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BACK TO BASICS: Keyword Research for a Firm SEO Foundation

by Paula Allen, September 15, 2009

Keywords lay the foundation for any successful search engine optimization (SEO) project. As a Web site owner or marketer, you need to know what words and phrases people may type into a search engine to find exactly what your site offers. Then you can strategically optimize Web pages around those keywords, and naturally attract the right type of visitors to your site -- people who will be interested enough to buy, sign up, enroll, subscribe, or do whatever action represents a conversion. And where do you start? With keyword research! Even after the site is humming along, regularly practicing your keyword research skills is necessary if you want to maintain that foundation and keep a competitive edge.

What is Keyword Research?

Keyword research involves discovering keyword phrases and evaluating them for possible implementation on a Web site. Done right, it's an expansion and then distillation process, as shown in the diagram below.

Keyword Research Diagram

Keyword research diagram

During the discovery phase the goal is to accumulate potential keywords using a variety of methods. There are no "bad" ideas at this point: if the word or phrase could possibly relate to the Web site, it can tentatively be considered. Too many people miss good, productive keywords simply because they keep their filters too tight or don't look creatively enough for new related words and phrases.

The next phase of keyword research involves evaluating each keyword to find the ones with the highest potential not only to rank, but also to attract targeted traffic. In this filtering stage, the big list of tentative keywords shrinks a bit into a distilled set. Even people who do their keyword evaluation by gut instinct use some sort of internal filters, however unconsciously, to decide what keywords to actually implement on their Web site. But knowing some essential criteria and applying them intentionally can take a Web marketer's keyword research skills to the next level.

Keyword Discovery Phase

Keyword discovery takes creativity and some good research tools. Of the many ways to discover new keywords, the six activities below make for a powerful keyword discovery procedure.

Brainstorm

Most articles on keyword research suggest brainstorming as a first step. And it's true -- the best place to start is with every word or phrase you can think of related to the Web site. To prompt more ideas, consider the site's theme; primary subjects; products and services offered; frequently occurring words and phrases in the site itself or in company marketing materials; and topics that are routinely covered, if it's an information-oriented site.

Ask others

Find out what "regular" people think your Web site is about. You're probably expert in the subject, but your target audience is not. Ask a neighbor, friend or the pizza delivery man how they would search for whatever you do. Also ask the sales team, if you have one. Mine them for the words prospects use when they first inquire, and ask how they explain the business to a non-initiated listener. There could be keyword gold there.

Use keyword tools

Expand an initial set of keywords by plugging them into online tools that give you related keywords and search statistics from actual search query data. The most valuable free tool is the Google AdWords Keyword Tool. Type in one keyword or keyword phrase at a time, starting with your most general keyword seed ideas, and Google shows you a comprehensive list of related search queries. Use "Exact" match and the "Use synonyms" option to see the most complete set of related keywords. Sort the list by search volume (either local or global, depending on your market reach). Then export all the words to Excel using the "Download all keywords: csv (for excel)" feature at the bottom. Export the additional keywords as well. You'll manage all this data later in the evaluation phase, but for now just build a list.

Check your site search

A site search can provide a rich vein of keyword ideas. A small, easy-to-install search box lets visitors type, in their own words, what they're looking for within your site. You can set up a custom interface, install a Bing box for free or get a Google site search for a small usage fee, and start capturing people's queries first-hand.

Search social media

Chances are that what people talk about on Twitter, Facebook and the like, they also search for in Google. Run some searches at the various social media/networking sites and locate related articles and conversations. Try to find out where communities with your targeted audience gather online, and get involved. Joining in will help you identify good keywords, but simultaneously build customer relationships and your brand, too.

Examine your competitors

Run searches to see which Web sites are currently ranking for your top keywords. Figuring out what their main keywords are and what supplementary words may be reinforcing them on the page can give you valuable insight. You can paste the competitor's URL into a free page analysis tool such as the SEOToolSet® Single Page Analyzer, which identifies repeated words and phrases and their densities. You could also put the URL into Google's search-based keyword tool to find search terms related to that Web page. You could go further and use analytics tools such as the ones at Compete.com that reveal the percent of search traffic each top-ranking site gets per keyword, traffic statistics by keyword for any domain, and much more (by subscription, but the free versions let you see the top five results for any query). Looking at your competitors generally makes sense after starting your SEO campaign, once you know what keywords you're most interested in ranking for, and who your biggest competitors are for those searches. But it can also add more keyword ideas to your list.

