Are you wondering why your website traffic is so low?
Even though you’re ranking on page one, you’re not getting the number of visitors you expected.
So what’s going wrong?
To find out, you need to perform an SEO competitor analysis.
The fact is, SEO is a zero-sum game. There is only so much traffic to go around, and most of it goes to the Top 3 organic search positions.Data from AWR shows that most organic click-through – 55% for desktop (blue) and 48% for mobile (red) – come from the top 3 positions:
[Note: This chart shows the organic click-through rates for searches coming from 10,120,806 keywords for 84,533 websites in Jan 2019.]
If you’re to the right of the green line, you’re missing out on a huge piece of the traffic pie.
So, how do you climb past the competition and get one of the top spots?
Surprisingly, nothing too radical. Most of it comes down to analyzing what your competitors are doing, and then do it better.
Specifically, an SEO competitor analysis will show:
- How you stack up against the competition.
- What’s working well for competitors.
- What they’re doing, that you aren’t.
- How difficult it is going to be to beat the competition.
- How much traffic potential there is at each stage of the funnel?
Ready to go? Sweet. Let’s get started!
Disclaimer: This article does contain affiliate links. If you purchase a tool through one of my links I will receive a small commission at no additional cost to you.
You can jump to specific sections using the links below:
3 Pillars of an Effective SEO Competitor Analysis
You can break competitive SEO analysis into three core areas:
In this guide, I’m going to show you how to perform a deep analysis of each area, looking at everything from site architecture to link velocity targets.
I want you to come away with an understanding of how to dissect every inch of a competitor’s SEO strategy.
Below - I’ll provide a real brief overview of each pillar before we jump into the hands-on analysis.
Pillar #1: Technical SEO
In the Technical SEO analysis, you’re essentially checking the foundation of your competitors’ sites:
- Site structure - how do they organize content across the site - subdomains, subfolders, internal linking etc - to create silos that enhance rankings and improve user experience.
- Hreflang - if it’s a multi-language site, check they are serving the appropriate page to searchers based on language and location.
- Site speed - evaluate speed scores across mobile and desktop devices.
- Mobile-Friendly - check if they have a mobile-friendly site.
Pillar #2: On-Page SEO
In the On-Page SEO analysis, you’re looking at the quality of your competitors’ content:
- Keyword analysis - check keyword distribution and growth trends, top traffic pages, domain and subfolder-level content gaps, along with featured snippet opportunities.
- Content type and quality - identify what type of content (blogs, product pages, category pages) ranks in the SERPs, and the quality you’ll need to compete.
- Conversion strategy - evaluate how they convert visitors into subscribers, leads, and sales.
Pillar #3: Off-Page SEO
In the Off-Page SEO analysis, you’re checkingthe strength of a competitor's backlink profile:
- Backlink analysis - check the source and number of referring domains, along with historical growth trends.
- Linkable content types - find what type of content attracts the most links.
- Top link building strategies - identify the exact strategies - guest posts, infographics, PBNs etc - the competition is using to build links and authority.
- High-probability link targets - discover which sites link to multiple competitors as they are more likely to link to your site, too.
- Backlink gaps - find out which sites your competitors are getting links from, that you aren’t.
Important: Before you start analyzing the competition, it’s important to benchmark your own site. After all, competitor metrics won’t mean much if you don’t have anything to compare them to.
As you work through the steps below, be sure to first enter your metrics in the green column of the analysis template:
Ok - now it’s time to jump into the analysis.
Don’t forget to grab your Ahrefs trial here, and download the competitor analysis template.
Step #1: Identify Primary (and Secondary) Search Competitors
Primary Search Competitors
Primary search competitors are those sites that sell the exact products or services as you, to the same target audience.
You can find your primary organic search competitors using Ahrefs or Google search
In Ahrefs, enter your domain in Site Explorer, and then navigate to the ‘Competing Domains’ report to see a list of sites ranking in the Top 10 for the same keywords as your site.
For example, here are the competing domains for one of our working examples, Daily Dog Stuff:
And here are the competing domains to Beardbrand (ecommerce):
Note: Sorting by the “Common keywords %” column helps identify your closest competitor sites.
You can also check for primary competitors in Google by searching for your products and their alternatives.
Search your product in Google
For example, if you enter “backlink analysis tool”, you can see potential competitors for Ahrefs are Moz and Serpstat:
Search for your product/brand + alternative
For example, if you search for “what's an alternative to boars hair beard brush”, you can see potential competitors to Beardbrand are Beard Resource and Balding Beards:
Reddit is not a primary competitor as they don’t sell products like Beardbrand. But they do have related content, which brings us onto the other type of competitor ...
