SEOThe Five Forces of Keyword Competition

The Five Forces of Keyword Competition

This framework aims to help marketers and SEO professionals easily forecast and understand the competitive intensity and rivalry for a keyword and to also help determine the resources required to improve a web presence and SEO rankings.

Porter’s Five Forces analysis framework was developed at Harvard Business School in 1979. Today it is still one of the most influential, respected, and extensively-used frameworks by business strategists to help determine the competitive opportunities and attractiveness of entering an industry as well as the potential profitability and return on investment (ROI) for a firm in that industry.

What if we had a similar framework to better understand organic search efforts, results, and ROI? These are, after all, some of the challenges of search engine optimization (SEO) – no one (regardless of experience and knowledge) can predict the resources (time and money) required to improve a keyword search position and maintain it for both the short and long terms.

What if the Five Forces of Keyword Competition framework could help marketers and SEO professionals easily forecast and understand the competitive intensity and rivalry for a keyword? What if it could also help determine the resources required to improve a web presence and SEO rankings in order to ultimately be found in organic search by prospects?


Like Porter’s Five Forces model, the five main forces that affect the possible SEO outcomes are all external factors or threats that you (the SEO consultant, content marketer, marketing or business executive) cannot control. These include: Entrants, Suppliers, Buyers, Substitutes, and Competition. Having a clear understanding of these forces can help effectively shape an SEO strategy and provide predictable ROI.

Marketers frequently ask these unanswerable questions:

  • How long is it going to take to improve my SEO rankings for all the keywords I want to rank for?
  • How much is it going to cost?
  • How long will my organic rank be maintained?

With 1 billion Google searches performed every day and the organic side of search providing higher click-through rates compared to paid search, these are valid questions that any marketer should ask. Unfortunately, no one can answer them.

The Five Forces of Keyword Competition would provide insight into the questions above as well as the following:

  • How competitive is the current environment for a keyword? How strong is the rivalry and intensity for a keyword?
  • How much effort (time and money) would it take for a new competitor to outrank me?
  • What will the impact be on the rank for a keyword when Google changes its algorithm?
  • What happens if my prospects start using a different keyword search term that I’m not aware of?
  • What happens if one of my competitors starts using an alternative marketing tactic instead of organic search?

Keep in mind that the intended use of the Five Forces of Keyword Competition framework is not to provide the precise answers to all these questions, although maybe one day it will. Rather, its purpose is to demonstrate the intricacies of SEO, the ongoing, ever-changing, uncontrollable factors, as well as to provide a thought-provoking way to assess the commitment to SEO.

Let’s explore the Five Forces of Keyword Competition.


Unbranded keywords in your SEO strategy are under constant threat from new entrants wanting to rank for the same keyword phrases. This is why ongoing keyword research and competitive intelligence are vitally important to your SEO strategy. Consider three types of entrants:

  1. A new competitor in your industry that is placing a priority on SEO.
  2. An existing competitor that may not currently be investing in SEO starts an active organic search and content marketing campaign.
  3. An existing competitor that has been investing in SEO suddenly increases their budget and effort with content marketing, SEO and social media.

Creating barriers of entry for all three of the above types of entrants is the only way to fend off competitors. Deliberately making it difficult for your competitors to outrank you for your unbranded keywords takes commitment and consistency. Here’s how:

  • Invest in an optimized content marketing strategy.
  • Differentiate your organization by targeting and owning the unique, uncommon, long-tail keywords that ultimately define your products and services.
  • Focus on keywords driving traffic and conversions.
  • Own those keywords across your entire web presence, not just your website.


In the context of the Five Forces of Keyword Competition, suppliers are the actual search engines. Keyword positions are constantly under siege by the search engines’ ever-changing algorithms. We need to look only as far as Google’s ongoing Panda and Penguin updates to understand how a supplier threat can negatively impact your SEO strategy, marketing and sales.

If your web presence was negatively affected by the Panda and Penguin updates, but your competitors’ were not, they may have, overnight, started outranking you for your previously top ranking keywords.

There are also new suppliers or search engines entering the SEO landscape. From the pure search engine perspective there are new suppliers such as Blekko and Yandex. From the social search world, think of Facebook and Google+ as social networks where your competitors may be outranking you.


With Porter’s Five Forces, the threat of buyers refers to the impact that customers have on an industry. With the Five Forces of Keyword Competition, similarities are easily drawn to the impact that customers have on your keyword ranking. Think about how easy or difficult it is for searchers to impact rank.

Think social signals, social engagement, and reviews.

Google and Bing now factor social signals into their search algorithms. Giving searchers the ability to engage with and produce social signals from your blogs, press releases, web pages and social networks positively impacts your organic rankings. Likewise, if your competitors are currently out social signaling you, you will have to increase the ability for your searchers, prospects and customers to generate social signals from your web presence.

With the increasing importance of local search, think about how your competitors may be out-reviewing you. Also, within customer reviews, the actual keywords used in the review can impact organic rank.


The threat of substitutions in your SEO strategy is about your competitors finding a more productive way to be found by prospects and generate a higher ROI compared to the ROI of your SEO strategy. In this context, think about alternative marketing tactics such as paid search, search retargeting, tradeshows, email marketing, etc.

While you likely want to dominate in Google for the keywords your prospects are using to try to find your products and services, it is never recommended to put all your marketing eggs in one basket. Your marketing strategy needs to support your prospects throughout their entire buying process. This means understanding how to communicate with them as they start their buying process, complete their research on alternative solutions and make a final decision.

Understand when your competitors are using SEO and when they are relying on substitutes.


The competitive rivalry and intensity for a keyword will constantly change and impact (positively or negatively) your SEO strategy, outcomes and ROI due to the four forces previously discussed.

If you’re dominating in the search engines and in business (earning a profit), competition will emerge and appear for the keyword phrases you are optimizing for. When your SEO objectives are focused on unique, long-tail keyword phrases that are driving conversions and you are committed for the long run to producing fresh, relevant optimized content, it will take a significant investment by your competitors to outrank and out-dominate you on page one of organic search engine results.


Porter’s Five Forces started a revolution in business strategy thinking that has lasted over three decades. The Five Forces of Keyword Competition likely will not start a revolution in the world of SEO strategy, but hopefully it will help agencies and marketers (the buyers and sellers of SEO) think differently about the ever-changing external forces on and factors affecting a keyword, have more realistic expectations about “time-to-rank” (resources required to improve organic rank), and the likelihood of maintaining that rank in the long term.


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