Keyword Evaluation Phase

Before you begin evaluating the long keyword list you've created in Excel, have your goals firmly in mind. Is high traffic your end goal, or just a means to an end? Is it all about time spent per page, number of page views, or other? And what do you want visitors to do once they arrive? Knowing how you define a "conversion" on your site and understanding your real end goals will greatly affect how you rate potential keyword phrases.

What makes a good keyword? We recommend that you size up each keyword phrase by an explicit set of criteria. Weight each criterion according to its importance in meeting your site goals and then apply them like a formula. To get you started, below are six crucial factors to include in your keyword evaluation.

Site relevance

Most importantly, the keyword must be relevant to your Web site. You want to be able to support each keyword with pages of content, and your keywords should complement each other to support an overall site theme. Then the search engines will know specifically what your site is about and consider you more relevant for those targeted keywords.

Search activity

Search activity refers to the approximate number of times people search for that keyword in a search engine in a month. In general, you can use this statistic to prioritize your keywords and draw in more potential traffic. However, high search activity should never be the sole reason for selecting a keyword.

Conversion potential

Ask yourself, is someone searching for that keyword likely to be interested in what my site offers? You want to use keywords that will lead to conversions, not just a stampede of foot traffic. If you have a line of coffee filters, for example, is it worth the investment to try to organically rank for the keyword "coffee"? Even though it receives high search activity of almost a million daily queries, only a tiny fraction of those people are probably interested in buying coffee filters. You'd be better off ranking for your specific, lower-activity keyword phrases and keeping your conversion rates high.

Competitiveness

Look at how competitive the keyword is. For organic SEO work, the Advertiser Competition column that Google's keyword tool shows you may be less helpful than just running a search and seeing who the top-ranking sites are. If you're up against big-name brands and well-established sites, then it's probably a very competitive keyword environment. You can still try to rank for a highly competitive term. However, understand the time and money you'll need to invest to do so and keep your expectations realistic.

You want a balance of high- and low-competition keywords. This is a good time to mention long-tail keywords, which are very specific, longer queries someone might search for, such as "4 cup coffee filters." Long-tail keywords are not very competitive and have low search activity, but they tend to be high-conversion because people searching for them know exactly what they want. If your site can include pages with specific product names and model numbers, or have lots of content containing specific searchable details in the text and tags, search engines will consider your pages relevant to those types of queries.

Audience targeting

Think about the audience you want to attract. Hang out with them online wherever they congregate and talk -- in social networks, groups, forums, Twitter and the like. Then you'll be better able to determine whether a particular keyword phrase would be something those people would search for. Often you can target a particular region, age group, or other demographic just by the words you choose. A medical supplies site, for example, could use "bandages" or "bandaids" and attract moms, but if their intended audience was doctors and nurses they'd need more technical terms like "gauze dressings." A Web site about carbonated beverages could call them either "soft drinks," "soda," "pop" or "colas" to narrow its audience to a particular region of the U.S., or they could deliberately use all the synonyms to cover a wider demographic. Just don't make the mistake of not choosing a target audience at all.

Return on investment (ROI)

A high return on investment is another trait of a good keyword. This isn't something you can evaluate at the start of a Web site, but once your site is up and running, you ought to monitor how each of your keywords performs. Install analytics and track the keywords people use to come to your site. Find out which pages they go to, how long they stay, and what happens from there. This will tell you how effectively each keyword brings in visitors that convert.

Keyword Implementation Phase

Your keyword evaluation should produce a distilled set of keywords worth optimizing your Web site for. Be intentional about this implementation phase. Specifically include each Web page and site section's keyword(s) in their content, Meta tags, and inbound link anchor text. Without overstuffing your site with keywords, you want to use them deliberately and naturally. This is search engine optimization at its best -- enabling both search engines and users to clearly understand what your Web site is relevant to.

Going Forward

Keyword research is not something you can do once and call it a day. Your ongoing keyword maintenance and site tweaking depend on having good metrics, so you'll definitely need analytics on your site. You'll also need to monitor your SEO rankings regularly over time in the search engines. Learn to love exploring and discovering new keywords. Never stop evaluating your current keywords, because what works today could change tomorrow. Keep your Web site's foundation strong by making keyword research part of your regular site maintenance routine.


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