Competitive Intelligence - Part I: Onsite Research
Business is about decision making, and the best decisions are well informed. Competitive intelligence provides critically important information that factors into business development, market research and strategic planning.
This guide will walk you through the entire process of researching a competitor from start to finish, covering everything from their content strategy to their S1 statements (for public companies).
The first place we are going to look is at your competitor’s website itself. We will start with the things you can find out by looking at the content of the site and then dig into the following areas:
Site structure and tech
Page count (to judge the size and scope of the site)
Ecommerce specific items
Producing informational (or otherwise interesting) content has become a cornerstone of digital marketing. Chances are, if your competition has anything more than a token web presence they will be producing some form of ongoing content. Things to look for here:
A blog (or equivalent sections like “articles”, “publications”, etc.)
A blog and an email newsletter are the two most likely forms of content delivery. Each of these can be mined for information about the quality and extent of their content marketing strategy.
You will be looking for three main things here:
What are you up against in terms of quality and volume of content?
What topics are being covered (and not covered)?
How well is it working?
To judge the amount of content, start by checking the post frequency. Most blog posts include a date of publication, or some other indication of recency. Are they posting once a month, once a week, more?
There is also a lot of value (read search engine optimization) in having a large archive of good content. To assess that, check the blog navigation to see if there is an archive. Some blogs group archives by month and year, which makes it easy to find out how long they have been at it.
You can also get a sense of a blog’s size using Google. If the blog is located at “example.com/blog”, search for “site:example.com/blog” and Google will give you a reasonably comprehensive list of the pages they have indexed from the blog directory.
Here is an example using the AuthorityLabs blog: site:authoritylabs.com/blog/
To take a general measure of content quality, you can click into a few posts to look at the length. Longer articles generally (though not necessarily) indicate higher quality. You will probably get a good sense of the quality by scanning headlines and reading a few selections. Are the posts well researched? Do they include data to back up their conclusions? Are they producing insightful or genuinely original content? Or is the blog mostly generic, repackaged, or otherwise just fluff?
Many companies pay lip service to content marketing by generating a whole lot of hot air, partly because the really good stuff is difficult (and expensive) to produce. If that is the case with your competition, that represents an opportunity for you.
While you are considering article quality you should also be taking note of the type of content and topics being covered. Are they writing lists, trend pieces, or instructional how-to’s? Creating charts or infographics? Sharing animations or videos? Who is the content meant for, and what are they missing?
To get an idea of the effectiveness of their blog, check for signs of engagement. If comments are enabled, are there any? Are the posts getting shared? Check for social share buttons as they will often show share counts. You may be able to use Buzzsumo.com to quickly get a good overview of post frequency, topics, and engagement. Just enter the name or domain of the target company and Buzzsumo will provide a list of recent articles along with the number of social shares for each.
The easiest way to a company’s newsletter is to sign up for it. Using a new email address that doesn’t include your name or company is generally advisable. That will spare you from the inevitable sales contacts, and save your personal inbox from the flood of promotional emails you are likely to receive (especially if you are doing this for multiple companies).
Things to look for in the emails:
Is the content informational or promotional?
How is it presented? HTML or text? Graphics-heavy or more simple?
What are the calls to action, and how are they presented?
If they are sending promotions, what kind? How often?
Once you are on the list, you will start receiving all the latest updates. You may also be able to find older newsletters by searching Google for things like “company name newsletter”. The results can be hit or miss, but many newsletters do get archived online.
In many cases, product documentation can be accessed without logging in or making a purchase. If you are interested in learning about the details of your competitor’s products, this is the place to look. Marketing sites usually give a taste of what the product can do, focusing on key selling points. The documentation provides the details.
For software products, this is where you can learn about things like APIs, integrations, common issues, and, if you are lucky, things it does not do. Check FAQ pages for questions where the answer is “no” or “this feature is coming soon”. Customers obviously care about those features, so if you can add them to your own product, or let customers know that you already do, you’ll be one step ahead.
The same is true for physical products. However, if you really want to dig into the details and functions of a physical product, the best move is probably to buy one, read the manual, and take it apart.
Things like case studies, webinars, and product videos can be researched and evaluated in much the same way as blogs and newsletters. Sign up to attend a webinar or two. Download case studies to review the quality and presentation. As with blog posts, some of this content will have social sharing buttons or viewer counts or other signals that can help you assess its popularity.
There are number of tools out there that provide estimates of website traffic. Compete.com and Quantcast.com are both relatively popular, but our tool of choice is SimilarWeb.com. SimilarWeb tends to be a bit more accurate than the others in terms of traffic estimates, although those still need to be taken with a hefty grain of salt. What you will get out of tools like this are ballpark numbers that will give you some idea how you stack up.
