SEO Keyword Research – Should Competition Ever be A Consideration?

In the words of La Whitney Houston “I’m asking you ‘cos you know about these things.”

In the general course of business, I will ask clients, trainees and others how they currently approach keyword research and am told time and again that level of competition is a key consideration; and that choosing less competitive keywords means you can rank highly, easily.

I take issue with this.

I can not see why competition (and to be clear I’m talking about the level of competition not specific competitor research) should ever be a consideration in term selection. Surely competition is an environmental factor outside of our control? It is nice to have insight to the level of competition only insofar as it can inform our rate of progress against objectives; however I’m yet to come up against a keyword research project where this should inform consideration to term selection.

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To my mind the practise of optimising a website in the persuit of greater, more relevent traffic is itself a competition. Sure, the rain makes the going harder, but it never stops play.

Keyword Research Considerations

My core considerations in research and selection of keywords are around the following;

  • Relevence to page/product on page etc
  • Does term(s) used on page fit with user search habits and understanding of page/product
  • Propensity to convert
  • External factors, significant trends (e.g. noun becomes verb and other shifts in common parlance)
  • All of the above feeding into the other

Where Does the “Competition Consideration” Come From?

I suspect that the competition consideration is possibly rooted in good advice elsewhere in search that has been misattributed to organic keyword selection.

As an example I can understand why, when seeking to identify an affiliate business opportunity that would require (comparatively) little investment, seeking a niche business sector that is yet to be optimised should naturally lead to low levels of competition on componant terms in that niche.

In the main, I suspect this red herring comes from an over-reliance and misunderstanding of the Google Adwords Tool.

What Am I Missing?

The above case is a very one-dimensional picture, and in every other aspect of search engine optimisation practise, I endeavour to vary approach from site to site, sector to sector – which is why this troubles me. What am I missing? Are there instances when level of competition on a term should be considered?

About Nichola Stott

Nichola Stott is owner and co-founder of theMediaFlow; online revenue optimisation and audience services (including SEO, SEM and SMM). Prior to founding theMediaFlow, Nichola spent four years at Yahoo! as head of UK commercial search partners.

12 thoughts on “SEO Keyword Research – Should Competition Ever be A Consideration?

  1. Speaking for myself, I always do competitive analysis on keywords to see who ranks for them, and how they rank for it. That usually gives me a good idea of how much effort will be involved to get my client to rank well for those keywords. And often it’ll turn out that the most relevant keywords will take more effort – i.e. money – than the client is willing or able to pay.

    Hence the shift in focus to less competitive keywords. It’s about feasibility (as I’ve described here:

      1. Why select super competitive terms for a client if the site is relatively new and you know they don’t have the budget to compete?

        1. Gareth – if I had a prospect in payday loans, casino, car insurance whatever; and they didn’t have the budget to play in that space then there’s no way I’d take on such a badly prepared business.

      2. I don’t know about you Nichola, but if a prospective client doesn’t have the resources to get to rank for ‘compare car insurance’ but does have the money to get to rank for ‘low price car insurance’, I’m not turning them away. šŸ™‚ There’s money to be made in the long tail, lots of it.

        1. Ha ha! No, that’s not what I mean. If they need budget for whatever the terms are and they don’t have the required budget for whatever those terms are, then we can’t play. Sure there’s money in the long tail. Not sure I’d put “low price car insurance” in the long tail though, certainly the high end of mid.

          There’s an amusing tail related blog post in there somewhere I’m sure.

  2. I would say yes, you should consider your competition and what they are doing. You should also consider however what kind of leads you’re likely to receive as you will need to deliver on the leads you get.

    Certain words will receive bigger leads than others; this must be remembered!

  3. Hi Nichola,

    So one thing that I think you are missing (and I miss it a lot myself) is the consideration of small and local businesses rather than start-ups or big players. When I do keyword research for a smaller client (local business, brand new site) I like to provide them with the “long term goal” terms as well as the terms for which they could realistically compete for in the short term.

    It’s definitely best to be competitive and to “go big or go home” to a certain degree but some people just can’t expect to do so and they still need good SEO advice. I almost always forget about these sorts of projects/requirements given the nature of the types of clients I’m currently working with but a recent freelance client has made this painfully aware.

    As Barry put it – there is still money in the long term – and if I think my new site can possibly rank for “foreign exchange trading” but not for “forex” I think these terms are semantically relevant enough that you can provide advice both for the short and long term and it’s important to set goals that will provide a return on investment in the short term whilst chasing something bigger in the long run.

    If the budget and ambition is there (as well as the understanding that results won’t come quickly) then I’m with you all the way, but for some smaller and local focussed SEOs I think competition is dead important for keyword selection.

    Just my two cents and certainly appreciate your viewpoint/response – just wanted to share a recent experience I had that made me realise how easily I forget about small business and local SEO.


    1. Sam – that’s it – you’ve nailed it. I was genuinely wanting to know what I was missing or overlooking. Your line “I almost always forget about these sorts of projects/requirements given the nature of the types of clients Iā€™m currently working with” – is exactly where I’m at. I’m a small biz, with medium sized clients that are all national to international audience, so it is genuinely useful to ping stuff around the community like this and share from others’ experience.

      Cheers mate!

  4. With start-ups and new sites is the lack of analytics data. Doing keyword research based purely in search volumes isn’t enough and can be misleading. Using analytics data from other clients within the same market/vertical/niche can give an idea of which keywords would be worth pursuing. There is nothing more frustrating than going after a long tail term for 6 months and later realise that traffic (or more critically number of conversions) is very low.

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