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A Complete Guide to Competitive Intelligence

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A Complete Guide to Competitive Intelligence


In the business world, risks and opportunities are everywhere. For example, an industry trend may be sweeping the market for a limited time and favor early adopters, while a competitor that went bust can be a good source for acquiring new customers.

These types of news are not readily available, and by the time you purchase expensive analyst reports, they’re already outdated. So how do you make sure you understand your competition and stay ahead of market trends in a way that’s proactive and doesn’t break the bank?

Competitive intelligence is the answer to ensuring your business doesn’t get caught off guard. Notably, it’s not all data collection. Rather, it’s also about enabling the entire team to win through an actionable and repeatable process.

In this guide, you’ll learn the following:

What is competitive intelligence?

Competitive intelligence (CI) is the process of gathering, analyzing, and sharing information about competitors, customers, and other market indicators to increase a company’s competitive edge.

It involves a coordinated competitive intelligence program and a centralized collection of data from various sources.

Why is competitive intelligence important?

To succeed in business, knowing your competitors’ moves is not enough. Companies also need to be aware of market trends and how those changes will impact stakeholders. For example, unforeseen events in your industry may be cutting your financial gains this quarter.

This is where competitive intelligence steps in as a process to make more informed business decisions, reducing the uncertainty of external events. CI can also help you to:

  • Generate more revenue.
  • Spot growth opportunities early on.
  • Anticipate market shifts with confidence.
  • Develop counter-strategies for each of your competitors.
  • Benchmark against competitors to discover areas of improvement.
  • Measure brand perception in the eyes of your customers.
  • Streamline product launches.

All these points can be effectively translated into a competitive intelligence program. But first, let’s look at what you came here for: competitive intelligence sources.

Where to gather competitive intelligence

Like any system, the quality of the data you put into your CI program is a good predictor of its success. In the end, your goal is to create a complete profile of your competitor.

To do so, here are eight competitive intelligence sources that you can use today:

Your competitor’s website

It’s no surprise that a good starting point to gather competitive intel is to check out your competitor’s website.

Pay close attention to these:

  • Positioning and messaging changes
  • Solutions and vertical pages
  • Pricing
  • Product updates

First, go over the homepage and any marketing-related pages. Have they changed their tagline? What customer logos are they featuring? What buyer personas are they targeting? Signals like these will show you how your competitor wants to be perceived in the customers’ minds and what verticals they are pushing for.

Asana's homepage: on left, homepage copy; on right, pictures of people working

You can learn a lot by analyzing your competitor’s homepage.

Second, move on to the product-related pages, particularly the pricing page. But don’t just settle for the price. Dig deeper. Find out the trial period length, pricing model, onboarding costs, etc.

Your competitor’s FAQ can also be a source of intel—not just for sales reps but also for marketers who can create marketing assets focused on solving difficult-to-solve pain points.

Content

Your competitor’s content is a trove of insights for showing what customers they’re looking for and where they seek to develop thought leadership.

Pay close attention to these:

  • Type of content and format
  • Frequency of posting
  • Keywords and SEO
  • Overall CTAs

For example, posting four case studies in a row is a clear indicator of their priorities on chasing a buyer persona. At the same time, the posting frequency can be used as a benchmark to create a sound content strategy.

Here’s how to check your competitor’s posting frequency in Ahrefs, using Asana as an example. I’ve chosen Asana because it’s probably a company you already know and use.

  1. Go to Ahrefs’ Content Explorer
  2. Plug in your competitor’s blog URL and switch the search mode to In URL
  3. Check the published vs. republished ratio in relation to yours
Content Explorer "Pages over time" bar graph results for Asana's blog; in bottom-right corner, the published vs. republished ratio

The real challenge is identifying the knowledge gaps between your content. You can then take advantage and develop informative content for keywords that your competitor doesn’t rank for to improve your search ranking.

Here’s how to do it in Ahrefs using the Content Gap tool, using the same Asana example:

  1. Plug your website into Ahrefs’ Site Explorer
  2. Go to the Content Gap report and enter your competitor’s website
Content Gap report results

From this screenshot, we see that Paymo (an Asana competitor) is already ranking for “working remotely” and “fun team building activities”—topics that Asana could target.

Social media

Another valuable competitive source is social media. Although sometimes overwhelming, messages and mentions go a long way in pointing out competing campaign patterns.

Pay close attention to these:

  • What channels the competitor is active on
  • Frequency of posting
  • Who they follow
  • Ads

Now, social media ROI is hard to quantify and platform-dependent. The lesson here is to analyze key strategies you can steal from your competition and spot potential pain points. For example, one of your competitors may use Twitter to answer customer inquiries. Let’s look at a conversation from Asana’s Twitter.

The paint point is clear: There is no possibility to sort subtasks within a task. While this may be an edge case, you may find out that it’s a deal-breaker for large organizations that work with many subtasks.

So if you were a competitor, you could arm your sales reps with this information and formulate a few questions (in a battle card) that would lead prospects to this weakness.

Besides showing your competitor’s employees, LinkedIn is another go-to platform that gives you a feeling about your competitor’s culture, future webinars, and overall content used to promote its brand.

Customer reviews

Customer reviews, either testimonials or case studies, are living proof of a company’s value. They are perhaps the most honest source of external competitive intel.

Pay close attention to these:

  • B2B review platforms (Capterra, G2, TrustRadius)
  • Analyst reports (Forrester, Gartner)
  • Question platforms (Quora, Reddit)

B2B review platforms like Capterra, G2, and TrustRadius are a good starting point to identify what kind of customers your competitor sells to, their buyer journeys, pain points, and satisfaction ratings. You want to pay particular attention to negative reviews that can be brought up in sales conversations.

