What Factors Make a Competitive SEO Space?

When asked, “What’s the most competitive SEO vertical?”, search marketers give many different interesting answers. From the classic ‘PPC’ (pharmaceuticals, casinos, and, er, adult content), to travel and insurance, to general interest areas like music and recipes, everyone has their own opinion on what makes a competitive space.

Julie Joyce wrote an interesting post on this topic over on SEOChicks, where everything from law to finance to HIPAA compliant hosting to local lead generation are mentioned as the most difficult spaces.

This got me thinking – what makes a competitive SEO space?  What causes some verticals to be more competitive than others?

I came up with a list of factors, that together, create competitiveness.

Lifetime Value of Lead

One factor that leads to competitiveness is the value of a search-based lead.  While in some spaces, leads might only be worth $5-10 (think car washes, for example), other spaces can have huge per-lead values – this is one source of the competitiveness in the financial and legal sectors.  

These lead values tend to be highly correlated with PPC cost, as shown in this infographic from WordStream.

Where Does Google Make Its Money? [ infographic ]

 The most popular categories are insurance, loans, mortgages,  and attorneys.  All of these areas have a tremendously high lifetime value.

Presence of Strong Brands

While looking at this list, I found myself wondering, “Why doesn’t high-end enterprise software – like ERP systems – rank higher on this chart? Those sales can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions?”

I realized that some goods are simply not purchased through search engine research, but are purchased on brand.  If you’re looking for ERP software, you’re probably going to go with SAP, NetSuite, or maybe Oracle. Likewise, if you’re looking for management consulting services, you’re similarly going to go with a big 3 firm, regardless of who ranks first.

In addition to some goods simply being purchased primarily on brand reputation, huge, well-known brands don’t need to rank #1 to get the majority of clicks from SERPs.  Microsoft researchers found that domain bias (click bias towards well-known domains and brands) can shift user clicks up ~25% of the time. (Hat tip to Rand Fishkin for finding and sharing this study.) This domain bias is in addition to search engine’s inclusion of brand signals as ranking factors.

Areas with these strong brands are typically unattractive for SEO investment – even if you succeed in attracting clicks, you won’t necessarily driven revenue. This actually makes areas without strong brands more competitive.

Low Product Differentiation

Related to the strong brands, areas with low product differentiation tend to be more competitive.  For example, financial products, like mortgages and insurance, tend to have little product differentiation.  By contrast, tech and software products have a much higher level of product differentiation, which creates different purchase dynamics.

In areas with little product differentiation (most financial goods, insurance, etc), search marketing is dramatically more competitive.

Link Availability

In some areas, like, online marketing or Apple accessories, the websites to people ratio is very high.  In other spaces, like the previously mentioned HIPAA compliant hosting or industrial packaging, websites are much rarer, and correspondingly, links are few and far between.  Then there’s a middle ground , where there are many sites, but not an incredible number.

This leads to some interesting consequences.  The verticals with lots of sites require an incredible number of links to rank, while in verticals with no sites, there are very few links to be had.  In that way, hugely popular topics are incredibly competitive, and incredibly obscure topics are competitive, but topics falling into the middle are less competitive.

For example, for a while, one of the manufacturers ranking for a key iPhone accessory term had actually leaked their cases for the new iPhone early, drawing links to that page from hundreds of tech and Apple blogs.  It was very difficult for other manufacturers in that space to compete without doing things that would threaten their relationships with Apple.  This is the mark of a competitive space – companies going to extreme measures to rank for terms.  (Whether they leaked their case for SEO reasons is a separate discussion, but it certainly led them to great SEO benefit.)

High Seasonal Demand

Another factor in SEO competitiveness is seasonal demand.  These are spaces where there’s tremendous traffic and commercial intent up to a certain date – think Halloween costumes from Oct. 1 – Oct. 22, or flowers before Valentine’s day – and after that date, traffic and purchase intent drops off tremendously.  

These tend to be very competitive areas, where aggressive tactics are often rewarded.

Level of Embarrassment

This is a difficult factor to explain, but think of it like this: For many purchases (like say, a new checking account), people ask their friends and families and use their recommendations to choose a vendor.

By contrast, there are many areas (around health, finances, medicine, etc) where people would feel deeply uncomfortable talking to their peers about them.  However, people are still willing to ask a search engine.  This explains the level of competitiveness (and thus high PPC price) for terms around drug rehab and debt consolidation/credit repair.

Distribution of Keyword Demand

Finally, there’s a much more technical factor that drives SEO competitiveness – distribution of keyword demand.  Allow me to explain:

– Some verticals have an incredible long tail and ‘chunky middle’ of terms, creating lots of profitable optimization opportunities

– By contrast, search volumes in other niches are concentrated around a few head terms, without much of a long tail.

These areas where head terms dominate are amongst the most competitive, while niches with a longer tail allow more opportunity for new entrants.

Combining Factors

Many competitive niches have a combination of these factors – for instance, in the world of online gambling, you see large head keyword demand, high lifetime value, and little product differentiation.  As these factors combine, they can create a kind of ‘lollapalooza effect‘, creating hyper-competitive verticals.

What Do You Think?

What causes a niche to be competitive in SEO?  Is it simply value per lead (or profit per click) or are there other forces at work?

Leave your thoughts in the comments – this is a question best answered by many contributing opinions.