It happens 80% of the time I ask the question. I am talking with a client on the phone and I ask “who do you feel is your direct competition in your industry?” What I then receive is a list of competitors that are prominent in the industry. But how many of these competitors are showing up in the search results? Generally, less than 10% of the competitors that I get from my client are actual competitors in the SERPs.

If my client is a big brand, then I get a list of other big brand companies that have a Web site. These competitors typically are not engaging in SEO nor are they targeting the same keywords that my client is focusing on. These competitors tend to rely on their brand name to draw customers and make online sales. There are times when big brand competitors are showing up in SERPs for broad keyword phrases due to their brand name and domain. For instance, if I’m doing research on the keyword “toys”, it makes sense that Toys R Us shows up at or near the top. “Toys” is in their brand and their domain. Since most people link to Web sites with the brand name, that adds to their ability to rank.

But what about my clients’ actual competition? There is a tremendous amount of value in doing a thorough competitive analysis that focuses on link development. Why? Because a) it shows you what your competition is (or is not) doing in terms of link development, b) it tells you who your actual competition is for specific keywords that are valuable to your SEO efforts, and c) it is a springboard (or smorgasbord of information) into researching potential sites that you can acquire links from.

Big brands aren’t always optimizing their site nor are they engaged in an active (or well designed) link development campaign. More often than not, I find resource sites, niche brands, and other lesser-known players in a particular industry performing the best for these types of keyword phrases. And, surprisingly enough, these smaller sites tend to out-perform the big brand competition in their link development efforts. They have a more varied link portfolio than the bigger companies. Why? Generally because they teach themselves the ins and outs of the industry because they know they are competing with bigger brands. And also because they tend to have a little more time on their hands since they are not managing the daily activities of a multi-million dollar corporation.

There are, of course, exceptions to this. Auto insurance is a great example. Several of the big players in the industry are actively engaged in strategic SEO and link development campaigns. While some are definitely performing better than others, there is quite a bit of evidence that points to the fact that these companies are SEO savvy.

So the next time you think of your competition, think beyond the big players in the industry. Do some queries and find out who is truly at the top. And dig a little deeper to see what more you can be doing.

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