Next in line, analyst reports like Gartner’s Magic Quadrant and Forrester’s Wave will give you hints on your competitor’s market presence, vision, and how well they execute the said vision. These reports will also hint at the industry and business size your competitor caters to, as they also include anonymous customer reviews.

Finally, question platforms such as Quora and Reddit are a great way to see the main concerns and buying process of your competitor’s customers. You can even go undercover and ask an anonymous question about your industry to gauge how well people understand the market.

Resellers

Resellers are equally important for CI as customer reviews and analyst reports, especially since they’re from an intermediary acting on behalf of your competitor.

Pay close attention to these:

  • Pricing structures
  • Conditions for upsales
  • Free add-ons

Resellers sell your competitor’s products and assist with market analysis reports on how to sell them better. If you’ve built a relationship with them, you can get your hands on these reports and gain access to your competitor’s selling strategy.

For example, you may find that your competitors are hitting their enterprise clients hard with storage overcharges. Or that they’re increasing their prices with every yearly renewal. This type of information wins sales deals when you’re head-to-head against a market leader or a competitor with better market exposure.

Don’t forget to also look at what extras they offer with each package. You can match your competitor’s offering and add other services on top to make your product more appealing.

Press

An easily accessible way of conducting competitive research is to go through a company’s news, events, and press releases.

Pay close attention to these:

  • Press releases
  • Events
  • Financial results reports

A company’s news page is a quick teller of its overall direction—whether it has received new funding, wants to tackle new markets, or has acquired a market leader. Some even have public financial reports that can give you the edge to act toward market shifts proactively.

The news page is just one piece of the puzzle. You can research publishers already covering your competition but not your business. Build relationships with them. And who knows? You may get access to a bigger platform to spread the word about your product.

Here’s an easy way to do this using Ahrefs:

  1. Plug your competitor’s website into Site Explorer
  2. Go to Backlink profile, then choose Referring Domains
  3. Check DoFollow links only and Exclude subdomains

It looks like Asana’s competitor, Paymo, has some press coverage for writerraccess.com—a service for covering copywriters. And we’ve got our hands on a reseller too.

Referring domains report results

Events are also an opportunity to spy on your competition ethically. Find out what events they attend, how regularly, and the messages used on booths, banners, flyers, t‑shirts, and other swag.

Some may even sponsor events to reinforce their brand to a specific customer segment. This will give you an idea about what events to join and the messages to use for brand awareness.

HR

Your competitor’s employees—perhaps the most overlooked CI resource—and their HR practices are the best barometer for a competitor’s growth.

Pay close attention to these:

  • About Us page/Careers page
  • Job positions by department
  • C‑level hires
  • Feedback on culture, salaries, and interviews (Glassdoor)

No one is more well-versed in your competitor’s strengths and weaknesses than their employees. And while the employees may be loyal, they are still having discussions and leaving trails behind that can serve as competitive ammunition.

You can check the overall job satisfaction of current and former employees on Glassdoor. What are the pros and cons of the competitor’s culture? What does the interview process look like? Average salaries? Questions like these can put your HR in a better position to address weaknesses when hiring similar candidates.

Another great place to dig for competitive intel is your competitor’s About Us page or Careers page. The gist is to look beyond job posting details, such as the location, role, and requirements.

If a job goes unfilled for a long time, this probably means the competitor has lots of things going on and needs a high-level specialist to take over the workload.

Similarly, if different positions are advertised within the same department, this can mean they’re putting all their efforts into a specific business area. Are they hiring more engineers? A new product may be just around the corner. Are marketers and customer success reps in high demand? Expansion is close.

Your customers and colleagues

Finally, it’s time to talk about the most accessible source of internal intel: your customers and colleagues.

Before choosing your business, your customers have gone through many hoops trialing other competitors. As a result, they’ll know the problems your competition is trying to solve and what works and doesn’t within the context of their vertical, saving you precious time on research.

One way to extract this information is to get it directly from customers through interviews or surveys. The other is to contact your colleagues.

Check each department for new insights they can share with you. Sales can inform you about common objections, support has intel on the top recurring questions, product knows all feature differentiators, and marketing can advise what collaterals have more priority. Your goal is to pick key takeaways as you carefully comb through the data.

Unfortunately, data will be spread across CRMs, support chat tools, and notes for most cases. A better solution is to use dedicated competitive intelligence tools that centralize this type of data, which brings us to the next point.

A competitive intelligence program needs to be scalable enough to arm every employee with the correct intel and processes for their role.

We’re not talking only about C‑level executives but also sales reps, marketers, and engineers that can benefit from these insights to better fight objections, reach new audiences, and optimize product launches.

The good news is that CI programs are now more affordable than ever—even for SMBs with small budgets—given how easy it is to find information online.

So without further ado, here are the most important steps that go into building an effective CI program:

1. Identify your direct competitors

You may think you don’t have any competitors. But if you’re solving a problem, chances are someone else has already thought about solving it.

In fact, Crayon’s 2022 survey has shown that companies of all sizes experience an 18% increase in competitors every year. The average number of new competitors is 29 in 2020.

Knowing which competitors to keep tabs on is critical for the success of a CI program, but that’s not so obvious. Hence, we need to kick things off with some terminology:

  • Direct competitors act in the same market as yours and sell similar products. It’s usually a zero-sum game: If customers don’t buy from you, they buy from them. Think Burger King vs. McDonald’s.
  • Indirect competitors act in the same market but sell different products that satisfy the same need. Think Burger King vs. KFC. They are both fast-food restaurants that curb hunger differently.
  • Replacement competitors don’t act in the same market, but they can replace your product to satisfy the same need. Think Burger King vs. Beyond Meat (vegan) burgers.

