Getting Your SEO Priorities Straight with the Keyword Equation


billions and billions of web pages

There are a lot of web pages out there competing for the #1 rank for a lot of keywords. Good SEO is all about picking your battles. You have limited resources, and seemingly unlimited competition, so you need to decide where best to target your SEO efforts and then go hard.

That’s why we use a system called The Keyword Equation to determine a keyword’s value relative to another with a figure called the Keyword Value Index.

(Yes, there’s math involved. No, it won’t hurt you.)

Keyword Value simplified equation

See, it’s a simple concept.

Now let’s add some details to the variables.

Determining Relative Keyword Benefit

Before we dig in, let’s pause on the word relative. This equation should be used after we already know how much SEO resources we’re working with. The purpose of this system is not to project ROI on SEO tactics. The purpose is to see how different keywords stack up against one another, so we can divvy up our allocated SEO resources appropriately. Thus, we’re not concerned with absolute accurate numbers on keyword value; we’re only concerned with accurately determining keyword worth relative to one another. Understanding this enables us to take shortcuts when practical and bypass the endless minutia required to get accurate absolute value projections. Unpause.

Simple Keyword Value Index Equation

Benefit of Ranking High = Visit Quantity x Visit Quality

Simple quantity times quality. So now we have:

Keyword Value 3 variable equation

In Excel, that would look like this:

Keyword Value simplified equation in Excel

 (Note how our keyword with the most estimated visits has the lowest index. This is a frequent occurrence in real world applications. One of the benefits of the Keyword Equation is that it puts visit quantity in perspective.)

Visit Quantity

Visit Quantity = Total Searches x Click-Thru-Rate

Typically, your input for Total Searches will come in the form of “monthly query volume” from a tool such as AdWords Keyword Planner.

For Click-Thru-Rate, I often ignore it, because I’m almost always going for the #1 ranking position. Thus, the projected Click-Thru-Rate is relatively stable, and doesn’t change how Keyword Value Index numbers look relative to one another.

However, you may want to adjust Click-Thru-Rate to reflect situations like SERPs with a lot of advertisements (lower CTR for every organic position) or SERPs with a unbeatable page ranking #1 (where you may have to settle for #2). If you want to use the CTR input, the important thing is to remember exponential increases as you climb the ranks. (which is why we don’t go for #2).

CTR based on SERP, based on different studies

CTR based on SERP, based on different studies

Visit Quality

I like to use the term Per-Visit-Value for visit quality. It’s the average contribution to your website’s goals from a single visit for a given search query. There’s a few ways to derive a useful figure for Per-Visit-Value, depending on your situation. For example:

For e-commerce, Per-Visit-Value = Conversion Rate x Value of Sale (in lifetime profit, if desired)

For lead gen, Per-Visit-Value =Conversion Rate x Lead Close Rate x Value of Sale (in lifetime profit, if desired)

For GA pros: you can take advantage of the page value metric (my favorite metric) and use that for educated guesses, if you have sufficient data on organic or paid keywords and if you have entered in proper goal values in Google Analytics (which you really should) or you’ve properly set-up e-commerce conversion tracking (which you really should).

If you lack sufficient quantitative data (which is often in practice), then you can make an educated guess on Per-Visit-Value by considering:

  • known data for benchmarks
  • relevance (of your content to the keyword)
  • user intent (navigational, informational, investigative, transactional — read a classic on intent here)

Cost of Ranking High (AKA Keyword Difficulty)

Getting to #1 ain’t easy. It takes time and money to win links, make great content, and optimize your page. In addition to those resources, ranking high takes another resource — precious real estate on your site. Typically the best keywords are targeted on the home page, because that page has too much link equity and importance to be targeting scrub keywords.

There’s really no way that I know of to purely mathematically calculate the difficulty of getting to number 1 for a keyword.  Instead, I like to assign a value (your scale doesn’t matter as long as you use the scale consistently) for keyword difficulty based on analysis of a combination of quantitative and qualitative factors. There are several factors that impact how difficult it will be to rank #1 for a given keyword, and the weight of each factor just depends. These factors are:

  • current ranking (getting from #1 to #1 is easier than going from #100 to #1)
  • ease of implementation (it’s easier to write a great page for “triple-skummeled widgets” if you already have a file on triple-skummeling and an expert on widgets than if you don’t).
  • competition


That last one is the toughest part of this equation; but it’s important. The important thing is to rank the difficulty of each keyword in the analysis (again, you can use any scale you want as long as you’re consistent). Here’s an article of 35 SEO experts giving advice on measuring keyword competition. Personally, my typical way of gauging competition is:

  • gauging link equity/authority of top 5 SERPs (I like the Moz difficulty tool although it’s not-free)
  • gauging level of on-page keyword optimization (a scan of the Title and Description often will do)
  • asking “can we make a better page on this topic than anyone else?”


First, no matter how big the Keyword Value Index is, there’s likely a keyword difficulty level that is outside of your reach, given your current resources. If you want to push past that limit, you’ll need to get really creative.

