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Mastering Content Gap Analysis for SEO

In an industry like ours, where phrases like “search rank” and “snippet-winning” are commonplace, the work we do is inherently competitive. 

This means that, oftentimes, our work is reactive. We’re always looking for ways to emulate and improve upon what’s been done before. By doing this, we’re able to stay relevant and maintain a best-in-class reputation in our field.

But how exactly do we identify those opportunities for improvement? One way is by keeping a vigilant eye on our competition. What seems to be working for them? How are they approaching different topics and subtopics? What are they doing that we could do even better?

The fact is, if you’re not constantly holding your own business up against your competitors to see where you fall short, you’ll have a very hard time staying competitive in search. That’s why we recommend staying on top of it all with a comprehensive competitor analysis strategy.

Leveling the playing field with competitor analyses

When it comes to keeping tabs on your competition, there are a few different methods. Some folks take the fast and loose approach, gliding through their competitors’ sites to see what they’re doing well and how it could be done better. This quick-and-dirty method is great if you’ve only got a few hours to spare, but it’s far from exact, and will ultimately fall short if you’re looking to build a truly competitive digital strategy.

At Wheelhouse, we typically go for a more methodical approach — something we call a content gap analysis. This process involves taking a fine-toothed comb through a small number of handpicked competitors and really scrutinizing them to identify opportunities for strategy and growth.

In this blog post, we’ll show you how we do our content gap analyses from beginning to end, including all the small-but-important questions we like to ask ourselves along the way. As you’ll see, the process can be quite varied at times — our hope is that you’ll take this process and run with it, and refine the method until it works for you and your business.

What is a content gap analysis?

Simply put, a content gap analysis is an SEO tactic that helps us understand what our competitors are up to, and what we can do to compete. 

By using a mixture of qualitative and quantitative analysis, we can use this method to evaluate the current SEO landscape in any given industry. From there, uses are varied, but common ones include:

  • Finding out who your most relevant search competitors are
  • Determining what content those competitors are using to succeed in Organic Search
  • Discovering new types of content we can create or optimize in order to “close gaps”

The process for a content gap analysis has some variance as well, but for us, it usually involves looking at a bunch of search performance data from competitors, as well as SERPs for high-priority keywords and successful landing pages from competitor sites.

Using this data, we can identify opportunities for content that will help our clients emulate and overtake those competitors. 

Depending on the time and resourcing we have available to us, as well as the goal of the analysis (i.e. are we working toward an SEO-focused editorial calendar for a blog? A content strategy across all a brand’s digital properties? A set of content briefs to optimize high-priority existing pages? etc.), a content gap analysis can be a lengthy, data-driven process, or a faster, more subjective one. 

Below, we’ll share the basic steps we follow when completing content gap analyses. You can modify, extend, or simplify these steps to your heart’s desire — but hopefully, they’ll help get you on the path to finding a process that helps you hit your goals.

How to do a content gap analysis

1: Identify your competitors

First thing’s first: When you’re doing a content gap analysis, you’ll need to decide who your competitors are. 

Typically, a list of 3-5 competitors gives us a good range of different strategies/tactics to look at and assess. It also makes for a good blend of brands — ones that may be larger, similarly sized, and smaller than ours for reference. 

You can expand or contract your competitors list however you like, and you may choose to focus on your established business competitors, regional competitors, etc. rather than trying to identify a new, discrete set of SEO competitors. Taking some time to do just that, however, can be quite helpful in identifying your “true” search competition (i.e. the URLs and sites a user will see alongside yours when they search for certain keywords or topics).

When trying to identify search-specific competitors, we recommend exploring SEMRush or Ahrefskeyword-level reporting tool and looking for competitor domains that show up repeatedly. 

However, if you’re looking to compile as comprehensive a competitive set as possible, you might try taking the manual approach. This entails looking at SERPs for high-priority keywords, and using tools like Google Search, or Answer the Public to uncover new keywords or keyword variations/subtopics.

If you get stuck, AdWords Auction Insights report (along with its other various tools and features) can help you identify and classify SEM competitors, provided you can verify strong, successful (or at least comparable/useful for your brand) Organic strategies for those same competitors. 

2: Decide on a method

Once your competitors have been identified, there are two main modes of analysis you can use: qualitative and quantitative. 

Qualitative analysis will come from keyword- and URL-level data on your competitors and your own digital properties. We almost always use SEMRush’s Organic reporting tool for this, then synthesize, pivot, and heat map the data from there to further identify what kinds of topics, landing pages, etc. our competitors are using to generate Organic traffic. 

Quantitative analysis involves looking more closely at SERPs and competitor landing pages/taxonomies, as well as the UX, content quality, SEO-friendliness, and other aspects of both competitors’ content and your own.

When we perform content gap analyses, we typically spend a day or two working on a combination of quantitative and qualitative analysis. However, if you’re looking for a condensed, lightweight version of the CTA and you’re confident in your ability to analyze SERPs/pages using your own knowledge of Google’s content quality guidelines and other SEO principles, there may be a simpler way.

