Reverse Engineering a Few ‘Olympians’ of SEO

I like to think of SEO (Search Engine Optimization) as a competitive sport, like swimming. There’s a lot of hard work, strategy, and physical fitness that goes into being an Olympic swimmer like Michael Phelps, but we can ‘reverse engineer’ the steps taken by our competitors to succeed.
Even better for most of us working on our SEO, we’re not trying out for the Olympics! Most of us are competing in niche markets, and/or in niche cities, so it’s more like we’re trying for the local, regional, or state championships than for the Olympics. That’s good news because “you don’t have to run faster than the bear, just faster than your buddy.” In this video, I’ll will walk you through the steps to “reverse engineering” your competitors in SEO, to see what they’re doing from soup to nuts that’s helping them succeed. Let’s get started!

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Choosing Competitors to “Reverse Engineer”

For sake of argument, I am going to choose some of the competitors who are pretty skillful. These are “Olympians of SEO,” meaning that their SEO is pretty good. Generally speaking, the higher value a keyword phrase the more skilled the competitors are. Among the most competitive are “insurance” of all types (e.g., motorcycle insurance, RV insurance, car insurance) and “personal injury law” especially in a big city like Los Angeles. So we’ll focus on those.

On your mark. Here are your searches –

Your TODO is to do relevant keyword queries / searches into Google and identify the “Gold,” “Silver,” and “Bronze” medalists. Note your keywords, and use a little forensics to notice the keyword patterns that the Olympians have focused on. One quick trick is to RIGHT CLICK > View Source, and look for the TITLE, META DESCRIPTION, and KEYWORDS fields for the winning pages. This helps you “see” the keywords that they have optimized for.

Reverse Engineering Competitors in SEO

Photo credit: steve-uk via / CC BY

On Page SEO: Tag Structure, Website Structure

In my SEO Fitness Workbook, of course, we’ll spend a couple chapters on “On Page” SEO. But for this quick exercise in “reverse engineering,” let’s look at how the winners have used a few strategic tags. Page tags communicate keyword priorities to Google.

  • Title Tag. How did they use their TITLE TAG? Does it include the target keyword?
  • Ditto for the META Description tag. Notice how the TITLE and META DESCRIPTION impact how they are listed on Google in the winning search results for organic search.
  • Check out their IMG ALT and A HREF tags; notice how the home page links “down” to landing pages, the footer / site navigation links across to main pages, and other cross-links on their website.

Off Page SEO: Links

The most important factor in “Off Page” SEO is links. Think of links like “votes.” The more votes that a website has, the higher it will rank. (It’s more complex than this, but a simple model is that links are like votes).  Use a free tool like Open Site Explorer or Open Link Profiler to “reverse engineer” who links to them. Ponder how they got these links: how many are “spontaneous” and how many were “solicited?” In what ways might they have solicited these links.

In addition to links, take a look at their social media strategy.

  • Reviews on Google. Check out their customer reviews on Google. For a local business, reviews are a HUGE factor propelling them to the top of Google.  Similarly to links, ponder how “natural” and “spontaneous” these links are, and – to what extent – they solicited these links. How could you solicit links in an above-board fashion from your own happy customers? Have you claimed and optimized your listing on Google+? To find them on Google+, use Google Plus Page Search.
  • Reviews on Yelp. Ditto to the above, and has an impact on Bing. To find them on Yelp, just go to and search for them. How many reviews do they have on Yelp?
  • Other social sites, especially Twitter, Google+, and Facebook. Are they active on social media? Do they have optimized accounts, that post frequently and have many followers?

Landing Experience

OK, they’ve done their homework – both on page and off page SEO. That’s why they’re ranking on Google. Let’s talk about use behavior. Go back to the primary searches, and notice not only that they rank, but how they are ranked.

Title Tag = Headline on Google. Critique it. Does it excite a customer? Why or why not?

Meta Description = Summary on Google. Critique it. Does it excite a customer? Why or why not?

Next, look at their landing page. Use the C / E / A model = Confirmation (top left), Engagement (middle), Action (top right), especially “above the fold.” Does the user instantly see that he has clicked from Google to a relevant website? Next, is he engaged? Does what he see engage him in the sense that it says YES this is an incredible company, and YES they have an incredible product and service? Finally, is a relevant action visible? For most companies, it’s either an instant eCommerce purchase or a registration for something free, like a free quote, free eBook or free consultation. Does that occur? How likely is it that a Web searcher will take the next step “up” the sales ladder?

In summary, you can distill SEO down into these simple aspects of ranking on Google, which is a reflection of ON PAGE SEO and OFF PAGE SEO. You can “reverse engineer” how and why a company ranks on Google, and you can critique their SEO efforts up to and including the “landing experience” on their website. Your job is to then “outcompete” the Olympians in your industry – identify great keywords, optimize for them in both On Page and Off Page SEO, and create compelling landing experiences that end in a registration or a sale.

What are you waiting for?

Photo credit: steve-uk via / CC BY

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About Jason McDonald

Jason McDonald is a top-rated San Francisco SEO Consultant. His consulting services include search engine optimization consulting, social media marketing consulting, and Google AdWords consulting. Jason's motto as a consultant is that he doesn't do SEO 'for you' but rather he does SEO 'with you.' That goes as well for his social media marketing consultant activities and Google AdWords consultant services. Besides serving clients in the San Francisco Bay Area, Jason consults with clients in Silicon Valley (San Jose), Oakland and other cities throughout the Bay Area. Beyond the Bay Area, Jason is available as an SEO consultant, Social Media Consultant, and as an expert witness in litigation involving social media marketing, search engine optimization and pay-per-click advertising.