Spying on Your Competitors to Increase Conversion Rates

Spying on Your Competitors to Increase Conversion Rates

There are hundreds of ways to increase the conversion rate of a website; A/B testing, customer surveys and usability studies are all hugely important techniques. But what about spying?

Have you considered using your competitors and more specifically what their customers think of them to increase the effectiveness of your own website?

Understanding customers is often the key to a successful website, if you aren’t answering all the important questions a customer may have then you will create friction points and that means you’re leaving money on the table.

Removing friction points can be done in a variety of ways but if you expand your conversion optimising beyond your own website and look at your competitors you can make some both immediate and fruitful gains.

How Can Your Competitors Help Increase Your Own Conversion Rate?

Like it or not your competitors will have plenty of paying customers; not only that they’ll have customers that love them and they’ll also have customers that hate them.

Just because these customers didn’t buy from your website doesn’t mean you can’t use them to your advantage, many of them will post their experiences online and that provides you with a wealth of qualitative data that you can analyse to help increase your own conversion rates.

Studying Competitor Reviews to Find What Customers Want

Study Reviews

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It’s estimated that 47% of people in the UK, and 33% in the US have reviewed a product online, this gives you an awful lot of information.

The first thing you need to do is pick out one of your competitors, pick one of the bigger names in your niche simply because they’ll have a higher volume of reviews due to the sheer number of customers they handle on a day to day basis. (You can check out some of the smaller ones later)

Once you have picked your competitor, head over to one of the major review sites and locate their review page. Trust Pilot is hugely popular right now and the vast majority of retailers have a presence there; when you consider 70% of Americans say they consult product reviews or consumer ratings before making a purchase that’s easy to see why.

Now it’s time to dig in and start reading what customers are saying about your competitor, don’t just concentrate on the negative reviews either, find out why some customers love your competitors, and why others hate them.

Make a list of the key points you can find, you’ll start to see patterns and common themes. Then you need to ask yourself, does my website address these fears customers have and am I doing enough to make them love my website / customer service?

What Kind of Information Can You Get to Help Conversions?

Review about Delivery

The image above is taken from a review of an online bathroom retailer in the UK, as you can see this customer had issues with the delivery due to the fact it was only to the curb (sidewalk for US readers). If you keep reading more reviews you’ll see that it’s a recurring theme; bad news for them, but conversion gold if you’re a bathroom retailer too.

Now you know that delivery is of real concern for customers who are buying bathrooms and the kind of issues they face, it’s time to make sure your own delivery page addresses all these points clearly and the options available. Increase customer confidence, increase conversions.

Remember, don’t just concentrate on the negatives; find out why customers love your competitors too.

If you can find out the reasons customers are choosing to buy from some of your competitors; be it delivery or their customer service, as well as finding out why customers hate some of your other competitors you’re going to be able to improve your site significantly and have an awful lot of happy customers.

Where to Find Reviews on Your Competitors

  • Trust Pilot
  • Trip Advisor
  • Reevoo
  • Yelp
  • Reseller Ratings
  • Google Maps / Places
  • Google itself use “competitor name”reviews –site:competitorwebsite.com

Use Social Media to Spot Customer Hang-ups in Real-time

Not every customer has the time or the inclination to sign up to a review site and post their experiences, but you can bet your bottom dollar that the vast majority of them can send a tweet or a Facebook post about it.

In fact according to the Harris Poll, April 2010; 34% of those surveyed have turned to social media to air their feelings about a company. (26% to express dissatisfaction, 23% to share companies or products they like)

For tracking mentions of your competitors Hootsuite is a great tool as you can add a new tab and have several streams tracking competitor mentions in real time. It can get a little crazy if your competitor is a huge brand but if you study it for a few minutes you’ll be able paint quite the picture. And pick up on things like this:

Competitor Mentions

The picture above is from the floristry industry, in that type of business delivery times and communication are key. Maybe if you’re in the floristry industry it’d be worth testing out a request a call back feature? Test, test and test again.

Twitter is great for spotting customer hang up in real time but you can also dive into Facebook and check out your competitors business pages to see what customers are writing about them there. You’ll get a lot more detail compared to the 140 characters on Twitter and you can also spot flaws in the way they handle customer problems which again can be used to help your own conversions and answering important questions before customers need to ask.

Don’t Forget the Forums


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Forums might have been around since the dawn of the internet but believe it or not people still use them and they also provide a great source of information for increasing conversions.

