Practical Ecommerce

Stalking Competitors’ SEO Tactics

Despite my contention that Internet marketers need to stop obsessing about rankings, an examination of the SEO tactics of competitors that outrank your site can be extremely enlightening. Stalking a competitor’s SEO tactics can uncover content optimization and link building opportunities that are already proving effective for other sites.

Have caution, though. Search engines rank pages based on hundreds of algorithmic signals. There is no way to discover every signal that could make a page rank No. 1, and no way to replicate that combination on another site. There are just too many factors involved. Still, SEO stalking is an effective way to jumpstart your program when you’ve implemented everything you can think of and it’s still not working.

Identifying the Keyword Target

Let’s say that your site sells books of poetry, and it is having trouble breaking into the top three rankings on Google for the search term “books of poetry.” The first question to ask is, “Am I sure that “books of poetry” is the keyword phrase I need to rank for?”

A quick check of the keyword data on Google’s Keyword Tool can help you avoid less valuable keyword phrases. In this case, the keyword market for “poetry books” is 126 times larger than the keyword market for “books of poetry.”

Screenshot of Google Keyword Tool results for "poetry books."

Screenshot of Google Keyword Tool results for “poetry books.”

Finding SEO Keyword Data

Google’s Keyword Tool offers fast and free access to keyword data. When identifying precise keyword targets, choose the “exact” match type, sort by “Local Search Volume,” and display the “Show Search Volume Trends.” This combination of data will identify which precise terms are the most valuable in your country/language pair based on last month’s search data, and the trend information shows how the seasonality for the term trends. (To really dig into seasonal trends, and how they impact annual keyword value, use a keyword annualizer tool).

Identifying SEO Competitors

With your targeted term solidly defined, identify your competitors by performing a keyword search on Google, in this case “poetry books”. Regardless of which companies a site owner imagines are his or her competition, the only true competitors in natural search are the ones that rank well.

Screenshot of Google search results for "poetry books."

Screenshot of Google search results for “poetry books.”

For instance, Barnes & Noble’s brick-and-mortar stores are a massively indisputable force in poetry books, but it does not even appear in the top five search results. The real competitors for the term “poetry books” are:

  2. (indented result)
  4. Powell’s Books
  5.’s poetry section (Note: Search results vary from day to day and individual results may not match this list.)

Analyzing the Competition

Digging into the on-page optimization and the backlinks pointing specifically to the ranking page can provide clues about what makes these pages rank in the top 5 on Google.

Interestingly, only was well-optimized on-page for the term “poetry books.” The title tag, HTML headings and body content all include the exact phrase, and supporting keyword phrases were used throughout the copy. The other pages in the top five ranking spots rarely used the exact keywords as a phrase, merely repeating the individual words “books,” “poetry,” and “poem” frequently.

On-page content optimization is often the first tactic implemented because it’s typically the most controllable aspect of SEO. But, time and again, the more powerful ranking factors tend to be links.

Amazon’s strength comes from link popularity. Its No. 1 ranked page has a Google toolbar PageRank of 6, with 1,671 external links displayed in Yahoo Site Explorer. Scanning the list of links turns up many relevant affiliates, such as The Courtland Review home page, and other links relevant only to Amazon. Of course, Amazon also has a massive amount of link popularity aggregated at the domain, which also helps boost rankings on individual pages.

The page for PoemHunter that Google ranks 3 in a search of “poetry books” is another interesting case of link popularity, with 715 external links pointing to it; although none of the links I sampled appeared legitimately earned. If I were actually competing with this page for rankings, I would take a thorough look through its backlinks to see if I could verify any shady activity.

On the other hand, Powell’s Books looks as if it has done some focused link building for poetry. A link from Poetry Foundation is particularly relevant, and Powell’s Books also has a few directory links built to the page for good measure.


Of the top 5 pages ranked by Google for “poetry books,” the page’s content optimization is the most imitable, and Powell Book’s backlinks are the most stalk-worthy. Targeting the tactics that the No. 4- and No. 5-ranked sites use to rank with Google for “poetry books” will probably not displace Amazon from its No. 1 ranking, but it demonstrates that stalking competitors’ SEO tactics can spark good ideas for tactics you can copy.

Jill Kocher Brown

Jill Kocher Brown

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  1. Louis Camassa January 20, 2010 Reply


    You mention a great point in that you need to have empirical data that the key phrase you choose to rank for will yield results. That is, there may be hundreds of thousands of searches for a specific key phrase, however, are those that are searching targeted visitors who will convert into customers?

