffic
- Social Traffic
- Email Traffic
- PPC Traffic
- Display Traffic
Indeed, if we calculate the average value for each channel we get the following:
Between direct traffic (typed in URLs, bookmarks), search traffic (let's call a spade a spade: that's Google) and referrals (link clicks from other websites) we have over 90% of total traffic for the niche.
Which suggests our growth strategy should be:
- a) Acquiring new customers from Google search and referral traffic
- b) Retaining them
I won't be covering client acquisition and retention in this guide. But as it's clear our competitors' strategies are effective, here are a few pointers for what we would want to look at:
- How do our competitors get potential customers into their sales funnel (email capture, lite version, free trial etc)?
- How do they convert them from potential customers into actual customers?
- How do they retain them?
What we will be taking a closer look at is our competitors' organic traffic and referral traffic.
Organic traffic will be covered in part 3, but for now, let's find out what's driving all that referral traffic.
Which Sites Provide The Most Referrals?
Now we’ll take a look at which sites are currently providing the most referrals to our competitor.
With a free SimilarWeb account we can see the top 5 referring sites by running the ‘Referrals’ report under ‘Traffic Sources’.
Here are the top 5 referrers for easel.ly.
What’s the best kind of link to get to your site?
We already covered metrics. So you might think that the answer would be a link from a high DR site.
And yes, that’s a great link to get. It’s definitely going to help move your site up the search engine rankings.
But the very best kind of link is a link that drives actual referral traffic.
After all, that’s what links are for right?
When you know which sites drive referral traffic to your competitors you can make it a priority to pick up links from them.
The best bit:
Without getting too technical, it’s very likely that Google assesses the likelihood of a link being clicked when calculating how much weight it should pass to your site.
So not only will they send you traffic, they’re going to be powerful links for SEO purposes too.
Which is why knowledge of your competitor’s top referrers is marketing gold.
What The Referral Data Tells Us
We already know that referrals account for (roughly) 25% of all traffic in the niche.
My first thought is this seems a little high.
When Hubspot benchmarked traffic sources across 15,000 sites, they found that average referral traffic was 10% for business to business sites and 9% for business to consumer.
Which got me wondering:
Are these referrals coming from natural links acquired through PR/outreach? Or are they perhaps affiliate links generating commissions for the referring sites?
Let's take a look at the top 5 referring sites for all our competitors.
There's one site that clearly stands out.
Creativebloq.com is the top referrer for 4 of our competitors and the number 3 referrer for the other one.
So let's take a look at those links.
We can use Ahrefs Site Explorer to show us all links pointing to a competitor site from a particular domain.
Here are the links pointing to Canva from CreativeBloq.
Site Explorer > Enter competitor domain > Explore > Backlink profile > Referring domains > Search in results: 'creativebloq.com' > Expand backlinks
When I checked the individual pages, it turns out these are regular links and there does not appear to be an affiliate relationship.
But I did discover why referral traffic is so high.
Because when I click the green arrow next to the first two backlinks and preview the stats for the referring pages it turns out they get HUGE organic search traffic.
The first referring page gets 26,000 organic visits per month.
But the second gets a whopping 43,000!
It's easy to see how a link from one of those pages could drive a ton of traffic.
- a) The high referral percentage for the niche is likely to be accurate
- b) We'll want to do everything we can to build a relationship with CreativeBloq and pick up links from those pages!
Which Countries Provide Their Traffic?
Next we want to find out which countries provide the bulk of our competitor’s traffic.
We can get that information by running the ‘Geography’ report under ‘Website Audience’.
Here are the top 5 countries for easel.ly.
What The Country Data Tells Us
There seems to be a decent amount of traffic coming from India and Mexico.
We'll need to look into this in more detail, but if these are potential customers (and not cheap Facebook clicks), then it might be cheaper (and easier) to target these countries initially.
What's Their Total Traffic And Key Stats?
It might seem a little unintuitive to gather this information last.
But there is a good reason.
We can pull this information for all of our competitors in one go using SimilarWeb's 'Compare' feature.
