The art of SEO warfare: how to gain a competitive advantage

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The art of SEO warfare: how to gain a competitive advantage

Throughout the short but turbulent history of the Web, businesses have attempted all kinds of strategies to gain a competitive advantage over rivals in their industry, not all of which were very ethical and many of which resulted in the unfortunate Web users having to wade through page after page of spam in their search results.  Which is exactly why today Google takes rapid punitive action against any website that it believes is attempting those underhanded strategies.

Therefore what worked in the past certainly won’t work today.  If you want success, you can’t simply buy it from a link farm, you have to earn it by creating a website that’s good enough that it naturally ascends to the top by osmosis, or at least by paying various professionals to produce such a website for you.  What does that mean?  It means investing in quality, because it is only quality that will keep you on top.  It also means keeping an eye on what your rivals are doing, so your position will be unassailable.

If you doubt the veracity of the above statements, just think about your own web surfing behavior.  If you’re like most people, you skip straight past sponsored links in search engine results pages because you instinctively know they haven’t earned their place at the top.  You know that you need to go to the first site that actually didn’t pay to be listed first in order to ensure that you’ll find what you’re looking for.  So earning your place is absolutely the most important thing contributing to your prospects for success.

The five elements General Sun Tsu identified as essential for securing victory in warfare are:

  1. Survey the battleground (“measurement”)
  2. Gather intelligence about the enemy (“estimation of quantity”)
  3. Plan your method of attack (“calculation”)
  4. Assess your chances of winning (“balancing of chances”)
  5. Engage and defeat the enemy (“victory”)

Now let’s take a look at how you can apply these elements to your SEO strategy to create the best chance of winning.

The first step in achieving dominance over your rivals is to identify them.  In the past that was simple.  If you ran a printing shop in Manhattan, you only had to know who else had printing shops near you, and maybe in nearby towns.  Today you could have millions of competitors from anywhere in the world.  Their websites are competing with yours to gain the attention of Web users.

Fortunately it’s quite easy to find out who your main rivals are.  In warfare, you send out scouts to locate the enemy camp.  You can do something similar, but your “scouts” will be the main keywords and phrases you associate with whatever it is you are selling.  The terrain you’ll be scouting will be Google, and the enemy camps are the cluster of websites you encounter for each of your key phrases.

In the case of our print shop example, the key phrases might be “print shops manhattan”, “best print shops”, and “new york print shops”.  In the image below, you can see the search engine results returned for the least of these examples.  These are the “enemy camps” your scouts have located.

Once you know who you have to beat, you have to gain some insight into how you’re going to beat them.  Sun Tsu once said that “the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself”. In our model of warfare this is as true as ever, because our competitors must expose all the information that can help you achieve success over them.  They have no choice in this matter.

The steps you need to take are:

 a) Find out who is linking to them

The tool of choice here is Majestic Site Explorer, which analyses all the links pointing to a site and indexes the relative strength of them, along with a whole slew of other great features.

b) Analyse the quality of the links

Backlinks are really only as good as the site that provides them.  You want to have more authoritative domains pointing to your site than your competitors have, and less “non-authoritative” sites pointing to you.  First head to Moz Open Site Explorer and analyse the competing URL.

Then extract the data and insert it into the Link Profile Tool created by Tom Anthony (it’s just a Google Spreadsheet, but it can tell you a lot).

c) Determine what content is working best for them

The golden rule of website success is that your content has to be good enough that other people want to share and discuss it.  You can find out who is sharing what and where by using BuzzSumo.

Now you know your rival’s strengths and weaknesses, it is time to develop a strategy to defeat them.  Work out with your development and content creation team what can be done to gain an edge.  This could include:

  • Redesigning your pages
  • Developing new content
  • Improving the quality of your existing content
  • Rewording your existing content for better effect
  • Ensuring your outbound links are only to quality content
  • Generating quality inbound links to your site

Sounds simple, because it is!

Don’t go into battle unless you are confident you are as fit as you can possibly be.  This means you examine your strengths compared to the enemy’s weaknesses, and your own weaknesses compared to the enemy’s strengths.  If you find you’re coming up short, revise and refine your content before launching your assault in the Google battlefield.

At this point, you’ve deployed all your forces and you face the anxious wait for news from the battlefield.  This news will come to you in the form of analytic feedback about the performance of your site using all the aforementioned tools and others such as SEMrush and your web server’s analytic tools.

If you have done all of the above properly, it’s just a matter of time before you see the fruits of your labors.  Don’t expect an instant or easy victory—this is a siege campaign, not a skirmish.  It will take some time for the plan to work, but you should start to see your site moving up in position.  Once you get to the top, you only have to keep an eye out for newcomers looking to usurp your position.  As the time-worn saying goes, it’s rough at the top.