Case Study: Using Competitive Research to Analyze a New Market

There was a post by Noah Kagan on Tim Ferriss’s blog about starting a million dollar business in a weekend. It was based around Chihuahuas, and reminded me of the tactics that I use when exploring the difficulty of entering a new market from an SEO standpoint when I launch new business projects.

If you’re involved in startups or business websites of your own, you’ll like this, we’re going to talk about SEO strategy from day 1 to month 9.

What I’ll outline in this post is the method I use to research and formulate an SEO strategy for entering a new niche online.  For this case study, I’ll use the example of “puppy dogs”, but really, these techniques can be used with any type of web business.

For a while, I was actually considering starting an online directory that would enable people to buy and sell puppies.  The idea came about after I helped a non-technical friend list and sell dogs on the www.puppiesndogs.com site – a process that showed me there may be room for another competitor in this market.

Ultimately, after talking the idea over with my friend, I decided against pursuing this niche, as it would have required a significant amount of effort in vetting eligible owners and recipient homes to ensure that my dogs didn’t wind up in the wrong hands (aka – people who fight dogs).  So – although I’m not pursuing this idea, I thought the research and strategy I planned to use to enter this market might be interesting to others who build and promote websites.

Just don’t use this information to start a similar site and sell fighting dogs…  Deal?  Ok – let’s get started…

Discovering Traffic Potential

Whenever I’m thinking about launching a new site, I start by examining the site I want to beat to learn a little more about the business (in this case, the puppies website listed earlier).  I plug their URL into Quantcast and discover that they’re getting roughly 10,000 visitors per month.  That’s a good amount of traffic and it shows me that this niche has potential.  Next, I plug their URL into Open Site Explorer and take a quick look at how many links and root domains they have (and, consequently, how many I might need to beat them).

I see that they have (at the time of this post) 334 root domains and 1,264 total links, which gives them a ratio of 3.78 links per root domain.  I usually try to keep my own sites between 2 and 3 links per root domain, but that’s not bad.

Looking at this data, I also see a hole in their strategy that jumps out at me: they only have 43 Facebook shares and 144 +1 votes.  If I can design my site to get more people to like and share it, then I can easily leverage those social signals to impact my rankings in the SERPs and ultimately outrank this competitor.

Next, I take a look at the anchor text my competitor is using in its backlinks and search for those exact terms to see how they’re fairing in the search engines (being sure I’m signed out of my Google account to avoid influencing the results).  This turns up the following terms that they’re building the most links for:

  • Puppies – 61RD*/166L** with this anchor text.  Not ranking page 1.  9,140,000 searches per month***.
  • Puppies for sale – 38RD/83L with this anchor text.  Ranking page 1.  3,350,000 searches per month.
  • Dogs for sale – 61 with this anchor text.  Ranking page 1.  550,000 searches per month.
  • Puppies for sale dogs for sale – 24RD/41L with this anchor text.  Not ranking page 1.  58 searches per month.
  • Dogs for sale puppies for sale – 17RD/20L with this anchor text.  Not ranking page 1.  73 searches per month.
  • Pets for sale – 12RD/41L with this anchor text.  Not ranking page 1.  90,500 searches per month.
  • Sell my puppies– 12RD/41L with this anchor text.  Ranking page 1.  590 searches per month.
    *RD = Root Domains
    **L = Links
    ***keyword volume is phrase-match, global

As I look at each of the SERPS for these terms, I start to see other competitors in this niche.  I’ll need to investigate them using these same techniques, but at this point, I know enough about this site to do some keyword research of my own and determine which specific terms I want to try and target.  After doing that, I’ll determine which competitors I need to beat for those terms, as well as how to do it.

Creating a Plan of Attack

With this research under my belt, it’s time to start planning the content strategy for my own site.

I started off by determining which puppy breeds are the most popular in the U.S. using the American Kennel Association (AKA) website.  Based on their dog breed registration statistics, I determined which dog breeds might have the highest search volume, based on how many people have bought and registered each breed of dog.  Based off of this information, I see that the Top 2 dog breeds in the U.S. are Labrador Retrievers and German Shepherds.

From there I’m off to Google’s external keyword tool to do some keyword research!  Using the information I found on the AKA website, I’m looking for keywords that have a high search volume, good commercial intent and a low level of competition.  The result?  I found roughly 120 keywords with high commercial intent and good search volume, which you can see in this Google doc.

Now, I have a good idea for which keywords I’d want to target with my new site.  Later in this process, I’ll whittle these keywords down from 120 to a more focused list of 10 or fewer keywords.  I’ll then use this list to start a link building campaign around those keywords, design a content strategy around those keywords and use a few of my own tricks to get the social signals I need to take advantage of the hole in www.puppiesndogs.com’s strategy.

Focusing the Strategy

After all that keyword research, I’ve got a hunch.  I know that people who are interested in buying dogs and, more importantly, people who are interested in listing their dogs on my directory site are probably going to be more interested in listing their dogs for sale on a site that’s specific to their breed of dog.  With that in mind, I decide that I’m going to build a directory for people to buy and sell just Labrador Retrievers.

