Chapter 5: Keyword Competition Analysis
So you’ve found a popular keyword with strong commercial intent.
There’s only one thing left to do: check out the competition on Google’s first page.
If you see a page littered with authoritative, big brand results, you might be better off moving to the next keyword on your list.
But if you take the time to evaluate keyword competition, you can usually find keywords that get great search volume AND have little to no competition.
That means that you need less content, links and promotion to claim your spot on page one.
In this chapter I’m going to show you how to quickly evaluate a keyword’s competition in Google’s organic search results.
First Step: Install SEQuake and MozBar
There are two free browser toolbars that make Keyword Competition faster and easier: SEO Quake and MozBar.
Here’s how to install and set them up:
Head over to SEOQuake.com and click on the big orange button:
(SEOQuake supports Firefox, Chrome, Opera and Safari browsers)
Follow the prompts to install and activate the toolbar:
Point the same browser you installed SEO Quake on to this page. Choose either Firefox or Chrome:
And install and activate MozBar.
When you do a search in Google you should see information from SEOQuake:
And from MozBar:
(Sometimes the two toolbars don’t get along and show funky results when they’re both on at once. If that’s the case you can use one — gather the information you need — and then use the other).
Now that you have SEOQuake and MozBar set up, it’s time to size up the competition.
PageRank and Page Authority
There’s an old SEO adage that goes: “Google doesn’t rank sites…it ranks pages.”
Although a site’s domain authority and brand presence play important roles, the #1 factor in a page’s ability to rank in Google is the authority of that page.
So there’s a lot of truth to that old adage.
The two best measurements of a page’s authority are PageRank and Moz’s Page Authority.
PageRank gets a lot of flack from the SEO community (“PageRank doesn’t matter!”). But you know what? It’s data straight from the horse’s mouth. That’s why I actually pay a lot of attention to PageRank (when it’s actually updated).
To check a SERPs PageRank on the fly, search for the keyword and look at the “PR” measurement in SEOQuake:
(Because toolbar PR isn’t updated very often, newer pages may not show any toolbar PageRank…even if they have tons of authority in the eyes of Google)
Page Authority is a nice complement to PageRank. Because it’s updated monthly, it’s much more fresh than PR.
You can easily check PageAuthority by looking at the “PA” number in the MozBar SERP Overlay:
It’s OK for a SERP to have a few high PR/PA results on the first page. That’s the case for most medium or high volume keywords.
You want to keep an eye out for low PR/PA pages. Those pages are ripe for getting knocked off by your new, awesomely-optimized page. If you see a lot of these, consider giving your potential keyword the green light.
At its very core, Google is a vote collection engine.
The more “votes” a page gets (in the form of backlinks), the higher it tends to rank.
(Think metrics like these don’t matter anymore? Moz’s most recent ranking factors research study found that the number of referring domains was the 3rd most important ranking signal)
Which means that the number of referring domains is worth taking a look at.
Because there are several link analysis tools out there, there’s no shortage of conflicting data about how many links a page has pointing to it.
That’s why I recommend using the same tool throughout the keyword research process. That way you’ll be using consistent information as you size up the competition.
SEOQuake shows you the number of referring domains in its SERP overlay, called “LD” (Linking Domains)
(SEOQuake pulls this data from SEMRush, a popular keyword research tool I’ll show you how to use in the next chapter)
You can also see the number of referring domains from the MozBar (in my experience, Moz’s link metrics are MUCH more accurate than SEMRush):
You can also use a tool like ahrefs to see how many referring domains point to a particular page. Just take a URL from the top 10:
Pop it into ahrefs and hit “search links”:
And the tool will show you the number of referring domains linking to that page:
This process takes longer than using one of the toolbars, but the information from ahrefs tends to be more accurate.
Domain Authority and Brand Presence
I don’t need to tell you that Google loves ranking pages from major authority sites like Wikipedia, Amazon and CNN.com.
While a lot of pages from these sites rank on page authority and merit, quite a few get a huge bump from the simple fact that they’re on an authoritative domain.
Which means that – when you evaluate keyword competition — you also want to take a look at the sites you’re competing against (not just the pages).
The MozBar displays Domain Authority on the SERP overlay:
In general, results with high PA and DA are super-competitive.
As you might expect, you want to see a lot of the top 10 results with low PA and DA. Those are keywords that you can easily rank for.
In other words, a page’s authority is most important…but you also want to take DA into consideration.
Brand signals – signs that show search engines a site is part of a large brand – is becoming more and more integrated into Google’s algorithm.
