Are you skeptical about being able to keep up with that big company that pops up everywhere online? Do you think it’s impossible to gain online market share against your biggest competitors? If you’re a small to medium sized business, then chances are pretty good that you or your marketing team have expressed these feelings at some point.

In this article we are going to show you how to compete online against large companies and brands by finding, analyzing and recognizing opportunities to beat them.

How Small Business Can Compete Online

Can a Small Business Really Compete Online?

Grabbing online market share can be a daunting task for any business – let alone smaller businesses that can’t match the budget or manpower of larger corporations.

Unfortunately, this has created a common misconception that small businesses cannot compete against these larger companies online. As a result, many small businesses shy away from online marketing and stick with their old, out-dated offline marketing tactics that are becoming even less effective. Or even worse, they put marketing at the bottom of their priority list and fall further behind altogether.

Since it’s so easy to find examples of large companies dominating search results or amassing huge social followings it can be even harder for small businesses to see opportunity that won’t just empty their wallets.

Isn’t this just more proof that small businesses can’t compete against larger companies?

The answer, as we will show, is NO…not all the time.

In many of these cases there are multiple opportunities to find and convert prospects that may be getting missed by larger companies.

Let’s take a look at how to find, analyze and capitalize on the opportunities that do exist online.


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Frustrated by your online competition?

We’d love to know what your experience has been with trying to compete with larger companies. Please share by leaving your COMMENTS BELOW.


Recognizing Opportunities to Compete with Large Companies

Even thinking about trying to compete with a large company can be daunting enough itself, but actually spending the time finding opportunities to compete has often prevented many small businesses from taking that first step.

Fortunately, once understood, this research does not have to be something to shy away from for lack of time, resources or knowledge. As a matter of fact, with the proper information and some practice, recognizing opportunities to compete online with large companies can become almost second nature.

Here are some steps we like to use…

Know Your Business

Before you start your competitor research you have to know some very basic, but important information about your own business.

Aside from these 6 strategy questions you should have answers to, here are some simple questions to ask.

What key phrases would my target customers be using to find my business?

There are a few great keyword research tools available (Google Keyword ToolSEOMoz Keyword Difficulty, WordTracker, Keyword Discovery) to help answer this, but usually a little common sense and a few Google searches are just as effective.

Google Keyword Suggestions

A couple quick, and helpful, keyword research options are the auto-complete suggestions (as you type your query) and the keyword suggestions (at the bottom of the results page as seen above) on Google.

DO THIS:
Pretend you’re a customer looking for a business / company that sells what you need. Think about what you would normally type into Google to get the information you want to do your research. Don’t think like a marketer (i.e. don’t use search operators). If you have a hard time with this then ask a friend or family member to do a search for you and watch what they use as their search queries. Use these queries as your base to find other relevant phrases to possibly target.

 

What primary key phrases are driving traffic to my website currently?

If you’ve already setup tracking and reporting on your website, then you’re most likely sitting on some extremely useful data to help you find the best keywords to use in your analysis.

Google Analytics

There are a couple ways to use this data to make sure you challenge your competition on phrases that help your business the most. The first is to pull data that shows key phrases that drive the most traffic to your website, whether that’s from paid or organic traffic.

The other is to pull data that shows phrases that generate the most business (leads, sales, downloads, etc) for you. Even though these may be similar in most cases it would be beneficial to treat each separately.

DO THIS:
If you’re not comfortable using custom reports, dashboards and advanced segments in Analytics yet, then take advantage of the pre-made reports that Google now offers via their Solution Gallery. These dashboards are extremely easy to download and start using right within your own analytics account.

 

Know Your Online Competition

One mistake we see quite a bit is that many businesses think that the company with the nicer looking website, the more in-your-face advertising or the biggest booth at the trade show is also their top online competition.

Even with a little quick research it becomes pretty obvious that the actual online competitors are often not the types of companies mentioned above.

The types of competitors you want to gun for are the ones dominating the search results for the phrases you’ve pinpointed above and the ones constantly producing quality content and effectively getting their audience to engage with this content on their site and social channels.

