How to do Competitive Analysis for SEO

Competitive analysis is essential for businesses who want to rank higher, sell more, and generally do better than their competitors — so, pretty much every business ever.
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Competitive analysis is essential for businesses who want to rank higher, sell more, and generally do better than their competitors — so, pretty much every business ever. 

Competitive analysis is all about learning who your competitors are, what they’re doing, how you can do it (and better), and what you need to do to get better results than them. It’s a technique that can work in just about every digital marketing or even, every business avenue. But at Sonder? It’s one we use especially for SEO

A little lost on SEO altogether? Have a read of our Introduction to SEO first.

What is Competitive Analysis?

There are a few different components to competitive analysis. Competitive analysis means you can go and learn about the ins and outs of your competitors and their business strategies. 

Basically, it’s the creation of a strategy based on identifying your competitors, and researching their marketing strategies. It’s equal parts taking advantage of their good tactics and developing and building on the bad ones. 

Competitive Analysis in SEO

Building on what competitive analysis actually is, in SEO it refers to finding the SEO strategies your competitors are using and again, taking advantage of these or building upon them to create a better strategy. 

Have you ever googled one of your keywords or something relevant to your industry and wondered how on earth your competitors are ranking for that? Honestly, same. 

That’s where competitive analysis comes in. It lets you see what’s working best in your industry, what isn’t working, what others aren’t taking advantage of, and it gives you a really good ballpark idea of how much work you’ll need to put in. 

How to do competitive analysis for SEO

1. Identify your key search terms

Your direct competitors are those who do the exact same thing you do, or rank for the same terms you do. So, to truly work out who your competitors are, you’ll need to know what you want to rank for. 

If you’re not sure how to work out what your keywords are, we have this handy how-to on keyword research for you. 

2. Identify your competitors

So, you’ve worked out your keywords and key search terms. Now, your direct competitors are the businesses who are ranking for those keywords. Typically, you’ll want to do this for your primary keyword and depending on the volumes, maybe your top secondary keyword. 

The best way to find out who’s ranking for your keywords is by searching the keyword in your SEO tool and finding the listings. Otherwise, you can just search it on Google and find it yourself. If you do it this way, make sure you open a new tab in Incognito Mode for accuracy. 

If you’re in an industry like eCommerce where you have literal thousands of primary keywords you’d like to rank for, working it out from the one or two keywords isn’t ideal. 

You can do this by popping your website’s URL into Site Explorer in Ahrefs and checking out the competing domains. You’ll be able to see how many organic keywords you’re each ranking for as well as the key stats on their results. 

3. Analyse your competitors

You know what you want to rank for and you know who already is ranking for it. Now you need to analyse them. 

Here are the key ranking elements explained:

Referring Domains

When another website provides a link to your website, that becomes a referring domain (a domain (website) that’s referring (linking) to you. The individual link itself is called a backlink. You can gain hundreds to thousands of backlinks from one referring domain. 

Checking out the referring domains, and the quality of those domains can give you some insight into your competitor’s rankings. Backlinks are one of the key ranking factors on Google. 

Backlinks to your pages tell Google that you’re saying something worth citing, if it’s worth citing, then it’s probably valuable content. ICYMI: Google froths valuable content. So, as a simple rule, the more backlinks the higher the ranking. 

This doesn’t mean you should go out and collect all of the easiest, shittiest links you can. The quality of the links plays a big factor too. So too many spam links will kill your rankings.

Organic Keywords 

An organic keyword is a keyword you’re ranking for on your website, that’s attracting traffic to your website for free. It’s a keyword you’ve achieved organically, so your Google Ads keywords don’t count here. 

What organic keywords are your competitors ranking for? Find the high volume, high traffic ones particularly. 

Domain Rating/Domain Authority/Authority Score

This one depends on which SEO program you’re using. Ahrefs will use a Domain Rating, SEMrush an Authority Score, and Moz a Domain Authority. 

Each of these are based on different algorithms. Ahrefs’ Domain Rating is based on the strength of the site’s backlink profile. Moz’s DA says how likely the site is to rank, it’s based on the domain age, the backlink profile, and a number of other factors. SEMrush’s Authority Score is about the overall quality of the site, including its links, search data, keyword positions, and website traffic. 

These all give you a similar stat. They tell us how authoritative a domain is and how likely it is to rank.

Organic Traffic

Similar to organic keywords, organic traffic is traffic you’ve earned for “free”. As in, it hasn’t come from paid search (Google Ads). While you need to rank organically to receive organic traffic, the organic traffic also helps you rank organically. 

