Aug 31 2018
Basis Technologies

How to Discover Your Competitors' SEM Strategies and Tactics


A search engine marketer doesn't have to be the best marketer on the internet in order to be successful. You simply need your SEM strategies to be more effective than your competitors.

I know what you’re thinking right about now. Something like, “Well, if I could read minds and know exactly what moves my competitors are making next, it would be simple to be more effective than my competitors. Duh!”

What if I told you that there is a relatively easy way to get into the minds of your SEM competitors? What if I told you that learning exactly what your competitors are up to and what tricks they have up their sleeves in search engine marketing can be accomplished painlessly by executing a few bullet-proof tactics? What if, in other words, someone handed you the SEM playbook for crushing your competition?

Do I have your attention now?

Yeah, you read that correctly. This post is jam-packed with practical tips and tactics to discover the SEM strategies your competitors are using. You can duplicate their SEM strategies and employ other, more effective ones to outperform your competition.

Read on to get the most comprehensive SEM playbook for crushing your competitors.

Step 1: Select the Right Competitor Sites

The initial step in any meaningful competitor analysis is choosing the best sites to analyze. No amount of research yields helpful insights if you’re looking at sites that are irrelevant or have ineffective SEM strategies.

You likely already know what competitors you’d like to analyze;it takes just a few minutes to confirm your suspicions with data that shows which competitors are most worthy of study. Checking ensures you use resources efficiently; the data helps address any questions that others raise about why you chose the sites you did.

First, perform a quick search to see what sites are showing up in search engine results. Pay attention to sites that rank in the top positions and just above your site. Also, pay attention to any site that’s using pay-per-click campaigns for your chosen terms. Any of these might warrant investigating.

Second, use a service like RankWatch to discover additional competitors and see how competitors are trending. After logging into RankWatch, click on the “Competitors” section and select the ones you’d like to compare. You’ll see a few details on how each competitor appears in search engine results. More importantly, the display will show how each of the chosen competitor’s rankings is trending. Focus on those competitors that are trending upward as opposed to those that are falling.

At this point, you should have a shortlist of the best competitors to analyze. Try to keep this list to a handful or less so that you can perform a deep analysis on each. You may even want to look at just the one best competitor.

Step 2: Peruse Each Competitor’s Site

Before looking at search results themselves any further, first spend some time on each competitor’s site. Explore them as a typical visitor would, paying attention to both on-site optimization strategies, user experience, and conversion strategies. Only the on-site strategies are directly related to SEM, but the ultimate goal of SEM is conversion so the other two areas should be kept in mind at least.

Regarding on-site strategies, simply look at the items that you keep in mind when setting up new pages.

For example:

  • Does the URL structure include key phrases?
  • What are the key phrases in H1 and H2 headers?
  • Where are key phrases used in the content?
  • Are images and/or video included on pages?
  • Are any images and/or videos properly marked up for visual searches?
  • What internal linking structure is employed?
  • Where do visitors go from a landing page?

For example, a cursory review of shows that the site uses the key phrase "seminaries in [state]" for its state-oriented pages. Likely thanks in part to this tactic, the site ranks well above the Association for Theological Schools' geographical search. The Association for Theological Schools is the official accrediting body of seminaries. However, its geographic search page has a URL of "...geographical-search" rather than one with a key phrase. (Rankings were accurate at the time of writing.)

Most of these items are fairly basic. However, sometimes reviewing a competitor’s website reveals strategies that your site currently doesn’t use. Even if you don’t discover new SEM strategies, you may come across more user-friendly ways to include certain ones (e.g. more natural ways to include key phrases in copy).

Step 3: Find Key Phrases Competitors Are Using

After perusing their sites, you probably have a good idea of what primary key phrases competitors are targeting. The phrases should appear in headers, copy, and other places. You might not know all of the key phrases that are generating traffic for each competitor, though.

