7 Moves to Reverse Engineer Your Competitor’s Digital Marketing Game Plan

The thing about the Web is that it won’t let you settle down. Unless you are the only business with a website in ‘Timbuktu’, the chances are that your online market is a densely saturated space, with new competitors popping up every day. I bet you often hear this, either from your boss or from the client, “So what’s it that our competitors are doing well which we don’t? Why don’t you send me a report by Monday?” While, there is no silver bullet to identify the rival’s exact game plan, one thing you can most certainly indulge yourself into is to reverse engineer it. Let me define reverse engineering for you first – It is the process involving detailed examination of the composition of your competitor’s campaign by disseminating each element, but from the finish all the way back to the scratch. What this exercise leads to is the recreation of the competitor’s web strategy, albeit adapted to the specifics of your business. So, before we dive into it, I’d like to share a personal quote:

“If you can’t overpower your competition, outpace it – not necessarily by doing what they aren’t doing at present, but learning what they are and then do it like they would’ve never imagined it to be.”

Also, before we get started, I should clarify here that this is not a silver bullet to the top spot, because like it or not, your competition is doing the exact same thing. The data is out there for the taking for everyone on the web. Oh hey, don’t get disheartened! The trick lies in how effectively you can string the bits of what you learn and turn it into a robust digital marketing profile. And my advice is, it’s probably not a bad idea to reverse engineer your own strategy to evaluate the areas of improvement.

Ready to snatch their customers right beneath their noses? Alright then, here goes…

1. First of all, know your competition well.

Do you really know who you’re up against? If you’re not sure, then start by finding out who your top three competitors are. Just Google’em up. That’s a sureshot headstart. Look at what keywords they’re ranking for. Expand your research by also looking at Bing and Yahoo. How do you know if they deserve the first three spots in the search results? Check their: a) site authority, b) domain age, c) domains constructing their root linking profile. Open Site Explorer by Moz or SEMRush can come handy here. But, you can use any tool of your preference really.

It’s one of the most useful and yet extremely straightforward tool. Simply type in the URL and get started analyzing the link profile, page metrics and social metrics.

The information is divided into 8 sections, namely: Inbound links, just-discovered links, top pages, linking domains, anchor text, compare link metrics, link opportunities, and advanced reports.

Other than the direct competitors, also actively look out for two more types of competitors:

1) Secondary competitors – Say you sell smartphones. In this case, your indirect completion would mean the local supermarket, which also offers electronic goods – including smartphones – alongside the everyday staples as well as cosmetic and household products. Your keyword analysis should lead you to your indirect competition.

2) Apparent competitors – These are out there, but may not be upfront. They may not sell the exact same product as yours, but would steal your customer’s dedicated attention to your product. For example, if you sell digital camera, your perceived competition is a smartphone that offers high resolution camera option alongside calling and other essential

So, try to be as extensive as you can in identifying your current and potential competitors and then narrow the list down to top three, as mentioned above.

2. Keep track of your competition.

Once you’ve identified your top competitors across all categories as explained in the previous step, create your own customized competition-tracking dashboard. No, I don’t mean to build a software or tool or buy an expensive third party solution. It’s rather simple. Just, find your way to organize the data you find for each competitor so that you can revisit it at any given point in time. It can be an Excel Spreadsheet, if that’s what you’re comfortable with. So, here’s what you will be archiving:

  • A track record of their activities over time
  • Uniquely distinctive game plan/s you’ve identified for each of your competitor
  • A profile of their existing and prospective customers
  • Creating a social persona for every competitor
  • Any and everything in between the above mentioned things (the intrinsic findings that you come across when looking for substantially primary differentiators)

And from this comprehensive list, create bit-sized placards for each competitor. In there, place the most important three to five points. Feel free to replace the points when you find more important ones from your ongoing research.

3. Time to dissect their websites.

Yes, agreed. It could be a daunting task understanding someone else’s website, in terms of how it’s built. It’s like looking at a mobile phone and then trying to take each of its part apart, one piece at a time. Just like your own website, even your competitor’s website has some coding ‘Bermuda Triangle’, which no matter how hard you try, will just be beyond your understanding. It could be a well-thought-out plan or simply a patch-up work. Plus, you can easily get overwhelmed and hence fatigued by hundreds and thousands of lines of codes. So, the first step, ideally, is to unwrap the website’s structure. Study and understand the navigation pattern and compare it to your own site. The main points of difference should be noted into your competitor dashboard we discussed in the step one above. It’s like taking an x-ray view of their site. The most common points to consider are the website’s browser and device related variations. Check responsiveness and identify the areas of opportunities. Don’t ignore their faults. Rather jot them down too and take them back to your website to see that you are not making a similar mistake. Next, wrap open their coding. Now mind you, they could’ve compressed the website through CSS and JavaScript. Here, tools like Uminify can come handy.