Secondary Search Competitors
Secondary search competitors are those sites which have related content topics that your audience might be interested in, but don’t sell the same product or services.
For example, a competing domain of Ahrefs is Backlinko. Even though Backlinko doesn’t sell an SEO toolset like Ahrefs, they definitely have related content topics.
Here are the top keywords that Backlinko ranks for, but Ahrefs does not:
Image source: Ahrefs’ Content Gap analysis tool.
Always start with primary competitors, but keep a list of secondary competitors too because they’ll provide loads of new top funnel content ideas.
Run through the steps above and add five primary competitors to the top of the SEO competitor analysis template:
You’ll be analyzing each of these sites in the upcoming steps.
Step #2: Benchmark Competitor SEO Performance
In this section, you’ll learn how to get a top-level view of competitor SEO performance and shortlist the sites to look at first.
Number of Indexed Pages
Search engines need to be able to find and index web pages so they can show the results to searchers.
You can make a quick check in Google using “site:domain” to see the number of pages indexed by Google for each site:
I can quickly see that Daily Dog Stuff has about 25% of the indexed content as some of its competitors:
At a glance, it looks like we could surface loads of new content ideas from each one Daily Dog Stuff’s competitors.
Domain Rating Score
Domain Rating (DR) is a unique “Ahrefs metric that shows the strength of a target website’s total backlink profile” on a logarithmic scale from 0 to 100:
Although Google denies they use domain-wide links in their ranking algorithm, Backlinko “found that a website’s overall link authority (measured using Ahrefs DR) was strongly tied to Google rankings”:
When assessing your competitors, look at how your DR score compares to the competition. If it’s much lower, you’re probably going to need to build more backlinks in order to compete for rankings, especially for the more competitive search terms.
Use the Ahrefs Site Explorer Overview report to find the Domain Rating score for each competitor and enter them into the analysis template:
Daily Dog Stuff has a lower DR than most of its competitors. This site should definitely focus on scaling both its content creation and link building efforts.
Keyword Rankings (Trending Position Distribution Graphs)
Next, you want to check if competitors are increasing the number of keywords in the top ranking positions: 1-3 and 4-10.
For example, you can see that Ahrefs has drastically increased its organic keyword growth in the 1-3 and 4-10 position buckets over the last 12 months:
In our pet industry example, we can see that Pawster saw some steady growth over the first 6 months of 2019:
Herepup’s organic keyword growth has plateaued::
And Dogappy’s top 10 keyword rankings have declined over 50% in the last year:
When prioritizing my competitor analysis for new clients, I tend to first focus on the competitors that have demonstrated either consistent or hockey stick growth over the last 6-12 months. These sites are actively updating and adding new content, and most likely building links on an ongoing basis.
Whatever they are doing is working, so focus on these sites when building out your content and link building strategies.
Enter each competitor into the Ahrefs Site Explorer and go to Overview >> Organic Search:
Deselect the 11-100 option and hover your cursor over the end of the graph to see the total number of keywords ranking in positions 1-3 and 4-10:
Enter the numbers into your SEO competitor analysis template:
We can already see that Daily Dog Stuff is lagging behind the competition in terms of top 10 keyword rankings, which is why their organic traffic levels are also much lower (more on this below).
Estimated Monthly Organic Traffic
Identify which competitors are getting the most organic traffic each month. You can analyze this traffic at the domain, subfolder, subdomain and URL levels (more on this in the next section) to quickly identify the largest traffic opportunities.
Enter the estimated monthly organic traffic numbers into the Visibility Overview section of your template:
Right away, I can see that Daily Dog Stuff is getting considerably less organic traffic each month than most of its competitors. Lots of opportunity!
Organic Traffic (Trend Graph)
Similar to keyword growth, you’ll need to check the organic traffic growth of competitors.
Focus on the sites that have positive organic traffic growth over the last 12 months:
Enter your competitor into the Site Explorer and go to the Overview >> Organic Search report:
Note whether organic traffic is:
- Growing consistently
- Seeing hockey stick growth
Traffic Value (Trend Graph)
A positive increase in traffic value could indicate a competitor who is scaling traffic across more commercial intent keyword sets.
Here’s what it looks like for Ahrefs:
Note: The Ahrefs Traffic Value metric is an estimation. Specifically, it is the value of a website’s organic traffic, if that traffic was bought via Google Ads.
Go to the Ahrefs Site Explorer >> Overview report and select the Organic Search tab. Scroll down to the Traffic Value report.
