Executives love to read and quote the ancient Chinese military strategist, Sun Tzu, who famously noted in his treatise The Art of War that "if you are ignorant of both your enemy and yourself, then you are a fool and certain to be defeated in every battle". Sun Tzu was talking about hand-to-hand combat on the battlefield, of course. But in the business world, he has become perhaps the poster child of competitive intelligence gathering.
That being the case, Sun Tzu would have loved the Internet. Never has it been so easy to keep up with adversaries. Business owners have traditionally turned to their marketing department to churn up information on competitors. Nowadays they might be better off turning to their webmaster. "If your webmaster doesn't ask you who your top three competitors are, then you probably hired the wrong webmaster," says Sara Mannix, president of Mannix Marketing based in Albany, N.Y.
Of course, premium information does come at a price. Just run a Google search on "competitive intelligence" and watch over 11,000 results pop up. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of consultants among those results that are available to help a small business owner help identify and gather the dirt on every competitor in his or her market niche. For those just getting their feet wet, however; save your money. Here are six ways to get started in being your own competitive intelligence gatherer on the Web and it won't cost anything, but time.
1. Google alerts. "I use Google Alerts all the time. It's probably the best tool out there," says Mannix. Google alerts allows users to set up alerts by keywords and phrases that trigger an e-mail notification and link every time that word or phrase pops up on a site, blog, or news story -- depending on how the alert is configured. A business primarily concerned about three top competitors, for example, might set up a Google alert on all three companies and their top executives monitoring every time they get a mention online.
2. Search engine and site analytics. It may seem like a no-brainer to keep an eye on the search engines and note which companies in your niche are beating you in the rankings. What to do about it is another matter. Mannix suggest the following tips:
Check back links on competitor websites. A recent survey by the non-profit Pew Internet & American Life found that only 50 percent of American Internet users actually use a search engine everyday. So what's a big factor driving traffic to a site? The answer is link backs. That is, other sites that link to the competition's site. "What small businesses need to know is that they need to find links that drive traffic," says Mannix. To make her point, Mannix tells the story of a local travel site in upstate New York, where her company is based, that researched its back links of a competitor's site and found 80 percent of their traffic was coming from one site: RVParks.com. It only cost a hundred dollars to get linked from the site, which was obviously money well spent.
Look at keywords. What keywords is the webmaster at your company using to boost the corporate site in the rankings? Now have the webmaster take a look at the competition's keywords. This is easy information to gather from sites like Key Word Density. Another way is to simply look at the code of their websites. Simply go to the site and click on "View" at the top of the browser, then "Source" or "Page Source" depending on your browser. A page of htmlcode will pop up and the keywords will be buried in the code near the top of the page.
3. Monitor eBay. For online retailers, keeping an eye on eBay is essential and you can do it from trolling the search engines. Business owners need to be mindful of what's happening in their line of products on eBay. Check prices. Follow what brands, colors, and models of products are moving faster than others. Note the number of sellers in that niche and which ones have a website presence, as well. "It's a completely different world. Companies often throw their clearance items on eBay and use that to lure them into their real site," says Mannix.
4. Monitor Twitter. For those business owners who have never even heard of Twitter, it may be time to get acquainted. Twitter is a social network site that allows members of its community to send short one to two line dispatches throughout their day updating what they're doing, talking about, thinking about, etc. If this sounds like an invitation to monitor the minutiae of the lives of others, for the most part it is. However, it is also increasingly a place where industry buzz starts. "Twitter produces the edge of what's going on. It's where you often now hear the first low rumble of something. You have to participate, though. I've shown this to clients and you should see how their eyes are opened as to how much is being said about what's going on out there," says John Jantsch, author of the book and popular blog entitled Duct Tape Marketing.
5. Keep an eye on their staff. You can learn a lot about a company just by reading their "About Us" page and monitoring their job postings. Note the backgrounds of the top brass, especially new blood. Their resumes will give you an idea of where the company might be going. If your main competitor is a medical supply company and they just hired a new CEO with a background in surgical equipment, then there's a clue which area they may plan to beef up sales. If the online bios of the executive team are vague, try researching them on one of the professional networking sites like LinkedIn or Plaxo. If a company has several postings for jobs in another state, chances are it's expanding with a new location there.
6. RSS feeds. If this sounds like too many channels of information to monitor on a regular basis, there's an easy solution to save time and simplify -- RSS feeds. Jantsch is a big fan of RSS feeds for intelligence gathering. "You can keep up with entire industries, customers, and competitors by feeding things like Google Alerts, Twitter, and all of your other RSS feeds into one RSS feed," says Jantsch, who recommends MySyndicaat.com as an effective tool to combining RSS feeds.