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Whether you are in the start-up phase or an already well established and widely renowned business within your niche, there is one critical and continuous threat you are facing on a daily basis and that is your competition.

How do you recognise them, how deep can you get into their minds, their strategies and last but not least, how can you take advantage of all the data available about your competitors’ business backgrounds?

Keep your head; there is no such thing as I don’t have competition – everyone has competition, be it a service or product of any kind. However, if you keep thinking like this, you’d be plunging heavily and mixing yourself up in an undesirable venture.

Why do you need a thorough competitor analysis?

What I’ve personally witnessed throughout my career with my clients, whenever I asked them who were their competitors, they were either extremely vague or very explicit. As it later turned out, neither of them got a real picture about their real competitors and their backgrounds from a business perspective.

If I would have to define what competitor analysis means to me or what benefits it can offer, it would sound something like this:

The ability to identify our competitors after a clear understanding of our niche (industry) products and services, then following a thorough evaluation of their strength and weaknesses as well as strategies they follow against ours so that we could take advantage of all this data by identifying all the missed opportunities which could afterall lead us to a competitive advantage.

What I’d like you to describe in my post is an actual step-by-step case study of how you should conduct a competitor analysis which drives actionable result. Incidentally, I would add that there are several methods of conducting a competitive analysis but this is the part where I want you to help.

In addition, there are several competitive intelligence tools on the market but I found it extremely difficult to discover which one would suit all my needs. That’s why I thought I’d better work out a framework or whatever we call it, a guideline everyone can use by adapting it to his needs.

Ways of gathering information

Prior to jumping into each individual phase of the competitor analysis, first and foremost, we need to figure out what are the main sources through which data can be gathered. There is data easily accessible, others are quite difficult if possible at all.

Our data sources can be categorised into two main categories:

  1. free-for-all type of data, accessible for anyone (ex. prices on competitors’ websites, press releases, industry benchmarks, blog posts, newsletters, publicly available trends or government reports)
  2. business intelligence data provided by professional softwares & tools (also known as tools for spying and monitoring on your competitors), most of these are available for free but with limited access or as a full feature paid service

In order to make this topic as realistic as possible, I’ve chosen a niche, not just any kind of niche, a tough one, which is the stock photography with many players on the market, some of them very strong and some barely keeping their feet on the ground.

And now let’s see what phases we’ll go through:

Phase I – Define your niche/industry, products and/or services

We already know the niche, stock photography for which we shall have to gather all the product categories and subcategories within this particular niche. In my analysis, I’ll be focusing on the US market and english language.

And now let’s list the top four main product categories within the stock photo niche:

  • stock photos/images
  • stock illustrations
  • stock footages
  • stock vectors

Important note:

Keep in mind that the largest battlefield where you are facing your competitors in the online world are the major search engines like Google, Bing, Baidu (China), Seznam (Czech Republic) or Yandex (Russia). This is the place where most of your customers are searching for your products or services ie, the place where demand and offer (buyers and suppliers) come together.

Phase II – Identify relevant search terms with high search volume

Now that we have managed to describe all our product categories and subcategories, what I would advise at this stage is to filter out those in which you are aiming to play the role of a leader within your niche or the one in which you have the highest expectations in terms of business.

In my case, the selected search term will be stock photos, which has a monthly average search volume close to 50 thousand. To get this data, you’ll need to use Google’s Keyword Planner Tool (though be aware of the language and location filters to get accurate data).

In case you are in the start-up phase, it’s extremely important to double check what trend your search term shows and whether it is increasing or decreasing. To find out, you should use Google Trends and eventually Google Global Market Finder.

Some remarks on substance:

Each individual search term has its own group of competitors, sometimes mixed and sometimes with completely different players.

Phase III – Let’s list our main competitors

We’ll use Google but in order to get the most accurate result possible, we’ll do an anonymous and geotargeted search by using the following parameters:

https://www.google.com/webhp?pws=0&gl=us&hl=en

There are several other alternatives like SEO Global For Google Search, a Chrome and Firefox extension you can adjust for your targeted location and language. For better results I’d advise using a separate incognito window of your browser.

Just in case you really want to encrypt your data and surf the net from any part of the world, all I can recommend is the use of a VPN service like HMA.

Do keep in mind, though, that Google SERPs are very dynamic based on many factors, including your location, type of search and historical data.

On Google’s SERP, we’ll be focusing on the organic listings only. Why? Simply because those listings represent the strongest players for that particular term. You can use a Google Scraper like the one created by SEER Interactive, check that out and play around with it.

