Okay, so it’s been a few years now since Google announced the mobile-first index.
Most sites have been moved over to Google’s mobile-first index and it’s no longer a “hot” topic in SEO.
I found a tweet from John Mueller, Google Search Advocate, in 2021 that sums up the lack of focus on this topic the best:
My guess is mobile-first indexing has been ongoing for so many years now that it’s more like a “part of life” :). @maxxeight also has a neat tool for testing at https://t.co/r9gFpp95uO . Most sites are moved over, so I don’t expect giant fluctuations.
— 🐐 John 🐐 (@JohnMu) March 12, 2021
Going with that mentality that mobile-first indexing is a “part of life” (which I wholeheartedly agree with), as an SEO, it is helpful to know some of the history and where we are today.
For instance, since the announcement of the mobile-first index years ago, Google has now also placed emphasis on Page Experience, which is a ranking factor and very much incorporates mobile.
Before we jump into that topic, let’s first get into the beginnings of the mobile-first index and what we know so far.
Then, we’ll get into what Google is looking for in mobile usability, what it means to have an identical experience on mobile and desktop, how you can meet Google’s expectations of mobile-first best practices, and more.
Google’s Mobile-First Indexing
No, There Are Not Two Indexes
Google has stated that there isn’t a separate mobile-first index.
Instead, mobile-first indexing means Google primarily uses the mobile version of the webpage for ranking and indexing purposes.
In 2018, Google explained that with mobile-first indexing, the URL of the mobile-friendly version of your site is indexed.
If your website has separate mobile and desktop URLs, Google shows the mobile URL to mobile users and the desktop URL to desktop users.
Regardless, the indexed content will be the mobile version.
Shifting To The Mobile-First Index
At the end of 2017, Google announced that it would start slowly rolling out mobile-first indexing.
By March 2018, Google stated that they were expanding the rollout and instructed websites to prepare.
Fast forward three years later and not all websites have been switched over to the mobile index.
In June 2020, Google stated that while most websites were set to mobile indexing, there were still many that were not.
Google announced at that point that instead of switching in September 2020, it would delay mobile-first indexing until March 2021.
Google cited a number of issues encountered with sites as a reason for delaying the rollout, including problems with robots meta tags, lazy-loading, blocked assets, primary content, and mobile images and videos.
Eventually, Google removed its own self-imposed deadline in November 2021 explaining that there were still sites that were not yet in the mobile-first index because they weren’t ready to be moved over.
Google went on to say that the lack of readiness was due to several unexpected challenges faced by these websites.
According to Google, “because of these difficulties, we’ve decided to leave the timeline open for the last steps of mobile-first indexing.”
Google also stated that “we currently don’t have a specific final date for the move to mobile-first indexing and want to be thoughtful about the remaining bigger steps in that direction.”
Mobile-First Indexing As The Default For New Websites
If your website was published after July 1, 2019, mobile-first indexing is enabled by default.
Google made this announcement in May 2019 and explained that the change applied to websites that were previously unknown to Google Search.
The announcement went into detail about why Google would make mobile-first indexing the default for new websites.
According to Google, after crawling the web with a smartphone Googlebot over the years, they concluded that new websites are typically ready for this type of crawling.
Mobile Usability And Mobile-First Indexing Are Not Synonyms
In January 2019, Mueller explained that if your content does not pass the mobile usability test, it could still be moved to mobile-first indexing.
Even if Search Console’s “mobile usability” report showed that your site had valid URLs, it didn’t mean those pages were ready for mobile-first indexing.
Mobile usability is “completely separate” from mobile-first indexing, according to Mueller. Consequently, pages could be enabled for mobile-first indexing even if they were not considered usable on a mobile device.
You can hear Mueller’s explanation in the video below, starting at the 41:12 mark:
“So, first off, again mobile usability is completely separate from mobile-first indexing.
A site can or cannot be usable from a mobile point of view, but it can still contain all of the content that we need for mobile-first indexing.
An extreme example, if you take something like a PDF file, then on mobile that would be terrible to navigate. The links will be hard to click, the text will be hard to read.
But all of the text is still there, and we could perfectly index that with mobile-first indexing.
Mobile usability is not the same as mobile-first indexing.”
