You’ve probably heard that it’s wise to keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Nowhere is this more true than in the world of online business. With online sales exploding, your brand’s fiercest competitors are not just similar stores down the street. Instead, they could easily be on the other side of the country (or even on the other side of the globe)! All the more reason to keep a close eye on them and compare their moves to your own.

Knowing what your competitors are up to is key to staying ahead of the game and being able to react quickly to changes in the market. In this article we’ll show you how to analyze your online competition and stay up to date in the business world.

motivational poster by Neatlines
How does your business perform compared to your competitors? Poster design by Neatlines.

Find out who your competitors are

First thing’s first—you need to know who your competition is. Here are some things you can do to figure out what’s happening in your industry:

Get googlin’

Obviously, you can begin with a simple Google search using some of your important keywords. Take note of who ranks high in the search results and what makes them stand out—whether it’s organically or paid. You should also google your products. If you get your products from a wholesaler, there’s a good chance other shops offer the same exact products as you do. What prices do they offer? Do they have free shipping? Have they collected star ratings that are shown in their ads?

Use tools to help with your research

logo design for carpenter business
All you need are the right tools. Logo design by GoSteven.

Depending on your industry, pages like Yelp, Foursquare, TripAdvisor or Angie’s List can help discover who your local competition is. There are also special tools out there to help you find out who your competitors are. For example, SimilarWeb offers some great competitor analysis tools. The most basic one is competitor identification. Simply enter the name of your website and they’ll provide you with a list of similar companies.

Once you know who your main competitors are, online tools like Google Trends help you track how popular certain keywords are over time. For example, enter in your competitor’s name and see how popular this search term has been in the past 6 months. This could show you how they’re doing and if they have increased their marketing budgets lately. If that’s the case, it might time for you to do the same. Tools like Buzzsumo help you track where you or your competitors are being mentioned across the internet, so you can see what is being said about them online.

Stay up-to-date with the right media

coffee themed magazine
Stay up to date by reading industry-specific magazines, blogs and websites. Magazine design by machus4u.

Make sure you also find journals, magazines, and other industry reading material to see what your competition is up to. This can provide great insights into their future plans and their reputation. Sure, this will inform you about what the big players are doing, but if the material is very industry specific, some smaller start-ups will also be featured. You should also try to find some industry-specific blogs to provide more insights as well. Certain forums and pages like Reddit (and their sub-reddits) could provide lots of information, tips, and tricks being shared by industry experts and other business owners.

Talk to your customers and the people you work with

Finally, you should talk directly with your customers. They can provide tons of feedback on your own products and services, but they can also tell you which of your competitors they considered buying from. An easy way to gather information would be sending out short questionnaires via email or in your shipments. To give them some incentive, you might want to consider offering them a discount in exchange for their opinions.

logo for small talk coffee
Talk to your customers and colleagues! Logo design by MasterPieces.

Be sure to also talk to the people you work with—particularly suppliers, wholesalers and partners. You can learn so much from them! Make friends in your industry and gather information through your network. Trade fairs and industry events can be a good opportunity to build a network, if you don’t have one yet. Here, you can talk face-to-face with colleagues, wholesalers and other retailers. Not only will you hear the latest news on your competition, but you’ll get some great tips on new developments and innovations in your industry.

Analyze your competitors

Once you’ve got a good overview over who your competition is, you’ll want to have a closer look at exactly they’re doing. You can really learn a lot from researching your competition and interacting with their website and social media.

Check out their website

For starters, visit their website. Snoop around and really take note of what makes their website different than yours. Try to keep a consumer’s perspective when you do this and stay objective. Check the layout of their website. Is it easy to navigate? Does their website instill trust to visitors? Are their product images more professional-looking? What do their product descriptions look like? Are they doing anything special for holidays like Christmas, Mother’s Day, or Valentine’s Day? Try to understand how they are trying to appeal to their target customers.

tablet illustration by henrylim
Give your their website a good hard look. Illustration by Henrylim.

Take a look at their website design. Does it look professional? Is it responsive? What’s their style like? Think about how their look and feel is different to yours.

You should also be looking at their website from an SEO perspective. How? Well, try to determine what keywords they’re using throughout their website. Are you using similar keywords? Where are these keywords placed? In titles? In H1 and H2 headings? Internal links? This will give you an insight into their SEO strategy and their targets.

Taking note of all these details—no matter if they are positive or negative—can inspire you to make improvements and help you sharpen your brand personality to set yourself apart.

Do they have a blog?

Next up, see if they have a blog and how often they post new articles. If they post regularly, you can bet that their blogs are driving traffic to their website. Google loves fresh content and blogs are a great way of getting your ranking in search results to improve. Company blogs can also provide information on what kinds of products they’re promoting heavier than others, as well as who their target audience is and how they address them. Are they using their blog to get readers into their conversion funnels by having calls-to-action or contests? Do they have a newsletter to subscribe to as well?

Look at their reviews

star illustration
What are their star ratings like? oink! design.

Does their website have shop or product reviews? This can bridge the trust-gap that exists when visiting a new shop for the very first time. After all, 85% of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations. Building trust is extremely important and customers want to know what other customers are saying. And you better believe that they are going to search out the negative reviews. They want to know what the worst experiences are like on your shop and they will keep an eye on how you respond to negative reviews, so make sure you don’t ignore those unhappy customers. How are your competitors handling those one-star reviews? Looking at your competitors’ reviews gives you an insight into what people like about them.

Check out their social media

Make sure you check out your competitor’s social media channels. Similar to their blog, social media accounts will show you how they’re marketing their products, what style they’re using and how they talk to their audience. There’s a lot to learn here: what works well for them and what doesn’t? How is your social media following different? This can help you figure out how you can add value and engage your own followers better.

Try their service (Say what?!)

modern card board box design
Packaging can say a lot about a business. Design by Neatlines.

Finally, you might want to do the unthinkable: place an order with them! Blasphemous, isn’t it? Well, ordering from the competition will take you through the customer journey. What is their order process like? Do they offer tracking information? Do they follow up with you to make sure you’re satisfied? Do they provide any extras in their packages? Compare your packaging and unboxing experience to theirs. What could you improve on?

Though you might feel strange putting money into your competitors’ wallets, you’ll get to experience what their customers experience and this can really make you consider what your customers experience when they do business with you. A small, seemingly insignificant change like placing a hand-written thank you note in your package can really create a connection with customers.

Look in the mirror and learn from your competition

logo for boost your business
Learning for your competition will give your business a boost! Logo design by maneka.

After doing all this research, it’s time to have a nice hard look in the mirror. Take a step back and scrutinise your website as if it didn’t belong to you. Does your website look professional? Is it easy to find what you’re looking for? Does your website instill trust? Does the customer have a nice experience from beginning to end?

Remember that you want to draw inspiration from your competitors, but don’t copy them and don’t take part in unfair business practices. Besides the ethical dilemma, this could have legal consequences as well as damage your image. This is not about spying or stealing ideas. It’s about comparing in order to help you understand your own business better.

Let your competitors help you grow

There’s no better way to get you thinking about your own product and customer experience than analyzing your competitors. At the end of the day, it’s important to keep an open mind when researching your competition. Stay as objective as possible when analyzing your competition as well as your own online shop. If you do it right, and implement the changes you deem necessary, the hard work can really pay off!

About the author:

Alon Eisenberg is Copy Editor UK at Trusted Shops, Europe’s most well-known certifier of online shops. He grew up in New York City and graduated from Boston University with a bachelor’s in Communications. He’s a marketing enthusiast who enjoys researching many topics ranging from e-commerce to travel to education.