1 Keyword Metric You’re Forgetting: True competition

Ian Lurie

In keyword research, we all start with the standards: Google’s keyword tool, Wordze or Wordtracker or Trellian, and maybe Bing’s keyword research tool.

It’s a mistake

If you build your keyword list based purely on objective numbers, you’re going to fail. A lot. You’re forgetting one critical factor: True competition.

You must measure true competition

You can easily find out how many other pages rank in, say, Google. Just do a search and look at the “…out of NNN results for [search term here]”:
Wow. 2,000,000 competitors. That’s one hot term. It looks very competitive.
But just how hard will it really be to claw your way into the top 10?
If it’s purely a numbers game, then getting a top ranking for ‘Redline Bicycles’ with its 2 million competing pages will be far harder than getting a top ranking for, say, ‘groomsmen gifts’, which only has 872,000 competitors.
But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. You need to look at a few other things:

Who’s optimizing?

How many of the top 10-50 sites bear the hallmarks of a serious onsite SEO effort? For a quick glance, check these factors:

  • Keyword in title tags.
  • Amount of content on the ranking page.
  • Freshness of content.
  • Overall content on the site.

In the top 20 Redline search results, I find at least 9 sites that have non-optimized title tags, almost no text content and/or at least 1-2 major SEO deal breakers. If I can beat them, I can probably find my way into the top 10.
In the top 20 ‘groomsmen gifts’ results, on the other hand, everyone’s optimizing like their lives depend on it. Every site has articles, tons of content and repeats the keyphrase like a parrot after 4 cups of coffee.
In spite of the numbers, ‘Redline bicycles’ is probably the easier term.

Who’s got links?

How many quality links do the top 10-20 sites have?
Again, let’s look at our two test phrases.
The #3 result for Redline has 5 incoming links. 5. The #5 result has 1 external link to the ranking page (according to SEOMOZ’s Linkscape). These sites are vulnerable, as they have very little authority for this phrase.
The worst of the top 10 sites for groomsmen gifts, on the other hand, has 971 links from 100+ unique, fully-qualified domains. Yikes.
Again, ‘Redline bicycles’ is far easier.

Who’s spamming social media?

One last check: How much are folks spamming the hell out of social media outlets like Twitter? While this won’t do too much, SEO-wise, I find social media spam to be an excellent indicator of misguided desperation.
Redline bicycles: No results in Twitter search.
Groomsmen gifts: One spammy tweet after another.
Again, groomsmen gifts looks like a miserable uphill slog.

Competition is more than numbers

It’s like my cycling coach used to say: If everyone in the race sucks, it doesn’t matter how big the field is.
In keyword research, competition is about a lot more than the numbers. Take the extra time to do a little research and you may find some great niche opportunities you’d never have thought existed.

Yeah, I’m a hypocrite. As much as I argue SEO isn’t about keywords any more, you still have to dig through and build that keyword list.

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  1. This is so true and an excellent explanation. I often get asked by our clients “what is the right level of volume” for “winnable” SEO terms and it really depends. There is no rule of thumb that says – exclude everything outside of this range. If you do that, you miss the hidden nuggets. So thank you for articulating this so well.(don’t worry – I’m on the far east coast and don’t play in your sandbox 🙂

  2. Noticed today you rank #20 on google for “redline bicycles.”
    Apparently you’re right about it being easy to rank for this term. : )

  3. Hm, when I Google “redline bicycles” I get over 20 million results, which is 10 times more than you are getting. Quiet strange. But even in my results this page is ranked 20th. Not bad considering the keyword is only mentioned 5 times on this page. Six times, now that I’ve said it. You do bring up a great point about checking your competition in addition to just looking at the numbers. I’m sure a lot of people skip this step and miss out on a lot of opportunities, or probably more commonly they enter into highly competitive territory without realizing it.

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