How To Profit by Spying on the Competition

SEO Jun 27, 2013

Probably now more than ever, doing competitive analysis on why your competitors are ranking (and you’re not) can help you lay out a roadmap for what kind of SEO work is needed.

You can do what everyone else is supposed to be doing (think whitehat, right?) but then you have only admitted yourself onto the playing field. Congratulations, you’re on the same level as everyone else.

But you have no competitive advantage.

A solid competitive analysis should be a part of any decent Search Engine Optimizers toolbox — after all, you’re trying to outrank websites, why not understand why and how they are beating you to the top spots on that first page.

They’re up to something that you’re not, and that particular something is what you can (and should) find out what that is, exactly.

Once you know what ingredients they’re using in their SEO soup, you know what the threshold is — and most importantly: what they’re not doing, where there’s a gap, and what you can do to to fill that gap.

You could even say that rankings are relative to what everyone else is, or is not, doing for on-site and off-site SEO.

If you’re trying to rank for “how to wear plaid shirts”, it may turn out that your competitors URL structure, titles, descriptions, H1 tags, alt tags, keyword density, and all those usual suspects are not up to par — and simply having flawless on-site SEO is enough to send your site to ranking heaven within a few days.

Or maybe it’s matter of links and link profile.

None of this is new to anyone who eats SEO for breakfast. If that’s you, then you can probably run backlink analyses in your sleep, while reciting the elements of a perfect website URL structure and sprinkle your thoughts on why, if, or when social signals actually do matter.

Let me ask though: have you also analyzed your competitors content yet?

It’s one thing to quickly and easily tally up backlinks, PR, domain age, and other metrics — and any competitive analysis would do this.

But we might also want to figure out why your competitors content is deemed more worthy than yours to grace the first page and the sweet #1 spot.

So, keep track of the metrics (backlinks, PR, etc.) but also take a good look at the content that shows up. Google is ranking it for several reasons, and content is (most likely) one of them.

Get Started With Analyzing Your Competitors Content

Let’s cover some tools you could be using, how, and what you can learn from them.


Google Scraper v1.2 — This handy Google Doc Spreadsheet from friendly SEER Interactive will quickly give you the top 10 (or 20, 30, 40…) results for your chosen keyword. This is a good place to start. See the results? Say hi to your competitors.

SEMRush — We are not necessarily only looking for the keywords they rank for or monthly traffic. but instead we are interested in individual rankings for keyword terms that we want to rank for. What are the URLs that are ranking? Not just for the homepage and other top level pages, but what are the “supporting pages” that show up?


OpenSiteExplorer — You want to, again, look for the “supporting pages” that have a high number of links. Ignore homepage and main product or service pages for now. Look for the pages that have gotten a heavy dose of link love and pay attention to what type of content it is, the length (if it’s text), and other attributes. Enter the URL of one of your competitors, click “Top Pages”. See that? Those are some important pages to analyze the content of.

Long-Tail Keyword Tool — Not only can you take your own keywords and get a decent list of long-tails, but you think a step further and make sure you find and use related phrases and terms in your content.


WikiMindmap — Mainly to see how Wikipedia articles are related, but again, think content creation and how far you can go in terms of related words, phrases, and topics.

Visible Website Analyzer — This is your standard website/page analyzer that will spit back all kinds of goodies if you input a URL for it to munch on. Remember, you want to pay attention to not just the usual metrics but also the content. Take a look at these beauties (below) to see what I’m talking about. These screenshots will give you quite a good indication, content-wise, as to why this page ranks #2 (right below for “how to make dog food”. If you’re an English major, you’re in a state of bliss right about now.

The goal with all this is to not just look at the data and metrics that go along with analyzing your competitor, but also pay attention to the actual content that’s ranking.

Here are some examples of what to review and analyze:

Let’s pretend we’re doing a competitive analysis of a dog food website that is ranking for “how to make dog food” — and we’re trying to beat them.

With Visible Website Analyzer, we can find out quite a lot about our competitors content.

