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It goes without saying that one of the biggest challenges in the world of digital marketing is working to rank a company website for an impressive array of keywords on search engines to generate qualified traffic. Between optimizing on-site content for search engine algorithms and amassing links from a variety of authoritative keywords, it can seem like an overwhelming, almost impossible task. In the past few years, search engine algorithms are changing how they rank websites to favor those with quality links as opposed to those just have massive quantities. As a result, it may seem even more difficult for smaller brands to compete with more established companies that leverage their advertising budgets to generate content that gets them mentions and links in authoritative sources at scale. However, all is not lost - smaller brands can still compete in the world of search engine optimization and generate a sizable amount of traffic through search engine results, as long as they know how to approach this monumental task.

One of the best places to start for companies that are struggling with search engine optimization is by using link analysis tools to improve search ranking through competitive analysis. There are a variety of tools that allow you to do effective keyword analysis, including SEMRush, Ahrefs, Majestic SEO, and Moz, and what you decide to use is entirely up to you. Regardless of which tools you choose, you should be using them to follow this simple 5 step process for SEO success. If everything goes to plan, you should be able to slowly and sustainably increase search engine traffic to your website. Let's get started:

Step 1 - Defining Keywords That Drive Traffic

The first and most important step of this process is defining what types of keywords would be the most beneficial to your business. To start, consider user intent. Think about what they are trying to accomplish when searching for an individual keyword. You want to pick write down a large swath of terms that have appropriate user intent behind them, whether it's trying to get users to download a product, read an article, or request a quote for a service. It is important to take intent into account when targeting keywords to be sure that if you rank for them audiences will actually follow through with your desired action. After thinking about user intent, you need to consider the sobering reality of search engine optimization - there are A LOT of other businesses in the world that are actively trying to rank for some of the keywords you've written down. If you're a startup or a new business, the odds of you beating out an established business like Huffington Post, or a Fortune 500 brand in your vertical for the top position of a keyword that generates tens of thousands of visits a month is just unrealistic. Google is trying to show users the most authoritative sites it can identify for relevant queries, so a lot of the time you'll have to confront the fact that your new business is simply not as authoritative as a business that has been leading the way for years. That being said, take a deep breath and don't let this fact get you down - there's still a lot of opportunities out there if you know where to look. Start by using a tool like Mozbar (or just some common logic if you don't want to use a tool here), to gauge the difficulty of each keyword on your list. Look for websites that already rank for the keyword in question and think about how authoritative they are in the space. If you're using Mozbar, look for things like domain authority and the amount of links each page has pointing to it. Keep in mind, the higher the authority and number of links, the more difficult it will be for a page on your website to displace the results that are already there:
mozbar google search
As you go through, take note of the domains that are ranking in the top 10 for the keywords you want. You'll need this information for step 2. Once you have a clear idea around user intent and difficulty, it's time to start considering the individual keywords you actually want to go after. It's extremely important during this phase of step 1 to bundle each individual keyword into a keyword set, category, or topic (what you want to call these bundles is really up to you). It is not realistic to try and rank for a specific individual keyword, so give yourself some latitude by grouping relevant keywords together into a package of 10 or more sets. This can ensure that each page you're focusing on ranking in search engines targets a keyword set as opposed to only one specific keyword. While it may seem counter-intuitive, this process makes you much more likely to achieve success through SEO, as each page will ultimately rank for long tail variations of similar keywords you might not have even considered on top of your intended keywords.

Key Takeaways:

  • Consider user intent
  • Assess keyword competition
  • Check keyword difficulty
  • Find relevant and long tail variations
  • Create several keyword sets
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Step 2- Finding Competitor Sites

