When it comes to getting higher rankings in Google, the competition can seem fierce. This is true--unless you're in a niche market where it may be easier to predict or manage the outcome of specific search terms.

If you're in the competitive real estate, health and beauty, or general medical supplies markets, you probably wonder how a company can get and then stay on the first page of Google's search results year after year. Top listings in search engine results pages--also known as SERPs--are considered the mother-load for search terms with significant amounts of traffic. The results are free, and if done right, you could become very successful online.

Competition is both a challenge and an opportunity in business. In SEO, your competitors can be the most valued source of data. When performing competitive research, the goals are to discover:

  • How entrenched a competitor is and how hard it is to unseat them;
  • The competition's SEO skills; and
  • Link prospects, so you can trade links, host articles and do reviews.

Let's go through the steps for analyzing where you stand compared to the competition, using "mortgage loans," a very competitive search term, as an example. We refer to this as a tier 1 keyword, since it's the top search term within this category.

1. Determine link popularity. Go to Google, type in the tier 1 keyword and pick the top three ranked sites. Then go to marketleap.com and use the link popularity checker to see how your site compares in terms of incoming links to the top three sites from Google. Look for sites with the highest Google rankings and lowest amount of incoming links. Keep in mind that MSN records the highest number of back links--incoming links from one website to another--but also pay attention to the Yahoo! results, since it's the best linking engine to use for link review. Also, Google recently updated its Google webmaster tools and has enhanced its link tracking system. Make sure to get an account and compare the results with the others in this step. Write down all the numbers.

2. Find sites to target. Next, go back to Google and enter "allinanchor: mortgage loans." This restricts the results depending on the number of links coming into a site based on that key word phrase. This will help determine which site to target links from.

3. Review link counts. Go back to Yahoo! and enter "link:www.yourbusinessdomain.com" and review the number of results with the numbers from Marketleap in the first step. Note that Yahoo! orders the list by power, or the sites with the most links coming to them. Those sites are the most important to target and are likely to have a good page rank. At this point, you'll know how much work you have ahead of you. If it seems impossible, start by looking at the fifth step about keyword research to narrow down keyword selections and start again.

4. View source and "on page" SEO factors. Once you've found the top list to target, go to each of the sites and review the source code. That's done by selecting menu choice "View: Source" in Internet Explorer browsers and "View: Pagesource" in Firefox browsers. Make sure to review the title, description, meta and H1 tags on the sites. They should be programmed as discussed in my previous column, "10 Steps for Increasing Visibility Online." Some handy SEO tools can help you validate your work, including SearchStatus, a toolbar extension for Firefox and Mozilla, and SEO for Firefox. They can help you indicate quickly whether the competition is doing things right.

5. Perform keyword research. Use the search term suggestion tool at inventory.overture.com, which is one month behind in data results, and look for keywords and their permutations with a good search volume. Any number more than 20,000 to 30,000 is a good average. Continue looking at the tier 1-type terms until you spot an opportunity to build on. Use other tools like Google keyword tools, keyworddiscovery.com. Use the keywords you select in this step by adding pages to your site, a common SEO practice.

6. Consider conversion rates. Finally, visit the competitive sites and compare them with your own. Do they have content, flow and site structure that encourage conversion? Are the sites easy to navigate? Do they emphasize call-to-action statements like "download a white paper," "sign up for this newsletter" or "buy this product now"? Look to see if they are using long tail keywords, such as "mortgage loans for police officers in Los Angeles." If they are, then you should consider doing so, too. Misspellings in text on your page also can work, but be careful not to confuse your visitors. A little trick is to include them in a PDF or Word document. Search engines, specifically Google, spider PDF and Office documents.

Competitive research is a serious SEO exercise for gaining advantage online. Having the tools, capabilities and expertise are not enough; you also need to look at traditional media--print, radio and television--to learn what the competition is up to. Fight back with more pages, more content, improved design and source code, and more incoming links with diverse descriptions. Use tools like UrlTrends to track your progress and SpyFu to look at advertising costs, giving you an indicator of your competition's activity, spending and strategy.

Don't forget to open their spam e-mail marketing messages that you receive. You may learn something by studying that material, however painful. Also review what they send you through the regular mail and discover ways to improve your own campaigns, both offline and online.

Only an alert internet marketer with a keen eye toward the competition will win in today's online business space. Remember to use patience in the most competitive marketplaces and continue using what you've learned here.

Jon Rognerud is a recognized authority on the subject of search engine optimization and has spent more than 15 years developing websites and marketing solutions at companies like Overture and Yahoo!. His website provides a wealth of informative articles, resources and complimentary e-mail courses on everything you'll ever need to know about SEO and search marketing.