Paul L. Wilson

How to Identify the Right Competitors in SEO

It is not uncommon for first time entrepreneurs to believe their idea doesn’t have any competition. This way of thinking does more than raise an eyebrow from investors, it repels them. 

Here’s why: 

  • If the entrepreneur is right, she will have to spend significant energy, time, and money educating the market about the value of her idea (think of Google Glass)
  • Or, and more likely, the entrepreneur is wrong and she will quickly be blindsided by a tidal wave of competitors

Having a strong understanding of who your competition is vital and this is particularly true in SEO. Beyond knowing what the enemy is up to, it gives you a chance to benchmark your performance, choose your battles and even swipe some ideas. You can emulate their successes and learn from their failures.

With the Internet being so vast, how do you really know who you’re competing against? I’m going to answer this exact question by using a local company here in Hawaii called J-Slips. They sell Hawaiian slippers (or, as you mainlanders may call them — sandals).

The 4 Types of Competitors

All search engine competitors can be broadly split into four categories: Direct, Indirect, Perceived, and Divergent

Your Direct Competition in Search

Direct competitors are the most obvious – the companies offering the same products or services as you. Think Google vs. Bing. Coke vs. Pepsi. Iron Man vs. Batman (aka Marvel Comics vs. DC Comics). You get the idea. 

You can check for direct competitors in Google by searching for your products or services.

To determine J-Slips main focus, I viewed their home page title tag. It’s a common practice on the web to use your business’ primary focus or keyword on your home page title tag. It looks like J-Slips is catering to the mainland crowd by using “Hawaiian Sandals” as their main keyword. 

Searching “Hawaiian Sandals” I see:

We have OluKai, Alohaz, and not surprising, Amazon. However, at the time of writing this article J-Slips was #1 on Amazon when you clicked on this listing (wise move on J-Slips end).

Searching Alternatives to your Brand/Product

You can also search Google with your brand/product + alternative.  For example, if you search “what’s an alternative to j-slips double strap sandals,” you can see possible competitors to J-Slips are: Pali Hawaii, Hawaii Imperial, Hawaii Moses, and Hawaii Surfware.


Using Google Maps for Local Competition

Google Maps is a great tool for looking at direct local competition. By entering Hawaiian Sandals I see: Island Slipper Factory, Scott Hawaii, and OluKai. 

The Hidden Power of Google Shopping

Finally, since we’re looking at an ecommerce website, we should look at Google Shopping. This is actually a very helpful tool because we’re able to see two very important things — the brand and sellers who are found for Hawaiian Sandals.

J-Slips creates their own sandals and doesn’t resell other brands, so these brands are relevant and we see that Havaianas is the only one we haven’t uncovered from our other efforts. 

You need to scroll down to the end of the sidebar to look at the companies that sell Hawaiian sandals. Yet, don’t be deceived here and make sure you click on MORE. 

When I did I found a list of 36 sellers 😳.

With J-Slips being a brand these may not all be direct competitors but rather wholesale partners. Yet, when I looked at Polynesian Print and Sanuk, neither carried J-Slips and had competing brands for sell. 

It may be beneficial to do all these types of searches in Bing. Even though Google currently owns 86.8% of the search engine market, you may uncover direct competitors in Bing that will show up later in Google. 

Your Indirect Competitors

Your indirect competitors are websites who appeal to the same audience, but in a slightly different space. Think Google vs. Pinterest. Coke vs. Minute Maid Juice. Iron man vs. Harry Potter (aka Marvel Comics vs NBCUniversal). 

A great quote from Jonathan Klien, the former president of CNN, summarizes beautifully why you should care about your indirect competitors: “I’m more worried about the billion or so people on Facebook every day versus the 2 million people watching Fox News.” 

Relating this to SEO, there are a lot of indirect competitors fighting for your target audiences’ attention in the search engines. Knowing this should keep you on your tiptoes and guide you as you prepare your SEO strategy.

The first step in figuring out indirect competitors is to ask 2 questions: 

  • What problem am I solving for my ideal customer when they buy my product or service?
  • How else can that problem be solved? 

