To be honest, a lot of site owners don’t think about this. According to Christine Churchill, writing for Search Engine Land, “Many companies blindly select keywords and don’t stop to consider the competitive landscape of that phrase on the web.” If you’re hoping to get any visibility in the search engines for your website, not considering the competition is a huge mistake.
Fortunately, this mistake is easy to fix, albeit time-consuming. Most good keyword research is going to take some time, so you might as well get used to it. At least this part of your research won’t be particularly hard. All you will need to use is Google, something with which to take notes, possibly some free online tools, and your own powers of observation.
Start by putting the primary keyword you wish to use into Google, and checking to see which sites come up for it. Those first ten sites are your competition. If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, you can even plan to examine the first thirty sites. You might find it worthwhile to perform the search on Google both while you’re logged into your Google account and while you are logged out of it, just to note any differences.
Now that you have a list of your competition, it’s time to take a closer look at the sites which are ranking for the term you want to target. What extensions do they use? If you’re looking at a bunch of .gov and .edu sites, you could expect a real battle on your hands. As far as anyone knows, Google does not automatically grant a website extra weight just because it sports one of these extensions. However, .gov and .edu sites tend to include a number of factors that Google DOES consider important in matters of determining relevance and authority. This can make them extremely difficult, though not impossible, to beat.
The next step you need to take in examining your competition involves a bit more than just checking extensions. You must now visit each site and examine how optimized it is. Where and how are they using your primary keyword – and keywords related to it? Do you see keywords in title tags and links to other pages on the website? How about as alt tags in images? Plenty of companies still don’t really understand how to use keywords, but others are quite savvy. By examining your competitors’ approaches to search engine optimization, you can get a clearer picture of what you’ll need to do to beat them in the SERPs.
Your third task involves backlinks. Check the backlinks of your competitors, not just for quantity but for quality. Remember that a few backlinks from high quality authority sites can beat out ten or a hundred times as many links from spammy websites. Sadly, my own evidence for this is anecdotal, but I’ve seen new members in our own SEO Chat forums frequently post with a question about why one particular site is seriously beating another site in the SERPs even though the winning site has far fewer links. Most of the time, it turns out that the higher-ranking site’s links come from higher quality websites.
After you’ve completed these three tasks, you should have a clearer idea of the strength of your competition. You will need to do what they did to rank, but you’ll need to do more of it, and do it better. At this point, as Churchill notes, you’ll need to ask yourself a very important question: “can you realistically afford to pursue that phrase?” Consider your resources carefully (time, money, people, etc.) before you answer that question. If the answer is “no,” save yourself some time, money, and heartache, and choose a different keyword. Good luck!