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.
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
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.
To get a more accurate number you can use Google’s allintitle: advanced search operator.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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:
- Immediate and short term keyword targets
- Medium term keyword targets that will require some growth
- 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.