How To Outrank Your Competitors By Stealing Their SEO Strategy

Out of all the things that you will have to do as part of your SEO campaign, this is perhaps the most exciting part of the process.

Stealing your competitor’s SEO strategy will give you the insights necessary to know what SEO tasks you should invest time and resources.

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this learning module, you will be able to:

  • identify from a Google SERP which websites to consider as relevant competitors
  • use Ahrefs to snoop on a competitor’s backlink profile
  • look at a website’s backlink profile and know whether the site is actively link building
  • look at a website’s backlink profile and know what type of link acquisition strategy they have
  • use Screaming Frog to crawl any website
  • interpret Screaming Frog data to know whether on-page SEO is a competitive ranking factor
  • formulate your own SEO strategy based on your own competitor analysis.

Time Required To Complete This Module

Approximately 3-hours.

The first time will take you longer, but by the second or third competitor analysis, you should be able to extract some valuable insights within 20-minutes for each website. You should be spending the bulk of the analysis looking at the data instead of extracting it.

I recommend that you review at least 3 competitors per keyword analysis. You will discover that some websites will rank for no obvious reasons. Similarly, some SERPs are very low competition and that ranking sites have done no SEO at all to get there.

Prerequisite Knowledge

“Think of Google as a filing system in a library. The library has billions of books with hundreds of trillions of pages.

So let’s say that you want find something on global warming. Google would go through all these pages and extract pages that contain your keywords or closely related words.

But as I’m sure you will know, search results aren’t returned in any random order. Google tries to return the most relevant results first by using sophisticated algorithms. And they’re so good at this that most of us don’t need to click through to page 2 of the search results.

Nobody knows exactly how these algorithms work or the exact factors that Google looks at to rank a web-page but we do know that a lot of these so called Google ranking factors – so we are able to make some optimisation recommendations.

For the bulk of most Google searches, the websites that you see on page 1 of the SERP have Authority, Relevance, and Trust. These are the 3 underlying principles that SEO attempts to manipulate via a range of tactics.

What are these tactics?

  • We build links to boost Trust.
  • We build links from well respected industry-relevant websites to increase Authority and Relevance.
  • We write high-quality content that provides valuable information for search users in order to increase Relevance.

On-page SEO is one of the most effective methods to increase a website’s Relevance.

It refers to making specific decisions to a particular web-page (hence why it is called ‘on-page’).

To do on-page correctly, you will need to have done detailed keyword research. Typical on-page includes optimising a page’s Title, Heading Tags (H1-H3), Meta Descriptions, URL structure, and On-page Content for a target keyword.

Other on-page factors may include efforts to reduce page loading times and ensuring that there are no technical issues that prevent the web-page from being crawled and indexed by search engines.

Check out my 21-point SEO checklist to make sure that your website has all the basics covered.

  • SERP: search engine results page.
  • Link building: a practice in SEO that increases the number of relevant referring domains to link.
  • Backlink: a link that will take a user form one website to another.
  • Referring domain: the website from which you receive a backlink.
  • Dofollow: a HTML attribute that is used to allow search bots to follow links. Dofollow links from industry relevant and authoritative websites are desired in SEO link building.
  • Nofollow: a HTML attribute that will tell search engines to ignore links.
  • Manual outreach: contacting website editors, publishers, owners and writers to ask for link opportunities.
  • Guest post strategy: authoring content that will be published on an external site. In exchange for producing the content, you gain a link back to your website.
  • Broken link strategy: looking for web pages that link out to 404 error pages, publishing similar content and asking the website owner/admin/editor to replace the broken link with a link to the replacement content.
  • HARO strategy: signing up to Help A Report Out and responding to callouts in return for a backlink.
  • Niche edits strategy: the process of finding opportunities on existing web pages to insert a link to your website.
  • Unlinked mentions strategy: the process of finding mentions of your brand name and asking the website owner/editor to link to you.
  • Directory listings: many industries have niche-specific business directories that you can pay to be featured on. May be used for link building.
  • Advertorials: advertisement in the form of editorial content. May be used for link building.
  • Listicle: a page that consists of a list of products or services. May be used for link buidling.