In summary, mobile-friendliness and mobile-responsive layouts are not mandatory for mobile-first indexing.
Since pages without mobile versions still work on a mobile device, they were eligible for indexing.
The Mobile & Desktop Experiences Should Be The Same
Google added to their mobile-first indexing best practices in January 2020, and the big emphasis was on providing an identical experience on mobile and desktop.
Matt Southern provided a great summarized list of what Google meant by the same experience:
- Ensuring Googlebot can access and render mobile and desktop page content and resources.
- Making sure the mobile site contains the same content as the desktop site.
- Using the same meta robots tags on the mobile and desktop site.
- Using the same headings on the mobile site and desktop site.
- Making sure the mobile and desktop sites have the same structured data.
Google warns that if you purposefully serve less content on the mobile version of a page than the desktop version, you will likely experience a drop in traffic.
The reason? According to Google, they won’t be able to get as much information from the page as before (when the desktop version was used).
Instead, Google recommends that the primary content on the mobile site be the same as on the desktop site. Google even suggests using the same headings on the mobile version.
To drive this point home, even more, Google mentions in its mobile-indexing documentation that only the content on the mobile site is used in indexing.
Therefore, you should be sure that your mobile site has the same content as your desktop site.
Mueller reiterated this fact during Pubcon Pro Virtual 2020 with the following comment:
“…we’re now almost completely indexing the web using a smart phone Googlebot, which matches a lot more what users would actually see when they search.
And one of the things that we noticed that people are still often confused about is with regards to, like if I only have something on desktop, surely Google will still see that and it will also take into account the mobile content.
But actually, it is the case that we will only index the mobile content in the future.
So when a site is shifted over to mobile first indexing, we will drop everything that’s only on the desktop site. We will essentially ignore that.
…anything that you want to have indexed, it needs to be on the mobile site.”
You can read more about Mueller’s comments here: Google Mobile-First Index – Zero Desktop Content March 2021.
Google’s Mobile-First Indexing Best Practices
Google provides a comprehensive list of best practices for mobile-first indexing “to make sure that your users have the best experience.”
Most of the information Google shares as best practices is not really new.
Instead, the list is a compilation of various recommendations and advice that Google has provided elsewhere over the years.
In addition to the list of recommendations above about creating the same experience on mobile and desktop, other best practices include:
- Making sure the error page status is the same on the mobile and desktop sites.
- Avoiding fragment URLs in the mobile site.
- Making sure the desktop pages have equivalent mobile pages.
- Verifying both the mobile and desktop sites in Search Console.
- Checking hreflang links on separate mobile URLs.
- Making sure the mobile site can handle an increased crawl rate.
- Making sure the robot.txt directives are the same on the mobile and desktop sites.
Google offers an entire section focused on suggestions for separate URLs.
The “Troubleshooting” section of the best practices document is also worth checking out.
It includes common errors that can either cause your site to not be ready for mobile-first indexing or could lead to a drop in rankings once your site is enabled.
Note that Mueller explained nothing has changed with mobile-first indexing related to sites with separate mobile URLs using rel-canonical. Mueller recommends keeping the annotations the same.
Google will use the mobile URL as canonical even if the rel-canonical points to the desktop URL.
Mueller created a helpful graphic that shows a “before and after” indexing process for desktop and m-dot URLs.
I occasionally get questions about this, so just to be clear: if you have separate mobile URLs (with rel-alternate / rel-canonical links), with mobile first indexing you *don’t* need to change anything. Keep the same annotations. No changes needed. pic.twitter.com/nGPucxPXWn
— 🐝 johnmu.csv (personal) 🐝 (@JohnMu) January 18, 2021
One last note about best practices.
In Google’s mobile-first indexing best practices documentation, it states, “While it’s not required to have a mobile version of your pages to have your content included in Google’s search results, it is very strongly recommended.”
While it might seem obvious to have a mobile version, I have gotten pushback when speaking about mobile-first.
At one conference, an attendee asked during my session if having a mobile version of the site was necessary if no one was coming from a mobile device.
He kept emphasizing “no one.” My answer? Do it anyway.
Not only does Google very highly recommend it, but visitors, especially repeat visitors, might not be using mobile devices because of the poor experience.