Step 1 is difficult and can make this process seem like quite the chore, but once you've completed it, it's time for the considerably more fun "step 2". You should now be armed with a ton of good keywords and know, with some detail, just how difficult it's going to be to rank for each one. However, it's not yet clear just how you're going to get the types of links to displace the competition and start ranking. We'll cover the "how" in step 3 and 4, but for now we need to broaden your understanding of the competition you'll be facing. In step 1 you took down some of the sites that you saw ranking in the top 10 for keywords you'd like to go after, but if you're only using a Google search on your computer to do this, you're limiting yourself to a small subset of the competition you might face. This is because when you do a Google search you're only able to see results that are specific to your location. If you're a business that is hoping to target an area that is larger than the local results you find in your own personal searches, you need a bigger set of data that encompasses the areas you want to target. To get this data, fire up a tool that can show you average national results across the United states. I personally like SEMrush for this step, and as an added bonus it works in the UK, France, Germany, and Australia as well as many other international markets. This is especially useful for businesses that want to check the competition in places outside of the United States, rather than being limited to US-specific search results. To view national and international competitors, enter a keyword into SEMrush and it will show you "organic search results" at the bottom of the "Keyword Overview Report":
keyword overview report
This step will allow you to add a number of new sites to your already burgeoning list of ranking competitors, so you should now have an impressively large catalog of competitors to choose from during step 3. While it might take a bit more time than just a standard Google search, getting this step done now will save a lot of headache in the future and will help guarantee your company in getting as much visibility as possible on search engines across different locations.

Key Takeaways:

  • Check Google for sites that rank highest for specific keywords
  • Use SEMrush to show national and international competition
  • Create a list of the competitor's websites
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Step 3 - Pulling Backlink Profiles

Step 1 and 2 helped identify who your main competitors are - step 3 will describe the process of determining how your competitors rank on search engines. Evaluating a company's search engine optimization efforts may seem like an overwhelming task, but it's important for understanding their SEO strategies to help you adapt your own. After all, these competitors are ranking for the keyword sets you want and your goal is to surpass their search engine results page (SERP) ranking, or at least begin building a plan towards getting there. Analyzing different backlink profiles will give you an idea of what your competition is doing to gain exposure and credibility to help them rank in Google's search results. One of the best ways of doing this is by using Open Site Explorer by Moz. Just entering the website's URL into the Open Site Explorer search bar will provide a great deal of link data, which you can use to your advantage. At first glance, you can check the domain authority, page authority, inbound links, anchor text, and other useful elements.
open site explorer metrics
Although this is helpful to get a general idea of the site's authority, we want to dig deeper and get down to the detailed elements that are helping them appear in the top results for specific types of keywords. A major element that guides the competition's search engine ranks are the sources that are linking to them, so we have to go through and understand the value of these links. Pulling a backlink profile from Open Site Explorer begins by determining the type of inbound links you want to examine. There are three aspects that need to be considered before you download the report - target, link source, and link type. The purpose of this will be further explained in step 4. When entering the competitor's URL into Open Site Explorer, be sure to target the root domain and only external links in order to deliver a report that shows all the pages that feature links from that particular domain. To further narrow it down and make your link analysis easier, selecting "link equity" will provide you with juice-passing, followed links that are the most valuable for SEO. After selecting the right criteria, click "request CSV". Once completed it will show up under your recent reports, then simply download and export the file into Excel. Although we are trying to focus solely on the external sources for this process, remember that you shouldn't neglect internal linking, as it is also important in building a backlink profile. Internal links can improve your rankings for keywords by including them, or their relevant counterparts, in the anchor text of links from pages between your site, while also allowing Google to more quickly and efficiently index the page.

Key Takeaways:

  • Use Open Site Explorer to assess inbound links
  • Target root domain, external links, and link equity
  • Including internal links are also important for SEO
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Step 4 - Identifying Feasible Sources

Completing the technical research mentioned in the first three steps now has you prepared to think more critically about your SEO strategy based on the reports you have compiled. Once you have all of the competitors' backlink profiles up and running, it would probably be best to begin organizing the list. Sort and filter the list to really get into the core of this data and cut out the insignificant elements that are cluttering your view. The main focuses are URL, anchor text, and domain authority of these external, equity passing links. Disregard any links that seem spammy, or look like footer links, which may tread into black-hat SEO practices. A good technical filtering element to use is sorting the domain authority from largest to smallest, or even a range of numbers, just to narrow down the amount of links you want to view at a time. This is particularly useful in identifying which sites would be possible to obtain a link from based on your own domain authority. Although you may be tempted to reach out to a high DA outlet in order to get the most from your efforts, it's not always realistic. Determine a DA threshold to limit the sources that you can possibly reach out to - if your site has a DA of 70, consider creating a threshold between 55 and 95. Although it isn't proven, it logically makes sense to focus on quality links that will help improve your own authority over seemingly spammy links with a lower DA.
domain authority on excel
Another useful aspect in sorting through these backlinks is filtering the anchor text. If you are looking to rank for a particular keyword, rather than just your business's name, it is ideal to have the most anchor text surrounding that word and the relevant terms in that keyword set. With this you can assess sources to see what text they use when linking to competitor sites and then decide if they are possible outlets for you to contact. Carefully look through and get rid of useless and impractical sites, such as agency pages, vendors, and event pages that wouldn't really allow you any room to get your brand mentioned. Assessing these pages takes a bit of strategy, but with the right train of thought, you are on your way to compiling a whole new list of contacts.

