10 Ways to Spy on Your Competitors

By Josh Catone
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Don’t look now, but your competition is up to things. What sort of things? That’s hard to say. It could be innocuous stuff you don’t have to worry about, but maybe they’re quietly launching a new product or service that is so awesome it will ruin your business! Or, perhaps they’re suffering through a bout of bad press that you should really be taking advantage of. The biggest problem is not that your competition is up to something, but that you don’t know about it. Thankfully, there’s this thing called the Internet, and by utilizing it you can keep track of your what your competitors are up to. Check out our list of 10 ways to watch your competitors below, and share other methods or tools that you use in the comments.

Watch: Ad Spending

SpyFu is a great, free utility that lets you check out how much your competitors are spending on keyword ads and for what keywords. You can also see how their ad spend changes over time. Conversely, SpyFu can tell you who is advertising on specific keywords, helping you to define your closest competitors.

Watch: Twitter

People talk on Twitter, and they’re probably talking about you and your competitors. Thankfully, it’s pretty easy to keep tabs on what they’re saying. Twitter has a great real-time search feature that allows you to keep watch on keywords and find new tweets almost as they happen. Searches are available as RSS feeds so you can always be kept in the loop about what people are saying about your competition.

Watch: Blogs

In addition to Twitter, it’s a good idea to watch what people are saying on blogs too. Blog search engine Technorati is one of the best ways to do it. Technorati does a great job of finding new posts, almost as fast they’re put up, and you can refine searches by the quality of the blog. Searches can be had in RSS format.

Another good option is the BlogPulse Conversation Tracker, which attempts to show, via threading, how conversations spread across the blogosphere. Alas, no RSS on that one.

Watch: Bookmarks

You should also keep tabs on bookmarks, because they’re a good way to find the news and blog coverage that is actually resonating with users. This is often the most important stuff — i.e., the stuff you need to be paying attention too. Thankfully, you can monitor tags on Delicious to see what items people are bookmarking about your competition. For example, here are the latest bookmarks about Apple. Each tag page has an RSS feed.

Watch: Forums

Using BoardTracker you can keep tabs on what people are saying about your competitors across 37,000 forums representing more than 63 million threads. BoardTrack has a built in Alerts function, but you can set up your own custom alerts using RSS and the site’s search function. Just be sure to decrease the time period you’re searching so you’re only getting recent posts about your competitors.

Watch: Job Postings

Is your competition hiring? Often times, job postings can offer clues about future expansion plans that your competitors may be working on. Using a classifieds aggregator like Oodle, which tracks a large number of job sites, you can keep tabs on any expansion that your competitors may be hiring for. For example, Oodle tells me that Digg is hiring, and I can follow any changes via RSS.

Watch: New Hires

Similarly, LinkedIn will let you keep an eye on who was actually hired by your competitors. Did they just land some top engineering talent? Maybe a ruthless new sales guy that you need to watch out for? Unfortunately, LinkedIn doesn’t offer RSS for their new hires section, so you’ll have to check manually.

Watch: Wikipedia

Another good page to spy on is your competitors’ Wikipedia entry. Using the “Revision history” tool, which has an RSS feed, you can be notified of any changes to their Wikipedia page. Did your competitor just attempt to scrub something from their history? Are they trying to alter their public image? Did they just push out a major new release or get bought out? Stay on top of it.

Watch: Keywords

Compete’s Search Analytics tools are invaluable when spying on your competitors. You can see how your site ranks compared to theirs on competing keywords, and you can see which keywords are sending them the most traffic. That can be very useful when planning how to spend your ad budget.

Watch: Their Web Site

Finally, you need to actually be watching your competition’s web site. Sometimes, though, changes are subtle. Beyond subscribing to their blog and press release feed, it will pay to set up some alerts on Versionista, which can detect changes on any site and then let you compare versions side by side. Did your competitor just change the wording of their about page? What did they change? Why? Is it something you should be aware of? Can you use it to gain a competitive edge? Versionista can help you keep on top of it.

What other tools do you use to keep track of your competitors? Let us know in the comments.

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  • Indranil

    Or, you can just stop obsessing about your competitors and spend the time improving your own range of products. ;)

  • Yes, I agree with Indranil. Listen to your customer needs, that’s what counts most, not what the competition is doing. If the competition outsells you because they have a feature you don’t have that’s not because you haven’t spied enough, but because you didn’t listen to what the customer wants, while the competition did so.

  • Erik Abele

    How about also using Google Alerts? While the above list is very thoughtfully compiled I’d consider Google Alerts one of the most basic services to be able to stay up2date in terms of competition etc.

  • roosevelt

    It’s something I learned from Bob (Godaddy founder), “Pay attention to your competitors but pay more attention to yourself.”

    Thanks for sharing those useful sites.

  • xhtml

    Excellent article. Competitive benchmarking is key to any business’ success!

  • Nice list Josh. You can spy on your competition on Twitter using TweetStalk ;)

  • I prefer keywordspy.com as opposed to spyfu.com. Just more current, costs a bit more, but is definitely on the high-end of the “delivery” scale.

  • http://twitter.com/mgco

    i guess this is where RSS comes in handy – one other reason I suppose. thanks for the list jc.

  • A really great place for valuable information about potential future customers is on the support forums of existing competitors. Just lurk and browse around a while, and you will usually eventually begin to see some of the “problem areas” your competitors are having, and the features that are requested most often by their (sometimes really frustrated) users. If you can solve some of those frustrations for those users with your own competing application, then you will probably be off to a good start.

  • a good sitepointer

    Too much time on the activities of your competitors and not enough time to cover building strategic alliances, and positioning yourself for future sales?

  • “Watch: Their Web Site”

    What could be easier?

  • Anonymous

    This undermines everything web 2.0 stands for which is sharing and utilizing information for the better good. If you spend too much time focusing on your competitors you are missing the big picture

  • Mary Rabalais

    Does anyone know the website URL of the tool that checks to see if your competitors are using your company name in their title or meta tags or website copy? Thank you! I can’t find it!!