We need to focus not just on getting pages ranked in search results, but also on ensuring that the visitor has a good experience once on the page.
Page Experience Update + Mobile-First
The Page Experience update also needs to be part of the conversation.
The Page Experience update was officially released for mobile devices in 2021 and includes measurement signals regarding how visitors perceive their experience of interacting with your web page.
According to Google, this perception goes beyond just the information value provided on the page. Therefore, Google takes into account loading performance, visual stability, and interactivity of the page, which is known as Core Web Vitals.
This factor took into account text readability, spacing of tap targets, and unplayable content.
A year later, Google announced that it was strengthening this ranking factor.
Originally, the mobile-friendly update was meant to apply to mobile search results only, but now with the mobile-first index, it applies overall.
Let’s get back to Core Web Vitals.
Core Web Vitals are factors Google considers important in a user’s overall experience on the webpage, including Largest Contentful Paint (LCP), First Input Delay (FID), and Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS).
Each of these factors contributes to the user experience and is scored as “Good,” “Needs Improvement,” or “Poor.”
Now, let’s see how this relates to mobile-first indexing.
There is a lot of overlap between Core Web Vitals and the mobile-first index because both look at how a page performs on a mobile device.
To tie this together, you can reference one of the mobile-first indexing best practices provided by Google, which is to ensure your mobile site loads fast.
Google offers specific recommendations, including using Google PageSpeed Insights and focusing on the “Speed” section. Note that there are other tools you can use too to test speed, such as GTMetrix and WebPageTest.
Martin Splitt, who works in Google’s Developer Relations, was asked in May 2021 if the Page Experience Update was going to roll out on mobile and desktop pages at the same time.
His response was that it would start with mobile pages first, which it did in August 2021. It would be rolled out on desktop pages in February 2022.
It was also made clear that Google would assess mobile pages separately from desktop pages, meaning there is no aggregate score of mobile and desktop (at least not for now).
You can access both the desktop and mobile Page Experience reports in Google Search Console.
Just as you need to pay attention to the desktop and mobile versions of your site for the mobile-first index, you also need to for the Page Experience update.
Check out Core Web Vitals: A Complete Guide for detailed information about this update and how to implement fixes.
One last note before we move on: When Google scores a page, it will test the speed, stability, and usability of the page version that the user ends up seeing.
Here’s where things get tricky. For Core Web Vitals, if you have an AMP version, Google will use it for page experience scoring (i.e., speed, quality, and usability). The mobile version would not be used.
Yet, the mobile version is what would be crawled for the mobile-first index.
So, to sum it up, the AMP version would be used for Core Web Vitals scoring and the mobile version would be used for mobile-first indexing.
Read Google Mobile-First Indexing and Scoring of Sites with Mobile and AMP Versions for the full explanation from Mueller.
Improve Performance In Google’s Mobile-First Index
Here is a consolidated list of items to check that build on some of the best practices already provided.
1. If You Have Multiple Versions, Make Sure Important Content Is Shown On All
Make sure your important content – including structured data, internal links, images, and so on – is on the mobile version of your website, too.
Google even warns in its mobile-indexing best practices that if you have less content on your mobile page than the desktop page, you will experience some traffic loss when your site is moved to mobile-first indexing,
Read more here: Google: Mobile-Friendly Does Not Mean Ready For Mobile-First Index.
2. Let Googlebot Access And Render Your Content
Google recommends that you use the same meta robots tags on the mobile site, avoid lazy-loading primary content (Googlebot can’t load content that requires user interaction), and allow Googlebot to crawl your resources.
3. Verify Structured Data
Double-check that your structured data is the same on both the desktop and mobile versions of your website and also ensure the URLs are correct.
4. Improve Mobile Page Speed
Page speed has been a factor to consider for a long time and it is even more important with the mobile-first index and Page Experience update.
Advanced Core Web Vitals: A Technical SEO Guide is packed with how-to advice on identifying and addressing speed-related factors that impact Core Web Vitals and mobile-first indexing.
5. Keep An Eye On Mobile Errors
As with most SEO work, getting a site to perform well in the mobile-first index is not a “one and done” task. You need to be closely monitoring Search Console so that you can identify and fix mobile errors.
