Why You’re Lying to Yourself About Keyword Difficulty

by on May 2, 2012 | posted in SEO Theory

A little over a month ago, I wrote about barriers to entry in the SEO world. This concept is something I think about constantly in my day to day operations in-house – however, it only begins to explain the long term competitive theories that are important to understand as overarching themes that cumulatively make the difference between a number one ranking, today, and a number one ranking five years from now.

Although short term success is all fun and good, true dominance – and big business – comes from having many multiples of our number one rankings represent themselves over dozens of websites. This same idea applies to your own business – you can diversify, find additional traffic streams and build upon client successes by winning and holding those rankings over time – and not treading water or finding current dominance eroding as years progress.

Why do these erosions happen? Surely, many things occur that we simply can’t account for. How heavy will our competitors link build? Will they be the benefactor of incredible technology our efforts simply can’t match? Will Google decide they suddenly want to sell popcorn bags internally instead of displaying our search result? All of these are very possible, but it is these kinds of tremor events that are somewhat random, and should not be included in our short term decision making besides as associated chaos variables. However, there are long term events that given historical patterns, will re-assert themselves – and very potentially, stick a knife in our business efforts.

Market Lies

Peter Thiel, wildly successful startup founder and VC, had one of his classes on startups summarized recently. In these summaries are some golden nuggets on business markets from Thiel, where he goes into detail how many companies will misrepresent their market size to create a monopoly scenario – that is, their ability to absolutely dominate a business area, that simply might not exist.

People also tell lies about markets. Really big markets tend to be very competitive. You don’t want to be a minnow in a giant pool. You want to be best in your class. So if you’re in a business that finds itself in a competitive situation, you may well fool yourself into thinking that your relevant market is much smaller than it actually is.

Suppose you want to start a restaurant in Palo Alto that will serve only British food. It will be the only such restaurant in Palo Alto. “No one else is doing it,” you might say. “We’re in a class of our own.” But is that true? What is the relevant market? Is it the market for British food? Or the restaurant market in general? Should you consider only the Palo Alto market? Or do people sometimes travel to or from Menlo Park or Mountain View to eat? These questions are hard, but the bigger problem is that your incentive is not to ask them at all. Rather, your incentive is to rhetorically shrink the market. If a bearish investor reminds you that 90% of restaurants fail within 2 years, you’ll come up with a story about how you’re different. You’ll spend time trying to convince people you’re the only game in town instead of seriously considering whether that’s true. You should wonder whether there are people who eat only British food in Palo Alto. In this example, those are the only people you have pricing power over. And it’s very possible that those people don’t exist.

It is this very concept that finds itself creeping into our keyword research – and how we prospect potential markets for our clients and our own websites. When doing keyword research, we look at the current condition of the search result. In this given SERP, it is very possible that you are the British food of the market, because your little SERP is a very small sub-sect of a much bigger market that surrounds it.

This is an exploitation scenario that today, currently exists in many markets. This exploit scenario occurs where smaller businesses capture search share because of the big players that are currently incapable of moving quick enough to capture that search volume. These “big players” are the ones that also often fuel their ability to earn affiliate payouts and even exist in the vertical, or also, may even still be completely stuck in the physical realm.  However, when looking at a search result, this reality is rarely reflected in the “can we win this keyword” condition that often precipitates entry into that market.

This “current SERP condition” analysis is a misguided approach – the belief that current players will remain the only future players in the “small pool” market is a short sighted one, and the probability of “slow movers” eventually entering – and/or quickly dominating based on that entry – should be represented in future profitability potential when doing research and getting your feet wet in a new set of search results.

Your Market Lead Can (And Will) Evaporate

A good example of this concept at play is the search term [student car loans]. A niche term, one with some moderate value, but is currently not represented by any major players – that is, banks. An ignorant SEO would look at this vertical and think “well, I can definitely compete if I do SEO well, get an exact match, and have a nice private bank who buys my leads nationally”. While this might be true, and the keyword isn’t that difficult (50 PA average across top three results), if a bank suddenly decides to create a page optimized with that search term (like on [car loans]), their market dominance would quickly dissolve.

This “brand trigger”, in an idealistic scenario, will not find its way into these longer tail search results – and to an extent, it seems likely that will remain the case, because “brand” should only heavily occur when it is a identifying reprensetation of that keyword. “Student car loans”, here, obviously can not be represented by a singular financial institution. However, there are other brand efficiencies that will continually find their way into our search results – that is, the power of domain authority and ability to garner a massive clickthrough rate, which then informs rankings – that we must account for, or have our profits potentially be washed away without ever knowing what hit us.

Brands and SEO Buy-In

SEO buy-in from big business is growing every day. Great if you’re those companies, bad if you have niche sites that you’re looking to as cash cows to fuel your four hour work-weeks. This means that increasingly, these big, slow moving behemeoths are finally finding their way to the SEOMoz blog, reading about title tags, and doing the bare minimum to instantly capture hundreds of thousands of searches a month that is frequently the minimum needed to rank their authoritative monstrosities.

