General SEO

How to Spy on Your Competitors

Chris Haines
Chris is an SEO director who has 10 years of experience in SEO, agency side. When not involved in SEO, he enjoys messing around with vintage synthesizers, walks on sandy beaches, and a good cup of tea.
Article Performance
  • Organic traffic
    269
  • Linking websites
    43

The number of websites linking to this post.

This post's estimated monthly organic search traffic.

    Understanding your competitors’ marketing activity is important if you want to beat them. But how exactly can you view and track their activities?

    It’s simple—you can use a tool like Ahrefs to find out.

    Not sure who your competitors are? Plug a domain into Ahrefs’ Site Explorer and go to the Organic competitors report. 

    "Organic competitors" menu, via Ahrefs' Site Explorer
    Sidenote.
    I’ve selected “Don’t compare” to keep the visuals simple, but you can compare dates if you wish.
    Organic competitors overview, via Ahrefs' Site Explorer

    In this example, we can see Grammarly outperforms everyone, both on organic traffic and organic traffic value. Let’s spy on its overall marketing activity to see what makes its strategy so powerful.

    Scroll down to the Top competing domains report to see Grammarly’s marketing activity metrics.

    Top competing domains report, via Ahrefs' Site Explorer

    When it comes to DR (Domain Rating), traffic, value, and share, Grammarly is way ahead of the competition. It also has a lot of pages. 

    Clicking on the downward-facing caret by the domain name gives us access to a powerful menu where we can learn more.

    Close-up of menu in top competing domains, via Ahrefs' Site Explorer

    This menu allows us to see the:

    • Total organic and paid keywords.
    • Backlink profile.
    • Top-performing content.
    • History of its site on Archive.org
    • Overview of its marketing performance in Site Explorer.

    This is often the best place to start spying, as you get an overview of its organic and paid marketing activity in a single menu. If you see anything that catches your eye, you can click from this menu to dig deeper into the details.

    TIP

    If you had multiple competitors, you could use the “Top competing domains” list to quickly analyze their performance.

    Having established that Grammarly ranks for a lot of organic keywords, we can now look at what they are in more detail.

    We can use Ahrefs to spy on the organic keywords for any website.

    If we enter Grammarly’s website into Site Explorer and head over to the Organic keywords report, we can see the keywords its website ranks for.

    Organic keywords report for Grammarly, via Ahrefs' Site Explorer

    Here’s what I look at when spying on a competitor while using this report:

    • I check the KD column – How hard are these keywords to rank for? How much effort will I need to put in to surpass my competitor?
    • I check the “traffic” column – How much organic traffic are these keywords driving on your competitor’s site? What’s the prize?

    From this analysis, it’s possible to determine whether targeting these keywords is worth your time. In more simple terms, it’s an effort-to-reward ratio analysis.

    The chart below shows Traffic Potential (TP) plotted against Keyword Difficulty (KD). Here, we want to look for keywords that fall in the top left of the chart. 

    Effort-to-reward ratio illustration

    The key point here is that effective organic search marketing needs to be targeted. Otherwise, you will just be hoping that something sticks.

    There are two main ways to spy on your competitor’s website traffic and rankings:

    • Using Ahrefs’ Site Explorer – Best for quick checks.
    • Using Ahrefs’ Rank Tracker – Best for long-term monitoring of activity.

    Tracking a competitor’s organic traffic in Site Explorer is as simple as entering the domain name and clicking search. We can then see the “Organic search” keywords and traffic in the Overview report. 

    Grammarly's "Organic search" stats, via Ahrefs' Site Explorer

    If we go to its traffic (click on the 23.2M number), it will take us to the Top pages report. From here, we can see our competitor’s rankings at the bottom of the page.

    Top pages report with positions highlighted, via Ahrefs' Site Explorer
    Tip
    If you want more long-term tracking on multiple keywords, you can also use Ahrefs’ Rank Tracker.

    You can track keyword wins and losses for any website by using the Calendar feature.

