Quick and dirty competitive analysis

Paul Boag

If you have a long list of competitors, doing a comprehensive review of them all might be too time consuming to be justifiable.

Every organisation should know what their competition is doing online. However, getting your boss to pay for proper competitive analysis is not always easy. I therefore thought I would share some quick and dirty techniques for doing competitive analysis yourself.

I am going to go ahead and make the assumption that you already know who your competitors are. If you haven’t already, make a list of them including their websites. Depending on your sector this could be a fairly long list. It will range from the large well established players to the small and dynamic upstart.

If you have a long list of competitors, doing a comprehensive review of them all might be too time consuming to be justifiable. In such situations you will be forced to narrow the list a little. However, be careful. The tendency when narrowing the field is to focus on the largest competitors. This can be a mistake. Sometimes the smaller sites, or those new to the marketplace, are more likely to be doing something innovative which you might be able to learn from. Instead try and ensure a mix of both larger and smaller sites.

Once you have established which websites you want to review I would suggest trying the following steps.

Basic review

Step 1 is to do a basic visual review yourself. Nothing beats taking the time to look through a competitors website. As you look through each site ask yourself a series of questions.

  • What is the message and tone of voice being used on this site?
  • What content and functionality is highlighted on the homepage and in the navigation?
  • What image are they trying to project through the design?
  • What functionality and content do they have compared with your own website?
  • What labeling are they applying to the content areas and site sections?

The aim is to gain a better understanding of the strategy being used by your competition regarding the web. Where you encounter differences in approach from your own site ask yourself why. Why have they chosen to approach the problem in a different way? Does that alternative approach give them an advantage?

User testing

Step 2 is to try user testing your competitors websites. There is no reason why you can only user test your own website. In many cases it can prove extremely useful to test your competitions website because it gives you an opportunity to test out responses to design, content, functionality and site structure. In short you can learn from what they have gotten right and improve on what they have done badly.

I am not going to get into the details of running a user test session here, although this is a subject we should return to at some point. What is important, is that testing a competitors site is a great training ground for making improvements to your own.

Accessibility

My next step when assessing a competitors website is to assess how accessible the site is. Potentially your competitors could be turning away valuable business simply because their site takes too long to download or because it cannot be accessed by people who don’t use internet explorer. Obviously accessibility is also about access for the disabled and this can be assessed using the WAI guidelines. However, if you are a website owner or manager rather than a designer/developer these guidelines may well prove more confusing than helpful.

For the sake of this section I want to suggest two tests that you can use to help assess how many users your competition are turning away.

Browser support

The first is to look at your website on as many different browsers and computers as possible. Many people do not realize that there are other browsers than Internet Explorer and that even Internet Explorer has various versions that will display your website differently. I would recommend you look at your site in at least Internet Explorer 6, Internet Explorer 7, Firefox, Opera and Safari for the mac. You may well be surprised at the differences you see. You can either download these browsers and test the websites manually or alternatively use a services such as Browsershot that will provide screenshots of website as displayed in different browsers. Obviously, if you use a screenshot service then you won’t get the interactivity of a real browser. However, for the sake of assessing the competition this is normally enough.

Download times

The second test you might want to perform is analyzing how fast the site downloads. In this age of broadband many web designers have become less concerned about download times. However, not everybody has broadband and most sites cannot afford to ignore dialup users. One service that helps you find out how long your site takes to download is a website optimization tool. Ideally you should be looking for download times of less than 10 seconds however anywhere between 10 and 20 seconds is acceptable.

Online visibility

My final step for assessing the competition is to look at how visible their website is. That is to say, how easy it is to find. Do your competitor’s websites rank higher than your own? Do more people link to them? Is there more talk about your competitor’s brands than your own? All of these questions are incredibly revealing.

A good place to start is with one of the many free websites that check various sources to ascertain online visibility. The one that I use most often is popuri.us. This checks your competitors visibility on Yahoo! and Google, but also on blogging search engines like Technorati and social networking sites like del.icio.us.

If you want more specific information relating to your visibility on certain search phrase then you will need a rank-checking tool. Again there are various free services available including Google Ranking, which checks all major search engines despite the fact that its name appear Google specific.

However, it is the question of linking that is most interesting. Who links to your competition and can you persuade them to link to your site? Finding out who links to your competition is remarkably simple. Just use the same popuri.us service I mentioned earlier. You will notice a number of the results are marked “backlinks”. By clicking on the details link associated with these backlinks you will be taken to the appropriate search engine and see all of the webpages that link to your competition. Alternatively you can simply go to the search engine you wish to check and type:

link:http://www.yourcompetition.com

This will return all of the sites linking to that website address. You can now contact these websites as appropriate asking if they would be willing to link to you instead of your competition.

Summary

The above is not intended to produce a perfect competitive analysis but it should get you started. Its a quick and dirty approach that gives you a handle on:

  • How easy your competitors websites are to find
  • Whether they are turning potential visitors away
  • How easy their site is to use
  • What they are trying to communicate and achieve through their content and functionality

Hope that helps.

Boagworks

Boagworld