Make it a habit to regularly view the “mobile usability” and “Core Web Vitals” reports in Search Console.
Keep Reading: Google’s Changelog On Mobile-First Indexing
The changelog in Google’s mobile-first indexing best practices gives a quick recap of the changes since 2016.
As you can tell, there is a lot to know and keep in mind on mobile-first indexing.
Make sure you are staying on top of best practices and monitoring your website’s performance to succeed in the world of mobile-first indexing.
Featured Image: DisobeyArt/Shutterstock
Link Building Outreach for Noobs
Link outreach is the process of contacting other websites to ask for a backlink to your website.
For example, here’s an outreach email we sent as part of a broken link building campaign:
In this guide, you’ll learn how to get started with link outreach and how to get better results.
Link outreach is a four-step process:
No matter how amazing your email is, you won’t get responses if it’s not relevant to the person you’re contacting. This makes finding the right person to contact equally as important as crafting a great email.
Who to reach out to depends on your link building strategy. Here’s a table summarizing who you should find for the following link building tactics:
As a quick example, here’s how you would find sites likely to accept your guest posts:
- Go to Content Explorer
- Enter a related topic and change the dropdown to “In title”
- Filter for English results
- Filter for results with 500+ words
- Go to the “Websites” tab
This shows you the websites getting the most search traffic to content about your target topic.
From here, you’d want to look at the Authors column to prioritize sites with multiple authors, as this suggests that they may accept guest posts.
If you want to learn how to find prospects for different link building tactics, I recommend reading the resource below.
Once you’ve curated a list of people to reach out to, you’ll need to find their contact information.
Typically, this is their email address. The easiest way to find this is to use an email lookup tool like Hunter.io. All you need to do is enter the first name, last name, and domain of your target prospect. Hunter will find their email for you:
To prevent tearing your hair from searching for hundreds of emails one-by-one, most email lookup tools allow you to upload a CSV list of names and domains. Hunter also has a Google Sheets add-on to make this even easier.
Knowing who to reach out to is half the battle won. The next ‘battle’ to win is actually getting the person to care.
Think about it. For someone to link to you, the following things need to happen:
- They must read your email
- They must be convinced to check out your content
- They must open the target page and complete all administrative tasks (log in to their CMS, find the link, etc.)
- They must link to you or swap out links
That’s a lot of steps. Most people don’t care enough to do this. That’s why there’s more to link outreach than just writing the perfect email (I’ll cover this in the next section).
For now, let’s look at how to craft an amazing email. To do that, you need to answer three questions:
- Why should they open your email? — The subject line needs to capture attention in a busy inbox.
- Why should they read your email? — The body needs to be short and hook the reader in.
- Why should they link to you? — Your pitch needs to be compelling: What’s in it for them and why is your content link-worthy?
For example, here’s how we wrote our outreach email based on the three questions:
Here’s another outreach email we wrote, this time for a campaign building links to our content marketing statistics post:
People are busy and their inboxes are crowded. They might have missed your email or read it and forgot.
Solve this by sending a short polite follow-up.
One is good enough. There’s no need to spam the other person with countless follow-up emails hoping for a different outcome. If they’re not interested, they’re not interested.
In theory, link outreach is simply finding the right person and asking them for a link. But there is more to it than that. I’ll explore some additional tips to help improve your outreach.
Some SEOs swear by the sniper approach to link outreach. That is: Each email is 100% customized to the person you are targeting.
But our experience taught us that over-personalization isn’t better. We ran link-building campaigns that sent hyper-personalized emails and got no results.
It makes logical sense: Most people just don’t do favors for strangers. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen—it does—but rarely will your amazing, hyper-personalized pitch change someone’s mind.
So, don’t spend all your time tweaking your email just to eke out minute gains.
My first reaction seeing this email is to delete it:
Why? Because it’s a template I’ve seen many times in my inbox. And so have many others.
Another reason: Not only did he reference a post I wrote six years ago, it was a guest post, i.e., I do not have control over the site. This shows why finding the right prospects is important. He even got my name wrong.
Templates do work, but bad ones don’t. You can’t expect to copy-paste one from a blog post and hope to achieve success.
A better approach is to use the scoped shotgun approach: use a template but with dynamic variables.
