Why Are Popular Keywords So Hard to Rank for with a New Website?




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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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

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Larry Kim
Aug 28, 2012

great photo.

May 14, 2017

This is really more of a pre-step than a first step. You’ll need to have some basics in place before you can hope to rank for any random keyword. These pre-requisites include:

Aug 29, 2012

Great Post. I'm currently trying to rank my site for one of the hardest keywords possible. I'm persistant though!

Joel Heim
Aug 30, 2012

I find your article really helpful and agree with everything except the suggestion to use PPC.  I find that mostpeople with new website have very little money and can end up losing a lot of money with PPC unless it convertsto sales quickly.  Unless they have a lot of cash and are very skilled at (usually which is not the case for either),I think a much more realistic approach is your other suggestions including developing content, link building andbeing patient.  Most newbie have more time than money.  I strongly believe organic is the way to go.

Elisa Gabbert
Aug 30, 2012

Most newbie have more time than money.Time IS money, Joel. :)Some new websites belong to new businesses with marketing budgets. PPC is a good option for new businesses looking to raise awareness and drive leads. if you're just a guy with a blog who wants traffic, on the other hand, it might not make sense for you.

eric cartmell
Aug 01, 2013

I agree. Everybody has money for something. I have a very small therapy practice (just me) and I don't have enough patients. I do however, have to pay for the rent on my room, professional membership, insurance etc. So if do not spend a little bit more money on letting patients know that I exist (via PPC), and think I am being smart by doing so, then I am actually pretty dumb because I am paying for an empty room. My entire PPC in the three months since I started it has only cost me as much as two whole days of rent. If get three new patients from it, then those three patients will have paid for three months worth of PPC and around 200, 000 impressions on my ad. Not bad. 

Nick Stamoulis
Aug 31, 2012

When you're just getting started, utilizing PPC as well as SEO is a great strategy.  SEO is a long term process.  It's necessary, but it just takes some time and effort to see results.  If you are looking for something more immediate, PPC is the way to go.  Once you start to gain some traction with your SEO campaign, you can scale back on PPC. 

Aug 31, 2012

Great post, Real contents one of the most important factors that been used to increase the rank.

Nick CambodiaSEO
Sep 02, 2012

I completely agree with this and it's probably worth noting that some keywords are now completely out of reach in some niches no matter how hard you work. Simply because they've been dominated by big players who've generated quality content for years.It's one of the things I like about working in developing nations, the playing field is smaller. But there's still a lot of work to be done.

Chris Reich, TeachU.com
Sep 06, 2012

I'm finding this SEO process to be more and more frustrating. I battle quality scores for my sites and even my personal contacts at Google can't explain the low scores.I create "content" but people are too busy for "content". THey want minimal, specific information and you've got about 5 seconds to give it to them.And you are very correct about time being money. Most of us cannot wait around, creating content, for a year or two to see if a site improves rank. We need revenue. It's a tough, competitive world and Google is King. Chris Reich, TeachU.com 

Reagen Aguda
Sep 07, 2012

Tough world Chris. I know how you feel. Also got a contact from Google and he too can't answer my questions regarding quality score. I guess one to the best respond to Google ever changing algo and search real estate is synergy - utilizing SEO and Adwords to capture more traffic and leads faster. Now that that SERP is becoming more cluttered with ads (Less space for organic with only 7 slots) i'd say its to consider putting more money on SEM. 

Karilee | Outcome Marketing
Sep 07, 2012

Real content focused on long-tail keywords is definitely the place to start. External link building and PPC are higher risk, depending on how knowledgeable you are.I believe the most overlooked forms of SEO are SEO copywriting and internal site links. I teach these to folks I build new websites for. It only takes a couple of hours and changes their traffic results dramatically, if they do that extra 5 - 10 minutes of work for each page they post.

Oct 02, 2012

Hi, correct please "age of domain" to the "age of site".

Sally G
Oct 03, 2013

Came across this article while researching information for local seo clients.Interesting to note that these points are still valid today. If anything with the rise of keyword tools that analyse competition and small business owners starting to read up on the importance of keywords, ranking has increased in difficulty.The removal of search query data by Google will mean that efforts need to switch to search engine marketing, not sure that PPC is good advice unless a business has nailed their local keyword research. 

Jul 17, 2015

thanks for sharing this article !
it will help me alot

Nov 07, 2015

PPC is a horrible idea for a new website. There is no reason to pay for a one time visitor and the chances that visitor will share the website is next to slim.

Jun 16, 2016

Nice article. I like how you describe "Google is in full-on battle mode against SEO spammers. 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". Thanks for sharing this important hint.

Teresa walker
Sep 23, 2016

Your Article is Wonderful ! A lot of Great Tips and Very nicely written . Thank you for sharing with us.

Dec 20, 2016

I'm slowly getting the 'be patient' bit

Oct 10, 2017

I am agreed with your blog. We should focus on these points. Thank you for sharing this information

Abdul | Rak Web
Oct 30, 2017

Google is the Mountain, the rock is the keyword and the young lady is the SEO :-) Lovely photo and awesome article.
thanks for sharing..

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