In order to get a more comprehensive view of the key phrases that competitors are targeting, turn to a tool like SEMrush. After logging in, entering a competitor’s URL, and selecting a country, you’ll have access to an array of information:

  • Organic search rankings
  • Pay per click campaign activity
  • Backlink profiles

The backlink profiles and display advertising information is interesting. But the most helpful data are the lists of organic and paid keywords that a competitor is targeting.

SEMrush is a third-party service that has access to lots of data, but even its data is limited at points. Thus, the display advertising details and backlink profiles are only nominally helpful without supplemental sources. These reports can be pulled and filed for use at a later stage.

What’s needed now is the list of key phrases. Combine the lists that SEMrush provides with key phrases you’ve already discovered, and prioritize them.

Step 4: Check Out Search Results

Use the prioritized list of key phrases to see what methods your competitors are using to show up in search results.

Enter a few of the highest priority phrases into the major search engines, and note what types of listings show up for each competitor. Is the main organic listing being supplemented with other organic listings from social media, external blogs or review sites? Are display ads being used in addition to the organic listing?

All of these additional listings help build a site’s authority and reduce how much space is available for other sites to be listed. Even if they don’t improve organic rankings, they increase the likelihood of searchers clicking through to the competitor’s site.

You don’t need to do this for a full list of key phrases, as the same strategies are likely being used for all major phrases. You should, however, check several search engines. Competitors may be using slightly different strategies or getting different results in Google, Bing, and the other search engines.

Naturally, this is a point where you can take action as a search engine marketer. Any SEM strategy that you see a competitor using is one that you can employ for your site. If a competitor's Facebook page is ranking, invest time in cultivating your site’s corresponding social media pages. If a competitor is using PPC ads to appear multiple times in the same results, you can start PPC campaigns for the same key phrases.

Step 5: Look Up Social Activity

Regardless of whether you see a competitor’s social media profiles in search results, you ought to quickly see how each competitor is using social media. Check what platforms competitors are on, whether they have multiple accounts on a single platform and how they use the accounts.

A case study of Home Depot and Lowes on Facebook shows how similar small alterations in activity can have significant impacts on social metrics.

Lowes posts to their Facebook page almost daily, usually between 6:00 and 7:00 a.m. EST. Home Depot tends to post every two or three days, and the company varies the time its posts between morning and afternoon. Both companies respond directly to comments on their pages.

The two companies have similar followings on Facebook: Home Depot has 4.6 million likes and Lowe's has 4.5 million. The difference between the two companies' engagement rates is stark, though. Home Depot saw 4.1 million visits at the time of writing, and Lowe's had only 2.7 million visits.

Exactly what is the reason for the vast difference in the number of visits and how that difference impacts SEM is difficult to say. The posting patterns would certainly be an area to explore if these were your competitors, however, and the payoff could extend far beyond social media marketing. Search engines consider social activity and a 1.4 million difference in visitors is bound to have some impact on search engines' rankings.

Your social media efforts should at least match, and ideally exceed, those of your competitors. Social platforms themselves can be valuable sources of traffic, and social activity has been positively correlated with higher rankings in SERPs.

Step 6: Analyze Backlink Profiles

For a detailed picture of competitor’s off-site search engine optimization efforts, perform a thorough backlink profile analysis using Ahrefs, Moz’s Link Explorer, and the SEMrush's backlink report.

None of these third-party reports are complete on their own. Together, however, they create a fairly comprehensive picture of a competitor’s linking domains and pages. You can see linking domains, linking pages, how many backlinks a site is gaining and losing, whether a linking site is spammy, and much more. Creating a master spreadsheet with referring domains makes it easy to remove duplicates and sort domains by chosen criterion.

In theory, your competitors' backlink metrics are the ones you need to beat. If you have more links from higher quality sites and everything else is equal, then your site should outrank competitors’ sites.

Of course, this isn’t always the case because there are many other factors that search engines consider. Backlink profiles are one of the major factors considered, though, and your site will be in a good position to rank well if it has a better profile than the competition.

During your research, make note of any referring domains that might be willing to link to your website. Any webmaster who’s already linked to your competitors is likely willing to give you a backlink if you offer the same benefit. Figure out how your competitors got the backlink, and make a similar proposition to the webmaster. Along with helping SEO, some of these domains might also provide referral traffic.

