While digging through our analytics for question keywords (as outlined in “3 Ways to Find Questions to Answer in Your Content”), I found the following question: Why are popular keywords so hard to rank for with a new website? It’s a good question, although the longer you work in search marketing, the more obvious the answer becomes.
New websites have difficulty ranking for popular, high-volume keywords for two primary reasons:
- New websites don’t have much site authority yet. The amount of on-page optimization  you do when targeting a specific keyword is only half the battle. The Google algorithm takes site or domain authority into account when assigning rankings. Your site’s authority depends on factors like age of domain (hence, new websites necessarily have less authority) as well as the number of inbound links your site has accrued and the authority, in turn, of the sites that link to you (aka PageRank ).
- The competition for “popular keywords” is that much stiffer. By definition, more sites are competing to rank for more popular keywords, so your site authority is even more important if you want to rank on the first page or anywhere near it. Think about it: There are sites that have been around for a decade or more, working to rank for valuable popular keywords (like, say, “car insurance” or “local weather”). It’s unlikely that some newbie is going to be able to stroll in and take one of the top spots just because they want it.
The web is growing all the time, and the huge increase in the number of unique domains each year – in 2011, over 50 million new domains were created! – means that popular, high-volume search terms get exponentially more competitive over time. So yes, it’s true that it’s very difficult for new sites to rank for these keywords – unfortunately for you and your site, but perhaps fortunately for users. Search engine users want the best information first and fastest, so Google ranks sites that are already vetted through the “votes” of links.
If you have a new website and you want to rank for a popular keyword, you’ll have to prove your site’s worth to Google first. Here are some tips for getting there:
Target Long-Tail Keywords First
Longer, more specific keywords – known as long-tail keywords  – have lower search volume than head terms, but they’re much less competitive to rank for. For example, a new website has next to no chance of ranking for the head term “insurance,” but would have much better luck with a niche keyword like “business overhead expense disability insurance,” because fewer websites are competing to rank. Long-tail keywords also have the added benefit of revealing more intent, making it easier for you to create content that meets the user’s implied needs.
Develop Real Content
SEO “content”  is whatever it is on your site that might rank for a relevant keyword – whether it’s a blog post that answers a question (like this one), a video that shows viewers how to do something, or user-generated reviews of the products you sell. By “real content,” I mean content that is genuinely useful to people. Your content marketing strategy should follow naturally from the type of business you run, the types of keywords that your prospects use, and where your expertise lies.
Practice safe, honest link building
Google is in full-on battle mode against SEO spammers , so be safe when building links (and I don’t mean giving your in-house SEOs condoms!). Don’t purchase links in bulk and don’t waste your time with low-quality websites that are irrelevant to your niche. Spammy link tactics are unlikely to work in the long term, but you do still need links  to show Google your site is rank-worthy. So leverage that great content you’re creating and do smart link outreach to bring attention to your site.
Stick with it
As mentioned above, part of what matters to Google is the age of your site. So there’s no fast track to great SEO rankings – to some extent it’s just a waiting game. But domain age alone isn’t worth very much – your site should be growing and improving all the time.
While you’re working to improve your site’s authority and organic rankings, consider leveraging paid search marketing, or PPC, to drive traffic. It’s generally faster and easier to place ads on the results pages for your target keywords than it is to rank for them organically, so you can use it as a stop-gap measure while your site is new and as a supplement to organic traffic later. Your PPC account will also provide invaluable data to help you better execute organic SEO .
Image via Beth Scupham