Most companies are continually looking for ways to get an edge over their competitors, and a time-honored method is simply to spy on the other guys. Technically, it falls under the category of market research, unless, of course, it’s actual spying. But, we’re not going to get into corporate espionage here—we’ll stick with the “market research” strategies that are legal, if somewhat sneaky. In the event that you feel uneasy about spying on your rivals, consider the fact that if you’re any sort of force to be reckoned with in your market, they are probably already spying on you. But, if you’re still not quite comfortable with the word “spying,” think of it as “competitive intelligence.” Competitive intelligence is a means of legally obtaining information that you can use to improve your own products, services, and customer retention. Competitive intelligence allows you to:

  • Analyze what your competitors are doing better than you are, so you can shape strategies to match or surpass them in those areas
  • Figure out what you’re doing better than your competitors, so you can build on those advantages
  • Establish a benchmark to measure the effectiveness of your marketing efforts
  • Gain valuable perspective about your company’s standing in your industry

Technology is truly your friend when it comes to getting the goods on your rivals. With our current technology and access to the internet, you don’t have to pay a marketing consultant thousands of dollars for a comprehensive competitive analysis that will tell you what the other guys are doing and how they’re doing it. There is plenty you can do on your own, and often at low (or no) cost to your business.

Here are five suggestions:

1. Listen in on their conversations.

No, we don’t mean you should bug their phones or hack into their computers. We’re talking about their public conversations. Follow your competitors on social media. Twitter and Facebook allow an excellent opportunity for you to track what your competitors—and their customers—are talking about. You can learn what customers like and dislike about their brand. You may be aware that there are numerous tools you can use to build and monitor engagement on your own social media sites; well, you can use these same tools to monitor engagement on your competitors’ sites too. You should also subscribe to your competition’s blogs, newsletters, and email lists, so you can see how they are targeting your ideal customers, and you will stay informed about their product launches and promotional campaigns. Join some of the forums and interest groups in which they’re engaged—this may give you perspective on some of their outreach activities and community involvement, as well as their stance on crucial industry issues.

2. Monitor their website content and performance.

Undoubtedly, the website is the first thing you go for when you’re doing online research about your competitors. But, there’s a lot more to website monitoring than just checking out the site’s look and feel and reading the “about us” pages. Careful perusal of the website can educate you about your competitor’s background, product and service lineup, culture, target market, and much more. But you need to go deeper than just familiarizing yourself with the content. You can grab a lot of useful data if you also monitor specific website elements. Taking a closer look at your competitor’s keywords is a good place to start. Sites like Open Site Explorer let you monitor your competitor’s backlinks, and Alexa is perhaps the best known web ranking tool, having been an established source of web ranking information for decades. There are plenty of other tools to help you monitor websites, many of which are free or have limited free versions.

3. Monitor their advertising efforts.

There are tons of tools you can use not only to monitor your own advertising, but also that of your competition. For instance, MixRank lets you see the mix of ads a company is using. Without having to register, you can view a snapshot that covers display and text ads, advertisers, and demographics, and creating an account will allow you access to the full report.

4. Use a grading tool to compare their performance to yours.

A free HubSpot tool called Marketing Grader assesses websites in several areas—blogging, social media, SEO, lead generation, and mobile—and then provides an overall score. It’s a handy tool that can help you see what your competitors are doing right and wrong. If you’re really serious and have some money to spend, try Simply Measured, which combines many tools into one, providing detailed analyses of influencers, brands, trends, traffic, conversions, competitors, and more.

5. Sign up for Google Alerts.

This is an easy, convenient, and free way to be alerted every time your competitor’s brand is mentioned online. Google Alert monitors news, blogs, video, discussions, and books. Simply go to the Google Alerts page, fill out your search query with the company name, and choose how often you want the results to be delivered to your in box. A variety of additional tools are available for monitoring brand mentions, but Google Alerts remains one of the most popular.

But, don’t forget to be responsible with this information.

Tracking your competition can yield mounds of useful data—it’s up to you to use that data wisely and responsibly. The caveat? Don’t use it to be a copycat. Certainly there are elements you can legally and ethically borrow or emulate, if you notice your competition is doing something successfully and well, but, apart from the need to be mindful of copyright and trademark issues, it’s also vitally important to maintain your own uniqueness within your business. That said, spying on your competition allows you to optimize your own competitive strategies using real data rather than speculation. Knowledge is power, and these days, it’s easier than ever to get the knowledge you need to increase your power in the marketplace.

Have you used any of these sneaky tactics to monitor your competition? Have any others to share? Tell us in the comments below!

AvatarSarah Brooks

Sarah Brooks from is a Houston-based freelance writer and a full-time blogger. She loves to write about anything related to social media, blogging, career tips and technology. She takes pleasure in traveling, swimming, and mostly avoiding her laptop in her spare time. Questions and comments can be sent to