Understanding competitiveness in search engine rankings

by on 7th April 2010

Moz have just released an exciting update to their keyword difficulty tool. The new version of the tool gathers data from the Google Adwords API and Linkscape to help get a more detailed understanding of the SEO challenge involved with targeting a specific keyword ranking. I’ve been super lucky to get an early view of the tool and in this post we’ll take a first look at it and use exported data to get a sense of how competitive some search engine rankings can really be.

Keyword difficulty tool

Using the keyword difficulty tool

Using the tool is very easy. Just plug in up to 5 terms in the “analyse” field and select your local Google search engine. The tool is designed to allow you to compare a range of terms or drill down on one specific phrase.


The comparision report presents you with a keyword difficulty score, which is based on the data collected by the tool from its various sources. To take a look at the data, proceed to “Full Analysis”.

top 10 rankings for pivot tables

The keyword difficulty tool dissects the search term you’ve entered and presents you with page authority (PA) and domain authority (DA) metrics in the top 10 rankings.

competitive analysis

I found the competitive analysis table particularly useful. The values from the table allow you to explore the top 10 rankings URL by URL, providing data on links to each domain and the ranking URL found in the search results for your query term. Depending on the search result (and its competitiveness) you can see what variables might be driving a specific result. Where Linkscape and Open Site Explorer make it possible to explore a domain URL by URL, the keyword difficulty tool allows for visibility across an entire search results page.

Using the tool to understand your search results

Using the tool is really easy, and thanks to a killer CSV export function, we’re able to get a lot more data to where it matters most – Excel. I’ve spent some time in the last few weeks pulling data out of the tool to see how far the data can inform my overall impression of what factors are driving a particular set of search results, and how competitive that search result may be. Most frequently, I found this tool provides most insight when you’re looking at domain and page level authority metrics, by ranking position. Creating a chart with the exported data is easy and can reveal quite a lot about the search engine ranking. Let’s take a look at some search results at different levels of competitiveness and see what we can learn.

How competitive is the phrase “Pallet Delivery”?

pallet delivery search results

“Pallet delivery” is a phrase with medium to low monthly search volume locally (3600 searches per month locally, and 3600 searches globally, suggesting little to no demand outside of the UK). Page authority and domain authority vary wildly in this chart, offering no correlation to ranking position for this term.

The term would be relatively easy to acquire a position on page 1 for, and given such low levels of authority required for a page one ranking, internal link strategies, page relevance and anchor text optimisation may be an easy win for this SERP. Positions 9, 10 and 17 are all recent additions to the SERP and have not yet been included in the Linkscape index. The ease of rapid progression on to page one of this SERP again highlights the level of competitiveness offered by this term.

How competitive is the phrase “Pivot Tables”?

pivot tables

A phrase with low to medium local demand (2900 searches per month in February 2010) but higher global demand (12,100 searches). Overall domain authority measured across the top 20 rankings appears consistent, and the highest ranking positions are occupied by domains and subdomains of Wikipedia and Microsoft. Where domain authority is high, the ranking pages themselves carry relatively low levels of authority and low page links from independent root domains. A new page (example article on pivot tables) is able to rank in the top ten of this SERP provided that the page is published on an established domain and is able to attract a few authoritative back links.

How competitive is the phrase “Things to do in London”?

things to do in london

Competitiveness for the term “things to do in London”  increases with a high monthly search volume of 40,500 searches in February 2010. Overall domain authority remains consistent, and aside from the occasional ranking anomaly, page authority appears to play a strong role in the top rankings. Domain authority appears to make up for any ranking URL that has lower page authority in the top ranking positions, but is a prerequisite to having any serious positioning at all.

How competitive is the phrase “Flights” in the UK?


Flights” in the UK is an extremely competitive term where local search volume in February appears around the 450,000 searches per month mark. High domain authority and page authority is required for this SERP. High levels of inbound link diversity to the page and the domain ensure this ranking is innacessible for most, an extremely competitive search engine ranking.

The new Keyword Difficulty tool has vastly simplified extracting keyword volume data, ranking by URL and page / domain level metrics for any phrase. The obvious benefit to this tool is the speed in which you can gather the data and begin analysing. I realised that to have written this post a few weeks back, I would have needed the SEOmoz API or a URL by URL comparison from Linkscape, combined with authority metrics scraped from Open Site Explorer and rankings data from Advanced Web Ranking. I think that’s the main point with this tool – the data itself has been available to us for some time, it’s just that until now, none of us have built a tool that aggregates at this level.

