Your Online Competition Is Not The Same As Your Offline Competition
You probably have a short list of who you regard as your direct competitors. My experience is that this is a list generally kept in the head. Sometimes it will appear in a business or project plan. The list is likely to have no relationship with the world of the web.
You may not see your offline competitors very often, if they're many miles away from where you're based. But you know they're there because they sometimes take business you'd like and you sometimes take business they'd like.
Online Is Different
The businesses you're competing with online are different. Some of your offline competitors will be there but not all the time, and they won't all be there.
The reason for this is search and in the UK this means Google, because it commands nearly a 90% share of internet search activity. It's lower in other countries but at present, in the UK, the dominant search engine is Google. Its domination has grown and I can't see this changing any time soon.
Search Engine Results Page (SERP)
A search engine results page (SERP) will instantly reveal who your online competitors are, for a given search query. A SERP is a seriously disruptive invention because it introduced many different ways for you and me to find what we're looking for. Sometimes it introduces something we weren't directly looking for but we end up being pleased we did find it.
Before search engines we had directories like Yellow Pages. We regard Yahoo as a search engine but in fact it started life as an online directory. There remain many online directories and they will remain a part of the web. You should make sure your business is in all the directories it can be in, but this isn't what this article is about.
What You Can Learn From a SERP
You probably already know that if your website is not listed on page one of a SERP for a given search term that you can pretty much forget getting any visitors for that term. Based on experience and relentlessly checking out latest search statistics I'm currently using 33% as the traffic benefit of being listed position one page one, for organic rankings. I'm currently using the following guides for all other page one organic rankings; P2 18%, P3 12%, P4 8%, P5 7%, P6 5%, P7 4%, P8 3%, P9 3%, P10 2%. You'll see these don't add up to 100% because some traffic is still gained by listings on lower pages.
One piece of information you can therefore learn about your online competition is how many visitors they're likely to be getting for appearing on page one of a SERP for a term you'd also like to rank for. You may already be ranking for it. You might be lower or you might be higher than your competitors. But what you can now determine is how they're doing compared with you.
Disruptive SERP Elements
Google is regularly introducing changes to search result pages. Sometimes you'll see maps or product listings or images and more recently news articles. It's important to keep tabs of what Google is doing to the results pages that you either want to tank or or you already rank on.
If Google serves a map on a SERP it's very likely to introduce a few competitors who will not be present without the map. Unlike organic search results you will probably recognise your competitors who may be listed on the map. If you're not listed you'll want to be. To make this happen you'll need to login it to your Google account and navigate to maps.
How To Get Below The Surface
So far I've given two examples of how you can identify your online competition and work out what percentage of visitors they will be getting based on their organic rankings. Of course, rankings don't reveal visitor numbers. To get to these numbers you need to use a keyword research tool. Google's Keyword Planner is the obvious one to use. This will reveal monthly searches for each term you want to be ranked for. All you then need to do is multiply monthly searches by each ranking percentage and now you know how many visitors your online competitors are likely to be getting.
Googles Keyword Planning tool is available from within Google Adwords. To use it you will need an Adwords account, but you don't need to start advertising with Adwords.
Get To The Money
Knowing what your competitors may be making from being listed higher than you for given search terms is important. It will reveal to you why they may or may not be putting effort into ranking as well or poorly as they are.
You know your business better than anyone else. You know what an average sale is worth to you. You can use this knowledge to put a figure on how much a ranking is worth to you and your competitors. It's another piece of information you can glean about your competitors simply from understanding the relationship between SERP rank and search term volumes, which you can discover using Googles Keyword Planner tool.
Armed with a monthly visitor number you can now apply a conversion rate and an average conversion value, which you can base on what an average sale is worth to your business. As a guide I use a conversion rate of 3% but respectable conversion rates range from 3-5%, varying by sector and locations. They can be as high as 10% for some sectors. If you know what your conversion rate is then use it to work out what the visitor numbers will be worth to you for ranking at specific positions for specific search terms.
The Unanswered Questions
What you can learn by simply looking at the sites ranking on page one of a SERP for a given search term stops short of what you will need to know in order to outrank or even gain a page one listing for your site. You will know what it will be worth at the end of every month. It may not be very much but this in itself is useful to know. When you begin looking at value rather than who is ranking where you will start making wiser choices.
When you determine that your competitors are likely to be gaining some attractive sales from the rankings they have you will want to understand what it will take for your business to achieve similar rankings. You will want to understand what it will take to displace your competitors.
At this point it begins to get more complicated and time consuming to learn why your competition is outranking you. At this point you need to start understanding the factors that Google algorithms are using to decide where to rank pages for specific search terms. These factors can be split into two categories, on-page and off-page.
On-Page Search Ranking Factors
Seeing your competitors on-page factors is very easy. By definition the information you want to see is on each listed page ranking on the SERP relating to the search term that you're targeting. The information you're looking for is Page Address, Page Title, H1 tag and page words. You should also take interest in the Meta Description. If all this is alien to you pop over to this article which explains these in more detail.
If you see the search term prominent in the on-page elements of your competitor sites you know you will need to do the same. You should be doing this anyway. If you don't see the search term being very prominent you will have spotted one of your competitors weak spots.
Off-Page Search Ranking Factors
Alas, on-page factors carry less ranking influence than off-page factors. Off-page factors include express and implied links from other sites to your sites. Express links from other sites are considered one of the most important ranking factors but be aware that it is no longer enough to have more links than your competitors. An express link is a physical link than can be clicked and when it is it will take you from one web page to another. Express links are commonly referred to as backlinks.
Implied links are far more subtle but are increasingly important. Read this article for much more detail about implied links.
There are a number of services you can use to quantify how many backlinks your competitors have to their site pages. Majestic SEO is one of the most respected sources of backlink information and this service is free at the basic level I'm discussing in this article.
Building a picture of how many implied links you or your competition have is currently impossible. However, what you can do is look at the social media references on your competitors sites and you can do searches for your competitors using their names and social media network names. You can look at their social media pages and subjectively determine how strong or weak they are in respect of social media.
Other Off-Page Ranking Factors
There are a few further ranking factors that you can glean information about relating to you and your competitors. These include domain age and the number of pages Google has added to its index. If you didn't know, your site pages need to be in Googles index in order to stand any chance of appearing on a SERP.
Discovering the age of your competitors domains is straightforward and many services exist which you can use to get this information. The one I regularly use is www.whois-search.com
Discovering the number of pages Google has indexed for a given domain is also straightforward. All you need to do is type site: into the search bar of Google followed by the full site address and you will get a SERP that lists all indexed pages for a given domain.
Pulling It All Together
What I hope I've demonstrated is that your online competitors are very often not the same as your offline competitors.
You need to uncover information about your online competitors to discover their strengths and their weaknesses. You can use SERPs to see who your competitors are. You can use Googles Keyword Planner tool to identify volumes of searches. You can use services like Majestic SEO to reveal the backlinks your competitors have.
It does take time to build a complete picture of your competitions strengths and weaknesses. This is why you should focus on search terms that have reasonably levels of searchers. When you do have a clear picture of your competitions strengths and weaknesses you can get down to the task of outperforming them, knowing how to exploit their weaknesses.