    Here’s what it looks like:

    Calendar feature, via Ahrefs' Site Explorer

    Clicking on the calendar on a specific day shows you the wins and losses for the website’s keywords for that particular day.

    Let’s say we only want to view the keywords that have improved in position. We can do this by going to the checkboxes in the bottom left-hand corner and deselecting everything apart from “Improved.”

    Calendar showing "improved" keywords, via Ahrefs' Site Explorer

    We can now see significant improvements in keyword positions on February 22–27. 

    We can click on a day on the calendar to check the keywords that improved positions. I’ve selected February 22, 2023.

    Scrolling down the page, we can see that the top keyword improvement was for the keyword “thank you.”

    Calendar position changes, via Ahrefs' Site Explorer

    Although we’ve seen how this feature can be used to show keyword improvements, you can also use it to identify keyword losses of your competitors.

    Let’s repeat the process, but this time look at the lost keywords by only selecting the “Lost” checkbox.

    Keywords lost on the calendar, via Ahrefs' Site Explorer

    We can see that this site lost more than its average number of links in early March 2023. 

    Knowing the amount of traffic a website gets and the keywords it ranks for is important. But most businesses will want to see the dollar value of their competitors’ websites.

    To find this out, plug a competitor’s domain into Ahrefs’ Site Explorer, and you’ll see the value in the “Organic search” summary.

    "Organic search" value, via Ahrefs' Site Explorer

    In this example, the estimated value of Grammarly’s organic search traffic is $5.1M.

    To find the value of a specific page on a competitor’s website, you can use Ahrefs’ Site Explorer. Let’s plug grammarly.com into the search bar and head over to the Top pages report.

    Top pages report with URL filter applied, via Ahrefs' Site Explorer

    Then add a URL filter containing /blog/. This will enable us to find the most valuable blog pages on Grammarly’s website. You can use any URL filter you like. But as most websites have a blog, this is often a good place to start.

    When it comes to paid advertising, you can use Ahrefs to monitor your competitor’s Pay Per Click (PPC) activity on Google.

    Here’s how.

    Enter your competitor’s domain into Ahrefs’ Site Explorer and hit search.

    Paid search details, via Ahrefs' Site Explorer

    This website has been bidding on ~7K keywords, driving around ~799K in paid traffic. 

    This is an excellent overview, but what if we want more detail?

    Scrolling down the page, we can see the history of the paid traffic in a chart.

    Paid search chart over two-year period, via Ahrefs' Site Explorer

    This example shows that a lot of paid activity was switched off after December 2022. Also, we can see that the 2023 activity is much lower than that of early 2021.

    To see the relationship between PPC and SEO, we can overlay its “Paid traffic” with its “Organic traffic” like this:

    Paid and organic search chart over two-year period, via Ahrefs' Site Explorer

    The chart shows that when organic traffic does well, the paid traffic is reduced.

    We can click on the Ads report if we want to see the type of ads that this site is running.

    Paid search close-up with "Ads" highlighted, via Ahrefs' Site Explorer

    From there, we get a detailed breakdown of its paid activity and ads detail.

    Ads report, via Ahrefs' Site Explorer

    If I want to filter all of Grammarly’s ads containing the keyword “plagiarism,” I can do this quickly by adding a description containing a filter with this keyword.

    Description filter, via Ahrefs' Site Explorer

    Once you have added the “Contains” filter, hit “Apply.”

    Ads report with description filter containing "plagiarism," via Ahrefs' Site Explorer

    You’ll then see Grammarly’s ads that contain this keyword. 

    This can be a great way to spy on your competitors’ descriptions on their Google ads.

    Identifying the authors writing a website’s content is an underutilized spying strategy, in my opinion. 

    Here’s why—with this data, you can:

    • Understand which authors are driving the most traffic to a website and identify their top-performing articles.
    • Understand the value of the traffic each author is driving to the website. 
    • Recruit top authors from other websites, understanding their business value even before you see their resumes.
    • See how many articles authors have written, the length of their content, its social shares, and the type of topics they are writing about.