Enter the values into the Visibility Overview section of the competitor analysis template:
Growth in Referring Domains
The referring domains growth rate graph indicates if competitors are actively building new links:
When it comes to developing your own link building strategy, focus on the competitors that have shown consistent growth over the last 12 months. These sites will typically reveal the best opportunities (more on this later).
Go to the Ahrefs Site Explorer Overview report and select the Backlink profile tab:
Note whether the backlink profile is:
- Growing consistently
- Seeing hockey stick growth
Top Amplification (Social) Channels
The final metric to benchmark is the number of social shares competitor articles receive. Getting content in front of more people can indirectly lead to more backlinks as well as brand building.
The Top Content report in Ahrefs ranks pages by the number of social shares they’ve received:
Note: Results sorted by Social Power (SP) shows the median of social shares across all social networks currently tracked by Ahrefs.
Alternatively, enter “site:domain.com” into Content Explorer and sort by median shares. For example, enter “site:ahrefs.com”:
Identify which social channels tend to get the most engagement for each competitor:
This insight can help you identify other channels to start amplifying your content across and reach a new audience.
A Quick Note about the Ahrefs Batch Analysis Report
The best way to check for companies doing things right is to analyze the data in the trend graphs above.
But if you want to pull a quick snapshot of a few competitors, then you can run the Batch Analysis Report:
It allows you to check important SEO metrics for up to 200 URLs or domains at a time:
The report – which you can export – shows you the number of backlinks and referring domains, URL Rating (UR) and Domain Rating (DR), number of ranking keywords, estimated organic traffic, and more.
You can use this report to quickly fill in key metrics for the Visibility Overview and Backlinks Overview reports.
Editor’s Note: The previous section should have provided a solid competitor benchmark. At a top level, you should understand how you stack up against top competitors in terms of traffic and authority, and have a general sense of the biggest gaps and opportunities for growth.
In the following sections, we’re going to dive much deeper across each of the 3 pillars - technical, on-page and off-page - in order to extract actionable insights that will help level-up your SEO campaigns.
Step #3: Technical Competitor SEO Analysis
In this section, you’ll learn what Technical SEO factors to focus on when you analyzing your competitors.
A logical site structure helps search engines and users navigate and rank content. It can also help web crawlers access and index all of the site’s pages.
Content silos are a way of grouping together topically‐related web pages via internal links. They help form a hierarchy of hubpages and subpages.
For example, a site about countries and cities would have England as a hub page linking internally to subpages like Manchester, London, and Birmingham:
Because content silos are built through internal links, it’s easier for search engines and users to understand the site structure.
It’s important to analyze competitors to see how they are organizing their content, and use the insights to map out or optimize your own site structure.
Editor’s Note: You can use the Ahrefs Top Subfolders and Subdomains report to see how your competitors are organizing content, and which sections of the site contain the most pages and drive the most organic traffic/ value each month:
Here are a few examples of sites using subfolders and subdomains to categorize their products and services:
Ecommerce site Beardbrand list all their products under the “/collections” subfolder:
Note: if I was starting my own beard products website, I would definitely start the keyword research process by drilling into the /collections subfolder to see all the category and product pages that are driving traffic to the site:
Clicking the Pages link will take me to the Top Pages report specifically for the /collections subfolder:
Repeat this step for 3-5 primary competitors and you’ll have a nice list of lower funnel keywords/ topics to target.
Orbit Media Studios – a Chicago-based web design agency – uses the “/services” subfolder to create content silos for their four core service offerings:
- Strategy & Analytics
- Web Design & UX
- Web Development
- Analytics & Optimization
From there, you can navigate to specific services:
Other sites use subdomains rather than subfolders to categorize their pages. For example, Beardoholic uses the “.shop” subdomain for its products:
Note: you can also use the Ahrefs Subdomains report to quickly identify all the subdomains a competitor is using to house content and drive traffic:
If your business has multiple office locations; e.g. London, Manchester, Birmingham, then you should use location as a subfolder in the URL to help the site rank for local searches.
For example, UK estate agent Reeds Rains has over 170 branches nationwide.
Each branch has its own location subfolder structure consisting of:
Branch services page:
Property listings page:
Enter each competitor into the Ahrefs Site Explorer and navigate to each of the Top Subfolders and Subdomains reports. Enter the five highest traffic subfolders and/or subdomains into the competitor analysis template:
Note: the affiliate pet sites in our working example don’t house content in subfolders or subdomains. All content is housed directly off the root domain.
But, you would just enter the subfolder URLs and the estimated monthly organic traffic directly from the Ahrefs Top Subfolders report.
