There are many companies that wrongly assume that:

If competitors with a huge marketing budget already rank for many keywords in their space, they have no shot in organic search.

There are a few reasons why they have this defeatist view of SEO:

  1. They assume that bigger budgets mean better results
  2. They assume it’s nearly impossible to compete with sites that have tons of backlinks and high domain ratings
  3. Many of them have tried “SEO” and have seen little results so they assume it doesn’t work for them

These assumptions, and the conclusion that if you are an underdog in SEO (you have a new domain or few backlinks) you have little hope of success, is false.

In our client work, we’ve successfully ranked many smaller, newer sites for valuable keywords that generate qualified leads.

In this article, we’re going to share our “Underdog SEO” strategy that we use to help underdogs in various categories compete for rankings with the “big guys.”

What is Underdog SEO? It involves

  1. Being more strategic in the keywords you target
  2. Crafting individual pieces of content to match the search intent of each keyword

Below, we’ll discuss those two principles in turn. Then at the end we’ll discuss an optional tactic of strategic, low-volume link building that can further speed up results.

Principle #1: Be more strategic in what keywords you target

The Mistake

The biggest SEO mistake we see companies make is: spending all of their time, money and resources on only targeting 1-3 category keywords. They have this (false) view that those are the only terms worth ranking for, and if they don’t rank for them, they think their SEO program isn’t working (or has no potential to drive ROI).

For example:

  • A hosting company spending all of their effort trying to rank for “web hosting”
  • A content marketing agency like us focusing all of their effort trying to rank for “content marketing agency”
  • A CRM tool trying to rank for the term “CRM software”

You may read this and think “Well what’s wrong with that? Those keywords do sound valuable.”  Don’t get us wrong, all three of those keywords have great buying intent, and are therefore totally in line with our bottom of funnel focused strategy – we would go after them at some point as well.

But underdogs shouldn’t go after these terms immediately, and certainly not exclusively as we’ve seen many do. That is the mistake.

Specifically, the companies ranking for these sorts of category-definition keywords usually have extremely strong domains, are well-known brands in the category, have spent tens of thousands of dollars to own and protect those keywords (mostly through building a ton of links to the ranking page), have more money to spend on content and SEO, and have spent years trying to rank for these terms.

If you’re an underdog trying to compete with industry leaders for those head terms, it’s going to be a huge uphill battle. You’ll likely spend a lot more time and money than you need to start getting real results (i.e. leads and sales) from SEO– and if this is your entire SEO strategy and it doesn’t work (or takes forever to rank), you’ll get disheartened and wrongly conclude “SEO isn’t for us”.

Solution: More specific keywords that tie to product differentiators

In contrast to that approach, our Underdog SEO strategy says that these companies should go after longer tail, high-intent keywords first, then move your way up the funnel as time goes on and your domain authority builds.

Specifically, look for keywords that map to a competitive advantage that your product/service has over your competition, i.e. follow the specificity strategy.

Here are two examples:

The Client: A QA testing platform whose differentiator is that you can build automated QA tests for apps and websites without touching a line of code.

  • What we didn’t target immediately: “qa testing”
  • What we targeted instead: “automated web application testing”, “codeless test automation”
  • Why: Their strength is that their tool is codeless, so anyone who enters that qualifier into Google is looking specifically for something like their tool. That’s extremely high buying intent. As for “automated web application testing”, it’s not as specifically tied to a unique feature like “codeless” but it’s a good example of a longer tail keyword than just “QA testing” and our client’s platform is really well suited for web application testing, and does shine in building automated tests, so it’s also a great example of underdog SEO in action.

The Client: A helpdesk software made for businesses that are fielding support requests via email.

  • What we didn’t target immediately: “help desk software” (this is way too competitive with sites like Zendesk, Helpscout and Helpdesk owning the serp).
  • What we targeted instead: “self-hosted help desk,” “customer service email management software”
  • Why: They’re one of the only solutions that can support a self-hosted, on-premise solution for help desk software. Therefore, it’s a competitive advantage that the large companies aren’t competing for in the search results. They also mainly help companies that take customer support requests through email and have a hard time managing all of the requests– therefore these terms are much less competitive and easier to rank for when there’s a ton of large funded startups in the help desk space.

This is the foundational principle behind Underdog SEO and it works. For example, here is a Twitter thread showing our rankings for the QA software company that we mentioned above:


You can see more keywords in the screenshot from Twitter than those discussed above. All of these keywords are far more specific than just going after a category definition term like “QA testing software”. This list is only showing ranking in the top 1, 2, and 3 positions, there are even more keywords for which we’re ranking elsewhere on page 1.

And what’s most important, and foundational to our strategy, is these keywords all have high purchase intent. If you sell codeless, visual, automated QA testing software for websites and mobile apps, like Rainforest does, people who are Googling for those exact things (via the terms in that tweet above) are the exact audience you want to get in front of. They don’t need to be made “problem aware” or “solution aware”. They don’t need to be “educated” about the space. They don’t need to be “dripped” content on an email list for months. The fact that they are Googling these terms tells you they are actively looking for a solution like yours right now. They are ready to buy.

Further reading: How to Create a SaaS Content Strategy That Drives Product Signups

Principle #2: Create a unique piece of content or page for each keyword you’re targeting

The Mistake

On top of the problem with keyword strategy for underdogs, there’s also usually a content problem: Companies try to get a few pages on their site to rank for all of the keywords they’re targeting.

