Recently, I took part in a Page One Power webinar where someone asked a great question.
Is it possible to beat big companies in search engine results pages (SERPs) when they dominate the top five results?
The person who asked this question was thinking about big companies like Amazon or Walmart. It’s a problem that has entered the mind of everyone with an e-commerce website. When sites like Amazon offer almost every product under the sun, it’s natural to wonder if there’s still space for the little guy.
The short answer is yes. You can absolutely still succeed in organic search even if you are competing against major websites with billion-dollar marketing budgets. You can succeed by setting realistic goals, taking advantage of your sharper focus, and going after the right opportunities, such as long-tail keywords.
Challenges in Highly Competitive Organic Search Spaces
Some search spaces are dominated by companies with huge marketing budgets and domains that carry authority on brand recognition alone. These are the Amazons and Walmarts of the internet. Let us call the spaces the companies operate in highly competitive.
They are competitive above and beyond the usual level because of the strength of the competitors. In particular, three challenges make it difficult to rank in these spaces:
- Backlink Portfolios: Major websites can earn backlinks from very authoritative domains through reputation alone. A website like Amazon can see fresh mentions from major news sites daily, with little to no effort on its part.
- Domain Age: Many, though not all, websites that dominate the SERPs have been in a dominant position for a long time. Domain age is a known ranking factor, meaning that it can be difficult for newer websites to dislodge competitors that have been around for a long time.
- On-Page Optimization: A website with an enormous SEO budget can afford to optimize each and every one of its pages for specific queries, even if it has thousands of product pages. More than that, these websites can constantly revisit pages and update on-page practices, so that their user experience is always improving.
So, to get ahead in these highly competitive spaces, you must battle against competitors that have no trouble earning backlinks, have been around on the web for years (if not decades), and are constantly revisiting their on-page practices to stay ahead of the curve.
Beating this kind of competition is a tall order, but you don’t have to do it alone. Despite everything working against the little guy in these competitive search spaces, some things are working in your favor.
Your Advantages in Highly Competitive Spaces
Even in search spaces that are dominated by major players, smaller operations have a few advantages:
In June 2019, Google rolled out an algorithm change that prevented more than two results from a given domain from appearing near the top of a SERP in most cases. Google did this in the name of more diversity in search, so that users could pick from a wider range of results to meet their needs.
For you, this means that larger sites like Amazon cannot completely dominate a SERP — they have to get out of the way and allow other sites to share in some of the glory. Even if you aren’t batting on the same level as these major companies, Google is still interested in allowing sites like yours to occupy page one of the SERPs in the name of giving searchers the best possible menu of results.
Large websites tend to offer an extremely wide range of products. On the one hand, this means that they can intrude on almost any niche. However, being the jack of all trades means that these websites are the master of none.
The sharper focus afforded by your company’s smaller profile means that you can do things that these larger websites cannot. For example, choosing a domain name with an exact match to your niche.
Search engines also consider something called topical authority as a ranking factor. Topical (or semantic) authority is a representation of your domain’s expertise on a given subject.
Topical authority comes in various layers of depth. A website like Amazon may have some shallow authority on, for example, bicycle pedals, simply because they have many product pages for this query. However, they’re never going to cover bicycle pedals topically at the same level of depth as a company that deals exclusively in that product.
One way to establish topical authority is through content.
The Role of Content and Link Building in David vs Goliath
For major companies, these kinds of content don’t make a whole lot of sense. A large company like Amazon is already ranking for a lot of keywords related to their many products; they don’t need to create additional content to secure keywords.
As we mentioned above, these companies can also earn backlinks from prestigious domains just by existing and leaving their massive footprint on the world. They don’t need to create content specifically designed to earn backlinks.
The fact that these companies don’t need to — and therefore do not make it a priority to — create these kinds of content works to your advantage if you’re a smaller company operating in a competitive search space.
Content gives you access to two things that your larger competitors aren’t pursuing:
Earlier we talked about topical authority and its role in search engine rankings. Since large websites include mostly product pages — and product pages spanning a wide range of industries — they cannot establish much depth of topical authority related to a given industry.
By creating robust content that answers user questions about your industry and the products you offer, you can establish a level of authority in your niche that companies like Amazon will never be able to rival.
Great content that answers user questions will also help you to earn links with more relevance than the more generic fresh mentions that large companies earn links from.
Extremely Specific Keywords
Large companies often rank well for generic product searches. For example, a simple search for “widgets.” However, they miss out on a whole range of more detailed searches related to widgets. For example:
- “What color widget should I get?”
- “How to install a widget.”
- “Fresh widgets made in America.”
Many of these more detailed keyword phrases — also called longtail keywords — are more directly connected to purchase intent than a search for just “widget.” Since large companies aren’t creating the content that they need to go after these keywords, they represent an opportunity for smaller companies to carve out a space of their own in the SERPs.
What Counts as a Win?
If you’re going to fight against large companies in highly competitive search spaces, you need to set strategic but realistic goals for yourself. There are other ways to win besides ranking number one for all of your target keywords. Some attainable goals include:
Ranking Just Below Large Companies
Even if you don’t hold the number one spot on a SERP, you can still earn a lot of traffic. This might even be more true for SERPs dominated by large companies.
For example, consider the audience of searchers who are looking for an e-commerce alternative to Amazon. The company has earned a lot of public attention lately for its warehouse working conditions and many people are looking for other companies to buy from in the wake of this news. So even if they see Amazon in the number one ranking, they have a good reason to scroll right past it and look for the next highest result.
If you are the next highest result, then you stand to earn a lot of traffic, even though you aren’t at the top of the SERP.
Ranking for More Specific Keywords With Lower Volume
Everyone who sells widgets wants to rank for “widget” on Google. It’s a keyword with a lot of search volume that is directly related to the product on offer. However, if that keyword is dominated by large companies, that won’t always be possible.
Instead of seeing “widget” as the only winning keyword, broaden your horizons. Go after longer tail keywords that are untouched by large companies. Even if the volume is lower, you can score a greater share of traffic this way rather than throwing all of your resources at an extremely competitive keyword.
Pursue Alternative Search Engines
When I say “alternative search engines,” I’m not just talking about Bing. The second-largest search engine in the world is YouTube, where people search for videos. After that, Amazon rolls in at a comfortable third place, as people’s top destination for searching for specific products.
Large companies may dominate text-based search on Google, but that is not the only way to reach customers. You can create videos about your products and try to rank on YouTube. You can also take advantage of Amazon’s market share by selling your products on their website and trying to rank well within the Amazon search engine.
You cannot always beat Amazon and Walmart on a conventional Google SERP. However, if you set realistic goals for ranking targets, pursue more focused keywords, and explore alternatives to traditional search, you can still be highly competitive in e-commerce.