Undoubtedly, these small tweaks that took years to get buy-in for will let forth the dogs of war – success causing a ramp up in more SEO investment, bringing “big brands” like Geico, Lexus and Wells Fargo to look further than “Home | Wells Fargo” and instead invest in landers like [life insurance quotes], [luxury cars], and [home loans] as revenue driving keywords. While we have already seen the effects of the “first wave” of brand impact on our search results, we have only begun to see the second – which is the slow approach on our previously comfortable search positions on longer tail keywords.

Consientious Research Adjustment

The answer, then, is to be more cognizant of your true market size rather than the “market lies” you’ve created for yourself to justify the great opportunity you have ahead of yourself in the search results. Almost all of these “long tail” opportunities come from a smaller head, which you can then evaluate for the likelihood it – being the brand behemoth – moves to the long tail to evaporate your “small win” opportunities.

For an example, I’ve pulled from a vertical I have no association with, but know the powerful value of – credit cards.

Let’s look at the term “California car insurance”. It’s an obvious long tail version of “car insurance”, with decent volume (1900). All the name brands are paying for PPC – so you know that they see value in the keyword.

However, when you look at the SEO results, there is no major brand (being a major insurance provider), to be seen – just lead gen sites and etc – and a bunch of lead gen sites that are definitely happy about their rankings. However, at least as I see it, the sustainability here is not as exciting. At any given time, one of those major brands could enter here – because they see big value in the keyword.

It is important to note that the concept of a brand bidding on PPC = potential entrance into the SEO market is not an accurate one. There are some commonalities that come with the “brand” idea that also works to our advantage as smaller players – that is, the reality that they are still a brand. Certain keywords such as “cheap car insurance” are simply not things they want associated with their domain, and also, being a long, floppy SEO monster can also cause many higher ups to groan and not move on things like creating a dedicated lander for that keyword.

Because of this, the more “SEO” a keyword feels, the less likely it is that a major brand will build out their site to follow it – because of the subtely of that brand and how doing things wrong could potentially damage it. And to be sure, these are real concerns. If every user that comes to their site saw “this is for bad credit people”, it immediately evaporates any luxury brand connotation that comes with it – and luxury is a market that is extremely valuable to get in, because the margins it creates from that “luxury gap” is truly massive. And given that “brands” majority traffic comes direct, this is a concern they will and should account for.

Despite this, there are subtle ways these brands can and will move to a more organic search driven strategy. They can create microsites to alleviate these fears – they can dig them deep in architecture – and they can also be clever in how they target these terms in their optimization, simply so that they “show up” and then garner the massive benefit that comes from majority clickthrough and the SERP adjustment that probably comes with it. Also, the more money that comes through these channels at no cost, and the more “growth markets” begin to dry, the more upper-management will look to easy growth opportunities like mid to long tail organic to hit the quotas that press on them.

So, given that, how do we adapt as marketers who are trying to suck dry every bit of mid to long tail we can while the “big guys” are slow to gain root? We must account for it, and be extremely concsentious of it before attempting entry and/or projecting long term growth or stable ranking likelihood. Factors to account for include but are not limited to –

  • Are “brands” currently bidding on PPC and/or dominating all of paid search? This is a good sign that the potential they move to market at some point is somewhat high. The entire brand world sees it as a keyword worthy of being bid on and heavily competing for, so there is some chance that paid search  marketer communicates the value to a worthy decision maker at some point or it is otherwise discovered.
  • Is the keyword “on brand”? Many super long tail variations may simply fall off brand but still be capable of pulling in affiliate traffic that converts. Because of this, it’s unlikely that many brands will go after it immediately because of the brand damage they risk through that process. Microsites are possible, but those also lose some “brand efficiencies” that might not be feared as much to compete against, such as amazing domain authority or strong targeting that improves click-through rate.
  • What are these brands doing in the short tail? If you go to the short head of your vertical (such as [credit cards]) and sift through the results, is there any real SEO brand presence, or are they simply benefiting from amazing links that point to them with those anchors? “Sophisticated” brands, such as Bank of America, have a clear SEO intention (without being over-optimized) on their site. Other brands, such as Mastercard, simply luck into being on the first page because they should be there – but you would be remiss to fear them, because you are likely to die before they take up SEO on long tail keywords.
  • What is the proportional page authority and placement in site structure of “short tail” implementations? Some brands will have SEO pages beginning to get placed, but based on buy-in or simply bad implementation, they will get placed deep on a site or otherwise, will not have the amazing Page Authority to simply dominate and/or compete in comparison to your implementation. If and when these brands show up on your SERPs, will they have the “umph” to be able to quickly push up the search results?

Evaluating the static state of a keyword is a misguided proposition as an SEO, and it is not something that leads to amazing, long term business success for your company. Your goal as an SEO is to rank number one for high value keywords, then rank number one for the longest time possible, and then keep building that portfolio of number one rankings across a large plethora of websites and keyword sets. Naive SEO “ranks number one”, without assessment and aims towards sustainability. Amazing, wildly profitable SEO “ranks number one”, while also staying connected to the expectation that those rankings will persist until our kids’ kids graduate college.

I have no plans to leave my rankings – you shouldn’t either. Brands have enough money as it is.

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