Step 7: Review Pay-Per-Click Activity

The final step to fully understanding your competitor’s SEM strategies is analyzing their PPC campaigns. To do this, you’ll need the cursory information offered by SEMrush and more specific details from Google Ads and Microsoft Ads.

Step 7a: Google Ads

First, run any new key phrases that you’ve discovered through Google Keyword Planner. While this provides only a broad overview, the traffic volume estimate, average cost-per-click, and overall competition level are helpful when deciding whether to pursue new key phrases.

Eliminate any key phrases that don’t appear to be profitable, for your competitors don’t necessarily always pick the best phrases to target. Continue researching any phrases that do appear profitable.

Second, take your shortened list of keywords over to Google’s Auction Insights report. Auction insights will show you:

  • Which competitors participate in an auction
  • The average ad position and impression share for competitors

This information has obvious benefits when you’re trying to discover which key phrases offer the best ROI and set budgets. You’ll learn how much you should be bidding to have an ad visible, and from there can calculate the required investment and resulting return.

To refine campaigns even further, Auction Insights also offers options to drill down by device type and/or time. This type of segmentation lets you adjust your PPC campaigns for the maximum ROI by targeting devices and times based on cost-per-click or overall activity.

Step 7b: Microsoft Ads

Finally, take everything you’ve learned thus far and put the same key phrases into Microsoft Ads’ Campaign Planner. Similar to Google Ads’ reports, Campaign Planner will give you:

  • Industry benchmarks for key phrases
  • Competitors’ activity for key phrases
  • Competitor’s ad coverage and average ad position

Sometimes this information is almost identical to that found through Google Ads. Other times, there are great discrepancies between the two platforms’ information. When there are differences, they usually arise not from inaccurate data but from competitors’ PPC strategies.

How do you choose between Google Ads and Microsoft Ads?

Competitors frequently favor one platform (usually Google Ads) over the other. This is because there’s more activity on that platform or because they aren’t as familiar with the other. Any such imbalance, such as higher and lower costs-per-click, can be exploited to get a higher ROI on PPC.

For instance, assume you run a website that specializes in mobile phone repair services. You would expect to target most PPC campaigns toward mobile device users who might need a screen repaired or another issue fixed. This research might show, however, that competitors aren't targeting desktop users. While the conversion rate for desktop users is probably lower, the cost-per-click might be so affordable that it makes sense to run a small desktop-focused campaign.

Alternatively, think about running an e-commerce business that sells expensive jewelry. Your data might show that people who own Apple computers are more likely to purchase items from your store than those who have PCs. Based on this data, you may choose to show ads to Apple users and not PC owners if the cost-per-click is identical when segmenting by device. Back in 2012, the Wall Street Journal reported that Orbitz was using just such a strategy. The site showed Apple users more expensive getaways by default.

For an example that involves time, consider a synagogue that holds services on Saturdays and uses PPC advertising to reach potential attendees. Most people looking for a synagogue to worship in are likely going to search on Friday or Saturday; you want to make sure your ads have good coverage during this time. By researching what competitors are paying and how much coverage they're receiving, you can determine what your synagogue must bid to have ads show on these days. You can then set you maximum bid to the appropriate amount for Friday and Saturday, and bid much lower (or not at all) on the other days of the week when people aren't looking for a place to worship.

Implement Findings into Your SEM Strategies

Once you’ve completed a full analysis of your competitors' SEM strategies, incorporate your insights into an actionable plan. Meet with your team to draw up a budget and define next steps to outperform the competition. Then, execute the plan and monitor your site’s performance.

Conducting a comprehensive analysis of competitors' SEM strategies is resource-intensive; it takes time to identify competitors, and check their sites, social activity, search rankings, backlink profiles and PPC campaigns. However, at the end of the process, you know exactly what SEM strategies you must use to succeed in search engine marketing. If you invest the time and other resources, the ROI can last for a long time.

So what are you waiting for? It's time for you to go out and crush your competitors.