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Let us recognize that a competitor’s timely identification is even more critical in online markets where newly, emerging digital competitors thrive globally, many without the knowledge of firms to be substituted but perceived as a replacement by consumers (Goodwin, 2020; Eugene, 2019). Limiting your competitive research to environmental scanning (ES) from local or national social media domains will not identify those unknown or newly emerging digital players that are going after your revenue and market share from anywhere through internet access. These are called indirect replacements or phantom competitors (Carroll, 2020). For instance, how would you identify the businesses that sell a product or service that is both different in the category and type of yours, but one which your customers could choose to spend their money instead? As is in its simplest form the case of McDonald’s and Stouffer’s frozen meals or the Corner Food Truck.

The competition mix

The identification of newly emerging indirect digital competitors potentially your substitute and a possible replacement in the minds of your consumer segment requires a brief review of competitors’ categories to establish brand differentiation and strategic marketing
positioning. Particularly between your direct and indirect competitors.

Direct competition is a term that refers to the companies or publishers who sell or market the same products as your business. Your customers will often evaluate both you and your direct competitors before making a purchase decision or converting. Direct competitors sell a similar product or service in the same category as you. (These are the competitors you most often think about.). Example: McDonald’s and Burger King. Direct digital competitors are businesses or organizations that offer the same product or service with similar digital content that your company does (Carroll, 2020).

Indirect competitors sell a product or service in the same category as you, but it’s different enough to act as a substitute for your product or service. Example: McDonald’s and Subway. Indirect digital competitors are those organizations or businesses that may not offer the same products as you but may post similar types of content and are in competition with your business digitally for the same keywords. In short, they are competing for your customers’ attention and search intentions. Indirect competitors may be harder to identify, but not impossible. One way to counter competitors is to first identify one’s brand and what makes your unique selling proposition (USP) stand out from the rest of your competitors’ offerings. Finding your competitors doesn’t have to be taxing or complicated. The first step to finding your competitors is to differentiate between your direct and indirect competition.

Environmental Scanning (ES)

In general, it is suggested to identify emerging indirect competitors by conducting market research, seeking customer feedback, and searching online social media platforms, communities, and forums. This process is called environmental scanning (ES). One example to scan the environment is a market survey, i.e., using a Digital Monkey Survey. First, consider, the environment is constantly changing, social, economic, technological, competitive, and regulations, these would influence marketing activities and hence shape a company’s marketing decisions. Thus, ES becomes an ongoing process limiting a timely competitive strategic reaction. Moreover, ES in the form of a SWOT analysis is a snapshot tool that could reveal false substitutes in the marketplace seeking to mirror your desired product and may take six to twelve months to complete (Gosnel, 2023).

Components of an identification process within ES suitable for direct competitor’s identification are:
1. Market Research
2. Solicit Customer Feedback
3. Sales Team Feedback
4. Check Online Communities on Social Media or Community Forums

In this day and age, your potential customers will often seek out advice and recommendations on social media sites and apps, or on community forums like Quora or Reddit. By investigating the conversations your customers have on these websites, you’ll be able to further identify your direct competitors. Research by Deloitte shows that 50% of millennials report that a recommendation from a friend or family member has a high influence on their buying decision. Furthermore, twenty-seven percent of both millennials and Gen Z feel an online recommendation from someone in their social media circle has a high influence on their buying decisions.

Replacing (emerging) competitors

Replacement competitors (also known as emerging) are the hardest to spot. They often times provide a different product or service altogether that can be perceived as a substitute solution for your same customer base in certain situations. Replacement competitors do not need to be monitored as frequently, but they should not be overlooked (monitoring social media channels are a great way to pinpoint these competitors) (Kompyte, 2020). To illustrate with an example, if you were to go back to 10 years ago, Hubspot was a marketing utomation tool and considered an emerging competitor at that time. If other Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software firms in the competitive space had paid closer attention, they could have maintained a better competitive advantage and more market share. Now Hubspot is one of the leading CRM software programs available in the market (Kompyte, 2020).

