It takes a long time for content strategy to start paying dividends. You have to do your brand research as well as your audience and user intent modelling.
After that, you need to set up and analyze your content inventory to find strengths, weaknesses and gaps. There are several rounds of keyword research, and then there’s the writing, editing and publishing. Then, it takes a few months to find the right publishing cadence.
It could be a year or two before you really figure out an effective content marketing plan.
But what if you could speed up that process just a little bit and at the same time get a leg up on your competitor?
In this article, we explore combining a competitive analysis (also called competitive cohort modeling) with a deep understanding of user intent to create quality content that puts you ahead of your competitors.
How Google Is Improving Search Experience
First, let’s talk about why it’s so important to create the highest-quality content possible to stay one step ahead.
That reason can be summed up in one word: Google.
Google is serious about improving search experience. So serious, in fact, they’ve created a 164-page document called the Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines that every human evaluator must read.
In it, they explain how they define both high- and low-quality pages, how to spot deceptive content and how to evaluate a website for EAT (expertise, authority and trustworthiness), among other benchmarks for ranking sites.
Reading the guidelines helps you get into the heads of the human evaluators. All of your content creators should bookmark this document and refer to it regularly.
That said, it’s a lot to take in at once. What you really need to remember boils down to four areas.
When we talk about topics, keep in mind that they haven’t replaced keywords. Keywords are still very important in signalling to search engines what your content is about and how to rank it.
Your focus topic is the framework for your entire piece and it helps you choose the right keywords for your article.
What’s important to remember about keywords and topics is that Google is looking at them from the perspective of the search query. How well does your topic and keyword match a user’s search query? And how well does the piece as a whole match the intent of that query?
When Google algorithms and evaluators look at your content, they’re trying to determine if your content is relevant to a user’s search query.
It’s not enough to include the right keywords or title tags. What you really need is rich, well-researched content that matches the intent of a user’s query.
If your user is looking for New Year’s Eve activities for families in their area, they most likely don’t want lists of nightclubs holding parties. They probably want daytime activities the kids will love.
Your piece should get into the mind of the user to understand what it is they’re searching for.
When Google finds content that matches your search query exactly, they are reinforcing their own credibility as a search engine. If you use Google to figure out how to fix a leaky pipe or find a good recipe for pho and you get exactly what you were looking for, you’re more likely to go back and use Google for your next query.
Google wants that, so they will reward the content that best matches search queries.
That said, Google is going to display content that solves problems and displays subject matter expertise first.
Google will use their human evaluators to look at the topics you’re covering to see how authoritative and comprehensive you are on those topics.
Do you present well-researched evidence from reliable resources? If you’re WebMD, for example, do you have doctors writing your posts?
Have you covered all the angles of your topic using topic clusters? Again, if you’re WebMD writing an article on a complex genetic disorder, have you written one cursory blog post or have you created a cluster that covers symptoms, diagnosis, treatments and support for those suffering from it?
We’ll say it again: Google wants to go beyond simple queries and really figure out what a user is trying to find. To do that, they want to serve relevant results based on a user’s location, search history and the words of the query itself to determine what a user really wants from their query.
They do this with a search engine optimization algorithm called RankBrain that uses machine learning to learn a user’s true intent.
Let’s say you’re searching for a good Thai restaurant in your area. When you type in Thai restaurant, you probably get a search suggestion for Thai restaurant near me. RankBrain is running your query through an interpretation model to better understand what you’re looking for.
It figures you want a Thai restaurant in your neighborhood rather than the best Thai restaurant in New York City (unless you live there).
If you include clues like location in your content to help Google understand where you are, they’re more likely to serve up your Thai restaurant to people in your area.
As we talk about using a competitive analysis to create quality content, keep in mind these four items Google uses to assess quality.
Think of yourself as one of those human evaluators at Google, trying to figure out if your competitor’s content is quality, where they have missed the mark and how you can fill those gaps with your own content.
Why Should You Conduct a Competitive Analysis?
Doing a competitive analysis to create your own quality content is an efficient and cost-effective way to get ahead in your market space.
In fact, you should go beyond an analysis and create a documented content strategy for your competitor to figure out when and what they publish, what topics they rank on and what you think their content strategy for the coming year will be.
In that document, you can lay out who’s writing, how their resources have changed, what they typically publish, what was successful, what was high-quality and what you can expect them to do next.
Here’s how doing this can benefit different stakeholders in a business’s content marketing plan.
Authority Website Owners
A consistent competitor analysis process will improve site trajectory, no matter what stage your business and your online presence is at. Your content will perform better simply by knowing what your competitors are doing and making your content that much better.
