Competition Watch is the New SEO — A SPN Exclusive

Since Google’s Penguin update came out, the Web has been flooded with tons of Penguin survival strategies, magic Penguin-killing bullets, etc. What one often hears these days is “diversify your anchor texts,” “remove crappy links,” “create unique content,” and so on and so forth.

However, none of these strategies seem capable of doing the simple job of bringing one’s site back to where it was before Penguin.

How to Learn What Google Likes

As Google said, Penguin is about punishing those optimizers who use “illegal” SEO techniques such as sneaky redirects, keyword stuffing, link spam, copying somebody’s content (duplicate content), and others.

However, the questions people ask nowadays are:

* If I used 15 keywords per page, would that be keyword stuffing?
* Which of my links are in violation?
* I’m an affiliate. Would using the merchant’s description on a partner site create duplicate content?
* etc.

Is there a satisfying answer for these questions? There is, and this answer is “competition watch,” the point of which is to scrutinize top 10 websites rankings for your target keywords in the post-Penguin SERPs.

How Many Keywords are Too Many?

Let’s say your main keyword is “snake leather shoes.” Now, how many times can you safely repeat this keyword on your site without being considered a keyword-stuffer? It’s not hard to figure out!

See who ranks in the top 10 for that word and carefully analyze the following aspects of their site:

* The number of keywords in page titles;
* The number of keywords in site copy (in general);
* The number of keywords in anchor texts.

The number of keywords on a page as related to the overall amount of text is often referred to as “keyword density.” Analyzing competition helps you understand what keyword density is worth high rankings in Google’s opinion.

Shaping a Winning Duplicate Content Strategy

Let’s say you have an e-commerce store – the type of website that potentially has duplicate content. There are different views on how to deal with internal dupe content. Some people recommend using 301 redirects, some folks tell you to employ canonical tags, while some suggest closing it off with a robots.txt file.

So, what’s the best practice in your particular case? To find out, see who ranks in the top 10 for your keyword and see how they use robots.txt instructions, canonical tags and 301 redirects on their site. In that respect, on-page optimization software can help.

Then, if you see that some pages of a competing site are restricted from indexing, check whether there are duplicates of those pages on the site. If there are, employ a similar strategy to avoid duplicates on YOUR site.

The same goes for 301 redirects. See what pages are redirected to what pages (if applicable) and check whether the redirects are used to deal with duplicate content.

Sometimes, optimizers use canonical tags to avoid canonicalization confusion. A solid on-page SEO software piece would report canonical tags on a site as well.

How to Steal Your Competitor’s Secret Link Strategy

And now, let’s talk about the creme de la creme of Google’s ranking algorithm – backlinks.

In general, the more backlinks a site has and the higher-PR they have and the higher the site in question will rank on Google. However, not all links are well-trusted by Google.

For example, links from link farms and blog networks (Google-savvier link farms), paid links and other types of “illegal” links have been the focus of Google’s war on link spam for a long time.

But what if Google makes a mistake and treats your legitimately earned links as link spam? How does one know exactly what links are trusted by Google and which ones are frowned upon?

The way out is to see what link building strategies your top-ranking competitors use and replicate those strategies!

To do the job, one would need a backlink checker. Some folks argue that backlinks to a site can be viewed in one’s Google Webmaster account, however, Google Webmaster Tools will only show you the backlinks pointing to your own site, but will not disclose those of the competitors.

To analyze competitors’ backlinks, SEO’s have long used Yahoo! Site Explorer, which ceased to exist. on November 2011. However, there are alternatives to Y!SE available to webmasters.

So, get armed with a good backlink checker and X-ray competing websites! Pay attention to the sources their backlinks come from.

Ask yourself:

* Are they using blog/forum commenting as their link strategy?
* Are they doing guest blogging?
* Are they doing link bait?
* Are they getting links mainly from high-PR sites or from a whole assortment of sources?

Asking these questions when analyzing competitors’ backlinks will give you a good comprehensive idea of what link building strategy is likely to get your site to the top.

Anchor Texts – The New Big Thing

Anchor texts have always been important for SEO, in a sense that having your prime keyword in an anchor text of a link going from a reputable source to your site could work miracles on your site’s rankings.

However, as Google is now particularly suspicious of too-good-to-be-true anchor texts (not to mention having lots of identical anchor texts), a lot of SEO’s now believe that too many “keyword” anchor text can hurt your site, especially if those anchor texts are identical.

Thus, anchor texts are big again, but in a different way – one has to be careful not to be too zealous with them. Some folks recommend having:

– 15% of “keyword” anchor texts,
– 30% of “secondary keyword” anchors,
– 25% of “click here” anchor texts,
– and 30% of URL anchor texts.

However, this estimate may not be true for every niche and the only way to create a winning anchor text strategy is… again, to look into competing sites.

So, when doing backlink analysis, pay attention to the anchors your competitors use. Most backlink checkers would quickly retrieve and make a list of competitor backlinks, which makes them easy to analyze.

How Does One Stay on Top of Things?

Nowadays, the search engines are as unpredictable as ever. This means that the set of your competitors may change overnight, which would be indicative of certain ranking algorithm tweaks.

So, in order to notice those changes early on, you should have a competition monitoring plan, which can help you adapt to changing search engine conditions at any time.

A lot of rank tracking apps offer live rankings monitoring and let you keep track of as many as 10 competitors at once. When looking for an SEO tool like that, check if it lets you track competitor rankings side-by-side with your site for the same keywords you have.