People use forums to ask questions about products / companies vent their frustrations at businesses and praise them when they are a satisfied customer.

Information here will be very similar to the review sites but you also get a different angle and that’s customers who are thinking of buying a product or service but haven’t quite decided or don’t feel confident enough to do so. These are the customers you have to analyse.

By analysing pre purchase questions about the type of products or services you sell, or questions about specific competitors you will learn a ton about the issues customers face when buying things online.

It’s guaranteed you’ll see “Has anyone ever bought an ABC from XYZ company?” type question, in many cases that means XYZ company isn’t doing a good enough job at making customers confident to buy from them. Is your website suffering the same problems?

The best place to start for anyone in the UK / Europe are the Money Saving Expert Forums, it’s one of the largest consumer groups on the web and many retailers / businesses have threads created about them on a daily basis.

Mumsnet is also a highly active community if you’re in the baby and parenting type niche. Many industries also have specific forums where you can get even more detailed information about the things customers like and dislike, run a quick Google search and see what you can find.

A useful tool to help with this is Boardreader, which is a search engine for forums, simply type in your keyword, in this case, the name of your competitor and it will search through various online communities that bring up mentions of the brand. You can gain a lot from this tool just by reading the sentiment of the forum thread titles it pulls through.

Also worth a mention for analysing reviews and mentions is the newly launched SEOmoz Fresh web explorer, it’s still in beta and requires a pro account but for collating data on your competitors mentions it’s a great tool.

What to do with this Information?

  • Split test your call to actions based on your findings
  • Test different value propositions
  • If price is a real gripe for customers, make a really beneficial and user centric lead magnet think $ off, free delivery, coupons etc.
  • Build a helpful FAQ’s section based on your findings that address customer fears and hang ups
  • If your competitors are loved, make sure your website is as credible as theirs
  • Survey your website visitors about some of your proposed changes based on your findings

By studying your competitor’s customer feedback and using their strengths and weaknesses to improve your own website you’ll develop a much more user centric approach.

By reading customer reviews you’ll begin to understand what they are interested in and if you apply that to your website, and test out your findings you’re well on the path to increasing your conversion rates.

Using This Technique: A Walkthrough

You can use this technique for a variety of websites but one area that it really excels is with ecommerce websites. Let’s take a look at this in action and see how it can be used to do the following:

  1. Get an overview of things that matter to customers specific to an industry so you can make quick improvements
  2. Find out why customers both love & hate certain competitors and how you can use that information
  3. Use this to help with further conversion optimisation campaigns / processes

Let’s imagine I’m working for http://www.shedswarehouse.com, an online retailer of sheds, garden buildings and playhouses. My average order value is somewhere between £250-£300 so I know that increasing conversion rates could be very rewarding, how can I use competitor reviews to help me do that?

1) Get an Overview of the Industry & Understand the Customer

Rather than jump in and start reading thousands of reviews the first step is to get an overview of the industry. In this case, run a Google search for “garden sheds” and pick 5 websites. It can be the top 5 results, a mixture of PPC results and organic or the competitors that you know do really well online.

Once you have picked 5 competitors, head over to Trust Pilot and type the first company name in (some review sites do better in other countries so do some research as to which ones are the most heavily used), you’ll see a big long list of reviews like the screenshot below along with a show more reviews button, keep clicking it and you will get an extensive list of reviews.

Show More Reviews

Scrape the Reviews for Analysis

Make sure you have Scraper for Chrome installed, right click on a review and click “scrape similar”, you’ll see the following:

Scraper Tool

Delete the square brackets and the number, in this case [126] and then hit scrape again, every single review is then scraped. (This works for Trust Pilot, other sites might be different so will require some XPath tweaking).

Once you have scraped the reviews you can export them to Google Docs, rinse and repeat this process for the 4 other competitors you selected.

Merge the Reviews into One Document

There might be a savvier way to do this, but the simplest way I found is to select all the text in each Google doc and then copy it and paste it into a giant notepad text file.

Once all the text is pasted across you will need to run a find and replace to remove the brand names and also remove quotation marks. You could also remove the word shed too seen as though it’s going to crop up quite heavily in the text.

Generate a Word Cloud

With your giant text file of reviews, head over to Wordle, paste in all the review text and generate a word cloud.

With Wordle, the bigger the word, the more times it cropped in the text. This is very useful for understanding the language customers’ use.

Once it’s generated you’ll get something like the example below, which in this example is 1000 customer reviews spread across 5 competitors in the garden sheds industry:

Giant Word Cloud

What can be gleaned from this?

