By Matt Wilkinson, Internet Marketing Specialist.

Live, from New York, it’s… the Search Engine Strategies 2008 Conference and Expo! OK, perhaps it’s not as exciting as Saturday Night Live, but this annual conference is where Internet Marketers go to learn about the latest news, tricks, tools and resources for search engine marketing. I attended in order to stay on top of the latest developments for your projects. This year’s hot topics included viral marketing, web analytics, social media marketing and competitive research. Look for future tips of the month on all of these topics, starting with this month, as we look at using search engine optimization tools for competitive research.

As an Internet marketer, I frequently use a number of online tools to research, track and measure the results of our Search Engine Optimization and Keyword Purchasing campaigns. However, you don’t have to be an online marketing specialist to use the tools below to gain valuable insight into the strategies of your competitors. Here are five free tools for online competitive analysis:

Keep Track of Your Competitors in the News

Sign up for Google Alerts to receive notifications (by e-mail) for news updates about your company and your competitors. Simply enter the search terms you would like to track (company names, products, websites, etc.) and choose the frequency of your updates (daily, weekly, or as-it-happens). Google will e-mail you when your selected search terms appear in Google’s aggregated collection of news, blogs, videos, etc.

Analyze the Traffic of Your Competitors’ Websites

Search metric sites, such as Compete.com and Alexa.com, provide estimated traffic numbers for many websites. Data is collected from a sample Internet audience through user-installed toolbars. There is some debate regarding the accuracy of these traffic estimates, as the sample audience may not be representative of the entire Internet population. Also, less-trafficked sites tend to have little to no information. However, both tools can provide useful insight into the overall traffic trends for many of your competitor’s websites.

Find Out What Keywords Your Competitors Are Buying

KeyCompete, KeywordSpy and SpyFu allow you to gain insight into your competitor’s keyword purchasing campaigns (pay-per-click advertising.) Each site allows you to search by keyword or website, the latter providing search terms that a website is “bidding” on. All three tools restrict the number of results in the free versions of their respective tools. If more data is needed, you would need to purchase subscription packages.

Keep Track of Updates to Your Competitors’ Websites

Remember what the internet looked like in 1996? So does the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. The Wayback Machine keeps archived versions of websites for future reference. While browsing your old homepage from 1998 can be quite nostalgic, the Wayback Machine can also be used for competitive research. Use this tool to check for past updates to your competitors product or service offerings. Or, use the Wayback Machine to see how your competitors overall online strategy has changed over the years.

Identify Sites That Link to Your Competitors

The quantity and quality of incoming links to a site is one of the most important elements of search engine optimization. However, finding links from appropriate websites can be a tedious and time-consuming task. Thankfully, the search engines give us an easy way to generate ideas for possible link partners. Simply enter “link:www.YourCompetitor.com” in the Yahoo or Google search field to find out who is linking to your competitor. Use this to examine link opportunities on industry-related sites, blogs and directories.

The above tools represent a small sampling of the resources available for online competitive research. For more information or for assistance with your Internet Marketing strategy, contact Dynamics Online today.