SEO Competitor Analysis: Keywords, Backlinks, and Strategy | Linkflow
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SEO Competitor Analysis: Keywords, Backlinks, and Strategy

February 26, 2024

Nobody out there will replicate your overall approach to search engine optimization. But there are hundreds (if not thousands) of websites out there with content similar to yours.

An SEO competitive analysis can help you:

  • See who’s ranking for your target keywords
  • Figure out what’s working for them (to replicate)
  • Spot their weaknesses (to capitalize on)
  • Benchmark your SEO performance against
  • Come out on top

Of course, there’s more to an SEO strategy than just what your competitors are up to. But…there’s no strategy at all without knowing what you’re up against.

How to find your SEO competitors

Your SEO competition isn’t limited to your direct business competitors (they might not even be trying to rank for the same keywords).

You need to consider the businesses vying for your customers (your product competitors) and the websites coming after your keyword rankings (your search competitors).

Identifying your product competitors

Your product competitors are the businesses that offer similar products and services. They’re in the same industry and target the same customer base.

Your product competitors aren’t necessarily trying to rank for the same keywords as you (though some of them definitely are).

As an example, Tesla and Ford would be product competitors since they both sell cars.

  • Tesla cares about topics like electric vehicles, sustainability, and technology.
  • Ford would diversify across off-roading, work trucks, commercial vehicles, and tons of other domains.

You still care about product competitors because their marketing impacts yours. Just because they aren’t coming for all your search traffic doesn’t mean their ads, social media, and sales strategy won’t affect customer perception.

Organic search is just one channel. To win at omnichannel marketing, your SEO content has to serve more than just the Google algorithm.

It has to serve real people who weigh their options and make decisions, whether they come from search, social media, ads, or word-of-mouth.

Finding your search competitors

Any website competing for the coveted top spots on Google’s search engine results pages for your target keywords can be considered a search competitor. These are your direct SEO competitors.

They may or may not be business competitors. In my article about ecommerce SEO tools, the competitors directly below me are ecom SaaS platforms, review sites, and full-service digital agencies.

The three above me (rankings 1-3) are Shopify, Influencer Marketing Hub, and Cloudways, a web hosting provider.

Not one of these companies is taking clients from Linkflow. But they are taking my organic traffic.

Your search competitors are also different for each of your web pages. In my article about SEO forecasting, Neil Patel, Moz, and dozens of other completely different sites passed on the first page.

To see who’s competing with you on search engines, you’ll need an SEO tool like Ahrefs or Semrush. I use Ahrefs.

  • Start on the Ahrefs Site Explorer.
  • Paste your domain.
  • Look at your Organic competitors report.

This report shows you the five websites that rank in the top 10 for the same keywords as your website.

It also shows you how many organic pages you compete with each other on, so you can get an idea of how closely they compete with you.

By scrolling down, you can find a more comprehensive list of your organic competitors.

If your site is new, or you want to evaluate the potential competitors for a new page or keyword, you can also search for a specific keyword in the Keyword Explorer and see who ranks for it.

  • Go to Keyword Explorer.
  • Enter a keyword someone might enter to find your product, service, or content.
  • Navigate to Traffic share by domain.

Boom. Now you know what you’re up against.

An added tip: Look into each competitor’s Domain Rating (DR). DR is a metric that measures a website’s overall authority and strength in search engine rankings.

Rule out well-known brands and high-DR sites if your site’s DR is much lower. They have a huge competitive advantage, so it’s not a fair comparison.

For example, Backlinko’s “Best Link Building Services” article seems to be one of Linkflow’s biggest competitors for “link building agency.”

But they’re DR 90.

We’re DR 57.

It’s more realistic for me to consider the SEO competitors who are DR 75 and below, since that’s where we have a competitive chance.

Keyword competitor analysis

Keyword competitive analysis involves finding valuable keywords your SEO competitors show up for in organic search results, but you don’t.

You’ll want to analyze competitors’ top pages for sure. But you’ll also want to look at their content that isn’t ranking on page 1 if it’s for relevant terms with high monthly volume.

You’ve already identified your organic competitors on a per-keyword basis. But you have to go a little deeper to get the full picture.

Let’s break down the process into three steps:

1. Conduct a content gap analysis

Most of the major SEO tools have one, but since we use Ahrefs at Linkflow, I’ll walk you through how to use the Ahrefs tool to see which keywords your competitors rank for (but you don’t).

