Imagine a hypothetical reality in which your website was the only one with any content related to how to buy a car.
Yes, it sounds preposterous. But let’s run with it.
In this hypothetical reality, SEO would be trivially easy. When someone searches for “how to buy a car,” your website would be at rank one. In fact, your “rank one” position wouldn’t even matter – there wouldn’t be any other entries competing with you. You’d get all the possible organic traffic produced by people searching for this phrase.
Obviously, we live in a very different reality.
Search for “how to buy a car” and you’ll see “about 3,990,000,000” results. And at the top of those results, you’ll see massively powerful brands like Edmunds, KBB, and NPR.
If you want to rank for this phrase, you’d have your work cut out for you – and even if you invest heavily in this pursuit, there’s no guarantee you’d ever get to page one, let alone rank one.
In your industry, you might be facing similarly intimidating odds and equally tough competitors.
So how do you manage it?
How do you beat your toughest SEO competitors without destroying your marketing budget in the process?
The Competition Problem in SEO
The competition problem in SEO essentially boils down to this: powerful competitors make it economically challenging and borderline impossible to compete in direct and traditional ways.
These are brands that have likely spent years, if not decades, and hundreds of thousands of dollars reinforcing their positions. To disrupt them would take an even bigger effort – and even then, you’re not guaranteed to beat them.
Do you just ignore them and abandon SEO for a different, less competitive strategy?
Not if we can help it.
There are actually several different approaches available to you – and each of them has the potential to help you achieve your SEO goals, no matter how fierce your competition is.
The Brute Force Approach
Up first is the brute force approach, and you can probably guess the main strategy here. Whatever your competitor is doing, you’re going to do more.
If they spend $10,000 a month, you must spend $15,000 a month. If they’re building 20 backlinks a month, you must build 25 backlinks a month. If you keep up this pressure without sacrificing quality, you’ll overtake your top competitor eventually. If you’re on the highway going 65 mph and you’re trying to catch someone going 60 mph, it’s only a matter of time before you catch up – no matter how much of a head start they have. If they slow down or stop, you’ll catch up even faster.
The big problem with this strategy is that it’s not economically efficient. Sure, you might be able to spend your way to rank one, but if you don’t generate enough organic traffic from that rank one position, it could end up being a loss.
In most cases, the better approach is to invest your money in more economically efficient strategies; why spend $15,000 a month outcompeting a dominant SEO player when you could spend $10,000 on PPC ads and get even more traffic? But every situation is unique and requires careful analysis.
- Prepare to spend. This is basically the “pay to win” strategy, so you need to be prepared to pay. If you have deep pockets, if you can land a major round of funding, or if you can pull money from your other marketing strategies to execute this feat, you can benefit tremendously. But this isn’t a good approach for startups, lean businesses, or other marketers that are juggling multiple priorities.
- Choose a reliable partner. It’s hard to tackle vicious competitors entirely on your own, so consider hiring an agency to help you with both strategy and execution. Your marketing agency can help you spend your money as efficiently as possible, no matter how much you scale in the future. They also typically have access to scalable resources, meaning they can provide you with all the content, links, technical insights, and promotion you need to remain competitive. Conversely, if you choose an inexperienced or problematic partner, no amount of spending can make you a viable threat.
- Pick your targets. Though this is the brute force strategy, it’s still important to be strategic and pick your targets wisely. Make sure you know who your top competitors are and strategically analyze whether you can truly outdo them. If a rival looks too big or too fortified for the limitations of your budget, consider an alternative approach.
- Practice ongoing monitoring. Your competitors aren’t going to remain stagnant as you begin to threaten them. As you spend more money and invest more heavily in competing with them, they’re likely to notice and double down on their own approach. You need to practice ongoing monitoring so you can detect this and escalate in response.
The Skyscraper Approach
The “skyscraper technique” is so named because it calls to mind the image of a city skyline filled with skyscrapers. The tallest skyscraper is the one that catches your attention first – and oftentimes, the one that becomes the representative symbol of the city. This desirable position has driven countless architects and civil engineers to engage in fierce competitions to outdo each other with taller, more attractive skyscrapers.
The skyscraper approach to battling competitors is functionally similar. But instead of building a single tall skyscraper in a single city, it’s more like building taller skyscrapers in a bunch of different cities.
Here’s what we mean by this. If your competitor has an awesome piece of content with tons of links pointing to it, your goal is to produce something even better – so you can attract even more links and outcompete them. If your competitor has a backlink profile with a dozen high-quality links, your goal is to earn similar links from the same sources – and then a few extra.
Keep this up, and it’s only a matter of time before you’re in a better SEO position.
You don’t need to pick fights on every front, of course; even a handful of superior assets can be valuable for your brand.
The biggest weakness of this approach is that it demands strategic focus. This is true of any SEO strategy, but it’s particularly important here, since you’ll need to outdo your competitors in “low-hanging fruit” areas that are both accessible and valuable. These points of vulnerability can be hard to find.
- Don’t take shortcuts. Quality and value are your greatest assets here, so you can’t afford to take any shortcuts. The goal is to build a taller skyscraper, but if you build one on a shaky foundation, it’s still going to collapse. Don’t rush through the content creation process and make sure your strategic additions are as valuable as possible.
- Start with strategic footholds. You don’t have to outclass your competitors on every piece of content or every page of their website. In fact, you may be able to get an edge over your competitors with even a few strategic wins. Start with footholds that are especially valuable, focusing on pillar pages and assets that seem to be especially important for your competitors. You can always expand in the future.