Now that competitor types are clear, gather a list of 5–10 direct competitors and five indirect competitors.

Replacement competitors shouldn’t be your concern unless there are various ways to solve the problem your product is trying to solve.

A reliable way to find your competition is to check if you’re targeting the same keywords. Here’s a quick method using Ahrefs (with Asana as the example):

  1. Plug your website into Site Explorer.
  2. Go to Organic search and choose Competing Domains
  3. Check the Common keywords column

It looks like Asana has the most overlapping keywords with Monday.com.

Competing Domains report results

2. Establish key objectives and metrics for each stakeholder

With your direct competitors mapped out, it’s time to set your key objectives and metrics. This goes hand in hand with identifying the stakeholders you need to get buy-in for the CI program.

A good starting point is to ask the C‑level executives what competitive threats keep them busy at night. This action won’t justify the need for a CI program, but it will point you to the departments that can solve them.

Remember, each function represents a touchpoint between your business and the customer, providing different perspectives of the buying journey.

Let’s look at the most common CI stakeholders and an example goal for each:

  • Sales – Increase win rates in competitive deals
  • Marketing – Create actionable battle cards
  • Engineering – Build true differentiators
  • Customer success/support – Retain customers
  • C‑level executives – Analyze adjacent EMEA markets to break into

Now, this doesn’t mean goals do not overlap. On the contrary, improved positioning can bring in more leads, while a product that stands out can significantly increase customer retention.

The takeaway at this step is to find out the job roles that will contribute to the CI program and effective ways to measure it.

3. Gather data

Data collection is the foundation and perhaps most time-consuming part of any CI program. The challenge lies in finding qualitative insights to support your team members within their job roles.

We’ve already gone through competitive intelligence resources. On a meta level, though, know that you can categorize them into two data types.

There is external data. It’s the low-hanging fruit type of information available online, sitting on your competitor’s website, social media, review platforms, analyst reports, etc. Albeit harder to dig for, resellers are also a valid source of data on how users interact with your competitor’s product and their main offering’s strengths and weaknesses.

We also have internal data. It’s information that already exists within your business, such as call notes from a sales rep or a competitor’s pricing list sent to one of your customers.

Even though the latter is more qualitative, both are ethical and should be used together to arrive at actionable insights.

4. Analyze data

Great. You’ve identified your direct competitor, established CI goals and metrics, and probably spent a few hours gathering competitive intel.

What follows is transforming that raw data into actual deliverables (aka sales and marketing assets) and feeding them to the right stakeholders.

By far, the most common CI deliverable is the battle card, a sales asset that packs short insights about a specific competitor with the goal of “depositioning” them. Your sales team will love these cards, as long as they’re not too overwhelming and formulated word for word to be consumed right before a sales call.

While there’s no secret recipe on how to craft a battle card, an actionable one should include the following sections:

  1. Your competitor’s profile
  2. Quick dismisses to disqualify the competitor early on
  3. Arguments for why you win and why you lose
  4. Objection handling answers
  5. A list of landmine topics that put your competitor in a bad light

For more information on how to create more inclusive battle cards, Klue has already written extensively about a battle card framework.

Pyramid showing theoretical battle card content framework

Battle cards aside, other popular CI deliverables are product sheets—1:1 feature comparisons between your product and your competitor’s product—and executive slide decks to inform executives about the long-term strategy.

How many you can deliver will largely depend on your marketing team’s size and budget. This is only half of the story, though. Equally important is how and when you deliver them.

5. Share insights with key stakeholders

Competitive intelligence has no value if it sits in a corner and doesn’t impact stakeholders.

At the final step of the CI program, your job is twofold: (1) identify your stakeholder’s preferred communication channels and (2) increase the frequency of delivering competitive insights.

For the first endeavor, ask your stakeholders how they communicate. Sales reps may be more inclined to hang out in Slack channels, while executives probably rely heavily on email. Always meet them on their turf to ensure that information is consumed on time.

As for the second one, consider sharing competitive insights during daily and weekly stand-ups. According to a study by Crayon, businesses that do so frequently have seen a direct revenue impact; in the study, 69% of the respondents share competitive intent daily and 72% do so weekly. 

Ultimately, sharing competitive insights is an ongoing process that will reinforce the adoption of a CI program and guarantee its success.

By now, you’ve probably realized how time-consuming competitive research is.

It doesn’t have to be. Even though you may not have a CI function, let alone a budget, you can collect, analyze, and share data about competitors with affordable, competitive software.

Owler

Owler's report on Netflix (CEO info, annual revenue, etc)

Best for: Digging into a company’s history
Pricing: Free trial available; paid plans start from $35/month
Alternative: Crunchbase

With a community of 3.5 million crowd-sourced users, Owler has the largest and most up-to-date data set of company insights.

This means you can surface all sorts of strategic information like funding, acquisitions, and the latest news to understand how a competitor has grown over time. The tool even goes the extra mile and compiles a brief analysis of your competitors.

You can also follow companies to receive daily or real-time notifications about their most relevant content, including press releases, blog articles, social media posts, or product videos.

Visualping

Visualping's page to set up job for updates on Paymo

Best for: Monitoring website changes
Pricing: Free trial available; paid plans start from $10/month (personal account) and $50/month (business account)
Alternatives: Change Tower, Competitors App

Visualping is a competitive intelligence tool for monitoring website changes.

All you have to do is enter a competitor’s URL, select the website area you wish to monitor, the threshold of changes (1%, 10%, 25%, 50%), frequency checks (every day, week, month), and your email address to receive the alerts. Quite simple? You bet. But effective in identifying more subtle messaging and visual changes.