Competitor Research

Here are some ways that we like to find competing websites:

  1. Perform Google searches for your most important phrases to see which companies are showing up in the paid, organic, media and local results
  2. Use FollowerWonk to see which companies have the largest following and tend to be the most active on Twitter
  3. Use SEMRush to see which organic competitors continually show up related to your domain and main key phrases
  4. Use the Ontolo (specifically their Rank Landscape Report tool) to analyze the top sites for your top keywords
  5. Perform a Google search operator (as seen below) to see who Google thinks your competition is

Google Search Operator to Find Competition

As you can see in the SERP above, a simple search operator to see who Google thinks is related to “Nike” yields a good list of sites / companies that could be serious competitors.

Analyze Your Competitors

This is the fun part – analyzing your competitor’s websites to find opportunities to take online market share away from them.

Assuming you’ve already figured out who your top online competitors are from the steps above, your next steps consist of thorough analyses of their websites and overall online presence to see what you can do better.

Competitor Analysis

Here are some things to look at when analyzing a competitor’s site:

 

Website Age

Website Age

Using Archive.org you can see how long a domain has had a website on it. The older a site the more likely that it has accumulated valuable backlinks and has proven itself as a legitimate source for its relevant phrases.

OPPORTUNITY:
You can’t turn back the clock and make your site as old as your competitor’s. What you can do though is buy domains that have had sites on them just as long, if not longer, and build quality websites on them. Of course these will take time to build up, but these older assets will most likely bring some valuable backlinks and history with them. Another option, since most really old websites are typically pretty bad looking, is to focus on making the content and user experience of your site so much better that it becomes a valuable USP to attract some of your competition’s visitors.

 

Indexed Pages

Indexed Pages

With a Google search operator [site:www.domain.com] you can get an idea of how many pages of a competitor’s website have been indexed by Google. Although Google doesn’t necessarily favor sites just because they have more pages, it is pretty common to find top ranking sites to have far more indexed pages than those with very few.

OPPORTUNITY:
>Although you’re not going to get 100k pages indexed by Google immediately to match your competitor’s site you can definitely start working towards building up your content. Some simple places to get a lot more content added and indexed would be your blog, your product pages, case studies, testimonials, previous work examples, press mentions and archived newsletters. Just remember that quality is more important than quantity so don’t go throwing junk content onto your site just to have more pages.

 

Backlinks

Backlinks

If you run your competitors’ domain through SEOMoz’s Open Site Explorer you will be able to see how many links and linking domains a website has gotten. The more links, specifically the more links with high Page and Domain Authority, the more difficult it will be to overcome that website organically.

OPPORTUNITY:
Challenging a competitor’s link strategy doesn’t have to be an uphill battle. If you build links creatively and intelligently, then you should attract higher quality links than those of your competition. Another great option is to see where your competitor’s links are coming from and then try to get links from those sources as well. And if your content marketing strategy is on point, and better than your competitor’s, then you should have another advantage to work with.

 

Content

Content Analysis

Crawl your competitors’ websites with ScreamingFrog to get a good breakdown of the site’s pages. More pages usually means more content. Go through the top pages to assess the quality of the content throughout the site to see if the content is attracting links and getting shared online via social channels.

OPPORTUNITY:
Creating better content is one of the best ways to beat your competitors. After thoroughly analyzing the content of competing websites you should be able to see what type of content they are using that is working and not working. If their blog or case studies are weak, then focus on publishing better blog articles and more detailed case studies than they are. If all of their content is just text, then try using images, infographics or other forms of visual content to attract some of the same audience to your site.

 

Search Results

Search Analysis

Using those search results from previous steps, be sure to take notice of how your competitors are being displayed in search. If they have numerous results (paid, organic, media, local, etc) then they’re doing a lot of things right. If their results are also optimized for click throughs then they’re probably grabbing the lion’s share of clicks on those results pages as well.