Brokers and Portfolio Owners
You can assess the value of the competition by understanding their content inventory, their production process and publishing cadence and the strategy behind it. You can then increase your own value by working to meet or beat their process.
Content marketers and editorial teams have limited resources. Trying to be everything to everyone results in a whole lot of topics covered at the expense of your quality rating.
Use those resources wisely by targeting a very specific content area, namely the terms your competitors are creating.
Agencies who can walk into a meeting understanding not only their prospect’s content creation process, but that of their competitors as well, will instantly build rapport. If you can predict what a competitor will do and provide a content plan for your prospect, you stand a good chance of landing them as a client.
How to Complete a Competitive Content Inventory
The first step in doing a competitive analysis for content strategy is to complete a competitive content inventory.
This process really isn’t much different from completing your own content inventory.
Pick a Competitor
You probably have more than one competitor. Picking the right one to get started with will make this process a lot easier the first time around, and it will help you replicate the process with other competitors.
Choose a competitor who has similar on- and off-page authority as you. Chances are, you’ll have similar content and it will be easier to rank against theirs.
The best scenario is a competitor running a zombie site, a site that hasn’t seen new content or content updates in years. That gives you ample opportunity to find gaps and opportunities in their content.
Perform a Traditional Content Inventory
Content Types and Intent Profiles
Once you have all their data in a spreadsheet, break down the page types they have (blog, product pages, etc), who they’re speaking to through those pages and what stages of the buyer journey they address.
Their blog pages are most likely addressing the awareness stage, where their white papers might address the decision stage.
Find the pages that address the metrics you care about, whether that be keywords you want to rank for or pages that are getting traffic you want. Then determine which of those pages are performing well for them and which ones they’re putting the most effort into.
Those pages will be the top 10 or 20 pages you’ll use for a manual content analysis, just like you would do for your own content. Those are the pages you will assess for strong or weak content, content gaps and content creation opportunities.
Assessing Current Value and Strategy
Next, go back to SEMRush or whatever tool you’re using to determine their current strategy. From analysis tools like SEMRush or Ahrefs, figure out how often they publish new content, how quickly their content ranks and what the life cycle of a piece of content is.
Determine how often they update content, as well. It may be that they update content fairly frequently, or they could still be pulling in pageviews from content they created a few years ago and haven’t touched since.
Hint: You can use a site like The Wayback Machine to see how often content is created and updated, as well.
Finding content like that is a big opportunity for you. You can evaluate that content for gaps that have arisen with the passage of time and fill those gaps with your own content.
Alignment and Performance
Finally, look at those pieces that perform well and determine whether they match user intent or if there’s intent mismatch.
If your competitor is ranking well on content that doesn’t match user intent, that’s a bonus for you. That means you can create a page on that topic that does match user intent and get some users over to your site.
Semantic Content Optimization
At this point, you’ve looked at their content and their topics as a whole. The next step is to go back to those top pages you’ve parsed out and comb through each piece to figure out how you can take those same topics and do one better.
Dissect Competitive Content
Look at each piece and list out the topics, titles, subheads, the questions it answers and what each section contains.
Assess Topics and Target Improvements
Now go through and assess all that information. Identify subtopics or relevant keywords they missed. Maybe they missed whole sections of a topic. If they’re covering a genetic disorder, maybe they covered symptoms but not how to alleviate those symptoms.
Make a list of improvements for each piece that would make it the absolute best, most authoritative piece on that topic.
Appeal to More User Intent Profiles
In addition to expanding on topics, you can appeal to more user intent profiles by including more topics. If your competitor’s content on certain genetic disorders is performing well, maybe you create topic clusters on other genetic disorders that affect the same part of the body.
Stay One Step Ahead and Assess Risks
Finally, look back at your own content. Are there pieces you haven’t updated in a long time that could possibly stand up to your competitor’s high-performing content. Could it fill gaps your competitor has?
Crank It Up to 11
Take all this information you’ve collected and use it to build a content strategy for your competitor. Determine their strengths and weaknesses, understand their budget and staffing constraints, figure out the intent of their content and then build out what you would do next.
Then, use that to build your own content strategy.
Find the content opportunities your competitor is not taking advantage of and create and publish that content, but do it better.
Answer more user intent profiles.
If they have a section, build a page. If they have a page, build a cluster. That cluster contains comprehensive guides and thought-provoking angles on whatever topic you’re addressing.
Tie It All Together With Creativity and Expertise
Finally, hire the creatives and subject matter experts that can bring your content strategy to life. You made the plan. Now let your writers, editors and designers add the details that will make your content the best user experience for your audience.
If you can anticipate your competitor’s content strategy — do the analysis and find the gaps and opportunities — if you can create content that is always better, it will change the trajectory of your business in the long term.