One more area to check in the site structure is to see if competitors are building authority to deep (sub) pages through internal links.
For example, if you check the Best Pages by Incoming Links for Beardbrand, you can see they’ve built a high number of links to their product pages (in the “/collections” subfolder):
Click through the internal links for a few of the product/service pages to see how competitors are channeling link equity to their most valuable posts/ pages. Use the insights to guide your own internal link strategy.
Competitors ranking with poor site structure, top-heavy authority distribution, and lower quality content, can signal a huge opportunity.
These insights will help in the subfolder keyword analysis in the next section.
Top-Level Navigation (TLN) Analysis
Top-Level Navigation refers to the main menu and navigation of a website. Search engines and users want a clear path to the important pages.
In the earlier examples from Orbit Media and Beardbrand, you can see all the important pages are clearly labeled and linked from the main menu.
Analyze competitor sites to see if they have any weak spots in their TLN:
- Are their main pages linked to from the TLN?
- Are they using optimized titles/anchors in the TLN?
- Can users find important pages with minimal clicks (1-3)?
- How are the main navigation links categorized?
Looking at how your competitors are categorizing links in the main navigation can not only provide great seed keywords ideas, but also give you insights into how to silo content on your site.
If a website has content in different languages, it needs to use the “hreflang” meta tag to ensure users see the correct version. The tag tells the search engines what language is being used.
For example, a page containing hreflang=”es-ES” tells Google to serve this page if the user is a spanish speaker based in Spain.
If competitor sites are targeting different countries, check they’re using hreflang correctly.
For example, Spanish weather site Tu Tiempo offers multi-language pages:
Right-click + “View Page Source” and search for “hreflang” code:
Results show that pages are available in Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, and Italian.
Similarly, we can see that Shopify is using hreflang to target dozens of different languages:
If you notice competitors are getting a lot of international traffic by using subdomains or subfolders to target different languages, you might want to put this on your SEO roadmap too.
Similar to the previous examples, click the Pages link to see which specific pages in the subdomain/ subfolder are driving the most traffic for each language.
Make a note of any competitors using hreflang in the competitor analysis template:
Google has been using site speed as a ranking factor since 2010.
Enter each competitor domain into the Google Pagespeed Insights tools and add the speed scores to the analysis template:
If you have a lower page speed score than most of your competitors, dig into the reports to find out the main source of the issue:
Shaving just a few tenths of a second off your load time can significantly improve your rank and conversion potential. This is one of the first opportunities I look at when performing an SEO competitor analysis for clients.
By the end of 2018, Statista reported that 57 percent of organic search engine visits in the US occur on mobile devices:
And it’s fair to say, the trend will only increase.
Furthermore, in March 2018 Google launched its mobile-first indexing, which means they now index the mobile version of a website first rather than the desktop version.
Bottom line: Google favors mobile-friendly sites.
You can use Google's Mobile-Friendly Test to check if competitor pages are optimized:
And then check the results:
By now, you should have a good technical lay of the land and see some immediate growth opportunities.
As you work through the template, make notes in the relevant row so that you can return to these once the analysis is completed and use them to compile a list of action items:
Step #4: On-Page Competitor SEO Analysis
In this section, we’ll take a deeper look at how your competitors are structuring and optimizing their content for rankings and organic traffic.
In the Keyword Research Playbook, you’ll learn how to find, qualify, prioritize and map keyword data across sites of any size:
Screenshots of the Aggregate and Keyword Mapping tabs in The SEO Playbook.
Competitor Keyword Analysis
When you’re analyzing competitor keywords it’s important to remember your monetization model:
- Ecommerce sites will prioritize bottom-funnel commercial intent terms
- Affiliate sites will prioritize mid-funnel investigational terms
- AdSense sites will prioritize high-volume informational terms
Wirecutter is an affiliate site monetizing primarily through mid-funnel content:
They want to rank for investigational keywords with modifiers like “best”, “alternative”, “comparison”, etc. to attract visitors to their affiliate-linked product reviews.
If you look at their site, you’ll notice they house all their product reviews under the “/reviews” subfolder:
If you enter the Wirecutter domain in Ahrefs and navigate to the Top Pages report, you’ll see most of the pages contain the “/reviews” subfolder, although the top-performing page is the homepage:
However, you can filter the results by entering the reviews subfolder and switching to “Prefix” mode (dropdown at the end of the search bar) to return only the content under that folder:
You can also add a Position filter to get the pages that rank in positions 1-3.
Now you’ll see only the top-ranking product review search terms driving organic traffic to their site:
Note: similar to the Top Subfolders report in the previous section, you can see how many keywords each review is ranking for, how much organic traffic the page gets each month, and the estimated value of that traffic if you were to pay for it in Google Ads.