This can help achieve a decent level of personalization so your email isn’t spammy. But it doesn’t spend all your time writing customized emails for every prospect.
This is why you need to send more emails. If you run the numbers, it just makes sense:
- 100 outreach emails with a 1% success rate = 1 link
- 1,000 outreach emails with a 1% success rate = 10 links
I’m not saying to spam everyone. But if you want more high-quality links, you need to reach out to more high-quality prospects.
A few years ago, we published a link building case study:
- 515 outreach emails
- 17.55% reply rate
- 5.75% conversion rate
Pretty good results! Except the top comments were about how we only succeeded because of our brand:
It’s true; we acknowledge it. But I think the takeaway here isn’t that we should repeat the experiment with an unknown website. The takeaway is that more SEOs should be focused on building a brand.
We’re all humans—we rely on heuristics to make judgments. In this case, it’s branding. If your brand is recognizable, it solves the “stranger” problem—people know you, like you, and are more likely to link.
The question then: How do you build a brand?
I’d like to quote our Chief Marketing Officer Tim Soulo here:
What is a strong brand if not a consistent output of high-quality work that people enjoy? Ahrefs’ content team has been publishing top-notch content for quite a few years on our blog and YouTube channel. Slowly but surely, we were able to reach tens of millions of people and instill the idea that “Ahrefs’ content = quality content”—which now clearly works to our advantage.
Ahrefs was once unknown, too. So, don’t be disheartened if no one is willing to link to you today. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Trust the process and create incredible content. Show it to people. You’ll build your brand and reputation that way.
Outreach starts before you even ask for a link.
Think about it: People don’t do favors for strangers but they will for friends. If you want to build and maintain relationships in the industry, way before you start any link outreach campaigns.
Don’t just rely on emails either. Direct messages (DMs) on LinkedIn and X, phone calls—they all work. For example, Patrick Stox, our Product Advisor, used to have a list of contacts he regularly reached out to. He’d hop on calls and even send fruit baskets.
In its most fundamental form, link outreach is really about finding more people and sending more emails.
Doing this well is all about building systems and automations.
We have a few videos on how to build a team and a link-building system, so I recommend that you check them out.
Good link outreach is indistinguishable from good business development.
In business development, your chances of success will increase if you:
- Pitch the right partners
- Have a strong brand
- Have prior relationships with them
- Pitch the right collaboration ideas
The same goes for link outreach. Follow the principles above and you will see more success for your link outreach campaigns.
Any questions or comments? Let me know on
Research Shows Tree Of Thought Prompting Better Than Chain Of Thought
Researchers discovered a way to defeat the safety guardrails in GPT4 and GPT4-Turbo, unlocking the ability to generate harmful and toxic content, essentially beating a large language model with another large language model.
The researchers discovered that the use of tree-of-thought (ToT)reasoning to repeat and refine a line of attack was useful for jailbreaking another large language model.
What they found is that the ToT approach was successful against GPT4, GPT4-Turbo, and PaLM-2, using a remarkably low number of queries to obtain a jailbreak, on average less than thirty queries.
Tree Of Thoughts Reasoning
A Google research paper from around May 2022 discovered Chain of Thought Prompting.
Chain of Thought (CoT) is a prompting strategy used on a generative AI to make it follow a sequence of steps in order to solve a problem and complete a task. The CoT method is often accompanied with examples to show the LLM how the steps work in a reasoning task.
So, rather than just ask a generative AI like Midjourney or ChatGPT to do a task, the chain of thought method instructs the AI how to follow a path of reasoning that’s composed of a series of steps.
Tree of Thoughts (ToT) reasoning, sometimes referred to as Tree of Thought (singular) is essentially a variation and improvement of CoT, but they’re two different things.
Tree of Thoughts reasoning is similar to CoT. The difference is that rather than training a generative AI to follow a single path of reasoning, ToT is built on a process that allows for multiple paths so that the AI can stop and self-assess then come up with alternate steps.
Tree of Thoughts reasoning was developed in May 2023 in a research paper titled Tree of Thoughts: Deliberate Problem Solving with Large Language Models (PDF)
The research paper describes Tree of Thought:
“…we introduce a new framework for language model inference, Tree of Thoughts (ToT), which generalizes over the popular Chain of Thought approach to prompting language models, and enables exploration over coherent units of text (thoughts) that serve as intermediate steps toward problem solving.
