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Dirty Lies and Strategic Keyword Research

Carson Ward

Since becoming addicted to online marketing, I have found a large amount of information that is either out of date, irrelevant, incorrect, or communicated in about the worst way imaginable. It seems to be especially easy to find bad advice about strategic keyword selection and optimization. This post will look at three myths related to keyword relevance and competition.

Example: “Cookie the be to of and a in”

If you’ve ever seen a screen capture like the one below and gone into rage-triggered cardiac arrest, you probably know which myth I’d like to debunk:


Red boxes and over-the-top red arrows are a must when a manipulative or misinformed SEO shows that their (or their client’s) page is ranked FIRST out of 260 million sites! Who’s winning? This guy. Now you’re going to get all of the traffic when throngs of people search for “cookie the be to of and a in.”

The fact of the matter is that the number of results is largely irrelevant. Considering the number of results as a gauge of competition is akin to trying to figure out how hard the Seahawks will be to beat by asking how many fans they have in the stadium. Just as this might lead you to erroneously believe that the Seahawks are talented, some SEOs use a high number of page results to fallaciously suggest that the term is harder to rank for.

Com petitive Keyword Analysis – the Right Way

To gauge the true SEO competition for a keyword, I strongly suggest searching for the term and opening the first 3-5 results. These are the pages you need to out-rank to get meaningful traffic. Consider the following:

  • Authority: Use tools like Open Site Explorer to determine the “page authority” and number of linking pages, domains, and class C IP addresses. Generally speaking, a newer site is not going to outrank a PageRank 7 site with a page authority of 85, even if the keyword is ranking incidentally and not through intentional targeting.
  • Relevant Links: Take the analysis a step further and analyze the anchor text pointing to the page.

Would anyone like to guess which shoe maker is on the first page for the keyword “basketball?” If you think you can stop at anchor text, though, we need to have a heart-to-heart about how Google determines relevance. Are the linking pages authoritative and relevant to the topic? What about the domain? If you really want to get crazy, you can look at the pages/domains linking to the linking page/domain.

  • On-Page: Is the ranking page targeting the keyword, or ranking for it incidentally? Does the exact phrase exist in the title tag? Is it even in the content? If the exact phrase is at the front of a highly authoritative page, can you top that?

Strategic/Competitive Keyword Analysis

Determining the true amount of competition for a keyword can be tricky and takes a little practice. Luckily, you can look at tens of thousands of SERPs (search engine results pages) to learn how the variables/factors are connected. Between the first draft of this post and publication, SEOMoz announced a new tool that should prove extremely helpful for the discerning strategist. It actually looks disturbingly similar to a report I have been tracking data with recently.

Non-strategic SEOs play it by ear and learn what works based on results, learning slowly while campaigns succeed or fail. Strategic SEOs can determine what works before even starting a campaign, based on lessons learned from hundreds of results and case studies available on each page of any given query.

Keyword research will set the course for an SEO campaign, and changing course mid-way can be costly and frustrating. It is important, therefore, to use a more strategic approach to targeted keyword selection to determine what terms will provide acceptable results within a given timeframe.


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