  • Paste your URL into Site Explorer.
  • Click the Content gap tool.
  • Add a few of your top business competitors (that are also ). A site that’s only an SEO competitor won’t do you much good here, since their overall purpose and audience won’t necessarily align with yours.
  • Click “Show keywords.”

From there, you’ll see a hefty list of keywords you’re missing out on.

If these words seem completely unrelated to your business (or the list is just too big), play around with the intersections. That’ll narrow it down to keywords that only 2+ competitors are ranking for.

2. Identify valuable topics

You won’t want to rank for everything other businesses rank for.

There are three criteria I use to decide if a keyword is worth targeting:

Business value

This is the most important factor. Part of SEO competitive analysis is using your judgment to decide whether a particular keyword is “worth it” for your business.

Ask yourself:

  • How likely will people using these search queries be to convert?
  • Does this keyword relate to my product/service, or does it improve perception of my brand?
  • Is there a real business motive behind SEO efforts for this keyword, or are we just ranking for it because we “want to”?

For example, if you’re a project management software company mapping out your SaaS content marketing strategy, keywords like “{Your Product} vs. {Vendor X}” or “best project management tools” would be valuable.

If they’re central to your business/product, the keywords you want to rank for from a business perspective will be high on the priority list, regardless of whether your competition also ranks for them.

Search volume

When you run your content gap analysis, you’ll see the search volume next to each keyword. This represents the average number of monthly searches for that term.

The higher the search volume, the higher the potential traffic, and theoretically, the more valuable that keyword is (though volume isn’t directly proportional to traffic potential or value).

Traffic potential

For each site or web page you’re evaluating, look at their total organic traffic. That will give you an ideal of how much organic traffic they’re getting across all their long-tail keywords.

Of course, ranking for one keyword means you’ll also rank for long-tail keywords — less popular ways of searching for the same term.

Your keyword research tool will show you the estimated monthly search traffic if you were to rank #1 for that term (based on the page that’s currently ranking #1 and its total organic search traffic across all its long-tail keywords).

For example, “best CRM software” only has a search volume of ~3,000, but the top-ranking page for that term actually gets closer to 13,000.

Be aware that this is just an estimate. You can’t guarantee your organic CTR, so it’s not a crystal ball. But it’s a good way to estimate the traffic potential of each keyword.

3. Assess keyword difficulty.

The Keyword Difficulty (KD) score is a 0–100 scale that represents how hard it would be for a new website to rank in the top 10 search results for that particular keyword. It’s based on the relative number of backlinks and referring domains to the top 10 pages ranking for that keyword.

You can find it right next to the search volume in Ahrefs’ Content gap tool.

You can also view it for each keyword using the Keywords Explorer.

Although it’s generally unrealistic to think you’ll rank for a high-KD keyword without significant investment in link building and content marketing, there’s a lot that goes into whether it’s easy for you to rank for it.

There are a few considerations:

  • Search intent
  • Google’s E-E-A-T
  • Website authority
  • Content quality
  • User experience (UX)
  • Links from other websites (more on that later)

But again…it’s unrealistic to think you’re going to rank for a keyword rated 70+ unless you’re a massive, established website.

Keywords in the sub-30 range will show you better (and faster) results if you’re just starting with content marketing.

Backlinks are important for SEO because they’re Google’s go-to ranking signal. There are over 200 of these, but links are (evidently) the most important one for the search engine algorithm.

Keyword Difficulty accounts for the number of backlinks needed to rank for a specific search term. But it doesn’t factor in quality.

A competing site might rank for a high-difficulty keyword. They may have hundreds of backlinks. But, if they have tons of nofollow links and low-quality referrals, outranking them with high-quality, intent-matched content is easier than you think.

When you’re starting to map out your content strategy from your keyword analysis, this additional context is often the deciding factor in whether a piece of content is worth creating over another.

Let’s say I’m an ecommerce vendor who wants to rank for “best budget laptops.” Upon checking, it’s pretty intimidating.

And when I scroll down to the SERP overview, some of these sites have tons of backlinks.

But, not all of them have a great backlink profile. When I look at PCMag’s article, for instance, almost half of its backlinks are nofollow, like these:

Of the ones that are dofollow, quite a few are from low-quality sites like these:

Hypothetically, producing similar or better content, plus investment in higher-quality links, would give me a good chance of ranking for this keyword (assuming it’s closely related to my business, and I have a reason to talk about it).

If you’re able to pinpoint your SEO competitors’ strategies for acquiring links, you can find ones to replicate and uncover gaps you can capitalize on.

