How to Perform Competitor Research for Digital Marketing

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Once you decide to call yourself a marketer, you must be ready to compete.

Be it in content marketing, social media, SEO, or PPC — you should never settle for second and aim to rise above everyone else.

Yes, that includes even the biggest brands in your niche.

Think you can do it?

If your answer is yes, then congratulations — you’ve passed the first test.

You see, the landscape of online marketing is like a war zone.

There’s no place here for those who are afraid to experiment, take charge, and be on the offensive.

You can’t stay just mind your own business and hope that everything turns out well.

Sure, you may have to forge positive relationships with other brands every once in a while. But for the most part, you need to be a relentless competitor if you want true marketing success.

That’s why, in this post, we’ll talk about the strategies that will enable you to spy on your competitor’s strategies.

Why Do Competitor Research?

If you’ve been in the industry for a while, you should know that the internet is overflowing with resources that will help you learn a thing or two about marketing.

While most of these strategies look good on paper, they often lack the important variables that are unique to your brand. They don’t take into account your niche, the behavior of your audience, and the current trends in your industry.

In other words, you can’t be 100 percent sure that it’ll work.

To be fair, some guides put heavy emphasis on research before you put the strategies to use. Regardless, there will still be a lot of trial and error before you can achieve the results you want.

That’s where competitor research steps in.

Rather than filling in the blanks yourself, you take a look at your top competitors’ deepest secrets and benefit from the research they’ve done.

Sounds awesome, right?

Such tactics can be applied to various aspects of online marketing, from keyword research to SEO.

Without further ado, here’s how to do it:

1. Identify Your Top Competitors

If you plan to do competitor research, you might as well target your top competitors to figure out how they got to where they are.

There are # ways to search for your top competitors online:

Run a Survey

It’s not rocket science: if they sell the same product and go after the same target market, they could be the top competitors you’re looking for.

However, you must also consider if they’re significantly more popular than your brand or not. For this, you can tap into the wisdom of your customers by running an online survey.

Ask your consumers, what particular brands have they interacted with or purchased from lately?

Tools like SurveyMonkey and Google Forms can help you prepare, launch, and manage your survey for free. They both feature drag-and-drop editors that can help you create fully functional survey forms within minutes.

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You can then distribute your survey form via email, direct link, or embed. To get more responses faster, you can incentivize the process by offering exclusive benefits to participants, such as discounts, freebies, and coupons.

You may also run polls on social media platforms like Google+ and Facebook. You just need to have an established social media presence or be a member of relevant social media groups in order for this to work.

Listen on Social Media

In today’s marketing world, popularity can be gauged by the amount of noise a brand generates on social media.

More often than not, you need to use a special tool to get in touch with the sentiment of consumers in the social sphere.

You may want to check out Fanpage Karma, which is specifically designed to help marketers analyze Facebook pages.

After creating an account, head to the “Analytics” tab to view the search bar where you can input keywords that are relevant in your niche.

For example, if you’re a wedding photographer in New York and would like to find competitors, you can use a keyword like “wedding photography New York” to initiate your search.

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Within seconds, Fanpage Karma will present you with a list of popular Facebook pages that match the keywords you’ve entered.

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The results are automatically sorted according to the number of fans each pag has.

To take a closer look at each competitor, simply click on them to view important metrics, such as their average weekly growth, user engagement performance, and average posts per day.

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If you scroll further down, you’ll uncover in-depth details about your competitor’s content strategy, from their posting schedule to their top-performing content.

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Use SEO Tools

If you run an active SEO campaign, you’ve probably tried searching for competitors by searching Google.

This could help you identify some of your top competitors. But if you want a more streamlined research process with more data, you should opt for an SEO tool like Moz.

For example, if you’re an HVAC repairs company, you can use their “Keyword Explorer” tool to identify competitors as you do keyword research at the same time.

Suppose you’re an HVAC repairs company based in Nashville. Using the keyword “HVAC repair Nashville TN,” Keyword Explorer will start off with a number of useful metrics that help determine its profitability, including the monthly search volume, keyword difficulty, and organic click-through rate.

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What you want, however, are the “SERP Analysis” results, which is basically a list of the top 10 organic results results on Google.

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Apart from the URLs and homepage titles of your competitors, Keyword Explorer will also reveal crucial SEO metrics that are tied to their ranking potential, such as Domain Authority, Page Authority, and number of backlinks.

