Andrew Cock-Starkey ‘Optimisey’ podcast interview – conducting organic competitor research

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The zestful Andrew Cock-Starkey (aka ‘Optimisey’) joins me on the podcast to discuss how to conduct organic competitor research.

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(Full transcript at bottom of page.)

Andrew runs an SEO consultancy in Cambridge, and also runs a series of events for learning, networking and sharing about SEO too, as well as being hands down, one of the nicest people in this industry, who I just had to get onto the podcast to share his knowledge.

In this episode, we discuss:

  • The benefits of conducting competitor research organically.
  • How often he would advise people to look at their competitors organically.
  • The most common mistakes he’s seen when people undertake this activity.
  • For those who are new to the industry and want to start looking into this area, recommendations on where to begin.
  • How to manage time and ensure that you don’t spend too much time looking into competitor performance.

…and much more!

A huge thank you to SE Ranking for sponsoring this episode. You can get a 14 day free trial of the tool and learn more by clicking here.

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Podcast Anchor Page: https://anchor.fm/azeemdigitalasks

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Andrew’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/Optimisey

Episode Transcript:

Azeem Ahmad:
Hello, and welcome back to the Azeem Digital Asks, The All-Round Digital Marketing Podcast. A brilliant episode, and a brilliant guest I have for you today. We’re talking all about conducting organic competitor research, something which I think we could all do with learning a bit more about. A brilliant guest for you, Andrew Cock-Starkey, AKA Andrew Optimisey, AKA the nicest man in this industry. Hands down. I love him, Andrew. Welcome to the show, mate.

Andrew Cock-Starkey (‘Optimisey’):
Thanks, Azeem, it’s an honour and a privilege to be here.

Azeem Ahmad:
I’m really looking forward to this episode, let’s just dive right in. So for those who shamefully do not know who you are. First things first, hit pause, and go on, click the link in the notes and follow him. Would you like to, obviously once you’ve done that, would you like to give yourself a proper and better introduction my friend?

Andrew Cock-Starkey (‘Optimisey’):
Well, I think you summed it up neatly, in it is Andrew Cock-Starkey, AKA Andrew Optimisey, because yeah, so most people know me, who have heard of me, a few outside my household, but yeah, know me as Andrew Optimisey, because that’s the name of the consultancy that I run. I also run some SEO events, free to attend ones in Cambridge, in the UK, where I’m based, and have had some phenomenal speakers come and speak at these events. So lots of people who have also been on your show too. So yeah, lots of people have heard of the Optimisey events, but that’s, I guess, what I’m known for. So consultancy and running SEO events.

Azeem Ahmad:
And being very good at it. So let’s dive straight in, all about organic competitor research. I think the best place to start, Andrew, is the benefits of this. So what would you say the benefits are of conducting competitor research organically?

Andrew Cock-Starkey (‘Optimisey’):
So I think you really need to know what kind of ballpark you’re playing in, because we’ve all had those kind of clients that turn up and go, “Oh, I want to be top of Google.” And the first question is then, “Okay, top of Google for what?” And they’re like, “Well, top of Google for, I don’t know, ‘Buy shoes in Cambridge’.” “Is that right? Great. Well, who’s currently top on the search for results when you go to, ‘Buy shoes in Cambridge?’ Oh look, it’s Amazon, and all these other huge retailers and all these … Are you really going to go and play in that playground with those kids? Or do you want to be something a little bit more niche?” So if you don’t know, it’s like going in blind. If you don’t do your organic research, and know about the SERPs, the search engine results pages that you are trying to compete in, and the keywords you’re trying to compete against, and who you are trying to compete against to get into those search results, then you’re just shooting bullets in the dark really.

Azeem Ahmad:
Love that. Reminded me of a story where I was at an agency, and I had a very niche client for industrial glue, but he was adamant, anybody who typed in, “Glue,” wanted to be number one.

