It’s very common for companies to do search engine optimization (SEO) for months or years, and still not rank for any of the keywords they want to target.
In some cases, they’re not sure why they’re not ranking. In others, they attribute the issue to factors such as having a lower domain rating than their competitors, or not having enough budget to build sufficient backlinks to their content.
In our experience, while domain rating and backlinks are important (i.e. you can’t have a DR of zero to rank and you usually need to do some link building), it is still possible to compete and outrank your competitors in Google even if you have a “low” DR (it’s relative) or minimal link building — even for high value, buying-intent keywords.
In this post, we’re going to discuss the main reasons why companies often have difficulty outranking their competition (or even getting to the first page of search results). Then, we’ll share the 3-step process we use to help our clients outrank their competitors in organic search, even when they have less domain authority than their competitors.
Table of Contents
- Reason #1: They don’t create content that thoroughly satisfies search intent for their target keywords
- Reason #2: They just “sprinkle” keywords into their content, thinking that will get them to rank
- Reason #3: They try to rank for many different target keywords with individual posts
- Reason #4: They aren’t strategic enough when choosing target keywords
- Base every piece of content on an in-depth SERP analysis for a specific target keyword
- Create dedicated blog posts or web pages that deeply satisfy search intent for each target keyword
- Target a strategic mix of keywords with varying levels of competition
Why Companies Often Have Difficulty Outranking Their Competition on Google
Reason #1: They Don’t Create Content That Thoroughly Satisfies Search Intent for Their Target Keywords
One of the most important ranking factors of Google’s algorithm is fulfilling the search intent of the specific query someone has typed in. In other words, in order to rank highly for a keyword, you need to provide searchers with the most relevant answer or information to the question or topic they’ve searched for.
In our experience, doing this successfully requires two equally important parts:
- Doing an in-depth “SERP analysis.” This is the process of analyzing the search engine results page for your target keyword to see what topics are being discussed and what page types (e.g. list articles, how to posts, landing pages, etc.) are showing up in the existing top results. This information indicates the topics and page types that Google has determined are the best match for the intent of that search query.
- Creating content that is informed by that SERP analysis. Once you’ve determined the topics you need to cover and the type of page you need to use in order to match search intent for your target keyword, you need to create content that follows that framework and covers those topics (and ideally do so in a way that’s better or more thorough than existing results).
Many companies lack the know-how or process to do one or both of these steps. As a result, they end up creating content that doesn’t sufficiently meet the search intent of their target keywords, and they fail to rank.
Reason #2: They Just “Sprinkle” Keywords into Their Content, Thinking That Will Get Them to Rank
A common practice in SEO is to hand writers a list of keywords that they want to rank for and have them “sprinkle” those keywords throughout the articles they write, thinking this will get their site organic rankings for these keywords.
This doesn’t work.
As we explained above, ranking for target keywords requires a much more strategic process of creating content that deeply meets search intent. If others are creating tailored content to rank for specific keywords, and you’re just sprinkling keywords in here or there, you have a slim shot at ranking.
Reason #3: They Try to Rank for Many Different Target Keywords with Individual Posts
Another common mistake that companies make is trying to rank for a number of competitive keywords with a single web page or blog post. (There was a time when this strategy worked, but for the most part, it doesn’t anymore.)
In doing so, their content gets outranked by competitors that are creating dedicated pages to go after each search term, allowing them to more deeply meet the search intent of each keyword.
Reason #4: They Aren’t Strategic Enough When Choosing Target Keywords
A final mistake that we commonly see, discussed at length in our post on Underdog SEO, is companies investing heavily in ranking for a few of their highest buying-intent (but highest competition) category keywords, while ignoring their less competitive (but still high buying-intent) long-tail keywords.
- A hosting company spends all of their effort trying to rank for “web hosting,” while ignoring slightly lower competition opportunities such as “web hosting services for ecommerce” or “web hosting services with email.”
- A content marketing agency focuses all of their effort trying to rank for “content marketing agency,” while ignoring opportunities such as “outsource content creation.”
- A CRM tool trying to rank for the term “CRM software,” but ignoring opportunities such as “CRM that integrates with QuickBooks.”
Don’t get us wrong. We support businesses going after their main product and service category terms. But companies ranking for these sorts of category-definition keywords usually have extremely strong domains, are well-known brands in their 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.
So, one way to outrank your competitors is to go after less competitive, long-tail keywords that they may not even be thinking of targeting. These variations will generally have lower search volume, but they can still drive significant conversions. And furthermore, ranking for them builds up your domain authority over time which can help you target and rank for those higher competition, category-definition keywords later.
It is some combination of these mistakes that often cause companies to get outcompeted in organic search. By following the framework laid out below, you can give yourself a much better chance at outranking competitors, even when you have a less authoritative domain.
Our 3-Step Process for Outranking Competitors in Organic Search
1. Base Every Piece of Content on an In-Depth SERP Analysis for a Specific Target Keyword
For each individual keyword that we decide to target for a client, our process begins with doing an in-depth analysis of the existing Google search results for that term, including:
- Reviewing the titles, page types, and sources of existing page one results. SEO titles and page types reveal the types of content ranking for a given keyword (e.g. list posts, “how to” articles, guides, product landing pages, etc.).
