The 5 W's (and 1 H) of Competitive SEO Analysis
Years ago, you could move ahead with SEO in a vacuum with little to no concern about what other sites were doing. With limited competition, you were very likely to succeed regardless of what you targeted. Those days are over and it's now prudent to include competitive analysis into every SEO effort to identify opportunities and set priorities. Having said that, I still work with a lot of companies that haven't done competitive analysis, which leads me to believe that a significant percentage of companies beyond those I work with aren't doing any sort of competitive analysis. If you're one of those, here's a quick primer to get you started.
First and foremost, you want to identify the benefits to you of doing a competitive analysis. Are you looking to secure a budget based on the level of effort needed to match competitors? Or are you looking to develop a project plan based on the compilation of tactics you'd like to implement? Determining the why up front will help ensure that you get a useful answer at the output of the effort.
My primary objective is typically to identify the gaps between the site I'm working on and the sites that are doing better. I also use competitive analysis to find examples of what a particular industry considers acceptable so that I can use that precedence to convince my clients that they need to execute a particular tactic.
Competitive analysis is often done to support a site build. Intuitively, this makes sense as you'd want to know what other sites are doing, lest you pour your heart into a new site only to discover the market you entered is already well-served by savvy site owners.
However, I think there's even more valuable information to be gleaned from a competitive analysis after a site has been live for some time. What you get from an analysis at this stage is a good comparison of your site's actual performance compared to others (i.e., a look at the actual gap you have to close).
While traffic from organic search results isn't in and of itself a success measure, it is a prerequisite. And of course, traffic from organic search is tied to the keywords people type and a site's visibility in the results for those keywords. So at the core of every competitive analysis is a list of keywords that you deem are important.
If your site has multiple product or service categories, you should segment your keyword list into buckets of related terms. Then determine the competitors for each bucket. Doing so will identify the leaders in each area. This may sound obvious, but I've worked with many companies that are set on examining their offline competitor's websites because they assume that these same players are doing well online. Instead, your SEO competitors are the sites that appear before yours in the SERPs for your keywords regardless of whether these sites have an offline presence or not.
Competitive analysis involves looking at a competitor's site. You'll want to do a crawl of all or part of the site using a tool like Xenu Link Sleuth or LinkExaminer, which will provide you information about the site's URL and structure. Unfortunately, there aren't any tools that do a great job of evaluating the content on a site, so you have to actually browse around yourself. When browsing a site, keep an eye open for unusual uses of content: e.g., 300 words after a product list or articles on topics that don't directly relate to the business.
In addition to looking at the site, you'll want to look at offsite factors; namely links. With Yahoo Site Explorer soon to be relegated to the scrap heap, now's a good time to consider one of the other tools such as Open Site Explorer or Majestic SEO. Every indication is that these tools will be around for the foreseeable future, which will allow you to compare future reports to baseline data you capture now.
It doesn't take an SEO to see that a site is doing well for a given set of keywords. A bunch of number one rankings will make that clear. However, it absolutely does take an SEO to answer what tactics may be contributing to a site's performance. The more experienced the SEO, the more likely subtle tactics are going to be discovered. Competitive analysis, being a fixed effort, is actually a good candidate for being outsourced if you don't have the in-house expertise.
In closing, I want to mention that if there aren't any resources available to act on the analysis, then there's little reason to do it. Beyond such cases, I recommend making competitive analysis a component of your SEO effort and something that you conduct at least semi-annually. There just isn't any other way to keep an eye on what Google and the other search engines consider to be valuable content and worthy of their users.