SEO BearYou’ve probably heard this joke before: Two hikers walking through the woods come across a hungry bear. One of the hikers immediately drops to his knees and pulls a pair of sneakers out of his backpack. As he quickly removes his hiking boots in favor of the running shoes, his companion says, “There is no way you’re going to outrun that bear!” The hiker responds, “I don’t have to outrun the bear. I only have to outrun you.”

That’s not unlike how it works with search engine optimization (SEO). You don’t necessarily need to outrank Wikipedia for a particular search term. You only need to outrank your competition.

This, of course begs the question, “Who is your competition?”

Defining SEO Competition

We need to define the word “competition” because it has dual meanings in the context of SEO. There are business competitors and there are keyword competitors. Business competitors are obvious. They’re the ones you’re fighting against to gain customers. But keyword competitors might also be business competitors, but they may also be partners or even your own customers!

The whole goal of SEO is to show up at the top of the organic search results for certain keywords. Therefore, any other website that ranks above yours is technically a competitor. If you are a manufacturer who uses distributors to sell your products, then you will be in competition with them for many of the same keywords, including your own brand name.

Measuring SEO Competition

The next step in escaping the bear is to find out who your fellow hikers are. To do this, your best bet is to use a keyword difficulty tool like the one from SEOMoz. It’s currently not available to the public, so the next best thing is to just go ahead and perform a Google search. However! Be sure that you do it in a private browser session like Chrome’s incognito mode or Firefox’s private browsing mode. The reason for this is that it will minimize the amount of personalization that Google applies to your search results.

In the screen shot below, I tested “Manchester nh electricians” using SEOMoz’s keyword difficulty tool. It returns the top ten list of ranking sites and you can see that only three of them appear to be electrical contractors. I’ve blurred out the names so that I’m not either promoting or embarrassing them (even though you can just as easily do this yourself). The rest of them are directories and review sites.

Measuring SEO Keyword Competition

If you’re one of these three contractors, you don’t necessarily need to beat the Better Business Bureau (the bear), but you sure do want to beat the other two guys (the hikers). The next step is to see how fast we need to run in order to outrun them.

Outrunning the SEO Competition

Once you’ve identified your competition, you can use a tool like Open Site Explorer to find out how you stack up. Using the three electricians from our previous example, we can find out how they rank against one another:

Measuring Seo Competition

This picture shows us a common scenario for small, local businesses: There’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that your site sucks at SEO. The good news is that so does everyone else. In our example, all three electricians have very low domain authority. The top dog is ranking best among them likely because they have the most number of external links and C blocks.

Having said that, the bar is set very low for this keyword! Any decent back linking effort should be able to obtain links from 12 domains in just a few hours’ work. Just think how much distance could be created by a sustained content marketing and social media campaign.

Image credit: “Drawing a picture of me punching a bear” courtesy of Slapperfish on deviantART