When we click the button we can select up to 5 sites to compare.
And we get everything we need in the Website Audience > Overview report.
And now our competitive analysis spreadsheet is filling up nicely.
We recorded several metrics above, so let’s quickly go over each of them.
This is the total monthly traffic the site receives from all sources.
When we grab this figure for several of our competitors we get an immediate feel for the overall size of the niche (and potential traffic).
And of course we also find out exactly who the biggest site(s) in the niche are.
The average time spent on site by each visitor.
Generally, a high average visit duration is desirable as it’s a sign that visitors are engaged with the site/content.
Pages Per Session
The average number of pages viewed by a visitor to the site.
Again, the higher this figure, the more likely it is that visitors are engaged with the site and sticking around.
And talking of sticking around, the final metric we are interested in is bounce rate.
A bounce is when a visitor clicks through to a website site and then clicks back (or closes their browser tab) without viewing any more pages.
High bounce rates can be a sign that visitors are not finding what they are looking for on the site.
Although this is not always the case.
Wikipedia for example has a very high bounce rate (84.85%):
But that’s probably because visitors get exactly what they need (information) from the page they land on, then move on to their next search.
Overall though, if you notice a competitor has:
- high average time on site
- lots of pages per session
- a low bounce rate
Then you’ll want to take a closer look at their site.
Chances are they have a good user experience and content that’s resonating in your niche.
You can find all of these metrics for your own site in your Google Analytics Audience Overview report.
Compare your site’s metrics against your competitors to see how you’re shaping up.
In this section we’re going to dive a little deeper into our competitors’ organic search traffic.
We'll be using Ahrefs Site Explorer and analysing one competitor at a time.
Checking Organic Traffic Volumes And Key Stats
We already got an indication of total organic search volume for each competitor from SimilarWeb, but we’ll want to check the figures in Ahrefs.
Clicking on the ‘Organic search’ tab on the Site Explorer ‘Overview’ report for a domain shows us:
- Total organic traffic per month (chart by country)
- Total number of keywords (chart by country)
- A breakdown of organic traffic by country
Site Explorer > Enter competitor domain > Explore > Overview > Organic search
Spying On Our Competitor's Organic Keywords
Next we want to find out which keywords are currently driving our competitors’ search traffic.
We can do that by running the ‘Organic keywords’ report for each domain.
Site Explorer > Enter competitor’s domain > Explore > Organic search > Organic keywords
Above we can see that Visme are currently ranking for 7,243 keywords.
By default the report will be ordered by actual traffic volume (calculated based on their search position).
But we can also order the report by total search volume if we wanted to find some particularly juicy keywords to rank for.
There's some enticing volume there, but...
It can be tempting to go for keywords with big volume. But a high KD score means it will be tough to rank without building a lot of links.
Our enhanced Keywords Explorer tool provides an estimate of the number of backlinks required to rank for a keyword.
For example, ‘infographic maker’, which has a KD score of 93, will require backlinks from 1,033 domains to rank in the top 10 positions.
If you’ve got your link building down, then go for it. Otherwise, it might be worth targeting keywords with a lower difficulty score to begin with.
That being said, there are many other factors which influence rankings beside backlinks (on-page SEO, content depth etc) so we recommend further analysis of the search result/competition before selecting a keyword to target. We do have plans to include other factors in our difficulty calculations in the future - so watch this space!
Finding (And Filling) Content Gaps
What's a content gap?
It's a keyword your competitors rank for, which you don't.
Needless to say, that's a gap you'll want to fill!
So the good news is Ahrefs has a tool specifically designed to help you find these gaps. We've cunningly called it our 'Content gap' tool.
By entering competitor domains into the tool you can quickly find a bunch of cool new keywords to target on your own site.
In the example below I have compared 1 of our competitor's sites against the other 4. This is because my hypothetical infographics company doesn't actually have a website (well maybe a hypothetical one, but that's no use here). Normally you will be comparing your own site against your competitors.
