Challenger vs. Leading Brand SEO
In many markets there's an obvious leader that people recognize even peripherally connected to that market can identify. The obvious case is when a brand's name is used to describe the product. For example, Kleenex is a brand that is used interchangeably with tissue. Back in the day, Xerox was a brand used interchangeably with photocopy. I'm told that in southern states, Coke is used to mean soda. And since you're reading this, you undoubtedly know that Google is used interchangeably with search. Being a challenger or a leader matters when it comes to SEO as it informs the decision to take an offensive or a defensive approach.
It's Good To Be the Leader
If you're the leading brand, you have some significant advantages that almost allow you to sit back and watch Tweetdeck all day. Leading brands get citations without trying – people can't help but mention them — especially when they're the label for the market. People also are likely to trust, at least initially, the leader. So they'll search in a generic manner and then without thinking click on the leader's site which in turn can send strong signals about its popularity. Even brand name searches for the leader will support its popularity.
If you're working for a leading brand, I'm confident there's someone chasing your (long) tail. So unlike everyone else, you need to be looking at who is entering the SERPs en masse including the obvious competitors and the ones you've never heard of. When you find that scrappy underdog, launch an audit and put yourself in a position to counter their moves. Wait too long and you could be the next Blackberry.
It's More Fun To Be the Challenger
On the other hand, if you're a challenger, you've got to work pretty hard to earn your traffic. In case you don't know, an easy test for deciding if you're a challenger is you're described most easily by saying you're like a similar product that everyone is likely to know, e.g. “What's Huddle? It's like BaseCamp for the enterprise.”
The good news for challengers is that the leader in the space may be complacent and that can make overtaking them in the SERPs easier – not easy, just easier. However, challenger brands will have a better shot if they recognize, accept, and take advantage of their status.
Take More Risks
People that work on “real” brands are inherently afraid of risk. No one wants to be responsible for tarnishing the brand that took so long to develop. I can sympathize with that, but I think brands are often overly sensitive to perceived risks that don't really exist. Sure, if you deceive or cheat customers that's something that'll get around. But if you try something that turns out to be silly or embarrassing, I don't expect much of a backlash particularly if you have a response-plan in place. Maybe you're even in the camp of any PR is good PR.
If risk-aversion runs deep within you, as the challenger brand, then you can at least be more nimble than the leader and execute on new ideas faster. Get more done in less time! The temptation is hard to CYA, but that takes a lot of time and windows of opportunity don't remain open for long. Anything you can do to remove the layers of bureaucracy will have you achieving success in the SERPs faster (or at least you'll be amassing a useful knowledge for later use).
Challenger brands that just copy the leader aren't ever going to catch up. At best you'll maintain your relative position. To close the gap, you'll need to differentiate your SEO efforts. That can be as simple as being the brand that injects humor into their content and communications. Or even better, be the brand that doesn't pretend everything is rosy with your product and provide really helpful information to customers. If you sound like the leader, act like the leader, and otherwise attack the leader head-on, you'll probably lose as long as the leader isn't doing things like skipping their industry conference to watch a 3-boat race.
Don't Lose Sight of the Aggregators
A final word to leaders and challengers… don't dismiss the aggregators in your space. They're after your customers and they're likely the most aggressive players you'll encounter. Aggregators prey on your slowness and your risk aversion. And why shouldn't they? Their business model has advantages such as requiring less upfront capital and is levered by readily accessible technology. Both of these mean that the worst that could happen is a reboot with a new name and web site in the highly unlikely event of complete brand implosion. At the same, this agility will eventually lead aggregators to a winning formula and then they'll become the next Travelocity while you'll become like an airline wondering why no one uses your web site.