Gather the top 20 results +1 of yours in case your site does not get listed in top 20.

In our case, the top 20 players in the stock photo industry are as follows:

  1. istockphoto.com
  2. shutterstock.com
  3. 123rf.com
  4. dreamstime.com
  5. gettyimages.com
  6. en.wikipedia.org
  7. bigstockphoto.com
  8. everystockphoto.com
  9. fotolia.com
  10. canstockphoto.com
  1. immagine.com
  2. thinkstockphotos.com
  3. alamy.com
  4. veer.com
  5. morguefile.com
  6. stockfresh.com
  7. corbisimages.com
  8. crestock.com
  9. stocksy.com
  10. stockfreeimages.com

Further on, I will be illustrating data for only a few of the above listed websites, a few from Google’s 1st SERP and a few from Google’s 2nd SERP.

And the real fun only begins 🙂

Phase IV – Competitive data comparison and analysis

Free-for-all data

At this stage, we’ll be gathering information which, in most cases, can be accessed for free. Also, you must be creative enough to figure out what would be the critical data relevant to your niche which can be used in your competitive analysis and take advantage of. Some of the data presented below can be used for almost any kind of online business but some of them might not be applicable to yours. My goal here is to emphasise the core concept of the free-for-all type of business intelligence data available and how you should approach this challenging task.

How old is your website against your competitors?

We need to know since when (usually how many years) did our competitors launched their websites against ours. For this, we’ll be using the WayBack Machine and check the first coloured bubble and read the date.

WayBack Machine - fotolia.com

WayBack Machine – fotolia.com

istock14 years
shutterstock10 years
fotolia10 years
alamy13 years
stockfresh4 years
stocksy1 years

How popular is your brand compared to your competitors?

We need to know what is our brand reputation in terms of search volume. To get this data, we’ll be using Google’s Keyword Planner Tool and add only the brand names like shutterstock, then use the ‘only show ideas closely related to my search terms’ in the keyword options filter. This way, the tool will only list searched terms which contain the brand name, for example shutterstock, www.shutterstock.com, shutterstock coupon, shutterstock photos and so on.

To make it visually more easily digestible, feel free to use Google Trends, the result speaks for itself.

How big or small are you vs your competitors in terms of number of employees?

Nowadays, most companies have a LinkedIn account with all the employees registered. LinkedIn would be one of the main sources where you could get an idea how big your competitors are.

LinkedIn search for people within an organisation

LinkedIn search for people within an organisation

istock665
shutterstock695
fotolia222
alamy282
stockfresh4
stocksy51

It looks like Stockfresh is in real trouble at this section. I don’t see how could they conquer a market in which top brands have at least 150 times more employees. For me it looks like a battle of a mosquito against US Air Force. Anyway, no worries, that’s why we are here, to see what opportunities can a start-up company take advantage of by analysing their top competitors. I’m more than confident that players like Stockfresh will find some really useful opportunities by reading through my recommendations further on.

Are referral or affiliate programs common within your industry?

Affiliate or referral programs are widely used as a valuable channel through which online businesses can attract highly qualified visitors to their websites in exchange for a commission. You need to find out if affiliate marketing is common within your industry. To find out, you can check few of your top competitors’ websites and see it for yourself.

istockyes$20/customer, 20 credits, 20%
shutterstockyes20%
fotoliayes5, 10, 20 cred, 15%
alamynon/a
stockfreshyes10%
stocksynon/a

To take advantage of all the affiliate program could offer you, the real challenge would be to gather affiliates who are already driving high quality traffic to your competitors’ websites. Also you might be considering coming up with a more solid and rewarding offer compared to your competitors so that you can entice affiliates that it would be better worth joining your referral program or at least have you included into their linking websites.

But how and where should you start digging for this treasure? In the online marketing world, this procedure is commonly known as affiliate link signature diagnosis and competitors’ affiliate recruiting. The link signature comes from the different affiliate networks your competitors joined, however there are cases when few of your competitors have built their own affiliate network. Circumstances like this, as well as other technical barriers, faces us with a rather complex procedure which I’d rather cover in a separate blog post, so be on the lookout.

Do your competitors blog regularly? And how about you?

This is actually not so hard to diagnose. You simply access your competitors websites and check them manually if they are writing regular blog posts if any at all. However, there are cases when you hardly find any sign of a blog within your competitor’s website. In cases like this, you should be considering searching in Google, this is how I found iStockphoto’s blog page under an unusual name iStock Fuel (fuel.istockphoto.com) instead of blog.