Nowadays the SERPs have become very unstable. The only way you can get a working SEO strategy is by analyzing the competition. Hence, competition watch is the new SEO. Of course, this does not mean that SEO best practices no longer apply, quite the contrary. What this means is that one should now hone their SEO tactics by learning the exact proportions in which the ingredients in their SEO recipe should come.

Alesya Krush is a digital marketer at Link-Assistant.Com, industry-leading SEO software provider and the company behind SEO PowerSuite tools. SEO PowerSuite is an award-winning SEO pack that has tools for any SEO task imaginable: keyword research, on-page SEO audit, content optimization, backlink analysis, competition tracking, and others.

About the author


Alesia Krush

Alesia started out as an Internet marketer at Link-Assistant.Com, where she discovered her passion for search and blogging. As she often says, what the searcher ultimately wants is not a search result, but a story!

Today, Alesia writes for the Link-Assistant.Com blog and is part of the company’s SEO department. She also regularly contributes to a number of reputable industry news portals such as SEO-News.com, SiteProNews.com, Search Engine Journal, and others.


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  • “How to Learn What Google Likes”

    Probably right off the bat, the focus here is wrong, though that’s not to say one should not pay attention to basic SEO techniques (e.g., title tags, etc.). However, on-page SEO is pretty simple.

    99% of your attention should be on what your potential customer wants and needs. That’s what Google wants, i.e., if they’re going to send you traffic, for FREE, they want the visitor to happy they came to your site. That reflect well on Google. While it can be hard to measure visitor ‘happiness,’ that’s Google’s persistent goal; all their technology evolution, updates, etc., is towards that goal. FORGET ABOUT WHAT GOOGLE WANTS.

    “Analyzing competition helps you understand what keyword density is worth high rankings in Google’s opinion.”

    Google (Matt cutts) is on record that there is no “keyword density” number you should pay attention to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rk4qgQdp2UA. A competitor is probably ranking well for reasons other than the number of keywords on their page (e.g., links).

    “Shaping a Winning Duplicate Content Strategy”

    You don’t need to look at a competitor. All the search engines are clear on this — DON’T HAVE DUPLICATE CONTENT ON YOUR SITE OR SITES. Block it, change it, remove it, whatever it takes, just don’t have it.

    “How to Steal Your Competitor’s Secret Link Strategy”

    In principle this is an excellent strategy to find good opportunities for you. However, just as you wouldn’t look at a person who has built a great network around them and think ‘yeah, I’m gong to build the exact same network,’ pick and chose and work on building your own unique network because you are NOT exactly like the other guy. Second, you can’t know if some of those links are “bad,” e.g., links from a spam site. There’s no tool that will tell you that, so be careful.

  • Christopher, thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    Some of what you say I agree with. But let me follow the structure of your comment and reply that:

    “How to Learn What Google Likes”

    I think any SEO would give much, if not anything, to find out what exact signals and in what exact proportions Google places value on in its ranking algorithm.

    Of course, this doesn’t mean your site shouldn’t provide a great user experience. We know that Google doesn’t it when you build sites for the search engines, not for the users. I don’t advocate that, cause it never works in the long run anyway. But you can provide an amazing users experience AND have good knowledge of Google’s algorithm, which will help you avoid SEO practices that can land you in trouble. See, these are not mutually exclusive things.

    “Analyzing competition helps you understand what keyword density is worth high rankings in Google’s opinion.”

    Well, you may have heard that Penguin targets keyword-stuffed pages among other things. Some webmasters noticed that repeating a keyword less times on their page helped them recover after Penguin 1.1 was released. So, knowing a safe-to-use number of keywords for your site could help you avoid getting slapped by Penguin.

    “Shaping a Winning Duplicate Content Strategy”

    There is no doubt Google is against duplicate content, but some sites just can’t avoid it, for example, online catalogues. And, there is more than one way of dealing with internal dupe content. So, the best solution would sometimes depend on a particular situation. Why not look at websites that are very similar to yours and get some insight out of how they handle duplicate content then? 😉

    “How to Steal Your Competitor’s Secret Link Strategy”

    If you had ever tried it, you’d know that it’s next to impossible to copy anybody’s link profile backlink-for-backlink. But checking top rankings guys’ profiles can give you some valuable insight. For example, you see that some guy gets tons of wikipedia links (that could be something that makes him rank higher), or writes blog posts for .edu sites (just an example), or has 10 000 links all leading to this one page. You look at that page and discover that it’s a link bait piece. And – voila – you just got an idea!

  • “But you can provide an amazing users experience AND have good knowledge of Google’s algorithm, which will help you avoid SEO practices that can land you in trouble.”

    It seems you’re right on the edge here.

    Google has published basic guidelines in their SEO starter guide. That’s about all one can know about what Google expects and the foundations of solid SEO.

    One can’t really know what their signals are in their algorithm because Google won’t talk about that.

    SEOMoz has done some of the best correlational studies around to try and infer those factors, but they’re just correlational studies.

    In short, be very wary of anything or anyone telling you they know more about how Google works than what’s laid out in their SEO starter guide or what’s been presented by Matt Cutts on the Google Webmaster Youtube channel. SEOMoz’s studies, however, are good to read, but you won’t find anything there that’s really going to give you an SEO edge over the next guy.

  • Hmm.. there’s still no definite answer though on how much keywords are allowed. Thank you very much for this post nonetheless.

  • Maria, thanks for stopping by!
    Actually, no one will tell you how many keywords are allowed, since nobody besides Google knows how their algorithm works.
    Your best bet would be to look at how many keywords your top-ranking competitor has got and presume that that’s the way to go (since they are ranking well with that number of keywords). That was the point I wanted to make. 😉