Want to find out how much traffic a competitor is getting?
Well. Let's start with the bad news.
Google Trends? Don't make me laugh.
It's probably the best tool out there. They certainly have an amazing keyword tool, but they still underestimate the search traffic to my personal site by a factor of 2 to 5, and even the trend lines don't match up all that well:
No disrespect to SEMrush. Being off by a factor of 2 to 5 is damn good when it comes to estimating a competitor's traffic. There's no way they could have known that "the p-value formula" doesn't get searched for very often in the summer months, being a subject that only college students tend to care about. Nor could they have predicted that up to four fifths of my traffic is coming from obscure search queries they couldn't possibly have guessed in their wildest dreams.
I hate to say it folks, but the only way you can actually know how much traffic a site gets is to have access to their server logs or their analytics account. This data is not publicly available, and let's hope it stays that way forever.
Now for the good news.
Asking how many visitors a website gets is the wrong question. There are much smarter ways to approach competitive analysis and, more importantly, traffic opportunities.
Here's a better question to start with.
Is Competitive Analysis a Waste of Time?
In my opinion, the answer to this question depends entirely on why you're doing it.
If your goal is to find out what works for other businesses, and you think that copying them is going to improve your own business, competitive analysis probably isn't going to work out too well for you in the end. Beating the competition means having a competitive advantage, and you're not going to find one by playing the "me too" game.
But this doesn't mean competitive analysis doesn't have its benefits, provided you have the right goals in mind.
Want competitive analysis to work for you? Change your mindset.
Don't look at what your competitors are doing. Look at what they aren't doing.
What does nobody else in your industry seem to be saying? What subjects are getting neglected? What kinds of search results are overpopulated by useless Yahoo! Answers stubs?
Start with that mindset, and you'll start to see doorways open up.
Once you've identified the gaps in the market, you can start filling them.
Now, here's the million dollar question.
How do you choose which gaps to start filling?
That's the question that should really keep you up at night, because there's always going to be an element of the unknown. Knowing there's a gap in the market isn't the same as knowing how much potential lies in that gap.
Still, you don't have to dive in blind.
Google's Keyword Planner can tell you roughly how many people search for an exact query. This is a good starting place. It's a conservative estimate of the interest in the subject, assuming that you have no real competitors. The fact that my personal site's traffic is underestimated by a factor of 2 to 5 should offer some hint at the opportunity lies in these keywords.
Of course, it's a very optimistic estimate of the traffic potential if you do have real competitors in this particular corner of the market.
And, of course, let's not forget about the financial value of our subjects. Is there enough demand for this information that you could use it to build an email list, a following, a list of customers?
Then there's that other thing.
The hidden potential. The stuff you can't ballpark with a keyword tool or even a consumer survey, because it's a solution to the problem that people didn't even realize they had.
For the record, that places things strictly outside the immediate realm of SEO. There's no search traffic to optimize for when people don't realize they need what you have. That's where genuine promotion comes into play.
Thankfully, earning that attention and exposure gets a lot easier when you have something genuinely new to bring to the table.
Image credit: anthony kelly