Why is it that some companies always seem to be leading the way: more innovative products, more sales, and a bigger market share?

How many times have you experienced a competitor creating a campaign or a product that you were thinking about doing?

How are they doing this?

Competitive advantage comes from knowing what your competitors are doing and the secret is — competitive intelligence (CI).

It’s so important to business success that large corporations dedicate full strategic intelligence departments and CI programs to focus on gathering intel to keep one step ahead.

This guide is going to show you how to gather competitive intelligence using Semrush so that you can inform your business strategy and grow your business without needing a dedicated consultant or department.

Competitive intelligence (CI) is the process of researching and gathering information about your marketplace and competitors to inform business strategy. CI gathers intel from multiple sources and enables a business to make informed strategic decisions, find marketing insights, and remain competitive in their industry.

CI is about being able to make better and more confident business decisions. Gaining a first-mover advantage and staying ahead of competitors.

A basic competitive intelligence definition would be — knowing what your competitors are doing and where you sit alongside them, so that you can make decisions to improve your brand position.

Terms such as market intelligence and business intelligence are often used interchangeably and while there are nuances of difference, there are elements of crossover:

  • Business intelligence focuses mostly on data and information collected internally.
  • Market intelligence is a wider term that encompasses all market research and involves research into new markets.
  • Competitive intelligence is a competitor-focused part of market intelligence for established markets.

Gathering intelligence on competitors can give you a competitive advantage by enabling your business to make informed choices. By monitoring your industry and competitors you can:

  • Monitor changes in the industry to better position yourself.
  • Predict your competitors’ next moves and be ready to counteract.
  • Be aware of any future threats coming down the line in your industry.
  • Find opportunities for business growth.
  • Inform your sales pitches to win sales.
  • Benchmark yourself to better understand where you can improve.
  • Make strategic decisions with informed confidence.

Operating a business in a vacuum without monitoring competitors will leave you vulnerable to unanticipated threats and missed opportunities.

Conducting competitive intelligence is not complicated — it’s just hard work. Find the data, collect it, and analyze it. It’s time-consuming.

The majority of competitor intelligence is actually hidden in plain sight and as SEOs, a considerable part of our role is to find and analyze competitors’ sites. SEOs are in a prime position to conduct competitive intelligence — we know how to do this.

An important aspect to note is that gathering competitive intelligence should involve taking data from multiple sources. Relying on one source for data leaves you exposed to unstable sources that might have copied information without any fact checking — known as circular intelligence.

What competitive intelligence should bring is reassurance from making informed decisions.

  • Trade shows and conferences — the perfect location to monitor what your competitors are saying and doing. Are they sponsoring, advertising, or speaking?
  • Suppliers — talk to your suppliers about what they can tell you.
  • Customers — ask your trusted customers about their preferences and buying habits. Conduct surveys and interviews to glean insights.
  • Industry reports — to provide information about the state of the market and industry.
  • Financial reports and publicly filed S1 forms — to get financial data.
  • Social media — monitor what is being discussed and said in your industry. Who is the most active and what is the sentiment?
  • Competitors’ communications — what a competitor says is worth paying attention to as it tells you what they think is important.
  • Competitive intelligence tool — for data insights and advertising activities.

Traditionally, gathering intel was a challenging task, conducted by a competitive intelligence professional consultant who had the knowledge of where to find information.

But, an intelligence tool like Semrush can help you to conduct competitive intelligence quickly and easily, gathering data in minutes.

We are going to walk you through gathering competitive intelligence information so you can inform your business strategy and make confident choices, directed to growth.

The process can be grouped into five stages:

  • Discover the marketplace
  • Products in the marketplace
  • Competitors in the marketplace
  • Benchmarking yourself
  • Applying your intel to a strategy

Firstly, you want to know the size of your marketplace and what is happening in the industry.

This is basic information that every business should know and at the bare minimum should be tracked.

  • Market size
  • Market growth
  • Territories in operation
  • Customers/demographics

Start with the Market Explorer Tool to record information about your marketplace.

The Market Overview tab will tell you the market size and the market share of a competitor site:

The Domain vs Market Growth graph is very insightful as it can show what areas a competitor is investing in:

For example, here we can see that in the last year, Coinbase.com has put considerable focus on paid advertising (if you see down the page, this could be, from a major investment in the keyword ‘Dogecoin’).

The Geo Distribution graph shows a breakdown of market share by country:

We can see here that Coinbase has a predominant audience in the US. Turkey, India, and Russia could be growing markets and areas of potential expansion to explore.

