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Gathering competitive intelligence is an often overlooked strategy for ecommerce merchants.

Sometimes the best way to take your ecommerce store to the next level is by gaining a deep understanding of how your competitors operate. If you don't know what your competitors are doing, it's difficult to make intelligent decisions that will keep your current customers, and entice new ones. This guide will show you how to identify your top 5 competitors and show you 8 tools that will help you gather in-depth information on your competitors strengths and weaknesses. 

Identify Your Top 5 Competitors

You’ll want to see which competitors rank the highest in Google for keywords specific to your industry. Make a list of the top keywords that bring you traffic, and enter them into Google. If you don't have an ecommerce store yet and are doing pre-launch research, simply search for relevant keywords. Make sure you're browsing incognito and you're in the appropriate regional zone (if you want US search results and you're outside the US add &gl=us to the end of the search URL). Make note of who is ranking on the first page. You should also type "related:www.yourURL.com" in the Google search field to get a list of companies that are similar to yours. 

List the Good, Bad, & Ugly

Now that you know who you're up against, start browsing through your competitor’s online stores. Get a good feel for their site, and make a list of all the things you like, and all the things you don’t like. Ask yourself these questions: 

  • How do they emphasis their value proposition?
  • What are their prices like compared to yours?
  • What is their product photography like, and how are their product descriptions?
  • What are their shipping options and prices like?
  • Where are their call to actions, and how obvious are they?
  • Are they trying to build an email list?
  • Is their site optimized for mobile?
  • What is their social media presence like; which platforms do they use; how often do they interact with customers, and how do they speak with their customers?

Now that you have a list of your top 5 competitors, and you have done basic research on how they operate, it's time to dig deeper. Use some of the tools below (some paid, most free) to gather in-depth information on what they're doing.

Gather Competitive Intelligence Using These Research Tools

Alexa

Alexa's been around since 1996. It's a (mostly) free service that will help you analyze traffic on your competitor’s ecommerce store. Type in your competitors URL and Alexa will give you their global traffic rank, number of sites linking in, search analytics, audience insight, average site load time, and a whole lot more. You can really dig deep with Alexa, but it's important to note that there are inaccuracies with Alexa's information, since they get their data from those who have installed their toolbar for IE and Firefox or installed their Google Chrome extension. Take the numbers with a grain of salt.   


SEO Book: Page Similarity Comparison Tool

With this service you can easily compare page titles, meta information, and common phrases on your competitors homepages. I suggest including your URL in a search with your top 5 competitors. I used Coke and Pepsi as an example:


Google AdWords Keyword Tool

This service will allow you to easily analyze keywords and the amount of traffic generated by those keywords. It also allows you to narrow down your search by including URLs and specific categories, such as apparel, cosmetics, or whatever. You can use Google AdWords Keyword Tool to estimate how much your competition is paying per click for their ads. Also, you should use Google Traffic Estimator to find out the number of ad clicks and current bid prices for various keywords. 


Internet Archive 

Internet Archive has been crawling the internet and taking snapshots of webpages since 1996. Using their free Wayback Machine you can see what a website looked like throughout the years. By looking at the history of your competitors websites you can plot trends in design and pricing changes. Do they dress their homepage up for Christmas every year? How has their positioning changed - could they be moving to address your market? Sometimes you can learn a lot from the subtle changes your competitors make on their site. Since 2006, Internet Archive has taken over 600 screen captures of Shopify's homepage. As an example, below you'll see what our homepage looked like on November 2, 2009.  


DomainTools: Whois 

Type your competitors URL in Whois and you'll receive a comprehensive record of that domain, including: date registered, contact info, server stats, links in/out, and other domains the registrant owns. 

 


SpyFu

This is a paid service ($79/month) that lets you spy on your competitor's AdWords and keywords. SpyFu really lets you dig deep. You'll be able to see what worked and what didn't work for your competitors AdWords campaigns. When you can trace the steps of your competition, you can avoid the mistakes they made.. it's like they're doing market testing for you.



Open Site Explorer

This service has a limited free plan and a paid service that is $99/month. Here you can compare your online store with up to four competitors on page authority, domain authority, linking root domains, total links, and with the pro version, you can also compare social stats. I like using Open Site Explorer to quickly see who is linking to the Shopify blog and what kind of impact it may have on our SEO. You can search your competitors ecommerce store and see not only who is linking to them, but what authority they have. 


Google Alerts

With this free service from Google, you can receive email updates of the latest relevant Google results (web, news, etc.) based on your queries. You should already have Google Alerts set up for your online store name, but it's important to set up alerts for your competition as well. I would also suggest you get alerts for key industry terms, so you can easily monitor the broader market for new developments that could affect your ecommerce business.

 


The Aftermath

Now that you have assessed your competitor’s sites, you’ll want to start analyzing your own ecommerce store. Try and objectively look at your online store and see how it can be improved. Use all the tactics you used on your competition and be as critical as possible. It's also important to bring an unbiased set of eyes in to give their opinion.

So now that you have all this information, what should you do? Use your learnings to optimize your ecommerce store. Try and take advantage of your competitors weaknesses. If they're clearly beating you in some areas, pull up your socks and become more competitive. Remember, to remain competitive it's important to operate with flexibility and be able to pivot your direction. But that's not to say you should simply try and please everybody. You don't want to bite off more than you can chew, and you certainly don't want to lose whatever it is that makes you unique.