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Keyword Competition Metrics

By Dan Thies



It’s been a few days between posts, and I apologize to anyone who has been waiting for this one…

What I’d like to address today is how we can look at the level of competition for a search term. There are a lot of ways to look at this question, and how you see the competition can have a big impact on strategy and tactics for a search engine marketing campaign.

In my last post, I discussed the “weighted popularity” formula. I’ll get back to that in more detail soon, but for now let’s just assume that you’ve made some decisions about which search terms best reach your target audience. Now that you know this, you need some idea of how much effort it will take to get in front of that audience.

I like to look primarily at three types of competition data:

  • How many sites/pages are competing?
  • How well linked are the top ranked sites?
  • How much are people paying for PPC traffic?

Let me go ahead and knock those down in order…

The “traditional” way of measuring the number of competing pages is to do a search for the keyword or phrase you’re interested in, and see how many results are returned. Unfortunately, this is an abysmal way of measuring the level of competition, because common words will appear more competitive, even if they aren’t.

So, let’s look at the situation differently – how can you identify a competitor? Well, the first thing anyone in the SEO game would do, if they wanted to target a search term, is to make sure that this search term is included in the TITLE tag on the web page they’re optimizing.

If we use Google’s advanced search operators, we can actually determine how many pages have the search term in their title tag, by using a search like:

intitle:search intitle:phrase

which will tell us how many pages have both words (search and phrase) in the title.

The next thing any competent SEO practitioner will do, if they are serious about competing for a search term, is to include that term in the text of links, either on the site itself, within external (incoming) links, or both. We can see this on Google with the inanchor: search operator.

The intitle: and inanchor: searches can be combined, so that if we wanted to get a good idea of the real competition for “search phrase,” we could use a search like

intitle:search inanchor:search intitle:phrase inanchor:phrase

to measure how many pages are using the search term in both the page title, and the text of links pointing to the page.

So that’s one good way to boil the competition down to a realistic number.

The next factor we like to look is at link popularity. There are many ways to measure this, but my personal preference is to look at how many websites are linking to the website I’m worried about. This data is available from Alexa (, we obtain it through their paid XML data feed so that we can automate the process. If all of the sites listed in the top 10 search results have substantially more incoming links than the site you’re working on, you will probably need to make some level of effort in order to compete effectively.

Finally, the “pay per click metric” is a useful way of determining how likely it is that there will be serious competition. The more the traffic is worth from a PPC standpoint, the more likely there will be substantial SEO effort underway as well.

However, this isn’t a universal truth. A search term that costs $5 per click on Overture might still have less SEO competition than you would think, if the term is not very popular with searchers.

This is because targeting a search term with PPC takes about 30 seconds – you just add it to your campaign and set a bid. With SEO, it can take a lot of work, and for extremely low traffic search terms, a major effort isn’t always justified.

Next time, we’ll look at ways of measuring keyword popularity in the first place, and a couple ways to assess relevance. Since popularity and relevance are the key variables in the weighted popularity and potential value formulas I discussed last time, it’s important to know that we’re doing the best possible job in measuring them.

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