This is not all. Visualping also trains bots to perform actions on your behalf, such as entering passwords or clicking on elements, saving you time during the competitive research process.

Ahrefs

Site Explorer overview of Burger King's website

Best for: Analyzing website traffic and SEO
Pricing: Paid plans start from $83/month, but you can use Ahrefs Webmaster Tools for free
Alternatives: None

Ahrefs is an industry-leading SEO and marketing tool that can help you uncover a competitor’s website traffic and reverse-engineer their efforts.

Here are some of its most popular competitive intelligence tools:

  1. Site Explorer – Research competitor backlinks and get publishers to cover you too
  2. Content Gap tool – Find keywords that a competitor ranks for that you don’t
  3. Ads – Deconstruct your competitor’s ads from ad copy to CTAs
  4. Email alerts – Stay in the loop about new backlinks and mentions of your competitor

Social Searcher

Social Searcher results for term "#audi"

Best for: Comparing social media strategies
Pricing: Free trial available; paid plans start from €3.49/month for 200 searches/day
Alternatives: Talkwalker, Rival IQ

Social Searcher works like a search engine for social media, gathering mentions about your competitor’s brand.

The tool crawls data across 11 social media networks, displaying keywords, post types, and users. In addition, its “audience insights” feature gives you hints about the preferred post types, publishing times, and go-to social media channels of your competitor’s customers. 

But perhaps the most vital feature in its arsenal is the sentiment analysis report, making it easy to spot negative feedback about your competitor’s products and services. You can translate these weaknesses into sales enablement material later on.

SendView

A "Dashboards" page on SendView

Best for: Tracking competitor email marketing
Pricing: Plans start from $49/month for 10 company newsletters
Alternative: Owletter

SendView is an excellent tool for tracking your competitor’s email marketing efforts.

The process goes something like this: You create a separate email address and then subscribe to your competitor’s newsletter. After that, all emails go straight into SendView without bloating your inbox.

On top of this, you can access each email to analyze its subject line length, word count, email provider, spam score, source code, and whether or not it’s mobile-friendly. These are all valuable sources of inspiration for optimizing email marketing campaigns that resonate with your audience.

Final thoughts

Despite the abundant information about markets and competitors, teams today are hungrier than ever for knowledge and guidance—whether that’s ways to do an SEO competitor analysis or conduct a market analysis from A to Z (including mystery shopping).

Competitive intelligence is the long-awaited answer to navigate the business world with more clarity. Don’t think of it as a one-off action. Rather, see it as an ongoing process that equips every team member with information relevant to their job role and tools to make better business decisions.

Feel free to use this guide to start your own CI program or to convince your executive board about the importance of competitive intelligence.

Got questions? Ping me on Twitter.





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Google’s Mueller Criticizes Negative SEO & Link Disavow Companies

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Google's Mueller Criticizes Negative SEO & Link Disavow Companies

John Mueller recently made strong statements against SEO companies that provide negative SEO and other agencies that provide link disavow services outside of the tool’s intended purpose, saying that they are “cashing in” on clients who don’t know better.

While many frequently say that Mueller and other Googlers are ambiguous, even on the topic of link disavows.

The fact however is that Mueller and other Googlers have consistently recommended against using the link disavow tool.

This may be the first time Mueller actually portrayed SEOs who liberally recommend link disavows in a negative light.

What Led to John Mueller’s Rebuke

The context of Mueller’s comments about negative SEO and link disavow companies started with a tweet by Ryan Jones (@RyanJones)

Ryan tweeted that he was shocked at how many SEOs regularly offer disavowing links.

He tweeted:

“I’m still shocked at how many seos regularly disavow links. Why? Unless you spammed them or have a manual action you’re probably doing more harm than good.”

The reason why Ryan is shocked is because Google has consistently recommended the tool for disavowing paid/spammy links that the sites (or their SEOs) are responsible for.

And yet, here we are, eleven years later, and SEOs are still misusing the tool for removing other kinds of tools.

Here’s the background information about that.

Link Disavow Tool

In the mid 2000’s there was a thriving open market for paid links prior to the Penguin Update in April 2012. The commerce in paid links was staggering.

I knew of one publisher with around fifty websites who received a $30,000 check every month for hosting paid links on his site.

Even though I advised my clients against it, some of them still purchased links because they saw everyone else was buying them and getting away with it.

The Penguin Update caused the link selling boom collapsed.

Thousands of websites lost rankings.

SEOs and affected websites strained under the burden of having to contact all the sites from which they purchased paid links to ask to have them removed.

So some in the SEO community asked Google for a more convenient way to disavow the links.

Months went by and after resisting the requests, Google relented and released a disavow tool.

Google cautioned from the very beginning to only use the tool for disavowing links that the site publishers (or their SEOs) are responsible for.

The first paragraph of Google’s October 2012 announcement of the link disavow tool leaves no doubt on when to use the tool:

“Today we’re introducing a tool that enables you to disavow links to your site.

If you’ve been notified of a manual spam action based on ‘unnatural links’ pointing to your site, this tool can help you address the issue.

If you haven’t gotten this notification, this tool generally isn’t something you need to worry about.”

The message couldn’t be clearer.

But at some point in time, link disavowing became a service applied to random and “spammy looking” links, which is not what the tool is for.

Link Disavow Takes Months To Work

There are many anecdotes about link disavows that helped sites regain rankings.

They aren’t lying, I know credible and honest people who have made this claim.

But here’s the thing, John Mueller has confirmed that the link disavow process takes months to work its way through Google’s algorithm.

Sometimes things happen that are not related, no correlation. It just looks that way.

