Every business, big or small, has competitors, and understanding their strengths and weaknesses is an important aspect of long-term success. Regardless of whether you have direct or indirect competitors, knowing who they are and how to gauge their effectiveness online is essential to making strides as a business.
User experience - A competitor's website is a good starting point for evaluating how well its doing online. Start by looking at what the company offers and compare it to your own products and services. Is it easy to understand what the business offers within the first few seconds? Does it have a unique position that differentiates itself in a way that matters to the consumer? This will help you evaluate how well the company is branding itself compared to you. It's also a good idea to try looking at this first impression through the eyes of a potential customer and take note of what you see. Is the website design simple and clean, or is it cluttered? Can you find the information you are looking for quickly, or do you have to search for it? What is the checkout experience like? All of these variables can give you a picture of the strengths and weaknesses in your competitor's online presentation and give you clues about what you can do better.
SEO - You can get a sense of your competitors' SEO strategy by checking their on-page keyword strategies and the inbound links pointing at their sites. Start by doing some quick searches on a private browser and seeing how they rank. Remember that search engines use many signals to deliver results for each query, and your SERPs can look very different from someone else who is doing the same search. Finding the exact pecking order of rankings is difficult, but you can get a sense of where you stand alongside your competition.
The best indicators of SEO strategy come from looking at data that's visible to users. Check the page titles, meta descriptions, and on-page copy. Do you see a consistent and focused effort at optimizing product pages? Does the copy flow naturally, or are they forcing keywords in? Are there important keywords they've missed that you can capitalize on?
Next, you should check their backlink profile and see how many quality websites are linking to theirs. Inbound links are a major factor that determines a website's authority and there are free tools out there that can help you uncover this information. Moz's Open Site Explorer allows you to input any URL and see the inbound links pointing to the website, along with their page and domain authority scores. You can get a sense of their linking strategy and whether a similar strategy can help you.
If a competitor has a blog, you should see how often it is updated and what topics they write about. Most businesses that are serious about inbound marketing update their blogs at least once a week. Check their social media sharing buttons and see how many likes and shares they get. This will give you an idea of how well their content resonates with the audience.
Try searching for various keywords and see if your competitors show up in the sponsored listings on Google, Yahoo and Bing. Look for their business name as well. If your competitor is using search-based advertising, they are likely bidding on their own name as well. There are also paid tools like SpyFu which will locate every place your competitor has shown up on Google for years, including Adwords and organic keyword rankings. Sites like these will not only show you what campaigns your competitors have run, but also the lessons they've learned from them. You can explore what the most profitable keywords are and see what ad copy delivered the best results.
You can assess your competitor's online reputation by seeing what people have published about them on sites like Google Plus Local, Yelp, Citysearch and other industry sites where people talk about their experiences. Note how many reviews they have compared to yours and how satisfied people are. Look for common complaints that point to flaws in their customer service.
Try visiting their social media pages and see how often customers engage with their content. A good place to start is the most popular channels: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Google Plus and YouTube. Have they completely filled out their profiles with nice photographs and compelling text that describes what they offer?
How often is your competitor posting? How many fans and followers do they have? Are people responding to the content by liking, sharing or commenting on it? Are they relying strictly on organic posting or are they buying sponsored posts as well? Take note of the content people are responding to and use that knowledge in your own strategy.
Once you have looked at all of these variables, you can piece together a clearer picture of your competitors and how you can position your business against them. Remember that even the best players can't be everything to everyone. Your competitors might be tough to beat on some aspects of the business, but chances are they have left opportunities open to you. Doing good competitor research will show you those opportunities and help you adjust your strategy accordingly.