These metrics give you an idea of the traffic potential around a specific keyword and/ or topic. This is invaluable as you plan and prioritize your content pipeline.
Next, click the dropdown on any page to see all the related investigational keywords; e.g. “best humidifier”, “best room humidifier”, “best humidifier for the bedroom” etc:
If Wirecutter was a primary competitor of your affiliate website, you would start the the competitor keyword research process right here on the /reviews subfolder.
If applicable, enter the top traffic subfolders/ subdomains for each of your competitors:
Remember: prioritize the subfolder/subdomain analysis based on search intent and your site’s monetization model (as mentioned earlier).
You can use the Top Pages report in Ahrefs to discover all the high traffic generating pages on a competitor site.
It’s important to apply filters to the report so you can find the right topics for your site monetization model.
Let’s take a look.
1) Commercial Intent
You can check Beardbrand’s top commercial intent pages by applying a few filters to the Top Pages report:
- Select Positions 1-5 for the top-ranking pages
- Set the Word Count >2 to exclude branded terms
- Include only the subfolder “/collections” to target the product pages
In the report, you can see the top page on the topic of “beard oil” brings in 5,098 visitors a month, which accounts for 59% of the monthly organic traffic going to the /collections subfolder:
The second best page – on the topic of “mustache wax” – attracts 879 visitors a month which equals 10% of the total traffic.
That’s a significant difference.
2) Informational Intent
Traffic numbers for informational intent search terms are higher than commercial intent.
You can see this in the Top Pages report for Healthline.
Let’s focus on their Nutrition content.
Set the filters as follows:
- Use the URL subfolder “/nutrition” in Prefix mode
- Select Positions 1-3 for the top-ranking pages
- Set the Word Count >2 to exclude branded terms
In the report, you can see that Healthline’s top traffic page for the nutrition category is on the topic of the “keto diet”. It generates 256,356 visitors a month and accounts for 3% of the total traffic.
Similar figures apply to the second-placed topic of “calorie counter” that attracts 216,760 visitors and accounts for 2% of their traffic.
So, although traffic figures are higher than we saw for commercial intent pages, they are more evenly distributed because they need to drive a ton of traffic to monetize through AdSense.
Use the Ahrefs Top Pages report to find which posts/pages are driving the organic traffic to your competitor’s site each month. Enter the top 5 results into the Top Pages/Posts section of the SEO competitor analysis template:
Content Gap Analysis
The Content Gap report lets you make direct comparisons with your competitors to see what keywords they rank for, but you don’t.
Plus, you can add filters to find specific search intent keywords.
Let’s see how this works for Beardbrand’s competitors.
1) Domain level
First let’s find the keywords that Beardoholic, Baldingbeards, and Badassbeardcare are ranking for at the domain level.
In this example, I’ve set the following conditions:
All of the targets have to rank for the keyword
At least one of the targets should rank in the top 10
The word count is greater than 1 to avoid branded keywords
Here’s the report:
Loads of untapped keyword opportunities, even for a big industry player such as Beardbrand.
2) Prefix level
Using the prefix filter, you can compare commercial intent keywords that “shop.beardoholic.com” has, but “breadbrand.com/collections” does not.
In this example, I’ve set the following conditions:
- Any of the targets have to rank for the keyword
- At least one of the targets should rank in the top 10
- The word count is greater than 1 to avoid branded keywords
Here’s the report:
Notice the different set of keywords each report produces. A clear commercial intent opportunity for Beardbrand could be to add another product page for “beard shaper tool”.
As shown above, use the URL filters to perform a targeted keyword gap analysis.
Enter the top five keywords for each relevant intent bucket:
Note: if you are analyzing affiliates websites and the content is not organized in a subfolder, you can use modifiers to extract high value keyword targets:
Secondary Keyword Analysis
One of the best ways to increase organic traffic is to get your content to rank for more keywords.
Sites like Wirecutter are experts at ranking for additional secondary keywords in their content.
For example, their top ranking review on “best washer and dryer” ranks for 7,879 different keywords:
Note: The primary keyword “best washer and dryer” (29,000 monthly searches) only brings in 9% of the page’s overall monthly organic traffic. The rest comes from the other 7,879 secondary related keywords.
Using Ahref’s Content Gap tool, you can find and add relevant related keywords to an article.
For example, looking at the SERPs, you can see Beardoholic ranks in 9th position for the topic “beard styles” with 2,355 keywords. But their competitor Beardbrand ranks in 4th position with 5,008 keywords:
Here’s how Beardoholic can find those additional keywords.
