SEO competitor research: Why are your competitors ranking so well?

Zest guests' marketing takes April 23, 2020
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SEO competitor research: Why are your competitors ranking so well?

There are sites right now on the web getting more traffic than you. For a lot of queries, too. Their success means less traffic for you, fewer conversions, and so on.

It’s not pretty.

But the situation is likely fixable!

Staying competitive in SEO means you implement the newest and best working practices. This is where competition research comes in.

There’s something your competitors are doing that you aren’t. Or they are doing what you’re doing, only better. Analyzing and implementing the tactics that work in your niche is the way to SEO success.

What is SEO competitor research? 

There are hundreds of ways to describe it, but I prefer this one: SEO competition research is when you monitor the best working SEO practices used by websites in your niche.

Called by a mix of names including competitor analysis, competition research, and competitive research, SEO competitive research helps you stay on top of whose ranking and why. 

I perform this analysis in three steps:

  1. Find competitors — using a specialized tool (or Google) to find out who’s getting traffic in your niche.
  2. Analyze what they’re doing — check what kind of content they are using to attract traffic and backlinks.
  3. Use what you learned to improve your site and rank higher.

Now, here’s how to implement each of those steps. 

Step 1. Find your website’s competitors

Start at the beginning. Let’s find out who these mysterious “competitors” are in terms of SEO. What you’re looking for is sites getting more traffic or ranking higher than you for these exact keywords. 

To do the analysis properly, you’ll need to have done some thorough keyword research. Once you do that, you’ll have a list of keywords you want to rank for which you’ll monitor using a rank tracker tool. These are your targeted keywords and the ones you care about most. 

In most cases, your site is going to be targeting a whole lot of keywords, covering different topics with different pages. Focus on these keywords first as you begin your competitor research.

There are two major types of competition you’re looking at here:

  • General or “domain” competitor — this is an entire site that gets its traffic mostly from your target keywords.
  • Ad hoc or “topic” competitor — here we’re talking about a particular page covering the topic you’re interested in ranking for.

Finding and analyzing your domain competitors

Why do you need to know your domain competitors? 

Because a competitive site can’t stay competitive on the back of a single successful page. It’s about your competitors’ overall strategy to gain and keep traffic. Which of your targeted keywords are they using to earn more traffic than you? 

To find out, what you need is an SEO tool with a competitor research module. When you input the keywords you’re targeting, the tool will give you back a list of websites getting traffic from these keywords.

From then on, you’ll be able to use your SEO tool to monitor any site you’re interested in easily! 

Also, keep an eye out for any keyword gaps competitors might have left for you. If you identify certain keywords that none of them are targeting, put some firepower behind ranking for it yourself. 

Finding and analyzing your topic competitors

Disclaimer: you can do this part manually, but I’d still recommend using a tool.

You’re creating a new page for your site, targeting a single topic. If you want this page to receive traffic from organic search for certain keywords, then you should go and look up what kind of pages rank for these keywords right now. 

Again, you don’t need to use a tool. You can simply Google the keyword and check the information. 

Of course, the difficulties start to crop up as soon as you have 10, 20 keywords you want to check. This is why I recommend that you consider using an SEO tool. As your site and its content grow, you’ll soon find that you have a lot of data to keep track of and an SEO tool will come in handy. 

Add your planned keywords to your SEO monitoring tool and see the pages that rank for them. This is much more convenient than typing your keywords one by one, at least in my opinion.

Step 2. Doing the SEO research itself

The two most vital things for organic search success are content and backlinks. Naturally, these are the most important parts of SEO competitor analysis.

Researching your competitors’ content 

Having completed step one, you should have a list of competing websites to analyze. 

What should you look for when you research these sites? 

Look closely at how high-performing competitors are filling the headings and subheadings, what kind of links they include in their content and what kind of anchor text they use — all of these factors are indicative of the SEO best practices that are working for them. 

Of course, you are free to create any content you want on your site. But you don’t want to stray too far from best practices. You need to avoid being a “black sheep.” By assigned high ranking positions to certain websites, the search engines have already signaled what is considered quality content and you want to conform to those standards.

Remember that you can use the SERPs as your free competitor analysis tool. Use it to compare your actual page to what the search engine (and, by extension, users) expects to see on your page.

