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Editor’s note: “Ask an SEO” is a weekly column by technical SEO experts Jenny Halasz and Kristine Schachinger. Come up with your hardest SEO question and fill out our form. You might see your answer in the next #AskanSEO post!


Frequently, I see people on Twitter or Facebook discuss how a ranking factor on their sites does not need to be fixed after an algorithm update because a competitor is doing just as poorly on that same factor – so it must not be affecting them either. The update must be about something else.

This is usually a very poor way to determine why your site was hit by an algorithm update, understand what you need to do for your site to help it improve in the rankings either after an update or just generally speaking.

When your site is having issues ranking well because of algorithm updates or general adjustments by Google, what other sites do is irrelevant.

It would be like If you are an Olympic athlete and you decided you did not need to train as hard because your main competitor trains less.

The Case of Michael Phelps

Michael Phelps was infamous for eating burgers and drinking, even smoking cannabis between competitions in the run-up to the 2012 Olympic Trials.

For one of the greatest Olympic athletes of all time, he even went through a period where he seemed to lose focus on his swimming career and skipped training so frequently that there was talk about him not even making the London Olympics.

However, he not only made it. He went on to win four gold and two silver medals.

Now on the news that Phelps, arguably the biggest competition at the games – might not even make it, do you think his competitors all decided they could slack off on their training?

Of course not. They trained as hard as they ever trained because they know what Phelps did and did not do had no effect on whether they won.

They had to be ready. They had to train.

They had to eat right, sleep, not smoke, or drink too often.

They had to be in peak physical condition if they were going to win no matter what Phelps did because they needed to be the best them they could be despite anyone else’s readiness.

How Did Phelps Do So Well in London?

But how did Phelps do so well in London when he was performing so below par just prior? When they thought he might not even make qualifying rounds because of his lackluster performance?

It’s because Phelps had a body that specifically helped him excel in swimming. Not just the body he developed from his years of training and practice, but the body with which he arrived here on earth.

His physical structure was such that he had a slight leg up on everyone else, so when he did not train as he should have and everyone was calling him done, his physique helped him perform at levels others could not without working much harder than he had to work.

This does not mean he did not need to train.

He still had to train, and he had to train hard, but when he didn’t do as much as he could he still had an advantage, his physicality, that helped him gain those fractions of a second needed to win.

Now, he did not win as many medals as he could have in London if he had done what he was supposed to do, but he still won even after the experts called him done.

So What Does Michael Phelps Have to Do with SEO?

We are at the point in the piece where you are probably wondering, so what? How does this apply to SEO?

Much like Michal Phelps hidden advantage of a physique made for swimming, when a site owner looks at their competitor, unless they have specific internal knowledge of how that site looks under the hood, unless they run a deep site audit on the site they are reviewing, they do not know what is making that site perform so well – even when in a few obvious areas they are lacking.

How many swimmers thought of Phelps body structure being an advantage even when he was not training as hard as they were?

It was not until scientists started to examine his incredible success that they found he had a possible slight structural benefit other swimmers did not share.*

You’re Not Them

So yes, their page speed is as slow as yours, but do you also have their link profile?

Have you optimized your content and titles as well?

Have you as much content to rank?

The list can go on and on.

The issue is that your site is its own entity and it cannot be compared to others for the purpose of rankings. You don’t know what is making that other site rank.

So why would you use that as a measure against your own?

The only thing that matters is how is YOUR site doing AGAINST Google’s algorithms?

To quote Ian Lurie, you are in a “quality game” and your only concern should be “distance from perfect”.

What is distance from perfect?

How close or far away your site is to what we know Google wants from sites – regardless of what anyone else is doing.

‘Distance from Perfect’ Is Much More Important Than What Your Competitor Is Doing

One publisher I worked with told me how they did not need to fix their page speed issues because after all The New York Times and Washington Post were equally as bad if not worse.

I said, but you are not the New York Times or the Washington Post. Meaning parts of their SEO value are so heavily weighted – specifically their link profiles – they can afford to not be as good in other areas.

After much back and forth, we decided to fix their page speed issues. We spent several months and took 15 seconds off the full download.

Soon after we finished, a Google update came through. We woke up to find a hockey stick spike and gained 128% in traffic that day (200k+ session increase per day).

I then spent the next 6 hours telling them yes, Google Analytics is correct. We did gain that much traffic and we kept most of it (after Google settled out the update) for the next 6 weeks.

Sadly, the ad team thought they knew better and put all the ads back on the site and we lost much of what we gained, but that is another story.

The point is had they just looked at their competitors, they never would have had those gains because they would have assumed (wrongly) that they did not need to work on it since their competitors were not working on it.

They are slow, we can be slow too!

But by simply fixing their issue and getting their site closer to perfect, we were able to get them a 100%+ boost on their traffic.

So you should never compare your site to a competitor’s and decide you do not need to do something because they don’t.

The Washington Post and The New York Times had a far larger content corpus than my client’s site and link profiles that could help overcome many site ills – my client did not.

So your goal should always be: “What is my “distance to perfect” and how can I close that gap?”

And not, “What is my competitor doing equally as poorly as me?”

So are there times when it is valuable to compare your site against your competitors?

When Should You Look at Your Competitors for Guidance?

So when can you look at your competitors?

When you are looking at what you can do better.

While it is never an excuse to not fix something on your site because “THEY” didn’t, your competitor’s site can be a very valuable space in which to discover where you can improve your visibility and presence organically.

A few examples of when it can be good to look at your competitors’ sites?

  • Link Profile Gap Analyses
  • Linking Opportunities
  • Keyword (Query) Gap Analyses
  • Content Gap Analyses
  • Query Terms
  • Site Architecture
  • Taxonomy
  • Nomenclature
  • Etc.

These are not the only items, but they are some of the most impactful.

If you can find out where your site is lacking and improve it by looking at the gaps such as the ones listed above, in the sites you rank against in a Search Result Page?

You can create significant increases in traffic and revenue.

So yes, you can use your competitor’s site to discover your weaknesses.

Just never use it as proof that you do not need to fix an issue you know exists or assume the update could not be about “that” because your competitor didn’t suffer.

Unless you work at Google you don’t know what did or did not affect another site without a deep dive and who has time for that. Instead spend that time just improving your site, making it better. Making it work.

* This is not something everyone agrees on, but for the purpose of this analogy, we will agree with those that do believe his physicality gave him an advantage over his competitors. For an alternative analysis, see this. 

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Image Credits

Featured Image: Paulo Bobita

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