John shared how long it takes for a link disavow to work in a Webmaster Hangout:

“With regards to this particular case, where you’re saying you submitted a disavow file and then the ranking dropped or the visibility dropped, especially a few days later, I would assume that that is not related.

So in particular with the disavow file, what happens is we take that file into account when we reprocess the links kind of pointing to your website.

And this is a process that happens incrementally over a period of time where I would expect it would have an effect over the course of… I don’t know… maybe three, four, five, six months …kind of step by step going in that direction.

So if you’re saying that you saw an effect within a couple of days and it was a really strong effect then I would assume that this effect is completely unrelated to the disavow file. …it sounds like you still haven’t figured out what might be causing this.”

John Mueller: Negative SEO and Link Disavow Companies are Making Stuff Up

Context is important to understand what was said.

So here’s the context for John Mueller’s remark.

An SEO responded to Ryan’s tweet about being shocked at how many SEOs regularly disavow links.

The person responding to Ryan tweeted that disavowing links was still important, that agencies provide negative SEO services to take down websites and that link disavow is a way to combat the negative links.

The SEO (SEOGuruJaipur) tweeted:

“Google still gives penalties for backlinks (for example, 14 Dec update, so disavowing links is still important.”

SEOGuruJaipur next began tweeting about negative SEO companies.

Negative SEO companies are those that will build spammy links to a client’s competitor in order to make the competitor’s rankings drop.

SEOGuruJaipur tweeted:

“There are so many agencies that provide services to down competitors; they create backlinks for competitors such as comments, bookmarking, directory, and article submission on low quality sites.”

SEOGuruJaipur continued discussing negative SEO link builders, saying that only high trust sites are immune to the negative SEO links.

He tweeted:

“Agencies know what kind of links hurt the website because they have been doing this for a long time.

It’s only hard to down for very trusted sites. Even some agencies provide a money back guarantee as well.

They will provide you examples as well with proper insights.”

John Mueller tweeted his response to the above tweets:

“That’s all made up & irrelevant.

These agencies (both those creating, and those disavowing) are just making stuff up, and cashing in from those who don’t know better.”

Then someone else joined the discussion:

Mueller tweeted a response:

“Don’t waste your time on it; do things that build up your site instead.”

Unambiguous Statement on Negative SEO and Link Disavow Services

A statement by John Mueller (or anyone) can appear to conflict with prior statements when taken out of context.

That’s why I not only placed his statements into their original context but also the history going back eleven years that is a part of that discussion.

It’s clear that John Mueller feels that those selling negative SEO services and those providing disavow services outside of the intended use are “making stuff up” and “cashing in” on clients who might not “know better.”

Featured image by Shutterstock/Asier Romero



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Source Code Leak Shows New Ranking Factors to Consider

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Source Code Leak Shows New Ranking Factors to Consider

January 25, 2023, the day that Yandex—Russia’s search engine—was hacked. 

Its complete source code was leaked online. And, it might not be the first time we’ve seen hacking happen in this industry, but it is one of the most intriguing, groundbreaking events in years.

But Yandex isn’t Google, so why should we care? Here’s why we do: these two search engines are very similar in how they process technical elements of a website, and this leak just showed us the 1,922 ranking factors Yandex uses in its algorithm. 

Simply put, this information is something that we can use to our advantage to get more traffic from Google.

Yandex vs Google

As I said, a lot of these ranking factors are possibly quite similar to the signals that Google uses for search.

Yandex’s algorithm shows a RankBrain analog: MatrixNext. It also seems that they are using PageRank (almost the same way as Google does), and a lot of their text algorithms are the same. Interestingly, there are also a lot of ex-Googlers working in Yandex. 

So, reviewing these factors and understanding how they play into search rankings and traffic will provide some very useful insights into how search engines like Google work. No doubt, this new trove of information will greatly influence the SEO market in the months to come. 

That said, Yandex isn’t Google. The chances of Google having the exact same list of ranking factors is low — and Google may not even give that signal the same amount of weight that Yandex does. 

Still, it’s information that potentially will be useful for driving traffic, so make sure to take a look at them here (before it’s scrubbed from the internet forever).

An early analysis of ranking factors

Many of their ranking factors are as expected. These include:

  • Many link-related factors (e.g., age, relevancy, etc.).
  • Content relevance, age, and freshness.
  • Host reliability
  • End-user behavior signals.

Some sites also get preference (such as Wikipedia). FI_VISITS_FROM_WIKI even shows that sites that are referenced by Wikipedia get plus points. 

These are all things that we already know.

But something interesting: there were several factors that I and other SEOs found unusual, such as PageRank being the 17th highest weighted factor in Yandex, and the 19th highest weighted factor being query-document relevance (in other words, how close they match thematically). There’s also karma for likely spam hosts, based on Whois information.

Other interesting factors are the average domain ranking across queries, percent of organic traffic, and the number of unique visitors.

You can also use this Yandex Search Ranking Factor Explorer, created by Rob Ousbey, to search through the various ranking factors.

The possible negative ranking factors:

Here’s my thoughts on Yandex’s factors that I found interesting: 

FI_ADV: -0.2509284637 — this factor means having tons of adverts scattered around your page and buying PPC can affect rankings. 

FI_DATER_AGE: -0.2074373667 — this one evaluates content age, and whether your article is more than 10 years old, or if there’s no determinable date. Date metadata is important. 

FI_COMM_LINKS_SEO_HOSTS: -0.1809636391 — this can be a negative factor if you have too much commercial anchor text, particularly if the proportion of such links goes above 50%. Pay attention to anchor text distribution. I’ve written a guide on how to effectively use anchor texts if you need some help on this. 

