The Internet Marketing Driver: Glenn Gabe's goal is to help marketers build powerful and measurable web marketing strategies.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Check Your Search Engine Rankings, Why Your Competitors in Organic Search Might Not Always Be Who You Think They Are

Finding your actual competition in organic search.When beginning a new SEO project, there are some questions that always come up during initial meetings. How does organic search work? Which keywords should we target? Do we need to redesign our entire website? And…how do we compare to our competition in natural search? I’m going to focus on the last question in this post, because there’s an important point I’d like to make. Whenever I ask someone who their competition is in natural search, I typically hear the names of their core competitors (business-wise). Although that’s true in a pure business sense, that’s not necessarily the case in natural search. So, I often run a competitive position analysis to determine where a site ranks in the search engines as compared to its competition. It helps you (and your client) understand who their actual competition is and then sets the stage for deeper competitive analysis.

Don’t drop names with Google…
Outside of search, you might be able to throw a big brand name around and get somewhere. Unfortunately, the search engines don’t necessarily care. That’s one of the reasons you’ll see all types of websites ranking for highly competitive keywords. Actually, I’d argue that some smaller online businesses can easily outmaneuver larger websites and companies in SEO. When it comes down to it, the engines care about quality content, a good user experience, relevancy, and popularity. In other words, create outstanding content that can be easily crawled and indexed, optimize that content based on keyword research, make it easy for your visitors to find and use your content, and if those visitors find that content valuable, you might gain important inbound links (AKA votes). If that happens, subsequent rankings can follow… BTW, you’ll notice I didn’t mention that you need to be a big brand or a multi-billion dollar company to do this. That’s part of the reason blogs have become so powerful. They give the small guy a voice…and that small guy can often outrank large companies in the SERPs. Empowering, yes? Scary to large businesses and big brands, you bet.

Seriously? That’s My Competition in Natural Search??
Yes, I hear this often (with a few other words that I cannot put on my blog!) Once you run a position analysis using competitive keywords (based on keyword research), you and your client can clearly see who owns the SERPs for those keywords. Sure, the rankings can change over time, but you have a snapshot of which sites are ranking at that point in time. Then, you can take the next step and perform a competitive analysis to help you determine what type of content ranks, how the websites structure their content, and which sites link to them. Remember, quality and relevant inbound links are the lifeblood of SEO.

Let’s take a look at a few examples:
Note, since search engine rankings change often, you might not see the same exact results that I did during my test.

Flatscreen TVs
HD TV’s are obviously hot, so let’s check out a competitive keyword like flatscreen tvs:

Google search rankings for flatscreen tvs.

This is a great example. There are only 2 manufacturers in the top 10 (Samsung at #7 and Westinghouse Digital at #10, which isn't visible in the screenshot above). More on Samsung in a minute. The rest of the sites include reviews, news stories, a buying guide, an e-commerce website, etc. I’ll bet if you walked into LG, Panasonic or Samsung and asked who they compete with in natural search for a keyword like flatscreen tv's, you would hear the other big brands and not the sites in this list. Note, Samsung was pretty smart with creating the page that ranks on their website. Someone at Samsung (cough, cough, SEO guy), understood what people are searching for and provided that content on (Pagerank 8...) There are other good things about this page that I'd like to cover, but that’s for another post. :)

Cabernet Sauvignon
Any wine drinkers out there? Imagine you owned a winery and had an award winning cab? You would probably want to rank highly, right? Let’s see which sites rank for the keyword cabernet sauvignon:

Google search rankings for cabernet sauvignon.

Wow, I’m not exactly a wine connoisseur, but I don’t see any popular wine brands here (other than in the shopping results, which I'll tackle in a minute). You have Wikipedia (big surprise),, an article about Obama, and then a spattering of other wine-related educational pages. Needless to say, this list of websites is probably not what a leading winery would expect to find ranking for cabernet sauvignon.

Enter Universal Search: Also, in the middle of the page you will see shopping results listed. This is Universal Search in action, where Google is mixing additional types of results within the organic rankings. More on this below, but you should start to think about all the different ways you can rank in organic search beyond traditional webpage content. For example, video, images, news, shopping, local, etc.

