The best way to learn how to do something is to attempt to replicate someone else who has already done it. Knowing absolutely nothing else, if you’re trying to learn how to ride a bicycle, a good place to start is to watch someone else ride that bike. You can deconstruct the fundamental components: sitting in the seat, holding the handlebars, and pedaling with your feet. Search engine optimization can work in much the same way.

If you want to run a successful SEO campaign, a great place to start is to see how your competition is already doing it. If your competition already ranks for the target keywords you have in your crosshairs, you can reverse engineer their SEO efforts to send your site soaring up those search engine results pages. To do that, you’ll need to arm yourself with the right data and analytics first.

Who Is Your Competition?

Before you can try reverse engineering an SEO campaign by the competition, you must first identify the competition. Who is ranking for your desired search terms? For the purposes of this exercise, let’s say that you run a business printing company in San Francisco. As a hotbed for Internet startups, there’s a big opportunity for business card printing, so you want to capture more of that customer base.

You can run through this process for several keywords, putting together specific SEO plans of attack accordingly. For the purposes of this article, we’ll keep it simple and focus on just one keyword phrase: “San Francisco business cards.” This feels like it would be a common query for a San Francisco company looking to print some business cards locally rather than ordering them online from an out-of-area company.

At the top of the search results are some paid ads (which you can also view as your competition), then a map of relevant results, then the actual search results themselves. Many of the top spots are occupied by Yelp, plus one for Fedex. The first search competitor that is also very much a business competitor is Clubcard Printing USA, which also tops the search results in the map view. Again, you will likely want to run through this process multiple times with different keywords and competitors. For this article, we’ll focus on Clubcard Printing USA.

Where Are Their Coming Backlinks From?

Once you’ve identified the competition, you’ll need to analyze their backlinks. Using a free backlink checker, like that offered by Neil Patel, you can find out who links to you and, more importantly in the case of this SEO competition analysis, who links to your competition. The tool is simple enough; just enter the domain (or URL) of the competition.

This yields a wealth of valuable information. In addition to seeing the domain score, the number of backlinks (including the number of nofollow links), the number of referring domains (including those with .gov or .edu TLDs), and an estimated organic monthly traffic, you can review a long list of backlinks that the competition has from external websites.

For each backlink, you can see the source page title and URL, the target URL, the domain score, the page score, the link type, the anchor text, when the link was first seen (indicating the age of the link), and when the link was last seen (indicating whether the link still appears to be active). You can search through this list, filter it for follow/nofollow, and restrict it to just one link per domain.

Depending on the results, you can then see viable opportunities where you may also be able to build backlinks from the same, similar or equivalent websites. In this particular example, we see that there are links from Eventbrite and CreateSpace. The latter might not have been an opportunity you had previously explored, so it may be fruitful to direct some of your SEO efforts toward getting backlinks in the CreateSpace Community forums.

How Do We Use This Data?

The backlink analysis not only reveals where the competition is getting their backlinks, but also how many backlinks it takes to get their ranking in Google. While backlinks are certainly not the only factor that go into search engine ranking, they do play a significant role, and knowing the exact number can set the benchmark for your own SEO efforts.

Beyond backlinks, there is a lot more you can glean from the competition to further refine and focus your own SEO campaign. For example, you can inspect the top keywords for which a competing domain ranks. Let’s continue with our example of Clubcard Printing USA in San Francisco.

In this particular scenario, we notice that many of the top keywords are branded search, like club card, clubcards, and clubcard printing. At the same time, because of the name of the business, a search for “club card” may not necessarily be looking for that exact company; the user could be searching for a place to print club cards, which would align with your business as a San Francisco commercial printer. That’s another opportunity that may be worth exploring.

Working your way down this list, you can see other keywords like San Francisco printers, metallic sticker, and card stand. For each, you can see the search volume, their position, the estimated number of monthly visits based on rank and search volume, the target URL, and the SEO difficulty (higher number is harder). All of this can further feed into how you want to design your approach to SEO to maximize ROI.

It would also be a good idea to inspect their top pages so you can get a better sense of their on-page optimization too. What elements or tactics are you missing or implementing poorly on your own pages?

When Will You Start?

Before you invest all of your resources into an SEO campaign that may not bear any fruit, it is very much worthwhile to inspect the competition and see what is already working for them. As it turns out, your competitors can be your greatest allies… even if they don’t know that you’re spying on them.

By illuminating information about keywords, backlinks, and top pages, you can apply that knowledge to maximize your gains from better search engine optimization too. You just have to reverse engineer their efforts to get there.

By Zac

Zac Johnson is an entrepreneur with more than 20 years of online marketing and business experience. Follow his blogs at and