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Case study: 2 kinds of organic search competition

February 18, 2010

I remember thinking I had just hit a home run. After a full day of research, I had just chosen the keywords for an important page on, and I had nailed it. The keywords not only were tightly relevant to the meaning of the page, they had high demand in Google—around 300,000 people searched on the term monthly around the world. Not only that, but IBM’s competitors were nowhere to be found in the search engine results pages (SERPs) for that term. As I went to bed that night, I felt like one of those IBMers in the commercials: “I’m an IBMer, and this is what I do.” I felt proud enough of my work to stand beside all those great IBMers whom we highlight on TV.

This was no ordinary page in IBM Chairman, CEO and President Sam Palmisano was about to speak to a group of business leaders.  I had a draft of the speech—“The Decade of Smart.” My job was to pick the two- or three-word phrase that encapsulated the meaning of the 20-minute speech and the 200 related pages to which the speech landing page links. It goes without saying that the words had to have high demand in Google. We would then use the keywords I chose for the organic search optimization of the speech landing page. Considering that the speech was the cornerstone of a 10-year vision to inspire leaders to solve planet-wide problems with smarter systems, the importance of the research could not be overstated. The keyword I chose—Sustainable Development—didn’t exactly roll off the tongue. But it met the important criteria we highlight in our book.

One of the principles of our book is to do keyword research before you begin to even concept, let alone produce a Web page. In the old days, this didn’t happen very often on marketing pages. Traditionally, the messaging for a campaign was determined and the framework for the campaign’s Web copy was written before the search experts were brought in to choose the best keywords for it. That made it difficult to attain tight relevance between the copy and the keywords—leading to poor organic search performance.

More importantly, waiting to do keyword research until after the messaging was determined was a missed opportunity. The best messaging is geared towards the way product and service offerings are referred to in the market. An easy way to find out how these offerings are described by prospective clients is through keyword research. If you choose a phrase that has a nice ring to it, but no one searches on the keyword, your campaign will take a long time to establish a foothold in the market. You can brand a term and spend a lot of resources on advertising to influence the market to adopt it. But if you want to take advantage of existing market terminology, it’s better to let keyword research determine your messaging. If you choose a phrase as part of the messaging for your offering that has lots of search demand, the offering has a good chance to gain traction right away. That’s organic search marketing 101. At IBM, it represents a sea change, one that we have embraced.

This speech landing page had to exemplify the sea change. Unlike traditional after-the-fact keyword research, I was able to do the research for the speech landing page early enough to affect every aspect of the page at launch, except the text of the speech itself, of course. (I wasn’t about to tell Sam Palmisano what to say in his speech.) But we did manage to work the words into the final draft of the preface to the speech on the landing page, which actually made the preface more relevant to the topic of the landing page. And we optimized the page code for the keywords from initial launch . In short, the team did everything the co-authors and I recommend in our book when it comes to integrating keyword research into Web writing.

Every speech by Sam Palmisano receives a lot of media attention, with good reason. So, the landing page was linked to by such media outlets as BusinessWeek, and others. It had blog mentions galore, including ReadWriteWeb, and others. Within two weeks of the speech, the landing page had more external link equity than all but the most central pages in, which have link equity mostly by virtue of the pages in that link to them, not as much by external links. After a few weeks, the speech landing page had more external link equity than all but a handful of pages in

In spite of all this, the page fails to rank well in Google organic search results. Why? I’ll be the first to admit I need to do more research to answer that. The answer is even more puzzling when I audit the competing pages that rank better than the speech page and find all kinds of optimization problems. In short, based on how it’s optimized and its link equity, the speech page should rank near the top of the first page for the keyword we chose. And it doesn’t even rank in the top 10 SERPs. It ranks at or near the top for several other words, such as Decade of Smart, but not for Sustainable Development.

I might not know the exact reason, but I do have a theory. When I look at the competition for the word, all the top pages are produced by noncommercial interests. The top-level domains for the pages are all .org, .edu, and .gov. There’s not one .com domain in the top five SERPs. At first I thought this was an advantage because IBM’s competitors are also not listed. But I have come to think of this as a disadvantage. All things considered, Google will give a non-profit a huge advantage in the SERP. The reason is simple, non-profits have fewer reasons to try to win search ranking with search engine optimization (SEO). They are more apt to just publish information for its own sake, as Wikipedia does, with a “white hat.” For most keywords, there are few enough noncommercial sites to keep you from the first page of the SERP. But if you go several pages deep in the SERP stack without a single .com site ranking, take that as a red flag. No matter what you do, it will be very difficult for you to rank well in Google against such noncommercial competition.

In this case, the rule hardly seems helpful for Google’s users. The speech page is as white hat as it gets. And I would argue that, by optimizing the page for words that are most relevant to it, I am helping Google’s users find more relevant content, which makes Google better. That’s really the point of the algorithm: To better serve their users. And it’s my litmus test for appropriate optimization. Anything that doesn’t help Google’s users find content relevant to the way they use keywords is inappropriate SEO. In this case, I would argue the rules don’t serve their users better. At the moment, the Google algorithm doesn’t see it that way. There’s not a whole lot I can do about that except to buy position for the keyword until the algorithm recognizes the relevance of the organic page.

Some keywords are just too tightly relevant to a page and too important to your business objectives to abandon, no matter how much competition you have (branded or unbranded). Sustainable Development is such a word for IBM. It is at the heart of what Smarter Planet is all about—using smarter systems to improve societal infrastructure, thus enabling local economies and larger communities grow at a sustainable level. But in future efforts that aren’t so central to IBM’s strategy, I will pay much closer attention to unbranded competition. If a keyword has a lot of university, government and non-profit competition, I’ll be hesitant to choose it for a commercial Web page.

James Mathewson is the search strategy lead for IBM Marketing and Communications and co-author of Audience, Relevance and Search: Targeting Web Audiences with Relevant Content.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. March 13, 2011 2:51 pm

    is there some kind of software that can help in detecting organic and non competetors.?

  2. August 8, 2011 2:01 am

    Mobsy, there’s no such thing as non competitive tool. Hence there is a tool inside called “Competitive Research Tool” that tracks keywords that are ranking for the competing business. Maybe you can use it. Here’s the link

    • August 8, 2011 2:38 am

      Yes, and we discuss this tool in the book (pp 56-57). But it does not delve into domain issues and how they affect Google ranking. It delves into commercial competition.


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