Ahrefs Site Explorer > Content gap > Enter competitor domains > Enter your domain > Show keywords
Note that I set the report to show me keywords where at least 2 of my competitors rank and at least one ranks top 10.
And it looks like there are plenty of content gaps for us to fill.
So we can go ahead and pick some cool ones for adding to our content plan.
In this section we’ll be looking at our competitor’s content.
- Their most visited content (highest organic traffic)
- Their most linked to content
- Their most shared content
We can pull all of the above from Ahrefs Site Explorer.
Finding A Competitor’s Most Popular Content
We can discover our competitor’s most visited content (organic search) by running the ‘Top Pages’ report in Ahrefs Site Explorer.
Here's the report for Visme's blog.
Site Explorer > Enter competitor blog folder/subdomain > Explore > Organic search > Top Pages
In the above example we can see that Visme’s content with the highest search traffic is a post about visual advertising techniques. It’s currently bringing in around 647 organic search visits per month and ranking for 304 keywords.
We can view the individual keywords the page is ranking for by clicking the number under the keywords column.
Looks like by moving up a few positions that page could receive a lot more search traffic.
The old school approach to SEO involved conducting keyword research to find suitable phrases to rank for, then creating individual content for each of those keywords.
- 100 target keywords = 100 new pages on your site
- 1,000 target keywords = 1,000 new pages on your site
Needless to say it was pretty laborious. Not to mention costly.
As Google gets better at understanding the meaning behind content, one great article can rank for hundreds or even THOUSANDS of keywords. Even if that keyword doesn’t appear anywhere on the page.
An example we often use is guest posting.
That’s the same thing as guest blogging right?
And Google knows that.
Search for ‘guest posting’ and Google will also return pages that are optimised for the keyword ‘guest blogging’. They even highlight the word ‘guest blogging’ in the URL and content.
So why is this report so valuable?
Well, by finding your competitors ‘top content’ you can figure out which of their articles are:
- a) ranking for a ton of keywords
- b) pulling in loads of traffic
And then instead of starting with a big list of keywords, you can start with a small list of articles to replicate which you already know Google associates with multiple keywords.
Much less time consuming. And much less costly.
Finding Your Competitor’s Most Linked To Content
To find our competitor’s most linked to content we’ll run the ‘Best by links’ report in Ahrefs Site Explorer.
Again, we’ll be specifically looking at blog/editorial content.
Site Explorer > Enter competitor blog folder/subdomain > Explore > Organic search > Best by links
We can see that the most linked to content on Visme’s blog has backlinks from 24 referring domains.
And scrolling down the report reveals that most posts on their blog pick up links from less that 10 sites.
Which makes them (potentially) very beatable in search with some proactive link building.
I’ve mentioned a couple of times already how important building (and acquiring) links is for your site.
Links mean referrals, buzz (your site is mentioned elsewhere on the web), and ultimately, more organic search traffic.
So we know we need to build links, but where do we start?
We find out what’s working for our competitors.
The best by links report shows your competitor’s top ‘linkbait’ content. And if it worked for them, it can work for you too.
The trick is to create something even better than your competitor’s content. And then…
Reach out to all the sites linking to your competitor, show them your content, and ask them to link to it.
So how do you find all the sites linking to your competitor’s content?
Easy. Just click the number under the ‘RD’ column for a popular piece of content.
And you’ll get a list of all sites currently linking to that page.
Which means that your competitor has created your prospect list for you. That was nice of them 😉
Tip: Pay Attention To Which Types Of Content Are Working
When analysing your competitors you might find that a specific type of content is working well in the niche and acquiring lots of links.
- Research/data based content
- Expert roundups
If you notice a trend, then you might want to focus your efforts on creating that type of content.
Bonus tip: Also Pay Attention To Which Types Of Content Are Missing
On the flip side, if you notice there’s a gap, i.e. text heavy content that could be simplified as an infographic, then that’s another opportunity right there.
And once again you have your prospect list pre-prepared and ready to go!
Finding Your Competitor’s Most Shared Content
Social media can drive huge traffic. So we’ll also want to find out which of our competitor’s posts generated the most shares, tweets, pins etc.