ToT allows LMs to perform deliberate decision making by considering multiple different reasoning paths and self-evaluating choices to decide the next course of action, as well as looking ahead or backtracking when necessary to make global choices.
Our experiments show that ToT significantly enhances language models’ problem-solving abilities…”
Tree Of Attacks With Pruning (TAP)
This new method of jailbreaking large language models is called Tree of Attacks with Pruning, TAP. TAP uses two LLMs, one for attacking and the other for evaluating.
TAP is able to outperform other jailbreaking methods by significant margins, only requiring black-box access to the LLM.
A black box, in computing, is where one can see what goes into an algorithm and what comes out. But what happens in the middle is unknown, thus it’s said to be in a black box.
Tree of thoughts (TAP) reasoning is used against a targeted LLM like GPT-4 to repetitively try different prompting, assess the results, then if necessary change course if that attempt is not promising.
This is called a process of iteration and pruning. Each prompting attempt is analyzed for the probability of success. If the path of attack is judged to be a dead end, the LLM will “prune” that path of attack and begin another and better series of prompting attacks.
This is why it’s called a “tree” in that rather than using a linear process of reasoning which is the hallmark of chain of thought (CoT) prompting, tree of thought prompting is non-linear because the reasoning process branches off to other areas of reasoning, much like a human might do.
The attacker issues a series of prompts, the evaluator evaluates the responses to those prompts and then makes a decision as to what the next path of attack will be by making a call as to whether the current path of attack is irrelevant or not, plus it also evaluates the results to determine the likely success of prompts that have not yet been tried.
What’s remarkable about this approach is that this process reduces the number of prompts needed to jailbreak GPT-4. Additionally, a greater number of jailbreaking prompts are discovered with TAP than with any other jailbreaking method.
The researchers observe:
“In this work, we present Tree of Attacks with Pruning (TAP), an automated method for generating jailbreaks that only requires black-box access to the target LLM.
TAP utilizes an LLM to iteratively refine candidate (attack) prompts using tree-of-thoughts reasoning until one of the generated prompts jailbreaks the target.
Crucially, before sending prompts to the target, TAP assesses them and prunes the ones unlikely to result in jailbreaks.
Using tree-of-thought reasoning allows TAP to navigate a large search space of prompts and pruning reduces the total number of queries sent to the target.
In empirical evaluations, we observe that TAP generates prompts that jailbreak state-of-the-art LLMs (including GPT4 and GPT4-Turbo) for more than 80% of the prompts using only a small number of queries. This significantly improves upon the previous state-of-the-art black-box method for generating jailbreaks.”
Tree Of Thought (ToT) Outperforms Chain Of Thought (CoT) Reasoning
Another interesting conclusion reached in the research paper is that, for this particular task, ToT reasoning outperforms CoT reasoning, even when adding pruning to the CoT method, where off topic prompting is pruned and discarded.
ToT Underperforms With GPT 3.5 Turbo
The researchers discovered that ChatGPT 3.5 Turbo didn’t perform well with CoT, revealing the limitations of GPT 3.5 Turbo. Actually, GPT 3.5 performed exceedingly poorly, dropping from 84% success rate to only a 4.2% success rate.
This is their observation about why GPT 3.5 underperforms:
“We observe that the choice of the evaluator can affect the performance of TAP: changing the attacker from GPT4 to GPT3.5-Turbo reduces the success rate from 84% to 4.2%.
The reason for the reduction in success rate is that GPT3.5-Turbo incorrectly determines that the target model is jailbroken (for the provided goal) and, hence, preemptively stops the method.
As a consequence, the variant sends significantly fewer queries than the original method…”
What This Mean For You
While it’s amusing that the researchers use the ToT method to beat an LLM with another LLM, it also highlights the usefulness of ToT for generating surprising new directions in prompting in order to achieve higher levels of output.