Andrew Cock-Starkey (‘Optimisey’):
Yeah, not really … Well, it’s all those kind of things, yeah, we’ve all had those kind of clients. It’s like, “So where you want to be number one for a term,” I’m trying to think of a good example now, but where the one single word like Glue is also the name of a movie, and it’s also the name of a band, and it’s also the name of a product, and it’s also the name of a brand. Number one for “Apple,” they want “Apple.” Okay, right so Apple is fine, we all heard of iPods and all that kind of stuff, but what about the little people that sell fruits, and all those because things? And what about yeah, all those other … I’m sure there’s a band and a movie called Apple somewhere, but all those other, kind of things. You can’t just say, “Oh, I want to be number one for that,” you need to look at what’s there at the moment.

Azeem Ahmad:
Yeah, absolutely. That’s led me nicely to my next question for you then, so how often would you advise that people look at their competitors organically?

Andrew Cock-Starkey (‘Optimisey’):
Okay, so do I get penalty points for every time I say, “It depends?”

Azeem Ahmad:
It depends. No I’m joking.

Andrew Cock-Starkey (‘Optimisey’):
So it does depend, because it depends on what kind of markets you’re competing in. If you are in some fast-moving consumer goods, lots of retail competitors, and you’ve got the budget and the time, and you are one of the … I don’t know, your Next, who’s competing against M&S, who’s competing against Primark, who’s competing against all these other big high street retailers, then it’s probably for those big brands, it’s probably already part of their day to day. And they’re doing it every day, keeping an eye on their competitors. If you are a consultant who’s working on smaller clients, or local businesses and that kind of stuff, then you can get away with doing it less often. So I think as long as you set a cadence for it, it needs to be one of those kind of things you have in your calendar, where it’s once a month, or once every three months, once every six months, whatever it is. As long as you know then what kind of window you are looking back on.

Andrew Cock-Starkey (‘Optimisey’):
So it’s, “Okay, I’m going to look at my competitor’s sites. I haven’t done it for three months. So what have they done in three months?” Or I can look and I can see, “Okay. Right, well, in the last three months, their rankings went up in these areas. They produced this new content. Oh my God, they’ve got this whole new section of their website that we’ve never done anything like that before. How’s that doing for them?” All that kind of stuff. So you, yeah, as long as you’ve got a rhythm to it, then I think sticking to that rhythm is better than saying, “All right, you must diligently do it once a day,” and then you feel terrible because you didn’t.

Azeem Ahmad:
That is really useful advice. Thank you very much for sharing that. One question it made me think of, is where would you begin? Where do you start when you’re looking at competitors organically, typically, where would you start in your process?

Andrew Cock-Starkey (‘Optimisey’):
So when I’m working with clients, it’s really interesting to ask them who they think their competitors are, and then looking at who Google thinks their competitors are. Because often they’re really different because everybody goes like, “All righty then, so my competitors …” It’s like when you ask the marketing team, whatever, “Who’s your target audience?” And they go, “Oh everyone. Everyone wants our product.” And it’s like, “No, not really. My mom doesn’t really want your running shoes, she’s in her ’70s, and she last went running 40 years ago.” So it’s like, “Okay, not everyone.” So yeah, of course there are, and I’m sure there’s some septuagenarians out there who are very keen runners, but you can’t say everyone. But that kind of stuff where it’s like, “Right …”

Andrew Cock-Starkey (‘Optimisey’):
So when you are starting with this kind of thing, ask the clients who they think their competitors are. And that’s really useful, because then you’ve got some kind of benchmark of like, “Well, you think you’re competing against Amazon,” or Next, or Apple, or Nike, or whoever it is. And it’s like, “Okay, that’s a nice aspiration to have, but actually you are way down here, and you are competing with Dave’s Shoes on the High Street, and you are competing with all these other kind of things.” And sometimes they’ll be competing with people they won’t even have thought about, because they’re completely in this tunnel-vision of, “Apples are the fruit that you eat, and they’re green thing that you grow on trees, and you sell in your green grocers.”

Andrew Cock-Starkey (‘Optimisey’):
And they might not have even realized that actually when you Google for, “Apple,” the thing that comes up, is I iPads and iPods. And they’ll be like, “Oh my goodness, I didn’t even realize that.” And it’s those kind of things, where you can open client’s eyes to, “Okay, what you think your competitors are, and who Google is putting you alongside in the search results, or who is currently ranking number one in those search results where you want to rank higher, these are the people you’re really competing against.” So that’s often a good starting point, I think.

