Let’s start by making a comparison between search engine markets and sport. You might have found that you are the faster and stronger than you have ever been before. But before you race someone else, your results don’t mean terribly much. Everyone has to run together.

Participants in a lot of sports spend time analysing their rivals’ tactics and plays. The best of them are doing what the best search engine marketers are doing: they are not looking to copy tactics play-by-play. They are learning what has made their rivals better, and what their weaknesses are, so they can develop their own tactics to compete.

Competitor Identification

Before analysing what individual sites are doing, you need to identify who your true competitors really are. There is sometimes a difference (and sometimes no difference at all) between the top ten Google results for a site’s primary key phrase, and the true lay of a market's land.

Analysing a market involves data, rank checking and battles with the Google AdWords API for search volumes, but it’s absolutely possible to do this in-house. I’ll take the UK housing market as an example. In order to get a true perspective of the market as a whole, we gather data from quite a few places, including the top 30 ranking URLs for a large number of industry-related searches, along with Google's traffic estimates and our own click through rate estimations.

Each domain whose URLs appear is given scores depending on how much traffic those URLs can be expected to receive for their rankings. For the UK housing market, the competitive landscape currently looks like this:
UK Property Market - Market Intelligence Report
The Traffic Score here does not equal exact SEO traffic estimates: Google’s traffic predictions can be dubious. However, we can use traffic estimates to judge a site's visibility relative to others. In a more streamlined market, a keyword list is a lot easier to compile. Market Intelligence Reports like this example will often reflect the top-ten ranking sites for high volume queries in markets where keywords are fairly uniform (e.g. [online bingo] and [ink cartridges]). In very diverse markets (clothing, current events etc), this often won’t be the case. For our UK property market, some well-ranked sites specialise in houses, some flats, some sales and some rentals. But identifying the strongest sites in an industry isn’t the only thing you should be doing when dealing with market-wide data. When you are keeping an eye on a broad cross-section of a market, you see things like this:
UK Property Market - Wall Street Journal ranking
In this example, the Wall Street Journal is ranking for two (and only two) of our valuable property keywords. However, at least one of those keywords is valuable enough and its ranking high enough that wsj.com has moved up 567 places in our market ranking, and can expect to receive a lot of traffic with that new ranking. Maybe it means nothing to others in the market and the wsj.com ranking will be gone next week. Whatever the reason, you’re at a big advantage if you have an overview of all changes and fluctuations. If this isn’t an anomaly, you’ve just noticed a new competitor before everyone else has. Such a massive jump, even from a powerhouse domain like the Wall Street Journal, isn’t that common. However, if you are engaging in weekly market analysis research, no new competitor will ever take you by surprise.

Whether a site makes a big leap into the market, or moves up more slowly (which is far more common), you will see its progress. And this is an important part of competitive analysis: it is not about blindly copying other people’s link development, or even about obsessively watching your own site rise and fall in a market. It’s also about not being taken by surprise, recognising who is rising and falling at any one time, and finding out why.

A new property site from a major newspaper? A big link building campaign push by a small affiliate? Some tricky redirection work by existing brands, purchasing new domains? Different types of links making a difference? Panda making property search engines drop and property news websites rise? Many newly-competitive domains will start out by ranking for long-tail terms while they climb through pages four, three and two for their target keywords. Both of these changes will be reflected here before you’ve noticed them making a big difference on your core terms.

Backlink Analysis

After noticing sites continuing to rise through a market, you need to look for reasons behind the movement. From an off-page perspective, it's advisable to keep fairly close tabs on the backlink profiles of your primary competitors, but when someone enters a market for the first time, you likely haven’t been tracking their link profiles over time.

The first thing you need is a comprehensive backlink crawl, but alongside this, I like to know just how sustainable a new competitor’s SEO really is. Finding a gratuitous case of dangerous link acquisition isn’t a common result of backlink analysis, but sometimes you stumble on a newly ranking site whose backlink discovery looks like this:
Example Link Timeline Graph - Unsustainable Link Dev
Few prizes would be handed out for guessing the quality of this particular backlink profile, but most sites have a good enough framework of backlinks that you can’t accurately guess the outcome of a full crawl.

It surprises me how few people seem to value the distribution of Class C IP links and the anchor text in backlink profiles. When we perform backlink crawls, our results are always sorted by the number of Unique Class C IPs linking, rather than by individual links, domains or hosts.

