Look, I admit it, saying that competitor research is a crucial part of any content strategy sounds so freaking cliche.
But it’s true.
You know, you can analyze your market, audience and their pain points as much as you like…
…but unless you also understand your competitor’s strategies, you stand a little chance out there.
Why, because your goal is to attract people who might already be listening to your competitor’s advice.
And how else could you do it than by evaluating what they do and identifying what you could do better?
The challenge – how do you research the competition? What factors do you consider when analyzing their blogs?
That’s what I’m going to show you today.
In fact, I’ll show you the EXACT competitor research process I use when helping clients with their content strategies.
Ready? Then let’s take it from the top.
Why You Have No Choice But to Research Your Competition (Before Creating Any Content)
Let’s make one thing clear:
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with taking a peek at what your competition does right (and most importantly, where they mess things up).
In fact, competitive research is your only way to fully understand what you’re going to be dealing with when your first piece of content goes live.
And then, create content that exceeds what your competitors have been delivering off the bat.
But if you’re still unconvinced, here are some benefits of analyzing what your competition publish:
- Making more informed decisions about your strategy. You can discover topics that work best for them (and naturally, those that failed to engage the audience), significantly reducing your learning curve.
- Spotting new opportunities, both in content creation and distribution that could help you quickly gain the advantage.
- Finding your competitive edge. Competitive research gives you a chance to assess your strengths against the competition, and discover areas where you could beat them with little effort.
Take content distribution for example. In your assessment, you can find out that your competition relies on social and SEO for traffic. You can then allocate some budget for online ads, and reach your audience through a channel they don’t utilize.
Convinced yet? Then let’s take a look at the whole process.
#1. Assess Your Competitor’s Site Size and Traffic
Start by finding out what you’re going up against – the size of the competitor’s site, and estimated traffic they receive.
The first part is easy. Simply search for their site on Google, using the “site:” query.
Like this: site:competitorsdomain.com
And Google will return the number of pages from that domain in its index.
Naturally, the number is an estimate. The actual number may vary (however, I don’t think that it changes by much). What’s important is that it will give you the first indication of the size of the competitor’s site, and the amount of content they’ve published.
TIP: If your competitor uses a subdomain for the blog (i.e. blog.domain.com), then research it separately too. This way, you’ll uncover the actual number of blog posts they have published to date.
The traffic. Naturally, the only way to learn the actual volume of visits to their site is through their analytics (which I’m sure you haven’t got access to). Luckily, various applications help estimate visitors to a domain.
We use SEMrush (disclaimer: they are our clients). Their Domain Overview report also includes an estimate of the domain’s organic traffic.
Naturally, this is just an estimate based on traffic volume per keyword and rankings. But once again, it gives a good indication of what you’re dealing with.
(Additional factors to pay attention to on reports like these are backlinks and paid search. The first will indicate how strong a domain is regarding SEO. The other, whether they use any paid advertising to promote their business. Again, both are just indications but help with assessing the strength of a competitor).
#2. Identify Your Competitor’s Content Assets
Once you have a good idea about their site and traffic in general, it’s time to look at your competitor’s content assets.
During this research, you’re trying to find out what types of content they publish, how often, and what engages their audience the most.
Here’s what you should research specifically:
Where their content lives?
First, identify various content marketing assets on their site. When doing so, go beyond the blog and look for other content assets they produce.
Many companies publish various content types and group them under various labels – Resources, Content, etc.
Another example. Distilled – publishing posts, long form features, videos, and running a learning platform.
AdEspresso – blog, eBooks, webinars, and guides, grouped as Academy.
So, when assessing the competitor’s site, go beyond the blog, and try to uncover every place to which they post content assets.
What content types they create?
Based on the above competitive research, list all different content types they produce. Once again, go deeper and include various blog post types (i.e. long form guides, how-to’s, etc.), and other resources (lead magnets, etc.).
Doing this will give you a more holistic view of your competitor’s strategies.
For example, here’s a screenshot of a blog by my friends at Pixelter. You can see right away that John and Co. focus on publishing educational content only.
In contrast, educational blog posts are only a fraction of the content on this site:
How many items per content type they published so far?
You don’t have to be specific here. But review their last couple of months of content to find out which types they focus on the most, and what they publish only occasionally.
Frequency of publishing different assets
Review their site and assess how often they publish fresh content. Do they follow a regular schedule (i.e. a post a week, etc.) or create new posts at different intervals.