HD Video Camera
HD Video is all the rage, let’s take a look at the keyword HD Video Camera:

Google search rankings for hd video camera.

Very interesting. There’s only one big brand in the list (Canon at #4). The rest of the list includes reviews at cnet, an announcement from, two YouTube videos (more on this in a minute), some news results, and then Again, if you walked into Sony, Panasonic, or Canon, do you think they would guess that they are competing against YouTube videos? Probably not. On that note, you can see Universal Search in action here again, with two video thumbnails in the organic results (at least at the time of my test). One is from Tiger Direct and the other is from Chris Pirillo! Great job Chris, you outrank major manufacturers of HD video cameras. :)

So, if you haven’t started thinking about Universal Search and the impact that it can have, just take a closer look at the screenshot above. I think you’ll change your mind. There's also a news result right under the video thumbnails. Both the video results and news results are powerful, especially since they have thumbnails associated with them. If you are interested in learning more about optimizing your video content, then check out my post about Video SEO.

Fuel Efficient Cars
Based on the spike in gasoline prices during 2008, let’s check out a search for fuel efficient cars:

Google search rankings for fuel efficient cars.

Holy smokes, there’s not 1 car manufacturer in the list. Not 1. I highly doubt that Ford, Honda, Toyota, Chrysler, and GM would take me seriously if I walked in and said that they compete with a government agency, a green publication, and a newspaper in natural search! That said, you need content on your site in order to rank... I was shocked to see several car manufacturer websites without a single occurrence of the keyword fuel efficient cars. I had to check a few times to believe it...

You will also see another example of Universal Search in the screenshot above. Google is providing news results mixed in the organic rankings (in the middle of the page). This is just another reason to start thinking about all of the ways to rank in organic search (and the different types of content you can optimize). All of your digital assets come into play with universal search.

So, are you ready to conduct a position analysis?
OK, I think you get the point. Performing a position analysis is an important step in understanding your actual competition in natural search. I would begin the process by identifying your competitive keywords via extensive keyword research and then determine where you rank against your competition for those keywords. Then, once you know the competition, you should complete a thorough competitive analysis to see how you can strengthen your organic search power and increase your search engine rankings.

Good luck and be ready for some interesting looks as you tell people who they really compete with in natural search. :)


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  • At 9:00 AM, Anonymous Scott Malish said…

    Very cool post. It is enlightening that a company's biggest competitors in the offline world may not be their biggest competitors online (in terms of SEO).

  • At 9:53 AM, Blogger Glenn Gabe said…

    Thanks Scott. Yes, finding your actual competitors in natural search is often a shock for companies. ;) And now universal search provides several more ways to rank for competitive keywords. I find running a position analysis is always an important step in the beginning (and sets the stage for a deeper competitive analysis).


  • At 10:54 AM, Anonymous Mike M said…

    While I generally agree with your points in this article, it's also important to note, that the major brands in these arenas are mentioned significantly in the posts by their "competitors". Such general terms (fuel efficient cars, for example) are leads that are not very far in the buying process (although admittedly if you can catch them at this general stage, so much the better.)

    I'm not sure, though. Can you buy a HD TV direct from Panasonic? A fuel efficient car direct from Toyota? An HD Camcorder direct from Canon?

    In big brand competition, where the company itself does not sell their products direct to the consumer, why wouldn't they opt to let reviewers, dealerships, e-commerce store owners (and even an occasional internal "evangelist") do their online organic marketing for them?

    Unless I'm missing something, what I think you are saying is that the big brand manufacturers should use their brand named web site with a dominant page rank and inbound links to specifically target general organic search terms to attempt to educate the customer (who is early on in their buying process) and attempt to educate them and convert them to a customer.

    How would they do that? Direct them to their distributor channel and let the consumer then choose which store they'd prefer to give their business?

  • At 11:21 AM, Blogger Glenn Gabe said…

    @Mike M, thanks for your comment. The core point of my post is that many times companies don't know who they are actually competing with in natural search. I used big brands and manufacturers b/c they are good examples. They sometimes think they are competing with other big brands/companies, when in reality, they may be competing with many types of websites and businesses (and various types of content). That's a good segue. :)

    I also wanted to point out how important Universal Search is and how it opens up several additional opportunities to rank in organic search (video, shopping, news, images, etc.) Many companies don't know that's even possible.

