SEO Strategy Based on Competitor Analysis – Alan Reeves’ Benchmark 2017 talk
Your sector’s SERPs are unique to your industry – so too should be your strategy for optimisation, according to our own Director of Search, Alan Reeves. Here’s what delegates at this year’s Benchmark Search Conference learnt from his talk
Alan’s talk was all about using competitor analysis to inform your search marketing strategy.
He began by emphasising that, although he focuses on the white goods and insurance industries for the purposes of his talk, what works in your industry will be different. You need to find out what your competitors are doing to rank highly and and follow the same kind of strategy.
What are Google’s ranking factors?
Google’s algorithm is made up of over 200 ranking factors (too numerous to cover in one presentation); you can’t analyse competitors for all these factors as you’d never have time to optimise your own strategy.
Studies have attempted to weight Google’s ranking factors. Searchmetrics’ last global study, covering all industries, was in 2016. The global leader in SEO marketing and analytics has since said this will be their last global study, as there’s no single ranking that works for all industries – search is becoming bespoke and personalised:
Searchmetrics’ ranking factors
Despite this, they saw a correlation between number of backlinks and ranking in top positions.
A similar study by Moz back in 2015 not only included quantitive data correlation, but insights from industry experts. Its data also ranks backlinks as the top factor, so this was the main focus of Alan’s guide to competitor analysis.
Moz’s ranking factors
What is a backlink?
Alan clarified that by backlinks, he meant links from another site to your own that pass on authority, trust and relevancy from the search engine’s point of view. The process can also be called earning links, link acquisition, or outreach.
In the rest of the blog, I’ll go through the main steps Alan went through to carry out your own analysis of competitors’ linking strategies, and the insights he’d pulled out through his own research on his two industries of focus.
Identify your competitors
Firstly, you need to identify the market leaders in your industry, so that you can emulate their strategies and success.
Carry out thorough keyword research
Find as many relevant keywords as possible – a minimum of 300 – using tools such as Google Keyword Planner, SEMrush or Moz. Once you have a list, find out who’s ranking in the top 50 positions for each term. Then plot this on a graph – using a tool such as Tableau, as in this example:
In this XY graph, X axis shows coverage, while the Y axis shows average rank
Alan’s example exercise was with the white goods market, using a list of 2,300 keywords (such as washing machine, dryers, Smeg fridge, chest freezer, etc).
White goods industry’s organic visibility
The market leaders appear in top right corner – these are the ones ranking for the majority of keywords and in the top positions. This is how they stack up:
- Currys: 91% coverage and average rank of 4.7
- AO: 80% coverage and average rank of 0.2
- Appliances Direct: 77% coverage and average rank of 7.8
You should bear in mind that, as in this example, you will also be competing with other brands who may not immediately spring to mind when it comes to your product or service, but are still ranking for exactly the same keywords. In addition, Amazon and eBay always rank highly for eCommerce keywords in terms of coverage, but they don’t always appear on P1.
In his second example, Alan turned to the insurance market covering car, home, travel, motorbike insurance etc, using over 2,000 keywords. As might be expected, the big four comparison sites appear in the top right quadrant.
- MoneySuperMarket (by far the market leader): – 93% coverage and average rank of 4.4
- Go Compare: 81% coverage and average rank of 9.5
- Confused.com 78% coverage and average rank of 10.3
- Compare the Market: 78% coverage and average rank of 10
Alan caveated that he didn’t choose these sites for analysis as their backlink profiles would be too vast.
However, another brand stood out to Alan – the motorbike insurer Bennetts:
Insurance industry organic visibility
Alan was intrigued that a couple of other motorbike insurance sites appeared in the chart. He also explained that the graph was not a completely accurate representation of their marketplace because it contained keywords to do with travel and car insurance – which they don’t cover. When he narrowed his research to just motorbike insurers, Bennetts moved further to the far right, indicating them as market leaders, but still directly competing with the big four comparison sites.
The sites Alan focused on were:
- The Bike Insurer
- Scooter Insurance chosen (for comparison as it’s not ranking as well as the others)
- Carole Nash
Alan used Searchmetrics to examine the visibility of keywords for which these sites were ranking, their position (and weighted by search volume). He looked for major drops in visibility around Google updates – specifically Penguin.
Here’s an example of a site that was hit with a Penguin 2.0 penalty in May 2013:
Penguin drop graph from Searchmetrics
If this is the case, discount the competitor in your analysis as it shows they’ve probably been doing unnatural, manipulative linking tactics (which you obviously don’t want to emulate).
Four points of focus when carrying out outreach for link building
1. What quality of links is needed?
2. How quickly do they need to be earnt?
3. What kind of anchor text should you use?
4. Where should they link to?
What quality of links is needed?
Look at each unique referring domain that gives the most authority. This can be done using tools such as Majestic, Open Site Explorer, Ahrefs and Google Search Console. (All of this information is publicly available and none of clients are used in this analysis).
1. Download all referring domains for each competitor
2. Categorise all domains into Domain Authority (DA) buckets (DA is a metric calculated by Moz their representation of Google PageRank so it’s like an indication of authority of these sites)
3. Plot the results on a line graph
Domain Authority distribution
This tells us the Bennetts have authority from nine domains that have a DA between 0 and 10, and 100 domains that have DA between 11 and 20.