Head over to the Site Explorer and enter the URL of your content. Make sure you select “Exact URL” from the dropdown:
Next, in the Content Gap tool, enter the competing article from Beardbrand using the “Exact URL” option:
Note: selecting “Exact URL” ensures you are comparing the two articles rather than the whole domain.
Click “Show Keywords” to see a list of all the keywords the competing article from Beardbrand is ranking for, but the Beardoholic article is not:
In this example, Ahrefs found a total of 161 secondary keywords – ranking in the Top 10 and all with a high monthly volume – that Beardoholic could add to their existing article.
If you want to steal some traffic from your competitors without necessarily outranking them, then you need to get a Featured Snippet and occupy Position 0.
According to research from Ahrefs, Featured Snippets get more click-throughs by stealing 8.6% of the clicks that would usually go to Position 1:
The good news is that even if you don’t rank in Position 1, you can still grab a Featured Snippet and increase your traffic:
Here’s how to find Featured Snippet opportunities in Ahrefs.
Let’s say Beardoholic wants to find Featured Snippet opportunities for the “beard style” topic.
In Keywords Explorer, enter the term “beard style”. Then navigate to the “Phrase match” report and select “Featured snippet” from the SERP features:
Ahrefs finds 25 different featured snippet opportunities for the seed term “beard style” that Beardoholic could target:
You can also use the Ahrefs Organic Keywords report find all the featured snippets a competitor occupies. For example, we can see that Daily Dog Stuff currently has 356 featured snippet placements in the US, 17 in the UK, 9 in Australia etc:
Enter the number of featured snippets for each of your competitors into the analysis template:
Next - use the tactics outlined in this guide to optimize your content for featured snippets and outrank your competitors.
It’s easy to overlook the different types of content that are already ranking in the SERPs. Analyze the Top 10 and check what type of content works for a given search term:
- Blog posts
- Product pages
- Category pages
- Third party sites
For instance, if Google is showing a series of ‘How to’ blog posts in the Top 10, it’s unlikely you’d be able to get a product page to rank for the same search term.
Compare the results for the search terms “beard oil” and “beard style”:
- “beard oil” results are mainly product pages with a couple of reviews:
- “beard style” results in blog posts (‘lists’ plus ‘how to’):
Usually, you’ll find one content type dominates the Top 10 search results. Once you know what type of content satisfies user intent.
SERP analysis is critical to the keyword qualification process.
Case in point:
I was working with a B2B client that was trying to rank for the term “interactive infographics”. They had been trying to rank a product page, but no matter how many links they built to the page it could never break onto the first page of Google.
After analyzing the SERP, it became clear why the client was not ranking. It had nothing to do with links or content quality. They were simply targeting the term with the wrong content type.
The first page was filled with long form blog posts, not product pages. So, we built our own long form list post and quickly had the client ranking #1 for the target term, along with hundreds of other secondary keywords.
The client went from getting around 366 organic visits a month to the old page, to almost 10,000 organic visits a month to the new post:
Bottom line: always assess the content types ranking in the SERPs before you create any content or build a single link.
One final thing to remember when analyzing competitors’ content is not directly SEO-related.
Let me explain.
Optimizing your content is worthless if you fail to convert the increased traffic into something of value; i.e. subscriber, leads or sales.
You also need to check competitor sites and understand their conversion and monetization strategies. For example:
- What CTAs are they using?
- How are they placing their offers?
- Do they have any social proof?
- Are they selling products, promoting affiliate offers or monetizing with ad impressions?
Let’s look at an example.
Wirecutter structures all their review pages with the important headline information at the top of the page including affiliate links to purchase the offers.
It’s what is known as the Inverted Pyramid of Writing - an established journalistic framework and powerful SEO copywriting technique:
Vicki Maver: “It’s called the Inverted Pyramid of Writing. And it’s not new. In fact, it’s an age-old journalistic formula – and a fail-safe structure for writing press releases and news stories.”
Take a look at this review page for The Best microSD Cards:
- The NEED to know - The winning product is named and linked to in the first paragraph. The message is clear – here’s the winner, you don’t have to read anything else if you don’t want to:
- The HELPFUL to know - The next section has a smaller font size, which gives the impression it’s not so important. The runners-up are announced and linked to.
The NICE to know - This is a recap section with images and links to the three featured products. Plus there’s an opt-in form to get readers to subscribe to the daily deals and weekly newsletter.
- The REMAINDER - after these opening sections comes a TOC with links to the comprehensive research. The remainder of the article still has affiliate links in the text, but they’re not as prominent as the opening sections.