Basically, the process looks like this:

  • Paste your URL to Site Explorer.
  • Pull up your Link intersect tool.
  • Enter the URLs of the competitors you want to examine.
  • Click “Show link opportunities.”

This will show you which sites link to your competitors, but not you. Just like I do with the content gap analysis, I filter out sites with only one or two intersections to narrow things down.

Look at the content on these pages and how they link to your SEO competitor. For example, this site is a B2B sales and marketing platform.

I might pitch a blog post about SEO for SaaS companies (and, of course, link back to our SaaS SEO page).

Context is really important when it comes to link building, so if you can find potential sites that are thematically relevant, you’ll build authority faster.

It’s not always easy to earn links to your money-making pages because they provide little to no value to other publishers.

By creating linkable assets (called “link bait”), you can build authority across your site that transfers from your link bait to your money-making pages.

This could be:

  • Infographics
  • Trends
  • Reports
  • Videos
  • Statistics
  • Guides
  • Any kind of data someone else can use to reinforce their argument

As an example, my B2B SEO statistics article earned us a dofollow backlink from Influencer Marketing Hub (one of the most valuable sites in the digital marketing sphere).

To find good bait opportunities, you can look at your SEO competitors’ backlinks and see what’s working for them.

  • Navigate to Site Explorer.
  • Paste your competitor’s URL.
  • Pull up the Best by links report.

This lets you know which of your competitors’ content gets the most backlinks. Scroll through and pay attention to the types of link magnets they create.

You’ll soon begin to see what’s working in your niche. This blog post about link building pricing garners plenty of natural links, presumably because its content helps other site owners give their audiences concrete expectations of their potential investment.

Technical SEO competitor analysis

All things equal, the site that loads faster and has a better UX is going to get higher search rankings. Search engines navigate your site by crawling its structure and sending this data to their indexes.

So, a critical part of SEO competitive analysis is understanding how your competitors maintain their site (and how it compares to yours).

If you run a Core Web Vitals audit, you can see all the key technical SEO elements your competitors are doing well and where they’re lacking.

Alternatively, you can use the Site Audit feature in Ahrefs to assess the technical health of their entire websites.

That way, you don’t have to look at them one by one. And you can connect the PageSpeed Insights API to Ahrefs to collect Core Web Vitals data for all your rivals’ sites automatically.

SEO strategy competitor analysis

Now for the fun part of SEO competitor analysis. Piecing it all together.

Here, I’ll walk you through the process I use to figure out exactly what to expect from your competitors — the types of content the produce, the types of backlinks they get, and whether they’re using an agency (or even have an SEO program at all).

If you’re a B2B company, read on…

1. Figure out how much they’re investing in SEO.

Basically, you want to know whether your SEO competitor is using an agency, and whether that agency is any good.

This is all revealed in their link profile.

Look at:

  • How many dofollow links are added each month. If there are consistently a similar amount, they’re probably using a link building agency. If they get bursts of links followed by periods with few/none, they’re probably creating linkable assets (possibly on accident).
  • Consistency of high-quality links. A consistent flow of high-DR backlinks almost always means they’re using a top-level SEO agency (like us). Consistent levels of low-quality backlinks generally means they’re using a low-end agency or overseas freelancer.
  • The spread on their referring domains’ Domain Ratings (DR). If the links are all over the place on DR (e.g., a few links from DR 70+ sites, but tons of DR 0-10 and several in the middle), they’re probably on their own.
  • Dofollow vs. nofollow links. If they’re getting tons of nofollow links from high-DR sites (e.g., news sites like the New York Times), they’re using a PR agency. They aren’t getting much (if any) SEO value from these links.
  • Branded vs. non-branded keywords. If there are tons of over-optimized, non-branded keywords, they’re paying for all their links. Branded keywords are the telltale sign of a natural link profile.

Let’s take a random B2B SaaS company and look into their backlink profile. I’m going to use UpLead, a B2B database, prospecting, and lead gen tool.

Let’s start with their overall link profile — dofollow vs. nofollow links, branded vs. non-branded keywords, and DR spread.

They’re a pretty high-DR site, so I’m already thinking they might have this SEO thing down.

When I set the filter settings to “All backlinks,” I see they’ve got ~13,500 (and counting). Plus, one-third of them are from DR 50+ sites.

Of those, about 30% are nofollow. So it falls just within the general 70/30 dofollow/nofollow rule of thumb.