If that’s the case, one or two keyword tool exports (plus some well-informed qualitative analysis) could easily help focus and expedite the process, while still generating a good amount of useful takeaways.

Whatever method you choose, know that the following steps/stages will still apply as you construct your content gap analysis.

3: Analyze your own content

A strong content gap analysis should present an opportunity to assess your own content. When you’re analyzing that content to identify new content opportunities, we recommend keeping the following in mind:

Make sure your SEO foundations are solid and user-friendly.

  • Are your meta descriptions, title tags, and headers all optimized to both entice users and communicate clearly with Google’s crawler? Do high-traffic content pieces feature logical CTAs and internal linking? Are you using structured data for content like FAQs, videos, and locations/entities? A content gap analysis can be a great opportunity for basic SEO housekeeping along these lines. 

Look for redundancy, shallowness or ambiguity in how you treat your core topics.

  • Of the major topics and sub-topics that you have informational content on, are there any instances where multiple pages/posts are covering pretty much the exact same topic? How about instances where you provide much less detail or actionable takeaways than your competitors? The best combination of ROI and LOE for content optimization often comes from consolidating/redirecting or significantly expanding/deepening your existing content. 
  • For more on how we typically assess and improve shallow content, see our post on topical depth optimization.

Compare UX, CTAs, Format, Length/Depth, and Structure to Best-in-Class Articles.

  • How does the organization and function of your pages compare to equivalent pages that are “winning” in SEO?

Look for correlation between underperforming pages and technical and/or engagement metrics.

  • Could slow speed, poor responsiveness, high bounce rates, page loading issues, or other metrics be the reason your otherwise-strong or strategically important content is underperforming in Organic search?

Identify search intent mismatches via SERP analysis.

  • Where is your content falling short of — or completely deviating from — what Google thinks users want to see for your target keywords?

4: Analyze your competitors’ content

In a successful content gap analysis, you should assess your competitors’ content just as thoroughly as you assess your own. 

That means every question we asked above shouldn’t just be aimed at yourself  — it should also be aimed at your competitors.

Here, we’ll take that concept and push it even further by providing some more prompts for a deeper, more complex comparison between your content and competitor content. 

When you’re analyzing competitor content, your most crucial goal is to identify content that fits the following three criteria:

  • Content (whether it’s a specific URL, a series of posts or articles, an entire folder or section of a site, or a domain-level consistent strategy) that is clearly succeeding in search, and providing Organic traffic for keywords that are likely to generate real business value.
  • Content that it would be appropriate and feasible for your company to emulate and improve upon.
  • Content which will provide a promising ROI on creation or optimization work in terms of revenue, not just SEO metrics.

For criteria 1, the metrics provided by tools like Ahrefs or SEMRush should be more than enough to get the job done. With these, determining which content does or does not succeed is only a matter of putting in the time and energy. You can verify their apparently strong performance with well-informed manual analysis of both the content itself and the SERPs/KWs where it’s generating traffic.

For criteria 2 and 3, success will depend on your understanding of your own company. Its goals, brand guidelines, internal processes/resourcing, target KPIs, etc. will all come into play, as well as your general familiarity with SEO best practices and basic UX principles for your industry.

These criteria also provide an excellent opportunity for SEO experts and more strategic or high-level team members to collaborate on how to marry SEO opportunity with genuine business value when you’re building a content strategy, editorial calendar, etc. 

To ensure that these criteria are met, one key factor to keep in mind (and one that novices often overlook) in a content gap analysis is relevance. This is especially true when dealing with competitors that are either larger or broader than yourself.

Spend some time manually cleaning keyword data to ensure that the keywords and URLs that are simply irrelevant to your company (i.e. keywords you’d never pursue, services/products you don’t offer, regions or industries that you don’t serve). These shouldn’t be included in the final analysis — if they are, you’re vulnerable to qualitative insights that provide little business value, and quantitative insights that are skewed by an unnecessarily large and imprecise data set. 

5: Identify content gaps

When we say we’re “identifying content gaps” in our analyses, we’re actually doing two things: examining competitor performance metrics, and manually analyzing their UX, technical performance, site taxonomy, and more.

When it comes time for you to identify areas for improvement, here are some questions to help get you started thinking about the issue in the right way:

