Get started online by spying on your competition

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Establishing your small business online can be a bit of a daunting task, and knowing where to start can be one of the biggest challenges. Optimizing your site once you have a decent amount of traffic may not be too difficult, but it can be really tough to make decisions when you don't yet have any visitors. Taking some time to see what your more successful (for now) competitors are doing online can help guide you through the times when you don't have the data to fall back on. Obviously, you don't want to just copy what everyone else is doing, but by exploring other companies' strategies, you can both learn some lessons and identify areas where you can stand out online.

We've talked a lot about how blogging can be a great way to drive traffic to your site and work towards SEO. We've also mentioned the importance of reading industry blogs. Well, blogs written by your competitors are a great place to start. As with everything on this list, keeping an eye on your competitors' blogs can serve at least two purposes. First of all, blogs have a tendency to reveal a lot about their writers and companies. For the most part, if you're just starting out, your competition is more successful than you, and there is likely to be plenty to learn from them. Secondly, seeing what your competitors' blogs have to offer may suggest opportunities for your own blogging: niches that are unfilled, or topics that could use a different take.

We've briefly mentioned Google AdWords in the past as an option for online advertising, and we've also talked about finding keywords to target for both organic and ad-based search. Once you have an idea on what keywords you want to go after, it's time to see what types of ads are being run for those keywords. Run a Google search for some keywords you're interested in, and take a look at the ads. As a first pass, you'll get an idea of who your competition is (possibly including some companies you weren't previously familiar with). You'll also be able to get a rough idea of how competitive various keywords are based on the number of ads. Finally, be sure to look at the content of the ads. All together, you should be looking both for good ideas (interesting ad phrasings, etc) and for opportunities (keywords that seem under-targeted or ad-styles that might stand out relative to current ads).

Search Engine Optimization
The best (and cheapest) way to drive consistent traffic to your site is likely to be through search engine optimization, and it's a safe bet that most if not all of your competition has spent a lot of time optimizing their site. Take a look at some landing pages of other companies in your field to get a sense of who their target customers are (based on the style and content) and what they are hoping to accomplish (based on the call to action). Knowing if your competition is going for a quick sale or is trying to get people to spend more time on their site can again help guide you to what works, and what might be novel. We've also talked about how you can use tools like the Hubspot website grader to evaluate your site's SEO. Many of these (including Hubspot's) also encourage you to check out your competition.

Spying Tools
There are a number of online tools that are either directly or indirectly designed to let you discover all kinds of things about your competition's online presence. I'll go into more detail about how you can use some of these tools later this week, but sites like,, and provide easy ways to keep tabs on the types of things mentioned above, and lots of additional information. While these sites rarely have direct access to data about a particular site's visitors, they aggregate information from search databases and from users who agree to be tracked. As such, these types of tools can give you a lot more detailed information about the type and quantity of traffic your competition is getting.

In short, for everything that you think about when growing your online presence, the chances are pretty good that you can get some info about how your competition has approached the same task. You certainly don't want to become a clone of your competition, but by learning what they're doing right (and, hopefully, wrong), you can carve out your space online with more confidence and speed.

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