When I am analyzing opportunities for improvements to websites or digital campaigns, one of the first places I look to is how effective the site is at attracting new visitors from search engines or referrers.
For a typical examination of site performance, analysts will review the amount of traffic that a site is attracting through SEO and determine as best as possible which phrases the site is gaining traffic from. This examination is decided based on looking at the Web analytics on the current site. For this article, I want to talk about a quick and simple method for reviewing competitive SEO placements and determining the value of SEO opportunities. In analyzing why competitors are getting placement for specific search phrases, it is important to look at some of the page/site attributes that enabled them to appear on search engine results pages.
There are many attributes that search engines such as Google, Bing, and Yahoo consider when determining the placement of links on search results pages. Search engines look at many page and site attributes, such as the number of high-value back links, URL structures, content targeting, social mentions, page load times, alt tags, and even negative page attributes such as keyphrase “stuffing.” The importance of individual attributes seems to change from subject to subject. For example, if I search for the phrase “pizza restaurant,” the proximity of the address on the Web page to my physical location when I performed the search seems to matter more than other attributes. On the other hand, if I search for the phrase “Obama speech,” then the freshness of the content seems to play a more important role in determining relevance in the search results.
This shifting of relevancy attributes can make it difficult to understand why a competitor site appears above your site in a search engine results page. For the sake of creating a quick and effective process for analyzing SEO rankings of competitors, we are going to look at five attributes that are consistently important in determining page relevancy. These attributes are back links, domain authority, keyphrase density, and keyphrase styling. With these page and site attributes in mind, let’s look at a simple process for determining the value of SEO optimization.
1. Determine the Volume of SEO Traffic
The first step is to make a list of keyphrases that your prospective users and customers will likely use on search engines. We often generate this list through internal and external surveys asking prospects, customers, sales reps, and customer support staff to describe the problems that customers face and how your product or service solves those problems. The number of search phrases you will want on your list will depend on how comprehensive you want your research to be. We will typically start with a small list of 50 to 100 search phrases, made up of both general and long-tail phrases, to see if we can generate a positive return on investment (ROI) targeting those. If we need more traffic to justify a budget, we will expand the list to more phrases. From there, you will want to estimate the volume of each search phrase within search engines. There are many good tools for estimating search volume; a free and easy to use tool is the Google Keyword Planner. With your keyword list and a good tool for estimating traffic, you can see the approximate opportunity for SEO traffic volume by phrase (and category of phrases).
2. Review Current Keyphrase Targeting of Competitors
The next step is very insightful about how organized and focused your competitors (or comparators) are. For the search phrases that seem to provide the best opportunity in terms of search volume and prospect qualification, perform a search in a popular search engine and note which links appear high up in the organic results.
Take those links and analyze them with a tool that measures elements such as keyphrase density and styling. There are many great tools out there. I personally prefer the simplicity and straightforward features of www.ranks.nl. Make note of how the top-ranking pages are targeting the search phrases with styling that denotes relevance such as headers, titles, URL mentions, and anchor links. Study the keyphrase density of the target phrases (i.e. number of mentions per number of words on the page) and the use of synonyms. Also note how many phrases they are targeting per page. This will give you a good idea of how well competitors are targeting phrases to get search traffic and give you an idea of how targeted your content will need to be.
3. Review Back Links and Domain Authority of Competitors
Next, take the same URLs that you are using to analyze keyphrase density and review the back links to those pages, as well as the back links to the root domain, and the domain authority of each site. Again, there are many great tools out there for analyzing site back links and domain authority. I prefer the ease of use of MajesticSEO and MOZ. It is worthwhile in performing this analysis to look at data on the top three links in the search results for each phrase that you wish to target. This will give you a good idea of the relative importance of back links required to appear in the top search results for this phrase. If you want to perform a more comprehensive analysis of the SEO competition, break down the links by type (i.e. social, educational, etc), freshness (i.e. new links in the last six months), and domain authority.
Once you have performed this analysis, you will have two important pieces of a large SEO puzzle. You should have a relative understanding of how a competitor used (1) content targeting and (2) linking strategy to gain SEO traffic for desirable search terms. Please remember that while content targeting and backlinks are important attributes of SEO relevancy, there are still many other attributes that matter and they do change frequently.
4. Develop a ROI Model Based Upon Assumed (or Known) Conversion Rates
The next step is my favorite: Based on the estimated click-through rates of search engine results page impressions by position, determine how much traffic you think the top competitors are getting from the desired phrases. Then, look at the relative value of that traffic in terms of assumed conversion rates. This will change significantly between product types, different sales cycles, and industries. But you can develop multiple models assuming your competitors either have worse visitor-to-customer conversion ratios than your site or far better. We will typically assume that a customer has a relatively similar value to each competitor in a given space.
This describes a high-level process for analyzing how competitors are attracting SEO traffic and the value of that traffic. It does not take into account elements such as how diverse or focused a competitor’s SEO efforts are or how different relevancy attributes between phrase types can be. We use this process often to find untapped opportunities in traffic acquisition and content development as well as a process for justifying optimization budget. It is very common that as we are analyzing ROI opportunities for site optimization, that developing targeted content to improve SEO is the best opportunity for a typical digital channel.