FI_RANK_ARTROZ — outdated, poorly written text will bring your rankings down. Go through your site and give your content a refresh. FI_WORD_COUNT also shows that the number of words matter, so avoid having low-content pages.

FI_URL_HAS_NO_DIGITS, FI_NUM_SLASHES, FI_FULL_URL_FRACTION — urls shouldn’t have digits, too many slashes (too much hierarchy), and of course contain your targeted keyword.

FI_NUM_LINKS_FROM_MP — always interlink your main pages (such as your homepage or landing pages) to any other important content you want to rank. Otherwise, it can hurt your content.

FI_HOPS — reduce the crawl depth for any pages that matter to you. No important pages should be more than a few clicks away from your homepage. I recommend keeping it to two clicks, at most. 

FI_IS_UNREACHABLE — likewise, avoid making any important page an orphan page. If it’s unreachable from your homepage, it’s as good as dead in the eyes of the search engine.

The possible positive ranking factors:

FI_IS_COM: +0.2762504972 — .com domains get a boost in rankings.

FI_YABAR_HOST_VISITORS — the more traffic you get, the more ranking power your site has. The strategy of targeting smaller, easier keywords first to build up an audience before targeting harder keywords can help you build traffic.

FI_BEAST_HOST_MEAN_POS — the average position of the host for keywords affects your overall ranking. This factor and the previous one clearly show that being smart with your keyword and content planning matters. If you need help with that, check out these 5 ways to build a solid SEO strategy.

FI_YABAR_HOST_SEARCH_TRAFFIC — this might look bad but shows that having other traffic sources (such as social media, direct search, and PPC) is good for your site. Yandex uses this to determine if a real site is being run, not just some spammy SEO project.

This one includes a whole host of CTR-related factors. 

CTR ranking factors from Yandex

It’s clear that having searchable and interesting titles that drive users to check your content out is something that positively affects your rankings.

Google is rewarding sites that help end a user’s search journey (as we know from the latest mobile search updates and even the Helpful Content update). Do what you can to answer the query early on in your article. The factor “FI_VISITORS_RETURN_MONTH_SHARE“ also shows that it helps to encourage users to return to your site for more information on the topics they’re interested in. Email marketing is a handy tool here.

FI_GOOD_RATIO and FI_MANY_BAD — the percentage of “good” and “bad” backlinks on your site. Getting your backlinks from high-quality websites with traffic is important for your rankings. The factor FI_LINK_AGE also shows that adding a link-building strategy to your SEO as early as possible can help with your rankings.

FI_SOCIAL_URL_IS_VERIFIED — that little blue check has actual benefits now. Links from verified accounts have more weight.

Key Takeaway

Yandex and Google, being so similar to each other in theory, means that this data leak is something we must pay attention to. 

Several of these factors may already be common knowledge amongst SEOs, but having them confirmed by another search engine enforces how important they are for your strategy.

These initial findings, and understanding what it might mean for your website, can help you identify what to improve, what to scrap, and what to focus on when it comes to your SEO strategy. 

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Top 7 SEO Keyword Research Tools For Agencies

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Top 7 SEO Keyword Research Tools For Agencies

All successful SEO campaigns rely on accurate, comprehensive data. And that process starts with the right keyword research tools.

Sure, you can get away with collecting keyword data manually on your own. But while you may be saving the cost of a premium tool, manual keyword research costs you in ot

her ways:

  • Efficiency. Doing keyword research manually is time intensive. How much is an hour of your time worth?
  • Comprehensiveness. Historical and comprehensive data isn’t easy to get on your own. It’s too easy to miss out on vital information that will make your SEO strategy a success.
  • Competition. Keyword research tools allow you to understand not only what users are searching for but also what your competition focuses on. You can quickly identify gaps and find the best path to profitability and success.
  • Knowledge. Long-time SEO experts can craft their own keyword strategies with a careful analysis of the SERPs, but that requires years of practice, trial, and costly errors. Not everyone has that experience. And not everyone has made enough mistakes to avoid the pitfalls.

A good SEO keyword research tool eliminates much of the guesswork. Here are seven well-known and time-tested tools for SEO that will get you well on the way to dominating your market.

1. Google Keyword Planner

Screenshot from Google Keyword Planner, January 2023

Cost: Free.

Google Keyword Planner is a classic favorite.

It’s free, but because the information comes directly from the search engine, it’s reliable and trustworthy. It’s also flexible, allowing you to:

  • Identify new keywords.
  • Find related keywords.
  • Estimate the number of searches for each variation.
  • Estimate competition levels.

The tool is easy to access and available as a web application and via API, and it costs nothing; it just requires a Google Ads account.

You must also be aware of a few things when using this tool.

First, these are estimates based on historical data. That means if trends change, it won’t necessarily be reflected here.

Google Keyword Planner also can’t tell you much about the SERP itself, such as what features you can capitalize on and how the feature converts.

Because it’s part of Google Ads, PPC experience can help you gain more insights. You’ll find trends broadly across a demographic or granular level, like a city, region, or major city.

Google Keyword Planner also tends to combine data for similar keywords. So, if you want to know if [keyword near me] is better than [keywords near me], you’ll need a different tool.

Lastly, the tool uses broad definitions of words like “competition,” which doesn’t tell you who is ranking for the term, how much they’re investing to hold that ranking, or how likely you are to unseat them from their coveted top 10 rankings.

That being said, it’s an excellent tool if you just want to get a quick look or fresh ideas, if you’d like to use an API and create your own tools, or simply prefer to do the other tasks yourself.

2. Keyword.io

Cost: Free, $29 per month, and $49 per month.

If Google’s Keyword Planner isn’t quite enough, but you’re on a tight budget, Keyword.io may be the alternative you need. It also has different features.

