We don’t know exactly how the search engines rank pages. I’m not even certain the search engines know any more. There are so many factors involved that the combined impact must be fairly unpredictable. However, we do know that they pay a lot of attention to what users actually click on, and use this as feedback to make the results more relevant. In a similar way, we can look at what’s ranking highly and make an effort to understand how that’s been achieved, in an effort to improve our own performance. A kind of reverse engineering, if you will.
As ever, remember that your competitors in the search engines aren’t necessarily your commercial competitors. They’re the websites that occupy the top positions that you’d like to have, for the searches that are important to your business.
There are many things to investigate and compare to your own competitive page. Sometimes it’s baffling at first glance as to why a page scores highly, but perhaps it’s a long-standing page with a lot of external links. Link investigation tools can help here.
With any luck you’ll see that the page just has better content than you, better internal links, better presentation and better titles and tags. All of these are easy things to improve on your own page. But don’t just look to upgrade your page to something similar: see if you can spot weaknesses in the competitor pages and gain a real advantage. It’s worth the effort.