As soon as you have the URL pattern of your competitors’ blog pages, you can further investigate to see how many or how regularly are they posting. To do this, the most concrete way for a quick result is to use Google search through which you can check how many blog pages had got indexed by Google bot. You will need the site: operator or other exclude or include combo options as for ex. the inurl: or -inurl: operators just to mention a few. By the way, you can find a more indepth look into the most useful combinations of search operators on this post from moz.com.

Here are few examples in our case:

  • site:fuel.istockphoto.com
  • site:shutterstock.com/blog

To make sure you get exact results (only blog post pages, no categories, tags or other variations), you must analyse each site’s variations of indexed URLs and tweak your search accordingly. For example, fotolia.com has blog pages in different languages under separate subfolders (/en/, /br/, /jp/ and so on). If you use the site:blog.fotolia.com/en filter, I still get categorised URLs like blog.fotolia.com/en/2011/ (posts from 2011), I hope you got the idea what I’d like to emphasise here. Anyway, in my case study, I simply made sure to get all blog pages without applying any further filters for each individual domain.

istock498
shutterstock2620
fotolia2440
alamy947
stockfresh322
stocksy610

In our case, it looks like everyone is blogging, however Shutterstock and Fotolia are far ahead compared to their counterparts.

Are your prices higher or lower compared to your competitors?

Well, pricing is really important for any business and, in most cases, this information is publicly available on your competitors’ websites. In our case, what I found was the numerous types of pricing models of which the most common ones were the credit based and monthly subscriptions. It’s a daunting task to have a clear vision which player has the most advantageous offer. In the stock photography industry, pricing models can reach numerous variations. Still, in my opinion, the simpler you make it, the better for your users. There are already good examples like the dollarphotoclub.com launched by Fotolia where each image costs you $1 – simple, straightforward, no hidden catch.

Does your competitors’ technology outperform yours?

You might also be considering what technology stands behind your competitors websites. Thats what BuiltWith is for, check it out and see it in action.

Other data specific to your niche

Each business niche has its own characteristics which is up to your creativity how you can take notice of and more importantly, the ingenuity it takes to take advantage of such data. To help you out with this, I am sharing with you the opportunity I pinpointed on stock photo websites.

Only for those who are not quite familiar with the stock photo business model, one of the most valuable assets of any stock imagery websites are the contributors who are feeding these sites with fresh content, in our case photos or illustrations. Each contributor’s name or ID is also listed beside each individual image or illustration and their ID or name is linking to their profile page on that particular stock photo site. As long as you manage to identify the URL pattern along with other characteristics on the page, you can easily find out who and how many contributors a stock photo has.

Here is a good search query example in case of Shutterstock by using Google search:

site:shutterstock.com/gallery- intitle:portfolio

It looks like they have around 3,000 contributors, quite a good starting point to conduct an even more in depth investigation and find out who are the top sellers among these 3,000 artists who are not present on your site.

Business intelligence data

Slowly, we reached the point when we need to collect data which is beyond our capabilities of getting them manually. This kind of data most of the time is available through third party softwares or tools, most of them charging a once for a lifetime fee or by subscribing to a monthly subscription package.

At this stage, you should mostly concentrate your competitor analysis on the big brands, those competitors who have already established their brands on the market. Trust me, there is definitely a lot you can learn from them as you’ll see in my case study as well.

What are the main traffic sources of your competition?

At this stage, we’ve learnt a lot about our main competitors but we need even more data, data which can assist us in taking actions similar to our competitors and take advantage of them.

We would definitely like to know which are the main sources our competitors drive traffic from to their websites. To find out, the first tool I’d recommend is SimilarWeb. You can play around with the free version, however the pro version has some even more useful features.

Traffic sources and distribution for shutterstock.com

Traffic sources and distribution for shutterstock.com

Traffic sources and distribution for 123rf.com

Traffic sources and distribution for 123rf.com

It looks like Shutterstock has a more balanced traffic distribution telling me one thing, that of their reputation and ability to keep their customers returning to their website far outperforms its counterpart 123rf.com. In this industry, the battle is more on boosting customer loyalty, retention and nurturing rather than the constant flow of organic traffic mainly from Google. Still, Shutterstock seems to be well performing in both referral and direct traffic as well as organic listings. Just in case, you analyse your website and the result is similar to 123rf.com, you’d aim to reach to a more balanced distribution similar to Shutterstock. After all brand awareness is much more important than high organic listings. This should be your final goal, build your brand, not your rankings.