Second, there’s more to search query segmentation than keywords. People also perform search engine queries on the basis of:

  • location
  • search vertical (image, video, news, etc…)
  • recency (newer results vs. any results)
  • device (mobile vs. non-mobile)
  • social (Google+)
  • personalization


When you consider these factors, you’ll be able to understand and thus target audience segments more effectively than on keywords alone. You can also break down competitive keywords into smaller, attainable segments by adding filters. For example, Joe the plumber may not be able to get his site ranking on the first page for “plumbers nationwide”, but it he should be able to do it for people searching in his hometown of Pittsburgh.

Now What?

Well now that I forced you to do math, I’ll share with you a no-frills Google Docs workbook with the Keyword Value Index calculations built in. You can make a copy of this spreadsheet to use yourself under the File menu.

keyword value index extended calc spreadsheet

Here’s the final, extended calculation, if you break it down into all the component variables:

Keyword Value Index Extended Calculation

So what can you do with this number?

There are 5 big things I like to do.

  1. Determine which keywords are worth targeting and which aren’t.
  2. Prioritize resource allocation, such as outreach and copy-writing.
  3. Determine what keywords need love sooner and what can wait.
  4. Inform site architecture, with high value keywords getting prime real estate (like the home page or pages linked to from the main menu) and lower-value keywords getting lower value real estate.
  5. Maintain perspective: the equation helps guide holistic, ROI-driven SEO, where high-volumes are just a piece of the puzzle.


Reid Bandremer is a former LunaMetrician and contributor to our blog.

  • Andrew Garberson

    Reid, thanks for bringing the SEO conversation back to the numbers. ROI is always important, even for those of us who did not excel in STEM courses.

  • Joe

    Finally someone has done it! Thank you for this equation (which I still have to fully digest). I think a lot of us have played around with this at some level, and this is another great tool to use!

    • Reid Bandremer

      Thanks Joe and Andy.

  • Brilliant! Thanks for sharing this, will get on with some maths:)

  • not too sure where to get the ‘per visit value’? Could you help please? (I have fill access to Moz, if that helps)

    • Reid Bandremer


      Moz can help you with guaging competition to help determine difficulty, but it won’t help with per-visit-value. Basically, per-visit-value = conversion rate x value of conversion.

      The detailed math for perfect per-visit-value (especially value of conversion) depends on:
      a)how well you’ve set up Google Analytics
      b)how well you know your business numbers and
      c)the type of site you have.
      There’s enough scenarios to write a whole other article, so I could help more if I knew your scenario.

      The simplest example is ecommerce: Per-Visit-Value = Conversion Rate x Value of Sale .
      If you really want to get technical, the value of sale figure would factor in profit for the item being sold and lifetime profit of acquiring the new customer.

      When the website has absolutely 0 data on conversions, then one could estimate relative per visit-value by considering the company goals (for example, which services they make the most money on), keyword relevance, and keyword intent. A quicker way many people go about estimating per-visit-value is by using the cost-per-click figure from AdWords Keyword Planner, but that has mixed results since it’s based on how others value the keyword.

      Hope that helps.

  • Val

    Where did you get the difficulty rating value from?

    • Reid Bandremer


      The difficulty rating can be any numeric value you assign, and you want to peg it to your estimation of the resources required to optimize for it.

      For example, say you have two keywords that are identical in estimated visit quantity and visit quality. BUT, you give keyword A a difficulty rating of 2 and keyword B a difficulty rating of 4. Because you’re saying that optimizing for keyword B would take twice the resources that keyword A would (and therefore cost twice as much), then our equation means that keyword A would have a keyword value index double that of keyword B.

      As far as determining difficulty, I have some tips above; let me know if you have any more specific questions.

  • Whoa.. So we can now assume (presume) the earning before targeting the keyword. This is epic!

  • Super interesting way to look into it. I’ll definitely give it a try !

  • All of this is SUPER helpful, but what I really struggle with is how many keywords to target? Do I target 1,000 or just 10 very specific and competitive keywords?

    • Reid Bandremer


      I missed your question until just now. So sorry.

      Short answer: Depends/both/neither.

      Long answer:
      1. Group keywords and pay attention to the long-tail – and you’ll be able to reap the benefits of both targeting few keywords and of targeting a lot of keywords. Some folks can get really far by properly executing a plan to have 5 really great pages (or sections) targeting 5 very attractive keyword groups, with each page/section targeting multiple variants and tons of long-tail keywords derived from the ‘head’ keyword. If you treat all keywords as separate entities however, you’ll be at a disadvantage.

      2. 2 common mistakes are a) too many keyword groups, and b)not enough long-tails derivations for each group. Most people under-estimate the difficulty of ranking for a keyword and don’t put enough effort into each one. That means most people would be better off targeting less keyword groups. They also rarely explore the nuances and long-tail derivations of a keyword group deeply enough. A focused, “tight”, cohesive keyword targeting strategy typically beats a fragmented approach. But sometimes a wide net is best if you can be a big boat and there’s a lot of fish – however, you always need your targets to be synergistic.

      3. Think about it in fundamental business and marketing terms. How many distinct services do you provide? How many distinct, worthwhile audience segments are there? Can major audience segments be broken down into sub-segments? How do you stack up against the competition and what is the best marketing segmentation strategy to deal with the competition? The ideal number of keyword targets depends heavily on these answers.

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