The frequency of publishing might indicate how dedicated they are to the strategy, and the type of resources they have at their disposal.
Looking at categories helps you in two ways:
- You can assess what topic areas your competitor focuses on the most.
- And also, spot many inconsistencies or missing opportunities in the issues they target.
Most popular content (overall):
This is where competitive content research gets really interesting.
By now, you know what content types your competitor publishes, when, and how they organize their efforts.
Next, find out where they’ve hit the mark – research their most popular content ideas.
(Note, we use Buzzsumo to research the competitor’s topics. But I’m sure there are other alternatives you could use to the same effect).
Start by researching the overall most popular content on the competitor’s domain:
Most popular content (relevant to the pain point):
Then, repeat the process but this time, focus on topics that relate to your audience’s key pain point – the problem your SaaS aims to help them eliminate.
This way, you’ll get an indication of the biggest problems or challenges your potential audience struggles with.
How do they generate leads from the blog?
Finally, go back to your competitor’s site and list all calls to actions they use to convert visitors into leads.
These could include CTAs to content upgrades or other lead magnets:
But also, direct to trial signups, like this:
#3. Assess Their Content’s Quality
There are many ways to beat your competitors with content:
- You could create way more content than them. And quickly start to dominate the market with the sheer volume of what you publish.
- Or throw more money on promotion, boosting your traffic with social ads, for example.
- Or you could simply create content that’s 10x better than your competitors.
And just like all of those strategies could work, it’s the last one on the list that delivers the greatest return.
The trick is, to outdo your competition at content, you first need to assess how good is their content.
And here are the questions we ask when researching our clients’ competitors’ content.
What’s the quality of their writing?
OK, I know, quality is a subjective thing. Plus, it’s easier to establish for someone like us, professional content creators (although, believe me, for us, ego sometimes get in the way during the process).
Read a couple of their recent articles paying attention to the following elements:
- Introductions – do they draw you in, focusing on a problem, and make you excited to read the rest of the content?
- Subheadings – do they clearly mark what each section is about?
- The flow of the text – does the copy flows naturally from one sentence to another? Or do you struggle reading some passages?
- Tone – does the author speak directly to you or writes in passive voice?
- Scannability – could you scan the content and still get the gist of it?
Does the content go in-depth into the topic?
What’s the complexity level (beginner, intermediate, advanced) of their advice? How well do they explain the problem? Do they offer generic advice, or provide advice someone could implement in their business right away?
The simplest test to establish the depth of content – look for elements like these: walkthroughs, graphs and other visuals explaining certain procedures, and examples relevant to the target industry, then you can safely assume this content is helpful.
The average length of content
I admit length isn’t always the best indication of quality. After all, not every topic requires a couple of thousand words.
That said, assessing the competitor’s length of content will help you establish what type of content they tend to produce – regular blog posts, long-form articles, in-depth guides…
What tone of voice do they adopt?
In other words, how do they communicate with you? Speak directly to you, in a casual way, or write formally, using passive voice?
The tone of voice is an often overlooked way to create a much better impression on your audience and beat the competition without having to do much. Apart from being yourself, actually.
Drift are a wonderful example of utilizing a tone of voice to build a strong connection with their audience. Dave Gerhardt talked about it at length during our podcast interview with him. Check it out here, if you’re interested.
What’s the structure of their content? How well is it formatted?
We’ve already touched on the idea of formatting and scannability when talking about the overall content quality. But go deeper, and research how well your competition formats their content.
In particular, assess whether:
- They use short paragraphs.
- Mark each section with a clear subheading
- Use bold and italics to highlight important elements of the copy
- Use bulleted lists to make it easier to digest the copy
Does it include many visuals?
Visuals play a crucial role in engaging your audience.
From funny gifs that help you reiterate a point, to graphs and charts that confirm your claims, images make the copy that much interesting for the audience to read.
Explanation in visuals:
And so, research whether your competitors’ use visuals at all. And if so, what types they use the most (and how well).
Do they include influencers in the content?
But no matter what you think about it, I know it works. Although, it’s not as easy as just emailing someone out of the blue asking for shares.
For the influencer outreach to work, you need to first do something for the person. And what’s the one thing you could offer them? Exposure.
Featuring someone in your content is a surefire way to get more shares and a little help with the promotion.