Compare your unique visitors to one of your competitors

This is data I found by using Compete, however, you might consider this tool a top priority when it comes to making a choice in selecting the best competitor benchmarking tools available on the market.

Unique visitors, site comparison with Compete

Unique visitors, site comparison with Compete

I’d better recommend checking out what Compete PRO has to offer by watching their promotional video.

What sites are sending display traffic to your competitors?

Here again, I used SimilarWeb and as you can see in the charts below, you can easily sort out which domains you should also be considering to position your own display ads.

Sites sending disply traffic to shutterstock.com

Sites sending display traffic to shutterstock.com

Sites sending display traffic to fotolia.com

Sites sending display traffic to fotolia.com

What type of display ads do your competitors use?

Now, you might be interested in the ad creatives your competitors are using as well as the messages they want to reach their customers with. There are several tools to get this data but I found one which I hope you’d also find it useful. It’s called Moat Ad Search and the reason I like this tool, it’s extremely simple to use and you get a visual result instantly by adding the brand name in the search field which is equipped with an autocomplete function you might also find helpful.

Display ad search with Moat Ad Search

Brand search with Moat for display ads

The power of this tool is that you can have an instant look on all of your competitor’s display ads without wasting time to gather them manually. After this, all you have to do is to filter out key messages from each display ad then take advantage of them for your own business.

Here are few examples of two major brands within the stock photo industry but I highly encourage you to try it for yourself and start spying on your own competitors’ display ads right now.

Display ads (snippet) used by istockphoto.com

Display ads (snippet) used by istockphoto.com

 Display ads (snippet) used by shutterstock.com

Display ads (snippet) used by shutterstock.com

The tool also has a pro version with even more features you might find useful for your sales team.

How much do your competitors spend on advertising?

We might have a vague idea about our competitors ad expenditures. However, there are several tools which are capable of scraping out data beyond our reach. I used iSpionage, one of top competitor search marketing tools available on the market. I can more than recommend this tool, or suggest you at least play around with it and see it for yourself what it has to offer.

iStockphoto's PPC expenditure for last month

iStockphoto’s PPC expenditure for last month

iStockphoto's PPC expenditure trend for last 12 months

iStockphoto’s PPC expenditure trend for last 12 months

Ad keyword overlap analysis

You might be considering to diagnose which keywords overlap with your competitors and which are those you might also be considering to advertise on. SpyFu Kombat is a wonderful tool and in order to achieve the result as seen below, you must fill in the search field with your domain name vs two other domains of your competitors. Let’s suppose my site is 123rf.com and I want to find out what keywords shutterstock.com uses in their ad campaigns which I might also be considering using.

SpyFu ad keyword overlap

SpyFu ad keyword overlap

In order to get a full list of these keywords, you need a paid subscription. However, taken in consideration all the other useful features this tool has to offer, it might be a good choice to do some further investigations about your competitors’ marketing strategies.

Which are the top keywords your competitors are bidding on?

There is not much to say here, as long as you might be considering to gather all the keywords your competitors are bidding on, you might again be considering the iSpionage tool. Besides the raw keyword list, the tool extracts other valuable data like CPC (cost per click), average search volume, average position and even more.

Top bidding keywords by shutterstock.com

Top bidding keywords by shutterstock.com

What ad copies do your competitors use?

It might be worthwhile to analyse a little bit more closely top performing PPC ad copies of your competitors. Luckily, you can get this data as an aggregate by using one of the competitor tools mentioned throughout this post (iSpionage, SpyFu and SEMrush).

Ad copies used by istockphoto
Ad copies used by Shutterstock
Ad copy istockphoto
Ad copy Shutterstock
Ad copy istockphoto
Ad copy Shutterstock

What is the SEO or organic traffic value of your competitors?

SEO traffic value using iSpionage

SEO traffic value using iSpionage

SEO traffic value using SEMrush

SEO traffic value using SEMrush

What is your average PPC budget compared to your competitors?

Monthly PPC budget comparison

Monthly PPC budget comparison

Who is linking to your competitors?

This information is very important, especially from an SEO perspective, considering the fact that the more valuable votes ie links your website has, the higher authoritative it becomes in the eyes of major search engines like Google or Bing. I won’t go into detail here, however I’d like to help you out in getting this data by using one of the top three tools available on the market which are ahrefs, OSE from moz.com and MajesticSEO.

