Last Updated : February 2018
Keyword research is crucial to any SEO campaign but often produces a long list of potential phrases that you can target on your website. In order to refine this list down to a manageable shortlist you must assess the value of each word or phrase. There are 3 elements to assess :
- Search Volume (do enough people search for this phrase?)
- Relevancy (is this phrase relevant to your business and website content?)
- Competition (how difficult will it be to rank for this phrase?)
Both search volume and relevancy are quite simple to measure but keyword competition or keyword difficulty is trickier to assess.
The most basic method is to do a Google search for each keyword and look at the number of pages returned. In most cases this number is in the millions and even for quite specific queries its often in hundreds of thousands.
That’s clearly too broad so what if we narrow that down by only looking at pages which have done some SEO work and are clearly targeting your keyword phrase ? In Google Search you can use some advanced operators to return more specific results including :
- intext:keyword (this returns only pages where keyword is present in the page text)
- inurl:keyword (this returns only pages where keyword is present in the URL)
- intitle:keyword (this returns only pages where keyword is present in the title tag)
- inanchor:keyword (this returns only pages which have links from other sites using keyword in the anchor text)
In fact several keyword research tools were developed to include checking these metrics to assess the level of competition for a given keyword or phrase. This is a bit more useful than a simple Google count of pages returned because it highlights websites that are trying to SEO their sites/pages.
But its still going to give you thousands of results in many cases.
A Better Method
Here’s the issue : you’re not really competing with x million, or even x thousands of websites for any particular keyword. You’re competing with 10, just TEN. The ones on the 1st page of Google because that’s where you need to be if you want Google traffic. If you’re on page 2 you may as well be on page 102 – same difference – zero traffic.
So any analysis of how competitive the search space is should be looking at the current top 10 ranking sites only.
So how do you measure the difficulty of a keyword for ranking purposes ?
The answer lies in looking at a few known influential SEO metrics for each of the top 10 sites, and then comparing them against your own site.
Typical SEO metrics to look at include :
- Moz PA (Page Authority)
- Moz DA (Domain Authority)
- Total External Links
- ULDs (Unique Linking Domains)
- Domain Age
- PageRank (just kidding !)
Some of these metrics are explained in more detail below.
Page Authority – this is a metric used by Moz.com and is a measure of the strength of a web page based on the number and nature of inbound links pointing to it.
Domain Authority – this is another Moz metric and measures of the strength of a whole domain based on the number and nature of inbound links pointing to it. Some might say that Google doesn’t rank web sites, it ranks web pages. This is true but when you consider that the majority of a web page’s authority comes from its own site (internal links), you can see why domain authority is so important.
Total External Links – this is a count of the number of inbound links coming from other websites pointing to your page. Internal links (other pages from your own site) are not as influential as external links so the distinction is important.
Unique Linking Domains – the total number of different domains that link to your page. This metric is really more important than total number of links since that metric can be heavily skewed by site-wide links for example. ULDs consistently come near the top of the most influential Google ranking factors.
Now once you have all these metrics in front of you, you can simply compare them to your own website (or the site you want to rank for this particular keyword). How does your site stack up against them? There are a couple of approaches you can take.
- You could calculate an average score for each metric, for this particular keyword and SERP. Then compare your site’s scores against these averages.
- You can simply look for weak spots. It’s common to find a few high scoring sites in the SERPs for most keywords, but if you notice 1 or 2 with low scores (lower or similar to your own scores), then those are beatable.
Look out for SERP monsters !
SERP monsters – otherwise known as big brands and authority sites.
If the SERP (Search Engine Results page) for your chosen keyword phrase is dominated by monsters like Amazon, YouTube, Wikipedia etc, you might be better to move on and look for a different keyword.
Thankfully this doesn’t happen too often, and in most cases you can identify some weak spots. And where it does happen, you will always find lots of other related phrases to target.
Keyword Difficulty Tools
Assessing keyword competition in this way can be done manually but in many cases you will have too many phrases to make this feasible. The solution is to use an online tool which can crunch these numbers for you or build one for yourself if you have the technical resources. There are a few online tools available which have some kind of keyword competition assessment feature. The Moz Keyword Difficulty tool is probably the best known and does a good job. Anyone can trial it for 30 days for free to see what it does and how it works but you will need a pro account to use it regularly and gain access to its full features.