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Look at Comparison Websites

Why go all the trouble handpicking your top competitors, when you can let review and comparison websites do all the heavy lifting?

Legitimate review websites make it a point to cover the top brands in a specific industry.

If your only desire is to identify your top competitors, all you need to do is find a reputable review or comparison site in your niche and have a look around.

For example, if you sell business software, G2 Crowd is a go-to review and comparison platform for your consumers.

Just like a search engine, all it takes is a single keyword to find relevant results.

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If you aren’t aware of any review or comparison website in your niche, you can use a search engine and enter seed keyword plus the terms “comparison and reviews” or anything similar.

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2. Perform a Quick Website Recon

With the strategies above, you should be able to end up with a list of competitors that you can’t wait to go over with a fine-tooth comb.

Don’t worry — that’s exactly what the second step entails.

If you haven’t yet, you should create a spreadsheet that will serve as your reference throughout your competitor research.

Feel free to format your spreadsheet as you see fit. The only requirement is that each competitor must have a link to their official homepage.

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Now that you have a list of competitors along with links to their official websites, you can start conducting a preliminary assessment of their web design.

Work your way from top to bottom, starting with the brand you deem to be most popular.

The first question you need to ask is, what functionalities do they offer on their homepage?

Do they offer a site-wide search bar? What about an interactive product image carousel?

Although most websites generally use a unique combination of elements that constitute the user experience, the top sites in a certain niche often follow a pattern when it comes to functionality.

If you want to be competitive, you must dissect these pattern and figure out which components can be used in your website.

A good strategy is to use a new column in your spreadsheet to list down the most notable features for each site. This will make it easy for you to determine which functionalities are more likely to have a positive impact on a website in your niche.

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Leave no stone unturned and try to be as thorough as possible when identifying functionalities and features in your competitor’s websites. Some of the elements that usually have a positive effect on a website’s success are:

  • Information Above the Fold
    To encourage visitors to take action, some businesses pack essential information—from their contact details to their address—above the fold. This refers to the area of a website that’s immediately visible once the audience arrives.
  • Concrete Value Proposition
    For most businesses, a headline and subheadline are enough to communicate their value offerings to customers. Others also include a bulleted list that discusses the benefits of choosing their brand in more detail.
  • Social Proof
    Leveraging social proof pertains to the use of signals, such as customer testimonials, testimonials, trust badges, and certifications. These elements allow you to establish your brand’s authority and build buyer confidence.
  • Visual Content
    In digital marketing, visual content such as explainer videos and product images can convey information in a faster, clearer, and a more convenient way than written text. There will be more on the use of visual content later.
  • Live Chat
    High-quality leads who are close to a purchase decision always have a lot of questions they need answers to. Integrating live chat functionality into your website is a great way to give these would-be customers the reassurance they need.

While you assess your competitor’s website, you may begin to visualize how certain design aspects can be used on your website.

If you are worried about the software necessary to implement certain features, you can start with this ultimate list of marketing tools.

There, you can find platforms and services for everything, including but not limited to surveys, live chat, video content management, and keyword research.

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It’s worth noting that this roundup of marketing tools also includes software you can use for competitor research.

The next step is all about digging a bit deeper into what you can find in your competitor’s website.

3. Analyze Their Content Strategy

You may already know this, but a website’s homepage alone isn’t enough to build a solid online presence.

To draw in a bigger crowd, you need to regularly publish authoritative posts that prove you know your stuff. And for every niche, there is a content recipe that the audience prefers.

Your top competitors most likely know the ins and outs of content development in your niche.

You just need to deduce what specific content types they develop, which topics they tackle, and where they promote them to gain traffic.

How can you assimilate this information? There are several strategies you can consider:

Read Their Blog

The most straightforward method of understanding your competitor’s content strategy is to read their blog.

There’s no need to use any tool or pay a price — unless, of course, your top competitor hides most of their content behind a paywall.

