4 Tips for Researching Your Business Competition Online

Wednesday Aug 15th 2012
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Keep your friends close and your competitors closer. Which is to say, studying your competition can help you improve your business. These four tips will help you glean vital information online.

Any business, big or small, can gain a competitive edge by knowing the strengths and weaknesses of its closest competitors.  Research shows that 66 percent of U.S. adults have used the Internet to aid in a purchase, so understanding a business’ online presence is more valuable than ever.

Identify your local small business competitors by conducting a search for the types of products or services you offer in your local area, and see what other businesses appear in the search results. You can also check local listings, or even ask friends and family if they know of nearby businesses that are similar to yours.  Once you determine your top competitors in your local market, you can use these four methods to see how their Web presence compares to yours.

Visit Your Competition's Website

The first stop when assessing a competitor's Web presence should be the company's own website. It will tell you many things about them, such as some of the keywords and phrases they use to optimize their website copy for search, their main value proposition or key message, their featured products or services, and their target market.

This information helps you not only understand more about your business competition and what differentiates you, it also helps you compare your online marketing efforts.

  • Is it easy to identify what they do within the first few seconds?
  • What products or services do they offer?
  • How are they similar to your business and how are they different?
  • Do they promote themselves more effectively than you do?

Understanding these key factors can help you develop a marketing plan to bring customers to your business instead of theirs.

Conduct a Search

Gauging your competitors’ placement on search engines isn’t always an easy task, since algorithms change frequently. However, evaluating the results of your competitors’ organic and paid search tactics can help your own search engine marketing strategy. Keep in mind, it’s best to perform searches in a private browser; the search engine won’t take your browsing history into account, and you’ll see generic results. Here are a few things to look for:

Shelf Space

Search for a competitor’s business name online to see how much "shelf space" – links on the search results page – they own, and what type of content is displayed, such as their website, blog, videos, reviews,  and even text ads. Note which local listings, social media sites, and content sites the search results display, and compare them against the ones that show up when you search for your own business name.

PPC Ads

To see what your competitors may be doing in paid search advertising, first identify a list of 5-10 top local keywords and search for them on top search engines like Google, Yahoo and Bing. If your competitor also bids on their own business name in search advertising, chances are their paid search ad will show in the sponsored section of the search results when you search for their name as well. Bidding on your business name is a cost-effective way to quickly get your brand to appear on the search engine results page. 

Organic Rank

Also look at the organic listings when you search for those local keywords, as well as the keywords you are optimizing your own site for. Where do your competitors rank in comparison to you? What kinds of content are ranking – is it just their site, or do other social sites and content show up as well?

Read Posts on Social Media and Content Sites

Another place you want to audit your competitors online is on social media platforms. Look for their Facebook page, Twitter profile and Google Plus pages. Content sites, such as a company blog, YouTube channel or photo site, are also key ways businesses can boost SEO and engagement online. And, since these types of content can rank well in search engines and provide backlinks to your website, seeing which sites work for your competitors can help you decide the types of sites you want a presence on as well.

It’s important to determine whether your competition is optimizing these sites for search engines. What types of content – articles, images, infographics and images – are they sharing; how many followers do they have on each site; and how frequently do they post? 

It’s also important to see what kinds of messages they share with customers. You can also use this information to create unique messages for your social fans that sets you apart from your business competition.

Check Reviews and Local Listings

Evaluate your competitors’ online reputation by looking at the reviews customers write about them online. You can look them up on review sites like Google + Local, Yelp, Citysearch, and industry-specific sites to see how your competitors are ranking compared to you and if those sites are optimized for search.

In addition, search for your competitor’s reputation terms, like "Business Name Reviews" on a search engine and see what turns up. Do your biggest competitors have more reviews than you? Is their reputation overall positive or negative?

Either way, you may want to ask some of your happy customers to leave you reviews on some of these sites, so that when a consumer researches both you and a competitor, your glowing reputation can speak for you online.

Now that you have a better sense of your competitors’ Web presence, you can use the information you’ve gathered to help improve your own online strategy. What tactics work well for them that you can try in your own marketing? What are you doing more efficiently than your competitors that you can focus on to give your online presence a boost?

Have you ever scoped out the competition online? What did you learn, and what did you do with the information? Share your thoughts in a comments section below.

Tamara Weintraub is a Content Marketing Manager at ReachLocal (NASDAQ:RLOC) and a writer for the ReachLocal blog.

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