Recently, I’ve been teaching my 7 year old son how to play chess, which is a lovely experience as a parent. It’s been an interesting teaching someone a game that has many layers of complexity to it.

One of the (many!) concepts I was explaining to him was the concept of actually playing 2 games at exactly the same time:

  1. Your own strategy and plan to get the King
  2. Watching and figuring out your opponents strategy to get your own King.

No doubt, a challenge for a 7 year old. I guess they don’t call chess ‘mind gymnastics’ for no reason!

But it actually really made me realize that it is quite similar to the PPC landscape and general online marketing world.

And by this, I mean, you have to have your own strategy but at the same time, you also have to know what your competitors are up to as well.

Now, it is worth mentioning that I am a huge advocate of playing your own game, sticking to your strengths and not adopting a ‘me too’ kind of strategy. After all, marketing is all about standing out from the crowd and if you just adopt a ‘me too’ strategy, you are only going to blend into the background with all the other noise.

But at the same time, it would also be naive of you to ONLY do this.

In a rapidly changing online marketing world, it is crucial to keep a close eye on what your competitors are doing.

But the good news is that one of the perks of online marketing is that you can pretty much reverse engineer your competitor’s strategy. That is, with the help of a few tools up your sleeve, which we are going to delve into now. And yes, this process does require a bit of detective work.

And the even better news is that we are going to cover free tools that you can use.

So, would you like to know how to reverse engineer your competitors online marketing strategy?

Would you like to know how to do it using only free tools?

If so, read on….

Free Tools For Competitor Analysis

The benefits of competitor analysis is best explained through an example. This way, you will really understand the power of it and therefore, the need and importance of doing it.

And it is also worth mentioning that this is an ongoing task. Once you do it once, doesn’t mean you never do it again. You should be revisiting this every 3 months or so. This is something we do for all our clients, as it is such an essential part to strategy, and you will see why.

Let’s take the weight loss meals niche as there is a lot of competition. Instinctively, people don’t like competition and are scared of it. But we like competition as it shows that the niche has a pulse and there is a market there.

#1: Similar Web

To get a good overview of your competitors overall web presence, one of the tools we use is Similar Web ( Whilst there is a paid component, you can get a huge amount of information for free.

The best thing about Similar Web is it is kind of like a way to get inside your competitors Google Analytics account. Very powerful and you will see why.

Run Your Own Website Through It

You can first start by putting in your own website URL to see what information comes back. Whilst you can get a lot of this information in your Google Analytics account, what Similar Web will help with is:

  1. Understanding where the traffic goes AFTER they leave your site
  2. Audience information — audience categories and other websites that your audience visit (not straight after they leave your site, but generally).

This information will give you additional ideas of where you can advertise or target since if those websites have your audience, it is worth trying to capture more of your type of audience.

Competitor Website

Next, put in the URL of one of your competitors and this will give you a HUGE amount of valuable information.

Using our niche topic, we ran Lite N’ Easy through this tool and here is some of the information you want to look for.

1. Where They Get Their Traffic From

This will obviously tell you what traffic channels they are focusing on and pouring their effort into. That is, assuming website traffic = sales, which is not always true.

But let’s look at the big picture:

What does this tell us?

Apart from direct traffic, search engines provide a huge chunk of their traffic.

Let’s look at the big picture of a couple of different competitors, Hello Fresh and You Foodz:

Hello Fresh Traffic Sources

You Foodz Traffic Sources

So, big picture, this tells us, search is a critical component to their overall traffic. Interestingly, social doesn’t take up much of a percentage, but I actually don’t think that it is entirely accurate. Being in the industry, I do know that sometimes ‘social’ can be classified as Direct or Referral. So, that’s another thing to note, use a healthy amount of scepticism here. These numbers are very rough.

2. How Much Of Their Traffic Is From Search

This will tell us how much of their overall traffic comes from search — paid or organic (i.e. SEO).

Here is another screenshot for Lite N Easy

Here we have some crucial information which tells us.

Firstly, about 40% of their traffic is from search engines. This is a huge proportion and a traffic channel which can’t be ignored.

Even though the keywords given are just brand traffic, there are 50 more keywords which we aren’t seeing. So, big picture, it tells us that people are searching for this type of stuff. Important.

Secondly, it also tells us what keywords they are bidding on! Gold information and directly applicable to implement in your own AdWords campaigns. More on this later, with a different tool.

Thirdly, the proportion of paid search — at 24%, it is not huge, but significant enough to not ignore.

