It is common for Web sites to rank very well for certain keywords but not very well for others. This makes sense since the competitive landscape changes from one keyword phrase to the next. There may be 300,000 search results for keyword A and 1,000,000 search results for keyword B. Presumably, it would be harder to outrank a million results than three hundred thousand, but this is not always the case. There may be a greater number of optimized pages in the smaller results set, making it more competitive than the larger set.
While it is nice to know why a certain keyword phrase is more competitive than another phrase, it does not really help us formulate an SEO strategy to rank well for that keyword. In order to come up with a successful SEO game plan it is necessary to gather a significant amount of data about the top ranking sites for whatever keyword phrase you are trying to optimize.
Gathering the Data
As we all have heard, there are two main factors that contribute to rankings: content and links. Generally speaking, the more optimized content you have on your site targeting a specific keyword, the more likely it is that you will be viewed as relevant by the search engines for that keyword. Similarly, the more inbound links you have going into your site, the more likely it is that your site will rank well. Search engines consider an inbound link to be a "vote" for your site. The more votes your site has, the more relevant it must be.
So how do we gather the data to compare your site to the top ranking sites for your desired keyword? The search engines are surprisingly helpful in this regard. Google and Yahoo! together give you nearly all of the information that you need in order to do an effective competitive evaluation.
Let us assume you want to rank for [sample keyword phrase]. The first thing we would do is search for that phrase in Google and look at the top 10 results. Once you have that list of sites, we recommend that you gather the following information for each site:
Items 1-4 can be obtained if you have software that can crawl a Web site and compile statistics on word usage throughout the site. For SEO purposes, it is much more useful to query Google to gather the data above. After all, does it really matter if you have ten pages of content about a particular keyword phrase if none of them have been indexed?
Here are the queries you would use to get the data for items 1-4 in Google:
The inbound link data (items 5-6) can easily be obtained from Yahoo! Site Explorer. You can also gather the link data for your own site in the Google Webmaster tools. If you are not familiar with Yahoo! Site Explorer, you can simply copy and paste the URL below into your Web browser, replacing the domain name that we have highlighted with the name of the site you are researching:
Copying and pasting the URL above will give you the number of inbound links to your home page (minus internal links) according to Yahoo! Site Explorer. In other words, the results of this query will give you item 5 from above. From this page you can get item 6 by pasting the URL of your most relevant landing page into the Yahoo! Site Explorer search box. Make note of the initial number of results. It tells you how many inbound links you have to that specific page from external sites. Now change the option selected in the Show Inlinks pull down menu from "Except from this domain" to "From All Pages". You now have the total number of inbound links to that page.
Once you have all of the data gathered for every site we recommend putting all of the numbers together in a spreadsheet. You can organize it in whatever way is easiest for you to understand, but you want to be able to easily compare all of the sites to each other.
Data Analysis – Where should you focus your efforts?
So now that you have all of this data, what do you do with it? The answer is—it depends. If your site appears to have a better than average amount of link popularity but fewer optimized pages than your competition, then you will probably want to spend some time creating new pages. On the other hand, you may want to focus all of your initial efforts on link building if you have far fewer links than your top performing competitors. You can have all the relevant content in the world, but without any inbound links your site has very little chance of ranking well.
Not every competitive analysis is going to be as simple as the two examples given above. Sometimes you do have enough link popularity and plenty of content. What is the problem then? Well, the reason we feel that items 3 and 4 are important is that using a keyword phrase in a page Title usually reflects that the phrase you are researching is the main theme (or one of the main themes) of the page. There are obviously many other factors in optimizing a Web page. However, using the intitle: command is one of the only ways you can query the search engines to find pages that are somewhat optimized without having to view every page on your site.
Your content optimization should begin with the pages that are already somewhat optimized. In this case, we are talking about the pages that use the keyword phrase in their Title tags. Make sure that all of these pages are as optimized as they can be without overusing or "stuffing" keywords. We recommend using the Single Page Keyword Density Analyzer in the SEOToolset (you can try a free version of the Single Page KDA here) to evaluate each page.
Once you have gone through the pages that already use the keyword phrase in their Title tags, you should then focus on the pages that use the phrase in the page body but not the Title tag. You can find these pages with the following command in Google:
site:www.domain.com "sample keyword phrase" –intitle:"sample keyword phrase"
One good thing about Google is that they almost always rank results in order of relevance. That appears to be the case with the above command based on what we have seen. For that reason you should start with result 1 and go down from there. You might as well start with the pages that are closest to being optimized for your keyword already. Optimize these pages using the Single Page KDA exactly as you did with the others.
After you have optimized your pages it may also be necessary to create a silo for this keyword phrase and all other similarly themed keywords. Please read this article from the September 2006 edition of the SEO Newsletter if you are not familiar with the concept of siloing. If your most relevant landing page was not ranking well due to a lack of internal links, then creating a siloing structure should help. Be sure to add the index page of any newly created silo into main navigational elements so that it has plenty of inbound links.
Let us suppose that you have created a well-optimized silo to target your keyword and your site is still not ranking well. Assuming that your site is not being filtered and/or penalized in some way and that all of your pages have been indexed, then you will have to either create more content or develop more inbound links to get over the hump. When it comes to developing links you will want to focus on getting links to both your home page and to the most relevant landing page for the keyword you are optimizing.
The analysis that we have discussed in this article is for one keyword phrase. It is a good exercise, but you will likely be optimizing a much larger set of keywords on your site. The SEO process becomes more and more complicated as your site grows and you try to optimize more keywords. However, the same fundamental principles still apply. Good rankings will come if you have a well-organized (i.e. siloed) site with a significant amount of optimized content and inbound links. You will not have the time to go through this evaluation for every possible keyword you want to optimize, but it is valuable to go through the process for high priority keywords. Otherwise, you will have no idea where you should focus your SEO efforts.
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Fernando Chavez is a Senior SEO Analyst at Bruce Clay, Inc. He holds a B.S. in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Stanford University and has been with Bruce Clay for over 2 ½ years.
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