Have you ever heard you shouldn’t compare yourself to others? When it comes to ecommerce, throw that advice out the window. Understanding your business’s place in the market relative to the competition is an essential way to spot opportunities, fill in gaps, and take strategic leaps forward.
Nowhere is this more true than with content strategy. Your content competitors are teeming with information about what resonates with your target audience, and those insights can set a new course for your content or reaffirm your current path. Here’s a step-by-step guide to conducting a full competitive content analysis and using the takeaways to leave your competition in the dust.
Step 1: Pick Your Competitors
The Three Types of Content Competitor
When you conduct a competitive analysis at the business level, you typically classify your competitors as direct (same product or service, same audience, comparable market share) and indirect (different product or service, same audience).
Roughly the same idea is at play with a content-focused competitor analysis, but we’re using different names to give the process more clarity. We’ve also added a third type of competitor: SERP competitors.
Direct Competitor – These competitors don’t just target the same audience as you and sell a similar product; they also capture a similar market share. In other words, they’re realistic.
Say your business sells organic skincare products online and currently employs 10 people. Your direct competition might include a business like Mad Hippie, but would not include industry giant The Body Shop.
Useful For: Benchmarking. Because these are your closest competitors, information about their backlinks, content strategy and more provides the most actionable benchmarks you can use as you track your own progress.
Stretch Competitor – Stretch competitors are the major players in your space that sell the same products or cover the same subject matter as you. They don’t have to be realistic because you won’t be benchmarking your business against them; we’re using them strictly to explore content.
Our hypothetical skincare store’s stretch competitors would be The Body Shop, Ulta and Sephora . If you sell running gear online, your stretch competitors are Nike and Adidas. And since we’re interested in not just product/market overlap but content overlap, a running gear store might also consider adding a site like Runner’s World to the list.
Useful For: If you run a medium-sized business or smaller, auditing the content of your direct competitors is usually only useful as a benchmark (unless your competition is running a very robust content strategy). If your competitor only posts in their blog once a month, as is the case with Mad Hippie, you won’t be able to use their content to get a meaningful understanding of what your audience wants to read. Sephora’s blog, on the other hand, is overflowing with useful content-related data. Use blogs like this as you develop your strategy, mining them for ideas, content gaps, and keyword insights.
SERP Competitor – On an individual page level, who ranks for the keywords? When you Google a target keyword, the ten organic results on page one are your SERP competitors for the term. If you want your product page to rank for “organic vitamin C serum,” here’s one of your SERP competitors.
Useful For: Each and every time you want to publish a page or a piece of content, explore the top results for your target keywords to determine how you’ll compete with what ranks. While we won’t be looking at them much in this blog post, SERP competitors are what content strategists pay attention to the most on a day-to-day basis.
Ignoring SERP competitors for now, select a handful of direct and stretch competitors. This is a subjective process, so there won’t be a definitive right answer.
Your stretch competitors should be easy to pick because they’re popular and memorable by nature. Finding direct competitors, on the other hand, can be a mixed bag. If you don’t know who your direct competitors are, Google your main products and differentiators until you find some realistic targets ranking in the SERPs or referenced in industry blogs.
Again, this is subjective. SEO tools like Spyfu and Ahrefs can show you what your competing sites are based on keyword overlap, but the sites they dig up for you are rarely direct competitors. You can, however, use these tools to approximate the amount of traffic coming to a competitor’s site and validate their position as a realistic competitor. The sweet spot? Metrics that indicate a business is farther along than yours, but only slightly.
Step 2: Assess Overall Brand Storytelling
Competitive analysis requires a blend of qualitative and quantitative data, and Step 2 is all about the qualitative (read: you get to use your subjective opinion for this part).
Looking at your direct competitors, we want to answer this question: What story does each competing brand tell, and how well do they tell it?
That’s a big question, so we’ll break it down into categories we can assess individually:
- Brand Purpose – Why does the business exist? Of course it’s to meet a need or solve a problem, but why that need? Why these products? Why this audience? A brand’s purpose digs deep, all the way to the heart of the story where the business’s primary motivations and drivers are. If you’re familiar with Simon Sinek’s Circle of Why, the brand’s purpose is its Why.
- Brand Positioning – Continuing with the Circle of Why, brand positioning is the How and What behind the business. What does the business do, and how do they get it done?
- Core Message/Promise – As you explore your competitor’s website, you might notice a central message that gets repeated, either explicitly or implicitly, throughout the site. Pay attention to what that message is.