- Focus on promotion. Content promotion is perhaps even more important than content creation, assuming your new content is good enough to outshine your competitors’ content. Even if your work is superior in every way, it’s only going to make an impact if people get the opportunity to read it. Don’t be afraid to invest more heavily in social media promotion, advertising, and other tactics meant to circulate your publications.
- Don’t neglect unique differentiators. Don’t just copy what your competitors are doing while adding a few extra details. Focus on your unique differentiators. Show off your unique brand voice, appeal to your unique mix of target demographics, and try to make your new SEO assets completely your own.
The Antagonistic Approach
The antagonistic approach is more directly confrontational, putting you in a position to undermine your top competitors – or at least prove your comparative value.
Here, your goal isn’t necessarily to outcompete your rivals, but instead to position yourself as a meaningful alternative in an environment where they’d have near-exclusive control.
The most common territory to target here is branded keywords. Let’s say you sell paper towels and your biggest competitor is a brand called O-Sheets. O-Sheets would, by default, dominate the SERPs for any words or phrases containing “O-Sheets” or other branded terms. It’s practically impossible to outrank them for these terms – but you can aspire to reach rank two.
Let’s say you reach rank two with a piece of content like “Are O-Sheets Truly the Best Paper Towels?” On the page, you compare O-Sheets paper towels to yours, proving that yours are more absorbent, less expensive, and more comfortable to use. Even if you only capture a fraction of the traffic for O-Sheets branded terms, you’ll be siphoning traffic from your rivals and converting fans from their brand to yours.
You can also use a similar siphoning strategy in your PPC ad campaign.
Obviously, rank two isn’t quite as good as rank one, and if you start a direct brand conflict like this, you’re inviting retaliation. This approach is also limited in its potential; there are only so many branded terms to cover and only so much damage you can do.
- Pose as a neutral voice. Be honest: you’re biased. You think your brand is good and their brand sucks. But if you’re this overt in your antagonistic content, you’re going to turn readers away. Instead, you need to do your best to pose as a neutral voice and highlight both the strengths and weaknesses of all the brands you review.
- Be respectful. If you want to reduce the risk of retaliation (and potentially avoid a costly lawsuit), make your tone as respectful as possible. It’s going to make your competitors more tolerant of the work you’re doing while simultaneously showing your customers that you’re taking the high road.
- Be honest. Authenticity and honesty are important across all digital marketing strategies, but they’re especially important in an antagonistic SEO approach. Your high-ranking can actually work against you if readers believe you’re trying to deceive or manipulate them.
- Anticipate a response. Most brands aren’t going to take this kind of direct confrontation lying down. Anticipate a response, whether it’s an article debunking yours, a different “Pepsi challenge” style test, or a similarly antagonistic content move. Don’t start a war you aren’t prepared to fight.
The Avoidance Approach
We also have the avoidance approach. No, this isn’t about closing up your business because you can no longer compete. Instead, it’s about finding strategic ways to avoid directly confronting your competitors while still actively competing with them.
In most cases, this boils down to finding critical ways to differentiate your brand from those of your competitors. For example, you can sell slightly different products. You can reach a slightly different audience. You can target users in a different area or optimize for different groups of keywords.
Your goal is to find meaningful, valuable areas where your competitors aren’t so dominant; without these rivals standing in your way, you’ll have a clear path to the top of the SERPs.
There are a few small weaknesses with this approach, though it tends to perform consistently when used properly. For starters, your competitors are likely dominant in the most valuable areas of optimization. Choosing to avoid those in favor of less competitive ground means you’ll be pursuing inherently less valuable targets in most cases. Additionally, it’s hard to avoid competitors entirely; there may be fewer competitors or less fierce competitors in a new area, but you’ll still need to have some way to differentiate and improve the value of your work.
- Consider all the alternatives. There are many, many ways to avoid your competitors. You can target different groups of people. You can target different keywords. You can target people at different stages of the sales funnel or people with different intentions. All of these or none of these may work for you; what’s important is that you review all the possibilities and choose the ones that are the best fits.
- Get local. As you can imagine, local SEO is less expensive, more accessible, and less competitive than national SEO. There may be less traffic, but that’s a small cost for finding a way to outrank your top competitors.
- Strongly differentiate. For this strategy to work, you need to differentiate your brand as strongly as possible. What makes you unique? And how can you accentuate that across your SEO strategy?
- Prepare to contest when appropriate. After securing a strategic stronghold, your competitors may attempt to contest your position. Be prepared to defend it; once you’re established in a new area, you’ll have the advantage.
Hybrid and Other Approaches
Do note that you’re not limited to following any single approach or strategy. Instead, you can use a combination of these strategies or all of them together. For example, you can optimize for competitor branded keyword terms, avoid competitors by targeting a different audience, and still follow the skyscraper approach to outcompete them in specific areas.
Also, this list is not exhaustive. In some cases, it may pay to collaborate or directly partner up with your competitors, rather than pitting yourself against them. And of course, you’re free to exercise your own creativity to come up with a novel strategy.
Getting the SEO Help You Need
Are you dealing with SEO competitors you just can’t seem to dethrone?
Or are you ready to launch into your industry, guns blazing, to dominate the competitors who have been at the top too long?
We’ve got the strategists and resources you need to thrive.
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