In general, what is ranking tells you what Google’s algorithm already thinks is best for this keyword, so typically we will use one of those content types for our piece of content. But that’s not a hard and fast rule. If we feel we can better meet search intent with another type of content, we may try it.
We will also note the sources of the top results to understand who we’re competing against (e.g. Direct competitors? News sites? Adjacent products and services?, etc.). Our goal is to understand exactly what the existing results are doing and be intentional about what content type we’ll use.
- Reviewing the topics discussed inside of those posts or pages — identifying themes or topics that come up repeatedly.
Next, we’ll scan or read each of the results on the first page and pay attention to topics that are discussed (especially those listed in subheadings) throughout the page. As we go through the results, we’ll take note of topics that come up frequently. This indicates that they likely need to be covered in our post in order for it to rank.
- Identifying what individual pages or articles do well — and what they do poorly.
Identifying the strengths and weaknesses of existing top results allows us to incorporate elements that we think work well, and gives us insight into the ways in which we can differentiate our post to create a better piece of content.
- Determine the intent of searchers typing in this term.
Once we’ve gone through the results, we’ll summarize the core intent(s) of the users searching this keyword.
You can check out our interview with Bernard Huang of Clearscope for an in-depth video tutorial on doing SERP analysis.
2. Create Dedicated Blog Posts or Pages That Deeply Satisfy Search Intent for Each Target Keyword
We use a one-page-per-keyword strategy, targeting individual keywords with unique, dedicated pages. This enables us to meet search intent more thoroughly than competing content, and achieve more page one rankings (specifically position 1–3 rankings where the majority of search traffic comes from) for our clients.
Based on our SERP analysis, we’ll choose a post framework (e.g. “how to,” product list, comparison, etc.) that others are using to get top results for that keyword — unless we think we can beat existing results with a different format.
Once that’s decided, we use an interview-based writing process, whereby we interview experts at our client’s company on the topic, ensuring that we get their perspective on all of the necessary subtopics (again, based on our SERP analysis) that we need to address in the article in order to rank, as well as any unique or original ideas that they have on the topic which can help us differentiate the article.
We then leverage any insights gleaned from the interview to come up with a unique angle for the post and write the piece, covering each of the necessary topics to satisfy search intent, while incorporating originality and differentiation wherever possible. This combination is what makes truly high-quality content.
Finally, once we have a completed draft, we use the SEO tool Clearscope to ensure we’re using enough related keywords in our post for on-page SEO, add internal links, and write our SEO title and meta description.
3. Target a Strategic Mix of Keywords with Varying Levels of Competition
Specifically, keywords that fall into three broad categories:
- Category Keywords: Terms that describe the exact category of the product or service our client sells (e.g. social media management software, digital marketing agency, user experience designer, etc.).
- Comparison and Alternatives Keywords: Terms where potential customers are comparing products or services and looking at options on the market (e.g. Google Analytics alternatives, Ahrefs vs. Semrush, etc.).
- Jobs to Be Done Keywords: Keywords that indicate someone has a problem that your product helps solve (e.g. how to measure organic traffic, improve search engine rankings, etc.).
Within each of these categories, there is a wide array of keywords with varying levels of search volume, intent, and competition. So, when we’re doing keyword research and developing a keyword strategy for a client, especially if they have lower domain authority compared to their competitors, we don’t just focus solely on their highest competition, category-defining keywords.
We likely will target some of those, but we’ll look for longer tail opportunities like we discussed above. In particular, we’ll look for keywords that map to a competitive advantage that our client’s product/service has over their competition, per our specificity strategy.
For example, when working with a QA testing platform, we didn’t immediately target “qa testing.” We targeted keywords such as “automated web application testing” and “codeless test automation” which directly mapped to their core differentiator of being a codeless tool.
These are examples of lower competition, but still high buying-intent category keywords. But these opportunities can be found in the other keyword categories as well.
For example, we were working with a remote executive assistant service that had a domain rating of 28 (quite a low DR). And while many of the posts we produced for them were taking months to progress towards the first page of search results, the comparison keywords we targeted were getting onto the first page within weeks of publishing.
In looking in Ahrefs at their rankings today, we see that all 5 of the comparison keywords we went after are ranking in the top 3 positions of search results.
There are different factors that we think contributed to this. For one, we created in-depth dedicated pages targeting each of these keywords and optimized them very precisely in order to rank. But we also found that the competitors in their space hadn’t caught onto this strategy yet, leaving the door open for us to rank for these terms.
This strategy works and is the foundational principle behind Underdog SEO, as we’ve demonstrated in numerous case studies.
Here are a few to check out:
- How to create a keyword strategy for a new, innovative product (case study of a video editing software client)
Learn More about Our SEO and Content Marketing Agency
- Our Agency: If you want to hire us to execute a content marketing strategy built around driving lead generation and sales, not just traffic, you can learn more about our service and pricing here. We also offer a PPC service for paid search, which you can learn about here.
- Join Our Content Marketing 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 and community, 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.