In sum, replacement/perceived competitors are harder to identify. They don’t necessarily offer the same product or service, but do compete for the same resources or a customer base. Unlike direct marketing, indirect marketing relies on the assumption that your audience will not be purchasing your product or service immediately, but rather over time. For instance, mobile phones seem to be a different market to digital cameras, but phone manufacturers became competitors with Kodak the minute the blueprints for the first camera phone were drawn. The first cellular phone was an early phantom competitor!

Key word research

A method in which a company’s marketing organization can identify newly emerging indirect and online or digital competitors is keyword research. Keyword research appears to be the best way to identify your indirect competition. SEO keywords (also known as “keywords” or “key phrases”) are terms added to online content in order to improve search engine rankings for those terms. By conducting a competitive Search Engine Optimization (SEO) analysis you can determine which businesses or publishers are competing for ranking space on Google search engines. After all, many of your customers are looking for your products and solutions by typing them in Google search.

For today’s marketer, that means that you’re in competition not only with your direct competitors but with every other website competing for keywords important to your business. If you are currently using an SEO platform or technology, you may find that your SEO technology can help you identify competitors with data and insights (Biggart, 2023). For example, Conductor’s SEO Platform can provide a high-level look at the keywords your direct competition is targeting. It also can tell you which websites are ranking for a keyword directed to your offerings. These represent your online digital indirect competitors some of which may be newly emerging global players (Biggart, 2023).

We have learned so far some of the methods shared appear somewhat limited and may only have moderate success for many businesses. They not only take a great deal of time to conduct but may also require a knowledge base that may be outside the marketing team skill set. These methods could also limit larger corporations where competition can be at its most fierce; the timely response to counteract indirect digital substitute’s strategic advances may be beyond a company’s digital competence and capacity. In summary, let us recognize that the Internet and social media are no panacea to newly emerging digital challenges.

The search engine results page (SERP) role

Currently, the presence and pressures of Lean Startup Accelerators thanks to emerging technologies yielding net data from Big Data give an edge to smaller entrepreneurial firms as it was with those bought out by Facebook, Google, Amazon, etc. Meta is seeking growth in a new frontier the Metaverse and Amazon are seeking growth in Brick and Mortar stores as in Whole Foods. The ruling KPIs are to grow, innovate or die. Globally newly emerging competitors are coming on all fronts with unfinished products heavy on tech innovations into anyone’s markets with less money than their predecessors. Marketers need to learn new skills and keep on learning to grow, innovate or die.

SERP defined

Colloquially the meaning of SERP is really used to describe any set of results that you get as a consumer after “searching” something using a search engine. Your search intent, and the device you ask your question on, will determine what type of SERP you get back. SERPs are probably the most widely utilized things that people don’t have a name for. Let’s be honest, outside of the SEO community most people don’t know what SERP stands for, or that it’s even an acronym at all. The strange part with its anonymity is that roughly 93% of all internet traffic comes through search engines. Google alone processes over 63,000 searches per second on any given day.

SERP and SEO roles

The role SERP plays starts when you input a search query into a search engine its algorithm will look into its enormous database of information and try to bring you back some results that defines the help needed to satisfy your question. In terms of SERP features, the results come in two primary categories of SERP: organic results (retrieved by the algorithm) & sponsored results (paid advertisements) – this is basic SERP and for other features read from a full list.

The important thing to know about search queries, is the searcher’s intent. The mission is trying to understand what the consumer is looking for, how can you provide a good resource to satisfy this need, to get a top ranking on Google, and get that traffic to your website rather than to your competitors, which seems as challenging tasks. Ideally, the search engine will show results that match what the user is looking for based on your “keyword ranking”, which refers to your position in SERP for a given search query (Neha, 2023). In addition to organic search results, SERPs usually include paid search and pay-per-click (PPC) ads. Thanks to search engine optimization (SEO), ranking position on a SERP can be highly competitive since users are more likely to click on results at the top of the page (Neha, 2023).

SERP analysis and phantom competitors

In terms of identifying newly indirect online digital emerging or phantom competitors SERP analysis is a process that examines the top-ranking web pages in the SERP (Search Engine Results Page) in order to evaluate whether or not the particular keyword you want to rank for is relevant, to learn of and determine ranking presence of competitors, and how hard it would be to outrank your penetrating competitors. SERPs are crucial to SEO since they increase the authority and exposure of your website. They could persuade reputable websites to connect to your material because they may promote audience engagement, click-through rates, and exposure of your content, SERPs are crucial to the success of SEO campaigns.

