Surprise! Or Not! Competitive Industries

Nichola just asked me this: Which sectors have you found surprisingly competitive and why? I decided to answer this from my own billion-feet-in-the-air perspective, ask my link builders, and ask a few SEOs who don’t do exactly what I do. The results were pretty cool but not cool enough to put into any form of spreadsheet or nice set of graphs. Just read.

ridiculous surprise emoticon

The floral industry was insanely difficult and pricey in my opinion. This totally surprised me as I’d worked with that industry before and thought it was quite easy at the time but that was when I did regular SEO, not link building. I knew they would of course do big holiday and seasonal pushes as they’re obviously going to be selling more flowers on Valentine’s Day than they would on Feb 17th, but it still surprised me to witness both the client and webmasters going so over the top with money. If I could have spent triple the budget on links, any way I could get them, I could have gotten that budget easily.

Gambling is very competitive but has been the easiest one for us overall. I don’t have a problem with gambling and I have always thought it was quite a fun niche to work in. However, this was an interesting choice for me to pick because most of my link builders do view it as a tough one even though they link for it very well. From my perspective, we do a great job, and they get some great links but those great links are definitely tricky.

The finance sector has been fun but there are both low and high ends there, and we’ve done both. The higher end stuff is trickier I think, as if you’re building links for a well-known financial client, you aren’t going to be asking Mommy bloggers for links or trying to appeal to every fool who has a 4 post site about how he earns a living through selling crap on eBay. I’m not a financial type in any respect (lovely quality for a business owner, no?) and I don’t find a lot of it to be overly interesting so the brainstorming has been harder for me personally with that industry. The low end financial niche was actually pretty damned easy because due to the nature of what those guys did, we found it very easy to relate it to just about anything. I’m proud to say that my link builders agree with me here, as otherwise I’d smack them all.

What has really surprised me about quoting jobs is that there’s one major niche that stands out as never, ever wanting to pay anything even close to what I ask for, and that’s the legal profession. I’ve probably done at least 15 quotes for lawyers over the past few years and every single one has seemed outraged that I actually want money. This industry wins the award for “is sent proposal and never emails back” too. I’m not sure if that really has anything to do with “surprisingly competitive” but it did spring to mind so there you go. Anyone have this same experience? Note: Todd mentions the legal industry in his piece below, which is interesting…is PPC the usual route for these guys, thereby causing them to think anything else is just  a waste of time and money?

Overall, I think that the competitiveness of a lot of industries comes down to what clients are willing to do in terms of ideas, resources on their side and ours, and money.  Generating and implementing creative strategies that are designed to do well in the long-term takes a lot of energy and time, and clients don’t always want to pay for it. Many times it is more expensive than just throwing cash at us and asking us to buy links. We have spent countless hours brainstorming ideas for content creation and promotion, and only rarely have we been asked to implement them because they’re expensive. Due to this, I’ve stopped giving out proposals for strategy because I’m quite tired of spending the time and handing it off for free.

I asked a few other people about this since my ideas of difficulty differed from that of my link builders in some cases. Here’s what they had to say.

James Agate, Director of Skyrocket SEO and overall genuine nice guy:

“We have found a number of local markets to be incredibly competitive to work in – not all of course, but some are certainly much more challenging dare I say it than for our clients in travel insurance, gambling and finance. We don’t have a lot of “local business” type clients but from time to time an opportunity to work with a good one (read: I like the owner or what the business does) comes along.

I guess we find these often to be surprisingly challenging for the following reasons:

  • Competitors hustle like they mean it – I am often surprised how closely local SERPs are monitored by competitors, at a local level we see competitive reactions much faster than in any other markets that we work in. I put this down to the business owners taking it very personally, not only do they like the trophy of being the number 1 locksmith in town on Google (they’ll check rankings daily) but they really rather enjoy all the business that it sends them.
  • Their competitors dominate and I mean really dominate – we see quite a few of our competitors with multiple domains and such a thirst for SEO that they’ve left NO keyword unturned (practically no opportunities for quick wins/low hanging fruit) just a long hard slog to the top.
  • A small business is hiring us because they’re new to the market or they’ve been ‘missing out’ – This often means that they are way behind their competitors which I think to me and my team makes the market ‘feel’ more competitive as we seek to overcome a greater natural search gap.”