With J-Slips, one reason people might buy their footwear is to have a daily memento from their Hawaiian vacation. 

To find similar Hawaiian footwear that might satisfy this desire, I did the following search in Google:

Adding a minus in front of sandals tells Google to not look at any results with sandals in them. The first result from this search query came from, which showed this page:

These fun Hawaiian tennis shoes could definitely satisfy the buyers need to have a piece of Hawaii.

A common need for people in Hawaii to buy J-Slips is to have something for the beach. When I went to the beach last week, I actually didn’t wear my J-Slips but instead I put on my reef walkers. 

As the names denotes, this is footwear made to help you play and explore the ocean, without worry of cutting your feet on the coral.

These mental exercises are actually very helpful in SEO because they open up new keywords that your competitors aren’t even considering.

Yet, if you’re struggling with brainstorming your indirect competitors, a hack is to see what websites are similar to yours. Two great tools that help you look at similar websites are SimilarWeb and Alexa.

Simply add your domain to both of these tools and they’ll spit out a list of similar websites. When I entered J-Slips into both sites there weren’t any results. I imagine it’s because J-Slips is not a national brand. 

If this happens to you, not to worry. Simply use one of the direct competitors you just found. For J-Slips I used and both Alexa and SimilarWeb gave me a good list of websites. 

Your Perceived Competition

Perceived competitors are harder to identify. They don’t necessarily offer the same product or service, but do compete for the same resources or customer base. 

Think of the Kodak camera vs. your smartphone’s camera. Texas Instrument’s calculator vs. your smartphone’s calculator. Garmin’s GPS vs. your smartphone maps. Sony’s walkman recorder vs. your smartphone’s music app.

For many of my college student’s they don’t even know these companies except through a business history lesson. 

Being in the fashion industry, perceived competitors can be a real issue since trends come and go. Google Trends is a great tool to utilize in spotting perceived threats. 

Being that I’ve already pointed out the disrupted nature of smartphones, let’s take an example from their industry to illustrate the power of Google Trends. Imagine you’re an executive at Research In Motion in 2007. Five years earlier you created a revolutionary cell phone called the RIM 850, also known as the BlackBerry.

If you looked at Google Trends in 2007, you might think you’re doing pretty amazing

You might, if you lived under a rock and hadn’t heard about the iPhone that Apple released on June 29, 2007. You’d see a very different picture if you used Google Trends to compare the BlackBerry to the iPhone.

Now applying this to J-Slips. We can use their term “Hawaiian Sandals” and compare it to any search trend they want to consider. For example, J-Slip may wonder if the five toe shoe trend is really a threat.

Possibly in 2009 through 2012 they might have been worried. However, we can see that over the past 8 or so years their main term has grown over their perceived competition keyword. 

If they do feel the five toe shoe keyword is a perceived threat, it’s easy to do a quick search and pull the main companies from this search result. As we can see Vibram, who is a brand, is the perceived competitor. 

Amazon and Zappos are not considered perceived competition because they are going to be selling whatever is trending and J-Slip should always expect them as direct or indirect competitors. 

Your Divergent Competition

Okay, so I made up the term “Divergent Competitor” but for SEO these competitors are a real threat to your rankings. Divergent competitors are anything that clog up the keywords you want to rank for. 

Think of Wikipedia vs. your website. Magazine articles vs. your website. Facebook groups vs. your website. YouTube videos vs. your website.

They can literally can be anything that’s stopping you from hitting the top spot.

Here’s one for J-Slips:

These competitors will offer different insights than your other competitors. Most likely, the biggest insight is if you have a lot of divergent competitors on one of your keywords. 

If you see this, more than likely you’re actually the divergent competitor because your result wouldn’t fit with the majority of the other search results. This is a very good indicator that you are trying to rank on the wrong keyword.

Wrapping it Up

The best thing to do now is go through the above exercises and create a spreadsheet of your top direct, indirect, perceived, and divergent competitors. Having a deep knowledge of  your competitor landscape is key to a successful SEO campaign. Each of the discussed categories can assist you in finding powerful tactics to get to the top of the SERPs and to stay there.