When performing an SEO audit, one of the most challenging issues comes when reviewing the competitive landscape. Quite often it can seem overwhelming – competitors who have thousands, tens or even hundreds of thousands of pages already in place. Sites with tens of thousands of inbound links, some coming from thousands of root domains.
This is even more of a challenge for me lately, as I perform audits on sites with hundreds of thousands or even millions of pages. The sheer mountain of content and links dominating the field can be discouraging, to say the least. Yet there’s several ways to find success even in a sea of content and link depth. I refer to it as the SEO Sweet Spot.
A WORD ABOUT THIS SERIES
Before I continue, if you’re new to my column, you may want to read my previous “Anatomy of an SEO Audit” articles – Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. This series of articles is being presented to help those of you who are new to the audit process, just as much from a psychological experience as from an audit operational procedure perspective. Because I’ve found the more I care about the psychology and the process, the more thorough I can be focusing on the areas needing attention for a particular goal, and the more successful the result becomes in my audit work.
THE SEO SWEET SPOT
I’m an SEO perfectionist. As such, I always prefer to aim for the ultimate domination of SERPs for every keyword phrase possible. Yet I also know that, as I’ve mentioned repeatedly in my previous articles, site owners usually face budgetary or political or resource constraints. That in turn, means compromise. It means when I find fifty issues that need to be addressed, I’ll be lucky if even thirty of them actually get implemented.
Because the pragmatist in me now carries as much weight as the perfectionist, I recognized early on in my audit work that I need to find a way to help my clients achieve stellar results even if only half my recommendations are implemented. And that’s where I came up with The SEO Sweet Spot.
GETTING YOUR SITE INTO THE MIX
Take a look at the competitive landscape chart below. When you look at that chart, you’ll see sites with a dramatic range in total page count, total link count, and linking root domain count.
The above mix of competitors is based on the review of top organic rankings for a very competitive phrase. And I think it’s pretty revealing.
DATA DOESN’T LIE
With the above data in front of me, it’s pretty easy for me to rapidly understand a few very important things.
CONTENT LIGHT / LINK HEAVY
First, in this example, a number of sites show up on the 1st page of results organically with relatively few pages as compared to their competition. Clearly, these content-light sites got where they are at least partially, through leveraging inbound links. Most of those, in turn, didn’t do it through a lot of links from a few domains. Instead, they did it through a high volume of links spread across a high enough volume of root domains to result in a very strong link to root domain ratio.
CONTENT HEAVY – LINK HEAVY
As is the case in many niche markets, sometimes having an overwhelming amount of content is enough to get a great position in the SERPs. If you look at Competitor2.com, you may be distracted not just by the page depth but by the massive number of inbound links. In truth, many of those links carry a lot less weight simply due to their corresponding link to root domain ratio.
Too many links coming from too few root domains is a big red flag. And when I examined that site’s link profile, I found a lot of links coming from what was clearly paid link initiatives. Several others came from article syndication. But just as clearly, there’s so much content, and probably enough good links that the overall depth made this a very strong site for the phrase in question.
QUALITY OVER QUANTITY
Look at competitor1.com – and compare that to competitor3.com – roughly the same number of inbound links, yet with only a quarter of the total number of pages, competitor1.com dominates the 1st position organically. One obvious point of data though that might cause this is the link to root domain ratio.
Heck – the fact that a site with only a couple hundred pages, and a tiny fraction of the inbound links of competitor2.com, yet comes up ABOVE all the other competitors in this example, speaks volumes.
The other issue I observed in this particular audit, and that I’ve done countless times with other audits where I have seen similar competitive results, is that a site like the one in the top organic slot, is more often than not, very well optimized overall.
Which just confirms what I’ve always believed – that when it comes to SEO, you don’t have to spend all your energy on link building, or all your energy on having ten times as much content, when you focus on well organized, topical focus refined content, and quality links supporting that content.
PICKING YOUR SWEET SPOT
How I use this data is that I take the time to understand the site I’m working with. If it’s got ten times as many pages as that top competitor, that’s a really good leading indicator for a couple things. First, the existing content is probably not really well optimized. Maybe it’s duplicate content issues. Maybe it’s poor topical focus. Maybe it’s any one of a hundred other issues. Yet just by looking at this data, I know there’s a need for this site to have it’s content refined.
