SEO: High Competition vs. Backlinks

October 31st, 2012 Posted by Local SEO, Website Engineering 5,551 comments

This article could be titled “Analyzing how hard it may be to rank in Google’s page 1″.

When analyzing how hard we can expect it to be to rank a site in Google’s Page 1, we have to gauge the competition for our keywords of choice.

People who do not specialize in SEO are sometimes confused by the ‘Competition’ column displayed by Google in its Adwords Keyword Tool. They think ‘high competition’ means highly difficult to rank high in the natural search results. It’s not always the case, however.

Wheh Google’s Keyword Tool indicates there is ‘High competition’  on a keyword, it means that vendors/suppliers are bidding top dollar to get clicks and leads.

Google uses this ‘Competition’ term in relation to pay-per-click search (or “paid search”).

Does it also apply to “natural search” (organic search results)?

Yes and no.

High competition is an indication of the money the vendors are ready to pay to acquire a prospect/lead. It’s not a reliable of the money spent in SEO. Natural search results do not match paid search results. To rank high in the natural search results, you have to SEO your site. Whether or not you also pay high dollars to be at the top of the Adwords column has nothing to do with the SEO of your site.

Google does not base its natural results on the money advertisers spend on Adwords.

Naturally, high competition means high demand. When supply is OK to pay dearly to acquire a lead, the market is hot. In such a market, we can expect a long SEO campaign to rank (durably) high in the natural search results on ‘highly competitive’ keywords .

Yet, it’s not always the case.

Certain industries (or some actors within certain industries) are not very concerned about SEO. Their decision-makers think SEO is a waste of money: they mostly use paid search.

Such is the case for instance with major insurance carriers. They focus on paid search because it’s the easiest and quickest way to get leads. Easier and quicker than competing on multiple insurance keywords against each other (e.g. AllState vs. Geico vs. Farmers) and against the myriad of smaller local players (insurance agents and brokers) who do run SEO campaigns to rank their sites high in the organic search results for specific terms.

Beside the ‘quick and dirty’ facet of the bidding war, I surmise big insurers prefer to let their agents and brokers dominate the search results because they know Google will skew the to favor local players: insurance is still a “local oriented” business as a good percentage of John Does prefer to call an insurance agent they know personally rather than having to talk to an impersonal hotline when they wreck their cars. As Google geo-targets its natural results, you can expect to find a good percentage of local agents/brokers in the results page for any insurance keyword combination.

In such situations, Google’s search results present a diversified mix of vendors: small and big businesses. Not just the big guys.

In my experience, the most reliable way to determine how difficult it will be to rank a site at the top of the natural search results remains to do a backlink check.

Use this tool:


To make it efficient, don’t run a backlink check on all top 10 results on all your keywords.

1- Select a small cloud of keywords based on the Adwords Tool analysis of local and global demand (take the “Competition” column as a valuable indicator), and also (very very important) on the basis of your “long tail”.

[A friend of mine shot a couple of videos of me teaching classes on the meaning of ‘long tail’ and ‘long tail keywords’. I’ll post the links later.]

2- Take the top 3 dogs in Page 1. Run a backlink check. Don’t run the check if these are obvious players: CNN is an obvious player. A .gov site is an obvious player. Wikipedia is an obvious player. Universities are obvious players. Analyze the top 3 players that are not downright obvious.

3- Take the last 2 results in Page 1 and run a backlink check.

4- Compare the figures:

a- Is there a big difference between the link numbers at the top and the link numbers at the bottom? (E.g., 2-3-4 times more links at the top than at the bottom when the average number of links exceeds 500)

If you observe a very large difference, link number is a determining factor in the rankings. In this case, ask yourself: do we have a chance beat the #9 and the #10 results?

b- Is there big differences in link numbers between each site of the 2 groups — top group and bottom group. (E.g. #1 has 20,000 links, #2 has 600 links. And #9 has 150 links, #10 has 50 links.)

If you observe big differences in link numbers between sites in each group (again, compare the sites within a group, not the 2 groups together), link numbers are not the only important ranking factor. In this case, ask yourself: do we have a chance to beat #3 or #2? (The order of magnitude of the link numbers will also tell you how difficult this will be).

c- Is there a relatively even distribution of links between the top results and the bottom results in page 1? (E.g. #1 has 1000 links, #2 has 1300 links, #3 has 900 links, #9 has 400 links, #10 has 540 links.)

In this fake example, you can see that the number of links is not the only factor (it’s a very common case). Link quality plays a strong role — otherwise, #2 would be #1, and #10 would be #9.

More importantly, you see that there is a relatively natural decrease in the link numbers between the top and bottom results. This indicates that link numbers are the prime factor in SEOing for this page.

Our next question is: “How hard will it be to reach the number of links necessary to beat #10?” And of course, link quality will really be important to beat all these sites.

Run this procedure when you decide which keywords to rank for, especially on “short tail” keywords (high demand KW, usually expressed in very few words).

This is usually less important for “long tail” keywords (low demand, super-specialized keywords, sometimes expressed in very few words, sometimes in longer chains of keywords).


To your success!

Phil Chavanne


Copyright (c) 2012 Phil Chavanne – Author