Key Takeaways:

  • Focus on URL, anchor text, and domain authority
  • Delete questionable links that seem spammy or cloaked
  • Filter the list according to your DA threshold
  • Check anchor text for keyword relevancy
  • Get rid of unrealistic sources
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Step 5 - Building a List of Targets

Once you have sorted through all of your competitor's links from the CSV reports, compile them into one excel sheet. This master sheet should contain descriptive information about each of the sources. You can format it in a way that would make sense to your industry, but generally include descriptive data such as the site name, its URL, the linked anchor text, the domain authority, the competitor site from which it was pulled, and possibly even the author's name, which creates a definitive point of contact for your public relations. Having all of these prospects in one place allows you to easily sort and view the possible areas where you can continue to build your own link profile.
list of targets in excel
Checking your own onsite report can tell you the outlets that have already mentioned you, which creates an opening for you to reach out and let them know you have some new content to feature on their site. It can also show you which sites you are not featured on and begin building a relationship with them for your public relations. Most importantly, make sure there is someone that can put this list to use. Whether it's one person, your public relations team, or even an outside team, they need to understand the SEO value of these link opportunities and know how to get the right amount of SEO value out of any potential placements. These realistic set of targets highlights the areas in which you can improve your linking efforts. Just as any artist is inspired by another piece of work, search engine optimization strategy is facilitated in part by observing our competitors. It should serve as a starting off point to get your team in contact with sources that can feasibly link to your page and grow the amount of external links pointing to your domain.

Key Takeaways:

  • Compile all possible competitors into one document
  • Add descriptions - source name, URL, DA, author, competitor site
  • Check your own OSE report for overlaps
  • Have a public relations expert implement the list
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Having browsed through this guide you're probably thinking that this looks like a lot to do, and that it will probably take a good amount of effort to do correctly. You're right. Building a backlink profile to improve your rankings on search engines is difficult and is going to take a lot of time and energy to do properly. This is why when clients come to us, we highly recommend that you use other digital marketing initiatives that will provide better short-term return on investment. Things like search engine marketing, basic PR, and even email marketing are important to use in tandem with SEO. They all play a role in getting your brand in front of people who could feasibly think about your business and link back to you by referencing your work, while also providing traffic that generates sales as you work to get your SEO efforts moving in the right direction. A lot of professionals balk when they hear this - some businesses see an advertisement that guarantees search engine results within a certain time frame and figure that's a better use of their marketing budget rather than taking the time to slowly build a great overall SEO presence while using other digital marketing channels for short term wins. I think this is a huge mistake, and many respected SEO professionals agree with me. The reason is that companies that promise quick SEO results use "black hat" SEO tactics such as posting spammy comments on blogs, forum posts, and cloaked links to get websites ranked. While businesses that engage these sorts of tactics certainly do see results, they often don't last long, and can cause irreparable damage to their brand. Much like in dieting, "quick" solutions are often unsustainable. In SEO, it's important to aim for success that will allow your brand to consistently grow the amount of search engine traffic it will get over time without having to worry about major drop offs because of getting caught violating search engine best practices. That all being said, with a bit of patience, a lot of hard work, and a bit of help getting started by following the steps outlined in this guide, your business can expect to see sustainable growth that starts small, but eventually will grow into something you can consistently count on, month after month, to drive sales for your business.
Search Engine Optimization Whitepaper
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