Forget keyword rankings, focus on users: What dating apps and dancing contests teach us about competition

Cate McGehee

The only companies that don’t have any competition are the ones selling something nobody wants. If you have a viable product or service, it’s just a matter of time before someone else starts offering it. And if you think it’s going to come down to whose product or service is better, think again.

Core products start a lot of wars that marketing teams finish. How do you think the more expensive, less powerful MacBook became the hottest personal computer of the 2010’s? (That’s right: marketing.)

Content might be the single most important facet of a brand’s digital marketing strategy. How do you analyze your competition in terms of content in order to keep up, get ahead, or stay ahead?

This blog post will provide two guiding rules and three action items for user-centric competitive analysis.

There are two rules of competitive analysis.

The first rule of competitive analysis: Use your customers, not your product, to identify your real competition.

The fastest way to eliminate the competition is to realize you aren’t competing.

Too often, businesses assume that because someone offers a similar product they are competitors. In reality, many businesses with similar products actually have very different target audiences. It never fails to impress me when a client says, “No, [That Other Company] might seem like a competitor but actually the people who are coming to them wouldn’t be interested in us.” This tells me immediately they have a mature, nuanced understanding their customers, their product, and their industry.

As they say, “You can’t please all of the people all of the time.” Customers will naturally group themselves into different segments as different things attract them to different companies. The key is identifying why people chose your brand over another and then leaning into that. That’s your real value proposition.

One of the best examples of this is in digital matchmaking services. It might seem like Tindr, OkCupid, and are all targeting singles and are therefore competitors. But subtle differences exist among their real target audiences: generally, Tindr is for younger people interested in hooking up and casual dating, OkCupid is for singles looking for something a little more serious (yet they’re not serious enough to pay a subscription fee), and is for older singles looking for that ring and their forever friend.

The reason the digital matchmaking industry can sustain dozens of different dating apps is that none of them are actually in competition with all of them. There are all kinds of customers, looking for all kinds of things, and the way they self-sort means there’s something on the market for everyone:

dating apps are arranged along x and y axis according to commitment level and audience type

Of course, that’s just one way of visualizing the differences between dating apps. But identifying your competition according to what customers want—and not according to what companies offer—will help you identify your niche and your true competitors.

As that graph shows, and OkCupid aren’t in fierce competition, though they are certainly more in competition with each other than either of them is with, say, JDate or Ashley Madison. Zooming in on the top right quadrant, and adding a few more apps, shows you the true competitive landscape:

Upper right quadrant of dating app diagram shows real competitive landscape

See those areas of overlap? should keep an eye on eHarmony, and OkCupid should keep an eye on Plenty of Fish and Coffee Meets Bagel.

This sort of customer-first process for identifying competition works with any industry. For example, if you own a Mexican restaurant, the Greek restaurant across the street is more likely to be your competition than the other Mexican restaurant that’s clear across town, especially if your price point is more similar to the Greek spot (or if you both have a killer happy hour).

To paraphrase Harvard economist Clayton Christensen, what job are your customers “hiring” your product to do? In Christensen’s famous allegory of McDonald’s, people looking to “hire” a milkshake in the morning weren’t looking for a milkshake, necessarily. They were looking for a delightful morning snack that would last them their whole commute to work and be easy to consume with one hand. Says Christensen:

“The competitors are not just Burger King milkshakes. From the customer’s point of view, the milkshake competes against bananas and donuts and bagels and coffee and Snickers bars and probably some other things.”

Think about the job your product might be hired to do, and you’ll realize who the other strong candidates are.

The second rule of competitive analysis: Don’t compete for keywords. Compete for customers.

As an SEO-forward agency, Portent gets a lot of questions from clients who are hoping to outrank their competitors for particular keywords. I’m no SEO expert compared to the team here, so here’s what our SEO team lead Zac Heinrichs has to say:

Businesses should focus less on keywords and more on who their customer is going to be. Focus more on what’s actually going to drive the conversions or MQLs you want. SEO is partially about tempering expectations around those big shiny keywords and focusing on the ones where people are actually looking for a solution to a problem.