Tools Needed

Why You Should Spy On Your Competitors

For any given keyword, Google will show a user a number of websites that it thinks to be the best fit for the user’s search intent.

What this means is that every website or web page that is in the top positions on page 1 of any SERP has done something right. If you can decipher what it is that these web pages are doing right, you can replicate their tactics so that Google will begin promoting your web page instead.

For example, when a user located in Australia inputs ‘wedding photographer Melbourne’ into Google, they will see the following organic results (see below).

Looking at what the top ranking pages are doing is the most efficient way to knowing what you need to do to your own website in order for Google to start giving more SERP visibility. After all, each of these websites is on page 1 for a reason.

A page tends to rank well for a variety of reasons:

  • the overall website may have a lot of Authority (i.e., has many high quality links point to the domain) and is therefore a trusted source of information
  • the page may have superior content that follows best practice on-page SEO
  • the page itself may have a high number of links
  • the website may have an efficient site structure with optimal internal linking
  • the website may have had significant development work done to make it render incredibly fast
  • the website may have many well-written pages that add topical relevance to the overall subject.

Your job is to find out which one of these variables are in play so that you can replicate their success. In some cases, it could be all of the above. In other cases, it may be just one or two.

When it comes to SEO, there is a never-ending list of things to do. Nobody will truly know what are the exact ranking factors used by Google. However, by doing the analysis at the start of your SEO journey, you can make data-driven decisions to do the minimum to get the maximum value out of your website. This will reduce the amount of resources wasted on things that will not make a difference.

The most efficient way to do this is to find out why the top pages are on page 1.

You can learn a lot from your competitors.
Let me show you how.

How To Spy On Your Competitors Like A Pro


Each and every website on the first page of Google is there for a reason (on-page SEO, technical SEO, off-page SEO, local SEO). In general, a website that ranks well for one keyword will probably rank for many other keywords. If this is the case, you may be able to glean some tips on how to set up your site structure and what type of content to create for different keywords by looking at the top ranking sites.

For this, we will use Ahref’s Site Explorer function to spy on your competitors.

Copy the URL of the ranking page from the SERP and paste it into Site Explorer.

By default, Ahrefs will give you the overall metrics of the domain even when you paste in an internal landing page URL.

On the next screen, you will see a dashboard of metrics.

At the top of your screen, you should see the following (see below).

The second organic result,, has over 3,000 organic keywords. Let’s dive into them to see what we can learn.

See, spying is fun isn’t it?


From the Site Explorer metrics dashboard, you can access the organic keywords in two ways: (i) click on the 3.4K number or, (ii) use the menu navigation on the left of your screen and click on Organic Keywords.

This will show you a list of keywords that a site is ranking for. In this particular demonstration, is ranking for over 2,700 keywords in Australia.


So what can we learn here?

You can fiddle around with the fiddles here. For example, you can click on Position Column and see what keywords ranks for from highest to lowest. You can also click on Volume Column to see keywords with the highest to lowest search volume.

I like to apply three filters initially: (i) Position 1-9, (ii) Volume 30-1,500, and (iii) exclude the brand name from the keyword list.

What this will show me are keywords with substantial search volume that the website ranks for on page 1. And since a business should rank at the top for its own brand name, I exclude it from the results.

The data that remains will tell you the best performing keywords for the website.

Here’s an interesting find that I found (see below).

Ahrefs has a great feature where you can see the ranking progression per keyword

What the above graphic tells you is the following:

  • It wasn’t until October 2019 that the site moved up to page 1 for the keyword ‘wedding photography Melbourne’.
  • Prior to this, it was stuck on page two and beyond.
  • Multiple internal pages were competing for this keyword.
  • It wasn’t until August 2019 that the homepage was associated with this keyword.

What’s interesting is that the homepage of is on page 1 for a number of lucrative head terms – wedding photography and videography, wedding photographer, Melbourne wedding photographers.

Given that Melbourne is the second largest city in Australia, competition for these keywords is high.

From our initial analysis, we can conclude that there is definitely some SEO work going on behind the curtains.

Learning recap: So far, you have identified a top ranked competitor by doing a Google search with a head term. Most websites that are on page 1 have done something right – especially if they are ranking for a head term. This is because head terms have a high number of searches per month and are therefore much more difficult to rank for. If a page is ranking for a head term, there is a high probability that the website is ranking for a high number of keywords. Using Ahrefs Site Explorer, you can get a sense of how they are able to achieve this.