Peter Attia, banjo-playing SEO extraordinare and Cucumber Nebula master says:

“One of the industries that caught me completely off guard was HIPAA Compliant Hosting. HIPAA Is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which helps regulate certain standards for health insurance.

I’ve worked in both insurance niches and hosting niches before and understood how competitive they could be. However, when I looked up “HIPAA Hosting” I saw that it only got about 200 exact match searches a month and this was one of their highest searched terms. I figured it couldn’t be that hard to make a dent in.

What I wasn’t aware of, is this type of hosting contains potentially sensitive information of people and/or businesses. This required very heavy security, making each account worth thousands of dollars if not more. So, even though their weren’t many sales coming in through this term, each sale was worth several times more than a normal account.

This made me realize I should never let my guard down, even if something looks like an easy win.”

Bas van den Beld, founder of State of Search, nicest Dutchman ever: “The most obvious ones here are off course finance related (loans, insurance) because that is a competitive space. But that is hardly surprising. What is becoming more competitive is an interesting one, namely apps and social in general. Try doing a search for ‘whatsapp’ and you will have a lot of work getting to the top on that term. Or terms like Twitter and Facebook themselves. If you are for example a company who is consulting in that area you will have a big issue getting found in the first place.

I don’t know if you can call this surprising, but at least it is something different than say five years ago when apps and social media were easy to rank for, after all, we didn’t know as much about them then as we know now.”

Todd Mintz , Sr. Account Manager at PPC Associates and possessor of the best taste in films of anyone in the industry said: “In paid search, pretty much everything is competitive :.)

However, I’ve found that anything in the legal area (especially in the high ROI arena of finding plaintiffs for contingency lawsuits) is especially brutal.  It isn’t just because lawyers have some of the deepest pockets (because there are other finance areas with rich PPC budgets).  The keyword niches are so incredibly narrow that there really isn’t nearly as many relevant keywords that are in play to bid on, meaning it’s an arms race for top position.  With the demise of Yahoo PPC (which frequently favored long tail keywords), the old PPC tactic of adding every keyword variation under the sun to your campaign to poach long tail traffic doesn’t really work anymore.  AdWords will favor high bids on short tail terms, squeezing all the cheap clicks out of the auction.”

And then there’s silly David Wiseman, SEO Account Manager at Kahena and koala fan who simply said “We had a client who sold machines that helped farmers pick low-hanging fruit. You would be amazed how competitive the low-hanging fruit industry actually is.”

Thanks to everyone who contributed…and if anyone has anything to add, we’d love to hear it! Unless it’s rude, you bunch of nuts.


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16 Responses to “Surprise! Or Not! Competitive Industries”

  1. Zach Doty says:


    Great read – in regards to the legal industry, I think it goes on case by case basis (no pun intended). Different areas of practice mean different types of cycles, rewards and profit (e.g., mass torts vs. contract vs. personal injury). My firm has had the good fortune of working with some SEO conscious clients, simultaneously, the competition is quite stiff.

    One vertical not mentioned: real estate. In my experience, it is a very competitive space. One often deals with listing services, brokers, actual real estate companies and review services – even sometimes in the long tail keywords. Another danger is looking at nice houses and apartments in the afternoon!

  2. Kate Rose says:

    Really interesting to hear about the challenges in a related industry – I’m now tempted to do a post like this for social media marketing, as there are certainly sector themes around challenging / “can’t you do it for free” clients!
    I’ve just found your blog via searchengineland, and will definitely be back. I’m not going to put your collaborative approach (as shown in this post too!) and honesty down to *just* a gender thing, but there’s definitely a certain level of one-upmanship common to a lot of the guy-run SEO blogs I follow…

  3. Julie Joyce says:

    Thanks guys! Zach, I have never worked with real estate but figured it was very competitive as well.

    Kate, I hope you will be back! I’d love to read your post if you do write one about social media so make sure you let us know!

  4. Great article. Totally agree on flowers. Also agree on lawyers – I won’t work with them or doctors unless it’s in trade – my theory is they’re too busy to care, and don’t help at all in the process. Without any understanding, they don’t know the difference between choosing good and bad services. Same thing applies to real estate agents (which is another VERY competitive vertical within local spaces).

    I was also personally shocked with the competition involved for halloween costumes. Anything seasonal becomes very high risk/ high reward. If you get bumped right before the season, you’re kinda screwed.

