Competitor website analysis instructions

Instruction statement

This instruction provides best practice techniques for identifying and learning from quality website competitors. It should be used whenever preparing a new website proposal or reviewing an existing website.

Exclusions

This instruction does not apply to:

  • courseware, including scholarly work, student work and teaching and learning materials
  • websites that have no relationship to RMIT (for example, personal or private sites).
  • Google sites

Instructions steps and actions

Introduction

Competitor analysis is a strategic tool to understand the relative performance of players across a marketplace. It provides context as to where your particular website or application might sit in the market and the alternative choices that are available to your users.

Competitor analysis is often used at the discovery or exploratory stage of a design project to:

  • generate ideas about new or enhanced features and content and spot emerging industry trends
  • find opportunities to differentiate a user experience and gain competitive advantage
  • establish the minimum features, content and other norms a player needs to compete to meet market expectations
  • identify risks, threats and weaknesses
  • build a team’s domain knowledge in a specific industry

Results of competitor analyses are expected in the New Website Proposal.

Alternatively, a competitor analysis can be performed as a tactical exercise simply to gather examples of how a certain feature or content type is implemented elegantly elsewhere. A scan of competing properties can inspire the design team with novel approaches, illuminate design conventions and expedite design.

Step 1: Build consensus on the approach and deliverables

Before you begin, discuss the goals of the competitor analysis with your stakeholders and collaborate on the analysis framework. Talk about what deliverables the analysis will produce and how they will be used. Confirm whether this will be a one-off exercise or performed regularly.

People often interpret the term ‘competitor analysis’ differently and it is essential that you have a shared understanding of what it going to be achieved. Are stakeholders most interested in:

  • Things to emulate
  • Things to avoid
  • Opportunities for differentiation
  • Success factors for the industry
  • Strengths
  • Weaknesses?

Gathering data is time consuming, so be clear about the breadth and depth of detail you will collect, how best to communicate it and how to support replicating the exercise in the future if necessary.

Step 2: Create the analysis framework

Your analysis comprises of the relevant properties to evaluate and criteria to assess them. These property and criteria decisions depend on how mature and stable the market is, the strategic goals of the design project and website or application, and the intent of the competitor analysis.

Scope

It may be more beneficial to do a deep dive of the market leaders or a shallower analysis of a broad range of competitors. The more the merrier as long as the properties are relevant. If the market is constantly shifting with new entrants and innovations, then you’ll need to cover a large number. If the market is well established and not particularly dynamic, you could focus on the top 3 market leaders. They key is to be comprehensive enough to see a representative range of competitors and user experiences, and not set expectations artificially high or low.

The properties to assess may include:

  • traditional competitors (e.g. other Australian universities)
  • properties that emerge in search engine results when a user types in the keywords they use to find your website (e.g. CAE Melbourne)
  • comparator organisations who operate in different geographic markets, or have the same business model but unrelated products, or target your users with unrelated products (e.g. US universities, student travel websites)
  • organisations that face the same market challenges or have the same strategic objectives as your organisation (e.g. content-heavy websites with many constituents)
  • any property whose best practice approach could be adopted wholesale or in part to provide inspiration (e.g. Google’s search capabilities)

Criteria

A variety of criteria can be used to assess a site or application’s performance. The analyst, or a small team of analysts, will need to methodically work through the criteria on a property and determine whether they are met or not. Therefore, the criteria need to be well understood by all analysts and defined, so that subjectivity is minimal.

Elements of the user experience to evaluate may include:

  • Functionality: range, sophistication, user support
  • Content: type (e.g. text, audio, video), tone of voice, range, length, source, recency
  • Information architecture: site organisation, labelling, information hierarchy
  • Interaction, information, interface design: templates, design patterns and conventions, sophistication
  • Navigation: range of navigation tools, menu styles
  • Visual design: style, consistency, brand cohesion

Other elements to evaluate may include:

  • Audiences served
  • Market positioning
  • Task completion rates and times
  • Usability
  • Accessibility
  • Established industry standards or best practices or benchmarks
  • Performance against specific user experience dimensions that are important in that competitive space or your strategic goals.

Step 3: Conduct the analysis

Consider whether one person or a few people will conduct the analysis and how multiple people can take notes simultaneously. You may use Google Drive, Notable, The Commentor or other file sharing or collaboration tools to make notes that all analysts can read and edit.

Analysis is done at a moment in time to capture a snapshot of the market. Inputs from other sources, such as customer service, website feedback, articles or industry metrics, need to be verified within the review by the analysts at the time of the assessment.

Feature and Content Inventory and Audit

The inventory or audit usually forms the basis of the analysis. Use a spreadsheet to list the features and content that each competitor offers. An inventory marks the presence or absence of each feature or content type with a simple tick or cross. An audit allows for comments or ratings about the quality or status of the feature or content. Define what the rating scores are so that they can be applied with some consistency.

You can then format the spreadsheet to highlight which features and content are table stakes in the industry, which competitors exceed industry norms, and where your site falls below par for example.

Example inventory

Our organisation

Competitor A

Competitor B

Feature A

Feature B

Content type C

Content type D

Example audit

Rating scale: 0 = Absent , 1 = Poor, 2 = Fair, 3 = Good, 4 = Very Good, 5 = Excellent

Our organisation

Competitor A

Competitor B

Notes

Feature A

2

4

5

On homepage of all competitor sites

Feature B

0

3

5

Risk.

Content type C

3

3

4

Table stakes content.

Content type D

0

1

2

No elegant examples of this file://localhost/Users/e90704/Downloads
/hand03/hand03.htm yet.
Big opportunity.

Expand from here to consider the other criteria in your analysis framework. This might be accommodated by adding extra columns to your audit or inventory spreadsheets, creating specific additional documents, or using a visual tool to annotate images.

Step 4: Create the deliverables

Getting the analysis deliverables right is a challenge because your analysis possibly needs to accommodate quantitative and qualitative observations, images and diagrams. For example, the quantitative data may simply be the presence or absence of a particular feature. The qualitative data may be the quality of the implementation of the feature, which is a subjective assessment. It can be useful to plot these rankings or ratings on spectrums or 2 x 2 matrices to show where each competitor sits. You may have screenshots, descriptions and comments you want to include too.

Consider using A3 documents and spreadsheets to cope with the large amount of material you’ll be collating and communicating. Your report can be structured based website criteria, competitors, themes or a combination of the three. More information provided below.

Reporting by criteria

Criteria reporting includes extensive descriptions and annotated screenshots. Comments organized by criteria allows readers to see which sites are best in class for a particular aspect, such as search results, catering to the elderly or finding contact us information for example. The downside of this approach is that its difficult to get a holistic view of the user experience of any one competitor.

Reporting by competitor

Another option is to organise the material by competitor, providing a thorough snapshot of each using a consistent order of information. This can be useful when the competitors are lesser-known properties and require some background detail on top of the analysis. The disadvantage of this approach is that its difficult to compare competitors.

Reporting by theme

When you are analysing a large number of properties it is possible that patterns emerge allowing you to categorise the organisations. For example, you may evaluate 20 sites and notice that they’re likely to embrace one of three user experience directions such as social-centric, multimedia-centric or editorial-centric. It may be worthwhile to define these patterns and show how they play out across competitors and criteria.

In all likelihood, a combination of these three approaches might be necessary to offer stakeholders myriad ways of accessing the detail. Themes may form an executive summary at the start of the report, the bulk of the content may be organised by criteria introduced by a one-page feature inventory, with competitor profiles relegated to the appendix. It all depends on the goals of the competitor analysis and how it will be used during the design project.

[Next: Supporting documents and information]