Competitive research is a common and necessary task in any marketing landscape. This practice is particularly crucial in digital marketing because the ecosystem rapidly changes and brands constantly battle against each other for users across multiple platforms.
In the ideal scenario, performing competitive content research illuminates where your brand’s online content falters compared to competitors. With this information, you can solder the frail links in your marketing strategy and try to usurp the competition with superior content. The results should improve your brand’s content authority, keyword rankings, and organic share of voice.
However, competitive research rarely offers cut-and-dry wins. Your best practice acumen must be strong enough to scrounge for insights among multiple sources with varying content quality. You need to understand what content matters and what’s fluff. And ultimately, you have to know why some choices are more valuable and useful than others.
All of these factors make competitive research tricky. Because if you don’t discern the best content decisions, then you’re going to step into a pitfall trap and end up in a worse spot than before the research — especially if you emulate competitors whose approach to content is wrong, inadequate, or a bad fit for your ideal users.
To prevent turning your brand into a cautionary tale, you need to carefully choose what competitors you research, locate relevant pain points, and determine how effective their marketing strategy is.
Identifying competitors: Avoid the narrow path
When we think of competitors, we often think about direct competitors — the brands that offer similar products or solutions and vie for the same users online and in brick-and-mortar stores, such as Patagonia versus Prana.
Evaluating direct competitors’ content is a great place to start competitive research, but this narrow view is only half of the digital marketing equation. You need to widen your path and analyze how your content stacks up against SERP competitors, too. This panoramic view is even more important for small businesses that compete with national chains, like a local independent bookstore versus Barnes & Noble.
Unfortunately, many companies overlook the value of analyzing SERP rankings and organic share of voice for their vertical. Sometimes, this choice is because a brand doesn’t directly compete with the websites that rank in the top positions. In other scenarios, a company won’t have the resources to tackle both segments at once and must focus on either direct competition or SERP rankings.
Regardless of the situation, excluding researching SERP competitors in favor of your direct competition is an enormous mistake.
For example, let’s say you’re shopping for rock climbing pants and are indifferent to the brand you buy. Patagonia and Prana both sell climbing pants that you can purchase directly from their website and both brands rank for “rock climbing pants” on the first page. However, neither brand breaks above the fold with its rankings. Patagonia ranks in position seven and Prana is in position eight.
The top organic position is owned by a niche climbing website with a review of different climbing pants. This website has a domain authority of 50, while Prana and Pataongia have domain authorities of 73 and 85, respectively.
The user’s search intent is the same for every result on the first page: buying climbing pants. However, in this example, apparently neither Prana nor Patagonia focused on indirect SERP competitors. If they had, they’d recognize that brand-agnostic users, such as people who use generic search terms, often buy products based on reviews and recommendations.
Google recognizes this user desire, which is why the term is increasingly ranking best-of lists higher than product pages.
Given the domain rating of both companies and their expansive resources compared to a small, niche website, if either brand used their influencers to create unbiased review-focused content for the “rock climbing pants” keyword, they’d likely clinch the number one ranking with relative ease.
Instead, these companies are relegated down the page and must use paid advertising to compete for users’ attention.
Ultimately, accurate content analysis comes from gleaning insights from both SERP and direct competitors.
For example, let’s say you operate a B2B contact center software company for small businesses and want to rank for the ambitious term, “contact center software.” You have three direct competitors with a similar domain ranking and each of them rank somewhere on the first page. The other rankings are dominated by “best software” listicles.
This split search intent creates a delicate ranking environment and fierce competition. To have any chance of ranking on the first page, you’ll need to carefully pick-and-pull the best content aspects of both the listicles and direct competitors. And that requires knowing how to identify the right competitor to review.
How to choose competitors to review
Instead of getting sucked into the trap of balancing the analysis of SERP and direct competitors, focus on competitors who are trying to achieve the same goal and that you have an honest chance of dethroning.
If you want to improve your website’s content, any competitor you research should meet the following criteria:
The brand’s services and content are relevant and target your ideal user group
The brand follows content strategy and SEO best practices or is innovating effective alternatives
The brand ranks well on SERPs for your target keywords
The content this brand has ranking is relevant toward your brand’s users and business goals
Your brand’s domain rating and page authority are reasonably competitive, so changes have the potential to spur keyword growth
You have the resources to directly compete with the brand’s online authority and presence
There are always exceptions to these rules, such as brands that don’t need a robust online presence because they rely on third-party contracts and word-of-mouth to survive, like government contractors. However, for the average B2B and B2C company, choosing competitors with these guidelines in mind will keep your attention focused on worthy competition and not riff-raff.
