You’ve undoubtedly heard the cliché “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” The idea behind is that somebody is copying the things you do because they think you’re cool and they want to be more like you. You see examples of it everywhere, even in the business world. Of course, in the professional world, we don’t call it “imitation.” We call it “emulation.”
If you want to succeed in business and online the “easiest” way to find that success is to find someone who has found the same type of success you want and emulate their actions. Of course, if you really want to succeed professionally, you don’t just do the same things that those who have come before you have done. You look at what they’ve done and you try to find a way to do it better. Why? Because while these people and companies are your role models, in many ways (though not all—we’ll get to that in a minute), they are also your competition.
In this post, we’re going to focus on ten ways you can apply this idea to your SEO and the building of your web presence.
1. The All Important Page Rank
Finding out your page rank and the page rank of your competitors is incredibly easy. Simply plug your (or a competitor’s) URL into the Google Page Rank Checker. This gives you your “starting point.” Remember: the higher the page rank, the more Google “likes” this page. You can learn what to do from them. The lower the page rank, the harder time they are having. If you learn anything at all from them it will likely be what not to do. You want to focus on studying sites with a high page rank. Those are the sites, according to Matt Cutts’s interview with Search Engine Watch, that likely have the best reputations.
A site’s page rank is based on that site’s keywords, links (both inbound and outbound) and a variety of other factors and it is something that Google takes seriously. Matt Cutts has said so himself (for a great overview on why a page rank can climb or drop, check out his post about a newspaper whose page rank dropped from a 7 to a 3).
2. Keyword Analysis
Once upon a simpler time, keywords were merely a numbers game. The more often you plugged your target keywords into your site and used those keywords to link to your site from other sources, the higher your page rank would be. Over time changes in the algorithm have made the system harder to game and the recent Hummingbird update might have stopped the game completely. This great video on Moz goes into more detail.
Hummingbird and protected searches (searches where users tell Google not to track their actions) are making it harder to figure out how you and your competitors are ranking for certain keywords, but it isn’t impossible and remember: Hummingbird hasn’t obliterated keywords; it’s just changed how you should approach them. This means there are two parts to your keyword research:
- – Figuring out the overall competitiveness of your chosen keywords
- – Figuring out how your competitors are ranking for your chosen keywords
Figuring out whether or not there is a lot of competition for a certain keyword is simple. Simply use Google’s Keyword Planner (you’ll need an Adwords Account to do this)
As you can see, competition for “seafood restaurants in Boston” is relatively low, but there are still 1900 searches for it a month. This means that targeting that keyword for your own site (provided you have a Bostonian seafood restaurant) and including it in your Meta Data (more on that in a second) is probably a good idea, especially if you’re trying to bring in some tourist traffic—but, at the same time, “seafood restaurants in Boston” probably shouldn’t be your primary focus when it comes to keyword strategy.
Because you’re likely going to have a lot better luck drawing in web traffic if your keyword strategy is optimized for something more specific, like your name.
We were curious to see if any of the more generic terms showed up on an actual restaurant’s data so we decided to run a search on one: Neptune Oyster. (It was the first one we found in Yelp.)
Figuring out how your competitors are ranking for your chosen keywords is more involved. There are a lot of different tools out there that you can use, but the easiest one is the Open Site Explorer, offered by Moz. This one free tool will tell you all sorts of things about your competitor’s site. To check out their keywords, go to the Anchor Text tab.
In these two screen shots, you can see the following details:
Look: the generic term doesn’t even show up in the top five targeted keywords for the site. This business is targeting its own name, which is smart. There is less competition for the restaurant’s own name, which helps keep costs for things like PPC campaigns low. It is also smart because they are likely managing to target the more generic terms organically in their existing content and copy. Targeting them specifically would probably make their website feel awkward, which would turn off potential customers.
From this information you can tell that your best strategy is to focus first on your own business name and then on the other, more generic terms that people might use, preferably something conversational sounding with little competition (and a low rate for your PPC campaigns).
