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How hard is the competition for your key word or phrase?
You have two kinds of SERPS to beat, I call them Design SERPS and Coincidence SERPS.
Design SERPS (Search Engine Results PageS) are pages optimised for the specific search term in question, in a manner probably not dissimilar to that outlined in my SEO template page.
Coincidence SERPS are pages that have the key word or phrase in the right order present somewhere in the page, not this time by design but simply by coincidence. If they're from sites that are more highly regarded by the engines than yours, they can still be beating your page even if it's optimised and theirs isn't - like I say, they just rank where they do for that term largely through coincidence.
You still have to beat them though. It's no good being on page ten of the results even if your page specifically optimised for the term "seo competition" thoroughly beats out all the other pages specifically optimised for "seo competition", not if potential clients still can't easily find it.
You may well want to assess the keyword density of the successfully optimised pages. I don't myself, but I do make a point of sticking to one phrase per page and placing it prominently in the page title, header tags, alt attributes, internal anchor text and the outgoing link text from that page. I don't believe there is a fixed keyword density you should be aiming for, so you may as well simply write what feels comfortable and reads well.
You'll need also to be assessing the number and quality of inbound links to the site (and to the page in particular, if any) and specifically which terms are contained in the anchor text of those links. What you're looking for is a good number of IBLs (InBound Links) that include your main phrase and variations of your main phrase in the anchor text. By checking the backlinks of the top ten of the competition, you can gain some idea of how strong a link campaign will be needed to beat them.
While you're doing that last, you may well find sites that will help with this as they'll be perfectly happy to link to your site too.
If you are to take both kinds of SERPS into account, how do you determine between the two? Simple. In Google, try doing a search for
without cedillas or speech marks, and then try doing a search for the same term but this time with "" (rabbit's ears?:-) like so
The pages returned for "seo competition" will be the pages specifically optimised for the term. Check out the headers, the title, and do a backlink check and see what the anchor text is in the majority of the links.
In all probability there'll be a fair few. However, there'll inevitably be a whole lot more pages returned for the plain vanilla term,
and a cursory examination will reveal that the bulk of these pages have no particular relevance to the search term itself, they just happen to be on highly-ranked pages so they turn up higher in the returned search results pages.
But, and this is a big and pertinent but, but they are still your competition, and you do have to beat them. Your client won't understand or care about the difference between the two SERPS, all they'll understand is that their site isn't showing up in the first page of the returned results.
So, your real competition can't be defined by numbers or quantified mathematically, it's the pages that stop you from putting your client's pages where they want to see them. This means that they'll vary hugely from case to case; there's really no predicting just what will be the exact nature of your seo competition.
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