Grouping links by Class C IP ranges and then ordering by anchor text has proven to be the most effective way of predicting and understanding a website's performance, especially when it comes to sites that build too many commercial backlinks and not enough brand links. It also surprises me how people take a linking domain at face value, often not bothering to find out what sort of link a site has from, say, a prominent national newspaper. “Well damn,” they say. “They’ve got university links; they’ve got newspaper mentions. How are we going to compete with that?” On further investigation, you find that some newspapers like to supplement advertising revenue with text links and pay-per-post styled advertorials.

This is by no means the same as finding a competitor who is routinely cited in news stories, who perhaps has a ruthless PR consultant on-board with a BlackBerry address book full of journalists' phone numbers and their favourite drinks.

Knowing the difference is very important.

Relationship Links

There's also no point fretting over a competitor’s links from their associates and partners. We call these Relationship Links, because they’re the result of activity that has nothing to do with SEO. You can’t replicate them, but you can work out who your comparable partners are, and negotiate your own relationship links instead.
Relationship Links

Copycat SEO

At no point should competitive analysis be about copying someone else’s backlink profile. Use it for inspiration, new ideas and a better understanding of what Google values.

With backlink analysis comes the discovery of spam. This is basically unavoidable, save for when dealing with brand new domains and meticulously white hat link builders. Even if a domain has been owned by someone who is careful with SEO, junk links point to almost every website you care to research. Some of the junk pointing to your competitors’ sites help them rank. I am not talking about the obvious automated spam that they most likely did not build, but the old, lazily-acquired links that helped a site out in 2003. The links have sat around for years, passing PageRank. Some of them still do. This does not mean that a newly-acquired link on the same site would be as beneficial, and is another good reason never to fall into the trap of trying to copy.

Ongoing Backlink Monitoring

There are some interesting things you can discover about competitors’ linking activities by simply re-crawling their links on a semi-regular basis. Consider how many paid links are bought for a twelve month period. Undoubtedly, some paid links exist for longer than this time, due to webmasters either seeking payment for another year, or forgetting about the link. However, a high turnover of medium-quality links on a twelve month basis is a fairly good indicator of a certain link building strategy.

As a point, I would be confident Google takes notice when decent links come and go on a regular yearly basis too. This isn’t to say that links won’t appear and disappear: as SEOmoz found, the churn rate of the Internet is higher than you’d likely guess. If you are meticulous in re-crawling however, you may see patterns in backlink profile changes that you would otherwise miss.

Detecting Link Networks

Sometimes, you will come across websites where someone has tried to build backlinks via their own custom network of linking domains. This is a particularly poor way to do backlink development because it’s so easily detectable. It is easily detectable because it is very difficult to maintain a large number of websites without creating footprints between them.

Few people are imaginative enough, cautious enough or rich enough to create a truly great link network. Due to the difficulty of maintaining hundreds or thousands of websites on different servers, tied to different hosts and different identities, these sites also tend to drop off the web quickly, like twelve-month-old paid links. A good number of backlink networks are helping their chosen sites rank well. Again, this doesn’t mean you should create your own network when you find one working for someone else. You do, however, need to understand the link network so you know what you’re up against.

“Good” link networks don’t just link to the hub website, but they do often only link to sites in the hub sites’ niche. They are also usually fairly uniform in their subject matter, all being fairly closely related to the hub site’s subject. The following backlink summary is a real link network that Ayima found:
Link Network Footprint
Note that the creators knew about diversifying their C Class IPs (many "SEO Hosting" companies now exist to make this easier). However, the C Classes (123.123.123.*) were sequential, and the number of B Classes (123.123.*.*) very low.

Some other common traits of sites in link networks include information architecture, URL structure, artwork, file naming protocol, internal redirection similarities (if they serve ads, do they all use the same ad server?) and, in amusing cases, similar affiliate IDs if the webmasters have decided to make some affiliate income on the side.

In particularly simple cases, Bing allows you to see all sites on one IP:
Bing Reverse IP Lookup
Domain Tools will also show the sites on a C Class:
Domaintools Reverse IP Lookup
And if you’re after a quick look at hosting information, Flagfox will spill this information from a Firefox plugin. The flag icon acts as a link to the Geotool page:
Again, building a network isn’t something we recommend doing. The effort needed to build something with the legs to outrun Google for long periods of time is immense. It’s not a good long term SEO strategy to build (or rent/buy space on) a network that fools search engines for a short period, and a “good” network can be many times more expensive to maintain than different, sustainable link building tactics.

In summary, competitive research is threefold:

  • Market analysis
  • Ongoing backlink crawling
  • Understanding a backlink profile

No athlete would show up at an event without knowing roughly how good the competition was, and many will also know a fair bit about how the competition trains and how they race. Even if your tactics are different from those of your competitors, it’s to your advantage to understand their methods.

Photo Credit: Poiseon Bild & Text


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