What Are Keywords? Why Are Keywords Important to SEO? And How Do You Do Keyword Research?

Woman with magnifying glass examining keywords.

What are keywords? Why are keywords important to SEO (and marketing)? And how do you do keyword research? Let’s get back to the basics to discuss what keywords are and why search marketers spend so much time on them. In this article:

What Are Keywords?

Keywords are single words or short phrases that represent the search queries that people use in a search engine. Website owners or marketers select keywords and use them to guide content creation and optimize their webpages as part of their SEO strategy.

When you align your content creation and optimization with the words, topics, products and services your target audience is looking for, you have a better chance of showing up in the search results.

One reason keyword optimization is important is that it helps communicate to the search engines what a webpage is about. And that can improve the chances that a search engine will find a webpage relevant for a particular query.

It’s important to note that Google uses many signals to determine if a page is relevant for a query, not just keywords. But they are a factor, and I’ll share data around that later.

What Are Long-Tail Keywords?

Long-tail keywords string together three or more words to create a more specific keyword phrase. Searchers perform long-tail queries in the following situations:

  • To narrow down what they are looking for as they search for products, services or information. When people are on a buying or knowledge journey, they often start with very broad or general keywords, maybe two-word phrases. As they begin to refine their research, search queries become much more specific and usually longer. So long-tail queries often have a higher conversion rate than the broad terms do.
  • When using voice search, for example on a mobile device. Data shows that 48% of consumers are using voice assistants for general web searches. Voice queries tend to be much more conversational because people are speaking and not typing.

In a nutshell, long-tail keywords allow you to target very specific queries during every step of the searcher’s journey.

What You Shouldn’t Do with Keywords

When you’re creating content for the web:

  • Don’t use keywords to trick or mislead. One example is keyword stuffing. Another would be trying to use keywords that are off-topic for your page and site. Google does not respond well to keyword abuse. To be rewarded in the search results, your site’s SEO needs to stay within Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
  • Don’t target keywords that do not exactly describe the contents of your page.
  • Don’t use keywords awkwardly in your content. Keywords should be incorporated into the body text and meta information in a way that is natural and subtle.

Why Are Keywords Important to SEO (and Marketing)?

Keywords help website owners with the following:

  • Identify and speak the language of the target market.
  • Create useful content for the target audience.
  • Get content in front of the right people at the right time.
  • Communicate to Google that a webpage is a match for a query.
  • Improve search engine rankings by helping Google understand the webpage content.
  • Drive more qualified traffic to appropriate webpages.
  • Increase time on site by directing more qualified traffic to webpages.
  • Increase conversions by helping consumers find you rather than your competitors.

All of these matter for SEO. To elaborate, keyword research helps you understand how your target market describes your products or services. It also shows you how people ask for more information on your topics when using a search engine.

Armed with these words and phrases, you can come up with ideas for new content. You can also optimize your webpages to match a searcher’s intent and answer a searcher’s questions.

Keyword research and optimization can improve your chances of showing up on Page 1 of the search results. In fact, data from 2020 shows that most title tags on Google’s first page contained keywords that were an exact or partial match of that search query.

Aside from rankings, keyword research has other benefits that can help you better serve your consumer.

For instance, say you’re a bread company researching the keyword phrase “organic bread.” During your research, you find that there is a high search volume for the term “organic bread flour.” Could this be a new product opportunity?

How Do You Do Keyword Research?

There’s a lot to keyword research, but here is the process in four basic steps:

  1. Start with a “brainstorm” list, also known as a “seed” list. Document anything you can think of that would describe your product, service or the information you have to share.
  2. Use a keyword research tool. Use an analysis tool that gives you data on the ideas in your seed list. (Check out our SEOToolSet as an option.)
  3. Expand and refine your list. Discover suggested keyword phrases from the keyword research tool. Find out the actual words people use as they search for your products, services or information. Find out how often the queries are used, which can help you prioritize the work.
  4. Verify keyword phrases. Analyze the competition in the search results that show up for the target keywords. Do you see webpages that offer products, services or information like yours? If so, it means you’re in the right space.

Here’s more on how to research and use keywords:

Keyword research is integral to successful SEO and something we do for all of our clients on an ongoing basis. If you’d like some assistance with your website, use this form to request a free consultation and quote.

Bruce Clay is founder and president of Bruce Clay, Inc., a global digital marketing firm providing search engine optimization, pay-per-click, social media marketing, SEO-friendly web architecture, and SEO tools and education. Connect with him on LinkedIn and other social networks from Bruce's author page.
Comments (8)
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8 Replies to “What Are Keywords? Why Are Keywords Important to SEO? And How Do You Do Keyword Research?”

Hey Bruce,

I am really excited after reading this article. Now I knew lots of great thing about keywords which I would include in my SEO strategy. Thanks for sharing!

Great read Bruce! My most daunting challenge as a beginner was integrating keywords in long-form content. I was caught between making my keywords read naturally in paragraphs and how many times it had to appear to suggest to search algorithms what my content was about.

The Algo has become so intelligent that it understands context, just as the human would. Keyword stuffing in this day and age, is almost criminal!

You are right @ TIS India, but what drives more traffic to a website and what attracts search engines are long tail keywords. These keywords really describes what users are looking for. To stay on the safer side, it is better you go with long tail keywords rather than one word keywords.

Very nice article. Great explaining for people that are new to SEO. :)

A great post indeed. It is very informative, especially for beginners. Thanks for sharing. I found it extremely helpful.

the keyword is a very important part of SEO. It is very critical to choose keywords by understanding the audience & objective of the brand which we are promoting. But you solve this problem.

Each and every word is a keyword, it may be one word, two words or maybe a phrase, in simple you can say any no of which exactly defines what you want to search.

Nice Explanation! Thank you

It seems like you have given some good overview about keyword research in this article. I would like to add one more important step in keyword research. And that is actually categorizing the keywords on the basis of their intent like informative, location, and buyer intent keywords. It is very critical to choose keywords by understanding the audience & objective of the brand which we are promoting


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