So, once you have converted the long codes into small comprehendible bits, separate them into small unique parts and study accordingly. To uncover the technologies used for the competitor’s website, use tools like Wappalyzer or UnCSS or CSS Remove and Combine to investigate further.

Wappalyzer is essentially a browser extension available for both Chrome and Firefox. It helps you dissect the technologies used for a website such as web server, programming language, framework, OS, analytics and much more.

UnCSS helps you get rid of the unwanted and unused CSS from your website stylesheet. First, the HTML files are loaded by PhantomJS and JS is executed. All stylesheets are parsed by PostCSS. Then, document.querySelector filters out selectors that are not found in HTML files. And finally the remaining rules are converted back to CSS. (process as defined on UnCSS)

CSS remove and combine tool as a Chrome extension comes to rescue when you want to remove unused selectors from your page’s all stylesheets and combine the results into a single downloadable stylesheet.

This tool uses the approach of eliminating all ID and class based selectors that reference IDs and classes not on the page in order to optimize the stylesheets.
Of course, don’t forget to put your findings into your dashboard. So, it’s time to convert your dissection into a diagnosis. This analysis should lead you to your next website update strategy.

4. Audit their content – both on- and off-site.

Start by looking for their most popular pages on the website. Once you have found them, now identify the common theme or pattern in terms of content of these pages. Scrutinize how this content serves as the buying guide for the customers. The idea is to recognize the ‘king-maker’ content for the competitors’ websites and see whether your website currently offers similar content or not. Make sure that you check content at every stage of the website, entry level pages, ‘hero’ pages (most visited and most linked web pages), and topical pages such as blog content that has been able to strike the right chord with the audiences. Pay dedicated attention to their call-to-action language – how are they framing those sentences that motivate their visitors enough to take a desirable action, as in purchase / sign up / inquiry, etc.

The content analysis and comparison is more subjective in nature and requires one to have appropriate content and copywriting literacy. Place more emphasis on the blog content and social media content, since those pages keep getting updated on a regular basis, as against their primary website pages that do not always get their stock of fresh content. Nothing drives your overall digital marketing strategy as a fresh and trending content does.

What’s also important to check is what are the different types of content pieces your competitors deploy as part of their digital marketing campaign. Identify a pattern of their frequency of new content publication. Check Buzzsumo to determine their content’s overall influence on their target marketing. The tool helps you locate their most active content giving you a hint at what’s already performing in their niche. Because you share common or similar target audience, it’s important to check if your prospective audience considers them as influencers in the niche.

All you need to do is enter the keyword in the top content section and the tool will generate the most shared links for it for the last 30 days, which can be sorted as per the platform you want to analyze.

The tool lets you check the backlinks for the domain too. Another thing this tool allows you to do is to find out who share a particular article. The sharer details help you identify the important influencers that could play an important role in your content strategy.

Once you have identified the most top shared content for the specific keywords, you can easily track down what’s working for your competitors.

Keep a close watch on their social media websites. Go through their Facebook timeline, Instagram albums and Twitter handle. Monitor their activities on the popular social media platforms and more importantly take a look at their rate of shares and engagement.

Discover what sets your competitors apart from the rest in your industry. What is their content value proposition? What is their unique content style that draws them a heavy volume of traffic and a high ranking? Get a feel of what type of top content is out there? What to look for when you dissect their content:

  • The average length of their content
  • The typical format of the content, such as textual, visual, audio, post, guide, tutorial
  • The tone they’ve adopted for their content like formal versus informal tone, funny versus serious tone
  • The supporting tools to substantiate their content in terms of tables, charts, examples, testimonies, etc.
  • Calls to action with a special attention to the language used.

And finally, draw out the parallels and divergences. Outcome?