3. Proper Optimization of Titles and Meta Data
Like Paul Compelli says, Meta data is important because it literally tells the search engine (and the people who see your site pop up in their search results) what your site is about. It is how you “talk” both to site spiders and Google searchers. This is easier to explain with a screen shot.
The easiest way to get a look at a site’s Meta data is to simply check out the page’s source info. Right click on the page and choose “Page Info.” This will provide you with an easily readable list of the site’s Meta data.
Here’s the Page Info for another Boston restaurant, Legal Sea Foods.
If you look at the keywords, you’ll see a list of the different keywords that they’re hoping the spiders will analyze. If you look at the Meta Description you’ll see a few of those keywords plugged into “real people” speak—telling the Google searcher exactly what the site is about and what they can expect to find if they click on the link in their search results. This is a good strategy.
At the same time, having super generic keywords like “gift cards” or clunky terms like “Catering Service Boston” that are high up on the list of words and phrases for which you’re hoping to rank could be a waste of time. For one thing, the more generic the term, the harder it is to rank for that. For another, if your keywords and phrases are clunky, they’ll turn off the people who read them in your content and copy. You don’t want to turn people off before they have the chance to buy!
Another great tool to use for this is Screaming Frog. Screaming Frog is a downloadable tool that you can use to crawl a competitor’s website the same way a Google would and get a full picture of that site’s approach to SEO.
4. Traffic Sources
Hey, remember when all that mattered was how many links you had pointing in to your site? You could buy links, set up link wheels and absolutely game the system. Those days are over. Today paid links that are not clearly marked and links from substandard sources (like link wheels) will drag down your page rank. Take it from Interflora if you don’t believe me.
This is where you take a break from worrying about your competitors and worry only about yourself. You need to make sure that your links are the good kind and not the bad kind. Remember the Open Site Explorer from Moz? Use that to see exactly which sites are linking to you. If there are any sites linking to you that could hurt you, send requests for those links to be taken down.
Good links are links that are built organically and through “approved” advertising methods (PPC ads, clearly marked advertising, etc). Bad links are links on paid directory sites, spam sites, sites that have curated your content without your permission (essentially forcing you to publish duplicate content against your will), things like that.
Knowing where your competition’s traffic is coming from is important. After all, you share a market. Maybe they’ve managed to tap into an audience you hadn’t thought of targeting yet or that you haven’t had a lot of luck reaching. What kind of links are people clicking—direct ads, links in blog posts, reviews from major media? We’ll go into more detail about this in the advertising section.
5. How Are They Advertising? (PPC? Other Methods?)
This is where we start to get away from specific tools and get into more abstract ideas. It’s easy to assume that, in the world of SEO, the only advertising that matters is ads purchased through Google. This simply isn’t true. Advertising that is purchased on social media, and on other websites (banner ads, etc).
We talked about using traffic source data to figure out who your competitors are targeting. For example, if you can see that most of their traffic comes from sites running a specific banner ad, study that banner ad. What about it do you think makes it so successful? Is it relevant to the site, to the content around it, does it promise a good deal? Being able to understand why a traffic source is so popular will help you better target your own traffic with future marketing efforts.
Beyond that, understanding your competitor’s approach to PPC can help you define and target your own PPC campaigns with better precision (and make sure you aren’t spending too much).
Search Engine Land has a great tutorial on how to collect and analyize PPC data.
6. Overall “feel” of competitors’ sites and SEO
While we’re talking about personal reactions, let’s apply that to your competitor’s website and SEO. Our instinctual reaction to a website is important and is worth exploring. Why? Because how you react is likely how your target audience is going to react. Do certain parts of their SEO strategy really stand out to you either positively or negatively? Can you spot a competitor’s keyword stuffing from a mile away? Do you love their link profile when you plug their URLs into the Open Site Explorer? Does their approach seem targeted or is it all over the map? The things that impress you are the things you’ll want to adopt. The things that trigger your “ick” instinct are things that you’ll want to avoid.