OPPORTUNITY:
If your competitor(s) have multiple results in Google, then you’ve got some work to do. You’re going to need SEO to establish your organic results, you’ll need local search to lock up your business result, you’ll want to consider a PPC campaign to get a sponsored result and you’re going to want to do some e-Commerce SEO and a PLA campaign to get your shopping results (if you’re selling products). For companies that don’t have rich snippets or weak title and meta tags, then you’ve got even more opportunity to create results that stand out much more to garner more clicks.

 

Social Presence

Social Analysis

Since social followings can still be manipulated pay less attention to numbers of likes, fans, followers, etc and more to the quality of these followings and your competitors’ activity on these networks. With tools like RetweetLab, CurationReports and the numerous reports from SimplyMeasured you can see what type of quality engagement a competitor is generating from their social channels. The more engagement the quicker they are going to grow ahead of you.

OPPORTUNITY:
Even though the last thing on your mind may be tweeting everyday you are going to want to integrate a social strategy into your business. Many of your larger competitors may have a social presence already, but chances are that they can’t engage with their audience as intimately and genuinely as you can. To beat your competitors in social media use your local, niche-focused expertise to provide the detailed information that only a business as entrenched in the community as yours can. And don’t get caught up chasing vanity metrics in follower counts. You want people following you that actually care about what you do and have a desire to talk about it with you.

FREE WORKSHEET

Competitor Analysis Worksheet

Log all of your competitor research in one place for easier tracking and planning. Our free COMPETITOR ANALYSIS WORKSHEET should help you keep things organized. Click below to start using it for your research.

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Real World Examples of Successful Underdogs

Mac Defeating Mike Tyson

Telling you that competing is possible is much different, as we all know, than showing actual real-world examples that have proven this.

Here are some smaller companies that have figured out ways to out rank, out engage and just out perform their larger competitors when it comes to their online presence.

Example 1: Dollar Shave Club

Gillette has become synonymous with shaving for decades now, but that may not last too much longer.

Online marketing has allowed newer, smaller companies to compete with larger companies and Gillette may be hearing some footsteps from a smaller competitor.

One company in particular that many people know by now is Dollar Shave Club, which created a huge splash online to quickly become a formidable competitor for larger companies like Gillette.

Dollar Shave Club

How’d they do it?

With creative content, an aggressive social promotion strategy and a unique business model to set themselves apart from the big guys.

What can you learn from them?

Competing with companies like Gillette, Walmart and Amazon are not simple feats. However, this example shows that with a targeted PPC campaign, the proper SEO, a strong social media strategy and awesome content the playing field gets leveled pretty quickly.

WHAT ELSE CAN THEY DO?
There’s always room for improvement and it looks like even Dollar Shave Club has a few things they could work on to continue climbing. The main thing we see is that they do not have their Google Authorship setup. Now although this site is not really a blog we think it is a missed opportunity to not have the CEOs face showing up next to their search result to make it stand out more, especially since he has become recognizable. Setting up Google Authorship is really simple too – something any small business can do.

 

Example 2: TrueCar

The car shopping space may be one of the most competitive online. With big companies like Edmunds.com, Autos.com and AutoTrader.com, the competitive landscape be very intimidating for newcomers.

One company that has managed to crack into the search results for some extremely competitive phrases and rapidly build their brand online is TrueCar.

TrueCar

How’d they do it?

Like Dollar Shave Club, TrueCar’s unique selling proposition has helped to differentiate it from its larger competitors. By leveraging their story in numerous online publications they have been able to acquire a lot of really valuable backlinks that only build off of their established SEO.

What can you learn from them?

Knowing what sets your business apart from your competitors and using the differentiating factors of your business throughout your messaging, advertising and optimization is a fantastic way to dominate search results as TrueCar does for its relevant phrases.

WHAT ELSE CAN THEY DO?
The content marketing strategy for TrueCar seems to be a little weak on the social promotion and engagement side. For example, in reviewing their blog, very few of their posts get much, if any, activity or engagement. With the story they have, TrueCar could be producing some really compelling and helpful content for car shoppers that appreciate transparency in the car shopping process.

