By Mark McGrath, March 2017.
A web robot cannot deliver useful competitor analysis. This requires the analysis of an expert with knowledge on best web practice.
There are a lot of shortcuts advertised nowadays to competitor analysis of websites (also known sometimes as "competitive analysis"). This article explains why the shortcuts are dead-ends and why you should employ a web expert to conduct a comprehensive competitor analysis.
Competitor analysis is an exercise in identifying who your (best) competitors are, and the attributes that make them the leaders in their field so that you can match or better them.
Automated tools are not the answer
If you search on the term, "competitive web analysis", you will find the search results list awash with automated tools promising to instantly analyse your web competition at the click of a button.
None of these tools will identify the website attributes of your competitors that put them ahead of you. This is because the attributes you can analyse by an automated tool are the things that are not going to get you to match or better your competition.
The attributes that these automated tools identify tend to be things that are the basics of good website production, that you should be doing anyway...like SEO and online marketing basics (eg social media channels, e-Newsletters). They tend also to be quantifiable in nature and therefore lend themselves to be easily measured by an automated tool.
Ticking SEO online marketing boxes won't equal or better your competition.
Marketing intelligence is of little relevance
Some of these automated tools focus on what online marketing services your competitor sites may be using. This misses the point and is of low relevance to government and non-profit organisations.
A well-marketed website cannot make-up for a poor quality website. Or to put it another way, there is no point investing in marketing a website unless you made every effort to produce a quality website in the first place.
Whilst it's good to market your website, even if you are a government or non-profit organisation, it's not the main game. The main game is quality content and services. Once you establish those, then you have something worth marketing.
Identifying best practice attributes requires expert analysis
Identifying the following best-practice attributes in your competitors' websites will give you the insights you need to match or better your competition:
- Best practice web usability
- Good information architecture
- Attractive design
- Useful web services
- Genuinely valuable and well-written content
These are all attributes automated tools cannot assess or measure. Only a skilled human being who has the expertise to make informed judgements in these areas can.
So what do these attributes mean?
Best practice web usability
Put simply, web usability is about how easy websites are to use. When conducting a competitor analysis, expert consultants will usually assess a website's usability using a set of guiding principles, or what some usability experts refer to as heuristics.
According to web usability expert Jakob Nielsen, these principles are:
- Learnability: how easy is it for first-time visitors to find what they want?
- Efficiency: once users have become familiar with the website, how easily can they complete tasks?
- Memorability: when users return to the site after a period of not using it, how easily can they regain their ability to complete tasks?
- Errors: how many errors do users make, how severe are these errors, and how easily can they recover from these errors?
- Satisfaction: how desirable is the website to use?
- Utility: how functional is the website? Does it meet the user's needs?
These are all qualitative factors that require judgement from a consultant conducting a competitive website analysis. An expert web consultant will usually be able to draw on their experience to make informed judgements on these factors when examining a website.
However, the only conclusive way to answer these questions is to conduct website usability testing. Of course, this is financially unrealistic when assessing competitor websites, which is why competitor analysis is conducted instead.
Good information architecture
Information architecture is the way content is organised, labelled and found on a website.
A website with good information architecture will have the following attributes.
Content organisation that makes sense to its users
Content is organised in a logical manner and makes sense to its users when it matches their expectations and needs. This is achieved by developing a comprehensive set of user personas and stories (typical usage scenarios), then building an information structure that addresses these personas and user stories.
For example, a local council may identify a user persona of a homeowner who wants to extend their home and a user story of this persona wanting to discover how to complete and lodge a development application form. This could then result in the following navigation structure:
Building > Extensions > Development applications
A web expert who gains an understanding of your users, their motivations and needs, will be able to assess the organisation of content and determine if it makes sense to these users.
Labelling that orients, directs and previews
A good website labelling system makes it easy for users to know where they are (orients), where they can go (directs) and what they will see when they get there (previews).
Website labels include:
- Navigation (or menu items)
- Page titles
- Image titles and captions
Good labelling has the following attributes:
- Short and descriptive
- Contain relevant keywords (but does not overdo this)
- Uses language that makes sense to users
- Avoids jargon
- Does not use underscores, hyphens or any other characters to separate words
If the content labels are easy to read, make sense, identify where you are in the website (eg via the URL path or breadcrumb navigation trail) and give you a clear path of where you can go next and what you will see when you get there, then this is a website with a good labelling system.
Search systems that make content easy to find
Good website search systems offer more than just a simple, sitewide search based on keywords. A good search system will have the following attributes:
- A simple search box and button located in the top-right corner of the page.
- Option to reuse search (after restating the original query) within the results page.
- Options to refine search by extra criteria (e.g. topic, title, date, content area) with the search results page.
- Integration of searching with browsing so users can click on relevant links (e.g. from the site structure or matched categories) seeded into the results page.
- Alternative options if search queries return no results (e.g. reusing search, search tips, browsing relevant menu items, sitemap, A-Z listing of content or an option of human contact).
Websites that are attractively designed look beautiful but are usable. Attractively designed websites look pleasing to the eye and also invite users to explore content based on the way the content is presented.
Features of an attractive design include:
- A tone or personality of the website design that matches the user's expectations of the organisation.
- A homepage that is not cluttered or packed with too much information.
- Layout of content that matches the typical way users scan web pages and makes it easy to do so.
- Professional quality image stock that is relevant to users and seamlessly integrated into the design of the website.
- Navigation options that are easily identifiable and clickable.
Useful web services
Web services are transactions that users can make online. Useful web services are those that make it easy and convenient for users to do business online. Typically, these web services usually replace similar services that were previously conducted:
- via telephone
- via post
- over the counter
Ideally, everything you can do with an organisation via these above methods should also be doable online. All the important service functions of an organisation should be available online.
For example, good council website should allow you to pay rates, book clean up service, report an issue and lodge a development application online.
Genuinely valuable and well-written content
You can have an attractively designed website with good usability and sound information architecture but all of that will count for little if the site does not have content that users value and is easy to read.
Well written content is scannable, succinct and written in plain-English.
Web users scan pages rather than read all the content, so you have to write for this behaviour. This means:
- Adopting the inverted pyramid technique to write content (short summary at the top, more detail towards the bottom).
- Only explaining one idea or point per paragraph.
- Writing headings as content previews.
- Breaking up content using subheadings, lists, pullquotes and images.
- Highlighting keywords in the text.
Because web users scan rather than read, web content needs to be about 25% to 50% of the volume of print content. This means that you have to write succinctly, rigorously editing down your content, deleting any words that don't add any extra value or meaning to your content.
Written in plain-English with an active voice
Plain English is a writing style that uses easy to understand, everyday language with an emphasis on using clear, brief text and an avoidance of complex language.
An active voice is a sentence where the subject is doing the action, rather than being acted upon. For example, "The XYZ organisation developed the submission."
Web users prefer to read text in an active voice. It tends to be shorter and easier to read. Text with an active voice means active readers, who are more likely to take the action you want in your website, like signing up to an e-newsletter or requesting a service.
For more detail on this please see: How to write for the web.
Qualitative evaluation requires a human expert
As you have probably gathered, all of these attributes of best web practice have qualitative aspects to them, and little or no quantitative aspects. So these attributes cannot easily be mechanically measured by an automated tool. This is why you need an expert well versed in this best web practice to evaluate your web competition rather than an automated tool.
Our expert web consultants employ best-practice guidelines on all these attributes to assess your competition in a competitor analysis.
Mark McGrath is the Principal Consultant and Director of Social Change Media.