As AEC firms’ online presence becomes more and more critical to driving new business, it is important to understand how your firm stacks up against the competition. Not only will it allow you to make more strategic marketing decisions, it will present opportunities for your firm to stand out against your competitors
Research from the Hinge Research Institute has shown that over 80% of professional services buyers will go to a firm’s website to evaluate them. Buyers expect to have information at their fingertips to evaluate firms. They will do their research, create a shortlist, and make assumptions before ever contacting a service provider.
That being said, the importance of your firm’s online presence has never been greater. It creates opportunities for those firms willing to allocate resources to their online presence to beat out the competition.
Let’s discuss some ways that you can evaluate your competition’s online presence. This will help you make decisions on how to allocate those resources and gain a competitive advantage.
Analyze Their Website
There are three main areas you should evaluate when analyzing a competitor’s website.
1. Overall Design
When you first land on a competitor’s website, what is your first impression? Do they do a good job of using imagery that represents their service offerings? Many AEC firms utilize the work they’ve done in the past and use images from their projects, but often times they are presented poorly. Are the images small and/or low quality?
How are they utilizing color? Firms often overdo their site with a single color. This isn’t necessarily negative as it can be done in a way that looks appealing and professional. However, many times it leads to a lackluster look and feel.
How are they utilizing text on their pages? Many firms fill their services pages with far too much text that is usually small, difficult to read and in the end off-putting to the visitor. Visitors rarely read several paragraphs on a single page of web copy.
2. User Experience
As you are clicking through a competitor’s site, be mindful of how easy it is to navigate and find what you’re looking for. Does their main navigation make sense? Are the sections clearly titled in a way that you can clearly understand?
The main navigation menu is not the place to get cute and creative with titles. Many firms also make the mistake of including too many options in the main navigation menu causing confusion and indecisive for the visitor. The magic number for navigational items is no more than seven.
Just as important as the top-level navigation elements are the subcategories in each. If they are utilizing dropdown menus, are they also clearly labeled? Do they have too many options and do you have to move your cursor over several sections to get to where you would like to go? This can be extremely frustrating and is especially difficult for users on a mobile device.
That brings us to the issue of mobile usability. Is their site responsive? You can usually tell (even on a desktop) by shrinking the size of your browser window. If the elements on the page are easier to see and navigate in a very small window, their site has a responsive design. Mobile usability is critical and Google has announced that starting April 21st, mobile rankings will be affected by a site’s mobile-friendliness.
3. On-Site Optimization
It usually easy to see if a firm has invested in optimizing their site for search engines. Do their page titles contain keywords or are they just generic titles such as “home” or “services”?
You can take this a step further by analyzing a site’s source code. Go to any page on their site and right-click. In most browsers, you should see an option to “View Page Source.” Clicking on this will open a window with the source code of that page. Many times firms will try to optimize their site pages by including a meta keywords tag similar to the one below:
If competitors do this, it helps you for two reasons: they are not getting any search engine benefits (Google stopped taking this tag into account way back in 2009) and they are providing you with an inside look at the keywords they would like to rank for. Congrats!
Now that you have gone through your competitors’ websites, it’s time to evaluate other online areas where they may be present.
Analyze their Social Media Presence
The two main social networks AEC firms’ competitors will most likely be active on are LinkedIn and Twitter. That being said, many firms have a poor social presence. Congrats again – you have a great opportunity to engage potential clients where your competitors do not even exist.
Most firms have a LinkedIn page. The question is, are they doing anything with it? Is their firm profile filled out? Do they list their service offerings?
Are they sharing content on their company page? If so, what kind of content? This is usually where you can see if they are producing thought leadership material. Firms that are sharing content will most likely publish blog posts, white papers, webinars, upcoming events, etc.
You can take this one step further as well. AEC firms often have subject matter experts (SMEs), but most firm’s SMEs do not actively engage on LinkedIn. There is a large number of LinkedIn Groups around every subject imaginable. Are their firm’s SMEs active in any groups? If not, this provides another great opportunity for your firm.
When was the last time there was any activity on your competitors’ Twitter feeds? An hour ago or seven months ago? If they are posting regularly, what kind of content are they publishing? Is their feed only filled with their own content or are they sharing others content as well?
Let’s consider hashtags. Many firms post content without hashtags, which limits a post’s reach by only being seen by their followers. By including a hashtag, such as #architecture, content can be found by non-followers searching for architecture-related content.
After evaluating these areas of your competitors’ online presence, now what? Identify the areas where they are weak and/or non-existent. Focus your efforts and resources in these areas. Last but not least, track your results!