For example, let’s take a look at some keywords. Some of them are better than others, of course, but you can compile quite a list of words and phrases that you should incorporate into your content. Ignore single words, and sometimes even the two word phrases, but do make note of those juicy three word phrases (you can also specify greater length in the settings).


Next up, how about some Heading tags? Again, this is not necessarily for you to straight-up copy and use in your own tags, but we’re looking for keywords and phrases that we might be missing.


Google is ranking this website as #2 (under a WikiHow article) for its long-tail for a reason: It loves the content (and yes, of course, there are other off-site SEO factors as well, but you’d be foolish not to pay attention to the on-site optimization of content).

One other quick thing to look at are internal HREF anchor tags — how the website is linking to other content internally and what words are being used.

Again, a goldmine of long-tails, keywords, content ideas, and more.

Take a look:


If you can see what related words, concepts, and topics are used, along with synonyms, then with you thinking hat on a clear idea of content and what your competitors are doing should emerge.

Next up, we want to do some more auditing of content.

Audit Your Competitors Content

This can be time consuming when you do a competitive content analysis. The results are worth the effort, however, as your spying will provide you with a blueprint for what you need to do, just to be in the game, and what you can do to get ahead.

In general, you want to consider 3 areas:

  • Frequency of each content type — Is your competitor putting out a new webinar, podcast, ebook, or blog post several times a week? Once a month? How often is something published? Maybe they do 1 webinar, 12 blog posts, 4 podcasts, and 2 case studies every month. Create a basic spreadsheet where you try to estimate the frequency of publishing.
  • Quantity of each content type — How much of what already exists? Are you up against a library of ebooks spanning months or years? Does their blog date back to 2002? Have they cranked out a bunch of webinars?
  • Allocation and distribution of topics — If you’ve done your content research right and discovered topics, categories, themes, and related subjects, you can compare what you have with your competitors. Are they doing a good job covering all bases? What are they missing? Where are they lacking? You might find opportunities here.

Analyze And Evaluate Content Quality Of Your Competitors

This is where you at least try to remain objective about all this content and ask yourself a series of questions about it. Also, this is where you do want to take into account metrics that indicate popularity, such as social signals, backlinks, comments (if a blog post), and whether the main site features or highlights any particular pages.

Some questions to ask yourself:

  • Is the content short or long?
  • Are they using text formatting, such as bold headings, bullets, numbered lists, that enhances readability?
  • How are they using images, and are they optimized (alt, title, filename, etc)?
  • What is the tone in their writing/audio/video? Formal or informal? Entertaining or educational (or both)?
  • Do they make use of guest posting, and if so, who is writing for them?
  • How in-depth is it? Do they vary with introductory content, followed by more advanced topics?
  • How are their headlines? Aimed at getting clicks, simple, short, long?
  • What type of content is most popular (using social signals, links, and comments, if applicable as measurement)?
  • What categories are under-served?
  • What topics are they mostly covering? What are they neglecting?

Happy Ripping, Stealing, And Spying!

This post should send you off to a great start when it comes to analyzing and auditing your competitors content. Pulling up all the data and metrics that are the usual part of a competitive analysis is the standard approach everyone takes, but if you can combine that with some competitive content analysis, then you may find yourself on the first page sooner than you think.

The important thing to keep in mind in all this is that, to save time and make it profitable, do these kinds of shady tactics with the keywords and phrases that you know are “money” terms (these are often the long-tails!). That is, don’t just take a look at all the content there is, but target the websites and pages that show up for the keywords you want to rank for.

If you do it right, you’ll be going after the kind of head- and long-tails that have decent search volume and is pretty clear on the searcher intent (look for buying terms, like “review”, “discount”, “buy”, “best”, and so on).

What other tactics do you use to spy on your competitors?

  1. Avatar
    Enoch Sears

    Another epic post by the team at HitTail. Well done.

    1. Avatar
      Rob Walling

      Thank you!

  2. Avatar
    Bernhard Ernst

    This is another whole new angle to check just for finding out which useful topic related keywords or phrases other people might use to search that I myself never use. Thank you, much appreciated.

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