    Regarding large brands ranking for competitive keywords, they absolutely can...they just need to be creative and provide quality content that matches what people are searching for. The days of simply providing your product specs are over. You need to take it to the next level. That's probably for another post, though. :)


  • At 3:06 PM, Blogger Drive Thru Interactive said…

    Nice article. I agree, the opportunity for brands to delve more into universal search will help them perform in the organic listings in the SERPs.

    I have a question: Why weren't the paid search results included in your screenshots? I understand the article is focused on organic results, but those particular searches deal with very popular keywords, where the results have a prominent display of PPC ads above the fold. Coincidentally, this is the space where most big brands will play: instant placement with accurate measurement. I'm interested to hear your thoughts on this (going organic vs. PPC).

    For the "cabernet sauvignon" search results highlighted in your article, you can see prominent placement given to the Google Product Search results, but big brands (wine producers, wineries, etc.) may not be able to take advantage of this aspect of universal search, due to distribution restrictions and laws about selling wine direct to consumer.

    Thanks for the article, regular reader,


  • At 8:44 AM, Blogger Glenn Gabe said…

    @Rick, great points and questions. Yes, my post definitely focused on organic search and I will probably write another focusing on Paid Search in the future (since it's a very different animal). There would be too much to cover between both organic and paid in one post. But your point is a good one, since many companies don't know who they are competing with in Paid either!

    Also, I focused on head terms to make the post easier to break down and follow. You can absolutely start to dig deeper with mid to longer tail terms. I've written about the power of the long tail of seo in the past, and I know many companies don't think about that aspect of Search enough.

    Regarding limitations on what certain companies can sell and my example of Cabernet Sauvignon, my core point was to reveal that Universal Search is becoming an important part of Natural Search. There will always be limitations for certain companies (across various industries), some company-driven and others industry-driven. But, there are many things that those companies can still do to optimize all of their digital assets. i.e. Maybe a company doesn't provide a feed of products, but instead creates a series of videos about their industry, product, service, etc. Maybe they optimize their press releases and focus on news results, write a series of blog posts that focus on an industry event or change, so on and so forth. The possibilities are endless.

    Thanks for your comment and I'm glad to hear you are a regular reader.


  • At 8:42 PM, Anonymous Matt Leonard said…

    Great post. It's been a while since I wandered over here and it's great to see such informative stuff. Just much do you see Google's results as a litmus test of what people are searching for? Since there were only 2 flatscreen manufacturers on Page 1, for example, do you think that Google interprets user interest in that query to mean that users typing "flatscreen tvs" generally are seeking reviews and commerce? Or do you think it's just good SEO and no bias? I hope all is well and still love the info.

  • At 1:12 PM, Blogger Glenn Gabe said…

    Thanks Matt. I'm glad you are finding my posts informative! You brought up a great question. I talk about the long tail of SEO a lot (as mentioned above), so understanding your competition for head, torso, and long tail terms is also extremely important. I used head terms in my examples, and you saw the results... Taking a quick look at some longer tail terms like hd flatscreen tvs, flatscreen tvs 1080p, 50 inch hd flatscreen tvs, etc. show the same type of results.

    If I was the SEO consultant or in-house SEO for the manufacturers and brands that are non-existent in the SERPs, I would start testing ASAP. I can think of several angles for them actually... Maybe that's a future blog post! ;)


  • At 2:36 PM, Anonymous Mike said…

    Good reads. Just found your information and find it very informative. Changing the channel for a minute to naive client who has requested our company to get creative and innovative in order to get his business (and over 200 clients) listed on the engines. Of course, we offer only ethical SEO services, however our potential client thinks he is an expert on SEO and believes there are better ways to compete. Your thoughts.

  • At 7:50 PM, Blogger Glenn Gabe said…

    Hi Mike. I'm glad you liked my post. I don't envy your situation and I'd be careful with your client. I agree with you about using 100% white hat, ethical seo services. Don't bend the rules... It's not worth it.

    I hope to see you back here often! I'd love to hear your thoughts about seo, sem, social media marketing, etc.



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