- TL/DR Takeaways:
- Tree of Thought prompting outperformed Chain of Thought methods
- GPT 3.5 worked significantly poorly in comparison to GPT 4 in ToT
- Pruning is a useful part of a prompting strategy
- Research showed that ToT is superior to CoT in an intensive reasoning task like jailbreaking an LLM
Read the original research paper:
Featured Image by Shutterstock/THE.STUDIO
The Lean Guide (With Template)
A competitive analysis (or market competitive analysis) is a process where you collect information about competitors to gain an edge over them and get more customers.
However, the problem is that “traditional” competitive analysis is overkill for most businesses — it requires impractical data and takes too long to complete (and it’s very expensive if you choose to outsource).
A solution to that is a lean approach to the process — and that’s what this guide is about.
In other words, we’ll focus on the most important data you need to answer the question: “Why would people choose them over you?”. No boring theory, outtakes from marketing history, or spending hours digging up nice-to-have information.
In this guide, you will find:
- A real-life competitive analysis example.
- Templates: one for input data and one for a slide deck to present your analysis to others.
- Step-by-step instructions.
Our template consists of two documents: a slide deck and a spreadsheet.
The Slide deck is the output document. It will help you present the analysis to your boss or your teammates.
The spreadsheet is the input document. You will find tables that act as the data source for the charts from the slide deck, as well as a prompt to use in ChatGPT to help you with user review research.
We didn’t focus on aesthetics here; every marketer likes to do slide decks their own way, so feel free to edit everything you’ll find there.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about the process. The template consists of these six tasks:
- Identify your direct competitors.
- Compare share of voice.
- Compare pricing and features.
- Find strong and weak points based on reviews.
- Compare purchasing convenience.
- Present conclusions.
Going forward, we’ll explain why these steps matter and show how to complete them.
Direct competitors are businesses that offer a similar solution to the same audience.
They matter a lot more than indirect competitors (i.e. businesses with different products but targeting the same audience as you) because you’ll be compared with them often (e.g. in product reviews and rankings). Plus, your audience is more likely to gravitate towards them when considering different options.
Our basis for the analysis was Landingi, a SaaS for building landing pages (we chose that company randomly). So in our case, we found these 3 direct competitors.
Look at keyword overlap
Keyword overlap uncovers sites that target the same organic keywords as you. Some sites will compete with you for traffic but not for customers (e.g. G2 may share some keywords with Landingi but they’re a different business). However, in many cases, you will find direct competitors just by looking at this marketing channel.
- Go to Ahrefs’ Site Explorer and enter your site’s address.
- Scroll down to Organic competitors.
- Visit the URLs to pick 3 – 5 direct competitors.
To double-check the choice of competitors, we also looked at who was bidding for search ads on Google.
See who’s advertising
If someone is spending money to show ads for keywords related to what you do, that’s a strong indication they are a direct competitor.
- Go to Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer.
- Type in a few broad keywords related to your niche, like “landing page builder” or “landing page tool”.
- Go to the Ads history report.
- Visit the sites that have a high presence of ads in the SERPs (Search Engine Result Pages).
Once you’re done checking both reports, write down competitors in the deck.
You can also take screenshots of the reports and add them to your deck to show the supporting data for your argument.
Share of voice is a measure of your reach in any given channel compared to competitors.
A bigger share of voice (SOV) means that your competitors are more likely to reach your audience. In other words, they may be promoting more effectively than you.
In our example, we found that Landingi’s SOV was the lowest in both of these channels.
And social media:
Here’s how we got that data using Ahrefs and Brand24.
Organic share of voice
Before we start, make sure you have a project set up in Ahrefs’ Rank Tracker.
- Go to Ahrefs’ Competitive Analysis and enter your and your competitors’s sites as shown below.
- On the next screen, set the country with the most important market for your business and set the filters like this:
- Select keywords that sound most relevant to your business (even if you don’t rank for them yet) and Add them to Rank Tracker.
- Go to Rank Tracker, open your project, and look for Competitors/Overview. This report will uncover automatically calculated Share of Voice.
- Add the numbers in corresponding cells inside the sheet and paste the graph inside the slide deck.
It’s normal that the numbers don’t add up to 100%. SOV is calculated by including sites that compete with you in traffic but are not your direct competitors, e.g. blogs.
Social share of voice
We can also measure our share of voice across social media channels using Brand24.
- Go to Brand24.
