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How to reverse engineer SEO ranking from competitors

Author's avatar By Expert commentator 22 Nov, 2016
Essential Essential topic

A detailed guide to scaling SERP rankings using competitor analysis

Every time search engine optimisation comes up in discussions with colleagues or clients, the first thing I do is place a mental bet on how quickly the chat is going down the rabbit hole. There is absolutely no denying the importance of SEO. No matter how much runway you think you have with PPC to fuel your business’ needs, sooner or later you’ll want to incrementally reduce the cost of acquiring users at the top of the funnel.

What’s that thing about rabbit hole again? There are numerous factors (some say over 200) that Google takes into account to decide where your page ranks for a given search query. If you go about optimising each of these factors, it is going to take you a whole lot of time before each piece of content goes out into the world. Either that, or you have to have a massive workflow with multiple QA checkpoints for each article that goes out.

Neither is bad (it is better to put out one quality blog post a week than five shoddy ones, and it certainly helps in having a robust workflow), but where do you start? What is more important than another? And what is that one strategy that guarantees high ranking for your content?

These questions become extremely relevant when you are not a huge publishing house or a media brand, but selling a service or a product. When content is important, but it is not your core focus. The content you put out is intended to educate, attract and convert leads. And you don’t have a whole lot of time or workforce for it. Where, then, do you start?

Remember it’s a rank game

Here is a process I have followed over the years with a lot of success, and it focuses on one thing that most seem to have forgotten when it comes to search engines: at the end of it all, it is a ranking system and not award-based. Google ranks you based on what is available out there, and not on how many brownie points you score with them. Hence, instead of ticking factors off a never-ending SEO list, all we need to do is ensure we tick enough boxes to steer clear of all the competition around us.

And here’s how to do it:

The Standard Homework

Before we get to reverse engineering our competitors’ content to ultimately rank better than them, we need to have a solid base. This entails the following:

  1. Mapping your services to the right core (or seed) keywords
  2. Finding the right long tail variations of these keywords
  3. Finding semantic variations and thematic keywords

There is enough content out there on these topics so I won’t get into too much details. To round it up, here’s what you need to look into:

Mapping your services to the right core keywords

Sit down with a pen and paper, and list out every single thing that your service does. You might think it’s a fairly easy job. After all, I know what I do! But think of it from the point of view of a customer. Let’s say you run a service that connects local car mechanics and garages to internet-savvy car owners in need of vehicle jobs. Your services might include “Paint Jobs”, “Car Servicing”, “Repairs” and “Body Work”.

For a customer who is looking for a service, none of these are specific enough. You need to break down your services to smaller bits. For example, “Repairs” can lead to:

  • Clutch Repairs
  • Clutch Replacement
  • Exhaust Fitting
  • Exhaust Repair
  • Gearbox Repairs

Have a sit with your product manager and map out the various second-level services that your product is offering but your website isn’t talking about. These are going to be your core keywords.

Finding the right long tail variations of these keywords

The second task is to find out long tail variations of these keywords. “Clutch Repairs” is a very common keyword, and there are probably thousands of pages competing for it. What about “Clutch Repairs in East Sussex” or “Clutch repairs for Chevy 1992 Camaro”? These are called long tail keywords. The search volume for these keywords might be much lower than the core keywords but they are very intent-heavy and typically have much lower competition.

Use Google’s Keyword Planner tool to discover these keywords. Here’s a pretty good tutorial by Neil Patel on the topic. There are a number of great tools available online which can help you do the same. I’ll leave you to do the search.

Finding semantic variations and thematic keywords

This is where you think more like a human and less like a robot. Quite a paradox, considering that Google’s decision to involve AI in its search algorithm is what is forcing us to be more human about our content.

Semantic variations are natural language variations of a keyword. For example, “clutch repairs in East Sussex” and “East Sussex clutch repair shops” mean the same thing for a human. Less than a couple of years ago, Google wasn’t smart enough to give due weight to the semantic variations of a keyword. Not anymore. Hence, it is important to identify at least a few such natural language alternatives to your most important keywords and keep them handy for usage while creating content.

Reverse Engineering Part I: Find and analyse your competitors

Here comes the fun part. Let’s find out who your competitors are. While it is easier to find your USP competitors (competitors with similar unique selling point as yours), it’s usually never enough to stop there.

USP competitors mean nothing to the end user, just as you mean nothing to them. Yes, that is the bitter pill. The only thing that matters is who the end user finds when they look for answers.

Therefore, your real competitors are your keyword competitors. Bring up that list of core, secondary and thematic keywords that you made earlier. Go to Google, make sure you choose the region you are targeting (if you are not sure how to do it, look below) and search using those terms. Ensure (and this is important) you are in incognito mode (any modern browser has the option) so that your personal browsing habits do not affect your search results.

You can change the originating location of your search on Google by appending the following code at the end of the URL:


Replace the XX with the country code that you can find here.


Alternatively, if you are privacy-sensitive person like I am, you probably have a few nifty tools already installed. I’m a big fan of TunnelBear.