Secondary to our competitors, knowing the marketplace audience is essential information. And, by building a profile of our competitor’s audience we can compare this to our own and consider if we have missed any opportunities.

Use the Market Explorer Tool to find the In-Market Audience Interests graph:

Coinbase psychographics is very much focused on a male audience aged between 25-34 who are interested in investing, day trading, and currencies.

We can use this information in our strategy to look for other sites for content opportunities and to feed our content strategy.

Audience interests can also offer insights into where we could develop our services and products. Although Coinbase is a Cryptocurrency platform, they have an engaged audience who are interested in investing.

As an illustration, Coinbase could consider a subscribed investing publication as an add-on. Or, even expand to a money transfer service.

Another source of intel is looking at our Traffic Journey graph. Invaluable for getting upstream and downstream and filling in gaps of information that Google used to provide (remember those days?).

Downstream — you can see where users have come from to get to your competitor’s site and this can be a great source of opportunities. Other sites where you can position yourself in using content, advertising, or partnerships.

Upstream — where the audience goes after they have visited the site. Are they bouncing back to Google? Maybe you need more information or the page is not answering the intent of the query. Heading to Facebook — are they looking for social proof — do you need to invest in your social strategy.

What customers have to say is a valuable source of information as they can tell you exactly where a product or service is not fulfilling their needs.

To get direct access to what an audience is saying, the Brand Monitoring tool can help you to manage mentions of a competitor online:

The results can be filtered by negative or positive sentiment to quickly find the complaints, or to find where products are meeting expectations:

Tracking mentions of your competitor helps to build an understanding of market sentiment and see where products can be improved or even find ideas for new products that could be developed.

Knowing other products that are in direct and indirect competition with your product offers two main benefits: 

  • R&D — Monitoring the features and specifications of marketplace products will inform any research and development that you do and help to find gaps in current product offerings.
  • Positioning — pricing research is essential to inform your own pricing strategy to remain competitive and position your products in the marketplace. 

Keeping a spreadsheet that tracks all competitors’ products and pricing should be standard practice.

Try to compare products on a like-for-like basis as much as possible. This can be difficult when products have options of differentiating factors:

  • SaaS tools are generally quite straightforward comparisons of features and pricing.
  • Holidays or cars are much more complicated with so many options of add-ons and personalization.
  • Dynamic pricing for industries such as airlines and auto insurance is even more complex as they constantly monitor product availability and consumer demand to set pricing. If you are in one of those industries, then you should be doing in-depth research on pricing. 

Pricing comparison can also go in your favor, if your competitor is more expensive than your product but they are holding market share — it’s time to increase your prices to be more profitable. 

When conducting pricing research, don’t forget to look for sales, discounts, and seasonal price trends.

  • Of new products that might be suitable for you to move into based on current consumer demands.
  • Of product gaps and consumer needs that are not currently being serviced for product development.
  • Where you can get your product in front of your audience based on where your competitors are operating.
  • What the current market sentiment is and how you can adjust your messaging based to meet this.

Product and pricing research will involve a combination of manually reviewing sites and using intelligence tools to collect data, depending on what industry you are in and how complex products and pricing are.

For ecommerce items, the PLA tool can help you to quickly collect pricing on live products.

If we look at Walmart.com directly, it takes several clicks and negotiating the faceted navigation to drill down to Apple MacBook Pro products.

Using the PLA Research Tool, we can quickly see all the Product Listing Adverts that Walmart currently has live. Filter by laptop and then use Advanced filters to find MacBook Pro:

Once in the tool, you can quickly filter through other products to collect product and pricing data.

Pro Tip: visit Amazon and add competitor products to your wish list or follow them. You can then set alerts for price drops, so that you will be instantly notified if your competitor changes their pricing.

It would be surprising if you don’t already have an idea of who some of your competitors are. 

However, new competitors and disruptors are always on the edge of your field and you need to constantly monitor for them to maintain your market position.

The Market Explorer tool makes this process so easy. The Audience Insights tab provides a list of competitors:

The most powerful part of this tool is the Market Explorer Growth Quadrant which visualizes an overview of the competitor landscape. You are then able to identify leaders, game changers and niche players:

On the right, we can see listed the primary competitors to Coinbase and if we look at the top left quadrant, Gemini.com is a new disruptor to the marketplace with considerable growth.

A competitor will talk about what is important to them. So, how a competitor talks about themselves offers plenty of insight into how they perceive themselves, and how they want their audience to perceive them. Therefore, this should be important to you.