If you’re running a race with someone and you’re fairly well matched, the one who focuses on her own two feet will probably beat the one who focuses on her opponent’s feet. If you understand your niche and understand what your customers what, focus on giving it to them. The keywords will follow.

That’s not just a pretty speech—at Portent, we don’t track product competitors when we’re looking at keyword competition. We just look at keyword competition. Maybe that seems obvious, but it’s actually a little radical.

“When we transitioned our reporting from our old Excel based-one to the Data Studio,” says Zac, “we went from tracking the competition our clients suggested we track to the true search result page competition that STAT shows.

“Who are you actually competing with in search? Because Google is there, and Wikipedia is there. We’ve been trying to push clients away from worrying too much about ranking, because that’s only one way to measure and there are so many things we can’t control. We want our clients to be focusing more on the quality of the content and how they answer users’ questions and using rankings as more of an overall gauge of the health of the website.”

Pushing clients away from worrying about rankings is a pretty radical thing for an SEO expert to say. But we practice what we preach. Here’s a screenshot of the keyword competitors Portent tracks for ourself in STAT, our SERP tool, around a cluster of specific keywords (caveat: if this share of voice diagram were looking at a different set of keywords, it would have a different set of competitors):

Share of voice breakdown from STAT SERP tool that shows educational resources and Portent

There’s not a single other Seattle-based digital marketing agency on there. That’s because—for these particular keywords, and more importantly these topics—our competition is educational. We want to see where we show up when our potential clients are asking questions, because ultimately clients choose us for our knowledge base and our unparalleled authority when it comes to learning (and teaching) the shit out of everything. We make great content (like this blog you’re reading!) because we’re competing with Wikipedia, not Razorfish, when it comes to the keywords we care about most. And that’s because we know what our customers care about: they “hire our milkshake” for its big beautiful brain.

Alright. You read the rules. Here are three action items for conducting your competitive analysis.

1. First action item: Do user research.

Imagine you’re in a dance competition that’s being judged by a panel of strangers. You don’t know who they are, or what they’re looking for. You don’t even really know what kind of dance they like. Should you try salsa, ballroom, or just the sort of rhythmic shuffle you usually do? Do you get points for trying something bold, or are mistakes severely penalized? What if you sweat too much? Should you smile?

Now imagine that you’re allowed to walk right up to the panel of judges and ask them what they’re looking for. But instead of doing that, you decide to just go on stage and wing it. Afterward, you watch the the person you’re in competition walk up and ask the panel what they want. And then, mouth agape, you watch them do it.

That’s what it’s like when you don’t do user research. If you’re trying to figure out how to get a leg up on the competition, the answer isn’t inside your own marketing war room. Ask the people who are judging this competition: the customers. If the point is figuring out what they want and giving it to them. You don’t have to guess. Ask.

Just as usability testing can save thousands of dollars by preventing a product with major usability problems from going to market, a single well-executed survey can save you thousands of dollars when it comes to content marketing. Ask people what kind of content they want to see on your website. Do they want video? What kind of content do they wish your competitors offered? What confuses them about your value proposition?

If you don’t have the budget or the ability to recruit for a survey, find the places where your users are already talking online. There’s a subreddit or forum for just about everything these days. Find out the questions users are asking each other so you can answer them. Find out the things they wish for and then grant them.

If your competition is already doing user research, you better start if you want to stay in the game. If they aren’t, start anyway. You’ll be like the dancer who figured out the judges only care about flashy costumes, and then shows up in sequins.

2. Second action item: Do a cognitive content walkthrough.

After you’ve identified what users want, find out who’s doing a better job of giving it to them. Perform a cognitive content walkthrough.

“Cognitive walkthroughs” are a staple of the usability industry. They serve as kind of a “first look” at the problems users might encounter with a website’s usability through the eyes of an expert. You use the same kind of “first look” approach to evaluate content.

Some people use tools that scrape the URLs of a competitor’s site then try to parse the content from the taxonomy. However, this doesn’t help you understand the user experience of the content, which comes from poking around their website and seeing what you see. We recommend skipping the URL scraping and going straight to the source.