Azeem Ahmad:
Yeah, brilliant. And I love that distinction that you made there between what they think and what Google thinks. I think that’s really important.

Andrew Cock-Starkey (‘Optimisey’):
Often terrifyingly different.

Azeem Ahmad:
So I’d love to learn more from you then, certainly in your experience, what would you say are the most common mistakes that you’ve seen when people are undertaking this type of activity?

Andrew Cock-Starkey (‘Optimisey’):
I think a big mistake, that I do often see, is then people always look, and they have a particular competitor in mind. They’re like, “Oh, I want to be like,” and again, I’ve used the same examples, “I want to be like Amazon, and I want to be like Apple.” That’s great, okay. But start comparing like for like, you’re probably not going to compete against those people. But also just because you, even if your competitor, that you’ve chosen, or your client is really focused on, because they know the other person who’s a baker in their village, and they really hate that person, and they’re determined to beat them, and it’s, “Okay, well you’re getting a bit obsessive about this one person. Actually A, they’re not the person you’re competing with in the search results, and B, they’re actually in a, really different from your business.”

Andrew Cock-Starkey (‘Optimisey’):
You might hate them, but they sell wedding cakes, and you sell birthday cakes, and it’s totally different. But also just because your competitor’s doing it, doesn’t mean it works. So you see this kind of thing where people go like, “Oh my goodness, our competitors brought this brand new section of their website, and they put this whole new thing in, and blah, blah, blah, and it looks really great, and it’s got whizzy things in it, and the colors go up and down and the menus all look lovely.” And actually from a search point of view and from a marketing, is it working? Because you could then just copy them exactly, word for word, what they’ve done, and it could also be, you might, unless you’ve got an insight into their finances, they might be shooting money up the wall, and be really regretting it and pulling it down as you speak, while your site is frantically trying to catch up and build exactly the same thing.

Andrew Cock-Starkey (‘Optimisey’):
For all you know, they’re frantically pulling it down off their website. Because it’s been an absolute car crash, and a huge waste of time and money. But, “Oh, we’ve got to copy it, because they’ve got it.” It’s this classic keeping-up-with-the-Jones’ thing. So yeah, that’s a common mistake I see. This like, “Oh my competitor’s done it. I must jump and quickly do exactly the same thing.”

Azeem Ahmad:
Solid gold content, thank you very much for sharing that. I guess now is a great time to discuss one of the features from episode sponsor SE Ranking. So their competitive research tool can help you understand which channels and keywords bring traffic to your rivals, or which products they offer that you miss. You can get a general impression of your rival’s backlink profile and dive into the history of the ads your competitors have been betting on in search. Some of the information provided by the tool includes a domains’ traffic estimate and its cost, the traffic share by a page, the keywords that every page ranks for, the keywords that are driving traffic to a website, the keyword rankings, new and lost keyword statistics, CPC, and the number of advertisers for each keyword. You can look at Google Ads marketing campaigns and the monthly ad history.

Azeem Ahmad:
So a huge thank you to them for sponsoring this episode. And if you’d like to take advantage of a 14 day-free trial and learn more, please visit the link in the show notes to get started. It’s a cool tool, I’ve used it. You should definitely check it out.

Back onto the episode. One thing that I’ve done with all of my guests, Andrew, is I’ve had people reach out to me, who are very new to the digital marketing industry, and they’ve said they would love to know what sort of first steps to take. So for those who are very new to the industry and want to start taking their first steps into competitive research, where would you recommend that they begin?

Andrew Cock-Starkey (‘Optimisey’):
This is going to sound really trite, but start on Google. Everybody gets very excited about tools in SEOs. Because it’s like, “I’ve got to have this tool and this tool, and this software, and this thing.” But at the end of the day, it’s what ranks on Google, so start there, it’s seems a really obvious thing, but it’s something that lots of people really overlook, and you’ll be surprised at a number of SEOs, or people that work in SEO that don’t actually spend a lot of time in Google search results. They’re always viewing it through this lens of a tool, or another tool, or a system, or something like that.

