Competition is usually a good thing in a capitalist society, but it’s not always friendly and it’s not always fair. If your website is being outranked by a competitor’s site when you Google your products or services, it may be because they hired a Search Engine Optimization (SEO) consultant to improve their site’s visibility for various high-value keywords.
A good SEO consultant leaves very little evidence of their efforts (other than better rankings and more traffic), but you can spot the work of a competent SEO if you know what to look for.
Here are 7 signs your competitor may have hired an SEO:
1. The rel=”nofollow” Attribute
This little bit of code in a website link is used to prevent search engines from crawling through the link to the destination page. People familiar with SEO use it to keep search engine crawlers from passing PageRank to pages that shouldn’t appear in Google’s index.
A normal link looks like this:
<a href="http://www.workshopdigital.com">Workshop Digital</a>
a link with the rel=”nofollow” attribute will look like this:
<a href="http://www.workshopdigital.com" rel="nofollow">Workshop Digital</a>
To look for this on your competitor’s site: Click the View > Page Source menu option in your web browser. Use the Find command and search for “nofollow”.
Exception to the rule: Some Content Management Systems (CMS) include the rel=”nofollow” attribute by default on some outgoing links, so your competitor may not even know they are doing it.
2. A sitemap.xml File
An XML sitemap is a “Table of Contents” for your website that is coded in a way that search engines find very useful. Most human visitors will never know it’s there. Search Engine Optimizers use them to tell a search engine crawler where to find each page on the site, when it was last updated and its importance relative to other pages on the site.
To find this on your competitor’s site: Go to their home page and add /sitemap.xml to the end of the URL. This is the default location for a sitemap although it can be placed elsewhere.
For example, my sitemap is here: https://www.workshopdigital.com/sitemap.xml
Exception to the rule: Again, some CMS platforms generate a sitemap.xml file by default. Other times, your competitor or their SEO may place the sitemap in a different location to keep it away from prying eyes.
3. A robots.txt File
Similar to a sitemap.xml file, a robots.txt file is a specially-formatted text file that webmasters can use to keep search engine crawlers from accessing certain parts of a website. For example, you may not want pages from the “insider information” section of your website to appear in search results so you would include that section in your robots.txt.
To find this on your competitor’s site: Go to their home page and add /robots.txt to the end of the URL. This is the default location for this file.
4. Google Webmaster Usage
Savvy SEO’s will register websites with Google Webmaster Central to get more detailed statistics about how and when Google crawls their website. To “verify” site ownership, Google provides a META tag that must be uploaded to the website to prove that you own it before sharing the crawling information.
To look for SEO involvement: View the source code of your competitor’s home page and search for the term “verify-v1” in the <head> section. Chances are somebody on their team is knowledgeable about SEO if you see something that looks like this:
<meta name="verify-v1" content="GRFWZR/Xs/Gsomerandomdigitsm4jGWF/BUg=" />
Similarly, the tag for the Yahoo! Site Explorer code looks like this:
<meta name="y_key" content="e7somedigits3c" />
Exception to the rule: The engines provide an alternative method of claiming a website that involves uploading a unique HTML or XML file to their server. These are much harder to find since the file name is random so you won’t find it unless you know what to look for. Your competitor might have registered their site this way and you wouldn’t know it.
5. Claimed Listings in Local Search Engines
Google Maps, Yahoo Local and other local search engines allow business owners (or their SEO or marketing people acting on their behalf) to “claim” or “verify” that they own the business. Once they have done so, they can add or edit the business listing, remove inaccurate information, upload photos, fix incorrect map placements, and a variety of other useful fixes.
To look for SEO involvement: Search either of those sites for your competitor and click on their listing. In Google, it will say “Provided by the business owner” within the “more info” section. If you see that, it could indicate that an SEO consultant encouraged them to claim their listing and update the details.
6. Optimized Meta Data and Page Titles
If an SEO is working on your competitor’s website, they will likely be optimizing each page’s copy for specific keywords. Sometimes they overdo it and it’s obvious which keywords they are targeting.
To look for SEO involvement: Check your competitor’s source code (File > View Source) and look for blatant over-use of high-value keywords in their page titles or Meta descpription and keywords tags.
They look like this:
<title>This is the Page Title</title>
<meta name="description" content="This is the page description which may include blatantly obvious keyword usage." />
<meta name="keywords" content="keyword, keyword variation, another keyword variation, keywords plural, you get the idea" />
7. Links Increasing Over Time
Proper SEO requires improving the quality and quantity of links pointing to a website. If your competitor is utilizing a competent SEO, you might expect to see the number of links to their website increasing over a period of weeks or months.
To look for SEO involvement: Use the Yahoo Site Explorer tool,type in your competitor’s web address and click “Explore URL”. Click the “Inlinks” button and then use the Show Inlinks selector to choose “Except from this domain”. Write down the total number of links. Check again every few weeks and keep track of the link counts. If their link count is rising faster than yours, it might indicate that they hired an SEO to build links to their site.
Exceptions to the rule: If your competitor is doing a lot of marketing, public relations, promotions, or is in the news, it could result in an increase in awareness for their site which could lead to more links regardless of whether they are doing it with SEO in mind.
None of these signs are dead giveaways, as mentioned in the exceptions to each rule. But if you find more than 3 or 4 of these elements in your competitor’s site, you may consider fighting fire with fire and learning more about SEO.
Remember, search is a marathon not a sprint. If they have a head start, it doesn’t mean you can’t run a smarter race and beat them to the finish line.