In most industries, you’ll find that market leaders tend to peak at around 20 to 40 DA area. This makes for a natural linking profile in this industry. When carried out for your own industry, this will give you a benchmark for the link profile you want to achieve.
It also tells us that if you put all efforts into building links on the higher end (or lower end); Google will see this as deviating from the norm and therefore judge the links to be manipulative and unnatural.
Alan carried out the same exercise, focusing on the comparison sites. The inclusion of MoneySuperMarket and Go Compare in the graph skews the scale as they have such a vast number of links, but we see the same shape in the graph:
Domain Authority distribution – comparison sites
Alan highlighted that The Bike Insurer was ranking really well in the XY graph, but only has a fraction of the links of other brands (more on this point later). All of this data allows you to plot a graph of what your backlink profile should look like.
According to Alan: “The next slide should be your favourite slide – get this right and you’ll be on the right track.”
Domain Authority distribution – what you should be aiming for
Go for quality rather than quantity of backlinks – but not to the point where it seems manipulative – keep the natural shape as shown in the graph.
This informs the type of content you need to create to achieve these links and will help you to plan the long term strategy for your outreach and content marketing campaigns, your budgets etc.
You’ll need to refresh this graph every six months as it changes all the time.
How quickly do links need to be earnt?
Alan emphasised that this can’t be done overnight, not least because it will appear manipulative to search engines.
The next step is to look at your competitors’ referring domains. Ahrefs is a good tool for doing this as it shows links, when they were discovered and when they were discovered for the first time.
As part of Alan’s research, he went back over the last three months for the insurance providers, looking at new referring domains acquired per month.
This shows you how many links you need to aim to earn in order to compete, eg, this table suggests aiming for 12 per month
What kind of anchor text should you use?
Download lists of your competitors’ backlinks, and categorise their anchor text into:
- URL/naked links – Using the URL itself, eg:
- Brand/domain name:
- Generic/headline keywords – Or ‘exact match’ anchor tax using the trophy keywords:
- Long tail keywords:
- Hybrid/Brand + Keyword – Containing brand name and keyword:
- Noise – Download now, click here etc:
There’s also a seventh category: spam. Alan speculated that Carole Nash had been hit by a spam attack, as each of these words appears as anchor text over 100 times:
Carole Nash’s spam anchor text
Most of the links pointed to pages that no longer exist on the site. Therefore Carole Nash’s backlink profile was excluded so as not to skew the data.
The link profiles can be visualised like this:
Anchor text category analysis
This tells us that 80/20 rule (brand vs keyword) when earning links is no longer reliable because:
- The majority of Bike Insurer’s anchor text is the URL itself (as mentioned earlier, this is the site that doesn’t have anywhere near as many links but are ranking really well).
- Scooter Insurance has got a lot of exact match links, such as ‘scooter insurance’, but it doesn’t rank on P1 for this term as Google isn’t easily fooled and recognises that this term is not the business’ domain or brand name.
It also tells us that:
- In this industry – you should be looking for at least 40% of your anchor text to be your brand or your URL – ideally 80%. (Incidentally, Alan said he found URL anchor text works better than brand for Click Consult’s own clients.)
- Hybrid anchor text is the second choice to aim for as it includes brand or URL.
- You shouldn’t be tempted to use your exact match or trophy keyword as an anchor: 4% should be the maximum in this industry, and long tail 7%.
Where should they link to?
Look at your competitors’ backlinks and where they’re linking to on their sites.
First, download lists of your competitors’ backlinks. Then categorise their linked pages into:
- Commercial Pages, eg, get a quote, product page
- Content Pages, eg, blog, FAQs
There are evidently two different types of tactic used by The Bike Insurer and Bennetts. The Bike Insurer has got a lot of URL anchor text which correlates with the fact that the majority of links go to its homepage.
Bennetts, on the other hand, takes a much more content-focused approach. The majority of its links to back to its resources section, Bike Social, and it’s the great quality of this content that’s earning the links.
Although it might sound counterintuitive, you should avoid ‘forcing’ links to commercial pages, as these are not necessarily the pages that you want to rank. Rather, link to these pages internally via pages that contain good content for a more natural linking pattern.
- Keyword lists should consist of a minimum of 300 keywords.
- Unless you are number one for all of your keywords (and even if you are), there are things to be learned from your competitors.
- Find your key competitors and research:
- Inbound link quality
- Inbound link frequency
- Inbound link anchor text
- Inbound link destination
- Refine your list of links by referring domain to make the list manageable.
- Plot links by DA (Moz) to determine your industry’s natural distribution curve.
- Monitor link acquisition rates to determine how fast you need to accrue links.
- Find out what distribution of brand/exact and long tail anchor text works best (a minimum of 40% brand as a rule of thumb).
- Link juice flows, but where it starts is down to tactics – again, this will be unique to each industry.
Watch Alan’s talk
Watch Alan’s presentation in full
Alan’s full slide deck available below
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