In his book Ultimate Guide to Optimizing Your Website, SEO and online marketing expert Jon Rognerud shows you how to build a high-performance website and get top ranking on all search engines. In this edited excerpt, the author explains how to find out what keywords your competitors are using and how you can use that data to improve your search engine rankings.

It's important when analyzing keywords that you know which keywords your competitors use and if you're in the proper league to either continue to use them or try for keywords that are still popular yet not used as often.

Some paid keyword analyzers can tell you which competitors use which keywords, but this is often limited to what's used for Google AdSense campaigns. A good way to determine what keywords your competitors are using is to use keyword research tools to extract keywords from their pages, and then copy and paste your selected keyword into a search engine such as Yahoo! or Google to see where they show up.

An easy way to find target keywords for your competitors is to see what Google thinks they are by using the new interface to Google Keyword External tool (updated to look and act like the version supplied within Google AdWords.) The new keyword tool allows you to select languages, local search targets and more.

Use these steps to discover keywords from competitor domains:

  1. Access the keyword tool and log in.
  2. Input your competitor's web address.
  3. Review the listings, and scroll down to view all and see the collection of keywords including ad group ideas.

You would pick the keywords that have (exact) search counts and that closely match your site as a starting formula. A combination of head and long-tail keywords should be included in an Excel tracking sheet. As you enter some of these keywords into Google, you'll see varying results for paid results. These will help you understand how "commerce viable" a keyword is. The more ads, the more you can consider it to be a moneymaker. You can further input top keywords into Spyfu.com and Keywordspy.com to discover more detail, including potential paid campaigns and their resulting landing pages. This will give you a broad view of your competitor's use of keywords, pages and overall strategy.

For each of the top five sites, select keywords that seem reasonable, match your market and have search volume, and then take a look at the results that come up. Don't worry as much about the sponsored listings, as these spots are out of your league if you have limited funds. Expand the research, and focus on the first ten direct listings of the search engine results. Ask yourself: Do these listings relate to the keyword at hand?

Having the exact keyword phrase in your title helps you rank better with search engines. Additionally, you can check on the number of inbound links of these sites. Use LinkVendor to do this. If you have a Google webmaster account (you should!), your incoming links will be revealed there. Rather than simply hunting down links, however, search for quality links back to you, which are of higher priority. The search engine will return how many inbound links the website has. Make sure to select the "Except from this domain"--we want to show only external links, not links within the site.

Now, what do you do with all this information, particularly if the number is high? Even if the number of inbound links is in the thousands, you don't necessarily have to discount a keyword. In order for inbound links to be useful for search engines, they must relate to the keywords used throughout your website. For example, if you're looking to rank well for refinancing loans yet your inbound links are for subprime mortgage loans, you'll get a good search engine ranking for subprime mortgage loans rather than what you originally wanted, which was refinancing loans. A solid information architecture with keyword research to build out your pages will help avoid this problem. You'll make sure that you target pages across your site, not just your homepage.

You'll get some legitimate traffic, since some subprime loans are also refinancing loans, but the traffic wouldn't be as relevant as if you had inbound links that related directly to refinancing loans. If this is what's happening with your competitor's keywords, you can take advantage of it by creating a site with the appropriate inbound links.

How can you determine if a competitor's inbound links relate to the keywords used on its site? OpensiteExplorer.org will show your competitors' anchor text and a lot more around domain authority, diversity of linking domains, which is important, and total links.

A powerful tool that you can try on a 30-day free trial is Market Samurai. It provides a complete, integrated system for all online marketing efforts, and it's a killer tool. The link analysis can show you all incoming links sorted by page rank or by anchor text use, and can easily be exported. Find out who they are, and submit for a link. You may be surprised to find out that top, or first page, listings of Google have low page rank values but extremely targeted page and anchor text matches. This is a big secret to success.

You can effectively compete even if a site has a smaller number of legitimate inbound links. The key is to ensure that your links directly relate to the keywords used on your site; if your competitors don't, you may be rewarded with top placement.