By placing the information in order of importance, Wirecutter increases their chances of conversion – i.e. readers clicking on an affiliate link or signing up to the newsletter. If people want to read all the details, then that follows later. It’s a win-win strategy.
Are they only selling products? Are they monetizing through ad revenue? Are they an Amazon affiliate? Do they have dedicated affiliate partnerships?
For example, I can see that Pawster has an affiliate partnership with Chewy:
In the analysis template, make a note of how your competitors are building an audience, converting and monetizing traffic:
Step #5: Off-Page Competitor SEO Analysis
Off-Page SEO focuses on the activities away from your content that can improve search rankings. The most referenced is link building, but any promotional activity that drives traffic to your site could be classed as Off-Page SEO.
Competitor Link Analysis
Backlinks (along with content and RankBrain) help you rank higher in Google.
But does it matter if the backlinks are at the domain level or page level?
According to Backlinko, “the number of domains linking to a page correlated with rankings more than any other factor.”
i.e. the more domains that link to you, the higher you rank in Google.
And, another study by Ahrefs found backlinks at the page-level have a much higher correlation with Google ranking than those at the domain-level:
Bottom line: links have a huge impact on your authority, rankings and overall organic traffic potential. As a result, we’ll be dedicated most of this section to competitor backlink analysis.
Specifically, you'll learn how to:
- Find content types most likely to attract links
- Identify proven link building strategies
- Discover which sources link to multiple competitors
- See if competitors are using PBNs to accelerate link acquisition
- Determine the rate at which you’ll need to acquire links on an ongoing basis to remain competitive in the SERPs
Linkable Content Types
In Site Explorer, enter a competitor’s domain and go to “Pages > Best by links” to see the most linked-to pages on that domain:
Frequently, the homepage gets the most links. But after that, you start to see a pattern of the most linked-to content type.
For service-based business Orbit Media (above) it’s blog posts. But for ecommerce site Beardbrand (below) it’s predominantly product pages:
In the case of our pet website example, you can see that Herepup is getting a lot of its links from informational list-based content:
Check the competing domains in your niche to see what type of content is most likely to attract links.
Add the top five most linked-to URLs for each competitor, along with the number of referring domains, to your competitor analysis template:
Top Link Building Strategies
Next, you want to find where your competitors get their backlinks from; e.g. blogs, forums, directories, guest posts etc.
Do they have a common source or is it a mixture of sites?
Go to Site Explorer and enter a competitor's domain. Then go to “Backlink profile > Referring domains” and set the “Dofollow” filter:
Explore these domains to find patterns as to where the links are coming from. Are they in blog posts? Are they mentions in forums?
- Beardbrand has 902links from community forum Reddit:
- Orbit Media has 32 links from the Constant Contact blog:
- K9ofmine is using a combination of guest posts:
And infographic outreach to land links from very authoritative websites:
Use the Ahrefs Referring Domains report to analyze the source of your competitor’s backlinks.
If you notice any common strategies being used to build links, make a note in the Link Building Strategies section of the competitor analysis template:
Backlinks Gaps (and High-Probability Targets)
If you can find sites linking to more than one competitor, then there’s a high probability they’ll link to your content, too.
Sounds good, but how do you find them?
The Ahrefs Link Intersect Tool lets you quickly find all the websites linking to your competitors multiple times.
Click the “More” dropdown menu and select "Link intersect" to get started:
Enter up to 10 competing domains/URLs into the top “Show me who is linking to these domains or URLs” section.
Add your domain/URL under the “But doesn’t link to (optional)” section.
Click “Show link opportunities”:
The report shows you all the websites linking to one or more of the competing domains/URLs you entered, but not your site.
In this example, 1311 domains are linking to beardoholic.com, baldingbeards.com, and badassbeardcare.com that are not linking to beardbrand.com.
The results are ordered by the highest number of link intersects:
You can click the link numbers below each URL to see the individual links:
Editor’s Note: Similar to the content gap analysis in the on-page section, you can break up the backlink gap analysis by search intent.
Do you want to find which sites are linking to your competitor’s product and category pages?
You can use the filters in the Link Intersect Tool to drill down to the backlink gaps at a subfolder/ subdomain level:
Where applicable, break up your backlink gap analysis by intent bucket to find the most laser focused link opportunities for your most important pages.
Enter backlink opportunities into the appropriate section in the Backlink Gaps section of the analysis template:
Recurring Backlink Sources
You may have noticed already that some sites get recurring links from the same source; e.g. Constant Contact linking to Orbit Media.