  • Consider replicating what they’ve already published, albeit a better version, i.e., convert their factual blog post into informative infographics
  • Pick one of their best pieces of content of all time and make it up to date, for example, make the statistics used updated
  • Get inspired by a great content work. It’s okay to admire your competitors for what they’re better at.

5. Anatomize their SEO game plan

Since the rules of the game are constantly changing in the dynamic world of SEO, you need to get a hang of what others are up to rather than focusing on just your plan. The easiest thing to do is to compare the code optimization on the competitors’ websites. This will bring into light the potential loop holes in your current SEO structure as well as the issues that need to be fixed. Your goal should be to learn from your competitors’ mistakes, check for the similar issues on your own site and then to clean up and optimize your website to gain an edge over them. There is a plethora of tools you can use to analyze their current link architecture, such as: Google Trends, Whois.net, Moz, SEMRush, Alexa, Ahrefs, MajesticSEO, Quantcast and Scoreboard to name a few. On your competitor dashboard, keep a track of who scores better on what metrics. Therefore gauge how it would affect your traffic, site engagement and ultimately the site traffic. And while you’re at it, don’t forget to filter out the black-hats, of course.

Use SEMRush to identify the keywords they currently outrank you for. This tool shows you the exact keywords and phrases for you to be able to directly start targeting them in your strategy.

Google’s Keyword Planner tool along with Google Analytics and Google Search Console will let you in on a reverse loop up exploration to discover the keywords that Google thinks are best suited for the site. An endorsement worth vouching for, right?

Ahrefs will allow you to spy on your competitors’ link profiles. This is one of the easiest and the most effective ways of get a detailed list of all lucrative inbound links pointing to the competitors’ websites.

To scrutinize their website’s speed, consider using site speed test tool/s. The data produced will be extremely usable and offer insights that will empower you to outrank your competitors.

By deploying Open Site Explorer, you can attain smart insights in terms of top performing pages, social engagement levels, and much more.

Spyfu will allow you an access into their organic keyword profiles. At the same time, it shows you what type of keywords they are targeting for their paid ad campaigns.

In order to carefully study your competitors’ onpage SEO, consider using Woorank. Get a chance to dive into their top-secret aspects of the organic campaign like meta tag markup tags, responsiveness and a whole heap extra.

Using all these tools and even more depending upon your individual research skills and personal preferences, identify:

  • Niche-relevant most useful resource pages and links you can fetch for the betterment of your website
  • Paid links and other intrinsic links that you may not be able to attain for your site, but at least get a feel of what they are and how they influence your site’s performance.

Using third party tools like similarweb.com you can conduct a head-to-head comparison of your website with that of the competitors’. Study the parallels in the search as well as social traffics in order to find out the opportunities for improvement.
Don’t forget to analyze your competitors’ customers. Use Alexa.com to see who is visiting their websites. And all these visitors to their sites are ultimately your prospective customers. Therefore, know as much as you can about their age, gender, geographic locations and other important demographics.

Here’s our take on the top 100 digital marketing tools.

6. Hack into their AdWords campaigns (Ethically that is!)

We’ve already spoken about identifying the competitors’ top performing keywords in the above step. Albeit, here the focus is dedicatedly on paid keywords. That’s a handy nugget of data especially when you’re running on a tighter budget. What keywords to go after really depends upon at what stage of the sales funnel are you planning on catching your customers. Upon filtering out the most relevant and important keywords, check out which ads are working for the competitors. Don’t get fooled by the ad’s current top spot. Instead, see how the ad has performed over time, before you incorporate it into your own campaign. Remember to keep your competitor research and reverse engineering of their campaign a top-secret covert op. The obvious cut-copy-paste will not make a cut for you. Also, you can consider using third party tools like whatrunswhere to keep an inside track of your competitor’s PPC strategies.

This tool can give you intelligent actionable insights on your competitors’ activities.

You can take a historical view of the campaign to see how it has evolved overtime and can use the insights to shape the future strategies for your company.

7. Assemble your findings

Once you have all the required data on your competitor dashboard, streamline your scatted findings. This will help you find specific strengths and weaknesses of each competitor. Finally, put together your plan of action with an achievable timeframe well-defined.
Well, that’s about it for now folks!
As you would have figured by now, this post is not exhaustive at all. This is to give you a mere headstart. But for now, wrap it all up and put a bow on it. Ready? Okay, off you go to the races. Glory hallelujah!
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