How discoverable are their content resources? What kind of resources do they have? Are those resources gated or open? Are they heavily branded or more general? How often do they publish? How long and rich is the material they’re publishing? Are the materials they’re providing receiving any kind of feedback?

After you’ve assessed your competition’s content assets and their ease of use, don’t forget to critically evaluate your own! If you want a guide and checklist for comparing content assets, download Portent’s new ebook, Plug and Play Content Strategy, from Content Strategist Augustin Kendall:

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Cognitive content walkthroughs are also a great way to refine your marketing strategy.

3. Third action item: Compare your social engagement.

Finally, social media mentions are a key performance indicator for content engagement. If you want an easy way to see whose content users are more engaged with, compare your social media.

Look at the social accounts of your competitors. Answer the following questions:

  • What social platforms do they use?
  • What platforms are they most invested in?
  • How many followers do they have on Twitter? Linkedin?
  • How many likes does their business page have on Facebook?
  • How many people shared their most recent 10 posts on all platforms?
  • How many people liked their most recent 10 posts on all platforms?
  • How often do they post to all platforms?
  • Who are the profiles that engage most with their content?
  • Do they have a consistent voice and tone across accounts? What is it like?

And when you’re done—you guessed it—answer those questions for your own social accounts.

If you don’t want to do a social media comparison manually, there are lots of tools out there that can generate helpful, rich reports. See Social Media Examiner’s excellent blog post on four of the best tools out there to get some names and ideas.

Hugely important caveat: Social media presence is about more than who has the most followers. Consider the ratio of followers to likes to get a better sense of whether or not you’re engaging your base. Many businesses have followers that aren’t engaged at all. Even worse, many businesses have followers they bought.

If you want a fun, easy, free way of measuring follower engagement, try Faker Score from Status People. If your competitors have more Twitter followers than you, but you’ve never bought a single follower and you think your base is more responsive and engaged, it’s an easy way to produce some feel-good metrics for yourself in less than 10 minutes.

See, here’s what I just pulled up for Portent:

Portent's score for fake real and inactive Twitter followers

And here are the first two competitors I pulled from the pool of other Seattle digital marketing agencies:

competitor score for fake, real, and inactive social media follows
competitor score for fake, real, and inactive social media follows

Yep, those metrics feel great!


If you’ve read all the way to the end of this article, we have a reward, beyond guidance for your next competitive analysis. Here’s the photo Zac wanted me to use next to his quote that ended up on the cutting room floor:

Zac the SEO lead in a tulip field giving a thumbs up

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See how Portent can help you own your piece of the web.

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  1. I do believe all of the concepts you’ve introduced in your post. They’re very convincing and will definitely work. Nonetheless, the posts are too short for novices. May you please extend them a bit from subsequent time? Thank you for the post.

    1. Hi Sindhubell, glad you liked the article! It’s wonderful to hear someone say they want to read *more* than I wrote. Is there a part in particular you’d like to see expanded? I am always interested in ideas for a new blog posts, especially if it could be of help to someone!

  2. Cate–I agree focus on your audience’s needs, not your marketing or promotion. I like the idea of what job are they looking to fulfill. It goes to a broader, more inclusive audience approach that should yield a larger targeted segment. Happy marketing, Heidi Cohen -Actionable Marketing Guide

    1. Thank you Heidi! Absolutely, that inclusive approach is essential. And focusing on what the customer wants/needs doesn’t reduce focus on marketing and promotion, just changes and informs it… For example, I looked into milkshake commercials pre- and post-Christensen’s study, and all the ones I could find *before* Christensen’s work focused on qualities that set the milkshake apart from other milkshakes (ie tastier, made with real chocolate/real ice cream, etc), whereas now milkshake commercials focus on what makes it great for a morning drive (ie it’s thick). McDonalds didn’t stop advertising, they just stopped trying to describe why their milkshake was “better” than an imagined competitor’s and focused on describing why it’s suited to the “job” the customer was looking to hire for.
      Thanks for reading! 🙂

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