At RankLab we have prospective clients come to us every day who have a certain idea about who their competitors are.

The list usually has a few local businesses or big names in their vertical who they’ve seen show up for a few phrases, and they come to us and say, “Alright. These are my competitors. I just need to outrank them and we’ll be golden.”

But the truth is this list of ‘perceived competitors’ is usually in direct contrast with who they are really competing with in search results.

What is a competitor?

verb (used without object), com·pet·ed, com·pet·ing. to strive to outdo another for acknowledgment, a prize, supremacy, profit, etc.; engage in a contest; vie.

According to the actual definition, to compete is to actively strive to outdo another, meaning a competitor is someone who is doing/providing the same thing that you are. You can’t outdo someone unless you’re both competing for the same prize, right?

Okay, but why does it matter?

Having an accurate view of the competitive landscape as both a client and an agency is absolutely integral in gauging the success of a search campaign. In order for us to say, “Alright, your campaign is a year old and you’re blowing the competition away,” both parties need to understand what comparisons are being made and why.

For example, as an agency we might be ecstatic about the success of a campaign that’s provided incredible traffic, rankings, and ROI, while a client might still be kicking themselves because their site still isn’t outranking the ‘CocaCola’ type brands of their industry. This is a reoccurring issue that needs to be addressed so that expectations can be set.

So how do we measure success in relation to our competitors in a way that’s realistic and accurate?

There are a few things to take into consideration:

Brand Positioning – In any given vertical there are usually various types of business vying for attention. There are the heavy hitters that have been around forever, the main stream authorities, up and comers, startups, etc. They all have different business models and sometimes different price points. One of the fundamental mistakes that a lot of businesses make is comparing apples with oranges, meaning they are comparing themselves with businesses that have vastly different:

  • Price Points
  • Demographics
  • History
  • Budgets
  • Etc.

Comparing a small boutique iced tea manufacturer with CocaCola is a comparison that provides 0 insight into the performance of both companies. They are simply on different playing fields.

Ranking Metrics (not rankings) – Rankings are great. We’re an SEO agency. Our name is RankLab. We love rankings. However, individual rankings are not an accurate gauge by which to measure success. Heavily investing in a few set keywords is not conducive to a scalable search campaign for a few reasons:

Rankings are volatile. The rankings in highly competitive verticals change a lot- sometimes on a daily basis.

Rankings are difficult to track. Since Google’s recent move to encrypted search, the only way to track rankings and estimate the amount of traffic generated by them is by manually searching for them, using WMT data (incomplete/inaccurate), or by using third party tools (accuracy varies). Additionally, rankings change based on search preferences, whether the user is logged in, etc.

Chasing individual rankings is counter-productive. Considering the volatility of rankings and Google’s harsh consequences for over-optimizing on-page elements and external anchor text, it’s a lot more scalable and productive to cast a wide net and target traffic and conversions rather than a few keywords that may or may not pan out or even be that valuable. There might be 500 other less competitive phrases that could generate more high quality traffic anyway.

That being said, the key to using rankings as a valuable KPI is measuring things like total # of rankings, # of gained/lost rankings, organic traffic generated through search, etc. Not by measuring only a few positions and gauging success based on those. This provides good insight into the breadth of the campaign.

Shared Rankings – The number of search results someone shares with you is a really good indication of how competitive they are. A site that shares 500 search results with you is probably a much stronger direct competitor than a site that only outranks you for your most competitive keyword.

Audience – What’s the target audience? Are you selling a high end product or a mid-grade/budget product? You should be comparing yourself with others who are selling to the same audience. Otherwise they aren’t a competitor.

History – How old is the campaign? Is it a household name or the new kid on the block? It might be a healthy comparison to measure the campaign against others that are around the same age and have had the same amount of time to invest and build their online presence.

Scope – What is the scope, breadth, and velocity of the campaign? Are you a big fish in a little pond, or a small fish in a big pond? Are you an authority in your space that provides vital information, news, etc. or are you catering to a more specialized audience that has a very specific goal?

It takes time, research, and industry expertise to paint a realistic picture of a competitive landscape. However, the resulting insight into the growth and success of the campaign is indispensable.

Having the ability to provide a point of reference as well as a pushing off point from which the campaign can grow makes competitive intelligence an indispensable part of every campaign for marketers and clients alike.

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