Forget donning that balaclava and rummaging through rubbish bins. These days the Internet makes sneaking around, gathering your competitive intelligence, super-easy to do. Fiona Mackenzie offers up some exceedingly simple insider secrets to get you started.
1. Set up Google Alerts
Google Alerts are free and take about two minutes to set up. Head over to www.google.com/alerts, enter your competitors name, choose “Everything”, and add your email address. You’re done.
2. Join their mailing list (but delete them from yours)
Okay, this might seem mean, but all’s fair in love and war.
Set yourself up with a non-identifying email address (Gmail or Hotmail is perfect) and subscribe to their list.
If you can identify them on your list, well you know what to do. The delete key was invented for just this very purpose.
3. Monitor changes to their website
This is perfectly legit, but seriously sneaky. Head over to www.changedetection.com and enter the pages of your competitor’s website into the free tool. Add your email address and Change Detection will tell you each time they make changes to their page.
4. See what Keywords competitors use
There are several ways to do this, but the easiest way for a Net newbie is to head over to SEO Digger (http://seodigger.com/), which has a free tool that you can use. Just enter in your competitor’s URL and click search. Ignore the ranking information that gets returned, though, because that’s US-based data, not Australian.
If you want to see how they rank for their keywords in Australia, just head to this other free tool, Strongpoint (www.strongpoint.com.au/Australian-SEO-Rank-Checker.aspx), for the Google Australia view of how your competitors are ranking.
5. See who links to competitors
There are two really good reasons to find out who is linking to your competitor’s website.
First, Google assigns PageRank (its proprietary quality score) on the basis of those links and, second, you’ll get great ideas for backlinks to your own site from seeing what your competitors have been up to.
Head to Google or Bing and search for backlink checker tools. You’ll find plenty of choices. Here are two of my personal favourites, for different reasons as explained below.
Yahoo! Site Explorer (http://siteexplorer.search.yahoo.com/)
Unlike other tools, Site Explorer gives you a view of how big your competitors website is – so apart from knowing who is linking to them, you can also get insights into how many of their pages are potentially being indexed.
Backlink Watch (http://www.backlinkwatch.com/)
This tool provides backlinks, makes PageRank information available and tells you whether or not the link has been marked “No Follow”. If the link is marked “No Follow” it means that the link isn’t counted by Google towards improving the site’s PageRank.
6. Torpedoing rule-breakers
Google and Bing both have strict rules when it comes to how your website is constructed and what you do to help make it rank.
So, for instance, you are not allowed to upload your website a second time under a new domain name (that’s a breach of duplicate content rules) or over-stuff your pages with your keywords (that’s called keyword stuffing) or participate in link schemes (you know those schemes where you buy 1,000 links for $10).
So what if, during your sleuthing, you discover your high-ranking competitors are in breach of the rules? You can dob them in by filing a spam report with the search engines.
Search engines take breaches of their rules seriously and penalties for really bad infringements can be severe, including getting struck off the search engine index, which leaves room for another website to fill the gap on the front page.
With a bit of skill and luck, perhaps it could be yours.
Fiona Mackenzie is the founder of Undercover Strategist. Her Internet experience includes online retailers, business-to-business service providers, telecommunication businesses and a long gig in web design for the Commonwealth Bank of Australia.
Image by Vlad Genie