The Complete Guide to Spying On the Competition

If you’ve ever wondered what the best of the best are doing to outmaneuver your marketing efforts, this process is for you. While I’ve helped hundreds of business owners grow their businesses across industries, the first question I almost always hear is why is so-and-so beating me? What exactly are they doing? Why am I not #1?

While there’s more to digital marketing than just what the competition is doing, this guide will at least help you understand what any online business is doing in order to attract customers and sales. How we use that information to determine an optimal digital strategy is a longer conversation, but this guide should highlight the best strategies available to you in your industry. While we’ll never have perfect info on the competition. The tools below give us the strongest intel possible on what’s working for a competitor and what isn’t. Download the entire  PDF of this blog post and checklist here. 

You should come away from this process with the following info:

  1. What your competition's main digital marketing channels are.
  2. Who your top online competitors (actually) are across marketing channels.
  3. Where & how they generate the most traffic & money from.
  4. What product categories they compete most directly with you in.
  5. What their SEO strategy and organic traffic generation (or yours) looks like.
  6. What content is generating the most traffic for them.
  7. Where they are getting links and media mentions from.
  8. Where and what they’re advertising for paid traffic generation.
  9. Handy tips for actually keeping tabs (spying) on their business.

You may ultimately find a narrow set of strategies deployed in your industry niche. All the most competitive markets tend toward these marketing stacks because they work. Which means that although the competition may not be active now, the speed with which you adopt a new marketing tactic defines whether it will be a deterrence or an offensive weapon.

For the majority of sites their most Likely Revenue Sources (besides repeat business, referrals, & email marketing) tend to be (in descending order):

Repeat Business & Referrals or Direct Traffic > Email Marketing > Organic Traffic & Content Marketing > Retailers > Paid Traffic > PR > “Traditional” Marketing.

While some businesses will have different breakdowns of how they make money and advertise generally the relationship above tends to hold true across the board. That said, we’ll start by prospecting broadly.

Start Broadly

While there is no definitive way to monitor what the competition is exactly up to. There are at least some tools that give us a good broad perspective of what that might be. Of all of these SimilarWeb is far and away the best. (and luckily for us, mostly free to use)


1) Figure out key traffic channels. Plugging the competition (and yourself) into SimilarWeb will give you a good sense of where traffic comes from.
2) Check SimilarWeb (freeish) - Top Level View of Site Performance. This is my #1 pick for work like this. While nothing is perfect SimilarWeb will give us a great top level overview and some clues on where to focus moving forward. However good it is you’ll see that it tends to be best on bigger sites and brands. Also, don’t forget to plug yourself in and use their comparison feature for some side by side fun.

Organic Revenue: What Do Funnel Entry Points Look Like.

Ideally running their domains through these tools will tell us how much and what kind of traffic they get from search engines. It will also allow us to find their highest traffic and revenue pages & content. This info will come in handy in future sections and give us more intel to work off of when deciding our own strategy.


3) Organic Traffic: Which Keywords are worth Stealing?

Find KWs that determine buyer intent or informational searches around key product areas. Generally most sites will have a few niche strength areas in one definitive part of the market. You’ll probably want to keep a running tab of the sites you’re seeing and rerun this whole process, as the scope of your search will expand as you learn more about Organic keywords.


4) What areas do they dominate? Finding the top 1% of their valuable keywords will either let you know what to focus on, or help you identify areas where the competition is weaker. Most of the time you’re better off dominating a smaller market, than going after a bigger one you’ll not easily perform for.
5) What kind of content or pages are ranking, do they have successful content? This is actually a really important point as you go through this process. Generally the higher the search volume, the broader the search term. Meaning consumers are further from actually clicking buy. In practice this means, someone typing in waterproof fishing pants, wants something more specific than just pants. As a result Google and Bing will tend to serve pages that offer more choices for pants (since that could mean thousands of things) than they would for waterproof pants. For your business this means if you sell a niche product with few options, the best move from a revenue perspective is to focus on dominating a more specific query, rather than the whole market of people browsing.
6) Where do they overlap with you? Gauging overlap is probably the best way to actually understand who your competition is. Fortunately organic traffic gives us the best sense of this as other channels tend to suffer from being too broad. (since big AdWords spenders will run ads on broad, or social media companies will target anyone interested in the industry as a whole)SERPstat is actually the most useful for seeing information on overlapping sites. Again, as a tip, I’d recommend focusing on the companies that most overlap with you, before trying to battle all the goliaths in your market. The next easiest way to reverse engineer this process is find any ranking keywords associated with your top performing pages in analytics and Google them to see who and what kind of searches perform there. This will give you a sense of whose dangerous to the areas you’re already doing best in.