In any case, a competitor’s blog will expose the following parts their content strategy:

  • Main Content Types
    Most blogs tend to focus on text-based content, but there are also those that make visual content take center stage. It’s safe to assume that the top brands in your niche already know which content types work for your audience, be it long-form blog posts, tutorial videos, infographics, or a combination of these.
  • Topic Categories
    Websites that perform well in search engines tend to “silo” their content, which means they are organized into well-defined categories. Observing these categories should give you some idea about the most in-demand topics in your niche.
  • Blog Tone
    In content marketing, your written content should resonate with your target audience in terms of tone. Since you have access to your top competitor’s content repository, you simply need to understand how they communicate with their audience
  • Content Length
    It may seem like a minor detail, but finding the sweet spot when it comes to the length of your content can actually improve the cost-efficiency and SEO performance of your strategy. Fortunately, your top competitors have already crunched the numbers and figured out the ideal content length — so, be prepared to do some word count measuring.
  • Contributors
    Check to see if your top competitors encourage guest contributions on their blog. Create a separate list of these authors for potential guest blogging opportunities with them in the future.

Follow Competitors on Social Media

To get more content updates on your competitors, you can go full-on undercover and follow them on social media.

Brands that are well-versed in content marketing usually go with a workflow that involves sharing brand new content to their social media followers. If you stay tuned to their social media updates, you’ll be first in line to receive their latest content — enabling you to track updates and tweaks in their content strategy.

The same effect can be achieved by subscribing to your competitor’s mailing list.

Not only will this help you get fresh content delivered to your inbox, it’ll also give you an idea of how competitors design their newsletters.

If you’re worried about cluttering up your business inbox, you can create a dummy email account specifically for the purpose of receiving newsletters from your competitors. It costs nothing and will make it easier for you to comb through your inbox and search for content updates.

Aggregate Content Research with EpicBeat

If you’d rather have your competitor’s content delivered to you, a content research tool like EpicBeat will be of great help.

It is a content research tool that automatically scours the web for your competitor’s content.

To use EpicBeat to monitor for your competitor’s content, enter their brand name or website URL. You can also check for content using hashtags, social media handles, and author name.

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Aside from the posts themselves, EpicBeat includes the number of shares and comments per post to help you measure their popularity. It also displays the content’s sentiment, word count, and reading level — allowing you to get a handle on the content strategy of your top competitors.

To refine your results on EpicBeat, you can filter content according to their publish date, format, type, and country. You can also allow social media content to consolidate your content research results.

Create Google Alerts

Google Alerts is a handy tool that allows you to receive email notifications about new, relevant content on the web.

Similar to EpicBeat, Google Alerts is typically used in content research to help brands stay on top of trends in their industry. For some, it functions as an online listening tool that helps them be in tune with their the customers’ sentiments.

This time, however, you will use Google Alerts to stay updated on the online activities of your top competitors.

From the Google Alerts main page, go ahead and enter the name of your competitor into the “Create an alert about” field.

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A preview of the alert will be shown below to help you make sure you’ll get the right information.

The results will range from blog posts published by your competitor to news articles about them.

Sure, the latter won’t help you directly generate ideas that can fuel your own content development efforts. But it will allow you to gain insights on the other marketing activities of your competitors — online and offline.

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If you’re not happy with the types of content you’re getting, try a new keyword or add new ones while separating them with commas.

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When done, click “Create Alert” to start receiving email notifications whenever new content is available.

You can expand the “Show options” menu to configure how often you receive alerts, which sources will be used, where you want to monitor for content, and so on.

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4. Recognizing Their Backlink Sources

So, you’ve made it this far.

You must be really serious about overtaking your top competitors.

At this point, you have identified who your top competitors are, evaluated their website’s design, and studied their on-page content.

Replicate their strategy?

You can try. But if you want to maximize your results, there are still a few things we must discuss, specifically your competitors’ backlink sources.

If you are familiar with SEO, you’ll know that high-quality backlinks are the building blocks of a visible online brand. Backlinks help boost your website’s ranking potential, funnel referral traffic to your website, and enable search engine crawlers to index your content faster.

As important as they are, you can’t just go around building backlinks on every website you come across.

You must be extra selective of your backlink sources as some might do more harm than good.

To ensure you only build high-quality backlinks from authoritative sources, a surefire method is to refer to the backlink profile of your top competitors.

A comprehensive tool like Ahrefs will show you everything that you need.

Upon creating a new account, the initial setup process allows you to enter your competitors right off the bat. This will make the rest of your competitor research activities go smoothly.

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To start spying on a competitor’s backlink profile, go to the “Site Explorer” tab and enter their domain or a specific page URL.