Andrew Cock-Starkey (‘Optimisey’):
So go and have a look at the search results. Google around for those things that your client, or the site you’re trying to work on, that’s like, “Oh, I love to rank for …” I don’t know. So the silly example I often come back to is like, “I want to rank for cricket,” because it’s like, “All right, I’ve got a cricket kit that I want to sell.” I used to work at Lord’s Cricket Ground and we had great things around that. Obviously we were trying to rank really high for, “Cricket.” We’d rank really well for those kind of terms in certain markets. But then there were lots of people that were actually looking for the insect, crickets, to buy, to feed to their pet reptiles. You don’t want any of those. We didn’t sell insects by the box to send people to feed to their pet snake.

Andrew Cock-Starkey (‘Optimisey’):
So all that stuff is okay … So those kind of search results would be not quite what you thought they would be. And Google was a bit ambiguous of those things, because you can tell, because it mixes up the results. Google will put in one that’s about cricket bats, and one that’s about cricket, the sport, and one that’s about crickets, the insects, and one that’s about cricket, like firelighters, used to get little cigarette lighters. Well, there’s a brand called Cricket that make fire … And if Google doesn’t know, then that’s a big clue that actually this is probably a bit of a hot mess that you want to steer clear from. If you are selling cricket bats, then maybe go and have a look at the searches for cricket bats. And so it’s really easy thing to say, but go and look at search results and things.

Andrew Cock-Starkey (‘Optimisey’):
And then, start with tools, and yeah, it’s very exciting and you spend lots of money, and you can shoot your budget up the wall, buying SEO tools. But things like SE Ranking, that have free trials and stuff that you can have a go with. There’s lots of tools out there that have these free trials, give them a crack. Some of them are really expensive, but some like SE Ranking are a bit more affordable, and you can have a look at your competitors. It feels like spying and cheating in a way. If you’re brand new to this, a lot of people will ask me like, “Am I allowed to look at this kind of data on my competitor?”

Andrew Cock-Starkey (‘Optimisey’):
It’s like, “Is that okay? Is that espionage or hacking or whatever?” And it’s like, “No, you’re okay. This is all publicly accessible stuff.” And you can see things, like in SE Ranking you can see what they’re spending money on, and if they’re spending money on PPC ads, to bid for those keywords, again, it doesn’t mean that it definitely is making them money. They might be wasting all their budget, but probably if they’re spending PPC money on those keywords, they’re probably worth having. If your competitors think they’re worth having, then maybe you can have a little bit of a look into it, and play around with these free trials and tools, and see where that information gets you.

Azeem Ahmad:
Brilliant. Thanks very much for sharing that. Plus one, couldn’t agree with you more. You’ve made me think of a question which I’ll come back to, but the next one that I wanted to ask you, is from what you’ve mentioned there, it’s obviously a very fine line, and a fine balance about how much time that you dedicate looking into your competitors. What dangers would you say there are? Would you say there’s a danger that you can spend too time looking to competitors, and not focusing on yourself or your clients? How do you manage that?

Andrew Cock-Starkey (‘Optimisey’):
Yeah, that’s really difficult. And that’s one of the other, like your previous question about mistakes that people make. It’s another really obvious one to make. When you are looking at your competitors, and you spend all your time looking at them, then you end up almost chasing the wrong thing, because you don’t want to be same as them. If you’re always thinking, “Oh, they’ve done this and they’ve done this, and we should do that,” you are chasing them to the same point. They’re already there. If you’re looking at their site and going, “We must have that,” by the time you get there, they’ll have moved on another three steps, and you’ll always be chasing the game. So there’s always this urge to, “Oh, we must keep up with the Jones’,” is the cliche thing, but it’s like, “Don’t forget about your aims, and your business and what you are good at, your USPs.”

Andrew Cock-Starkey (‘Optimisey’):
Don’t always be the same. What makes businesses stand out in everything, not just SEO, it’s that unique selling point. What’s unique about your business? How can you get to the point where your competitors are looking at you, going, “Oh, we must do what Azeem’s doing,” or, “We must do what they’re … They’re way ahead of us now. We’ve got to get that new thing.” So it can be easy to get distracted and totally bogged down in just obsessing over what your competitors are doing. So remember that kind of thing, take a step back every now and then and think, “What do our customers really want? And are we in the right place to give that to them? And how do we tell them about that?”

