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Analyzing your competition should be the second step taken during the SEO process (right after and sometimes even during keyword selection). Looking at what and how your competition have positioned their website where you want yours to be placed will lend great insight into how to get yours there.
The above statement should not be taken as meaning that early in the campaign is the only time that competition analysis is important. Once you are holding a top position your competition will undoubtedly renew their efforts to take back what you have replaced. Competition analysis is a step that must be taken to find out what you need to do to take a top position but which also should be performed periodically to detect your competitor's efforts to take back "their" former positions.
In this article we will cover onsite factors which must be considered and in part two we will cover external factor analysis including incoming links, anchor text, PageRank, etc.
Onsite factors of your website are the easiest to address as they are factors which are under your complete control. You have the power to change anything within your site from the content, internal linking structure, and even the design structure itself.
Key onsite factors that must be considered in competition analysis are:
- Titles and meta tags
- Keyword density and content
- Special formats and positioning
There are many tools that are available to help you determine what the optimal levels are. Generally these are knows as KDA (Keyword Density Analysis) tools. Of all of them there is one that we use at Beanstalk that we have found provides better, more accurate information than the others and that is Total Optimizer Pro by TopNet Solutions. The reason we chose this one above the others is twofold. First, it provides very easy to read and thorough information that can be analyzed quickly and second, they have built in tools to analyze offsite factors to a level that don't exist in other software. Essentially this means for you that a single tool can basically give you the recipe you will need to take and hold your position in the top ten.
Title And Meta Tags
While meta tags definitely don't hold the weight they once did they are certainly worth adding to your site given that they take seconds to add. Titles on the other hand hold significant weight and must be created carefully to insure that they hold maximum SEO effectiveness and also that they appeal to the searchers.
In analyzing the titles and meta tags essentially you are looking for the optimal keyword density of those tags. A KDA tool will let you know what percentage of your competitions tags are made up of the targeted keywords. A good KDA tool will also display the range or average of percentages. Due to their low weight, meta tags don't have to be given quite the attention that titles do. When you are optimizing your titles you will want to insure that you fall somewhere near the middle of the pack. Hopefully in your industry, the top ten sites have relatively close percentages in which case it is easy to determine what the optimal percentage is, however assuming that they don't, you will want to gear your title tag to something that falls in the upper end of the range (though not over) of densities and also keep that title interesting to the searcher who will see it as the link to your site in the search results.
Google at least and probably the other major engines as well have or will be adding into the ranking algorithm a function that records the number of times a specific link is clicked when it appears in the results. If your site appears in the top of the results but is not click at a rate that is acceptable for that position your website will slip. Like any other marketing tool, your title tag is the gateway from the search engine results to your website: insure you've created an attractive welcome mat.
Keyword Density And Content
There has been much discussion over the years as to whether there even is an optimal keyword density or whether density even matters. While there are intelligent SEO's out there who would disagree, the entire debate seems obvious to us at least. If the search engines are looking at onsite factors at all (which they are) and looking for relevancy then it naturally follows that there is a percentage of your content that can consist of the targeted keywords and indicate to the engines that your site is relevant for a given phrase.
That said, and like the titles, it is not about cramming in keywords anywhere to boost the density in your content. Using a KDA tool to find the optimal density for your industry will give you a good idea of any content changes you may need to make. From here you will want to look at two additional areas of your competitors sites. One which you can get from an advances KDA tool such as Total Optimizer Pro and the other you can get right from the engines themselves. Which brings us to ...
Special Formats And Positioning
Special formats will be considered content elements such as bold, colors, anchor text, or any other content characteristics that sets specific text out as different when a search engine is spidering your site. Positioning refers to the position of the keywords in relation to the entire content on a given page. Aside from this type of positioning there is also the consideration of how the content and keywords are positioned relative to the code of the page (and sometimes these can be two very different things). This topic was touched on in a past article on table structures and will be covered in a future mini-series on W3C complaint and search engine friendly design, to be published in September.
Special formats such as bold, colors, italics, highlights, etc. set specific content aside as more important than the rest. The use of these formats, provided that it is done correctly, can not only help improve that rankings of your website for specific phrases but can also enhance the usability of your website in general by drawing the human eye to key content. This is not to say that you should bold, highlight and color every instance of your targeted phrase but rather use these elements to draw the eye to the key content you are most interested in getting read.
With positioning the job is a bit more difficult to assess. One of the best ways to quickly isolate how your competitors have used special formats and where they have positioned there keywords in relation to the entire page is to simply run a search for the phrases on Google and view the cache of the page. The keywords will be highlighted in a variety of colors and will allow you to quickly glance through their page and isolate what special elements they are using and where they have positioned their keywords on the page. You will want to do this for the top 10 competitors.
As with any competition, if you understand what those who have what you want are doing it becomes a matter of doing the same and then adding 10% to your efforts. In the case of onsite optimization you'll simply want to duplicate the best of the top ten, in part two on external factors you will be doing the 10% more.