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Have you got an eye on your competitors? Do you know what they’re planning, who their current clients are, and whom they’re trying to recruit? You should, because there’s a good chance they’re already snooping on you. Just because you’re a small to medium sized enterprise doesn’t mean you can’t afford to track their moves with some creative thinking and data that’s already out there waiting to be mined.

The phrase “industrial espionage” has a rather unsavoury spy-versus-spy ring to it, but the fact is that business is a battlefield, and wars are won by those who can access and decode the available intel. While newspaper headlines provide us with plenty of cautionary tales of business leaders who crossed the legal line in their attempts to outmaneuver rivals, there are plenty of legitimate ways to gather information on your competitors without compromising your morals or budget.

In today’s hyper-competitive environment, you cannot afford to leave important intelligence on the table, especially when all it takes to gather it is some sweat equity and legal online snooping. In fact, very often your competition is already broadcasting everything you need to know already, if you’re clever enough to look beyond their messaging.

Reconnoiter their backlinks

Need to know how your competition stacks up to you, and with whom they’re doing business? One of the best ways to find out is to examine how many backlinks they have, and to assess the quality of those backlinks. Backlinks (also known as inbound links) are hyperlinks that point you to another webpage. You’re most likely to encounter them attached to the name of a company, for instance. The more websites that link to a page, the better that page’s traffic will be, and the higher its Google ranking, since that’s one of the ways in which Google assesses pages’ popularity and determines their page rank.

Looking at the sites of and links to your competitors can give you clues about their relationships and alliances. When you do discover backlinks to your rivals, pay attention to the anchor text phrases they are targeting. These anchor text phrases appear in a sentence as blue hyperlinks of several words in length; if you click on that phrase, it takes you to another page for more information. If enough people click on these links, Google takes note and will associate that phrase of text with the page it’s linked to.  Anchor text phrases can give you clues about your competitor’s search engine optimization (SEO) strategy and the keyword phrases they’re trying to rank for. There are many free and paid sites that will help you dig into this research.

Employ open-source intelligence

Successful online snooping starts with open-source intelligence, which is free, easily accessed, and can provide you with priceless insights into what your competitors are up to. But you’ve got to take an organized approach to data collection to get the good out of it. Set up a system and create spreadsheets on the various competitors that you are tracking. Use RSS feeds and free alert systems like Google, and book time into your personal calendar every month to revisit your competitive research and track what has changed.

If you can’t beat ‘em, hire ‘em

Or, as Sun Tzu says in The Art of War, “Entice away the enemy’s best and wisest men so that he may be left without counselors.” Recruiting an employee from a rival firm is smart for a lot of reasons. First, you’re bringing someone onboard who already knows your industry and your business. More to the point, these are employees that really understand your competitor’s thinking, and will help you adapt accordingly.

Poaching from your rivals does require caution and a certain degree of finesse. You want to be sure you are recruiting real talent as opposed to recruiting for a ‘previous experience’ entry on a CV. But if you can make a match that works for both you and the person you’re hiring, you’ll get a highly qualified employee whose acquisition is a plus for you on multiple levels—and a loss to your competitor.

Do unto others

An important corollary to the last point is to recognize that your competitors are probably playing the same game you are. Don’t forget that you need to treat your best employees like the stars they are to keep them working for your side.

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No matter what size your company is, with so much intel out there there’s no excuse for failing to gather what could be make-or-break business insights.

Corrine Sandler is a serial entrepreneur, thought leader and a past winner of the PROFIT/Chatelaine W100 Ranking of Canada’s Top Female Entrepreneurs. She is the CEO of ValidateIt™, a technology insight platform, and the founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Fresh Intelligence®, a custom global market research agency. Both businesses build on her mission of making insights and intelligence accessible to the world.

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Have you used any of these techniques to gain an advantage over your competitor? Would you? Share your competitive intelligence strategies and tactics using the comments section below.

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