Some of them are image citations, like this one from HubSpot:

They’re also listed on lots of “best” lists and directories. Some of these might be organic. Some are definitely deliberate.

There are a few mentions of the CEO and other team members in news outlets with nofollow links attached (though not many). They’re probably using PR here and there.

I don’t have to scroll past the first page to see they’ve got plenty of branded keywords.

A common theme I saw among some article titles (you can see this in my example three images above) is the topical choice of Zoominfo competitors.

When I look into their dofollow links, I see dozens with anchor text optimizing for that keyword.

So, they’re building links. I can confirm this by sorting the links by “first seen.” Since a couple nicely optimized links are added every few days, I’m going to assume they’re using a link building agency (or potentially running it in-house).

By comparison, let’s look at Vergo, a newer spend management card/software for construction companies.

Automatically, I know they’re not doing anything SEO because they don’t even rank #1 for their branded term. A fandom wiki does.

When I look at their link profile, they’re all PR-type links, even though they publish content.

Basically, they’re getting no leads from organic search (or very few).

If they came to us, we’d be able to improve their lead/customer acquisition process with SEO fairly easily.

2. Map out their content strategy.

You can learn a lot from looking at your competitor’s content.

  • How many pieces do they publish each month?
  • Is it evergreen, or is it predominantly news/company updates?
  • Do they have broader categories they publish within?
  • What are their top pages and the main keywords attached to them?

If they’re publishing a bunch of current events stuff on their blog, it might bring in spikes of traffic. But it never (or should I say: “very rarely”) converts.

You can identify a competitor’s topic clusters (broader categories they publish within) by using the force-directed crawl diagram in Screaming Frog.

It’s basically a spider graph that takes all the URLs on a site and shows them as connected dots based on where they exist within the site’s hierarchy.

force directed crawl diagram

You can also use a crawl tree visualization if that makes it easier to understand.

If everything’s super well-connected, they’re using some sort of hub-and-spoke or topic clustering strategy — a.k.a., they know what they’re doing.

Next, look at their top-ranking pages. I do this using the Organic keywords report on Ahrefs.

Their home page should be one of the most visited, if not the most. Beyond that, here’s what to look for:

  • All branded keywords — The company has no SEO program.
  • Nonbranded keywords that don’t relate to the product — They’re focused on traffic at all costs (their SEO strategy sucks).
  • Nonbranded keywords directly related to their product — They know what they’re doing — they’ve hired experts or have someone in-house who knows what they’re doing.
  • Glossary terms (top-of-funnel keywords) — Their main SEO focus is traffic/building authority, but not necessarily in a bad way (though their blog content needs work).

In the example above, you’ll notice the top-performing page/keyword is the brand name, linked to the home page. Outside of their SEO strategy, this means they’ve done a great job with brand awareness.

Below, they get tons of organic traffic from articles and product feature pages that are directly related to their offering.

They even nab a few hundred visitors from a direct competitor.

Nice.

3. Figure out what you can do.

Ultimately, an SEO competitor analysis is just here for ideas. It’s good to go in-depth so you know what’s out there, but you don’t want to copy off anyone.

It probably won’t work for you anyways. And you have no idea how much time some of your SEO competitors have spent building the authority they have.

Instead, you want to figure out what works and how you can do it better.

Start with what’s already working in terms of basic content formats. Technically, you should test everything. But that’ll help you eliminate things that will be a waste of time.

  • Go to Site Explorer in Ahrefs.
  • Paste your competitor’s URL.
  • Head to the Site structure report.

This shows you the path of URLs on their site.

For instance, PM software company Notion gets most of its traffic from templates, its help section (guides, Notion Academy, how-tos), blog posts, product pages, pricing, and integrations.

If you’re selling project management software, that’s probably the stuff your customers are going to be looking on Google for. Spend time on that stuff first.

From there, there’s tons of other stuff you can do. Think about:

  • Repurposing
  • Collaborations
  • Badges and certifications (e.g., G2 Crowd)
  • Webinars
  • Ebooks
  • Courses
  • Infographics
  • Social media marketing

The SEO competitor analysis is the easy part. How you interpret it for your use is what makes SEO such a tough job.

You absolutely need a 100% customized SEO strategy. And that’s where we come in.

Brittney Fred, SEO Analyst
Brittney has been working in SEO and digital marketing for ten years and specializes in content strategy for the B2B SaaS industry. She is based in Denver, CO and absolutely fits the Denverite stereotype. You’re just as likely to find her hiking, snowboarding, or doing yoga as reading sci-fi or playing video games.