Now that you are set up, let’s take the example of the repair shop and go through the steps for finding your keyword competitors:

Step 1: Identify the competing pages

Start by searching for the most important core and long tail keywords that you have already identified and note down the top pages in the search results. Depending on the type of keywords you use, there might be a lot of local business relevance, and Google might show a bunch of places in their maps widget. That’s incredibly powerful, but deals with Local SEO, something that deserves an article of its own.

Identify each of the top results. Depending on how specific your keyword is, and how competitive it is, you might need to look beyond the top 5 results.

SERP example auto industry

Pay attention to the individual results. We’ll find out what exactly to look for in the pages themselves. But, for now, just look at the following:

  • Page Titles
  • URL
  • Meta description

A look at these should tell you how much competition you are likely to face on this keyword. Look for your keyword being present in all of these three areas. This exercise is just for you to get a feel of your competition. You don’t need to note down anything specific here, save for perhaps a quick note on “easy”, “hard” or “OK” beside each keyword on your spreadsheet.

clutch repair SERP example

Important side step: Note down the main domain for each of the top 5 to 10 results.

In the above example, the key domains are:

  1. co.uk
  2. com
  3. co.uk
  4. com
  5. co.uk

Step 2: Dissect the ranking pages one by one

This is most important part of the whole process. Here, we are going to analyse our direct competitors and try to pinpoint where they stand. While there are a number of factors you could look into (remember that 200 number I mentioned at the beginning?), I’d say focus on the basics. Look for these:

  1. Content Depth: Word count
  2. Number of H1, H2, H3 tags and how many have keyword variations in them
  3. Links
    1. Number of backlinks
    2. Number of outbound (external) links
    3. Number of internal links (mainly in the body of the page, Google mostly ignores footers and navigation bars)
  4. Keyword density: how many times does the main keyword and its variations appear in the text
  5. Social Signals: How many times has the page been shared.

Note these metrics down for all the top results in a spreadsheet and average out the results. Important: If the results vary too much, you might want to do a mean value calculation rather than average. Create an easy to understand template like shown below:

key link building metrics

Let’s take a look at the first result in our live example: search results for “Clutch Repair in East Sussex”:

  1. There is one H1 tag which as a portion of the main keyword.
  2. The size of the content body is pretty low.
  3. There are a lot of internal links.
  4. There is one main image in the content body but it has no alt text
  5. There are a few outbound links

 Internal Linking strategy

On page SEO

outbound link strategy

Now let’s go find the other information that is not present on the page itself - the number of backlinks and social signals.

For backlink analysis, there are tons of great tools available online. Let’s use one that is free: Moz’s Open Site Explorer. Paste the link in the search bar and you’ll see the number of external websites that are linking to the page.

For this specific example, there were no inbound links (backlinks). I hence looked for their main domain to illustrate how the results would look:
Social signals ranking factor

For Social Signals, I use Buzzsumo’s social sharing search tool. For illustration purposes, I have used a link that has been shared a lot of times. Here’s what a typical result looks like:

Buzzsumo social signals

Once you have these key details, it’s time to send the details to your ace content writing team.

Reverse Engineering Part II: Methodical Content Creation and Distribution

This is the second step of the reverse engineering process. What do you do? Write an awesome piece of content that beats the average (or mean) metric for all the key factors you noted above.

Write the content such that it is more detailed than all the top ranking pages. Tip: mash them all up and then add a decent amount of your own content for good measure! Add more pictures with alt text, link out to relevant and high authority websites, ensure your meta tags have the necessary keywords, and so do your title, H1, H2 and H3 tags. Use variations of the core keyword in the body of the text.

Once you are satisfied that your new content piece beats all the competing pages, it is time for distribution.

  1. Try and beat the number of aggregate social shares. If you have extra money to spare, don’t shy away from paid content amplification.
  2. See who has linked to your competitors and reach out to them (use Open Site Explorer, as shown above). See if they would like to link to your piece as well. Find similar domains and reach out to them, too.

Bonus Step: Discover even more keywords

Remember the list of the main domains you created? Now’s the time to get sneaky and discover keywords that might not have come up during your initial results. The idea is to see what keywords these domains are optimised for, and then to do the whole process for the newly found keywords. Here’s how to do it:

Head over to Google Keyword planner (SEMRush, too, is a really good option, but their free tier isn’t much helpful).

  1. Go for the first option which says, “Search for new keywords using a phrase, website or category”.
  2. Paste the main domain in the landing page filed.
  3. Choose the right target geography and choose to show only closely related keywords.

Hit “Get Ideas”, and what you’ll have is a wealth of new keywords to put into effective use.

keyword planning

search volume data

finding relevant keywords

There you have it! A blueprint on how to reverse engineer your competitors and essentially rank better than them. One drawback of this strategy is that it is a lot of work and you might not be able to do it for hundreds of keywords. But this is not meant for that anyway.

This tactic works best for a list of keywords that you care for the most. This list of keywords can come from your keyword analysis and discovery process as described earlier, or from your AdWords reports where you can know about your most profitable keywords based on clickthrough rates and conversion numbers.

I hope this helps!


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