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It used to be easy to know what a competing store down the street was doing by simply walking by the window – or even stopping in to snoop around. It’s understandably more difficult to assess the competition if they are operating from a different country and offer only a website storefront.

While many small businesses see their competition as primarily local, the internet has changed the playing field: a local business could now be facing competitors from across the world, and that’s a daunting thought to any business owner looking to win new customers.

Remember: successful business owners treat competitive intelligence as on ongoing part of market research.

So, in this digital landscape, how can you stay on top of your competition? Use these five tips to get to know as much as possible about the other players no matter where they are.

1. Go to them. Visit the websites of potential competitors to learn about their products, list of clients, and how they market themselves. If they have a location nearby, take the time to visit their office, store, franchise location or whatever the situation may be.

2. Get industry news. Industry sites and newsgroups may offer valuable information about your market and potential competitors. For example, you might hear about a competitor announcing an expansion move. Become a member of any trade associations they belong to so you can pick up insider news. And set Google alerts for any keywords relating to them.

3. Listen to their customers. See what customers are saying about your competitors. The Internet contains a wealth of customer reviews about all kinds of goods and services. Visit the comments section on each competitor’s site.

4. Collect their communications. Get on your competitors' mailing lists for newsletters and other materials. Subscribe to their blog.

5. Become a customer. If it’s not too expensive (or too obvious you are a competitor), call or visit your competitors to get a sense of the kind of customer service they offer. If your products or services are similar, but your competitor is less adept at dealing with the public, that may signal an opportunity.

Paying attention to your competitors will give you an edge as you increase your understanding of their strengths, weaknesses, and strategies. Try to learn something new about your competition every week.