    It seems sometimes the obvious key phrase is not the best converting key phrase. While the Google Keyword Tool will show you how many searches are performed, it won’t show you any data on the effectiveness of those key phrases. A nice and easy method for judging the effectiveness of the key phrases is to use Google Adwords, and record the success/failure of the campaign including the key phrases in question. Many times, the success (or lack thereof) of Google Adwords will carry over to SEO and the organic listings.

  2. Original Table Lamps January 21, 2010 Reply

    Interesting article Jill.

    Where you say "I would take a thorough look through its backlinks to see if I could verify any shady activity" when talking about Poemhunter, what do you recommend if you do find shady activity.

    When I do SEO tactic stalking on my competitors, I come across bought links, keyword stuffed pages, low quality directory links all the time, so it’s very tempting to copy these tactics.

    I get quite frustrated when I read all the SEO advice about playing by Google’s rules and then get outranked by competitors flouting almost every rule in the book.

    What do you suggest?

    Do you report offending sites to Google?

  3. Jill Kocher January 21, 2010 Reply

    Hi Louis, thanks for the comment. Agreed, conversions are critical to consider when deciding what to actually optimize for. Unfortunately, I often come across clients with executive management that demand rankings for trophy phrases from a brand visibility standpoint, regardless of whether those phrases convert to sales. I usually tilt at that windmill with their analytics data. If you can get 10,000 visits on a head keyword phrase that converts at .2% or 1,000 visits at 2%, it’s a bit of a wash at 20 orders either way for the keyword phrase. But if you get 10,000 visits for a keyword phrase that convert at .2% or target a phrase that could net 1,000 visits at 4% conversion, then you can double your orders by targeting the less popular term that converts more strongly. Really depends on whether the goal is branding or revenue. Usually it’s both.

  4. Jill Kocher January 21, 2010 Reply

    There’s a tricky question, Original. It comes down to your business’s tolerance for risk. I tend to work primarily with large global brands who have a very low tolerance for risk, as do I, so my advice tends toward more conservative "white-hat" SEO strategies. Even if the competition is stuffing and spamming and worse, I don’t recommend following suit because it’s not worth the risk of getting dampened or worse for the brands I represent. Begging for reinclusion is a nebulous, lengthy and stressful process.

    A site with less to lose or a higher risk tolerance may be OK with trying shady tactics that work for the competition. A site owner should ask himself this, though: If their natural search traffic and revenue were cut in half tomorrow, what impact would it have on their business? And could they wait 6 months to see resolution, assuming they knew what to do to fix it?

    I agree, it’s frustrating when competition uses unethical tactics. If you’re going to report them, I recommend being extremely specific about the unethical tactics used and the pages they’re used on. Also, be very certain that there aren’t any skeletons hiding in your own closet first.

  5. Louis Camassa January 22, 2010 Reply

    Jill – good point-understand where you are coming from regarding the trophy keywords. Like you said, it really depends on the client. Since I deal with smaller businesses, many of them can’t afford to invest money without seeing a clear ROI. Depending on the competitiveness of the keyword, it could take a great deal of money and time to rank-why not invest that time and money on a sure win?

  6. Puzzles290 January 28, 2010 Reply

    Hi Jill,

    I know it is a little off topic. But why are there NO paid ads for search terms like Optical Illusions or Poker Games (or only occasionally does one show up ?) Does the cost per click rise so high that no one advertises ?

    Second, a lot of effort and expense can go into the ‘Black box" of improving a small businesses’ organic results and then the rules change or some other merchant moves ahead. Seems like an expensive race to nowhere.

    Third, do you think Google will ever stop separating search results into paid and organic sections? Is there any real difference for someone who is searching for a specific product to purchase ? I cannot see much difference between the two categories. Seems like a very artificial differentiation (and somewhat worthless demarcation as far as the customer is concerned) .

    Thanks for your comments.

    John LeClair

  7. Karla Patterson January 29, 2010 Reply

    It’s important to remember why Google changes things so often. They are simply trying to give us the ability to locate what we wish to locate. An important aspect of SEO is to describe your products and services in the way that people are searching for them. That is why the techniques mentioned in this article are helpful. Using keyword and conversion research shows what keyword phrases are effective, which means "that is the way in which your customers search for your products and services". As a consumer, I appreciate search engines and those lovely people who make finding information simple and easy.