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How to Do an SEO Competitive Scan

Yesterday, I completed several SEO audits. I really love doing them because they fire both sides of my brain: the analytical and artistic sides.

Some have said that it's the ADHD brain. Others, the marketer's brain. Either way, one client was specifically looking to get a leg up on its competitors who seem to be doing well organically. So I conducted a competitive scan.

I want to share it with you as it might be useful to you.

An SEO audit analyzes a number of factors to see if a website is properly optimized. It looks at a number of ranking signals, both internal and external, to help determine if the content is visible, relevant, and desirable.

There are three levels to my SEO audits:

  1. Behind the site (technical SEO)
  2. On the site itself (on-page SEO)
  3. Outside the site (off-page SEO)

I call them the “three Cs” of SEO audits: code, content, and conversation.

But to be more specific, here's a summary of each:

  1. Technical SEO looks at what's behind the site and includes any technical process meant to improve visibility. It reviews the site’s hosting, coding, speed, security, navigation, and user experience. In other words, it makes sure that Google can easily find, crawl, index, and use the content.
  2. On-page SEO looks at what's on the page and includes any internal signals meant to improve relevancy. It reviews the site's content and various page elements that support it (i.e., metadata, images, HTML, etc). It provides Google with enough information about the content to help it decide if it matches their users' queries.
  3. Off-page SEO looks at what's outside the site and includes any external signals meant to improve desirability. It reviews outside activities related to the website, such as conversations, brand mentions, and of course, backlinks. It helps Google to determine if the content is authoritative, valuable, and beneficial to searchers.

I'll save the audit process for another time, but one part of the audit looks at the content's performance, its competitors (and their performance), and any gaps that exist and can be capitalized on.

A gap analysis tries to reverse engineer a website’s competitive environment by scanning the topmost competitors in various SERPs (i.e., search engine result pages), and it identifies any opportunities for improvement, underexploited content ideas, and potential backlinks.

A competitive scan looks at several things.

First, I look at what Google suggests are competitors. Also called “people also search for,” they are usually found after the first three results, at the bottom of the page, or under the site's Google My Business listing on the right.

While Google's machine-learning is getting more intelligent, it may still be wrong or misleading. For example, it provides a list of competitors based on other people's searches, and within my specific geographical area.

They may be alternatives to what Google thinks the searcher is looking for, and may not be true competitors. By “true competitors,” I don't mean competitors in the offline world. I mean those vying for the same traffic you want.

So to find true competitors, I identify companies by looking at:

  • Existing topics from my client's current website content;
  • Keywords Google suggests the site should aim for; and,
  • Actual queries people have used to find my client.

To accomplish this, I do a few things.

First, I use a few tools to help extract the information I need. I look at Google's keyword planning tool (from Google Ads), which suggests keywords for the site based on its existing content. I also use a few other keyword suggestion tools, such as UberSuggest and KeywordTool.

With Google Search Console, I identify what keywords people have used to find my client's website. I look at both the volume and the performance (i.e., how many impressions and how many clicks did a certain search query get).

Then, I put it all into a spreadsheet and review the list to see if it makes sense. Sometimes, some keywords are either too generic, have the wrong search intent, or are just wrong altogether. So I delete them.

Once I have a good list of keywords, I take the top 10 in terms of search volume (depending the size of the project, I try to stay around the top 10-20 keywords). Then, I use them to find competitors.

Please note that this is not keyword research. It's only meant to find true competitors. These keywords may not be worth ranking for, anyway.

Finally, using the queries I list, I look for the top 3-5 competitors that are:

  • Ranking the highest organically for the same queries;
  • Appearing in the local three-pack (Google Maps); and,
  • Buying Google Ads that appear under the same queries.

Once done, I list the URLs of my competitors and check them out. I want to know if they are viable competitors. Do they make sense? To do that, I check the site manually, and punch them into a site audit tool like SEM Rush.

In my spreadsheet and with each competitor, I add their estimated monthly traffic from SEM Rush (only organic traffic, not paid), number of keywords they are ranking for, number of backlinks, and domain authority score.

Competitors with little traffic and keywords, I dump. Those with comparable amounts of traffic or keywords to my client, I keep. And those that are higher, I highlight. I then sort the list from highest to lowest traffic numbers.

Next, I look at the top 10 competitors.

These are my true SEO competitors.

From that point, I do a number of analyses, such as a content gap analysis, a backlinks gap analysis, and a crawl of each individual competitor to look at their site architecture and anything the “pops out” at me.

What's a gap analysis? For backlinks, a tool like Ahrefs can tell me all the backlinks that point to my client's competitors that are not linking to my client.

Now, I'm a big believer in earning backlinks naturally, not doing outreach trying to convince others to link to me (or my clients). I know some SEO agencies do this and it's a major part of their practices. Some even do it in very tasteful ways.

But to me, it's still icky. I don't like it. It may also be influenced by my fear of rejection, but I always prefered earning backlinks than spamming people to get them to link to me. But I digress.

The point of doing a backlink gap analysis is to see if there are any industry or common links that can be easily acquired. For example, most of my client's competitors had backlinks from the BBB, industry associations, and vertical-specific business directories.

As for content gaps, I look at what keywords each of the competitors' are ranking for. This will offer many clues as to what content ideas and topics my client should tackle. But more importantly, a gap analysis looks at topics that competitors are ranking for that my client isn't.

Finally, I use Google itself to see what it thinks.

Backlinks are actual links, but brand mentions are implied links. So I'll type in the competitor's name into Google and see what comes up. I want to see what kinds of conversations people are having about my client's competitors.

I also peek at “related searches” at the bottom of the page, which are Google's predictive list of searches based on what people have also searched for. They may offer a few ideas and additional insights.

This is list is not exhaustive.

Conducting a competitive scan varies and may have some additional steps that I'm not listing here. It depends on the nature of the project.

For example, what if a client doesn't have a website yet? Or what if the client has topics they want to rank for but that their current website doesn't cover well? A keyword extraction tool or Google Search Console won't help in these cases.

Sometimes, I may start by conducting some keyword research before doing a competitive scan. Other times, I may get suggestions from my client or my client's clients, to push me in the right direction.

Hopefully, this has been helpful.

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