    Let’s head to Ahrefs’ Content Explorer, plug in site:grammarly.com, and click on the “Authors” tab.

    Authors tab, via Ahrefs' Content Explorer

    If we scroll down, we can see 72 authors on this website.

    List of authors, via Ahrefs' Content Explorer

    Looking at the top author, we can see that he drives considerable traffic to the site through only 42 pages. The traffic value of these pages is $285.5K.

    Author's detail, via Ahrefs' Content Explorer

    If you work with a PR or outreach team, you can use this feature to identify journalists to work with quickly and easily.

    Another way to use this feature is to search for mentions of your competitor using Content Explorer but exclude your competitor’s website.

    To do this with Grammarly, we would enter the following into the search box:

    "grammarly.com" -coupons -promo -codes -site:grammarly.com

    Sidenote.
    The code above tells us to look for mentions of grammarly.com online. But it excludes Grammarly’s website and mentions of keywords that include coupons, promo, or codes. I excluded these to filter for blog articles about my competitor.
    Grammarly advanced search, via Ahrefs' Content Explorer

    From this, we can see that 14,113 pages mention Grammarly excluding these keywords. If we click on the “Authors” tab again, we can see who has written the articles.

    Authors' detail, via Ahrefs' Content Explorer

    As we can see from the list, some authors are from high-authority sites. We can approach these journalists and pitch to them.

    If a competitor has a higher DR than your website, it’s usually a good indication that you can benefit from analyzing their links to determine what links you need to get.

    To find what links your competitor (or any website) has, simply plug the domain name into Ahrefs’ Site Explorer and head over to the Referring domains report.

    Referring domains report, via Ahrefs' Site Explorer

    We can see that Grammarly has some high DR links. If your business wants to recreate some of these links, we can start by looking for publications in the list.

    I’ve noticed that the Guardian’s website is linking to Grammarly. Using Site Explorer, we can click on “Links to target” and see the exact links from the Guardian.

    Links to target report, via Ahrefs' Site Explorer

    We can see in this example that the Guardian has referred to the Oxford comma article on Grammarly’s website.

    If we right-click, copy this URL, and paste it into Content Explorer’s search bar, we can find the author and other helpful information on this page. 

    URL detail, via Ahrefs' Content Explorer

    We can even discover the author’s social media profile on this screen.

    Authors' tab, via Ahrefs' Content Explorer

    Clicking on the author’s name takes you directly to their Twitter profile. From there, you can pitch why they should link to your website. 

    Sidenote.
    In this article, we’ve looked at Grammarly as an example of a top-performing competitor website. To learn more about Grammarly’s SEO strategy, you can check out Joshua Hardwick’s article on Grammarly’s SEO.

    We’ve established that this method is an excellent way to find high-DR link prospects. But what if you want to discover many opportunities in one go?

    To do this, you can use the Link Intersect tool. It allows you to compare your website against the competition.

    To get started, plug in your competitors in the top rows and add your website in the bottom row.

    Ahrefs' Link Intersect tool

    In this example, you can see a list of the links your competitor has, but your website doesn’t. I’ve used some made-up website examples here, but you get the idea.

    Domains not linking to mywebsite.com, via Ahrefs' Link Intersect tool

    In summary, this is a great way to spy on your competitor and use that information to find new link prospects. 

    Final thoughts

    Spying on your competitors gives you insights you wouldn’t get anywhere else. It gives you a barometer of what’s working in your industry and encourages you to up your game.

    Using tools like Ahrefs makes keeping tabs on your competitors easy, allowing you to stay at least one step (or position) ahead of them in Google. 

    Got more questions? Ping me on Twitter. 🙂

    Article Performance
    • Organic traffic
      269
    • Linking websites
      43

    The number of websites linking to this post.

    This post's estimated monthly organic search traffic.