 

Example 3: Hilton & Hyland

Real estate may just be one of the most difficult industries to compete in these days. Companies like Trulia, Zillow, Yahoo Real Estate and Realtor.com continue to expand and eat up organic positions on search result pages. In addition to these are large brokerages like Sotheby’s, Century21, Re/Max, Keller Williams and Prudential that leave even less room for smaller brokerages or agents to compete.

One boutique brokerage that continues to dance with the biggest of the big in the luxury market is Hilton & Hyland.

HIlton & Hyland

How’d they do it?

Hilton & Hyland specializes in the highest of the high end when it comes to real estate and its clientele. This laser focus allows them to be the best at what they do and put their services in constant demand from billionaires, millionaires, celebrities, athletes and musicians alike. Using this focus they do a fantastic job of displaying, marketing and talking about their incredible properties and experiences with their agents and clients.

What can you learn from them?

It is NOT impossible to compete against huge companies. The SERP above,which shows them ranking in the top 2 results above extremely large companies like Christie’s and Sotheby’s, is just one piece of proof. If you are able to provide stellar customer service as Hilton & Hyland does and then communicate that mission throughout all of your marketing, then you should start to see your business build a cult following too.

WHAT ELSE CAN THEY DO?
Hilton & Hyland has built up their authority extremely well, but really only offline so far. They constantly get referenced in the Wall Street Journal and Forbes, but their focus on taking advantage of these mentions have been a little weak. We think that if they leverage their name a little more (Rick Hilton is Paris Hilton’s father and Josh Altman has become a celebrity Realtor), then they can quickly build their online authority through authorship and rapidly attract incredibly valuable backlinks from very authoritative sources.

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Are we missing any notable examples?

If you know of any other examples (maybe your own company?) that has taken on larger competitors successfully, then please share by leaving a COMMENT BELOW.


If You Really Want to Compete, Start Here

Everything outlined above is focused primarily on what you can do to compete online. If you want to grab market share and grow your business, then you’re going to need to do these things sooner than later.

Before that though you really need to figure out what is going to help you not only acquire new customers, but also keep your current customers.

Some important things to keep in mind that will help you improve your online efforts, attract new clients and retain your customers are to:

  1. Talk to and listen to your customers. Ask them why they like about your business and what you could do better. Not only will you get great feedback, but you will make them feel heard and part of your growth.
  2. Be different. If everyone in your industry is conservative with new products, then use your agility as a small company to introduce new products / services that your larger competitors may not want to rock the boat with.
  3. Offer value. Most small companies are not going to be able to compete on price or speed. Instead of killing yourself trying to compete on these focus on offering value that your larger competitors cannot match. If your products are priced higher then make sure that the service that comes with them is stellar.
  4. Create a story. Everyone wants to be part of something bigger at some point. Help your customers get a taste of that by making them part of your story. Provide amazing experiences that uses the loyalty of your customers to develop memorable stories. Organized events are perfect for this.
  5. Provide incentives. We all like to get something extra without having to pay for it. Incentivize your customers or new prospects by gamifying their experience with your company. By having a leaderboard of customers who frequent your business the most you will create a fun sense of competition.

Tying all of these things into your online marketing – whether that’s content marketing, online advertising or social media – is a surefire way to start picking away at your competition.

If all of this seems a little too overwhelming or you need some more direction in analyzing your competition and finding opportunities to capitalize on, then we would love to help you.

Ready to take on your online competition?

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Vinny La Barbera

I’ve been working in online marketing since 2000 and have helped thousands of companies improve their online presence and grow their business through better web / mobile design, development and online marketing.Learn more about me or follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or LinkedIn.

  • Jennifer Colosi

    Excellent blog post – so well written and so informative.

  • Interesting! Yes it is difficult to compete with the big leagues but difficult is different from impossible isn’t it. Just to add with the already excellent info posted:
    – keep it isystematic (don’t do different things at the same time)
    – use a reliable SEO tool like ColibriTool. Sure there are many free ones, but a little investment goes a long way
    – don’t forget to try various tips but only stick to the ones that work