Psychology based SEO is not a new idea. In fact, according to a Search Engine Land article, Psychology based SEO is often better received by site viewers than a technically applied strategy. It’s one of the reasons that sites that rely on “Black Hat” SEO are so easily ferreted out. Speaking of which…
7. Avoiding Your Competitor’s “Short Cuts”
No article about SEO evaluation would be complete without some language about black hat techniques (a lot of people justify these as “short cuts” and “automation”) and why it is best to avoid them…even if your competitors seem to be using them.
Black Hat SEO techniques are things like:
- Keyword stuffing
- Link building through the spamming of old blog posts on neglected sites
- Paid directories
- Negative SEO campaigns
- …and more!
Google has made it clear that it is taking a mallet to sites caught using black hat SEO techniques. Brafton.com published an editorial on the cracking down of Google on “black hatters.” It is worth noting that you don’t have to use these nefarious techniques yourself to be slapped. For a long time site owners have skirted the “no spam” Google policy by hiring outside firms to do the dirty work for them and then begging forgiveness and ignorance later. Now, according to that Brafton editorial, even hiring a firm that uses those techniques will be enough to penalize a site and, potentially, get it removed from Google’s listings.
So, the short version is this: Don’t use Black Hat—even if your competitors do.
On the other hand, “White Hat” techniques are everything else we’ve been talking about: data collection and analysis, organic link building and marketing efforts—basically anything that is on the “up and up” and that would get Google’s stamp of approval is considered “White Hat.”
8. Social Media Evaluation
It’s easy, when thinking about SEO to limit your attention to on-site and site specific SEO but, in today’s world, social media is just as important to an SEO strategy as your keywords. For one thing, each link to your site from a social media profile counts as a “point” in your link profile. So! Stop avoiding Facebook and Twitter! More importantly, get your Google+ page set up immediately.
Yes, Google+ feels like Facebook’s lame cousin that we were forced to take with us to the movies so he wouldn’t feel left out (and so that he would stop terrorizing Aunt Judy’s cat). But remember: Google rules the SEO world and if you think they aren’t going to favor their own social media network over all of the others? You would be super wrong.
In Moz’s annual scientific correlation study, they found that, after a site’s page authority, it was their +1 rankings and postings within Google+ that factored the most into a search engine ranking. In another Moz post that talks about all of the ways in which Google+ is designed specifically for SEO purposes, Cyrus Shepherd noted that his Google+ page, only five months old at the time, ranked second for his name in a Google search—higher than Facebook and Twitter accounts that had been active longer and that were used much more often than Shepherd used Google+.
If that’s not enough to get you to set up a page and start using it like it was going out of style, I don’t know what will.
9. Figure Out Who Your Competitors Actually Are
It’s easy to assume that your primary competitors are the companies and sites who are currently ranking on the front pages of Google’s searches when you plug in your target keywords. But this simply isn’t true anymore. Why? Because Hummingbird happened and because local search is on the rise.
For example, a couple of years ago if you ran a seafood restaurant in Boston you could assume that your chief competition was Red Lobster because when you plugged “Boston seafood restaurant” into Google, that was the first name that came up.
Today, though, your competition is the other restaurants in your neighborhood, seafood or not. You’ll want to optimize your site for “seafood”, “Boston”, and your own neighborhood, sure. But you’ll also want to plan your SEO campaign around tourists and complementary venues in your area. For example: you’ll bring in more business and improve your SEO ranking if you can get the independent movie theater down the street to +1 your menu page on Google+ than if you simply ran a keyword targeted ad through Google Adwords.
10. What Does Success Look Like For You?
Don’t ever forget that, even if you’re trying to emulate someone else’s success, you need to keep your own goals in mind. Figure out what success means for you. Does it mean being on the first page of Google for a relatively vague keyword? Or does it mean having a handful of loyal customers who will buy whatever you offer? Does it mean that your website has the most followers on Twitter in your local area? Does it mean that you reach a specific profit point? Find successful businesses in your niche and then tailor their examples to your goals. That’s what we really mean when we say that the best way to build a successful business is to emulate those who have gone before you.
Figure out what you want most of all. It sounds corny, but you’ll have an easier time starting if you know where you want to finish.
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