May 31, 2011, 5:35 PM

Why Spy?

From free to pricey, retailers have many tools for keeping tabs on their online competitors.

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Retailers have always walked competitors' stores, noting which products rivals were promoting and how much they charged. On the Internet, retailers can gather competitive intelligence more efficiently, thanks to a plethora of tools that track web traffic, search marketing spend, pricing and other key metrics.

Chris Long has used many of those tools since taking over two years ago as senior vice president of e-commerce and marketing at L-com Inc., a supplier of specialty cables, mainly to large organizations like hospitals and the military.

But before he began spending on technology, he employed the free brute-force method of searching on Google for the 25 terms he considered most critical to driving traffic to L-com.com. He wanted to see who ranked ahead of L-com on those terms.

"You need to take a good, hard look at everybody who is on the list ahead of you," Long says. "Until you know who, you can't really ask why."

What Long found was that L-com trailed, not just major competitors, but also "tiny companies with no brand recognition. It's one thing for Wikipedia to rank ahead of us, but Fred's Cable? That's unacceptable."

Those results set Long on a course of improving L-com's ranking in natural search results and, subsequently, paid search advertising. As performance improved, he employed not just free tools but also paid services that provide more detailed information about competitors' strategies.

Long's strategy illustrates the range of options available to retailers seeking intelligence about how online rivals are generating search engine traffic, what their prices are and which products they're promoting most heavily. There are helpful free tools, low-cost tools for a few hundred dollars, and expensive services that can cost thousands but provide granular detail about how a retailer stacks up against rivals in a particular category or even on a single SKU.

And while the web offers unprecedented quantitative data—because clicks can be tracked and web sites scraped by automated systems—there are also many ways retailers can gather qualitative information from rivals' e-mails and social networking posts that can provide important insights.

Searching for answers

Free and low-cost tools are especially abundant for providing quantifiable data about competitors' search marketing strategies. And Long made good use of them as he sought to move L-com.com up in natural and paid search results.

After first checking his site's rank on 25 important keywords, he and his staff used the free Google Analytics tool to come up with a list of 150 frequently searched-for terms related to the products L-com.com sells. Rather than tracking those terms manually, Long turned to Rank Tracker, a tool from Link-Assistant.com that lets a retailer enter the terms he wants to follow, then provides daily reports on where the subscriber's site ranks for each term. A single license costs $99.75.

"Once a week I get a report on where we sit on those 150 terms," Long says. "If there's a significant shift in one of those rankings, if we went from 12 to 5 or if we fell, I expect my people to figure out why."

The L-com team went through product and category pages on the site, adding more fresh content relevant to these important keywords. That well-established method for moving up in natural search rankings became more important this spring when Google changed the way it ranks sites to give extra credit to original content, while downgrading e-commerce sites that use information found widely on the web, such as a manufacturer's product description that appears on many retail sites.

The L-com team also recognized that search engines give credit to sites when other reputable sites link to it, and set about examining the inbound links going to competing e-commerce sites.

Long employed a free tool called SEOToolbar from SEOBook, a company that makes money offering training in search engine optimization. The SEO Toolbar extension to the Firefox browser lets Long type in any site and see its page rank in major search engines, roughly how many inbound links it has and detail on the links, including the number of links from university domains that end in .edu. Links from those .edu sites typically confer more credit than other links because search engines assume educational sites are more objective than commercial sites.

Once Long identifies quality sites linking to competitors, his product managers are tasked with obtaining links to those educational sites, influential blogs and industry forums. They do that by participating in discussions on those sites, and offering information, such as videos about complex cable products. If a forum were discussing a complex cabling problem and L-com.com has a video on that subject, the forum would be anxious to link to that video, Long says.

There are other methods retailers can use to learn about links to competitors' sites. The most comprehensive publicly available list of links coming into any web site is Yahoo's Site Explorer, says Byrne Hobart, a marketing consultant at web design and marketing firm Blue Fountain Media. That tool is located at SiteExplorer.Search.Yahoo.com. In order to see only links that come from outside sites—and not pages within the site linking to each other—Hobart says a user selects "inlinks" and then "except from this domain" from a drop-down menu, so only outside links are displayed.

For a fee, retailers can see even more detail on the links going to their own and competing sites, using technology from companies like Searchmetrics. While a free tool like Yahoo Site Explorer might show 1,000 links to a site, Searchmetrics can identify tens of thousands of inbound links, says Searchmetrics CEO Horst Joepen. "EBay has several hundred thousand links that we recorded," Joepen says. Searchmetrics, which also provides competitive keyword data on 25 million search terms, starts at $398 a month and goes up depending on the number of domains and keywords to be tracked.

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