Best Tools for Spying on Organic Traffic:


7) CheckSEMrush, with their awesome free trial I’d recommend most businesses start here. SEMrush hands down has the most organic traffic information of anyone out there. They make it easy to crunch that data and offer historical data so you can get unprecedented info on the competition. Be sure to use their “Related Keyword” search to locate terms you could be ranking for but currently aren’t.
8) Check SERPstat - recently popped onto my radar and it’s becoming a fast favorite. While it isn’t as large as SEMrush it’s excellent for getting broad information on businesses in a visually digestible way. They’ve also really mastered the art of nailing down meaningful organic traffic overlap and can help anyone nail down who their competition is.
9) Check AHREFS - my go to for backlink information, but they also have great organic traffic data.
10) Check SpyFu - has long been my go to for any information on competitor ads, but it also features some great organic information. While much smaller than SEMRush, SERPstat, or AHREFS I’d consider getting this tool if you’re heavily involved with Paid Ads.
11) Check iSpionage is another great tool that’s gotten onto my radar. Like SpyFu it’s great if you need paid information but also want to take organic traffic more seriously.


12) Organic Revenue: Find & Steal Their Content

Let’s find their most “popular” content, and outperform them. We know Google is favoring content more and more. Rather than just provide a product page for say waterproof pants in Google, they are aiming to serve content like, “the ten best waterproof pants on the market.” While there are tons of bloggers and companies producing content like this, you can also outproduce and outperform them with your industry knowledge. The other thing to look for is question based queries about products, like “how to care for waterproof pants.”

Best Tools:


13) Check SEMrush gives you a massive database where you can run any competitor's domain and check for content URLs that are ranking. You can also search URLs for words like “blog” in the Advanced Search for quicker access.
14) SERPstat is great because it also features a “Content Ideas” section where you can look for terms that specifically lend themselves to content based answers.
15) AHREFS packs the added benefit of not relying solely on ranking data. Thanks to their extensive internal database you can also use them to locate the most popular content by shares and backlinks on a topic. This not only allows you to see what’s potentially ranking, but what you’re target audience is actually interested in.


16) Organic Revenue: Locate and Steal Their Best Links

Backlinks are one of the original features of Google which has never quite gone away. There are two simple approaches to building links and tons of link building techniques that still work. The short answer is you can 1) find links that are broken to your site, 2) find unlinked mentions and ask for a link, or 3) figure out where the competition is getting them from and try to grab the same ones. The point is, before we can steal links we need to know where they come from.

Check the link profile of you and your competition.
17)
Check AHREFS - This should be your first choice. AHREFs will quickly help you understand what kinds of links are to be had in any industry.
19) Check Majestic - Majestic has a slightly smaller backlink database but rich feature set and great visualizations so it would also work well.
20) Though not as reliable gather as much data as you can from secondary sources and eliminate duplicates.
21) Check MOZ - I usually don’t find anything in MOZ and SEMrush that wasn’t in AHREFS or Majestic, but have occasionally seen interesting things.
22) Check SEMrush - Again, not the biggest backlink profile but occasionally some good data.
23) Google Search Console will also spit out some sample backlinks your site has as well.


24) Organic Revenue: Understand The Competitor Site Structure You’re Up Against

Crawling a site will let you understand the user flow and organization of the best sites in your industry. It should also highlight deficiencies in your own strategy.

First Crawl the site.


26) Check Deepcrawl - great if you lack technical knowledge, but want answers on the competition and yourself.
27) Check Screaming Frog - a cheaper alternative that will give you tons of data to play with, but will need to be more self directed.
28) Check native site audit features in MOZ, SEMrush or SERPstat. Though not their central focus necessarily all three of these services can let you know what you need to do on a basic level (MOZ is besT).
29) Run that crawl through URLprofiler to get further metrics on the readability, backlinks (if you have AHREFS, Majestic, or MOZ to sync with), and a Google Analytics comparison of your site info.


30) Retail Distribution: Do They Leverage Other Marketplaces?