- Start a New project for your brand and each competitor. Use the competitors’ brand name as the keyword to monitor.
- Go to the Comparison report and compare your project with competitors.
- Take a screenshot of the SOV charts and paste them into the slide deck. Make sure the charts are set to “social media”.
Consumers often choose solutions that offer the best value for money — simple as that. And that typically comes down to two things:
- Whether you have the features they care about. We’ll use all features available across all plans to see how likely the product is to satisfy user needs.
- How much they will need to pay. Thing is, the topic of pricing is tricky: a) when assessing affordability, people often focus on the least expensive option available and use it as a benchmark, b) businesses in the SaaS niche offer custom plans. So to make things more practical, we’ll compare the cheapest plans, but feel free to run this analysis across all pricing tiers.
After comparing our example company to competitors, we found that it goes head-to-head with Unbounce as the most feature-rich solution on the market.
Here’s how we got that data.
- Note down your and your competitors’ product features. One of the best places to get this information is pricing pages. Some brands even publish their own competitor comparisons — you may find them helpful too.
- While making the list, place a “1” in the cell corresponding to the brand that offers the solution.
- Enter the price of the cheapest plan (excluding free plans).
- Once finished, copy the chart and paste it inside the deck.
User reviews can show incredibly valuable insight into your competitors’ strong and weak points. Here’s why this matters:
- Improving on what your competitors’ customers appreciate could help you attract similar customers and possibly win some over.
- Dissatisfaction with competitors is a huge opportunity. Some businesses are built solely to fix what other companies can’t fix.
Here’s a sample from our analysis:
And here’s how we collated the data using ChatGPT. Important: repeat the process for each competitor.
- Open ChatGPT and enter the prompt from the template.
- Go to G2, Capterra, or Trustpilot and find a competitor’s reviews with ratings from 2 – 4 (i.e. one rating above the lowest and one below the highest possible). Reason:
businesses sometimes solicit five-star reviews, whereas dissatisfied customers tend to leave one-star reviews in a moment of frustration. The most actionable feedback usually comes in between.
- Copy and paste the content of the reviews into ChatGPT (don’t hit enter yet).
- Once you’re done pasting all reviews, hit enter in ChatGPT to run the analysis.
- Paste the graphs into the deck. If you want the graphs to look different, don’t hesitate to ask the AI.
There’s a faster alternative, but it’s a bit more advanced.
Instead of copy-pasting, you can use a scraping tool like this one to get all reviews at once. The downside here is that not all review sources will a have scraping tool available.
Lastly, we’ll see how easy it is to actually buy your products, and compare the experience to your competitors.
This is a chance to simplify your checkout process, and even learn from any good habits your competitors have adopted.
For example, we found that our sample company had probably nothing to worry about in this area — they ticked almost all of the boxes.
Here’s how to complete this step:
- Place a “1” if you or any of your competitors offer convenience features listed in the template.
- Once done, copy the chart and paste it into the deck.
This is the part of the presentation where you sum up all of your findings and suggest a course of action.
Here are two examples:
- Landingi had the lowest SOV in the niche, and that is never good. So the conclusion might be to go a level deeper and do an SEO competitive analysis, and to increase social media presence by creating more share-worthy content like industry surveys, design/CRO tips, or in-house data studies.
- Although the brand had a very high purchasing convenience score, during the analysis we found that there was a $850 gap between the monthly full plan and the previous tier. The conclusion here might be to offer a custom plan (like competitors do) to fill that gap.
We encourage you to take your time here and think about what would make the most sense for your business.
It’s good to be specific in your conclusions, but don’t go too deep. Competitive analysis concerns many aspects of the business, so it’s best to give other departments a chance to chime in. Just because your competitors have a few unique features doesn’t necessarily mean you need to build them too.
A competitive analysis is one of the most fruitful exercises in marketing. It can show you areas for improvement, give ideas for new features, and help you discover gaps in your strategy. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that it’s fundamental to running a successful business.
Just don’t forget to balance “spying” on your competitors with innovation. After all, you probably don’t want to become an exact copy of someone else’s brand.
In other words, use competitive analysis to keep up with your competitors, but don’t let that erase what’s unique about your brand or make you forget your big vision.
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