Reverse Engineering Marketing : Where Do Other Sites Get Their Traffic?

August 28, 2013 — 87 Comments

Reverse engineering marketing

Getting a peek at successful companies’ Google Analytics is probably a secret wish of most entrepreneurs and marketers.  Where does most of their traffic come from? How much is paid traffic? What type of content works best for them?

After co-founding Takipi, one of the very first steps I made was to research (like crazy) how other companies, which target the same audience as we do, get their customers. This is not to say that you shouldn’t do new and creative stuff, but if other successful companies are doing something right you should definitely learn from it.

The main question I asked was – what works for them? Which are their most read blog posts, their best campaigns, the most tweeted and liked content? When we started working on our blog we ran a script on 100 different blogs (particularly of other companies that build products for developers). The script sorted all the posts by the number of likes/Tweets/G+ and LinkedIn shares. The results were amazing. After a week someone had to almost forcefully pull me away from the 100 Excel-sheet results. Following this research it became clear to me which direction I should take with our blog, and today we’re enjoying the fruits. There’s an amazing variety of tools that helped me optimize our marketing and to reach more users.

OK, let’s get started:


How to choose the right content for your company blog – the advanced way

Understanding which are the ‘greatest hits’ of other company blogs is a great way to pick content and find good topics. I use ‘Open Site Explorer’ to get this data. You’ll need a pro version in order to get better results; use this link to get a free pro account for 3 months. Open Site Explorer lets you explore a domain and sort all of its pages by inbound links and number of shares on different social media networks. Perfect for blogs! For example, here are the results of the KISSmetrics blog. The posts are sorted by page authority but you can easily download the result in CSV format and sort it as you’d like. My favorite is by tweets.


Sorting blogs by their most popular posts is also a great way to learn more about other blogs you wish to be featured on or to write guest posts for. You definitely want to align yourself to other successful posts and write about topics which brought nice traffic for this website in the past.

Here’s TechCrunch’s most popular posts analysis:



When exploring a company blog I also try to understand its volume. For some companies the company blog is a huge traffic source while for others it’s a minor one. I usually go to Alexa to learn how important the blog in a company’s overall strategy.

Some examples of companies that use content marketing as their main strategy: The KISSmetrics blog is responsible for 85% of the traffic to the domain, while for Hubspot it’s 46% – amazing figures. When learning from other companies, I would probably not research or take examples from blogs that represent less than 5% of the overall traffic for the company.


What content are users looking for?

I’m really not an SEO expert but one of the most interesting findings when researching other companies is that very often a large portion of their organic traffic is actually an outcome of their blog content. When I plan our next blog posts I take into account topics our users are likely to look for. It’s much easier to SEO a blog post than to SEO a product; furthermore, the topic options are unlimited. SEMRush is an easy to use tool which tracks the main keywords per domain (among other things). You can do wonders with the free version.

Here are some interesting examples:

Two of the 10 top keywords which lead to New Relic come from their blog. They’re ranked #1 at “Fast browsers” and #7 at “Yslow”.

Buffer is one of my favorite companies and runs a great blog. Here’s a drill-down of their organic traffic by SEMRush: Nine out of their top 10 organic traffic sources come from their blog. They manage to get to the front page for some of the popular Twitter related searches (“how to tweet”, “Twitter demographics”, “Twitter symbols”) and general terms that drive a huge amount of searches, #6 at “body language” and #7 at “smiling”. Beautiful.


It’s amazing to see how instead of asking “how will users search for our company”, companies now ask “what searches do our target users perform”. And guess what? It doesn’t have to be related to the product anymore, but to a common interest of the target audience.

Running a mobile app? SensorTower is a nice service which allows you to see the keywords of any app simply by typing its name. You’ll soon find out that most apps use surprising keywords (such as Facebook,Twitter and Google as keywords for Waze). There’s usually lots of logic behind these words and they also indicate what their target users look for. Another great way to get ideas for you next blog post, mini site or any other content which might help you reach your prospects.


So, how much traffic do other web sites really get?

I ask myself this question from two different perspectives – companies that are similar to mine and the traffic of blogs I want to approach.

Compete is a super interesting tool. Advantages: Unlike Alexa, you can see the actual number of visits and the trend of visits over the past two years. Disadvantages: shows traffic from the US only. It’s also free for 24 hours only and the upgrade is pretty expensive.

Let the fun begin – how many people actually visit other companies’ websites?

Why is this so important? Understanding how many visitors other companies get really helps me benchmark my own company and to set my expectations.

  • How many unique visitors do they get every month?

  • What is the average pages per visit?

  • And maybe the most important questions – what does their graph look like over the course of the last two years, how long did it take them to grow, and do hockey sticks really exist?

Take a look at the results of Atlassian and PagerDuty as examples (numbers represent visits from the US only). It’s really interesting to see that even for super successful companies there’s never a perfect hockey stick and there are always highs and lows. You can also see that unlike Alexa, covers small websites as well.


Subdomains – the pages that matter the most on your web site

Building a great website always seems to me to be an ongoing, never ending A/B test. Users tend to go to pages other than you expected, others land on pages you never planned them to land at and some users miss some of your best content. When you build a website you often go to other websites to study their structure – the next step is to see how users actually use that website.

I like to use either Alexa or to get this data. This is the breakdown of Twitter I got from Compete; it gives really interesting insights into how users use Twitter. You can easily see how many of their users reach Twitter via API, Mobile and their platform. You can also see how much traffic their dev center and blog get.

Similar to the Twitter breakdown, but from a very different angle, this is the breakdown of Smashing Magazine (one of the most popular design blogs). You can see the most popular categories and what interests most of the readers. I find this data very valuable when I need to decide whether or not to approach a certain blog or when I try to pick the best blog to publish a guest post or to announce some news.





