The last and most important reason why copying competitors websites can be a problem is when the copier doesn’t know what to look for. If a student copies answers on a test they need to know which answers go to which questions or they’ll get a failing grade. The same is true on SEO copying.
The issue with websites and their search engine optimization strategy is that it’s like an essay test, not multiple choice or true/false. It’s really not practical to copy word for word because there are a lot of right answers. The secret is finding the best combination, one that works for you and your intended audience. So even when copying you need to have a firm understanding of the principles before you can use the knowledge effectively. Ultimately, if done effectively, it’s not copying at all. What you are doing is taking some best practices and applying them to your site.
So do the groundwork. Pick up a book, hire a consultant, listen to tapes, sign up for newsletters, search the web, attend a seminar, anything to get the basics of SEO before diving in. When you have that complete, you’ll be better equipped to analyze competitors sites and what they are doing well. Then instead of copying haphazardly, you can get ideas. When you use competitors as inspiration rather than a template, great things can happen. It provides an opportunity to learn from their mistakes and benefit from their inspirations. Copying outright will likely be a bane to your website, insightful analysis and assimilation of good techniques will always produce improvement.
Another problem with copying the competition’s search engine optimization strategies is that it might set up false pretenses for site visitors. If you copy strategies that have different goals, chances are you’ll either anger or confuse visitors and not receive the quality traffic desired.
For example, let’s pretend a competitor is looking to hit well for a particular target market in a geographic region. Copying the SEO tactics outright would be configured for a particular area which doesn’t work if a different area is the target. However, many people do this. They quickly copy information without paying close attention to what they are doing. The reward is a site that hits well for an area 5 states over but since it’s outside of their market, any traffic is generally worthless.
This is an obvious oversight but there are subtle ones too. A common one with geographic settings is that people will copy it and change the information for their locale. The problem occurs when they ship globally. They optimize a site for a set area but in reality they service clients globally. This just limits what they are optimized for. This is not a glaring error but certainly a decision that will limit traffic and potential sales or leads.
At the end of the day, it boils down to knowing what your website goals are. If you define those and apply SEO tactics to increase the rate of traffic that has a high probability of meeting that goal, your site will produce. If you don’t know your goals, or ignore them to copy from someone else, there will be problems. Either it won’t work at all or the traffic generated won’t be an appropriate group which will lead to worthless traffic, or none at all.
A problem for everyone that copies the competition’s SEO tactics is that you can’t win a race by matching your opponents speed. In this case it’s even worse because they already have a head start. So you have one of two options, take a shortcut to get ahead of them or speed up.
Taking a shortcut looks like this in search engine wars, it’s artificially trying to inflate your site. Placing and hiding keywords to hit better. Listing on any and every directory on the web to bolster referring sites. Ignoring site usability and placing links and text solely on what ranks better. All of these things can be good tactics but not when used in this way. Furthermore, just like taking a shortcut in a race, someone is bound to notice and call you out on it. Search engines might blacklist the site, directories will remove unassociated links and content, and users will leave your site because it’s unhelpful. While a shortcut might put you ahead of the competition, it’s not sustainable and a terrible long-term plan.
Going faster however does work. However, it takes a lot more work. Here’s some of the things that pick up the pace for your site. Constant monitoring of keywords and updated content is essential. You’ll have to research related sites and add value to directories or referring sites. The good news is you’ll catch and overtake the competition if you do this. The better news is you won’t sacrifice your lead soon after you take it. The only way to beat a smart and hard working leader is to work even harder and smarter. The more diligent you are, the less likely the competition is to retake the lead.
Copying SEO might keep you in the race but you’ll never win it. If that’s OK with you, by all means, copy. If it’s not and you want to be the leader, resist the temptation of shortcuts and put in the work. In the end it nets more results and keeps you ahead of the pack.
More traffic to your site is a good thing. More traffic to a broken site, is not a good thing. It’s like better and better advertising that let’s people know you’re not on the ball and unprofessional. That’s what a broken site is, lazy and unprofessional. So how can SEO harm functionality? It’s not uncommon for people trying to copy SEO techniques from other sites to copy things they shouldn’t.
A lot of people use web editor programs, and why not, they speed up the process of laying out a page and let you do so graphically. While that is a great tool it often causes problems for people hastily trying to boost their search rankings. They end up copying something but get more or less than they bargained for. Often times web editors inaccurately grab code or modify it in such a way that it breaks a section of the page.
A common mistake for example is when someone wants to add alt tags to their images. That’s a good idea, it helps usability and is a low tier way to help drive traffic. However, instead of adding the terms, they cut and paste them into the wrong area. So instead of an image with a hidden alt tag, the alt tag text appears on the web page. Not only is it a clear mistake it often gets jumbled in with the pages text and makes for some confusing reading.
This is just a simple example, worse scenarios include navigation getting removed or links breaking. That not only looks terrible, it limits where visitors can go. Great SEO is very valuable but not if it brings people to a useless site. If you’re going to copy SEO techniques be sure to examine how those techniques fit in with your site. Take the time to add the positives without breaking your sites functionality and never forget the cardinal rule, proof read and test the pages before they get on your site.
Just like with school students, plagiarism reflects badly on a company. Taking some title tags, keywords, or meta descriptions isn’t going to be noticed by the user, copying a competitor’s site and just changing the name, logo, and photos will. A common pitfall people make when copying SEO is they don’t know where to draw the line. This frequently happens when people try to match the competition but have no idea what to look for. Rather than trial and error, research, or consulting they take everything for fear they’ll miss the key component. After a few modest design changes, the site goes live. This is a very bad idea.
Let’s set aside copyrights or lawsuits as a reason not to do this, though it is a distinct possibility when stealing copy or design from another company. Instead let’s focus on how the user reacts. If you manage to pull this technique off and improve your rank to the same as your competitor you will likely be viewed one after the other. Since your competitor has a leg up, in that they actually know what they are doing, it’s fair to assume they will always be placed a spot or two above you. So your competitor is viewed, then you. A mirror image of the site before, but probably with some flaws. That’s not the way to present yourself on the web, a cheap knockoff of a competitor.
By all means use competitive intelligence to your advantage but do it knowledgeably and ethically. Anything else will either hurt your company or get you in to a lot of trouble.