- Values – What are the brand’s values? Values are often related to the brand’s Why (their core motivations), but they’re less about what drives the brand and more about what they want to share with the world. Brands that communicate and demonstrate a strong set of values are able to connect with customers who share those values. Some brands are so good at demonstrating their values that consumers align themselves with the brand just to signal to others that they, too, believe in those values. Tesla cars, for example, are coveted by people who value innovation and want to position themselves at the cutting edge of technology, just like the Tesla brand.
- Verbal Language – You can also call this voice and tone. What sort of personality does the brand display, and how does their language reflect that personality? Is their voice casual? Authoritative? Funny? Lively? Can you even tell?
- Visual Language – How does the brand reflect their personality visually? What design choices reinforce their brand identity?
Open a spreadsheet and add your competitors vertically, leaving a space under each row for a score. Then add each category above horizontally. It should look like this:
Now move through each competitor separately and assess each category. In the white rows, answer the question to the best of your ability. In the purple rows, score the competitor on a scale of 1-10, based on how well they express that part of their identity. Here’s our spreadsheet after we looked at our example competitor, Mad Hippie:
This process can be illuminating, because it’s rare to find a brand that knocks every single category out of the park. Identify the areas where you can outshine the competition by telling your story better, expressing a stronger brand personality, or sharing your USPs with more clarity.
In our brief analysis of Mad Hippie, for example, we discovered that while the brand does a great job of communicating their “What” and “How” (all-natural skincare, free from harmful ingredients) and even some of their values, they’re not as strong at communicating their Why. There are several possible missions scattered throughout the site, none of which form a cohesive story. On top of that, many of their stated purposes — like making the world a better place — are too generic to mean anything.
Our hypothetical skincare brand can take advantage of this gap by digging deeper than the ubiquitous “all-natural” value prop and finding a strong, unique purpose.
Step 3: Assess Competitor Content
Create a new tab on your spreadsheet. Continuing to focus on your direct competitors, list the following criteria horizontally:
- Primary Content Channels – Look for all the places where the competitor might share content. Do they have a blog? Email subscribers? Active, engaged social media accounts? Is there a Case Studies section on their site? A resource center/knowledge base? Survey the scene and identify the primary methods your competitors use to share content.
- Primary Formats – Examples include blog posts, ebooks, infographics, videos, podcasts, white papers, guides, quizzes and more.
- Primary Topics – Take a look at their blog categories or explore a sample of posts and determine the topics your competitor covers often.
- Posting Frequency – How often does the competitor produce and share fresh content?
- Quality – Read some of the content and subjectively grade it on its quality.
Your spreadsheet should now look like this:
This process gives you real, actionable benchmarks to use as you develop your content strategy.
Step 4: Break Out The Tools
Almost every major SEO tool has a way to identify the top content and keywords on competitor sites. We like using Ahrefs for this process.
Start a new tab in your spreadsheet and label it Top Content – Direct. This is where you’ll move and reformat the raw data you download from Ahrefs.
Enter the competitor’s website into Ahrefs’ site explorer, then navigate to Top Content. If there’s not enough information to pull a report (which was the case with our example competitor), try Top Pages instead.
Now, see how this information provides us with a couple of takeaways (ex – safe sun protection is popular) but brings us to a dead-end when it comes to building our strategy? That’s because we’ve almost burned through the utility of our direct competitors. Remember, the information you can glean from a new, small- or medium-sized website is useful for benchmarking. It’s not going to give you much insight into what your audience wants to read, because it simply hasn’t produced enough content to yield that kind of data.
That means it’s finally time for (drumroll please)…our stretch competitors!
Watch what happens when we enter a stretch competitor into the site explorer and view its top pages:
Now we’re cooking with gas! This list continues through 2500 results, a sample size plenty big enough for new keyword ideas and other information about what’s popular with our audience.
Need even more keyword ideas? Navigate to Content Gap Analysis.
Enter 2-3 stretch competitors at the top and enter your own website at the bottom. The results will bring you to a massive list of keywords these popular sites in your industry rank for, along with their search volume, competition and other metrics. Export the list into a spreadsheet so you can sort and filter to your heart’s content. Highlight the opportunities and build them into your strategy.
You can use a similar strategy for the Link Intersect feature on Ahrefs. Enter three stretch competitors and Ahrefs will show you the sites that link to one, two or all three competitors. Any website that links to all three competitors is an especially good linkbuilding target, because they’ve demonstrated a willingness to link to multiple brands in your industry. Try this with your direct competitors, too, for low-hanging fruit opportunities.
Step 5: Start Planning
Using information from your competitive analysis as a foothold, begin sketching out your content strategy. This includes:
- KPIs and benchmarks (based on your direct competitors)
- Your brand storytelling goals
- Topic ideas
- Content formats
- Content frequency
More detail will be needed eventually, especially in the keyword research arena, but this is a tidy way to get a basic structure lined up so you can fill in those details in the first place.