Now that you have poked around a bit, let’s get dirty.


Nothing beats looking at data in Sheets of Excel – so that is what we are going to do.

Click the Export button, download the .csv file and open it with either Sheets of Excel. We won’t be doing any crazy macro stuff so Sheets is perfectly fine for this task.

Now that you have the entire list of keywords open in Sheets/Excel, delete columns A, D, E, H-N. You won’t be needing these.

You should be left with Keywords, Position, Volume, and URL.

I like to freeze the top row and assign it a different background colour to make it easier to look at (optional).


We already know that has some serious optimization done to it.

Column D (URL) will give us a hint as to whether URL structure and optimized landing pages are reasons why Google is favoring this website.

Looking at the data, it is obvious that your website should have clean permalinks (preferably with an exact match or partial match keyword in the URL slug). For example, an exact match URL slug for the keyword ‘baxter barn wedding’ = ../baxter-barn-wedding/ whereas a partial match URL slug for the same keyword = ../baxter-barn/.

This will give you the opportunity to rank for the main keyword as well as semantic variants (e.g., wedding photographers in Melbourne, wedding photographer Melbourne, Melbourne wedding photos, Melbourne wedding photography).

We’ll look at URLs in more detail in step 8.


Link building is one of the pillars of SEO. The goal is not quantity, but rather, gaining quality links from relevant websites. The more quality links a site acquires, the more Authority and Trust it has. And getting links from related industry websites will boost the website’s Relevance score – even if the referring sites are small blogs or businesses.

To see whether links is why a website is being preferred by Google in the SERP, go back to the Overview dashboard in Ahrefs.

At first glance, the numbers aren’t super impressive – 74 referring domains isn’t amazing stuff. But perhaps only recently began link-building?

Yes, it does appear this is the case.

According to Ahrefs, this site has been ramping up link-building some time in Q2 2019.

Now that we know that has been actively acquiring links, the next step in our discovery process is to look at the quality of their link-building. That is, we already know that link-building should be part of our SEO strategy, now we want to know what type of links we should aim for (at the very least).

Learning recap: So far, you have identified a top ranked competitor by doing a Google search with a head term. Most websites that are on page 1 have done something right – especially if they are ranking for a head term. This is because head terms have a high number of searches per month and are therefore much more difficult to rank for. If a page is ranking for a head term, there is a high probability that the website is ranking for a high number of keywords. Using Ahrefs Site Explorer, you can get a sense of how they are able to achieve this.

But what if none of the top ranked pages have visible signs of link building? It may be possible that links are not a competitive ranking factor for the keyword that you’re inspecting. In such scenarios, skip to step 8.


If the competitor website shows signs of active link building, the next step is to decipher what their strategy is for acquiring backlinks.

Links are important in SEO. They help build your website’s Authority and Trust. However, not all backlinks are equal. Generally speaking, the more difficult a link is to acquire, the more benefit it will give you.

We’re not too concerned at the individual backlinks. What you want to see are the referring domains. This because in SEO, Authority can be influenced by the number of unique websites that link to your website.

Think about it, a website can link to you multiple times across different pages. For example, at any reference to photography, the same website could link out to you where each of these mentions are individual backlinks.

If the sheer quantity of backlinks was an important ranking factor then we would all just get the same website to link out to us over and over again. But this is not the case.

So this is why the number of referring domains is what you are looking for.

Once again, you will use Ahrefs Site Explorer to peek under the hood.

Navigate to Referring domains in the left hand side navigation, then click on the Link Type filter box and select Dofollow.

This will show you the links that matter.

Ahrefs will automatically present a list of referring domains from best to worst. It measures based on its own metric DR (domain rating).

Generally speaking, a higher DR number indicates a ‘better’ website and therefore, a site that you want to link out to your website.

As you can see, has more than 25 referring domains from DR25 websites. It has 5 DR70+ referring domains linking back it with more than 20 individual backlinks.