So, check if your competitors use influencer marketing in their strategy – see if they openly quote or reference influencers in the copy.
How engaged is their audience?
I admit reader engagement is a tricky thing. However, there are ways to establish whether the audience enjoys your writing or not.
Some of those best ones include social shares and comments.
And so, check what sort of engagement signals your competitors receive, and what are the average results per signal.
#4. Evaluate Their Posts’ SEO
I absolutely love this statement by Nat Eliasson (note: the emphasis in bold is mine):
“There are 5 Traffic Sources, and SEO is the Best.”
So freaking true!
(Oh, and in case if you’re wondering what the other four types are – direct, email, referral, and social)
Direct traffic or email send visitors, but you have to actively work to bring those people in (send those emails, tell people about the post, etc.)
But with SEO, you publish the content, and providing you did a good job at optimizing it, Google just keeps sending you traffic for months. No extra work required.
The thing is – the competition for this traffic is fierce.
Thousands of sites battle to get to the top of the search results. They optimize their content, outreach for links, and do another crazy SEO sh*t to win.
But you know what – the chances are that they aren’t doing everything right!
Hell, many mess up even the basics of SEO. And so, your best bet is to find out what they do wrong and make sure you do it better.
So, here’s how to assess your competitor’s SEO.
(Note, in the following section I focus on what’s known as on-page SEO – optimizing the content and the page for specific keywords. I deliberately leave out the off-page SEO as it relies on a different set of strategies, often unrelated to content creation).
Do they include the keyword in the title tag?
The title tag is one of the most important on-page ranking factors. It tells the search engine what your content is about, and helps it decide for what keywords it should display it.
A properly optimized title tag should feature the main keyword, ideally as close to the left.
However, your title tag doesn’t have to match the post’s title. In fact, it’s a good practice to optimize the title tag for SEO and write an emotional headline to engage the audience.
How long are their URLs
Similarly, many sites use the post’s title in the URL slug (the bit of text that follows your domain name, and starts after the “.com,” etc.)
However, long URLs like this one – domain.com/02/02/17/content/how-to-create-content-strategy – can actually reduce your chances for better rankings.
Instead, your URL should feature the keywords and ideally, nothing else. For example – domain.com/create-content-strategy
And so, check how well your competitor optimizes their URLs. It may seem like an insignificant thing but doing it better could give you some advantage in the search results.
Post title – is it keyword or engagement driven?
You can write post titles in two ways – focus on a keyword or engagement.
Now, don’t get me wrong – both approaches work.
However, when you’re trying to build an audience and increase organic traffic, the keyword approach beats everything else.
So, flick through your competitor’s blog to see how well they optimize headlines for SEO.
Keyword density (visible mentions or more flowing copy)
Read your competitor’s content and ask yourself – can you tell what keywords they’ve optimized it for?
(You can tell by spotting a phrase relevant to the topic of the post appearing more than once in the copy)
Do they optimize the image alt tag?
Here’s the thing. At first glance, the Alt Text of an image (a little blurb you can specify for each visual that displays when you rollover the cursor over an image on a web page) seems so darn insignificant.
After all, who cares, right? It’s not that you keep rolling over images to check the alt text….
But then again, as Brian from Backlinko points:
But because it seems so insignificant, many companies fail to optimize the alt text… giving you a chance to gain that additional advantage over them.
Instead of including the main keyword in the featured image’s ALT TAG, they leave the filename, or worse, description.
Example, I found this alt text when researching one of our clients’ competition – “lot of dead meat in a butcher shop.”
Do they link internally and externally?
There are just so many benefits of cross-linking your content:
- It helps point visitors to other relevant content (and in turn, keep them on the site)
- And it passess link juice between pages, strengthening their authority
The situation is no different with external links:
Outbound links to relevant sites help Google establish your post’s topic
Plus, it helps to show Google your high intent on educating users and providing quality information.
And yet, both strategies get often neglected.
Companies don’t realize the value of internal linking. And out of fear of sending someone away, they forbid writers to link to external sources (believe me, I’ve seen it more than once).
That’s an opportunity you simply can’t miss!
So go through your competitor’s content, to find out whether they link internally and externally at all. And if so, how often they link, and who they link out to (random sites or authority resources).
And that’s it!
That’s the competitor research process we use to evaluate your clients’ competitors’ content strategies.