Are you trying to get a handle on your competition? Here are totally free digital tools you can use:
1. Alexa.com - one of my all time favorites. Do you want to know just how much traffic a website gets, and some data about that traffic? Alexa will give you a good idea. It's very simple, every website has an Alexa number, and the websites with the most traffic have the lowest number. Facebook is usually number 1, Google is number 2, YouTube is number 3, you get the idea - today, right this minute, this website (pointofsale.com) is number 118,168. How can you find out your own Alexa score? Very simple.. just go to Alexa.com and put in your company domain name.
Alexa works by utilizing a number of data sources. It's not perfect, but I've been using it for years and it's quite decent. There is some fluctuation from month to month - it seems my site is always either rising or falling. I think its because the landscape of the Internet changes so dramatically.
For example, right this minute the global Alexa rank for Pointofsale.com is 118,168. Two years ago it was 453,686, a year ago it was 215,000. Our site traffic has grown substantially, but the ranking is relative to other sites. It changes every day. That number is the Global rank by the way. It means that today my site is the 118,168th most visited in the world. In the United States, it is the 23,653rd most visited website. But it will change tomorrow!
More important that overall rankings, Alexa can also tell you about visitor demographics and just how long a visitor stays on your website.
Here we can see that visitors looked at an average of 7.7 pages while they were on the site, and that they spent 6 and a half minutes there. The bounce rate was about 38%, which is pretty decent. The average bounce rate for a website seems to be around 60% - depending on who you listen to. A bounce means that the visitor looked at only one page and then left.
Looking at domain stats on Alexa will also give you an idea of male vs female viewership and other interesting data that may be useful when trying to understand your competitors. Alexa offers a free tool bar for your browser which will automatically show you the Alexa number of every website you visit. So if you are checking up on competitors, this is an easier way to get stats. Remember that the more you go to look at your competitors website, the more you help their traffic stats. I highly recommend installing the Alexa tool bar.
Something else to beware of - if your competitor has multiple businesses and they all merge on the same website, his traffic for an individual business is going to APPEAR to be higher than it actually is. One company I know has 19 different businesses, but just one website for all of them. Two ways to check this..look at the domain address: if it is business1/companyXYZ.com and another of their websites is business2/companyXYZ.com - they are using the same domain and the stats will be CUMULATIVE - don't fall for it. A second way to tell if they are using one website is that the Alexa score will be the same for each of their businesses - each site will have the same Alexa number. There is nothing illegal about this, and it is certainly more cost effective to pay for only one server to conglomerate traffic in that way. Unfortunately it also makes it harder to sniff out which of their businesses are winners and which are dogs.
A tool that formerly worked well for measuring your own site was Google Analytics, but seems to have gradually diminished in effectiveness with the growing usage of privacy blockers like Ghostery. Ghostery is a free tool for Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Opera, Internet Explorer that lets you block over 1,400 common tracking cookies.
When I go to an Internet page, Ghostery pops up in a little box and shows me which companies are planting tracking cookies on my computer. In this image, Ghostery is showing that I have blocked Google Analytics, Pinterest and others. I normally block most tracking cookies. You can get Ghostery for free. I mention this because if you are busy snooping around on your competitors' websites, it might be smart to not have tons of tracking cookies placed on your computer. Incidentially, in several recent cases of comparing raw server data to Google Analytics it was shown that GA had tracked only five to ten percent of the actual traffic - a few years ago it was closer to 90%. I suspect that in addition to blockers like Ghostery, another part of the problem may be the increase in web viewing on mobile devices, but this is just a hunch.
2. So, if Ghostery is blocking Google Analytics and 1,399 other trackers, how can you measure what is working on your website?
One way is to use the stats from your server, because although browsers may have blockers, a server does know how many times a page has been requested, how many other pages they viewed, etc. Awstats , which is a free tool from every server hosting company I've ever worked with is great for viewing your own traffic and seeing what portions of your advertising efforts are working. Of course, you're not likely to see a competitors stats, so it doesn't help much with competitive intelligence. Some businesses guard their stats like the crown jewels, but since Alexa (and others) will give you a good handle on how much traffic a site gets, I often wonder why companies think they can hide the truth. It just is what it is. There's no use in pretending to be something you're not, right?
(Ahhh...are you thinking - this Aberle, he promised me competitive information tools, and here he is showing me something to use on my own site? What's the good of that? Well, friends, to answer that, I will quote the famous General Sun Tzu, author of "The Art of War". He was an extraordinarily successful leader and one of his quotes that I love is "Know thy enemy, win half your battles. Know thyself, win all your battles". Therefore, readers - do take some time and examine thy own statistics.)
3. Google Alerts is an excellent way to keep tabs on your competitors. It lets you plug in a term and it will notify you when that term appears on a web page. For example, if you put your own business name in there, you could find out how often your company is mentioned in the news. For small companies this can be a way to make sure you are not surprised by negative press, as well as see how often your competitor comes up, or find out quickly if he has a press release.
4. Other ways to measure your competitor include checking their reviews/activity on Yelp, Foursquare, Angie's List, their Facebook page. (Check your own FB page too - there are sometimes consumer complaints or questions that go unanswered for months!)
5. Use Google Earth to look at satellite images of your competitors business/office/industrial area/parking lot. See just how big it is, how much space he has, how many cars are parked there. They might be claiming 100 full-time employees, but if there is parking for only 10 cars that would make me suspicious. A business could be just a postal address, or a private home - or maybe 50,000 sq feet of space. There's no telling what you can learn. It's free and it's fun.
6. Watching your competitors website automatically using ChangeDetect. This free tool will notify you when a competitors website has been updated.
The Internet offers a lot of wonderful tools formonitoring the competition. Using them a few times a year will keep you better informed!
(Updated Oct 14th, 2013)
Written by Craig Aberle
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