Standard operating procedure for business is often based on analyzing, comparing, and copying your competitors. Competitive benchmarking exists across all company functions, from financial performance to customer satisfaction, from brand recognition to product quality. Contrary to the common use of benchmarking in business, my experience with SEO (define) suggests that benchmarking for SEO best practices within your industry may be the kiss of death - or it will at least set you walking down a completely inappropriate path. Perhaps this is because SEO is still in its infancy as an industry, or perhaps SEO is just so different from anything else we've ever seen.
Most SEO engagements follow a very predictable business consulting pattern: pay retainer, set goals, benchmark competitors, implement tactics, measure results, rinse/ repeat. The pitch: "Let's see where you rank and where your competitors rank for a set of specific terms. We will then implement (insert competitor's tactic) to drive results and show you those results." Unsophisticated SEO consultants - and their more unsophisticated clients - will set these ranking benchmarks and then report back on their ability to move their client's rankings with respect to a competitive set.
It's not just consultants who follow this pattern. In-house SEOs are especially prone to demonstrating their value to their boss by benchmarking competitors' rankings and copying competitors' tactics. This approach is particularly tempting, as the web is replete with analytical tools to help you determine exactly what your competitors rank for and what tactics they may be employing.
Competitive benchmarking can include checking rankings, identifying keywords, and understanding tactics. However, due to the complex nature of SEO, benchmarking competitors' strategies and tactics may be at best an extremely frustrating exercise. Worse case, your competitors can walk you right into very big trouble. If you spend a lot of time trying to decipher what your competitors are doing, consider the following three issues and re-evaluate your approach.
Competitors May Not Follow Best Practices
It's fairly easy to assume, especially when competing with large established brands, that their SEO house is in order and that's why they are so successful in ranking. The reality is, they may be ranking simply because they are large, established brands. Their domain is old. They have lots of links. They have widespread brand recognition. These factors enable them to rank regardless of how poor their SEO fundamentals are.
Following their lead may encourage you to adopt their worst practices. Copying competitors' worst-of breed tactics without the domain age or link strength is a dangerous practice. (This issue will undoubtedly get worse as Google's personalized search pushes more people to brands they've already visited.)
Competitors Have a Different Authority Profile
You may be tempted to think, "We're both in the same industry, so we should be able to implement similar tactics and get a similar result." You may even take the next logical step: "We both sell ski goggles and we have the same page rank, so surely if I copy their tactics, I can sell more ski goggles." (Yes, page rank is extremely suspect, yet I hear this rationalization all the time.) This is an overly simplistic approach.
When you peel away the onion on a given site, authority profiles can be extremely complex, vastly different, and mostly impossible to really understand. The link profile for two identical PR sites can be vastly different: number of links, domain diversity, deep links, anchor text, in-links from domains owned by you, and more. Copying a competitor's tactics assuming you can get similar results just because you operate in the same industry and have matching page rank is inane.
Competitors May Be Playing Dirty
Depending on the industry, if someone is ranking, it may be because they are extremely good at black-hat technology. Everyone needs to determine where they fall on the white/black spectrum, but blindly following a competitor's tactics just because they are ranking can quickly walk you down the path of chasing the latest black-hat technique. If you're pushing porn or pills, this may be appropriate - but for us with lawyers, not so much. I regularly see newcomers in the legal directory space jumping up in search results only to disappear two or three months later. If we benchmarked and copied their tactics, we'd probably disappear, too. Forever.
Don't assume established brands aren't employing black-hat techniques. Time after time, we hear about well-known brands being penalized. A close cousin to the "playing dirty" problem is testing. Blindly following smart competitors who are constantly testing new (and potentially crazy) ideas can lead you down a rabbit hole, by stumbling into one of these tests, assuming it is a best practice, and rolling it out across your site.
At best, benchmarking your competitors will focus your resources on aspiring to be just as bad as they are. At worst, you will get penalized. So what is an SEO to do? Instead of benchmarking within your industry, look beyond to other sites that seem to really get it. Find companies who have been around for a while and are consistently succeeding in search. Cross-industry benchmarking has been remarkably effective outside of the SEO industry. The most famous example is from Southwest Airlines. In their efforts to reduce their on-ground turnaround times (a key performance indicator for discount airlines), they didn't look at a competitor with the fastest turnaround times. They turned to NASCAR pit crews to develop industry-leading turnaround times.
Stop benchmarking your competitors. There is more to be learned outside your industry than within.
This column originally appeared in the March 2010 edition of SES Magazine.
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Conrad Saam runs marketing for Avvo, a Seattle-based Internet company that has revolutionized the way consumers navigate the legal industry. He oversees the firm's PPC, SEO, social media, online marketing, e-mail, and Web analytics initiatives. Avvo grew from concept to market leader in the legal directory space just two years after launch. You can follow Conrad on Twitter: @ConradSaam.
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