Most large-sized companies have press sections on their website and press releases provide announcements about new products, new hires, internal changes — all essential competitor intelligence information.

Probably, nobody reads press releases more than competitors!

Also, look at About Us pages and set an alert for changes on any Team pages that can highlight new hires. These changes can signal expansion or internal senior management changes that can lead to insights.

As mentioned earlier, use the Brand Monitoring tool to keep track of what industry news publications are saying about competitors:

As an extension to press releases, social media is also the perfect channel to track what a competitor is talking about for competitive intelligence:

  • What types of content are being shared and which gets the most engagement?
  • What is the cadence for posting and what times of day get the most engagement?
  • Are there any influencers talking about your competitor that would indicate influencer marketing?

The Social Media Tracker tool can track your account and offer a comparison with a range of primary competitors:

Scroll down the tool to the graph that shows you the ratio of what types of content are being posted:

We can see that Coindesk is posting considerably more than Coinbase with a lot of link-based tweets. This would be expected as they are a news publisher and posting a fire hose of news.

Can Coinbase increase their rate of posts and experiment to find the sweet spot of post to engagement ratio to compete with Coindesk? What links are Coindesk sharing that get the most engagement?

The Mentioners tab is the place to find insights on who is talking about competitors and find potential influencers to approach in your strategy:

On the other side, what competitors are contracting and seeing a decline in growth:

  • Is it product-based, do they need to upgrade or innovate new products?
  • Is it marketing-based, have they not invested enough in advertising when competitors are increasing paid search budgets? 
  • Has their site been hit by an algorithm update or manual penalty — this could be an opportunity for you to take their market share.

In Traffic Analytics, we can see that Coinbase has experienced real growth in the last six months:

The Growth Quadrant didn’t indicate they were a disruptor so let’s compare against traffic for the marketplace:

We can see in Total Traffic Trends that the growth for Coinbase is correlated with marketplace growth so they are benefiting from a rising tide.

If their growth was reducing against a rising tide, this could be an opportunity to take advantage of and move into their market share. Or, you should be looking deeper to see why they are contracting and what is wrong with the product or their brand.

Knowing the key traffic drivers for your competitors will allow you to benchmark your own efforts and know if you are investing in the right areas, or if you need to consider changing marketing strategy:

  • What channels are working for your competitor?
  • Where are the channels you are neglecting?
  • What channels could have investment reduced?

In the Traffic Analytics Tool we can see a breakdown of key traffic drivers for competitors:

Note that Coinbase had considerable growth in direct traffic from October 2020. This indicates an investment in PR, their brand name is becoming widely recognized after investment in brand awareness, or a big news item that has impacted the industry.

Look for brand mentions and any news items in the Brand Mentions tool from October and November to see if there is anything that can connect to this.

The Keyword Gap Tool will offer insights into what keywords you might be missing. By adding your site in comparison to competitors you get an overview of what they are ranking for and what you are missing out on:

Coinbase has missed opportunities in ‘coingecko’ and ‘bittrex’. Both highly competitive terms. However, ‘bittrex’ would be the easier out of the two, indicated by the much lower CPC (and difficulty rating).

To benchmark yourself against competitors, backlinks are a key metric to assess if you can compete in the marketplace. Or, if you need to find other channels and be more creative with your marketing strategy. 

The Backlink Gap Tool provides an overview of comparison for competitors. Instantly we can see that Coindesk has the most referring domains and IPs:

Coinbase has more monthly visits coming from direct traffic, and this shows they have much higher brand recall and brand awareness than Coindesk.

Coindesk has more keywords, so could be leveraging more long-tail keywords. Again, this is what we would expect as Coindesk is a publishing site. 

Reviewing competitors’ content can offer so many insights into marketing strategies. Again, it’s all in plain sight for you to see.

First, manually review a competitor’s site, including the FAQs and signing-up for the newsletter. Then, you can use Semrush to find their top pages.

Under Traffic Analytics, the Top Pages tab shows a list of pages with the most traffic:

You can see here that coinbase.com/dogecoin is getting a lot of search traffic but also substantial paid traffic. Elon Musk’s Twitter support of Dogecoin gave this topic a huge boost a few months ago. As a result, it looks like Coinbase jumped on this trend and dialed up their paid search investment to capitalize on a trending topic.

Pro tip: by filtering the pages by /learn we can see what content pages are performing the best:

If we look at “/how-to-set-up-a-crypto-wallet” we can see it gets a lot of search traffic which indicates it’s a strong keyword with value to consider in a strategy.