(Yes. I made business decision without a mountain of data. For shame, I know.  But, I just decided I would roll on my gut feeling on this. Cool? Ok, cool.)

Now that I’ve decided to narrow down the scope of my site, I create a new Keyword Focus which I’ll use to shape a link building campaign targeting those keywords.

Assessing Difficulty

Next up, I take my newly-shortened keyword list and run a keyword difficulty report to see just how competitive this niche will be:

Now I’m excited.  I see that the keywords with the highest search volume are only moderately competitive, which means that if I come in and make a concerted effort to promote my site, I should be able to do pretty well in this niche.

For now, though, it’s time to determine which other competitors I’ll be going up against in this space, based on my new keyword focus.

I like to do this in two ways.  First, I let the friendly robot at SEOmoz do it for me, and then I’ll confirm its results myself by hand.

To conduct a competitive analysis by hand, I start by opening up an anonymous browser in Google Chrome and then launching eight separate tabs.  I search for one of my keywords in each tab and then take a look at all the competition in the SERPs.

First, I check to see how many of my competitors rank for each of the terms in my keyword focus.  I’ll also make a note of which keywords they rank for, and how many linking root domains and total links they’ve acquired, which gives me an idea of who my true competitors are.  The result of this research can be found here in this competitive analysis doc.

In addition to this manual analysis, I’ll run a keyword report using SEOmoz’s keyword difficulty tool for each keyword I’ll be building links for:

Although it’s a little repetitive, I suggest doing your analysis using both methods, as seeing the page and domain authority scores will give you an idea of how much link building and content you’ll need to do in order to beat out your competitors.

Deciphering Your Competitors Tactics

The next step in my process is to go through my top competitors’ back links in order to discover how many of each of the following link types they have:

  • In-content links
  • Footer links
  • Blog sidebar and blogroll links
  • .edu links
  • .gov links

For the purposes of this case study, I’ll demonstrate this process using the site www.ashlandkenl.com:

First, I look at their back links to find the anchor text examples with the highest commercial intent and I come across the term “black labrador for sale,” which they’re targeting with an in-content link for this term.  Now, I’ll go through the rest of their back links and determine what percentage of their back links are in-content vs. another type of link.

Now that you understand this process, let’s fast forward to the results…

After evaluating www.ashlandkennel.com’s back link profile, I see that they have a high percentage of directory type links.  These links are lower in value than in-content links, so I see that I can take them down if I focus on getting higher quality link types than they have currently.

This analysis tells me that if I spend more of my efforts pursuing only high quality links from real blogs that have real audiences, I should be able to outrank them with fewer links and in a reasonable amount of time (likely 6-9 months).

I would then repeat this process for the other 6 competitors in the space looking for holes like the one demonstrated here.  It’s often the case in niches like these that people use lots of low value links in massive quantities as a method to achieve high rankings, although this method can often be beaten by someone who’s willing to take the high quality path.

Now, let’s circle back around to the obvious holes in my competitors’ social strategies.

Remember what I said about www.puppiesndogs.com not having enough social media activity?  Well, www.ashlandkennel.com has almost none!

Here’s how I can exploit that…

Some people might not like this, but a really quick, easy and, in this niche at least, effective way of beating this company out using social media would be to buy likestweets, and +1’s on fiverr.com to get the “social-juice” needed to rank better than www.puppiesndogs.com.

Of course, this is considered to be dark-grey hat (aka – not entirely kosher), and Google may have something to say if they find out you’re doing this, so think twice before implementing these techniques on a site that’s important to you.

For the time being, though, it’s not detectable that you bought your social media signals, and according to an article from SEOmoz, this kind of thing can and does affect how well you rank in the search engines (at least temporarily).  To sustain these rankings, I’d buy $5.00 of “social-juice” a week so that it looks like I consistently have visitors engaging and sharing my website.  This should flip the right signals at Google in order to get them to give me some ranking-love.  But enough with the grey-hat techniques…

With all this insight, I can finally formulate my strategy for out-ranking my competitors.

If I were really planning to launch my Labrador Retriever directory, I’d start by avoiding building directory links, except for the essentials (including the Better Business Bureau, Best of the Web and a few social media sites such as Merchant Circle and LinkedIn).

Instead, I’d focus on building 10-20 in-content links per month.  I’d also consider focusing on obtaining .edu links, as it appears my competitors aren’t doing that and these types of links are typically considered to be very high quality.

Finally, since I see that many of my competitors are being very aggressive with their use of anchor text, I’d know that I could use about 80% keyword related anchor text and 20% branded anchor text in order to be on par with the way the rest of this market is performing.

I hope this description of the methods I use helps you to find new niches to enter and identify holes in your competitors’ promotional strategies that will allow you to quickly claim high rankings in the search results pages!

Daniel Gonzalez is the Conversion Rate Optimization Specialist at Single Grain. He gets a kick out of writing about himself in the 3rd person, and he recommends you follow him on twitter to get tips on SEO, customer development, & conversion rate optimization.

His twitter handle is @hidanielg

Image: Arne Otoko

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