What we really like about SimilarWeb is that it helps you find sites that are similar to your own (i.e. more competitors or potential partners). It will also give you very useful data about where your competitors are getting their traffic from. With that information in hand you can look into publishing, advertising, getting links, or otherwise engaging with those same sources.
To do that, first check your own site. The Referrals section of the resulting report will show you where people go before they come to your site, and where they usually go after. Both of those lists are worth digging into.
There will likely be some crossover, but the Similar Sites section of the report, further down the page, will give you some more sites to review.
Next, enter your top competitors to take a look at their traffic rankings, referral sources, and similar sites. You can quickly build a pretty comprehensive list of the players in your industry and their main sources of traffic this way.
Site Structure & Tech
When you are making decisions about your site platform, infrastructure, or other tech it does not hurt to know what the competition is using. Thankfuly, Builtwith.com will tell you almost everything you might want to know with just one search. That includes:
Content Management Systems
Analytics and Tracking
Widgets (where applicable, like on WordPress sites)
Content Delivery Network
CSS Media Queries
The key areas we focus on from that list are CMS, Email Services, Advertising, and Analytics. From those you can get a better understanding of a competitor’s main marketing channels, and gauge how serious they are about tracking and ongoing improvement.
For example, if you take a look at the AuthorityLabs site you will see that Facebook Custom Audiences shows up under Advertising. That indicates that we are, or have, been using Facebook’s retargeting system to deliver ads to people who have visited our site. If it is working for us, it might be worth trying yourself.
One important aspect of site tech is how it actually performs. Page speed, or the time it takes to serve up and be able to interact with a site’s pages is a critical metric. Page speed affects not only the experience that visitors have on a site, but it also factors prominently into Google’s ranking algorithms. To check your own or a competitor’s page speed, go to www.webpagetest.org and enter the URL of the page you want to test.
Web Page Test generates detailed waterfall reports with quick overview stats for each page tested. Try testing a selection of pages to get a better sense of overall site performance (the home page may be fast but things like search results or product pages may be significantly slower for instance).
Now that you know what the site is built with, and how fast it is, it is time to get a sense of scale. To get a rough page count you can use the same ‘site:’ search on Google that we used to evaluate the blog archive. This time, just leave off the blog directory and search for the base domain: “site:example.com”. Again, Google won’t return a full list of indexed pages, but it will give you a rough idea.
For a more complete picture you can use a web crawling tool like Screaming Frog, DeepCrawl, or the AuthorityLabs crawler. The AuthorityLabs crawler is great for getting a quick look at smaller sites (up to 1000 urls). It is a simple tool that lives inside a Google spreadsheet. Once you have added a copy of the sheet into your Google Drive it takes just a couple easy steps to check through your own site to look for crawl errors, or a competitor’s site to generate a list of their top pages.
Screaming Frog and DeepCrawl are both full featured professional products with price points to match. Screaming Frog does offer a free version of their downloadable software which you can use to crawl up to 500 URLs at a time. Both tools will allow you to conduct an in-depth analysis of a site.
If you are in the ecommerce space, you can follow a similar process to get a sense for the scope of a competitor’s product catalog. For small to medium stores you can usually get a fair sense of the product count just by checking their site. Go through the main product category pages to see how many products are listed on each (keep in mind that some products may appear in multiple categories).
You can also use Google’s ‘site:’ search command to look for product pages, and check Google’s shopping results if they are listing their products there. Many online vendors also list their products on Amazon.com, which makes it relatively easy to get a count. Simply navigate to their brand page (find one of their products and click on the brand name under the product name) and check the number of product results it displays.
Product range is a nice, quantifiable metric, but of course that is only part of the story. Here are some other avenues to pursue if you would like to take your analysis a level or two deeper:
Product categories and organization (Is the site well organized and easy to navigate? Are they including search keywords in category names?)
Strength of product descriptions (Are product descriptions clear and thorough? Are they well written and unique, or are they generic descriptions provided by the manufacturer? Are they including appropriate keywords in headlines and body text?)
Quality of imagery (Do they have good, clear product shots? Are they zoomable? Are there multiple angles? User-submitted photos?)
Use of advanced ecommerce sales tools (i.e. displaying similar products on product pages, ratings and reviews, personalization, email promotions, etc.)
Now that we have a clear picture of your competition’s website structure, strategy, and performance, it is time to branch out into more general business information. In the next section we will take a deep dive into that arena, beginning with basic information and moving into things like funding and acquisitions.