Google is still our friend! The actual sales market that eBay and Amazon host can offer a massive opportunity for manufacturer sales, make sure you examine the web for all the distribution outlets they may have.

Check for selling through other retailers or if they rely on direct sales.


31) Type [band name -site:[domain.com] -[any negative KWs] into Google, where the brand name is the company you’re looking at, domain their homepage, and native keywords anything related like Columbia University if you’re just trying to look at the clothing brand.

Do they sell on eBay and Amazon? You can try directly searching the site for your competitors or other distributors possibly selling their products.


32) Type site:amazon.com [company name] into Google, where company name is the competitor you’re looking at.
33) Type site:eBay.com [company name] into Google, where company name is the competitor you’re looking at.


34) Paid Ads Traffic: What Platforms & Terms Are Being Used?

Unfortunately paid traffic tools are largely the most opaque area for understanding where competitors make revenue. The best we can do here is deduce what ad copy looks like, and get a sense whether competitors are or aren’t running on certain terms. This can be helpful in establishing what areas are essential to their marketing efforts or what good ad copy (or the ad copy you’re competing against) might look like.


35)
Check for activity on Adwords, Bing, or Shopping, and try to understand the best strategies out there. Now you could do this the hard way (most people do) which Google a bunch of terms and see who comes up. But the tools below will save you a lot time.

Best Tools


36) Check SpyFu for some of the best info out there on competitor keywords.
37) Check AdWords Keyword Planner - depending on the sophistication of your competitor this is where most people start, you can plug your competitor site in there and check for Google’s recommendations, and that’ll give you more ideas of other areas to research on SEMrush or SpyFu.
38) Check SEMrush - they have decent competitor ad data, and a great buy if Organic traffic ends up being a larger business focus.
39) Check iSpionage - for a good set of affordable paid ads data as well as good information on URLs and the landing pages along the shopping process of buyers. 

Try to figure out what is the best Ad copy generally in the industry. 

40) What Runs Where - pricy, but essential if you’re concentrated on Paid ads.
41) Moat - great for getting info, especially about display ads.

Are They Running Social Ads & Serious About Social Media Marketing

Social ads are notoriously hard to pin down, but checking in AdEspresso might indicate interesting info about Facebook ads. Otherwise high levels of interactions on Ahrefs and BuzzSUmo should indicate some level of paid activity (or more rarely savvy marketing). Also following a brand on social should tell you quite a bit about their activities.

Social Channels to Check:


42) Check Facebook - look for consistent posts, as well as decent engagement through likes and shares. High levels of proactive engagement with external users is typically the best indicator of taking it seriously.
43) Check Instagram - look for consistent posts, as well as decent engagement through likes and shares. Be wary of auto-chatbots and links that all say the same things.
44) Check Pinterest - look for well curated boards as well as repins. Generally the best indicator of quality engagement on Pinterest is high follower count, especially on specific boards.
45) Check Twitter - again look for solid levels of engagement and <3 from real people. The best brands will interact consistently with users.
46) Check Snapchat - Probably the most subjective since metrics are so hard to come by, but search for into on the brand and follow them. (most corporate outfits will feature that info on their homepage) Judging by the quality of their snaps you’ll be able to gauge whether they’re using SnapChat to much effect.
47) Check Google+ - look for a pulse, not really worth pursuing at this point but decently useful for SEO.

Look for evidence of Facebook ads


48) Check AdEspresso - Unfortunately this is your best bet for ad info. The most reliable way to figure this out is follow the brand you’re interested in, or visit their site and try to trigger remarketing on FB.


49) Do They Have a Public Relations Machine?

Understanding how and where a business is mentioned is key for understanding it’s digital PR efforts. Use AHREFS to track mentions (from backlinks) across the web, as well as Google News to look for any headlines


Some companies are heavily driven by PR


50) Check -AHREFS backlinks data. Are they?:
51) Writing for businesses? - Are they running a legitimate guest posting campaign.
52)
Paying to play? - Look for sponsored content or arranged posts, for example around free product samples.
53)
Forming real Relationships? -
54)
Do they use tastemakers for influencer marketing?
Check FollowerWonk - Look for Twitter bios and mentions of brands or products on popular profiles.
55) Look for PR specialist job postings on site like Indeed or GlassDoor.