    I would actually add miami fishing to that list (though we got it covered) – amazing how competitive some salty old fishing folks got down here – every single kw domain variation was registered, and lots of them were spammin’ and jammin’ with all kinds of grey hat link schemes. For guys that rarely touch a computer I was kinda shocked.

    I’ve heard locksmiths are also quite competitive in the local space of lots of metro cities.

    It’s no surprise that finance, gambling, etc. are competitive – but it’s definitely more so when it’s “local+keyword” and a few folks have figured it out (miami + real estate), (san francisco + locksmith) etc. Seasonality also adds a pretty serious dimension of competition due to the timing. Since you’re already shooting at a moving target, you have know idea what the competition has up their sleeve.

  5. Julie Joyce says:

    Mr Malicoat! Thanks for stopping by and commenting! The locksmith thing is definitely news to me…that would be an insanely fun niche I bet.

  6. I agree with Zach that real estate is a particularly competitive industry. This is because each brokerage can have 1-30 or 30-100 realtors and each one is considered an independent contractor responsible for their own marketing. To add gasoline on the competition, each lead is seen as potentially worth a home sale and a commission of thousands of dollars and newbie Realtors entering the market all of the time chasing phantom cash. This means you have continual competition in unending waves.

  7. Alan Bleiweiss says:

    In my experience, any industry that attracts lead generation can be a big challenge and the bigger the payoff (as in lawsuits for example), the more likely lead gen will pollute most of the channels so it takes more effort to evaluate what the real opportunities are and what the fake, lead-gen created stuff is.

    I did work for a law firm in the mesothelioma arena for a few years and even though we were highly successful, it took hours upon hours of weeding out fake sites that were really just fronts for lead gen, or fake lead gen sites that were ultimately discovered to just be fronts for individual law firms.

    The pay on that client work was amazing though, unlike your experience of stingy lawyers. Their SEO budget was around $150k a year with another couple hundred thousand a year for PPC on top of that.

  8. Porn, Pills, Casinos and….recipes? Yep, the recipes vertical is crazy competitive. Big publications go all out on the link building and social media push, and every onsite tactic is in play. Now it’s an all out war of who can use schema/microformat markup on every ingredient under the sun.

    I like to take a break from recipes with some relaxing pharma SEO.

  9. Julie Joyce says:


    And Alan I love it that you managed to find the only non-stingy lawyer out there. I know that mesothelioma has to be majorly competitive…I think that’s the fun of a lot of this though. It’s not all that gratifying to have it easy all the time.

    Thanks for the comments guys!

  10. Alan Bleiweiss says:

    Matthew – Recipes? yeah? Where the heck is the profit in a recipe’s site? Pillsbury Dough Boy ads? who knew?!!! I love this industry. I learn so many fascinating things…

    And Julie – my client wasn’t the only non-stingy firm. Each meso case can net millions for the law firm. that’s the key. But yeah, most law firms that don’t specialize like that really aren’t that interested in spending big bucks on SEO. That’s true.

    And that reminded me of the MARKETING COMPANY that ignored ALL our SEO recommendations and didn’t want to pay for ANY of our services after the initial audit. Because they were stuck in 20th century mentality. Which a lot of marketing companies are.

  11. Meg Geddes says:


    Seriously. Mold. You would not BELIEVE what goes on there.

  12. Julie Joyce says:

    Mold! Always believe in your’ve got the power to know you’re ind…oh never mind. Actually that’s good to know as I think we own a really nice mold domain.

  13. I’ve dealt with 3 or 4 attorneys and all were no-shows after the proposals. I live in a part of the midwest where EVERY potential client wants something for nothing. Every other potential client will say, “I guess I could just google it and do it myself” or “my neighbor’s kid is a tech wiz, it’ll probably only take him 20 minutes”

  14. Aussiewebmaster says:

    Halloween costumes is huge and unfortunately Google is doing a shitty job cleaning up the serps there – I have seen so many dynamic generated results from search pages with no results for those terms it is ridiculous – so Todd send them to me am becoming an expert!!

    Also selling education is now highly competitive though not for SEO classes – Marketing Profs own the space!

    Lawyrs and doctors are because they are location specific, as is real estate etc.

    It would be easier to name non competitive areas these days really.

  15. [...] Joyce wrote an interesting post on this topic over on SEOChicks, where everything from law to finance to HIPAA compliant hosting to local lead generation are [...]

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