Be aware there are multiple SERPs: Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs); Maps Engine Results Pages (MERPs); Image Engine Results Pages (IERPs), and Voice Engine Results Pages (VERPs). The main takeaway here is that traditional search engines are keyword based – they create an index of data query in their database when someone produces a search and return results. However, all SERPs are unique, even when two users search the same query and that is because Google personalizes search results for its users in an attempt to display results that are relevant to each specific individual. In addition, sponsored results involve anything that is paid to be placed there, such as by bidding on keywords and Google places them in a number of locations across its services. On a SERP, you’ll typically find them at the top or bottom of the first page.

Identifying phantom competitors

This challenge presents itself when it comes to unknown newly emerging online substitutes or adjacent competitors using keyword research to rank in SERPs where your customers are. As a line of defense, the marketing data team could be using Ahrefs, Surround Sound by Semrush, and the Google Search Console simultaneously to ensure maximum information is gathered about newly emerging digital firms.

In a digital environment, social media scanning for an unknown true current, potential, adjacent, or SERP-perceived substitute competitor is more difficult in breadth and depth (Goodwin, 2020; Eugene, 2019). Investing in customized external digital analytical services support Search Engine Marketing (SEM) efforts. SEM is a method of promotion and advertising to help companies’ content rank higher among search engine traffic. Like search engine optimization (SEO), SEM helps companies improve the way content is ranked by search.

Through SEM sellers could create tailored ads and landing pages for each consumer segment, using keywords, images, offers, and testimonials that resonate with them. By segmenting your audience, you can increase your click-through rates, conversion rates, and customer loyalty in the face of newly emerging adjacent indirect digital competitors (Linkedin, 2023).

Google search analysis and Ad word (paid search) contribute to optimizing SEO audits in the keyword research digital equation (Potts, 2023). To combat SEO’s constant state of change seen in Google, an ever-changing user behavior, the rise of TikTok, social search, and the disruptive tech innovations (Potts, 2023), Biggart (2023) argues that SEO use should be geared toward indirect competitor identification rather than market and sales research, which is competition oriented toward a product proposition. SpySERP is a SEO competitor rank tracker and one of the best ways to check competitor rankings and see your competitors in SERP for any location, any search engine and for any keywords. The SpySERP keyword rank checker is a tool used to track the effectivity of your SEO efforts and to measure how effective were the implemented SEO methods and any results for your website positions.


In sum, for a seller wanting to rank No. 1 in a Google search, the SEO keyword ranking should matter, otherwise, while the seller might gain traffic, this will not draw the visitors most likely to convert to paying customers. Google has hundreds of ranking factors that determine what shows up on a SERP, but how they are displayed will be dependent on the types of search queries being asked – and which search engine was used. Any marketing strategy, including digital marketing, should start with competitor analysis. An SEO strategy is no exception but also, it doesn’t end as a one-time-task you check off your list. Building it into your ongoing strategy and decisions will help you establish yourself as a more authoritative voice in your space. This research indicates that Keyword Marketing Research is the best way to identify your indirect competition in part because every potentially competitive website could use keywords important to your business. This tendency may reveal the presence of emerging new indirect players. SEO research helps identify unknown newly emerging digital competitors going after your revenue and market share from anywhere through internet access.

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Eugene, (2019, May 10). How to find competitors in a company? Best SEO competitor analysis tools. Spyserp. tools
Gosnel, K. (2023, January 23). Environmental scanning: how CEOs can stay ahead of the curve and beat the competition. Kompyte. (2020). Which competitors should you be tracking? Retrieved from
Tadd, W. & Chen, Ming-Jer. (2018, October 21). Indirect competition: Strategic considerations. Darden Case No. UVA-S-0102, Available at
SSRN: or Potts, W. (2023 March 30). Stay one step ahead of the SEO curve with
Conductor. Biggart, A. (2023, February 24). How to identify your competitors in 6
Linkedin. (2023, July 25). How do you deal with SEM competition and differentiate your brand? Neha, W. (2023, June 7). The relationship between keyword ranking and keyword research.

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