Keyword.io uses autocomplete APIs to pull basic data for several sites and search engines, including Google, Amazon, eBay, Bing, Wikipedia, Alibaba, YouTube, Yandex, Fiverr, and Fotolia. This is perfect for niche clients and meeting specific needs.

It also has a Question/Intent Generator, an interactive topic explorer, and a topical overview tool.

In its user interface (UI), you’ll find an easy-to-use filter system and a chart that includes the competition, search volume, CPC, and a few other details about your chosen keywords.

It does have some limits, however.

You can run up to 20,000 keywords per seed with a limit of 100 requests per day (five per minute) or 1,000 requests per day (10 per minute) on its paid plans.

Its API access, related keywords tool, Google Ad data, and other features are also limited to paid accounts.

3. Semrush

Semrush's keyword toolScreenshot from Semrush

Cost: $119.95 to $449.95 per month.

In its digital marketing suite, Semrush offers a collection of six keyword tools and four competitive analysis tools with a database of more than 21 billion keywords.

You can get a full overview of the keywords you’re watching, including paid and organic search volume, intent, competition, CPC, historical data, SERP analysis, and more.

You’ll get related keywords and questions, as well as a ton of guidance, ideas, and suggestions from the Semrush Magic, Position Tracking, and Organic Traffic Insights tools.

The Keyword Planner, however, is where much of the magic happens.

The organic competitor tab makes it easy to spot content and keyword gaps. Expand them and develop clusters that will help you grab traffic and conversions.

You can also see long-tail keyword data and other data to see what Page 1 holds regarding competition, difficulty, and opportunities at a broad or hyperlocal level.

The full suite of tools is a huge benefit. Teams can collaborate, share insights, and plan.

The seamless integration allows you to integrate your data, meaning teams can easily collaborate, share insights, and strategize.

And when you’re done, it can track everything you need for a successful digital marketing strategy.

Some of the tools they offer include:

  • On-page SEO tools.
  • Competitive analysis suite.
  • Log file analysis.
  • Site auditing.
  • Content marketing tools.
  • Marketing analysis.
  • Paid advertising tools.
  • Local SEO tools.
  • Rank tracking.
  • Social media management.
  • Link-building tools.
  • Amazon marketing tools.
  • Website monetization tools.

Semrush’s best features when it comes to keyword research are its historical information and PPC metrics.

You can deep dive into campaigns and keywords to unlock the secrets of the SERPs and provide agency or in-house teams with priceless information they don’t usually access.

4. Moz Keyword Explorer

Keyword Research Tool From MozScreenshot from Moz, January 2023

Cost: Free for 10 queries per month. $99-$599 per month.

With a database of more than 500 million keywords, Moz Keyword Explorer may be a great option if you’re looking to build a strategy rather than get a quick view of the data for a few keywords.

Moz has long been a leader in the SEO space.

Constantly updating and improving its Keyword Explorer Tool and its other core services, Moz keeps up with the trends and is well known for providing SEO professionals with the latest tools. And it has done so for more than a decade.

Like the Google Keyword Tool, Moz’s keyword planning tool provides information on the difficulty and monthly search volume for terms. It also lets you drill down geographically.

When you start, you’ll find the Keyword Overview, which provides monthly search volumes, ranking difficulty, organic click-through opportunities, and an estimated priority level.

You can also:

  • Find new relevant keywords you should be targeting but aren’t.
  • Learn how your site performs for keywords.
  • Find areas where you can improve your SEO (including quick wins and larger investments).
  • Prioritize keywords for efficient strategy creation.
  • Top SERP analysis and features.
  • Competitor analysis.
  • Organic click-through rates.

Unlike the Google Keyword Tool, however, Moz supplies you with data beyond the basics. Think of it like keyword research and SERP analysis.

Moz does tend to have fewer keyword suggestions. And like Google’s Keyword Planner, it provides range estimates for search data rather than a specific number.

However, the database is updated frequently, so you can feel confident that you’re keeping up with the constant change in consumer search habits and rankings.

Plus, it’s easy to use, so teams can quickly take care of marketing tasks like finding opportunities, tracking performance, identifying problem areas, and gathering page-level details.

Moz also offers several other tools to help you get your site on track and ahead of the competition, but we really like it for its keyword research and flexibility.

5. Ahrefs Keyword Explorer

Cost: $99-$999 per month.

If I had to describe Ahrefs in one word, it would be power.

Enter a word into the search box, and you’re presented with multiple panels that can tell you everything you want to know about that keyword.

Total search volume, clicks, difficulty, the SERP features, and even a volume-difficulty distribution. And while it may look like a lot, all the information is well-organized and clearly presented.

Ahrefs provides terms in a parent-child topic format, providing the terms with context, so you can easily learn more about the terms, such as intent, while identifying overlap and keeping it all easy to find and understand.

These topics appear when you search for a related term, including the term’s ranking on the SERP, SERP result type, first-page ranking difficulty scores, and a snapshot of the user-delivered SERP. You can stay broad or narrow it all down by city or language.

Ahrefs can get a bit expensive. Agencies may find it difficult to scale if they prefer several user or client accounts, but it’s still one of the best and most reliable keyword research tools on the market.

What I really like about Ahrefs is that it’s thorough. It has one of the largest databases of all the tools available (19.2 billion keywords, 10 search engines, and 242 countries at the time of writing), and it’s regularly updated.

It makes international SEO strategies a breeze and includes data for everything from Google and Bing to YouTube and Amazon.

Plus, they clearly explain their metrics and database. And that level of transparency means trust.

Other tools in the suite include:

  • Site Explorer.
  • Site auditing.
  • Rank tracking.
  • Content Explorer.

