9 Advanced -- and Ethical -- Techniques for Spying on Your Competitors Online
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Want to spy on your competitors? The information you need is publicly available and freely accessible.
In this article, I’ll show you the tools and techniques that will allow you to scope out the competition. You can even use these tips to analyze your own site. You might discover some things that you didn’t know.
1. Discover exactly what keywords they are using.
Everything starts with keywords. What keywords is your competitor targeting? Knowing this can give you a rough idea of what is driving traffic and sales to your competitors.
Many websites include their keywords directly in their metadata, which is available to anyone who wants to take a look.
Visit your competitor’s homepage. Then look at the source code. In the Chrome browser you can go to View → Developer → View Source. Search (CTRL + F) for “keywords.” If the site has meta keywords, you should be able to find them with the tag meta name=”keywords”.
2. Examine their load time and mobile view.
Plenty of sources will display a site’s load time. One of the most reliable and detailed speed statistics comes from Google PageSpeed Insights.
Does your competitor’s site load and perform drastically slower or faster than your own? The benefits of PageSpeed Insights is that it gives you a great view of the site’s mobile presence as well as speed metrics.
This kind of investigation works well to find out if your competitor is ahead of the curve on mobile, or how their site might perform in the SERPs due to load time issues.
3. Determine their number of indexed pages.
The more indexed pages a site has, the better this site will perform in the SERPs. If you can discover how many indexed pages your competitor has, it can give you a good benchmark for determining how many indexed pages you should aim for. Remember, the best way to get more indexed pages is through consistent, high-value content marketing.
Use this Google query: site:[competitor URL]
Here, I’m searching for the site quicksprout.com
As SEO expert Barry Schwartz wrote, “many SEOs determine the health of a site in Google by the saturation of the number of pages Google has indexed.” Prior to 2011, the numeric results from query couldn’t be trusted. Since 2011, Google started implementing infrastructure changes to improve the accuracy of this metric.
For sites that you own, you can access a more reliable indexed pages count in Google Webmaster Tools.
Although it’s not a failsafe method of competitor analysis, the number of indexed pages is one more piece of data that helps you understand your competitor’s SEO.
4. Analyze the accuracy of their code.
One great way to assess your competitor’s technical skills or budget is to figure out how solid their code is.
Here’s what I came up with. Thankfully, I passed, but I do have two warnings.
I can look at the exact code that triggered the warning, and find out why they are considering them as warnings.
A small disclaimer: I have not yet found a site with zero errors. This validation service analyzes everything, and often returns “warnings” or “errors” that are little more than preferential issues.
5. Assess their Twitter presence.
If you’re doing due diligence on your competitors, you’ve probably scoped out their social-media feeds. One service, Topsy, provides a handy line graph for tracking a site’s daily Twitter mentions. You can perform searches by Twitter handle, domain name, or keyword.
In the screenshot below, I performed a comparative search for site:searchenginejournal.com, site:searchengineland.com, and site:searchenginewatch.com. A search with these parameters determines how many Twitter mentions were made on each site. It’s obvious who has the stronger Twitter presence. Be advised that the graph only covers the past month.
6. Look at their advertisements.
Want to find out what your competitors are advertising, or what their ads look like? Moat.com is your solution. You can quickly and easily see a company’s ad presence with a simple search.
Here is my search for “Search Engine Land:”
Some of this is old data, but it can give you a helpful look at what companies are advertising for, and what their ads look like.
7. Discover their most powerful pages.
Here is a gem that will give you amazing insights into your competitor: Their most powerful website pages.
If you find out a site’s most powerful pages, you can learn what kind of content they produced, how it garnered attention, and how strong it really is.
To conduct this bit of spying, you can use a free search from ahrefs.com. From the homepage, search for the site you’re interested in:
In the generated report, navigate to “top pages.”
The top pages of the site are listed in order of significance.
The sites are considered strong based on the number of referring domains. In the case of my site, quicksprout.com, I know that my homepage is the strongest, followed by an article I wrote about Facebooking like Zuckerberg, and then my Advanced Guide to SEO.
8. Find out what services they are using.
Have you ever thought, “How did they do that? I wish I knew who their service provider was!”
This information is publicly available. I happen to know, for example, that CNN.com uses Outbrain as an advertising service provider, uses an Nginx server, and A/B tests the site using Optimizely.
Here’s the secret weapon: builtwith.com. Using builtwith, you can harvest a host of information about what your competitor is up to -- from their CMS, to what widgets they are using, to what affiliate relationships they have.
9. Learn what website changes they made.
Your competitor might be updating their website in order to maximize conversions. How do you know what changes they made?
Use the Wayback Machine. This free service shows you all the iterative changes of a website, including an image of exactly what the site looked like on any given date.
The more information you can get on your competitors, the better. This information is your ticket to success as you make the right changes and focus on the right issues in your business.
What are some ways that you spy on your competitors?