Picking effective keywords for your content is at least as important as SEO. If you optimize for the wrong keywords, your search traffic will either be limited to lower search volumes than more optimal keywords, or the traffic will convert poorly.
In the early days of pay-per-click, airline companies would advertise “low fares” in their Adwords campaigns, and in their website copy, not realizing that the keyword’s semantic equivalent, “cheap tickets,” was what people were really searching for. At the time of this writing, “low fares” gets 3600 global searches a month, while “cheap tickets” gets 550,000; but they have roughly the same cost-per-click (CPC): US $1.84 vs. $1.97. All things being equal, “cheap tickets” would obviously have more leverage.
In the real world, of course, all things are not equal. In addition to traffic (monthly searches) and commerciality (usually measured in CPC), the competition of a keyword will determine whether or not it’s worth targeting. In principle, you can rank at the top of Google for any keyword if you’re willing to put enough time and effort into building links, but the opportunity cost of devoting a large amount of resources to one keyword is huge. You could spend the same amount of time getting 10 less valuable keywords to the top of Google with one-tenth the effort. Let’s look at a couple of ways to evaluate competition.
Traditional Keyword Competition Analysis
The standard method of gauging whether or not a keyword is accessible is by counting the number of pages indexed for that keyword. If I put “low fares” into Google without quotes (a broad match) Google tells me that there are 1.6 million pages indexed for it. If I do the same query with “low fares” surrounded by quotes (an exact match), the number of pages with “low” and “fares” in a contiguous string somewhere in the title or on the page is only 561,000. If I put “intitle:’low fares'” into Google, I can see how many pages have the keyword in their title tag: in this case, 47,900.
But how many pages would make a keyword “too competitive”, and which match type should you use? This is where 10 internet marketers will tell you 10 different approaches. Some will tell you that under 30K intitle results means the keyword is accessible (I’m going to use “accessible” and “accessibilty” to avoid the awkwardness of using inverse competition as a positive metric). Others insist that only broad matches matter, since that’s the natural way results show up in Google. Different experts have different thresholds for accessibility: usually ranging from 10K to 100K.
A more sophisticated version of this approach is to factor in the total PageRank on the first page of Google results, then cross-reference this with the index count: the number of pages indexed in Google for the keyword, sometimes simply referred to as “competition”.
To do this, you would install an extension like SEO for Firefox or SEOQuake (available for Firefox and Chrome). When you do a search, these extensions will provide PageRank and other data beneath each search result. For the scope of this article, all we’re concerned with is the PageRank. Adding up the PR numbers of each result on the page gives you the total PageRank of that page. Here’s what Google results look like in using SEO for Firefox doing a search on SEOQuake, with all parameters turned off except for PR and Y!Links (the number of backlinks to the page, counted by Yahoo Site Explorer).
If the total PR is under 25, and the exact match index count is under 10K, then it should be easy to get in the top four spots in Google with minimal link building. If the total PR is under 35, and the index count is under 60K, you should be able to get in the top four spots in two to three months; or twice as long if the index count is under 100K. If the total PR is over 35 at any index count, it would be considered inaccessible. Personally, I’ve found this method to be accurate about 60% of the time.
The PageRank-Only Method
In the last couple of years, some internet marketers have dispensed with the “index count=competition” metric to focus entirely on the PageRank of the top four spots in Google on a broad match (the keyword entered without quotes). I’ve had much more consistent results with this method. The principle is to focus on the strength of your competitors rather than the number of them.
Using the same browser extensions, you would apply the following criterion: If the adjusted PageRank of any of the top 4 results is 5 or higher, the keyword too competitive; otherwise, it’s accessible.
What is the adjusted PageRank? Instead of going by the reported PR of a particular search result, you add 1 to the PR for any intitle or indomain match. For instance, if the top four results for “low fares” are 3, 4, 0 and 3, and the second result had “low fares” in the title, it would be considered a PR5, so that we would judge it inaccessible. If the page ranking in the fourth spots was mylowfares.com, and had “low fares” in the title tag of the page, the ostensibly PR3 result would also be considered a PR5—adding 1 to the PR for the indomain match, and another 1 for the intitle match.
A few qualifiers:
- The keyword in the title has to appear in its exact string somewhere, regardless of whatever text appears before or after it. So if “Parkinsons Disease” is the keyword, then “Parkinson’s Disease” would not be an intitle match
- The same applies to indomain matches, except for spaces. Mylowfares.com would be an indomain match for “low fares,” but my-low-fares.com would not
- For an exact match domain, you would add 2 instead of 1 to the PageRank. An exact match domain (EMD) is a .com, .net or .org (but no other extension) that has only the keyword in its exact order: e.g. lowfares.com. So a PR3’s adjusted PageRank would be a PR5, but a PR1 with an EMD, contrary to what others will tell you, is not invulnerable: it’s effectively a PR3 without an intitle match, or a P4 with one
- The most accessible keywords have a maximum of one adjusted PR3 or PR4 result in the top four spots (e.g., no PR3 and PR4 in the same result set, or no PR3 and PR3)
These are just a couple of ways to analyze keyword competition. Internet marketers and SEOs love to debate over the “best” method, but the PR-only system is the one that actually comports with my experience. If you have a simpler or more effective method, feel free to let me know in the comments.
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