Looking at Marketing Performance from the Outside In

It has been said that ignorance is bliss. I am confident though that old adage doesn’t apply when it comes to measuring the performance of your marketing programs through the lens of your internal data only.

When reporting on the effectiveness of our marketing campaigns to company stakeholders we integrate data from whatever internal data sources are available. I would argue though that it is more accurate — and actionable — when we remove the bliss of looking inward only and also add a view of how we stack up against our competition.

Conducting full-blown competitive market research can be daunting for an organization, especially smaller ones. It requires a budget and resources that you may not have. There is an opportunity for you to gain valuable competitive insights though by benchmarking yourself against your competitors from the perspective of the search channel.

How visible in the search engines is your organization for those keywords that are key to your organization’s success? How does your competition’s branding and messaging compare to yours? Those are the types of questions that competitive benchmarking may help you answer — adding context to what your internal data is reporting.

Over the last several years I have built a successful framework for conducting competitive benchmarking and wanted to take this opportunity to share the highlights with you. The real beauty of this framework is that it leverages publicly available information.


Create a Competitive Search Index (CSI) – You can gain insight into whether or not you have better search visibility for the keywords that are most important to your organization than your competition by using search engine ranking results to create a Competitive Search Index or CSI (yes, yet another use for that acronym) using rankings.

The process for creating a CSI includes conducting traditional keyword research, identifying your top competitors, collecting the rankings for each keyword for you and your competitors, using the Google AdWords tool to pull the estimated monthly demand for each keyword and calculating the percentage of estimated monthly search demand that you can expect to receive for each keyword based on your ranking.

This type of competitive benchmarking has proven to be more valuable because it is actionable and allows your focus to remain on the high-demand competitive keywords that are more likely to move the needle for your business. Just because your competitor is ranking for more keywords doesn’t mean that they are ranking for the most valuable keywords.

Make your CSI actionable by sorting your keyword list by demand and add a little color coding so that you can easily focus on just those keywords with the high search potential. Then filter the list to show only those keywords for which your top competitors are outranking you, appearing on position 1-3 of search results while you are in position four or greater.

Keep in mind that this is a benchmarking exercise which measures you and each of your competitors in exactly the same way.  While Google’s estimated demand numbers may not reflect reality — your search engine visibility is being measured and weighted relative to your competitors.

Review Natural Search Listing Messaging – Research the actual search results for competitors that are ranking higher than you for your most important keywords. Review their title tag and snippet messaging specifically because it is those two elements that actually drive searchers to click through to their website.

Review Natural Search Listing URL – Review the URL’s that are ranking for your competitors, especially those competitors who are ranking in position 1-3. Is it their home page or a page deeper inside their site that is ranking? In general, a category or product page with more unique content is going to be perceived as more relevant for the term by the search engines than is the home page.

Conduct Industry and Financial Report Research – Another data point that has value are industry and financial. They provide intelligence that helps benchmark your performance against the industry, especially if your competition is a public company. You can also learn a lot through solid internet-based market research and social media monitoring for free or a minimal subscription charge.

Benchmark Paid Search Spend – Given the complexity of paid media campaign management, you can’t generate a competitive ranking report for a keyword set as you can for natural search. To benchmark paid media visibility the best you can do is to use a competitive analysis tool such as comScore or Hitwise to understand your competitions ad spend. If you choose to use one of those tools, please keep in mind again that the numbers provided are directional only and that the purpose of the analysis is to benchmark yourself against your competitors.

There are two things that I believe give organizations an edge when it comes to turning data into actions that will actually move the sales needle. First, they are diligent in assuring the quality of their internal data. Secondly, they overlay the reporting of their internal data with outside data that adds context to what they are seeing in their internal data.

I am confident that conducting the search competitive benchmarking exercise illustrated here can add valuable context to your marketing program performance.

Janice Smithers is a digital marketing analytic consultant/researcher.