How to generate ideas when competitive analysis shows you nothing

I’ve recently softened my stance on competitive analysis. I once thought that it was not worth my time; usually, what I saw was that people were simply using it to copy another site’s link profile. I found it useful to look at how industries linked, of course, but it really wasn’t that high on my list of things to do for a new client.

I do see the benefit now — more so than I did previously. But recently, I’ve been privileged enough to work on a few campaigns for industries where an analysis of competitors’ link profiles really told me… nothing.

Can you rank without a lot of great links?

In case you don’t know, there are still these tiny niches where sites can rank without great links or any decent optimization efforts.

Working on these types of campaigns can be incredibly fun, but it’s tough to get started because it’s almost impossible to get a blueprint.

When you’re looking at how the top 10 spots in Google are occupied by sites that have 20 linking domains or fewer, you really have to get creative.

I think that anyone who has been building links successfully for a few years can build links for any type of site, but some of these sites that I’m speaking about in this article are small-budget sites where no one on the team has any knowledge of SEO.

You don’t see a big backlink profile, and what you do see can be nothing but a few directory links, or a couple of local links, or maybe only links from a parent company that owns several other sites. There’s little competition, so it’s easy to rank — which begs the question of why try to build links if ranking isn’t tough?

I asked that exact question to a business owner who contacted me recently. He has 15 linking domains, all relevant but none with much authority. He’s in the top three for most of his keywords in a very small and non-competitive industry, so all in all, he’s doing well and is right where he wants to be.

Here’s the thing, though: He’s worried that his industry will only get more competitive, and he wants to be well-positioned with the basics when that happens. That’s why he wants links.

Link building when there’s no roadmap

That being said, how do you generate ideas for good links when you’re starting from scratch and don’t have the benefit of seeing how that industry builds links?

  • Read the site. You’d think this step would be obvious, but alas — I still have to tell my link builders to do this occasionally. This usually happens when we get a new client, or when they ask questions that I think could best be answered by the incredibly easy exercise of looking at the site. Most likely, the client either has an “About Us” page, a blog, an FAQ section… something.
  • Read the competitors’ sites. In one of my recent cases, the client had very little content that I found valuable for my work, but a few of the competitors had great blogs. This site had an article describing which industries use their products, and that was a question that I could not find answered on my client’s site.
  • Do some question searches. Questions like, “What industries use x products?” and, “What are some alternatives to x product or service?” can sometimes generate some really good ideas. We recently did a small campaign for a client where the only sites that would typically link to them were the businesses who purchased their products, and many of them didn’t link. Through doing some question searches, we discovered that one of their products in particular was being used in a lot of recycled craft projects, so that opened up another area for us.
  • Write content surrounding your questions. Turn this information into a FAQ page — or, if it’s enough content, an article section or a blog. By doing this, you’re hopefully opening up your site to attract more links. And if you reach out to get links, at least you have something useful to offer rather than a home page that promotes low prices.

Warning sirens ahead!

Let’s look at an industry in which I’ve never worked, in order to show you an example of how this could work: warning sirens!

A search in Google for “warning sirens” provides the first e-commerce result as the company Sentry Siren. There’s also Fed Sig, but the other results are news or information sites, not sites that sell these sirens. Let’s say you sell warning sirens and want to compete, so you decide to analyze these two sites in the hopes of getting some good information on how to conduct a link campaign.

Looking at their links in Open Site Explorer, there are some really good, relevant links for both sites — educational links, news links, links from relevant industries and so on. This all looks good, but here’s the thing: Other than copying their links exactly, nothing immediately stands out as something to get me started on the path toward getting additional links for my hypothetical client. I’m drawing a blank, and I don’t like to copy others.

Let’s say, for the sake of this exercise, that I read the site of my “client” and then learn nothing. There’s an About page, but it just lists information about the company itself and doesn’t answer questions such as:

  • Who buys these warning sirens?
  • Can anyone buy one?
  • Are there laws against using one to scare your kids?

I see none of that information anywhere on the site, so let’s head to the two competitors’ sites.

On Sentry Siren, there’s a great page of information about why certain sirens are best, with lots of links to other relevant sites. While I don’t find the answer to my question of, “Can I use this to scare my kids?,” I do find a lot of information that helps me think about how to start my discovery.

Looking at the other site, Fed Sig, I see links to products. On those product pages, I can download a data sheet that tells me, among other things, which applications the product can be used for. (Still nothing addressing the use of warning sirens to scare children.)

Using this information, I feel that I have enough information to start my searches, but I still want to Google a few questions and get even more information.

Can anyone buy a warning siren? Have there been studies to show the effectiveness of escaping tornado danger when a town had a warning siren that was used? Are there states where it is required that every town has a warning siren? Are there illegal uses for warning sirens?

As I mentioned, since my hypothetical client doesn’t have a lot of information on the site, I’m going to use some of the information that I’ve gathered to create an FAQ page that I can expand out into multiple articles.

Some examples:

  • I might write about the importance of testing your warning sirens every so often and safe ways to do so.
  • I might decide to keep a running list of events warning sirens are used for.
  • I might have a page that links to an updated list of current storms sorted by state and city.
  • I might have an article describing all of the events in which a warning siren is used.
  • I might have an article with a list of songs that have sirens in them, and links to those pieces on Spotify or YouTube.

I also can start discovery in areas like the following:

  • amateur weather hobbyist blogs
  • mechanical hobby blogs
  • amateur tornado blogs

I think you get the idea and understand how to brainstorm with this line of thinking, even if you’re on your own. The key is to dig, dig, dig. Think of all the questions you have about the product/service/industry and ask them. When you get your answers, dig deeper.

While I have written this article with the idea of using these tactics when your competitive link analysis yields no insights or inspiration, I do think they can be applied to any link campaign.

Maybe you have an industry where there is a ton of competitive information and you can get started simply through performing a competitive analysis; but maybe, by going in other directions, you can do better than your competitors since you aren’t simply copying them.

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