How much money do companies really spend on advertising?

The main thing retargeting-based ads does for me is feelings of inferiority. I always get a feeling that other companies advertise everywhere to everyone. I think that understanding how much of other companies’ traffic is actually driven by ads is highly important since it gives you a deep understanding to how their marketing machine works. SEMRush answers this question very well.

You can see how the search traffic is divided by ads vs. organic traffic. Here’s an example of New Relic and Atlassian. Both target the same audience and go with a low touch approach, but New Relic gets 54% of its search traffic by ads, while it’s only 11% for Atlassian. If you go with one of the pro packages you’ll be able to see the ads vs. organic traffic trend over the years and how it changed. The cherry on top by SEMRush is the estimated costs of the ads. Based on the traffic, the keywords and the percentage of ads, you can see an estimation of a company’s monthly ad budget. Combine some of the tools I cover in this article and you can roughly estimate how many visitors you can bring to your web site with a given budget for Google Ads.


How to craft your newsletters and emails with the help of other companies?

This is not a sophisticated tip but a simple one I found super useful. We’ve all been there – you need to write a newsletter announcing a new feature or a welcome email and find yourself scraping the bottom of your inbox trying to find good examples from other companies. Instead, I maintain a few Google docs, each one for a different topic (welcome, upgrade, new version, etc). When I receive emails from the products I use, I paste them into the right doc. That way when I write the content for a new newsletter, for example, I can easily see what’s the average length, what’s the most common call to action and which subject lines are most popular. It doesn’t mean I necessarily use templates which resemble other companies’, but it’s a great reference point.

And one quick tip for reverse engineering social media marketing

Social media by its nature is very transparent and it’s easy to see which content is the most popular. Facebook tends to display the most popular posts for previous years so when you go to a company/product page and scroll down a bit you see the most liked and shared posts. For Twitter it’s a bit more complicated – but there are a few tools to the rescue. I use Twtrland (free). You can easily learn the stats of the account – the average tweets per day and how much they interact with their users. The best feature is a list of the most retweeted tweets of this account. It’s a great way to understand what type of content is more likely to be retweeted. When I’m out of ideas for content I like to search different accounts and get inspiration from their greatest hits.




87 responses to Reverse Engineering Marketing : Where Do Other Sites Get Their Traffic?

  1. Iris, Always a pleasure reading your thoroughly thought out posts.
    You take complex subjects and present them in a very simple and visual way.

  2. This is honestly one of the best posts I’ve read in months. Good information and actionable advice, thank you!

  3. A great wisdom! You may consider reposting it in too 😀

  4. Great post!
    Thanks Iris

  5. Great post, learned about a bunch of tools I didn’t know about. Keep up the good work!

    • Thanks Denny. I’ve been working with most of these tools for the past couple of months and it really helps me to polish our marketing strategy

  6. Amazing! Great stuff! Thanks Iris so much for sharing your wonderful marketing experience! !

  7. This is a really smart approach, Iris. Thanks for sharing it!

  8. Awesome post, thanks for sharing this! Looking into this for our company:

  9. This is really good! Thanks!

  10. Great post, Iris! You had me at hello.. ever since your lecture at Microsoft :)

  11. I’ll second that; fantastic content.

  12. quick question and i hope it doesn’t sound stupid. Is there a way to find for example e.g what is Engadget’s top posts today? Amazing article!

    • Hi Fanis,

      Good question. For some reason opensiteexplorer doesn’t show you the page’s date so it can’t be sorted by date. I’ll let you know if I’ll find something.

      The only thing I can think of right now is instead of entering the full domain name use a search result by today subdomain on opensiteexplorer (for example : show me the top pages for –

      Hope it helps,


  13. This is one of the best marketing posts I have read. As an engineer I am fascinated by the concept of reverse engineering marketing.

  14. Fantastic information, I haven’t read these tips before. This is an extremely useful resource. Thanks for sharing it!

  15. Amazing post – Open Site Explorer is an amazing tool to reverse engineer marketing. Here’s a stupidly simple tip: many competitors still have meta keyword information (even though Google doesn’t care about that anymore), so oftentimes you can easily see what keywords they are trying to rank for :)

  16. isabelle weissmann November 27, 2013 at 3:51 pm

    impressive, VERY good content!

  17. Your FB Like button is not working properly. I’m using Chrome on Windows

  18. Super actionable! Thank you @IrisShoor:disqus! Three months into it, do you find your self willing to pay for most of these tools? Or did you get enough value up front to not want to invest in them?

    Anything missing that you would fix with a magic wand?

  19. Caroline Dahllof December 1, 2013 at 8:15 pm

    Great article. Your advise remind me of Picasso’s quote: “Good artists copy, great artists steal”, which I personally think is a great quote.

  20. Time in the business is not always a good measure to compare. You have
    to consider the money that you have been using to make your programs work. If
    you do not see any progress from one of the products that you just bought for
    your site, then, switch right away. That is just as easy as that.

  21. Thank you for this article! It will help our startup efforts :)

  22. Thank you so much it was a very interesting post and very helpful :)

  23. Really awesome article @IrisShoor:disqus, thanks for the discount link for!

  24. iMarketingInnovators November 10, 2014 at 10:17 am

    Hi Iris, well done! Great presentation not just about tools but about the thought process behind getting this type of stuff done and ensuring that your content is successful. Too many people still use, including a lot of my clients before engaging with me, the old “throw it up against a wall and see what sticks” methodology. Not the way to do it anymore and you have presented folks with invaluable insights as to how to get a better ROI on their intellectual property! Keep up the good work…love your company and site by the way!

    Founder and Chief Relationship Officer

  25. Lots of information packed into this post. I appreciate it :)

  26. Love this post! Thank you Iris!

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