Here is a report you can get by using Opensiteexplorer.org (OSE):

Backlink report using OSE

Backlink report using OSE

These tools can be used to dig deep into your competitors backlinks and find backlinking opportunities. You’d better try one of these tools for yourself and experiment a little bit.

How to get alerted in time?

You need to react quickly whenever something good or bad is being spread throughout the internet. It’s not just about your brand, you should be alerted of each move your competitors are taking.

There are three tools you can use to monitor your and your competitors’ brand mentions or whatever you might find useful (ex. your name) to get alerted in time.

Find out whose fans are more supportive and why?

We reached to social media profile analysis and comparison. There are numerous social media monitoring tools but I found one which is really cool. It’s called FanPage Karma with which you can quickly compare the performance of two Facebook IDs of one of your competitors. Below you can see the result of Shutterstock against 123RF.

FanPage Karma comparison

FanPage Karma comparison

By using this tool, you will reveal all the strengths and weaknesses of your competitors social activity, analyse interactions and engagements, helps you identify best time intervals for posting your messages as well as what type of posts perform better.

If you need a much more detailed evaluation and monitor unlimited number of Facebook pages as well as Twitter analytics, you might be considering their Pro or Premium packages. I think there is no better way to introduce the benefits of this product than watching through their guided video tutorial.

What content performs best for a topic or competitor?

BuzzSumo is another great tool to analyse your social activity against your competitors. I’m a fan of this tool and using it very frequently. Let’s see a real example, what you can expect from this tool and take advantage of.

Buzzsumo most shared content of istockphoto.com

Buzzsumo most shared content of istockphoto.com

Buzzsumo most shared content of 123rf.com

Buzzsumo most shared content of 123rf.com

Buzzsumo content filter options

Buzzsumo content filter options

As you can see in the above examples, you can easily extract top shared contents of your competitors, you can further filter the result according to what data you’d like to see (most shared content on Twitter or G+, guest posts or articles and so on). It’s a tool which helps you decide what type of content (blog posts) you should write to get your users engaged. In my opinion, if big brands like Spotify, HubSpot or Wyatt are using it on a regular basis, you should definitely give it a try. You won’t regret it, I promise.

Who are the top influencers?

Buzzsumo influencer filter options

Buzzsumo influencer filter options

Now again, BuzzSumo is here to help. You can either search by topic or Twitter username then further filter the result by the numerous available options this tool has to offer. Below I am showing you two examples, one by using a topic search (stock photo) and one by using one of top leader’s Twitter account (@Shutterstock).

Buzzsumo influencers by retweet ratio for @Shutterstock

Buzzsumo influencers by retweet ratio for @Shutterstock

Buzzsumo Influencers for stock photo topic

Buzzsumo Influencers for stock photo topic

An alternative you might also be considering when it comes to social activity analysis would be the SocialCrawlytics tool however I personally found BuzzSumo more user friendly.

The all-in-one scoring benchmark

You might also be considering a scoring software which takes in account all internal and external data of your and your competitors’ websites then aggregates and evaluates these data on a certain scale. A good choice for such a software is Marketing Grader from Hubspot which evaluates the effectiveness of marketing activity of the analysed website. The tool analyses many aspects of the marketing pipeline from social media to email marketing and analytics, basically taking in consideration all the factors which contribute to a website performance.

Another advantage of this tool is that it outlines all the parts on which you should take some further steps for improvements. Just below, I’ve listed the overall results of the domains analysed in my post but I encourage you to try this tool for yourself and have a more in depth look into how your site is performing on social, SEO or mobile.

istock81/100
shutterstock81/100
fotolia90/100
alamy54/100
stockfresh73/100
stocksy66/100

Another alternative to have an overall scoring report against your competitors, would be Moz’s Open Site Explorer tool. The tool allows you to compare your data with up to 4 of your main competitors and see in an instant on which part your site performs well and on which part you need improvements. Metrics are showed on both page, subdomain or root domain levels.

OSE root domain metrics comparison

OSE root domain metrics comparison

Conclusion

Now that we have covered some of the main areas a thorough competitor analysis should focus on, it’s time to jump ahead and do your own homework for your own websites.

Certainly, there could be many other different approaches to conduct such an investigation, not to mention other same or even more powerful tools available on the market.

Remember, on first hand, the focus is to know exactly where is your business positioned against your competitors and secondly, what marketing strategies your competitors are using which could after all lead you to a competitive advantage.

I’m really curious what other strategies you use when it comes to beating your competitors or what advantages the above mentioned strategies or tools offered you.