Using Search Results for SEO

By Dave McAnally, Natural Search Specialist

After reading Jeff’s post yesterday on identifying online competitors and formulating what criteria the engine algo’s use for top rank factors, I wanted to expand on the latter portion with a few specifics.

People spend a lot of time talking about the various tools of the trade one can use to get a leg up on competitors. I've already waxed poetic about how web analytics can be used for SEO. These tools are certainly valid, but it's funny how we often overlook one of the most telling resources of all: the search results themselves. You see, SERPs (search engine result pages) aren't all created equal. Some results are the result of fanatical black hat tactics (Ex: Buy Viagra) and others are very much White Hat. Certain factors seem to weigh heavier than others. But ultimately, knowing how the SERPs of queries you are targeting are put together is a very powerful metric. There's no better way to identify where to focus efforts than to stack your current website up against the websites they intend to displace in the search result. After all, that's where the rubber hits the road right?

The following are some ways to use the SERPs (usually Google, and sticking to the top 5 results) to determine how your website stacks up against the winners of targeted keywords:

  • Age of sites. How old are the sites you are competing with? Domain Tools and Archive.org are good resources to uncover this information. You may find that sites you are looking to displace are ancient and you're the new kid on the block. If so, establishing trust in an engine may be an important strategy.
  • Inbound links. This is an obvious one, but we should look at it. Are the sites that win for the terms you are winning on more popular than yours? If so, this should inform your tactical strategies.
  • Are there keywords in the domain? Is your domain going to be an advantage or disadvantage for terms you wish to win on?
  • Text on Page. I would say take this with a grain of salt, but ultimately, content is king (I KNOW I've heard that somewhere....). Look at how the landing pages that win are populated with content. Granted the words in and of themselves aren't an end-all-be-all answer, but it's a place to start digging.
  • How many pages on those domains does Google know about? Doing a site operator (Site:www.site.com) is a great way to tell how big your site is compared to the ones you wish to outrank (according to the engines). If you're seeing a pattern across the board of your site being larger or smaller, this can also inform what tactical steps should be taken.
  • Average Google Pagerank. Is Pagerank relevant? Well it certainly isn't an end-all be-all of winning, but it definitely helps you get a feel of how 'important' your site is compared to the ones you wish to outrank. Obviously the result of this study can either be good or bad news, but all in all, it's a good thing to look at when comparing a sample space.
  • Do the pages that win have keywords in the title tag? If they don't, you've got some real quick-win opportunities to get a leg up on these sites (factoring in everything else). Almost all search results I come across have it there, but you can definitely cross compare terms to see how competitive that top space is with this metric. Having the keywords you are targeting in your title tag is a fundamental principle of good SEO, so if you AREN'T seeing them, you may have stumbled on a term people aren't competing for.
  • What do the URLs look like? Are they huge and loaded with parameters? Are they optimized specifically for the query they win on? Or are they somewhere in the middle? This can be a great way to establish a benchmark for how URLs SHOULD look if you're seeing lots of optimization happening here.
There are certainly additional parameters to consider, but I wanted to point out some powerful data points anyone could grab with minimal effort. Remember, competitors are the people who win on the terms we want to win on. Knowing what makes them tick is an awesome weapon to have in your arsenal.

2 comments:

Vinay said...

Dave,

Very interesting post, indeed I ran through you previous post on Web Analytics for SEO. Thanks for sharing your insight.

I wanted to know if "Are there keywords in the domain?" is mandatory if you want to rank well in search engines?

I do understand about the other factors but sometimes you just don't get the domain name (with keywords) you want and you end up going with one that un-fortunately doesn't have the keyword.

But again, if the other factors are optimized properly don't you think the keyword in domain factor can be ignored or do search engines still prefer domains with keyword in them to rank higher?

Cheers,
Vinay

Dave McAnally said...

Totally, this isn't an all-or-nothing list...just indicators of what types of things could be influencing why rankings look they way they do. Nothing is a silver bullet. However, if you are trying to displace websites that all sport domains with the keyword in question in them, it's one area where you're behind. However, it's absolutely untrue that that is a dealbreaker. We outrank sites that have much more optimized domains simply because there are so many other factors involved generating traction.

 
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