I’ve been around search engine optimization for over 10 years. In that time I have seen countless changes to the algorithm, evolution of strategies, and most notably a rookie mistake still made today by agencies developing SEO plans for small businesses.

Whether you are looking to optimize your content marketing efforts or overhauling your website content, understanding keyword competition is vital to the success of your efforts. If your digital partner is making this mistake, it could cost your business hundreds of thousands of dollars.

SEO Keyword Competitive Analysis

One of the core components to any SEO strategy is to perform a competition analysis on potential keyword phrases. For the most part, the majority of agencies use similar “best practices” to determine competition.

Among the standard criteria you have looking at the number of links to the pages that are currently ranking, age of the domain, page content, page title and page meta description.

However, I am amazed at how many agencies are incorrectly feeding their clients misleading information by trying to take the easy way out.

Mistake of Using Google Adwords for Competition Analysis

One tool that many agencies use is the Keyword Planner tool from Google. This tool is found within the Google Adwords interface. It provides key information for paid search (Google Adwords) such as search volume, estimated cost per click, and competition.

While some of this data is useful for keyword research, it should not be the only source of research.

Unfortunately, somewhere along the way someone decided that the “competition” data meant organic search competition. In fact, this data is referring to paid search competition and NOT organic search.

It is very important that your small business asks your agency how they go about determining the competitiveness of keyword phrases.

Google AdWords Keyword Planner

How Should Keyword Competition be Determined?

While there is no definitive answer, respectable digital agencies typically follow these accepted best practices.

  • Analyze the quality of links and anchor text to current pages ranking well within the search engines
  • Knowing the domain age of websites currently ranking
  • Reviewing the quality of the content on the pages that are ranking for the desired terms
  • Assessing the page titles and page descriptions of each of the pages currently ranking in the he top of the search engines

Link Quality

At one point in time, ranking well in the search engines simply required a large amount of links. These links could come from a variety of websites. Sites such as forums, link directories, article submissions, and blog commenting.

These links were hardly ever on a site in a similar or related topic as the site the link was pointed to. Additionally, the majority of links were exact match anchor text. What this simply means is that the anchor text of the link would be targeting a specific keyword phrase. Whereas natural link building will contain links that look like they were legitimately created without SEO in mind. These links often look like “click here” or “read more” and not a specific keyword phrase.

Today, search engines are putting more emphasis on natural link building that occur on related sites to your own. For example, it is probably not a good idea to create links on a site about Paleo diets if your business sells residential landscaping services. Ideally, you would like to create links on sites about gardening, home improvement, or possibly sites about backyard patios.

The number of links pointing to a page has less importance to ranking than it once did. More weight is being given to the quality and relation of the site topic to your own. When evaluating the competition of a keyword phrase it is important to take note of the anchor text variation of the links built to that page as well as the theme relationship of the site linking to the page.

Domain Age

Years ago, many not so reputable SEO companies would simply register a bunch of domains and create websites purely for linking purposes. Search engines are now well aware of this approach and one of the ways they try to combat it is to look at the age of the domain name.

If the majority of links that are pointing to a webpage that is currently ranking for a keyword phrase are less than a year old, there is a chance that something shady might be going on. I am not saying that all new websites are to be suspicious (hey, we all have to start somewhere), but if a particular page has the majority of their links coming from only new sites something might not be right.

As a sites age increases, it typically builds up an authoritative presence among search engines. This results in the links on these websites to be more trusted among search engines and ultimately help your site rank better than links found on newer sites.

Content Quality

With the Google Panda update, the quality of content on a website has never been more important. Google is not interested in “thin” content which is typically short in length and skimpy on details.

When performing keyword research, it is important to look at the quality of content on the pages currently ranking. Some key things to be on the look out for are:

  • Does the page consist of duplicate content?
  • Is the page over optimized (high occurrences of targeted keyword)?
  • Are there a significant number of ads on the site?

These are just a few signs that the page might not have the best content quality. Through the keyword research, if you (or your agency) tend to find that most of the top ranking pages for a keyword phrase aren’t of the highest quality it could be a great opportunity for your site to rank well for that particular keyword phrase.

Page Titles & Meta Descriptions

Looking at the page titles of ranking pages, you can easily see if these pages have been optimized for a particular keyword phrase. If the majority of pages that you come across do not have the keyword phrase in the title, it is a sign that your website can move in and rank well for the phrase.

Same thing goes for the meta description of the page. If the keyword is missing, it could prove to be a good opportunity to rank for it. You would simply need to make sure your page mentions the targeted keyword phrase as close to the beginning of the page title as well as mention it within your meta description.

Finding the Right Balance

While I just listed a handful of items to pay attention to, keyword research typically takes more research and analysis than this. Each agency will have their own specific criteria for determining competition. More than likely they will use some or most of the basics I listed above along with their own criteria that they believe gives them the most accurate account of competition.

Ask Your Digital Agency Questions

Being informed on the basics of keyword research can help you be prepared to have conversations with your digital agency how they go about their research. Any reputable digital marketing agency should be more than happy to explain the basic criteria for their research.

It’s best if you ask questions now to ensure they are truly following best practices and using a legitimate approach to determine keyword competition in their SEO keyword research.

It’s critical to get the research done correctly. If not, your business could waste countless dollars chasing keyword phrases that are more competitive than you are being led to believe.

No matter who you use for search engine optimization, just be sure they don’t use Google’s Keyword Planner Tool to determine keyword competition…if they do, we should talk.

photo credit: CarbonNYC