If you spot a competitor getting links over and over again from the same website, it means there’s an opportunity for you to jump in.
- They’re probably open to link requests
- They like linking to the topic or niche
You can use the Ahrefs Link Intersect Tool again to find these recurring backlink sources.
Enter a competitor domain into Site Explorer and navigate to “Pages > Best by links”. Add a filter for the HTTP status code “200 ok”:
Either use the Export option or copy/paste the top 10 URLs (excluding the homepage) into a spreadsheet.
Now copy/paste the URLs into the Link Intersect Tool and select “URL” from the dropdown next to each one.
Leave the “But doesn’t link to” section blank.
And click “Show link opportunities”:
The report shows a list of domains that link to your competitor’s website at least once:
You can also order the list by DR to identify the best quality websites to target.
Enter your competitor’s top recurring link sources into the analysis template:
Note: only enter domains that are both authoritative and topically relevant. The next step will be working through the recurring link sources to identify which strategy you’ll need to use to land a link from those sites too.
Link Velocity Targets
After analyzing a competitors’ link building strategies you’ll have an idea of how many links you need to rank for a term at a given point in time.
Unfortunately, the top sites keep building more links to their best content. And that means you need to keep pace if you want to outrank them.
So how many new links do you need to acquire each month to remain competitive?
Enter a competitor URL in Site Explorer and navigate to “Backlink profile > Backlinks”. Then click “New”:
The report shows the number of new backlinks won and lost over 7 days:
Set the period to 30 days, and then scroll down the page.
You can see that the “beard oil” URL has received 15 new backlinks over the past 30 days:
But you also need to check the quality and relevancy of the links.
The DR column shows some high and low ratings.
You can sort the results by highest DR to see how many quality backlinks they’ve received:
In this example, only a small handful or the backlinks are “good”.
Note: It’s better to have 5-10 medium-high DR links from related sites than 50-100 low-quality backlinks!
Based on this link analysis, you can set a target velocity metric for each page. In our example, you’d need about 3-4 high-quality backlinks a month to keep pace with Beardbrand’s “beard oil” page.
Ahrefs also lets you check if competitors are using any risky link building techniques, like PBNs, which Google does not like.
In Site Explorer, navigate to “Backlink profile > Referring IPs”.
If the site is building PBN links, you’ll see lots of links from the same network of IPs:
If there’s no suspicious link building, expect to see low numbers like this:
If a competitor is building low-quality backlinks, you can adjust your link velocity target down.
Identify whether or not your competitors are using PBNs to rank:
Anchor Text Distribution
The final backlink check to make is the anchor text distribution of your competition.
Sites with unnatural, over-optimized anchor text are at risk of a Google penalty.
Ideally, you want a healthy mix of branded, generic, exact, and partial match anchor text, as well as some naked URLs, like this “beard oil” page for Beardbrand:
If you spot anchor text that matches the product or service, like “beard oil” above, then click the “Details” dropdown to find the referring domains:
High-quality referring domains that link with specific product anchor text are worth contacting to see if they’ll link to your competing product.
Flag whether your competitors are using healthy or overoptimized anchor text ratios:
Use the Competitive Analysis to Guide Your SEO Strategy
By now, your competitive analysis template should be filled with insights highlighting the biggest weaknesses and growth opportunities in your SEO strategy:
But, your job is only half done. You need to act on the findings.
- Do your competitors have more referring domains pointing to their content?
If yes, focus more resources on building backlinks. If no, shift focus to content creation.
- Do your competitors get more monthly organic traffic?
If yes, use the top pages/ subfolders and content gap analysis to find where that traffic is coming from.
- Is your competitor’s backlink profile growing quickly?
If yes, use the insights from the Backlink Overview section of the analysis template to find out which content types and strategies they are using to drive that growth, and replicate it in your business.
- Are competitors using hreflang to target users in different locations?
If yes, determine if they are using cTLDs, subdomains or subfolders. And, identify which countries are driving the most organic traffic each month. Use these insights to build out your international SEO strategy.
- How are competitors building an audience and monetizing traffic?
In the case of our working example, most of the competitors were using Amazon, Chewy and Google AdSense to monetize traffic. For an ecommerce store, you could use the content gap findings in the Visibility Overview section of the analysis template to build a list of products and categories to add to your site, and model how the competition is positioning the product features/benefits/CTA.
These are all pretty straightforward examples, but the key takeaway is to use this competitor analysis process to pinpoint growth opportunities, and use them as a proven roadmap for your SEO strategy.
Ready to get started? Sign up for a 7-day trial of Ahrefs and download a copy of the competitive analysis template.
Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below.