Find Nothing?: Maybe They’re Traditional


56) Do they have branded search traffic? (Again, Rank Checking) Probably a result of direct sales or in store distribution.
57) Do they have many sales people?
Check GlassDoor or job posting sites for what the companies up to. Traditional outbound driven organizations will have massive sales teams, especially look for disgruntled employees on glass door.

Is it a mostly local business?


58) Search services locally. Map pack & Customer Reviews matter.
59) Check for local headlines in publications around town.


60) Is their site prettier or easier to use than yours?

Dirty little secret, this might be your Achilles heel.

Pretend You Are Your Customer, checkout on your site, and the competitions, see which one makes shopping easier, especially on someone who doesn’t know the sites.


61) How do they close traffic once they get it?

Everything above answered how they get people to their site to make their money. Now we have to get inside the actual head of the customer and see how they feel about the product.


62) Evaluate the Site itself: Checkout or fill out form on the site. How does it feel to use the site, is their learning curve easier than yours?
63) Do they use lead magnets?
64) Was the checkout process painless?
65) What’s your sales process like?
66) Built With: check out what they run on.
67) How Fast is there Site, or yours for that matter? Check WebPageTest.org or Pingdom to understand.
68) Do they have many customer reviews? There are numerous studies indicating the fact that customers prefer to read other people’s opinions of a product. Additionally this wide breadth of opinion(far more than any one salesperson could anticipate) caters to a wider audience while keeping them on the page longer.

Guerilla Tactics for Spying


69) Search for docs on the web Site:[domain Name] Change the file type to .pdf, .xls, or .ppt to turn up data or press
70) How Do Employees Feel About the Company? Check Glass Door
71) What are they hiring for? Search sites like Craigslist or Indeed
72) Set up a alerts with Google Alerts, SEMrush, & AHREFs to monitor anything they may make headlines with.
73) Do they own other sites? Are they running “unbiased” content sites in the niche? Spy On Web will let you know of any other sites registered to their business or sites using their same Google Analytics snippets.

Bringing it All Together To Steal Their Customers

Once you run the above process on a few of your key competitors you’ll generally find that most competitors dominate one or two central marketing strategies and one dominant player might dominate your niche with a combination of 3-5 channel strategies.

Our Options are as follows:

  1. target an area your competition isn’t operating in
  2. circle the wagons and throw more fire power towards what you’ve been doing
  3. feel hopeless
  4. we can rapidly iterate through new strategies until one works
  5. we can identify emergent marketing channels and hope they coalesce into where the market is moving, and thus capitalize on a first mover advantage.

The known-knowns:

The Known-Unknowns:

Forging a New Path:

Stealing customers from the competition is no easy task, nor is bailing water on a sinking ship, especially when you’re trying to pivot simultaneously. On a macro level, our task will be to limit bleed on recurring costs while freeing up as many marketing dollars as we can. I.e. tighten belts with the clear goal of keeping people employed and/or more well fed once we get out of our rough patch.

The Game Plan:

  1. Audit all current marketing practices and vendors. Use Google Analytics to determine your most valuable marketing channels in terms of user and revenue growth have been for all time and in the last 18 months.
  2. Outline the maximum monthly investment in marketing tactics and timeline you’re willing to accept at the risk of keeping business static.
  3. Generally I’d recommend copying tactics the competition is doing, typically this means employing the same advertising channels (particularly the ones that “dominant” players in your industry are employing but second and third tier operator are not. Or leveraging PR tactics or content marketing to reach new audiences (and or close the traffic we currently have)
  4. If your goal is to keep the lights on invest in paid channels like remarketing, AdWords, Facebook Ads, with the hopes of tracking down a permissible ROAS (return on Ad spend). This typically creates enough profitability (once a sustainable level is reached) to determine investment volume in other areas.
  5. Consider running some CRO campaigns to improve our ability to close customers.
  6. If you’ve never done SEO on your site or have been around for a while and have some decent rankings then SEO is typically a good buy. If your site is new, offers a new product/service, or in a niche with low search demand then wait until later.
  7. After trying all of the above, it generally then makes sense to invest in tactics outside of what “works” in your industry or for you. Again I would reverse engineer the revenue paradigm we outlined at the beginning starting with Email Marketing, Organic Traffic & Content Marketing, Leveraging Retailers, Paid Traffic,and ending withPR.

Best of luck, and let us know what adventures you have trying to conquer the competition.

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