You’re still going to need a tool to help understand additional variables such as anchor text distribution and unique inbound c-block IP’s, but I’m glad that as an SEO, I can invest more time into thinking about what questions I’d like to answer next, rather than spending that time wrestling with the data collection process. Awesome.


  1. Great insight. Thanks for warming us up to the new tool!

  2. Brilliant write up! Looking forward to making the most of the new tool.

  3. Thanks for the ‘super quick’ write up on this updated tool. Looks really interesting and I can’t wait to play with it more.

    From what you have written it seems like it could be a massive time saver on competitor link/kw analysis. Maybe not quite as in depth as a manual review but definitely much faster. This tool would be a dream if it pulled in ‘unique’ link data and Anchor text metrics i.e. exact match and broad match information.

  4. @Everyone – thanks guys. Don’t forget to give your feedback to the SEOmoz dev team – via sitesupport at

    In the meantime, we’re sphinning too :-)

  5. Thanks for the great writeup Richard – really cool to see how you’re using the data in Excel, too.

    And yes – feel free to send us feedback, though if you leave it here, we’ll try to grab it as well :-)

    Marc – I think we could add in metrics about the number of links/linking root domains that contain anchor text with an exact keyword match, though when it comes to parsing out terms from anchor phrases or surrounding text, that might be more challenging (still interesting, though). I’ll certainly bring that to the team.

  6. Agree with Marc, this is a huge timesaver. As Richard pointed out, we can spend more time strategizing vs. collecting data.

    I just ran my report, exported to CSV and reviewed data in <5 minutes. I have data that would have taken me a lot longer to compile! This makes it much easier to explain to management how much effort will be required to perform for their keywords that have 90% 92% difficulty! :-)

    Thank you, SEOmoz!

    Richard, nice overview! Worth a Sphinn for sure.

  7. Thanks Richard for answering two questions I have been thinking about:
    1. I have been thinking how good the SEOmoz tools are and if I should subscribe to use them for SEO. After reading what you were able to do with just the Keyword Difficulty Tool I think it would be a massive time saver.
    2. I was contemplating the age old sub-domian vs subdirectory debate and as you said about Yahoo if they changed flights to a subdirectory not a subdomain that would help their SEO.

  8. Nice write-up Richard. This is a nice-looking tool with some great UI work – congrats to all. But there are serious limitations with this type of tool. They are problems of time, ROI and relevance …

    Take your example keyword “Pallet delivery” with 3,600 searches a mth. If you get to rank 3rd for that then you might get approx 300 visits a month. convert 4% (good going) and that’s 12 responses.

    Enough conversions? Perhaps, but not likely because if a conversion is a big contract then conversion rates may be lower than 4%. Most of us will need to work at a bigger scale than a tool like this allows. For most of us, single keywords don’t deliver enough ROI. And it’s not what happens in real SEO either …

    In real SEO, you might target “pallet delivery” but you would get results for many keywords containing “Pallet delivery”, ie the long tail, the whole body – I’ll call this the keyword niche.

    And you might get results for the long tail before you get results for the head. Probably.

    And you might get more results for the long tail than you do for the head. Probably.

    Which means that you want to know about the competition for the whole keyword niche and not just the single head keyword as a tool like this does. And you should look at the broad or phrase match keyword research results for “Pallet delivery”. (This tool does show Broad match data).

    Back to the drawing board? Depends …

    If we think the head keyword is representative of the keyword niche then the results are interesting.

    And if a site *also* has no existing relevant organic traffic then the results are interesting.

    But if a site has existing relevant organic traffic then such tools are a questionable use of a professional’s time. You can use your traffic reports to find out if *your* site can beat the competition and get response …

    … if you get some response for a keyword niche then you know you can get more (sod the competition because – to some degree – you know you are beating it already). And there’s always more traffic from a keyword niche because the long tail is endless.

  9. Sounds like a very good tool, i have checked a few tools of seomoz so far, like the Page strength tool, and they were all good, looking foreword to try this one too,

    i use the adwords tool and its very good and helpful, but if the same is displayed with graphs like this, am sure very soon this will be my favorite tool :)

  10. This is an amazing post, thanks for sharing such great content! I love your posts, SEO Gadget is an amazing blog with some really great resources!

  11. Thanks for informing us the new tool. It looks great!

  12. It looks great! this tool is very useful for me. thanks for your sharing

Comments are closed.

We're hiring – check out our careers page Careers

Get insights straight to your inbox

Stay one step ahead of the competition with our monthly Inner Circle email full of resources, industry developments and opinions from around the web.