4. Look at their backlinks

Firstly, it’s just cool to learn about how your competitors are getting things done. What’s their approach to links, what are they doing? You can’t see all of it, but when you look at their referring domains in Ahrefs, you can kind of make some assumptions. 

referring domain chart ahrefs

The above is a chart of Sonder’s referring domains. Not to brag, but the consistent growth you can see in the chart is an example of healthy link growth.

referring domain chart ahrefs

This is one of our competitors, who we’ll leave unnamed. From 2014, their referring domain count was between 5 and 20 and was actually gradually going down. You can see the number began to spike in October and by late January was in the 200s. This is called “hockey stick growth”, because if you turn the graph to its side, it’s the shape of a hockey stick. 

Is this kind of growth bad? Good question, and one we can’t answer. It depends! 

Perhaps this competitor had written a crazy good piece of content that attracted a tonne of links because it was so amazing. Maybe they took part in some dodgy link acquisition. You can sort of work this out by looking at their actual referring domains and what they’re linking to. 

Red flags are links from sites that say [Insert Industry] Link Builder, Get Links Now, those sorts of very-on-the-nose link building sites. 

5. Who’s linking to them?

So, we’ve worked out quite a bit about our competitors by now. Now is the time to work out how we can replicate what they’re doing, build on it, and improve it. Sooo, who’s linking to them? We just had a look at this but this time’s different. 

Sift through their links, maybe some are from directories. Could you create a profile on the same directory? Maybe some are from local news publications for ad spaces, can you afford a small publication ad for a backlink? 

Are there businesses you partner with who have a Partner’s page or a partnership section on their ‘About’ page? Could you request a link on there?

By going through your competitors’ links you can find out where they’re getting links, possibly nab some for yourself, and get inspired for new link ideas. 

6. Look at their best-performing content

You can find your competitors’ best performing content by organising their top pages in Ahrefs by links or by organic traffic. Then it’s about working out why that piece of content is performing so well, and how you can replicate your own high-performing content piece. Because you’re in the same industry, there’s a good chance that the type of content that’s working for them, will also work for you. 

Is it industry news? Is it a how-to like this one right here? Maybe it includes a video and lots of subheadings so it’s a really easy read. Find all the important bits and pieces about the content and try and create a brief for yourself from it.

This brief should include:

  • Word count (this should be the same or more if you’re trying to outrank a content piece)
  • Incoming links (how many backlinks does the content piece have?
  • Outgoing links (how many external pages does the content link to)
  • How many subheadings?
  • How many keywords in H1s, H2s, H3s?
  • How many images?

7. Look at their organic keywords

Looking at your competitors’ organic keywords can give us an amazing idea of what we might want to optimise for and rank for. The organic keywords element on Ahrefs will bring up literally anything the website is ranking for. So, there will be some words we’ll ignore — we don’t need to optimise for their brand name or the random terms that seem to come up… 

Look at the organic keywords in their list that have both a high search volume and a high volume of traffic/click-throughs. Oh yeah, and make sure they’re relevant to ya know… your product and service offerings. 

8. Find the gaps (and fill them in)

The gaps are the keywords your competitors’ rank for but you don’t, the high volume search queries they have ranking answers to, but you don’t. This isn’t limited to keyword gaps — there are linking gaps too. Find all the gaps and devise a plan to close them in your SEO strategy. 

Using Ahrefs SEO Toolbar to streamline the process

Going through the whole shebang of completing an entire analysis process is the best way to work out what you need to do to rank and out-do your competitors. But, you won’t always want to go through this just to work out what it’ll take to rank your blog post for a key search term. 

That’s where Ahrefs’ SEO Toolbar comes in. It gives you instant metrics as you search. Search for a term on Google and instantly receives its average searches per month, its clicks, how difficult Ahrefs deems it to rank, as well as the CPC (cost per click). 

THEN, when you look at the results listed on the page, you can see why they’re ranking (in basic terms) at a glance. 

ahrefs toolbar for competitive analysis

ahrefs toolbar for competitive analysis

You can see how many backlinks the site has, how many referring domains, their Domain Rating, their URL Rating, their organic keyword count — literally so much. 

It makes it really easy to type your blog topic into Google and then see who’s ranking for it, and more importantly, why at a glance. 

Other resources

We don’t want to sound like Ahrefs fangirls but, well, we are. Ahrefs put together a super duper comprehensive guide to competitor analysis that’s more helpful if you’re an international eCommerce business or SaaS company. Or watch their condensed version below. 


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