Make a note of all the referring domains that you see – these are the websites that you will want to get a link from. Even low DR websites can be worthwhile as long as they are industry-relevant websites. For example, has a number of DR5-10 websites linking out to them (, These are all fellow wedding businesses (makeup artists, florists). Don’t ignore these referring domains purely based on a low DR score. Backlinks from industry colleagues help strengthen your website’s Relevance.

Learning recap: Links will always matter in SEO. But to determine whether links are why page 1 websites are ranking you will need to do a manual review of their backlink graph. Link building is a very time consuming process and if it is not the primary driver for maximum SERP visibility, you should focus on other areas that will give you better ROI. By doing this step, you will have data to support your decision to either focus on link building or not. 


By this stage you know that links are giving your competitors a competitive advantage in the SERPs. You have seen first-hand data that your competitors are actively invested in link building. You have a list of referring domains to target.

But how do you build these links from these target sites?

When it comes to link building, there are multiple strategies:

  • manual outreach (networking)
  • guest posts
  • broken link strategy
  • HARO outreach
  • niche edits
  • unlinked mentions
  • directory listings
  • advertorials

You role is to look at the referring domains data and figure out what methods of link acquisition your competitor is doing. By doing this you will be able to get a sense of what you will need to do to achieve the same (if not more) number of referring domains.

Return to the Referring domains dashboard in Ahrefs.

Remember how you applied a filter to view only Dofollow links earlier? Well, I want you to undo this filter so that you can see all the referring domains. That is, click on Link type filter and select All.

By doing this, you will see the bigger picture of where all the links are coming from and whether they are naturally-occurring or being facilitated.

In the next step, your goal is to look at the type of context that each referring domain is linking out to the competitor. Do this by going across to the Links to Target column and clicking on the numbered box.

This will reveal the individual backlinks that exist from the one referring domain (see below).

You will want to manually go through each of the referring domains, starting with the highest DR sites and working your way down.

PS – If the competitor has hundreds of referring domains, look at 10-20. This should give you an adequate indication of what type of link building strategy they are using. Remember your goal is not to do a complete audit, but rather, do a comprehensive review of the least amount of data to get what you need. I’m sure you have better things to do than manually looking at each and every referring domain.

In the above example, has two backlinks from You can see that both links are in the format of an image credit. It would be safe to conclude that these links were naturally occurring. That is, a journalist/writer needed a visual and found it on website. As such, they have linked to in exchange for using their image.

As a wedding photographer, what conclusion could you make?

Even though did not actively seek out this link from, what can you do to replicate this result? has linked to 7 times. Looking at the individual backlinks (see below), it is clear that the context of these links come from real wedding submissions

Given the high DR of, I would look into how I could be featured in a similar way. Perhaps features are an exclusive perk for existing advertisers? Or perhaps anyone can be featured?

Your job is to find out what you can do to get on and similar referring domains.

In this particular demonstration, I see a few referring domains that indicate that is doing a mixture of manual outreach, directory listing, and advertorial strategy. That is, they are actively submitting real wedding feature submissions to various wedding blogs. But doing this type of manual outreach is not enough. They could be active advertisers which give them a higher chance of having their work featured (and thus gain backlinks). Similarly, they have paid to be exhibitors at various industry events. Not only has this allowed them to meet potential customers, it has also furthered their backlink profile.

You may see that your competitors have links from big websites such as,,,,, Whilst these websites may not be directly relevant to your business, they are sites that are very difficult to acquire directly and therefore are very valuable.

If you see that your competitors have big name websites linking to them, chances are that they are using HARO to acquire these. What this means for you is that you should do the same!

Learning recap: There are many ways to achieve a backlink. Being really good at what you do can help you naturally acquire backlinks. However, if you know that links is a reason why competitors are ranking above you, then you need to facilitate the link acquisition process. By looking at what type of links competitors are getting you may reverse engineer how you can achieve the same.

Now repeat this process for at least 3 of the first page results for your target keywords.


We’re going to shift gears now. Where you were previously looking for signs of off-page SEO to copy, now you are going to determine whether or not on-page SEO is a competitive ranking factor (and if so, what you can copy from your competitors).

