How to Target Striking Distance Keywords in Search (Updated for 2021)

Scott Merilatt / 4th August 2021 / Comment / Content Strategy



Originally posted November 3, 2016. Updated August 4, 2021.


At Wheelhouse, we’re quite fond of striking distance SEO. It’s an art that’s been lost in the daily cacophony of tricks, hot takes, and algorithm updates — but at the end of the day, it’s a reliable way to drive real value with pages on the brink of success.

What is the overall goal of striking distance optimization? Put simply, it’s to push high-converting pages into the top 4 positions in organic search (i.e. the most likely to be clicked) in order to maximize revenue (or leads).

Search Engine Land has a great overview of the expected traffic increases from rank movement. The TLDR: There’s a sweet spot for rank movement. Moving from the second page to the middle of the first, or from the bottom of the first page to the middle/top, can really move the needle on traffic.

In the world of 2021 SEO, this sweet spot is a bit more nuanced. Pages are often vying for the top position on a SERP by intent – particularly for high-volume, fractured-intent keywords. (Be sure to read our blog post on search intent for best practices, examples, and tips for optimization.)

Below, we’ll break down six steps for targeting striking distance keywords – a handy rubric for identifying and capturing quick, low-hanging SEO wins for your site.

1. Identify keywords within striking distance

The fertile ground for on-page content optimization is a keyword ranking between roughly position 5 and 15. It may even be as high as position 4, depending on the keyword and page in question. It’s not an exact science, and it’s largely dependent on your SERP competition. But we’ve found that even small optimizations can influence upward rank movement in this range.

Pay attention to search results for your striking distance keyword. Are they grouped by search intent? Are there articles, informational results or reviews? Where are your direct competitors? Are there actually 10 spots up for grabs on the first page? For many door-buster, high-volume queries (where search intention can be a bit more varied), Google likes to cover its bases with a mix of results (informational, e-commerce, local, etc.).

Let’s say, for example, you sell lawn mowers, and you’re within striking distance of the first page for the term “lawn mowers”.

Your hypothetical lawn mower category page meets the transactional intent – but Google is only showing two transactional organic results above the fold, sandwiched between a map pack and a top stories carousel:­­

If you’re sitting down at the bottom of page 1 as a transactional result – this is your competition, and it’s only two spots on the first page. The organic results below this are devoted to buying guides and best lists that are meeting a completely different search intent: research.

So if you’re sitting at position 9 or 10, it’s not realistic to be in position 3-5, because Google has “reserved” that organic real estate for a different search intent that your page does not meet.

When selecting targets for striking distance, this type of SERP analysis is critical to get a sense of the opportunity. Do we want to optimize our category page to go up against strong competitors in position 1 or 2? Or maybe we want to pivot to optimizing our lawn mower buying guide to target position 3-5. These types of decisions will ensure you’re operating in reality and not targeting positions that are out of reach.

2. Ensure there’s enough demand

The primary goal of striking distance optimization is not to increase position ranking — it’s to increase organic revenue or leads. It’s all too easy to get caught up in position movement, but if it doesn’t increase your bottom line, it’s just a game.

And that brings us to demand. In most cases, you don’t want to spend time precision-optimizing a keyword with 140 searches a month. At that range, moving from position 8 to position 4 is not going to drive significant revenue.

Instead, it’s better focus on topics rather than individual keywords. Keyword research can maximize your opportunity by surfacing both high-volume door-buster opportunities and the long-tail. You should, in the end, be targeting a group of keywords that share a competitive set of results – and your optimizations should drive movement across the entire group and not just one keyword.

3. Choose pages that are not already optimized to death

Say you’re stuck in position 11 for “electric train sets.” Your ranking page is an e-commerce category selling … electric train sets. Your title tag, meta description, H1, friendly URL, on-page content … all mention electric train sets. Your site structure points dozens of internal links to your page with the anchor text: (you guessed it!) electric train sets.

At this point, any old-school optimizations for “electric train sets” is overkill. There’s a ceiling, and you hit it yesterday.

Instead, focus on pages where you lack content depth or are only partially meeting search intent. Refreshing old articles with a renewed focus on topical depth has consistently driven performance for our clients. Another successful tactic in our experience: replacing boilerplate SEO copy on product or category pages (that you wrote in 2012) with in-depth research/consideration content or FAQs.

4. Be on the hunt for quick, low-hanging wins

Efficiency is one major advantage to striking distance optimization. Be on the lookout for quick wins: an underwhelming title tag, an article that could use just one or two more paragraphs for depth, or a featured snippet that’s within range. In 2021, being intentional and thoughtful about your optimizations – even with these quick and easy tactics – can drive meaningful performance.

5. Pay attention to page relevance

If you’re already on the first or second page for a high-volume query, there’s a good chance your page is somewhat relevant. But there’s a lot of subtlety here. Pay close attention to CTR, especially at a keyword-specific level. Look at the top search results — does your page fit in? Are you in the top position for your specific intent? Or is there a competitor with a similar page type that’s beating you?

And remember, relevance is a spectrum – if you’re not quite as relevant as your competition, there’s always room for improvement.

6. Don’t lose sight of your conversion rates! 

All the above means nothing if your page can’t convert users into customers. It’s a problem higher rankings won’t solve (they’ll actually just make it worse). When vetting for striking distance opportunities, put forward your best and brightest. If none of your pages convert, you should really be prioritizing CRO over striking distance SEO. And that’s a post for another day.

Learn more about the striking distance tactics we outlined above:

By Scott Merilatt