From the word cloud you begin to paint a picture of what’s important to customers in the industry as a whole, in the case of garden sheds it’s quite clearly delivery, instructions, quality, how easy it is to put together and parts; be it missing ones or the quality of them.

Perhaps nothing ground breaking if you have been in the shed industry for years but you’d be surprised at how many retailers don’t translate these messages onto their web sites.

Analyse Product Pages to make sure the Site Delivers the Information Customers Want

Shedswarehouse Product

The above screenshot is an individual product page on the Shedswarehouse.com website. You can view it here – http://www.shedswarehouse.com/id-2158-OXFORD_6ft_x_4ft_Super_Saver_Overlap_Apex_Shed_(10mm_Solid_OSB_Floor).aspx

From the word cloud I know that the following things are important to a customer in the market for a garden shed:

  • Delivery
  • How easy to understand the instructions are
  • The quality of the shed and the panels
  • Price

Does this product page deliver all those things? Take a look, can you find delivery information, is there anything about how easy the shed is to assemble or a link to some PDF instructions that show you how simple it is? Is there a mention of the quality or a guarantee?

In my opinion the answer here is no, it’s a very complicated page that requires an awful lot of scrolling making things hard to find. That’s hurting conversions.

There’s no mention of instructions or the quality of the shed, which we know based on a 1000 independent customers reviews are very important so that means it’s time to make some changes, perhaps hire a conversion specialist to help and ensure the site gives customers the information they want.

I could even take this a step further by setting up a usability test where participants are given some goal completion tasks to undertake. This not only gives you more qualitative data but helps present a better business case if you’re looking for a budget to carry out in depth conversion optimisation.

How could I increase conversions for ShedsWarehouse using this information?

By combining industry specific customer requirements with proven ways to increase ecommerce conversion rates you can significantly improve a websites performance.

In this scenario I’d look at:

  • Informing the customer about the detailed instructions that come with the shed and give them the option of seeing a sample set of instructions
  • Make delivery information much clearer or even test out offering free delivery to see if there’s an uplift in conversions
  • Give some indication of quality – guarantees, manufacturing location (UK manufactured) and the processes involved
  • Incorporate user generated content onto the page that talks about how great and easy to put together sheds are*

*Remember, your potential customers are going to read your competitor reviews too (people comparison shop) so even if they didn’t even consider instructions themselves, then they’re going to be conditioned to start thinking about them.

If they see user generated content on specific product pages talking about how easy the instructions were to understand you’re going to remove any doubts they may have had.

With the right analytics tracking / heat map tracking in place you can measure the impact of making these changes by tracking what people click and what they don’t.

2) Dig Deeper: Read Reviews in Full to Find Out What Customers Love & Hate About Your Competitors

Once you have got an overview of the entire industry across a sample of your competitors it’s time to focus on one them and manually read some of their reviews.

The word cloud method is a very useful way of blanket covering an industry to find out both the important things to a customer and the type of words they use to describe things but if you truly want to understand the customer and increase conversion you’re going to have to dig a little deeper. That requires reading reviews in full.

In this case I’ve picked a company called Waltons.co.uk based on two things – their yearly turnover according to their filed accounts and the number of reviews they’re receiving on a weekly / daily basis. This gives me a very good idea they’re making a lot of sales through their website (they don’t have a physical premises).

Reading Reviews in Full

Sample Reviews

By sitting down and reading what customers are saying in more depth you can really find out a lot about them, as you can see in the screenshot above I was able to pick out some extremely useful information about why customers ended up buying, and also why they wouldn’t buy again.

In this scenario after reading around 100 or so reviews in full I found the following:

Why Customers Love Them: Why Customers Hate Them:
Easy to Order / Payment Options Delivery Service Not Great
Quality of the Product Missing Parts Quite Common
Website simple to use Promise Next Day Delivery but doesn’t always happen

By finding out why customers love or hate one of ShedsWarehouse’s competitors I am able to see why customers might also dislike ShedsWarehouse too and ultimately decide to order from somewhere else.

At the same time I’ll be able to spot the things ShedsWarehouse does already that customers clearly love. You can then analyse whether they could do more of it, or improve the clarity of it.

In this case, a couple of customers who reviewed Waltons pointed out the fact they appreciated they could pay with PayPal. You can pay with PayPal on ShedsWarehouse too but it’s hidden away at the bottom of the sidebar with a low resolution graphic.