6. SERanking

SERanking's Keyword Research ToolScreenshot from SERanking, November 2022.

Cost: $23.52-$239 per month, depending on the ranking check and payment frequency.

SERanking shines as a keyword research tool within an all-around SEO toolkit. SERanking helps you keep costs down while offering features that allow agencies to meet clients’ unique needs.

One of the first things you’ll notice when you log in is its intuitive user interface. But this tool isn’t just another pretty online tool.

Its database is robust.

SERanking’s U.S. database includes 887 million keywords, 327 million U.S. domains, and 3 trillion indexed backlinks. And this doesn’t include its expansive European and Asian databases.

The overview page provides a solid look at the data, which includes search volume, the CPC, and a difficulty score.

SERanking also provides lists of related and low-volume keywords if you need inspiration or suggestions, as well as long-tail keyword suggestions with information about SERP features, competition levels, search volume, and other details you need to know to identify new opportunities.

Of course, identifying keywords is only the start of the mystery. How do you turn keywords into conversions? SERanking provides keyword tools that help you answer this question.

You can find out who the competition is in the organic results and see who is buying search ads, as well as details like estimated traffic levels and copies of the ads they’re using.

This allows you to see what’s working, gain insights into the users searching for those terms, and generate new ideas to try.

SERanking offers agency features, such as white labeling, report builders, lead generator, and other features you’ll find helpful.

However, one of the features agencies might find most helpful in keyword research is SERanking’s bulk keyword analysis, which lets you run thousands of keywords and download full reports for all the terms that matter.

Other tools in the SERanking Suite include:

  • Keyword Rank Tracker.
  • Keyword Grouper.
  • Keyword Suggestions and Search Volume Checker.
  • Index Status checker.
  • Backlink Checker.
  • Backlink monitoring.
  • Competitive research tool.
  • Website auditing tool.
  • On-page SEO Checker.
  • Page Changes Monitor.
  • Social media analytics.
  • Traffic analysis.

SERanking is more affordable than some of the other tools out there, but it does come at a cost.

It isn’t as robust as some of its competitors and doesn’t get as granular in the same way, but it still provides the features and data you need to create a successful SEO strategy.

And with its flexible pricing, this tool is well worth considering.

7. BrightEdge Data Cube

Cost: Custom pricing model.

If you’re looking for an AI-powered digital marketing tool suite that includes a quality research tool, BrightEdge may be the right option for you.

Unlike other tools that focus on supplying you with data and ways to analyze that data, BrightEdge looks to do much of the time-consuming analysis for you.

Among its search, content, social, local, and mobile solutions, you’ll find Data Cube – an AI-backed content and keyword tool that uses natural language processing to find related topics and keywords.

You’ll also encounter DataMind, an AI that helps you find search trends, changes in consumer behaviors, and important competitor movements you need to know about.

The two together make it quick and easy to perform keyword research, build out topics, create content strategies, and strengthen your SEO plans.

Once you enter a topic or broad keyword, the tool will provide you with relevant keywords, the search volume, competition levels, keyword value, it’s universal listing, and the number of words in the phrase.

Filter the results by a custom set of criteria to narrow the list down and get the necessary information.

Once you have a list, select the ones you want to keep and download them or use them with BrightEdge’s other tools to create full strategies and gain more insights.

This could include competitor analysis, analyzing SERP features, intent, or other tasks.

For agencies that provide local SEO, BrightEdge also offers HyperLocal, which helps you find and track keywords and keyword performance at the local level.

When you’re done, give the Opportunity Forecasting and tracking tools a try to monitor your progress and provide clients with the information they care about.

Perhaps the nicest feature for agencies is its Storybuilder – a reporting tool that allows you to create rich client reports that provide clients with targeted overviews and the data they’re most interested in.

If this sounds like the right tool for you, the company gives demos, but there are a few things you should consider.

First, it only updates once per month. And while the company keeps its pricing close to the chest, this digital marketing tool suite is a significant investment. It may not be the best choice if keyword research is the only thing you need.

Secondly, while the tools are highly sophisticated and refined, there is a learning curve to get started.

You’ll also discover that there are limits on features like keyword tracking, and it can be time-consuming to set up, with some adjustments requiring technical support.

Lastly, BrightEdge’s keyword research tool doesn’t let you get too far into the weeds and doesn’t include PPC traffic.

That aside, agencies and larger brands will find that it scales easily, has a beautifully designed UI, and makes you look great to clients.

The Best Agency SEO Keyword Research Tools

This list only contains seven of the many tools available today to help you get your keyword research done to an expert degree.

But no matter how many of the tools we share with you or which ones, it’s important to understand that none are flawless.

Each tool has its own unique strengths and weaknesses, so selecting a platform is very much dependent on the types of clients that you typically work with and personal preference.

In reality, you’ll likely find that you prefer to work between a few tools to accomplish everything you’d like.

Google Keyword Planner and Keyword.io are top choices when you want a quick look at the data, or you’d like to export the data to work on elsewhere. You may even want to use this data with the other tools mentioned in this chapter.

Ahrefs, Moz, Semrush, and BrightEdge are far more robust and are better suited to agency SEO tasks.

While not free (although they offer free plans or a trial period except BrightEdge), they allow you to really dig into the search space, ultimately resulting in higher traffic, more conversions, and stronger SEO strategies. These benefits require more time and often come with a learning curve.

By far, the most important keyword research tool you have access to is you.

Keyword research is more than simply choosing the keywords with the biggest search volume or the phrase with the lowest Cost Per Click (CPC).

It’s your expertise, experience, knowledge, and insights that transform data into digital marketing you can be proud of.


Featured Image: Paulo Bobita/Search Engine Journal



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