Your phone buzzes just after lunch. Your boss is shouting, “Some new Web site appeared today out of nowhere and it’s advertising heavily against us! Who is it? Find out everything you can about it and report back by day’s end!”
Today’s Web provides easy tools for competitive research. This month’s column provides a road map for sleuthing a competitor in a few of hours, at no cost, using just a Web browser.
This is a link-heavy article. Once you finish reading this, you can go to the CatalogSuccess.com Web site and find a sidebar containing all the links mentioned.
First, ready your browser. If you aren’t already using it, install Mozilla Firefox (www.download-firefox.org) because you’ll need plug-ins that aren’t available on Internet Explorer.
Get these plug-ins:
◆ Google Notebook (www.google.com/tools/firefox);
◆ SEO for Firefox (http://tools.seobook.com/firefox/seo-for-firefox.html); and
◆ Quirk’s Search Status (www.quirk.biz/searchstatus).
Save Those URLs
Turn on Google Notebook by clicking its icon on the bottom-right of the browser. This handy plug-in lets you rapidly clip and annotate the URLs you visit. Notebook is a convenient way to document your findings.
Begin by visiting your competitor’s site. Surf around and clip various URLs. Pay particular attention to press releases, which often provide valuable information on financials and financing if it’s a public company. Scope out the jobs page to determine how actively the competitor is hiring, at what level and with which skills.
A site’s IT job openings typically provide a road map of a firm’s technology choices. Visit the executive bios page and record the names of the company’s management team. Read the company blog. Recent posts are most important, but also study its earliest blogs, which can be revealing. See if any of the competitor’s executives have personal blogs.
View the HTML source of key pages (control-U in Firefox). Sometimes Webmasters leave redacted text in the source, just commented out. I once stumbled upon key pricing information from a competitor this way. In the source, check out its meta “keyword” tags to see what search terms the company deems important. Browse the site’s robots.txt file to see what content your rival would prefer to keep off of the engines. For example, check out the current White House administration’s lengthy exclude file at www.whitehouse.gov/robots.txt.
Next, Get Social
Head over to the social networks. Search for your competitor’s brand name on Facebook (www.facebook.com), LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com), Flickr (www.flickr.com), YouTube (www.youtube.com), del.icio.us (http://del.icio.us) and Google Groups (http://groups.google.com). Search each of these sites for the names of your competitor’s management team.
The social networks often turn up useful history, gossip, relationships, pictures and videos. You also may discover relevant user names; for example, a user posting pictures from your competitor’s social events, which then can be cross-searched on other sites. Always log your findings with Google Notebook.
The news outlets provide great information, particularly on public companies. If your competitor is public, study its financials at Yahoo! Finance (http://finance.yahoo.com). Read its annual reports, and don’t overlook the comments on the competition’s financials.
Next, search for your competitor using the free area of Hoovers (www.hoovers.com). Sometimes Hoovers reveals associated entities, even for privately held firms.
Search for your competitor’s key executives across the news wires using Google News (www.google.com/news) and across the blogosphere using Technorati (www.technorati.com).
If your online competitor mails a catalog, determine its list manager and pull the data card from the manager’s Web site. From the data card, you can get a rough sense of a firm’s size, growth and customer demographics.
Use Whois.com to determine the technical and administrative contacts for your competitor’s domain name. It’s often revealing to do a general Google search on Whois contact addresses. You can learn when the domain name was registered and when it’s due to expire.
DomainTools (www.domaintools.com) shows what Web server your competitor is running. This provides a small clue into its technical strategy. And DomainTools provides your competitor’s IP address.
With the SEO for Firefox enabled, run Google searches for your competitor’s brand and URL. On the search results page, the SEO plug-in provides counts and links to SEO-relevant information, including your competitor’s back links. The Quirks plug-in (the small “Q” on the bottom-right of the browser) also provides usable information on your competitor’s indexation and inbound links.
Run a Google search on your competitor’s IP address as well. Sometimes this dredges up valuable entries in forums and server logs.
Type your competitor’s IP into the handy tool at SEO Logs (www.seologs.com/ip-domains.html). This tool reveals other domains hosted on the same box, which can reveal affiliated companies or projects not generally known to be linked to your competitor. If your competitor is using shared hosting, other domains on the same server could be entirely unrelated. But the very fact that a firm entrusts its Web site to a cheap, shared hosting provider is a clear indication that it’s very small.
Moving from white-hat research toward gray, scan your competitor’s IP address to see what ports are open. If you don’t have access to Nmap (http://insecure.org/nmap), there’s a limited, Web-based, port-scanning tool at T1 Shopper (t1shopper.com/tools/port-scanner).
It’s unlikely anyone is running open or anonymous FTP these days, but you can check if you want. Of course, only access data that a site provides is open to everyone.
You’ve now amassed a great deal of information. Write a short summary of what you learned with supporting URLs and put that into your Google Notebook. Then choose who can access your findings.
With a few hours of Web digging, you can obtain deep insight into competitors’ branding, business strategy, reputation, history, financials and key employees. All these data are public. It’s your aggregation and analysis that weave these scattered facts into a cohesive business story.
Try to run the same process on your own firm. The results can be sobering. The Web annihilates privacy. May this realization encourage us all to conduct ourselves with the utmost integrity.
Alan Rimm-Kaufman is CEO of the Rimm-Kaufman Group, a Web agency providing pay-per-click search management and Web site effectiveness consulting to online retailers. You can reach Alan online at www.rkgblog.com.