Backing up, from our experience, this is how this problem originates: Companies work with some SEO vendor or consultant that does an audit of their website, tries to do some small technical fixes, and picks some keywords they should target (including mostly the super competitive category definition keywords discussed above). Then, this SEO vendor tries to optimize a few existing marketing site pages (the homepage, solutions pages, etc.) around these keywords, and often recommend you spend your SEO budget on link building to try to get those pages to rank.

This is often because most SEO vendors don’t specialize in producing unique content to rank for keywords, they focus on optimizing the site you already have.

For example, before working with us, one of our clients had hired three different SEO vendors to try to get their site to rank for valuable keywords. As you can see below, they did a decent job on Principle #1 – they were going after more than just one or two category keywords, but they were using a only few pages (their homepage, some feature pages, and a couple of blog posts) to try to rank for their target keywords. Very few of these pages were actually optimized for each target keyword!

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Look at what the homepage is trying to rank for above:

  • time clock app
  • online time clock
  • employee time tracking
  • online time and attendance.

These keywords all have different search intents! If you look at what’s ranking on page 1 of those keywords, you see a bunch of different posts. So there’s almost no way to get their homepage (where it’s particularly hard to add extra text for SEO purposes) to rank for all of those keywords.

This was true of other pages as well, even blog posts. A single blog post would be created with a title like “10 tips for helping employees do…” and it would be listed on the spreadsheet as the page meant to rank for a bunch of keywords that, for starters, were not included in the title but more importantly had search intent that was not satisfied by the body of the post, even if the keywords themselves were added multiple times in the post.

This is a really common mistake that we’ve seen many companies make.

The Solution

Instead you need to create specific pages for each keyword that you’re trying to target because the search intent of most keywords are unique. So if you want to give yourself the best chance of ranking for each of your target keywords, a specific page should be created for each.

Does that mean a lot of work? Yes. But good SEO takes work. If it were easy to rank for high conversion rate keywords, everyone would do it.

How do you create these keyword-tailored pages and what should go on it? We have an in-depth article that specifically answers this:

SEO Content Writing: A 5-Step Process You Can Follow.

But, in short, the key is carefully analyzing what’s already ranking on page 1, using that to really understand what the different layers of intent are behind that search query, and writing a single article (or creating a single page) aimed at nothing else besides satisfying all the different layers and nuances of that keyword’s search intent.

For example, in that article above, Cam Brown from our team includes an example of ranking for “paid search dashboard” for our client TapClicks:

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And he notes how there are multiple layers to this term’s search intent, which he gleans from what’s already ranking on page 1: people want a definition, they want templates, and they want to see products that can do this.

Again, you can (and should) read the whole post here, but as per this principle note what wouldn’t work to rank for this: the TapClicks.com homepage! There’s basically no chance we are going to be able to modify their homepage to include all the different parts of the search intent of this keyword. So we created a blog post instead, which as of this writing is ranking #1 for that term.

Aside: The vast majority of conversions we generate for clients come when posts rank in the top 3 spots for their target keywords. So even if you slap the target keyword onto an existing page in hopes it could rank, you may get onto the top two pages of Google, or even the bottom half of page one, but in our experience, it will be hard to get into the top 3 spots. So, you’ll still be missing out on the bulk of potential conversions.

Common Objection: But won’t blog posts convert less?

A common worry at this point is that blog posts may convert less well than the homepage or product or solution pages. But in our experience, this is not true. We discuss this at length in  another article on landing pages vs. blog posts, but the simple reason is that the blog posts we write for these underdog SEO keywords heavily sell the product.

Most people think of “blog posts” as exclusively top of the funnel content because that’s what they are used to doing with blog posts (again read this and this for arguments on why we think is not a good idea).

But in our case, the blog posts we create to go after these keywords are still heavily product focused because these keywords are heavily product focused! As a result, they convert well, because the majority of the post sells the product. So if you do a good job of selling your product in the post, as per the landing pages vs. blog posts article we wrote, you can see conversion rates equal to or often higher than marketing site pages.

Optional Bonus: Build links to these pages

Lastly, once you’ve focused on the right long-tail buying intent keywords, and you’ve created unique content for each of the keywords you’re targeting, building links to each of the posts that you’ve created will help speed up how quickly the pages rank.

People often have the misconception that they’ll need to build tens or hundreds of links to their site in order to get their articles to rank, however, we haven’t found this to be true.

Because the strategy outlined here focuses on targeting specific keywords and creating an article targeting that specific term, oftentimes we’ll see that only building a few links to these pieces will get them to rank on the first page. (Or, in many cases, our articles have ranked well without any intentional links built.)

This is true if you have a decent domain rating (30+). If you have less than a DR of ~30, then we often focus first on building authority to site via PR link building as part of the beginning of an engagement with a client and then following that up with individual links to the articles we publish.

We share more about our specific link building strategies and how we execute on them in our course.

To see how long it takes to achieve rankings on the first page, we published this article How Long Does It Take to Rank on the First Page of Google?

Want to work with us or learn more about how we approach content marketing?

  • Our Agency: If you want to hire us to execute content marketing in this way, you can learn more about working with us here.
  • Join Our Team: If you’re a content marketer or writer and would love to do content marketing in this way, we’d love to have you apply to join our team.
  • Our Content Marketing Course: Individuals looking to learn our agency’s content strategy and become better marketers, consultants, or business owners can join our private course, taught via case studies, and presented in both written and video content formats. We include several details and examples not found on this blog. Our course is also built into a community, so people ask questions, start discussions, and share their work in the lesson pages themselves, and we, along with other members, give feedback. Learn more here or watch this video walkthrough: