Finding Low Competition Keywords That Matter

Cara Bowles    By under Keyword Research.

secret pathYou want to rank, right?

If you're like most bloggers, small businesses, or SEO agencies, chasing competitive keywords is a waste of time.

You need to find queries you actually stand a chance of turning up in search results for, and that means finding low competition topics to cover.

So here's the problem. Most of the advice out there about how to actually accomplish this is terrible (at least in isolation). Advice like this:

  • Check how many search results Google lists for your exact keyword phrase (and throw in "allintitle," "intitle," "inanchor," or "inurl" if you like)
  • Use a keyword tool that automatically analyzes the SERPs to identify those perfect keywords with just the right combination of traffic and low competition
  • Analyze the competitors on the front page based on the number of backlinks, whether or not they are using keywords in the title and subheadings, their toolbar PageRank, etc.

Now, when I say this advice is "terrible," I'm not saying that you should never do any of this. Instead, what I'm saying is this:

That is not a strategy for finding low competition keywords.

That is a strategy for wasting time by checking keyword after keyword for months until you randomly discover one that works. In the case of the keyword tools designed to help you find low competition keywords, guess what? All the other SEOs are using the same tools, and they're eventually going to find the same low competition keywords, and swamp you with them.

Want to learn what it really takes to find low competition keywords that actually matter?

Read on.

Your Exact Match Statistics Are a Joke

This is a harsh lesson, but it's one you need to learn before I move on and talk about how to actually find low competition keywords.

Some SEOs seem to believe that if you do an exact match search in Google and look at the number of search results, that this actually tells you something meaningful about the competition. They argue that if the number of exact match search results is below some magic number, you will stand a chance of ranking for it.

Others might add that you should use the "allintitle" command, "inurl," "inanchor," or something similar, because this will tell you how many other "optimized" pages are in the search results.

This is all nonsense.

You aren't competing with the 5,000 to 1 billion or whatever search results that Google says are indexed for that query. You are competing for a place on the front page. If it has a lot of traffic, maybe a place on the second page. The number of competitors tells you absolutely nothing about how competitive the first and second pages are.

The same goes for the number of competitors who are using the keyword in titles, anchor texts, etc. Sure, this gives you a good idea of how many SEOs you're competing with, but most of these "competitors" are doing themselves more harm than good. Don't analyze the competition based on some hypothetical assumptions about what works in the search engines. Analyze the competition by looking at the pages that actually rank well for that query.

Recognize that Google does not return search results because they are "exact match." If a page turns up in the top position and it uses a completely different phrase, that doesn't mean it's "low relevance." Look at what the page is about. If it answers the searcher's query, it's high relevance. And Google is getting better at this every day.

Google's Keyword Planner is a rough estimate at best. If you're doing SEO properly, you're going to rank for a lot more than the exact phrase in the keyword planner. My most successful pages pull in several times more traffic than is listed in the keyword planner for the specific keyword they are supposedly targeting. All the SEO "experts" seem to think I should be seeing less, since of course not everybody clicks when they see a page listed in the search results. Yes, long tail queries matter.

The requirement that this exact match traffic needs to exceed 1,000 per month is a joke.

One more thing before I move on.

There's no such thing as a universal ranking. Search results are different depending on your IP, your location, the Google server you happen to connect to, other forms of personalization, and random second order effects that even Google's employees likely don't understand. That is why Google webmaster tools says "average position" when it tells you about your rankings.

Now that that's out of the way, let's talk about how to really find low competition keywords.

Your Ideas Won't Come From a Keyword Tool

Most keyword strategies you come across will suggest that you plug some broad keyword like "SEO" into either Google's Keyword Planner or a different keyword tool, and then browse through the recommendations until you find something with a decent amount of traffic and low competition in the search results. With the right keyword tool, much of this becomes automated.

This approach is fundamentally flawed.

While it can be useful as a way of identifying "core keywords" (which are usually single word queries or broad phrases), which should really just be thought of as general topics to tie your whole site together, it's a terrible way to find granular topics for specific landing pages or blog posts.

None of my most successful pages were created based on topics that I discovered by using this method.

The truth is, the recommendations you find are rarely original or unique enough. I have occasionally stumbled across a recommendation that was helpful, but only after typing in a keyword that was already unique to begin with.

The majority of my most successful pages were based on a keyword that I typed directly into the keyword planner to see if it had any traction, without even looking at the suggestions.

Sometimes, the things that don't show up in the keyword planner are downright strange.

An example. Here's what I get if I try putting "youtube views" into the Keyword Planner, sorted by most traffic:

low competition keywords

Guess what's completely missing from the suggestions, and only turns up if I try putting it into the tool directly?

low competition keywords 2

That's right. "Get twitter followers" turns up as a recommendation, but "how to get more views on youtube," which is just as popular, and more relevant, does not show up as a recommendation.

Incidentally, this long winded alternative is just as popular as "youtube views":

low competition keywords 3

It took me literally 2 minutes to find this example. This is the rule, not the exception.

If queries this relevant to the query and this popular aren't turning up, just imagine how many more original queries you're missing.

If you want to discover hidden opportunities like this, you need to forget the recommendations and just start trying queries. Type full questions into the Keyword Planner, as though you were doing a Google search yourself.

More importantly, don't just try random variations on the same query. You want to try searching for truly original queries, and that means branching out a bit.

Now, it might seem like a cop out to just say "try putting more original queries into the keyword planner," so here are a few pointers about where to get ideas, besides the keyword tool:

  • Get inspiration from Google Correlate. The recommendations there are much broader, and you're more likely to discover a whole new topic
  • Try reading, or at least browsing, a book on the subject. I'm serious. You will arrive at questions you wouldn't otherwise come to.
  • Pay attention to the kinds of questions that are getting asked in the forums, especially the ones that seem to get asked again and again.
  • Likewise, take a look at Quora and Yahoo! Answers.
  • Look at the more academic side of your subject. Try Google Scholar. You will likely find jargon and approaches to the subject that you otherwise wouldn't, which can lead to different kinds of query opportunities.
  • On the flip side, put yourself in the shoes of a searcher who doesn't know anything about the jargon and specifics of your field, and think about the kinds of questions they would be asking.
  • Look for a book on your topic in Amazon, and look at their recommendations for other books to buy.
  • Read outside of your space, and look for interesting parallels.

Evaluating the Competition

Now that you have a strategy for finding more unique topic opportunities, we need to talk about how to evaluate the competition. Looking at the number of search results, even with qualifiers like "intitle," is essentially a waste of time.

Here are a few pointers:

  • Keep in mind that there is no such thing as a universal search result. I advise doing a search for your query in a private browsing window in order to strip away any personalization, but keep in mind that most people will be seeing personalized search results.
  • The most important question to ask is whether or not it's possible for you to put something together that is genuinely more useful for the searcher than anything else on the front page. If you can't, it probably isn't worth pursuing. User behavior is a much stronger ranking factor than it was in the past, and results that aren't satisfying to users will tend to gradually drop off of the front page if they ever make it there in the first place.
  • Don't place too much emphasis on SEO metrics, including toolbar PageRank. Ahrefs URL Rank and Moz Page Authority actually correlate closer with search engine rankings than toolbar PageRank does. The same goes for other metrics like the number of links, etc. Look at the URL Rank or Page Authority of your typical blog post, and compare it to what you see on the front page. If it's reasonably close, it's worth pursuing. Bear in mind that Google does not strictly organize search results by these metrics (in fact it doesn't even use them), so don't place too much stake in them.
  • If you see a lot of forum posts, Q&A results, article stubs, and similar results on the front page, this is a good sign that you can rank.
  • If you're writing blog posts, avoid targeting any topic where the front page results are ecommerce sites or sales landing pages.
  • If you're putting together a landing page, avoid targeting any topics where the front page results are blog posts or media, unless the query obviously indicates that the searcher is looking for something to buy.

Skillful keyword research requires full use of both the intuitive and analytical parts of the brain. Relying excessively on SEO metrics, and more-so, on keyword recommendations, will be your downfall. Focus your efforts on finding unique opportunities.

Image credit: Garrett Coakley