One of the many reasons I love the Internet is the sheer number of resourceful tools that businesses have at their fingertips.  Before the advent of the Internet, if you wanted to spy on your competitors, you would either have to read public documents, play secret shopper, or shamefully rummage through their garbage. Nowadays you can simply choose from a plethora of different competitive intelligence tools to gain greater insight on what your competitor’s digital strategy is.  Below are some of the greatest free tools you can use to identify trends within your industry and spy on your competition.

Compete – Wouldn’t it be great if you could have access to your competitors’ web analytics dashboards?  You would be able to gain valuable insights such as which landing page is the most important, which product their customers buy the most, and how often they return.  Since you don’t have the keys to their private customer data there are other options.

One such option is using a tool from Compete. Using a tool like Compete is like counting the number of visitors coming through your competitor’s door from a mile away. It’s not as good as having access to their Google Analytics account, but it’s close enough to identify web traffic at a high level. Compete offers a free account where you can find out how much traffic a particular website has over a a few months. You can even gain further insights such as similar sites that visitors visit, eye tracking analysis, and even keywords that they rank for. Compete does limit the number of URLs you can check in a 24 hour time period, so be sure to submit wisely when doing research.

Alexa – Another tool to spy on your competitors is Alexa.  Alexa collects data slightly different than Compete in that it relies on users who have installed their toolbar.  If users do not have the Alexa toolbar installed, then Alexa cannot collect or report traffic data. Compete collects web traffic using a variety of methods including toolbars, panel data, self reported data, and their own algorithms which they mix together.

Even though Alexa’s reporting is not as broad-based as Compete’s, it is still a good source for research on your competitors. To get started with Alexa, just go to their website and do a search query on your competitor’s website. Unlike Compete, Alexa includes site ranking.  They also give you a report on the number of backlinks and they give you  a way to compare multiple websites with each other. This is a great way to do benchmark analysis.

HootSuite Free – This social media management tool can not only help you organize and manage all of your social media accounts from one platform, but it can also help you see what your competitors are doing on social media. Using the “social listening” feature on your dashboard, you can monitor search streams on multiple topics.

Google Trends – Sometimes you simply want to identify trends within your industry to spot strategic marketing opportunities. You can often reveal weaknesses of your competition’s strategy by conducting search data analysis. Google Trends is a great tool that allows people to discover what people are searching for.

Let’s say you sell basketball equipment. You go to Google Trends and conduct a search for basketball.  From the graph that results you can see that the term is very seasonal. On the left navigation you can filter by type of search, region, date, and category. You can also discover which search terms are on the rise on the bottom right. To do deeper analysis you can compare multiple search terms and see if there are any correlations. Be sure to also conduct analysis on your own brand terms and your competitor’s terms. They might offer some additional insight on how customers perceive your business.

Free Website Grader – This free website grader from Dex Media is a tool that gives you a basic snapshot of how a business is performing online. You can also use it to see how well you stack up against the competition. Enter the website URL, and the tool will check to see if the site has a Facebook page, mobile website, and correct meta descriptions, among other things. The FreeGrader report also offers recommendations on how you can improve your website.

While we’re on the subject of FREE…
Check this out: FREE Advertising for Small Businesses