Surely you have all seen the news this past week about Google Instant, where search term recommendations are automatically populated in a pulldown menu that adjusts as you type out the key terms you want to search for. This is actually a very cool new feature, but don’t believe any of the FUD about how this means that SEO is dead. This feature is more likely to change the way people search, rather than make the whole practice obsolete altogether. And improving the way people search should be seen as an opportunity rather than a deal-killer!
Not that we’ve established that SEO will in fact remain relevant moving forward, let’s take a step back to consider the most commonly ignored piece of the SEO puzzle…
You can find thousands of blog posts that coach you about how to get the on-page components of your website optimized. You can also find hundreds of posts about backlinks – why you need them, how to get them, and which types of backlinks are the most beneficial to your rankings.
However, the one topic that is most overlooked or “glossed over” in this whole set of content is the most important of all – the SEO competition. Let’s define what I mean by the term, just to be sure we’re all speaking the same language.
SEO Competition characterizes how many web pages and sites are already competing for a keyword or term. It also characterizes the strength of that competition against Google’s ranking formula.
Notice something different in that definition as compared to the typical use of the word “competitor”? It says nothing about the businesses that you would typically consider competition!
That’s right, for SEO purposes, your competition is not the list of companies who offer similar products, services, etc. to you or your business. In this case, competition is comprised of all companies who are trying to rank for the specific keyword/term of interest. Obviously, this means that more common keywords have higher volumes, but are also much more difficult for you to rank highly for, since a lot of strong competitors are likely already optimized for them. As you dig deeper for more specific keywords, competition can be completely different due to variables such as longtail vs. broad keyword terms, singular vs. plural tense, and even misspellings.
How to Gauge SEO Competition
Since SEO competition is so different from what we typically think about as competitors, let’s review the specific criteria by which you can judge a strong from a weak SEO competitor.
- Domain Age: Different SEO experts have conflicting opinions about how important this variable is in the Google formula, but rest assured of one thing…it does matter. Once your site has been around a year or two, it matters a lot less, but domain age is very important when trying to rank a new site in an established niche. Be sure to do a search for the key term you want to rank for, document who shows up on the first page, and do a whois search to learn more about how long the site has been online.
- Size of Site: Although this is a minor piece of the overall equation, Google does consider quantity of content in its estimation of “authority”. You may never have as many pages online as Wikipedia or other large established sites, but you CAN have more focused pages on a specific topic area. Which brings us to…
- Volume of Relevant Pages: Following on the size of site idea, you need to consider how much of that content is optimized for your desired keywords. If you find 3-4 SEO competitors who are also “real world” competitors, and they also have a large number of pages on their website focused on the words you want to optimize for, you might need to dig deeper for a better term to go after.
- Number of Backlinks: This is where the competitive analysis becomes a little more tricky. There are three types of backlinks to consider: Total backlinks to the domain, total backlinks to the specific page that ranks for your desired keyword, and how many of the backlinks to that page are from EDU and GOV domains (which Google deems to be high authority backlinks). If a site has a ton of backlinks to the domain, that will help them more easily rank for new keyterms. BUT, you also want to see how many backlinks they have to the specific page which is on-topic. If there are few or none, or the links that they have are low authority, you have an opportunity to put up a good fight. This topic is so complex that I will have to save a deeper dive for its own post, lest this one become a novelette.
- On-Page Optimizations: Once you determine who the top SEO competitors are, go to their site and review whether they’ve aligned all the appropriate elements of the page properly. Does the keyword show up in the URL, page title, meta description, keyword list, and H1/H2 tags? If not, you can make inroads by focusing on getting the on-page elements right.
- Cache Age: This may not seem intuitive, but you should absolutely take time to investigate how recently Google has cached the page (you can do this on site analytics tools such as Alexa or a premium SEO software package). You see, Google likes sites that are updated frequently. They will crawl your site to find what has changed every time you change your content, particularly if you automate your Sitemap submission. If you determine that a competitive site has not been cached in 14+ days, their site is not being updated, and you have an opportunity to get a foot in the door.
- Page Load Speed: Simple thinking here…Google won’t put you atop the rankings if your site loads too slowly. Web surfers simply will not stick around to wait 20-30 seconds for your home page to load. If Google sees this, you WILL be sandboxed to some degree. The same holds true for your SEO competition. If you find that most of the top sites in the SERP are slow or take too much time to load, get a good hosting account, remove any widgets or code that injects overhead into your website, and add some CSS compression code to hasten load time. Whatever you do, get this right, because it can hurt your ranking more than you would expect.
Be sure to think in terms of not only “real world” competition, but also virtual SEO competition. There are many tools and techniques you can employ to determine the competitive landscape as outlined above. Find one you like and put it to good use.
Getting this right will be the difference between wasting time chasing keywords you cannot own and getting yourself established correctly from the start. If you’ve already spent a great deal of time on keyword research and on-page optimization, yet you continue to see minimal progress in your rankings, take a step back to analyze whether you are simply trying to compete in a no-win situation. Adjust accordingly, and you’ll be off to the races!
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