Which means you want to take a brand’s size into consideration. For example, sites like Amazon, ESPN.com and YouTube are given an edge over small brand results with similar page and domain authority.
If you’ve been in the SEO game for a while you know that DA and PageRank can be VERY misleading metrics.
Sites with spammy link profiles may boast high DA and PageRank – but because they’re using spam links – they’re not going to stick on the first page over the long-term.
If there’s a keyword that looks especially competitive, but you have a gut feeling there’s a lot of black hat SEO behind the results, spot check the top 10’s link profile.
You may also want to see if any of the top 10 have links that are going to really, really hard for you to get (for example, media mentions on major news sites).
Either way, if you’re going to put a lot of effort behind ranking for a keyword, it makes sense to have a feel for how the top 10 got to where they are. And the best way to do that is to check out their link profile.
First, copy the URL of one of the top 10 results:
Paste that URL into the field on ahrefs homepage (if you prefer, you can use another similar tool like Open Site Explorer):
Click “External” under the backlinks section of the sidebar:
This will display all of the external links pointing to that page.
Click on “One link per domain”. This makes interpreting the results significantly easier by removing sites that link to a page multiple times:
Finally, glance at the top 10-25 links in their link profile:
You can usually tell within a few seconds whether or not the page uses black hat SEO.
Links coming from these places tend to indicate a black hat link profile:
- Low quality web directories
- Article directories
- Blog networks
- Blog comments
Also keep an eye out for over-optimized anchor text. That’s another sign that a page isn’t going to last.
On the other hand, if a page has a lot of these links, beating them might be more competitive than the PR and DA numbers indicate:
- Major news sites, like The Huffington Post
- Editorial links from authoritative sites in your industry
- Hard to get directory links (like DMOZ)
The point here isn’t to obsess over their link profile. It’s just another layer of information to help you make an informed decision about a keyword.
You already know that on-page SEO can make or break a site’s ability to rank.
That’s why you want to pay attention to the on-page SEO of your would-be competitors in the top 10 results.
First, take a look at the page’s title tags. This is the blue link displayed in Google’s search results:
The two results above are examples of well-optimized title tags. First, they’ve used the exact keyword in the title tag (“Premium headphones”)…not a synonym or variation (like, “High end headphones” or “Premium high performance headphones”).
But they’ve also included the keyword in the beginning of their title tags, which gives them an on-page boost.
To dig deeper, click on one of the results. Next, click on the magnifying glass icon in the MozBar:
Choose “Page Elements” from the dropdown menu:
And this will display information on the page’s URL, H tags and image alt text:
If the keyword is included in an H1/H2 tag, the URL and as part of an image’s alt text, consider the page well optimized.
On the other hand, if a page has lazy on-page SEO, it’s often easy to knock off the first page…even if it has decent authority.
Easy Target Results
When you see one or more Easy Target Results in the top 10, it’s time to celebrate. You just found a low-competition keyword.
Here are results that tend to indicate a very, very low competition keyword:
Here are some examples of keywords with Easy Target results:
And finally, we have:
With all the talk of referring domains and title tags, it’s easy to forget that the quality of your content is a huge part of your ability to crack the top 10.
In other words, if you want to rank for a competitive keyword, be prepared to match (or beat) the quality of the top 10 results.
Although highly subjective, you can usually get a feel for what type of content you’ll have to bring to the table to beat the top 10 with a minute or two of digging.
Just search for your keyword and read the content of the top 5-10 results.
Let’s look at an example, “health benefits of kale”.
The first result, from WebMD, is a high-quality article written by a registered dietitian:
The article also cites several scientific research studies, making the content more credible and worthy of links:
In other words, it will take some very good – although not necessarily amazing – content to beat the first result.
The second result is from Mind Body Green.
Unlike the WebMD article, this article wasn’t written by a certified expert and doesn’t cite any research. That’s good news: this is easy content to beat!
Let’s look at one more result from the top 5: an article from WHFoods.com.
The first thing I notice is the layout and design is REALLY dated looking. This probably hurts their ability to generate links and social shares. Now you know that design is one way to stand out from the current top 10.
However, the content itself is outstanding, featuring charts:
And a list of scientific references:
What keeps this page from hitting the #1 spot is its poor design and on-page SEO.
The title tag of the page is simply “kale”, and there’s little mention of the keyword “health benefits of kale” anywhere else on the page.
Otherwise, the content itself is A+ and should be the considered the benchmark for the content you create around that keyword.