  • What are our competitors’ top performing URLs? What characteristics of those URLs do we think are driving their strong SEO performance, and which of those characteristics do we think we could either emulate or improve upon?
  • If we had to either descriptively categorize or qualitatively rank our competitors’ sites/folders/specific URLs on similar topics, how might we do that? What larger patterns, quality/performance distinctions, contrasting strategies, etc. do we see in competitor sites and how can we define or describe them?
  • Where competitors are consistently ranking well for a set of related keywords or topics, what kind of linking, taxonomy, UX, etc. have they used to make pages or sections of content clearly interlinked, comprehensive, and user-friendly? 
  • Where are our competitors underperforming in their apparent investment in SEO and content? What lessons can we learn from that?
  • What kinds of ebbs and flows do we see in our competitors’ investment in content, and how does that correspond with the performance it has driven for them? Can our competitors’ successes and mistakes over time teach us anything about what kind of content work is likely to have high ROI in our space?
  • To what extent are our competitors using blogs, FAQ pages, video libraries, pillar pages or content hubs, index-style pages, and other content library strategies? What seems to be working, and what isn’t working as well? 
  • What effect (if any) do video, user-generated content, newsjacking/thought leadership, localized content, interactive content, and other special forms or types of content appear to have in producing SEO wins for our strongest competitors?
  • How are competitors signaling their Expertise, Authority and Trustworthiness (E-A-T) to Google and to users?
  • Look at competitors who are beating us in keyword rankings and estimated search traffic. Are they also beating us in site speed and responsiveness, internal linking, external link building, metadata optimization, structured data use, UX fundamentals, or any other foundational SEO health measures and tactics? If not, why is Google still preferring their content? If so, how much improvement is needed for us to match or beat them?

The level of depth, detail, and data you marshall in answering these kinds of questions will scale up or down depending on your resourcing, as well as your goals for the analysis. Paired with the right competitor set, they can help you get a sense for how a good content gap analysis can provide both directional and tactical guidance on content strategy for SEO. 

6: Identify content overlaps

In our content gap analyses, we usually define the “overlap” as any keywords where we rank in the top 10 and one or more competitors does as well. 

We typically use pivot tables to assess overlap and look for the following:

  • What overlap keywords/subtopics are we “beating” our competitors for in terms of rankings and estimated traffic?
  • What overlap keywords/subtopics are our competitors “beating” us for in terms of those same metrics?
  • Are there instances in the overlap where we and our competitors are clustered in the top 3-4 positions?
  • Are there instances in the overlap where we and our competitors are clustered outside of the top 5-7 positions?
  • What URLs/folders from our site and competitors’ sites are most commonly featured in the overlap?

These questions are all essentially routes into further quantitative or qualitative analysis of the overlap. However, the goal in answering any and all of these questions needs to remain clear: We are trying to identify and prioritize opportunities for content creation and optimization to boost SEO traffic in a way that drives clear business value

As with other stages of analysis, this goal should guide you as you decide what mode of analysis to use, how far to pursue various lines of inquiry, and what possible forms of content creation/optimization are worth preserving as actionable recommendations. 

7: Present your data

At the end of the day, a content gap analysis is meaningless without a coherent, digestible way of presenting your findings. But how can you do that? What tools should you use — heat maps? Pivot tables? In our experience, how have we managed to present the data in a way that makes the most sense?

We’ve typically presented Content Gap Analysis results in three forms:

Word documents

This will typically be a long overview of the findings in the content audit, including: 

  • Overall keyword/ranking data for competitors 
  • Tables and charts representing what keywords/URLs are “in the gap” and “in the overlap” 
  • Screenshots of successful competitor content and our own content 
  • Diagrams or photo illustrations of recommended optimizations, etc.

Excel spreadsheets 

This will typically be a large Excel spreadsheet, and will often include:

  • Pivot tables of the gap (by competitor URL) and the overlap (by keyword)
  • Heat maps applied to those tables as needed
  • Further comparisons between our keyword data and our competitors’ keyword data, along with any other combinations that offer helpful insights
  • Sheets of URLs detailing further classifications and recommendations (depending on the granularity necessary for the context of the work)

Powerpoint decks

For our decks, we’ll typically base them off either or both of the deliverables detailed above. This involves combing through the Word doc/Excel sheet for takeaways, then translating the data into visual representations of our key findings.

In our agency context, this is often the main client-facing deliverable. But even our most experienced analyst would be hard-pressed to complete a strong deck on a content gap analysis without first completing the other two deliverables (even in relatively sparse draft form). These early-stage deliverables are extremely important in organizing and validating the findings of the analysis.

Once you’ve finished presenting your findings — congrats! You’re officially done with your first content gap analysis. 

What’s next?

By this point, you should have a good grasp on who your search competitors are, an idea of what content they’re using to succeed, and a list of actionable recommendations for how you could do it even better. That’s a big step toward a truly competitive digital strategy.

Still, it’s important that you don’t stop there. Part of finding a process that works for you is manipulation through iteration. Every time you do a content gap analysis, try tweaking one or two things that will help to satisfy your own specific set of goals. It could be a new keyword research tool, or a different way of picking competitors — anything, just as long as it gets you better and more refined results.

Wheelhouse can help!

Whether you’re an experienced marketer looking to master a new skill or a newbie just getting started, we can help. We take a search-centric approach to content, and our strategists, designers, and writers will breathe life into your website and get in front of the right audiences. 

To put it simply: Capitalizing on competitive gaps and identifying opportunities for growth is what we do best. And given the opportunity, we’d love to do it for you. 

Give us a call, we’d love to hear from you.

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