  • If you google your target query and find that the Local Pack dominates the page — that’s a signal. Go ahead and fill out your Google My Business page.
  • If you find that most pages put prices in their meta descriptions — that’s a signal. Add pricing information to your meta description.
  • If you see a “People also ask” box with questions related to your topic — that’s a signal. Go ahead and put these questions and the answers to them on your page.

Creating a new page is hard enough, as any website owner knows. But tracking all of this information and altering your content manually is even harder. Fortunately, there are tools that can help. 

I suggest using this SEO Content Editor that I developed (or a similar one). It does much of the content research and revision work for you.  

Screenshot of a SEO content editor that helps you optimize your content for SEO, including a display of an optimization rate percentage
SEO content editors help ensure your content is optimized

This tool compares your page to the competition currently receiving the most traffic from your chosen keywords. Based on that, you get recommendations on keywords to add to your content.

Plus, it helps you monitor the keywords you’ve already added and has a little column with the questions from the “People also ask” box. It also tells you how to optimize your page by giving you personalized suggestions. 

Researching competitors’ backlinks

Now, you may or may not have heard the rumor that PageRank is dead. You are free to believe that, but what I see in practice is that links are still at least as vital as your content optimization.

Quality backlinks are so precious that a lot of new site owners opt to buy a domain instead of starting from scratch, and I can’t blame them.

All of this to say: if you want to make it to the top, find competitors’ backlinks and get them for yourself

You need to analyze both types of your website competitors (domain and topic) and see what kind of backlinks they’re getting.

So how do you find the websites that link to your competitors’ pages? This is one of the things which you can’t really do manually. You will have to resort to an SEO research tool for help. You’ll use this tool to generate a backlink profile for each of the competitors you want to research.

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Now, the thing about backlink profiles is: not all backlinks work. So, when analyzing your competitor’s backlinks, pay especially close attention to the “dofollow” links. 

When you look at your research report, it might indicate that a backlink carries something other than 2xx code, or it’s a “nofollow” link on a “noindex” page, or it’s a duplicate, or a non-canonical page — all of these designations mean that the backlink is pretty much useless.

So, to analyze your backlinks, you need a tool that gives you some very detailed information on the kind of links your competition gets. I use SEO SpyGlass for competitor backlink research, since I’m its developer and therefore most familiar with its functionality. 

That said, there are some other great analysis tools available on the market right now, including Google Search Console and Majestic.

A good backlink research tool will also compare a few backlink profiles to show you intersecting links, or those websites that link to more than one of your competitors. 

Screenshot of a backlink research tool showing which websites link to more than one of your competitors
Backlink research tools show you which websites link to your competitors

Once your competitor analysis tool has found the backlinks that are shared between a number of your niche competitors, you’ve discovered websites that are interested in your kind of content. Simply reach out to them proposing a partnership. 

The rule of thumb is: the more of your niche competitors a page links to, the higher the chances you’ll be able to easily secure a backlink after reaching out. 

Pro tip: monitor the backlink history of your competitors

Get some more insight into any competitor’s site by using a tool to look up their backlink history. 

Monitor not only what kind of backlinks your competitors have right now, but also which ones they used to have. See when and which pages lost backlinks, and which pages have recently had a backlink surge. 

Analyzing your main competitors’ sites from this angle gives you a much fuller picture of what specific content actually works. 

Then, you are free to build upon the success of a competitor website. Update your existing content as per the best practices, or create improved versions of successful pages and beat the competition at their own game.


Getting traffic from organic search requires a whole lot of work and effort. SEO competitor analysis is a huge part of achieving those rankings.

SEO analysis is difficult and complex. But we’re very lucky that the competitor analysis tools available to us right now can do so much.
We can see not just what backlinks our competitors have, but also when they got them and thanks to which pieces of content. Then we can immediately update our own pages accordingly.

The more data you have the greater your brand’s opportunity for growth. Marketers shouldn’t let that opportunity presented by SEO competitor research go to waste. 

Aleh Barysevich is Founder and Chief Marketing Officer at companies behind SEO PowerSuite, professional software for full-cycle SEO campaigns, and Awario, a social media monitoring app. Aleh is a seasoned SEO and social media expert and speaker at major industry conferences.