The advertising campaigns of competitors can tell us:

  • What products they consider important enough to invest in
  • How much investment they are spending on advertising
  • When they advertise, so what seasonal times are critical
  • What sales, offers, and discounts they are offering

In the Advertising Research Tool, at a glance, you can review your competitor’s key messaging. Even better, it also shows what keywords they are targeting:

For competitive intelligence purposes, this information holds a lot of value to evaluate if our marketing strategy is robust and comprehensive enough. Trying to track online ads by hand is so resource-heavy, it’s a near-impossible task.

If we look at Ad History and filter by ‘coupon’ we can see that CoinBase has targeted coupon-based keywords.

If you pay attention to the ads supporting the keywords, you can see that they haven’t fulfilled the intent as there is no offer in the ad. However, if you look at the latest ad, Coinbase has offered $5 of BTC.

This flags up a question of why have they now decided to offer a discount?

Knowing where you sit alongside competitors will help you to know how to compete and what your strategy should be.

  • Identify areas you need to improve to compete and grow.
  • Highlight issues from drops in your performance not in line with market conditions.
  • Spot drops in performance from competitors that you can take advantage of.
  • See trends forming that you can quickly move on.
  • Be aware of any competition moving on your position and quickly take action.

There are several graphs and tools in Semrush that utilize benchmarking but one of the best is Market Explorer:

We already mentioned this graph above and it’s great to visualize where you sit alongside competitors at a glance. The real benefit is monitoring who is up and coming in your market and who could be a potential threat:

Any competitor in the Game Changer quadrant (Gemini.com) should be reviewed to analyze what is contributing to their fast growth. Above we can see that Coinbase is an established market leader, so their strategy would be defensive-based rather than disruptive or risk-taking.

The other useful chart is the Competitive Positioning graph that can be found under Organic Research:

Here you can review competitor site keyword strategy and then use the Keyword Gap tool to find opportunities. In terms of keywords, Coindesk is out in front.

The Benchmarking graph shows an overview of primary competitors with a useful contrast to market traffic:

Most of the competitors above have grown in line with the rising market tide. If any competitors moved against the trend, either significant growth or decline, this would be a flag to do more analysis.

Market Share by Channel graph is another overview of market share and useful to quickly scan for missed opportunities:

Above you can see that Coinbase has a considerable market share in paid search – could spend be reduced to retain share and conversions? Coinbase also has a strong position across all channels without being heavily skewed on one channel.

Benchmarking against competitors is a standard SEO practice that you should be monitoring and an essential part of competitive intelligence.

Once you have collected your data and information, the real skill of CI is knowing what is the right data to use and how to translate it. This is probably one of the most in-demand skills of a good strategist — knowing how to tell a story with the data you have and to inform a strategy. 

Anyone can compile numbers and facts but it takes creative thinking to use that data to inform your strategy. 

As we highlighted at the beginning, the ways you can apply your intel to a strategy include: 

  • Benchmark yourself to better understand where you can improve.
  • Be aware of any future threats coming down the line in your industry.
  • Predict your competitors’ next moves and be ready to counteract.
  • Monitoring changes in the industry to better position yourself.
  • Make strategic decisions with informed confidence.
  • Find opportunities for business growth.
  • Inform your sales pitches to win sales. 
  • On the basis of their 25% market share and strong position against competitors, their marketing strategy would be best focused on a defensive approach and avoiding any risk-taking.
  • The heavy investment in paid search is in contrast to the market. Coinbase could test reducing their spend on paid advertising on a sample of keywords to see if it impacts the bottom line as they might be unnecessarily overspending.
  • The majority of brand sentiment is negative so the PR should be focusing on how they can improve this. 
  • The market disruptors Gemini.com and Kraken.com should be monitored for any possible threat to market share. A deeper analysis would bring insights into how they have achieved fast growth.
  • More analysis of Coindesk can provide keyword and backlink opportunities. An investment in link building would help to protect Coinbase against future threats from the strength of the number of referring domains that Coindesk has.
  • As Coindesk is an industry publisher, advertising on Coindesk and forming content partnerships would benefit Coinbase. 

*These are speculative top-level suggestions from limited research and more in-depth research would be needed to qualify any recommendations.

Large multinational corporations have full teams of competitive intelligence professionals and internal CI programs. They recognize the importance of keeping informed of their industry and who is operating in it. Not only to find the opportunities to grow and be competitive but also to be aware of the threats to ensure survival. 

Fortunately, competitive intelligence does not have to be as time-consuming as it once was, and with the use of competitive intelligence tools like Semrush you can maintain being competitive and agile.

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