Fourth, I can see that they are bidding on their own brand name. Good strategy — they know what they are doing.

3. Referral Traffic — Where The Traffic Is From and Going To After

Below is a snapshot of where Lite N’ Easy is getting their top referral traffic from and also the top sites that people go to after they leave their site.

Why is this important?

It tells us a 2 things:

  1. Websites that their audience visit overall, that we can target later on.
  2. Where they might be advertising or doing some form of guest posting or content marketing (top referring sites). Could be an opportunity for us later.

4. Are They Doing Display Advertising?

Once again, valuable information presented here.

  1. Their main sources of display advertising is from Google as well as Outbrain. If they are using Outbrain, they are utilizing content marketing, so that is interesting to note.

Let’s look at a different competitor (Hello Fresh) to compare.

Hello Fresh Display Advertising

More valuable information.

  1. They are also using Google and Outbrain, with the majority from Outbrain. Ok, maybe we need to look into Outbrain.
  2. Top publisher is — this tells me they are doing Gmail ads which is a relatively new initiative by Google. We’ve had good results with Gmail ads with many of our clients, so this is interesting.

5. Social

In todays world, social is impossible to ignore.

As we mentioned above, social traffic can sometimes be categorised as either referral traffic or direct, so I don’t pay attention to the total social traffic amount. Best to assume it’s important.

But what we are interested in here, is WHICH social channel.

What does this tell me?

Facebook is dominating. No surprise.

It also tells me that they have videos! Ok, let’s go and look at their channel. Here is what I saw:

I notice a few things here:

  1. They have 134 videos — they are really using video as a powerful medium.
  2. They have 510 subscribers — these people will get notified each time they upload a new video.
  3. They were last active 2 weeks ago — so they are actively working on their channel.

But I also notice that Instagram is not on there. This is a wasted opportunity in my opinion.

Let’s look at the social component for some of their other competitors

Hello Fresh Social Traffic

You Foodz Social Traffic

What do I see from looking at all 3?

  1. Facebook, Facebook, Facebook. The place in this niche.
  2. Reddit — perhaps this is worth some attention
  3. Instagram hardly features — once again, could be an opportunity to capture market share where my competitors are not
  4. Video is important

6. Audience Interests

Next, we want to see what our competitors audience is interested in and Similar Web will help with this.

The categories our audience is interested in is helpful to understand them a bit more. As is also the actual other websites they visit.

Why? If they allow ads on there, we can put a direct placement on there. And, we could also use this in our Facebook advertising.

#2: SEMRush

Since search is a such a big component to their traffic, let’s explore this further.

We can do this with a tool called SEMRush — (affiliate link). Once again, a paid tool but still it provides a lot of information for free.

We know that Lite N’ Easy are paying for search ads, so wouldn’t it be great if we knew all the keywords they were bidding on!

Good news — SEMRush will tell us that!

This is just a snapshot of the results, just to give you an idea. But doing this will help you think of keyword ideas, that is, if you are going to run paid search traffic.

And it also tells us the ad position they are in as well as the CPC.

This report will also show us all the different ad copy they use! And also which keywords use which ad copy.

This is helpful to give us ideas of messaging that our competitors are using as well as ideas of how you can differentiate yourself.

SEMRush will also give you a snapshot of additional competitors, that you can then run reports on.

This is of course, just a snapshot of this information.

SEMRush will also show us the landing pages people are running!


Another paid tool which has a free component.

It has a bunch of information, but one thing interesting is the referral sites:

With Outbrain and Taboola in the top 5 spots, this tells me content promotion works in this industry and should be worth looking at.

Reality is, we could go on as there are a number of paid tools we use in our agency, but as we have outlined, these free tools are worth looking at as well.

And I’m sure by now, you can appreciate the power in doing this.

As we said before, every business should be doing this every 3 months or so. So if you’ve never done this, just follow what we have done and you will be well on your way.

If you are interested in learning more about this and getting fully up to speed on being an AdWords ninja, sign up for our AdWords Masterclass — you can read more about it here.

Originally published at on June 25, 2016.

About the Author

Ilana Wechsler is the founder of Green Arrow Digital and a self confessed PPC enthusiast. Each and every month, she and and her team successfully manage tens of thousands of dollars in ad spend across multiple ad platforms and pride themselves on generating positive ROI for their clients. Ilana is equally passionate about travelling, rock climbing, cooking and coffee.

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