Azeem Ahmad:
So we’re almost at the end of the episode, but there’s one question that I’d love to ask, and learn from you about, because you’ve got a vast experience in the industry, while still managing to look younger than me, I will add. That is, what differences have you noticed throughout your career in the art of organic competitor research? So how has that changed?

Andrew Cock-Starkey (‘Optimisey’):
Bless you for talking about experience, and saying how young I look, but not mentioning how old I am. So the art of organic research and stuff has changed a lot, I think. As with lots of things, it’s driven by what Google does, right? So when Google changes things, everybody jumps. It used to be that everybody would be, “Oh, I want to be top of page one,” and then that wasn’t good enough anymore, because then it was you’ve got to be position zero on page one, because you get the featured snippet result. Now there’s all these other kind of rich results and FAQs, and all these other things, these enhancements which you can get on your site’s appearance, when it appears in the search results. I think that stuff makes it really interesting, because you don’t have to be number one anymore to get those rich results.

Andrew Cock-Starkey (‘Optimisey’):
You can get those expanded site search links and FAQs, and all that stuff just by having useful stuff on your site. Like making good use of schema markup, and using all sorts of things like that. So even if you are competing against the really big guns, like Amazons and the Apples of this world, who’ve got, spend probably more in a couple of hours than most of us have in a budget for a year, you can still get in there, sharpen your elbows a bit, and get a really good looking search result, that appears in position three or position four, and still get an absolute boatload of traffic off the back of it. So I think those are the things which are then interesting for me around organic research and stuff.

Andrew Cock-Starkey (‘Optimisey’):
And I think, like with lots of it, it’s just moved on. It used to be, we’d all obsess about word counts, and, “They’ve written 500 words, so I’ve got to write 600.” And Google is getting better at discerning that stuff, and I hope that’s leading the SEO industry in that way to getting more down into the weeds of what’s the actual intent here. If the intent is to find out the time in Toronto, 600 words is probably overcooking it a bit. If the intent is to find out the ins and outs of solicitor fees in land conveyancing, then 600 words is probably nowhere near enough. So I think hopefully it’s moving the industry away from those obsessions about the wrong kind of things.

Azeem Ahmad:
Yeah, that’s brilliant. That’s a fantastic way to put it. I’m hopeful that people will listen to this, and take away a lot from that answer and from all of the answers that you’ve provided really, Andrew. So yeah, thanks very much for that. Just before we go, if people are listening to this and they don’t follow, or are not connected with you already-

Andrew Cock-Starkey (‘Optimisey’):
They’re bad people.

Azeem Ahmad:
Where can they find out more about you? Where can they follow you?

Andrew Cock-Starkey (‘Optimisey’):
I spent way too much time on Twitter. So I’m on there a lot, but pretty much everywhere, I’m Optimisey. So if you go onto Twitter and look for Optimisey, for our non-UK based friends, it’s Optimisey with an S, not a Z. So Optimisey on Twitter. You can find me on LinkedIn, I spend a fair bit of time on there too. But yeah, if you want to find all the talks from the great events stuff I did, Optimisey you on YouTube. So yeah, stick, “Optimisey,” in Google and I’ll come up.

Azeem Ahmad:
If he’s done it right.

Andrew Cock-Starkey (‘Optimisey’):
It’s all right, I mean I’m average at SEO. So I’ll be somewhere on page one.

Azeem Ahmad:
Yes, absolutely. Andrew, this has been brilliant. Thank you for taking some time out and sharing your knowledge, not only with me, but with the listeners. As always, I’m going to shut up now, and let you have the final word on your episode.

Andrew Cock-Starkey (‘Optimisey’):
It’s been an absolute pleasure to speak to you, Azeem. You are a marvellous professional at this sort of thing. So it’s just like having a chat with a good friend. So I hope if this is moderately useful to anyone, that would be great. The only thing I would say, is if you’re listening to this thinking, “Oh my gosh, there’s so much, and it’s all so intimidating,” if you can do one thing to make your site better, just this week or this month, then you’re moving forward, and that’s great. So just take one thing out of this, and try and make your stuff better and you’ll get there.