In my years in this industry I have seen time and time again the mantra “Let’s copy the competition! They are number one, so they must be doing something right. Right?”
The process usually begins with the following: “I noticed our competitor X is number one on Google. Competitor Y is number 1 for a hundred different keywords. We should copy everything they do down to the minute detail! Let’s get going!”
While in some business disciplines that is a semi-ok idea, in SEO copying your competitors utilizing this reasoning is a waste of time.
Now, there is a difference between surveying the competitors in your market and outright copying your competitors. Doing market research to see what’s out there can help you differentiate your offerings and become a powerhouse competitor. That’s the key – to not be yet another competitor who copies everyone else.
The Key to Effective SEO is Custom Research and Execution
First off, you’ll never know exactly what your competition is doing behind the scenes. They could have their own in-house team. Or, they could be completely outsourcing the SEO work to an agency. In either case, unless you know the keyword phrases they are going after and the types of clients, you’re wasting your time barking up the wrong tree. The key to effective SEO is custom research & strategy execution based on your own specific desired audience. Not looking at your competitors.
Competitors should only be used as a gauge of finding out what the market looks like on a general basis, rather than a determination of strategy. Let’s examine a few scenarios of a business who wants to find out exactly what their top competitors are doing.
Say competition A has been in the industry for 80 years. They cater only to the largest clients in the industry, and want only the clients who can pay through the nose for their services. They couldn’t care less about going after smaller fish in the pool because their strategy is going after everyone who has money.
Competition B caters to the smaller clientelle, is run by perhaps two or three employees, and does not care to go after any of the larger clients. They don’t have the time and are swamped with work. They don’t want to go after the larger clients because most larger clients in this particular industry are not forward thinking and don’t want to change their ways in how they do things. Their main weakness is not keeping up with the latest in SEO.
Now, look at competition C. They are only just getting started. They talked to the owners of competition A and competition B to get an idea of their marketing budgets, how they accomplish what they do, their teams, and other ways to get to the top spots in the search results.
Being that competition A has been in the industry for a long time, they have the industry following and customer loyalty that any startup would kill for. They provide a complete sample marketing plan, even. The problem? This marketing plan was drawn up 15 years ago and they haven’t even bothered updating it since then. You can probably see where I am going with this.
Look at competition B. They continue to keep up with all of the latest updates and information on the web concerning SEO, and are known in the industry for implementing techniques on their site that are more black hat than white hat. C decides to ask the owner of competition B what they are doing with their marketing plan. Competition B decides they are not going to give away any private information to anybody outside of the company, much less a competitor.
They want to keep everything strictly in house. So, they tell company C what they are “doing” to get to the top of Google and obtain conversions. The problem is, that company B is telling something completely false in order to keep the real secrets to the chest.
So let’s review and look at the problems with these strategies:
- They have been in the business for at least 80 years.
- They don’t want to change how they do things.
- Their marketing plan has not been updated in 15 years.
- But, what they are currently doing is working consistently.
- They have been in the business for around 12 years.
- They cater to smaller clients.
- Small business run by 2 or 3 employees.
- Completely up to date on all the latest technologies.
- Wants to keep their marketing plan close to the chest.
- Disseminates information that could be questionable.
- SEO practices are based in black hat disciplines.
Some Competitors Can Give You False Information
Here is the main problem many businesses run into when they are trying to ask their competition what they are doing: most of their competition doesn’t know what they are doing either and if they are in the less than 5% who really DO know what they are doing, they are not about to share the real techniques they are using. The list of people who really know their stuff? More than likely this list is much smaller.
You will have a difficult time getting all the right information that will actually help you and your business. This is why it is so important to do your homework for your business and ignore your competitors.
Do Your Homework To Get the Best Results
But, Brian, you ask, “What homework do I need to focus on to be most effective?”
First off, you need to perform a thorough market analysis. Find out what clients you are supposed to be going after, and cater your marketing plan to their needs. A marketing plan for company A can be totally different than a plan for company B, because both companies go after different types of clients. Because of this, the list of keywords they are going after is going to vary wildly.
Their designs will be completely different, and they will likely be doing different things to attract conversions. And that’s another thing I want to discuss that I hear all the time: Company X told me that they get ‘x’ amount of conversions every month when they changed this one thing on their website. Why shouldn’t I change that thing? Testing.
Testing Is So Important to Find Out What Actually Works, vs. Following Popular Opinion
You shouldn’t necessarily not change that thing. But, have you even tested it first? Use A/B and multivariate testing in order to come to a conclusion that is based on real testing, rather than a solution that is implemented based on what company x told you. Remember, they could be implementing something totally different than what you think they are. The only way to find this out is to test, test, test.
How do you know if you are on track? By monitoring your metrics month to month. Focus on improving on your own conversions, not going after the “general conversion rate“.
Use your own metrics as an improvement metric, and calculate them into the ROI, or return on investment, of that activity. ROI is important and is a good indicator of how a specific activity is improving your bottom line. If you make sure that your own conversions are consistently improving month after month, then you are doing well. You are building upon a strategy that has been successful for YOU. And, like competition B in the scenarios discussed above, you will probably want to keep this strategy to yourself after you have determined it works.
Sharing Information Has Its Downfalls
Sharing information is fine. The problem with sharing information in an industry like SEO, is that you need to consider the source and their purpose. What is their industry reputation? Do they share information on a regular basis that is proven to be based on fact, rather than just parroting opinions from industry thought leaders?
Most industry leaders are there for a reason, and you would do well to listen to information that they present, if only to help aid in your website testing efforts. But, that’s a key difference: use their information to help improve your own processes. Test, test, test, and if the information proves valid, then integrate it into your own methods. Otherwise, forget the information and move on to the next nugget that you want to test.
The important thing is to make sure that you don’t rely on copying your competition as an SEO strategy. This can lead to half-assed SEO plans that don’t convert as well as they should. And, it can lead to feelings of frustration, angst, and general disappointment.
SEO is supposed to be fun, creative, and challenging! Use that creativity in order to develop a solid SEO strategy that completely obliterates, rather than just copies, the competition. Your site and your customers will be much better off when you follow a strategy focused on this outcome.