Key Principles To Follow When Examining Keyword Difficulty

Understanding keyword difficulty will help you to choose which queries to compete for, both now and in the future. It comes down to three things.

  • Competition. The number of pages indexed by a search engine for a query.
  • Authority. The ranking strength of a webpage as determined by incoming links to the page and the website (Domain Authority). Authority is based on both quantity and quality.
  • Relevance. How well ranking webpages match specific search queries. This includes both on-page ranking factors like keyword presence and off-page signals like anchor text.

By understanding the strengths behind the pages that already rank well in your sector, industry or niche you better prepare yourself to select the best keywords to optimize for.

Keyword Difficulty

To estimate keyword difficulty, you will want to know:

  • The number competing webpages
  • The top ten search results
  • The number of external links and the number of domains pointing links to each ranking page
  • Page Authority and Domain Authority of each ranking page
  • The general level of on-page optimization for each ranking page

The Number of Competing Pages


The Good

Knowing how many pages are relevant for a query is a good indicator of competition. There are numerous ways to measure this. The easiest is to run a search and see how many pages are indexed.

Search Competition


To get a more accurate number you can use Google’s allintitle: advanced search operator. allintitle: Competition

The Bad

The number of competitors can be a distraction. It only takes 10 sites with a better combination of authority and relevance than yours to keep you off the first page. Use competition as an indicator, but do not make decisions based on it alone.

The Top 10 Search Results


The Good

Knowing the top ranking sites provides the means to estimate the rest of the keyword difficulty metrics. Remember to make your searches as non-personalized as possible without obsessing. Yoast’s Google de-Personalized Search for Firefox with Google Search History continues to work well. Ignore universal search results such as images, news and local search. You want the organic top ten.

The Bad

Search engines make acquiring non-personalized search results nearly impossible. Google can personalize your ranking results using your account’s browsing history, cookies, IP address and even your relationships with other Google account holders. At some point, you have to accept the search results you get. There are lots of tricks for depersonalizing search results, but none work perfectly.

Number Of External Links & Domains Pointing Links To Each Ranking Page


The Good

Links are a great indicator of difficulty. When most top ranking pages have high numbers of external links or links from many different domains, that keyword will be difficult to rank for. However, when pages in the top ten do not have many direct links from other domains, it may indicate an opportunity. You can get the number of linking domains for at Open Site Explorer and Majestic SEO.

The Bad

Expect inconsistency within each top ten. Authority from links is based on quantity and quality. A site receiving a few high quality links can have similar authority as a site with lots of low quality links. Also, counting linking domains to a page does not measure authority passed through internal links.

Page Authority & Domain Authority of Each Ranking Page


The Good

Page Authority and Domain Authority are linier measurements from 1 (bad) to 100 (fantastic) based on both the quantity and the quality of links, plus some other signals. Created by SEOmoz, they can be found free at Open Site Explorer. They attempt to quantify the raw ranking strength of the page and the domain it is on.

If a page with high Page Authority has fewer links than others in the top ten, it could mean that that page has better external links, especially if the Domain Authority is lower than the Page Authority. High Domain Authority and a low link count can indicate that a page gets its ranking strength from internal links.

The Bad

Page Authority and Domain Authority are created entirely by SEOmoz using data they acquire themselves. This is not search engine data. While it is supposed to approximate the authority Google or Bing assigns to webpages or domains, you often see top ranking documents with unexplainably low Page or Domain Authority.

The General Level Of On-Page Optimization For Each Ranking Page


The Good

Link and authority numbers are great, but nothing will replace viewing your competitors’ pages to see how well they are optimized. Visit each of the top ten results. Try to think like a search engine and look for different signals.

  • Is the keyword in the title tag? At the beginning? How long is the title tag?
  • Is the keyword in the H1? How well is it written?
  • How much content is on the page? Is it quality text? Is the keyword well used in the copy? Do you see other words one would expect in a discussion about the keyword?
  • Is the keyword in image alt text?
  • Is the keyword in the domain or URL?
  • Would you say the page is over optimized?
  • Can you find questionable SEO practices or obvious spam?
  • How deeply does the page sit within the website’s internal linking architecture?
  • Is the keyword well represented in the anchor text of internal and external links?

Keep your review simple. Try not to over analyze. Just take it all in then rate each page’s optimization from one to five based on your general impression.

  • No Optimization
  • Minimal Optimization or Over Optimized
  • Fair Optimization
  • Decent or Good Optimization
  • Excellent Optimization

This will give you an understanding about how much effort those top ten pages have invested into their SEO.

The Bad

This requires a lot of manual effort. You may want to save this part until after you filter your list of keywords down to a manageable size. In this review, you are attempting quantify a qualitative assessment. It is not scientific so different people looking at the same pages might assign different scores.

Putting It All Together

As you go through this process, you will get a good feel for your keyword landscape with a lot more detail than your initial keyword research gave you.


Gift Basket Rankings


Append the averages and competition numbers to your keyword research for a high level overview. Then you can sort and filter as you please to choose the best keywords for your website.

As I select keywords I use this information to create three lists:

  1. Immediate and short term keyword targets
  2. Medium term keyword targets that will require some growth
  3. Long term keyword targets that are obtainable with sustained effort

Later, as you assign keywords to existing pages or build new content, you can refer back to this research to help you decide exactly what is needed to earn those high rankings.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: All Things SEO Column | Channel: SEO


About The Author: operates Schmitz Marketing, an Internet Marketing consultancy helping brands succeed at Inbound Marketing, Social Media and SEO. You can read more from Tom at Hitchhiker's Guide to Traffic.

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  • Mitchell Wright

    There are a few tools that will do much of this process for you based on an individual keywords. I know that SEOmoz recently released a keyword competition tool, although it seems that it takes a while generally for results to get back.

    I have used and been very happy with The results come quick, and it even goes through all the on-page elements for each site ranking in the top 10 and allows you to compare your own URL to those in the top 10.

  • Thomas M. Schmitz

    Aye Mitchell, there are tools that simplify and automate the process. I think these are good for an overview, the beginner SEO or people who have to do SEO as a portion of their job. For the dedicated SEO, however, any tool that takes a multi-variable analysis and boils it down to one number may be fast, but automation skips observation. And that observation is important for understanding why a niche is competitive or finding opportunities others may miss.

  • Mitchell Wright

    Well, if you are using only the number given by the tool, then I do agree you are probably missing out. Generally I will use a tool to narrow down a list of potential keywords, and then deep dive on that list in order to find the easiest SERPs to rank in first.

    Also, I don’t know about the SEOmoz tool but I know serpIQ aggregates all of the data that you mention, including SEOmoz’s domain and page authority, as well as some other relevant statistics such as domain age and social factors such as number of tweets and Facebook shares. Overall, it speeds up the data collection process and is a more efficient use of time than manually gathering all of this information.

    In short, I agree that manually digging through the top 10 results is still something that needs to happen, but some of these tools can help automate the gathering of relevant information.

  • Katie Saxon

    Excellent guide Tom, the on page optimisation of the top 10 is the one area that I could do with paying more attention to. Have you tried the SEOMoz on page grader? Just wondering what your thoughts are on it?

    As you say, you should still look at the pages yourself, but I have found that it’s a useful guide – and it picks up on some of the nittty gritty that I’m not sure I’d spot.

  • ptraychev

    Absolutely great stuff. I was wondering how to estimate competition and this is truly of help. I would suggest to also include top 10 sites’ anchor text links profile in the equation. For example, the first most used anchor text after the brand (it is a common case) tells me that they optimize for this (and related) term. What do you guys think?


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