As with before, if we are to believe that Google has deliberately chosen every single page for its page one results, we can safely assume that these page one results have done something right to get there. Instead of looking at their backlink profile, you are now going to see how each of these websites approach their on-page SEO. This is because if on-page SEO is a competitive factor, it is likely that the entire website has had some form of on-page optimisation carried out.

But not every page-one result is the same. Some may be listicles web pages. Others may be informational articles from trusted sources. Both of these tend to rank better in some SERPs.

Therefore, you will need to identify relevant competitors from the SERP to get the most accurate and appropriate findings for your business.

For the ‘wedding photographer Melbourne’ SERP, out of the 10 organic results, 40% are listicles or directory-style content (,,, and This means the majority of the SERP are actual wedding photographer websites.

If you are a Melbourne wedding photographer wanting to target this keyword, you will want to exclude these four websites from your analysis.

So let’s go back to spying on your competitors!

To do this, you will need Screaming Frog SEO Spider (paid version).

Screaming Frog is excellent for showing you the exact page titles, meta descriptions, and use of H1 and H2 tags – these are all signs that a website is actively engaged in best-practices on-page SEO.

Note: Some websites block crawlers such as Screaming Frog. You can circumvent this by going to Configuration > User-Agent and setting it to Googlebot Smartphone.

Grab the URL from the SERP and paste it into Screaming Frog.

Depending on how large the website is, it may take a few minutes for the crawl to complete.

Continuing our example of using the keyword ‘wedding photographer Melbourne’ to find top ranking pages in the SERPs, I’ve put into Screaming Frog because it is position #2 on page 1 of Google.

PS – it took almost 10minutes to crawl all 18,541 URLs (this is why you need the paid version).

Once the crawl is complete, more detective! Yay!


Your goal here is to spend no more than 10-minutes on each competitor website (I recommend looking at 3-4 competitor sites). And be sure to look at relevant competitor sites only.

The purpose of running a Screaming Frog website crawl is to filter through all the data at a very high-level. The tabs that you will want to look at are Page Titles, Meta Description, H1 and H2.

I recommend exporting each of these individual tabs as .csv files and reviewing the data in Google Sheets, Numbers of Microsoft Excel. This is because the Screaming Frog interface is rather hideous.

Common mistake – keyword stuffing on all page titles

Something I noticed immediately was that has keyword stuffed all their page titles with a number of exact match keywords (see above).

What can you imply from this?

Do you think is following best practices?
Do you think they know what they’re doing?

If they have keyword stuffed their page titles, what other (poor) tactics have they implemented that you can take advantage of?

This is the power of spying on your competitors! You can find out how strong the competition really is and put together a list of actions that will help you outrank them.

Here’s a checklist of questions to ask as you look at the exported data:

  1. Does the page title contain the target keyword?
  2. Is the same keyword found in multiple page titles?
  3. Does the site have descriptive URLs, each with a target keyword?
  4. Does the page have an <h1> tag?
  5. Does the page have a keyword optimized <h1> tag?
  6. Does the page have multiple <h1> tags?
  7. Does the page have a good amount of text that is relevant to the target keyword?
  8. Is the site on HTTPS?
  9. Does the page have <h2> tags?
  10. Are the <h2> tags keyword optimized?
  11. Do pages have unique meta descriptions?
  12. Does the page link to other pages within the same website?
  13. Does the page have schema markup?

For your convenience, I’ve made a simple Google Sheets template for you to use.

From time to time, Screaming Frog will produce false positives. This is why I recommend installing a free Chrome/Brave/Firefox extension called SEO Minion to verify that the pages you are inspecting do in fact have H1 tags when Screaming Frog says that it does not.

Install the extension and click on Analyze On-Page SEO. This will show you the exact on-page elements that are on the web page.

Download and install this free Chrome/Brave extension called SEO Minion

Repeat this analysis for each of the relevant competitors.


From the previous checklist, you will come to one of two conclusions:

  1. your competitions have implemented adequate on-page SEO, or
  2. your competitions have done little on-page SEO but still are being promoted by Google for your target keyword(s).

If you find yourself in the first scenario, get your on-page SEO lit AF. You will need to make sure that your homepage and all other internal pages have been optimized for on-page elements. This is because your competition has already done it so at the very least, you will need to bring your on-page on par with theirs.