Then there’s the inbound links – does this site have more? What’s the link to root ratio? If I’ve got more links than that top organic result, what’s my link to root ratio? Is it just as good? If so, that tells me I have to dig further – maybe it’s not the number of links, or the link to root ratio. Maybe instead, it’s the link spread. Are the links coming from a wide enough variety of site types? Or are they coming from a good spread of site types but they’re the wrong type of sites for this market?
CIRCUMSTANCE DICTATES DIRECTION
Wherever I think the site I’m auditing might be able to fit into the above mix, will just as much be determined by how much of a chance I think I’ll be able to recommend the need for extensive content building, or inbound link work. If it’s a site owned by a company with no desire to add hundreds or thousands of pages, then that means I need to advocate refinement of existing content as a top action plan priority.
If it’s a market where content is already really strong, and already well optimized, maybe it means we need to get a serious quality link building campaign going, if the sweet spot I target in the above chart requires that.
Or maybe the constraints I’m going to face in execution of the action plan ends up dictating that I need to pick a different sweet spot altogether…
YOUR FIRST SWEET SPOT
So maybe you realize you have a similar footprint as Competitor 5 in the above example. Maybe you’ve only got a few hundred less pages, and you’re not that far off in terms of links and link to root ratio. If your site is showing up on the 2nd page of Google organically, that’s an opportunity you’ll want to look into. And it just may be that a few hundred pages is all it takes to propel you up above the #5 result!
If you’ve only got five pages, and all your competitors look like the spread above, your first sweet spot may just be to just get the right mix to overtake that #9 result. But hey – at least you’re now on the 1st page of results!
LONGER TERM GOALS
But wait – while that content is being built out, maybe you only need to clean up part of the inbound link profile, and BANG – all of a sudden, not only do you jump ahead of #5, but your link to root ratio becomes better than competitor #1 – and what do you know? You’re now the proud owner of the #1 organic spot with just that little bit of additional effort!
Or if you were that site with just five pages, and your initial effort got you above #9 in the results, with a quality link campaign, you could still leap-frog all the way up above competitor #4. And that means you’ll be in the top three results. Not bad. Not bad, at all!
LET’S NOT OVERSIMPLIFY
Okay – so this article is not all you need to understand if you actually want to achieve such results. You still need to consider all the other key factors – topical focus refinement being the primary consideration most of the time. And there are many (plenty, even) nuances and subtle / not-so-subtle other considerations.
Yet the truth remains – simply by looking for this kind of sweet spot targeting, you have a realistic end-goal, or series of end-goals that you can frame the rest of your recommendations around. And that’s vital if you ever want to instill confidence, along with realistic expectations, in the people who you’re presenting the audit and action plan to.
DON’T SHOOT THE MESSENGER
Now this is where many of you are already mumbling about how there’s no way to make any claims here about content vs. links vs. link to root ratios. You’re thinking – there’s 200, or 1990 or a million other factors that might cause this kind of result. And you could very well be right. Except I see this type of scenario over and over again, across countless markets, repeated consistently across many keyword phases.
The reality too, is that I don’t expend dozens, hundreds or thousands of hours running statistical probability models, or scientific tests to be able to say from those methods, that what I’m talking about here is provable and repeatable. I don’t operate that way. Because I’m a hands-on person, and from an anecdotal perspective, I know what I know, and I see what I see, and I get the results that I get. Your mileage may vary.
WHY BOTHER WITH THE SEO SWEET SPOT
Okay, so what I’ve described here isn’t based on an already hammered out scientific case study involving tens of thousands of sites, with all the data ready for you to review. So why would you bother considering what I have recommended, purely based on my anecdotal monologue?
It’s simple, really. If you’re going to be successful in hands-on SEO audits that then lead to success in improving site optimization, you can shoot blindly in the dark with no end goal in mind. Or you can pick targets to shoot for, and go for it. And by doing so this way, you’re more likely to be recognized as a professional by site owners and decision makers.
And this methodology is a lot less time consuming than taking years to run statistical analysis reports. Which honestly, means you can put this concept to use right away. If you want.