To do that, we’ll run the ‘Best by shares’ report in Site Explorer.
Site Explorer > Enter competitor blog folder/subdomain > Explore > Organic search > Best by shares
It’s worth sorting the report by individual social networks (click the logos) to find the most popular content on each platform.
For example, this post generated the most Facebook shares.
While this one has been pinned over 2,500 times on Pinterest.
Knowing which types of content resonate on each network will help to inform our promotional efforts at a later stage.
We can add the detail gathered in this section to our spreadsheet and move on to part 5.
Finally, we’ll take a look at our competitors’ PPC (pay-per-click) campaigns.
For each competitor we want to find out:
- Which keywords they are bidding on
- Which ads they are running
- Their top landing pages
It’s super easy to do with Ahrefs.
Just enter your a competitor domain into Site Explorer, then run the 3 reports in the ‘Paid Search’ section.
Finding a competitor's PPC keywords
The PPC keywords report will list all keywords your competitor is currently bidding on.
Below we can see that Piktochart are currently bidding on 151 keywords.
For each keyword we get:
- Their current ad position
- Ad block position (top, middle, bottom)
- Search volume
- Keyword Difficulty (KD)
- Their traffic share (percentage)
- Number of results
- Landing page URL
If your competitor is spending money on a keyword what does that tell you?
It tells you that keyword is PROFITABLE.
Because unless your competitor is in the business of pouring money down the drain, you can bet that they track the ROI for all keywords they are bidding on.
And if a keyword is not converting - then they will kill it.
Your competitor’s PPC data can unearth high converting keywords that you would probably skip right over when conducting keyword research.
For example, you might be looking for keywords with minimum search volume of 1,000.
But what if your average conversion rate is 2%?
And a keyword with search volume of 300 is converting at 10%?
I’m sure you’ve already done the maths. That ‘low volume’ keyword is going to make you more money!
So not only can you find keywords for adding to your own PPC campaign, you can also find great keywords for targeting with content in organic search.
Viewing a competitor's PPC ads
To preview an ad for a keyword, we just hover over the yellow ‘Ad’ icon.
We can also preview all our competitor’s top performing ads at once by running the ‘Ads’ report.
Discovering a competitor's top PPC landing pages
Finally, to view our competitor's most popular landing pages, we'll run the ‘Top landing pages’ report.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could peek at your competitor’s sales funnel - all the way from customer search to conversion?
Well, if you’ve examined their PPC data then you already have!
As I mentioned previously, you can bet that your competitors have tested and tested to find the highest converting keywords for their campaign.
And guess what?
They will have carried out the same rigorous testing with their ad copy and landing pages.
So by examining their message - from ad to landing page - you can figure out the language and calls to actions they use to turn searchers into customers.
And when you’re looking to create (or improve) your own sales funnel, that knowledge is priceless.
What We Learned In This Competitive Analysis Process
So now we have completed our competitive analysis, let's quickly recap what we discovered:
- Our top competitors
- Their key metrics (DR, Referring domains)
- Their link growth (speed and consistency)
- Their traffic sources (all channels)
- The top referring sites in the niche
- The countries which provide most traffic in the niche
- Total traffic for each competitor
- Key traffic stats for each competitor (time on site, pages per session, bounce rate)
- The organic keywords driving our competitors' search traffic
- Their top content in organic search
- Their top 'linkbait' content
- Their most shared content
- The keywords they are bidding on in paid search
- The copy they are using in their PPC ads
- The landing pages their ads point to
I'm sure you'll agree, that's a ton of information we can use to create our own marketing and growth strategy.
But guess what?
It's just the tip of the iceberg.
Both tools (Ahrefs and SimilarWeb) have a treasure trove of additional reports we can run to, not just peek behind our competitor's marketing curtain, but rip it down to expose their entire marketing, content, and link building strategies.
Ready to get started?
Finally, here's a link to my spreadsheet if you want to use the format for your own analysis.
Over To You
If you have any questions about the competitive analysis process, then please leave a comment below!