If you find yourself in the second scenario, you will want to do 2 things.

First, get your on-page SEO lit AF.

Since your competition has not taken the time to optimize their on-page content and formatting, this is your opportunity. On-page SEO by itself is a very strong ranking factor so do your keyword research properly, assign certain keywords to individual pages, build out supporting content pages, and follow the best practices of on-page SEO. Doing this will always produce long term positive gains. I have ranked pages in less competitive niches purely with on-page SEO and optimized copywriting. I highly recommend that you use SURFER or Clearscope to optimise your on-page content.

Secondly, as you fix on-page errors on your website, start link building, especially if in the previous section you discovered that links were a competitive advantage.


Learning recap: In this module, you have identified relevant competitors for a given keyword. You have looked at their link profile to see if link building is one of the reasons why they’re on page 1. You have also looked at how they structure their website and whether they have applied basic on-page SEO. In doing so, you should have a sense of what you will need to prioritize in order to get your business to show up on page 1 of Google.

A SEO strategy maps out what your goals are, the things you need to achieve, and how you will achieve them. Everything that you have done so far in the module has prepared you to develop your own SEO strategy. And since it is based on your own first hand analysis, you can trust that the things you will need to do are relevant for your particular business.

For example, you may find that your competitors have some form of links but they do not appear to be actively engaged in link building. Instead, they do have fairly solid on-page SEO. Therefore, your SEO strategy may be to:

  • prioritize SEO copywriting for your homepage and some internal pages
  • optimize existing page titles, meta descriptions and H1-H6 tags, and
  • improving internal linking between relevant content pages.

You may also, at the same time, choose to advertise on one or more industry-relevant directories to get some quick industry-relevant backlink wins.

Or perhaps you may discover that having a high number of industry-relevant links is the reason why your competitors are on page 1 of Google for your keyword.

Your SEO strategy would therefore:

  • prioritize link building so that you can boost your website’s Authority, Trust and Relevance at the same time
  • in order to acquire these links, you will look for guest posting opportunities, pay for advertorials and/or directory listings, reach out to professionals you have worked with in the past and offer a link exchange, as well as sign up to HARO and respond to callouts on a daily basis.

How To Rank For ‘Wedding Photographer Melbourne’

With an estimated 2,400 monthly searches, you would be crazy to not want to be one of the first wedding photographers to show up for this keyword.

From my analysis, I can make the following conclusions:

  1. Google understands search intent for this keyword as someone who is looking to see a number of wedding photographer options on the results page.
  2. As such, 70 percent of page 1 SERP for ‘wedding photographer Melbourne’ are actual wedding photographer websites.
  3. Therefore, there is a high possibility that I can rank my wedding photography website onto page 1.
  4. Looking at the backlink profile of the ranking wedding photography websites, I believe links are a ranking factor. Many of the top ranking websites have backlinks from major wedding blogs.
  5. On-page SEO doesn’t seem to be the main reason why Google is preferring these websites.
  6. This is because the majority of the ranking websites have poor on-page SEO.
  7. As such, link building will be a priority.
  8. I will sign up to HARO and try to respond to as many callouts as possible.
  9. I will allocate time to submit real weddings to wedding blogs.
  10. I will become an advertiser with as many of these wedding blogs as financially feasible in order to quickly acquire a backlink from them.
  11. I will build relationships with fellow wedding vendors and offer to guest post on their blogs or do a link exchange (e.g., recommended vendor page on their website).
  12. I may consider becoming an advertiser with upcoming local wedding exhibitions in order to acquire a backlink from them.
  13. Using SURFER, I will incorporate ‘wedding photographer Melbourne’ into my page title, H1 heading, and as an exact match keyword in the body of my homepage text.
  14. I will write unique meta descriptions for each page.
  15. I will be sure to not append the same keyword to other page titles.
  16. I will ensure that I follow the recommendations from DIY SEO Guide For Photographers.
  17. I will focus on building topical relevance of being a wedding photographer servicing the Melbourne region by creating supporting content that demonstrates my knowledge of the area and how it relates to weddings.
  18. And I will make sure that these inner web-pages of supporting content are interlinked.

Now that I have shown you how I would tackle the project, all that remains now is for you to do it based on your own findings.

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