Search Engine Optimization is a marathon, not a sprint, when properly strategized and implemented. The most effective SEO case studies look at periods greater than one year, and measure sustained improvements in organic search exposure. Typical metrics that I enjoy tracking include growth in the number of unique keywords used to enter the domain, as well as unique entry pages. Bounce rate is another one to keep an eye on to determine how effectively search engines are ranking the "right" pages of a site.
In order to get the most of competitive assessments, you should be monitoring top performers for a long time. Obviously when looking at others you can't have all of the above data, although tools such as the SpyFu Recon report and from more robust competitive intelligence such as Hitwise do help to do case studies of competitors within a more condensed time frame. Additionally, monitoring rankings and getting a "feel" for improved performance happens when you are closely following a certain vertical or set of keywords.
A recent discussion at Webmaster World Forums describes one such observation, when a new member notes improved Overstock.com Google Rankings and wonders: any ideas on what they did?
WMW Admin "Tedster" (Ted Ulle - one of the leading Google experts not actually working for Google) typically doesn't allow case studies and site reviews at WMW, but makes an exception in this case. He doubts a sizeable 2010 influx in inbound links as being the likely cause, but does suggest micro-formatting may have something to do with it:
What they apparently did do last year is add rich meta-data in the RDFa format to all their product pages
Ironically, I have actually used Overstock over the past few years as a "go-to" example for a good way to add content to eCommerce pages. A few years back I noticed their use of descriptive content at the very bottom of pages, and found that those mostly category-level pages were improving in relevant "head and shoulder" search results. This strategy seems to still exist on some pages, however a "site:" Google operator for the site also tells an interesting story: "Guides" seem to be highly listed in the order of returned pages.
Upon very early inspection, I feel the continued growth of relevant content coupled with internal linking is likely the strongest factor in their improvement. What are your thoughts? Please share at Webmaster World Forums or in the comments below.
Update: Google has penalized Overstock for link schemes - so there is the answer.