With that in mind, we can test putting that message in a more prominent position to see if it increases conversions.

Another area here that is talked about regularly by customers who buy sheds is missing parts. Now of course missing parts are inevitable but neither ShedsWarehouse nor any of the competitors mention it on their site other than in the small print (which only 1 person in a 1000 actually reads).

This is an area of opportunity to stand out from competitors and boost customer confidence. In this scenario I’d test putting some copy together about what happens in the event of there being some parts missing of the delivery.

If you can get the right copy onto your product pages you will make more sales as that’s where the user takes action and adds the product to the cart.

3) Using the Information to Help with Further / Deeper Conversion Rate Optimisation

The beauty of analysing your competitors reviews is that it can be used directly to help increase conversion rates but also used as part of much deeper and wider reaching conversion research projects.

For ShedsWarehouse I could use this qualitative data to help structure my exit page surveys or to aid usability studies and goal completion tasks.

You can also relay your findings to your SEO / Content / Copywriting team who can help create content around the areas you have identified as being important to customers which is likely to help improve search traffic. Win win.

For ShedsWarehouse I’d look at creating a highly useful FAQ section. Even though a shed is a relatively simply structure, based on my findings from the customer reviews, customers have a lot of questions about them that need clearing up before they are willing to part with their cash.

The lesson here is just because a product looks simple – a few pieces of wood and a roof; it’s still a highly considered purchase and it’s up to the shed retailer to ensure the customer can buy with the confidence that they’re getting something of quality for the right price.

A Quick Recap of Why Competitor Reviews are Useful:

  • You will understand who your potential customers are; why they bought in the first place and why some of them will or won’t buy again
  • You’ll find out the things a customer looks for when buying the type of products you sell
  • You can tailor your site to show off the things that matter to customers
  • Customer buying decisions are influenced by reviews, so if you study them you can address all their fears, uncertainties and doubts.

Do you know of any other ways to utilise your competitor’s happy and disgruntled customers to help increase your own conversions? Let me know in the comments below!

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Join the Conversation Add Your Comment

  1. Really like this post Jonathan. You could also take it a step further with dynamic competitor stalking by setting up Google alerts with competitor brand names and negative terms. Or use social monitoring and sentiment analysis software.

    1. Cheers Gareth.

      Yeah Google alerts is a good one. Automates the process somewhat to get a weekly email for them.

      I mentioned fresh web explorer in the post, still quite a new tool but looks like it could be very useful for tracking competitor mentions / reviews.

      I like the review sites best though as all the information is just on one page ready to read and digest.


  2. Thanks Jonathan, a fantastic article.

  3. Excellent article! I really like the word cloud idea; I’m going to try it out – thanks!!

    1. Thanks Mark.

      Yeah give it a try, there’s a few tools for it, I picked Wordle but there’s a couple others: tagcrowd & tagxedo. No difference between them really though.

  4. Hi Jonathan.

    I liked the word cloud idea too – it provides a really useful graphical representation of what you’re really dealing with, with one word of caution.

    I thought it was interesting that price didn’t appear to come up that strongly. My assumption is that these were reviews from people who had already bought and therefore if price was an issue, they wouldn’t buy (and wouldn’t be writing a review).

    In that context, the high prevalence of the term ‘quality’ is not surprising, especially in an online context. ie. the customer is thinking something like “I’ve been sufficiently convinced by the online representation to buy the item at a price I consider reasonable, now my main concern is the quality of the item when it turns up”.

    The message here I think is that price is still important, just that it is wasn’t obvious in the data collected because the reviews were from people who’d already bought (I really doubt too many people would go the trouble of writing a review because they didn’t buy something because it was too expensive – more likely, they’d just keep looking).

    Great article.


    1. Hey Gary,

      Price is always important but if the only thing you have to offer is a low price you’ll end up in a pricing war anyway and likely not come out on top.

      If you’re wanting to succeed online you have to offer value in other ways which the world cloud and the other ideas can help with. So I think the message here is less to do with price and more along the lines of: understand your customers better, present that information to them and you’ll increase conversions.


  5. Absolutely great tips! Thank you very much Jonathan. You’ve showed me a very creative way, which I didn’t use before.

    Best from Hungary.

  6. Hi Jonathan,
    This is really a great new way to improve the conversion rate of your campaign. Thanks for sharing this useful post. I am surely going to apply this for my new campaign.

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Spying on Your Competitors to Increase Conversion Rates