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After a few seconds, Ahrefs will generate an “Overview” page with heaps of data on your competitor. Here, it should be easy to find information, such as their Domain Rating and the number of referring domains.

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You will then be able to view their backlink profile by clicking “Backlinks” under the “Backlink profile” menu section.

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As an added bonus, Ahrefs will also provide you with metrics that help identify their most authoritative backlink sources. In addition to their Domain Rating and URL Rating, you’ll also see their estimated monthly traffic, the number of keywords they rank for, and the total number of external links in the referring page — all of which can be used to measure the link’s quality.

To take advantage of this information, visit your competitor’s top backlink sources and check if they’re open for guest posting opportunities.

It shouldn’t be hard to see if a website accepts contributions or not.

Normally, blog owners create a visible “Write For Us” link or something similar to encourage visitors to supply the site with content.

Just be very careful when picking out websites that you’ll target in your own link-building strategy.

Although Ahrefs will show you a wealth of authority metrics, you still need to personally check each website for glaring quality issues that could spell trouble for your SEO.

You may be surprised how many decent-looking websites practice spammy link-building tactics!

If, however, the website doesn’t accept contributions, then your competitor probably earned their backlink via a small mention in one of the website owner’s posts.

You can confirm this by following the link source URL from the results page. If the post is written by the website owner or an in-house writer, then your competitor may have earned that backlink naturally.

In which case, what you can do is to pull off the Skyscraper Technique, which involves three key steps:

  • Searching for popular content
  • Creating something even better
  • Promoting it to the right influencers.

This leads us to the next and final step that will enable you to reap the full benefits of your competitor research.

5. Use the Skyscraper Technique

This is it — the icing on the cake.

With the Skyscraper Technique, you get the opportunity to put everything you’ve learned together into one campaign.

Now, one of the core goals of the Skyscraper Technique is to write something better than what your competitor already has. But before you get excited, you must first verify that a post is really capable of garnering quality backlinks.

It’s a good idea to use a capable backlink analysis tool like Ahrefs for this step. To give you more options, let’s try something else this time.

Open Site Explorer by Moz, for example, will allow you to perform a backlink analysis of specific pages instead of domains as a whole.

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This will provide you with a complete view of that specific page’s backlink profile. It includes metrics such as the total number of backlinks, Domain Authority, and Page Authority.

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These details alone should give you an idea of how popular your competitor’s content really is. But since you’re preparing for the Skyscraper Technique, check if the post managed to land several high-quality links from authoritative sites.

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If it did, that’s your go signal to proceed with the Skyscraper Technique.

The next step is to study the competitor’s post and create something noticeably better.

There are many approaches you can take to make this happen:

  • Update Old Information
    If your competitor included statistics in their post, chances are some of them are already outdated. Search for new information and replace the sources your competitor cited.
  • Incorporate More Visuals
    To spice up your content, consider translating statistics and technical information into data visualizations. A tool like Canva or Stencil will make this process a breeze for free.
  • Expand Lists
    For listicles, adding more items will definitely make your version more perceivably valuable. It may be tricky to expand lists that are already thorough, but you can always refer to newer resources to find new angles that your competitor hasn’t covered.
  • Improve the Tone
    From a content writing standpoint, there’s always a way to make even the most polished content better. For the Skyscraper Technique, sometimes a little change in tone makes all the difference.

Finally, it’s time to reach out to the website owners who linked to your competitor’s original article.

The only rule you need to remember here is to keep it simple. Be straightforward and use an outreach message like:

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Since it’s in a brand’s best interest to point their audience to the best sources available, you should expect more positive responses if your content far outshines your competitor’s.

Your success rate won’t be 100 percent, but you’ll still be far more efficient than if you build a link-building strategy from scratch.


Performing competitor research will help reveal exciting new opportunities to supercharge marketing results. It’s about keeping up with the top-tier brands in your niche without the hefty costs of engineering your own strategy from the ground up.

The strategies above will help you through every step of the way in your competitor research efforts. If you have any questions, suggestions, or concerns, feel free to let everyone else know in the comments below. Cheers!

Rand Owens Administrator
Chief Growth Hacker at Influencer Media. Former VP of Marketing of Happy Inspector. Blogger of all things Growth hacking.
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Rand Owens Administrator
Chief Growth Hacker at Influencer Media. Former VP of Marketing of Happy Inspector. Blogger of all things Growth hacking.
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