Identifying pain points
Once you know who your competitors are, you need to know what content to analyze and how to determine why their version is superior to yours. These choices come down to knowing your brand’s pain points.
Not understanding or researching your own pain points before delving into competitive research is a huge mistake. Pain points allow you to focus your competitive analysis. Without knowing what you want to fix, you’re aiming in the dark when you research the competitor’s content. Without light to guide you, it’s extremely easy to emulate ideas you shouldn’t or try to compete with a website that’s incompatible with your goals or organic authority.
What pain points should you focus on?
Ultimately, your business goals and content KPIs should determine what pain points you focus on. Let the slipping conversions, plummeting newsletter sign-ups, or poor website performance metrics guide your path.
Let’s say you run a documentary streaming service and are struggling to get users to sign up for a trial after reading relevant blog posts or research papers. You know one of your competitors doesn’t have this churn, so you plan to read their related content and see how the experience is superior.
Before you can dive into the competitor’s service and learn why they earn trialists, you need to know why your users refuse to join.
In this scenario, your best option will be user research, such as:
Net promoter score analysis
Once you determine why your brand is failing, then you can critically consider how your opponent solves the issues users have with your brand’s service.
The trick to knowing if a competitor’s pain point solution will work for your brand is understanding why it works for the competitor. There are plenty of ways to gain this knowledge, including best practice awareness, running the competition’s idea through a user research gauntlet, and comparing the options side-by-side.
These insights all rely on one common theme: the competition is following best practices and doing everything correct. However, competitors are fallible and often don’t offer users an ideal experience or perfect content. So what happens when the competition is wrong?
What if the competition is wrong?
Even if a competitor passes your initial screening and seems like a great brand from which to discover your weaknesses, first impressions can be deceiving.
There are plenty of mischievous marketing practices businesses can participate in that you wouldn’t notice at first glance, such as black-hat link building or paying users for positive reviews. And there are many innocent mistakes that your competitors may make that will harm your website if you implement them, like lackluster accessibility standards.
The amount of due diligence you perform should correlate with the amount of risk you undertake to emulate an idea or strategy.
For low-risk ideas, like rewriting a competitor’s blog post, the due diligence can be extremely simple, such as checking the post’s sources, keyword targets, and backlinks.
High-risk ideas, like overhauling your product pages or customer journey, need a more robust background check.
Here are a handful of red flags that should encourage you to avoid a competitor or at least do a deeper dive into their website:
Content automation (like scraper blogs) or similar signs of low-quality content
Guest posting networks or other content sharing ecosystems
Link farms, private blog networks, or similar manipulation
Multiple domains with duplicate content
Paid user reviews or similar manipulation
Social media manipulation
How to spot when the competition is wrong
To prevent adopting erroneous high-risk ideas, you should always ask yourself the following four questions:
Does the brand’s content adhere to content strategy, SEO, and UX best practices?
Is the content meaningful, and how is its value communicated to users?
Why do you think the brand created this content?
If you implemented a similar (or the same) idea, how would your updated website and its content improve user experience?
These four questions act as a check-and-balance system for new ideas. They force you to consider the justifications of why a competitor made its decisions, how users may respond, and the consequences of copying those choices. Although this process isn’t necessary for every improvement you may glean from a competitor, it’s worthwhile when you’re considering significant changes that can swing KPIs toward success or failure.
Now, go avoid competitive research pitfalls
Competitive research is a necessary marketing strategy, and it’s immensely valuable if you take the time to ensure you’re evaluating a worthy competitor. While it’s easy to skimp on the background research and assume your competitors know what they’re doing, based on search rankings or public opinion, they may not be the skilled marketers you presume and you’ll end up wasting time, resources, and users on a faulty idea.
Here’s a quick reminder of what you should do to prepare yourself for competitive research and avoid implementing bad ideas:
Identify a mix of direct and SERP competitors that have relevant content, are trying to accomplish the same goal, and target the same users.
Determine your brand’s pain points and analyze how the competitors solve similar problems.
Do background research on your competitors and their content choices to ensure they follow content strategy, SEO, and UX best practices.