Good keyword research is laborious. So is it no wonder that once you understand the basics, you may be tempted to use whichever tool you have at hand and try to automate or speed up the process. Except, should you want to do this?
Keyword research is your time to understand the market you are competing in and how people search. It is your opportunity to comb through the competition and learn their keywords, content and link-building strategies. It is your opportunity to map out what you should track for your website, your market competitors and your keyword competitors.
If you plan a months- or years-long relationship with a client or website, you owe several hours or days to get this right.
Keyword Research Tips
Keywords are the foundation of search engine optimization. It is all about getting traffic from relevant search queries, the keywords people use to find our products or services or whatever we offer that our target market is looking for.
Placing a handful of words into the Google Keyword Tool, exporting the results, then calling it a keyword chart is skimming; it is not keyword research. Quality keyword research takes time and investment.
- Before you open one keyword tool, study the topic you are researching, at least to the point that you can explain it intelligently to someone else and answer basic questions.
- Study your marketplace competitors. These are basic sources for seed words and phrases to put into keyword tools.
- Seeds are the words and phrases you enter into the keyword tools. Track these and use the same ones in every keyword research tool.
- Use multiple keyword research tools. Every service has its strengths and weaknesses. Using different keyword tools is like seeking differing points of view. You want to be certain you have the best information possible.
- When you have some good keyword candidates, begin studying the search engine results for rankings competition and additional keywords. In SEO, the real competitors are the websites that rank for your keyword targets, not just your marketplace competitors.
- Revisit the keyword tools. Look up additional seed keywords you may have added along the way. Create a complete dataset for every keyword research tool you use.
Keyword Selection Tips
Once you have a list of keyword candidates, you must cull through it to find your keywords. This is where a lot of people throw up their hands and give up or try to over-simplify the process.
Going back and forth between dozens of export files from different keyword tools is not practical, so I use a database to compile a master table that I later export into Excel.
Even if you are not a database wizard, anyone can learn to combine data into a table using Microsoft Access. You can do this in Excel too, though I find that more taxing.
- Compile your research into a master table so you can sort it and filter it.
- I sort my keyword candidate by the number of words in each keyword or phrase first, then by the number of searches. Here is the Excel formula I use to create a word-count column:
- Set aside or check off relevant one-, two- and three-word phrases.
- Set aside or check off embedded keywords. Before Chris Anderson coined The Long Tail, I used embedded keywords to describe longer key phrases that contained shorter keywords. Search for each relevant one-, two- and three-word keyword, then mark the longer keywords that contain the shorter keywords.
At this point, what is left will be like looking for diamonds in a trash heap. There will be lots on non-relevant words and words with too little traffic. Comprehensive research is important, but now it is time to get practical.
- Set some limits. Depending on how much traffic the website I am optimizing receives already, I will set a lower traffic limit between 100 and 1,000. The more traffic my website is getting, the higher the limit I set. Anything below the limit gets culled.
- Review each keyword candidate you have left. If it is relevant, mark it or set it aside.
- At the end, copy all the keywords you marked or set aside into one table. These are your keyword candidates.
A keyword is not a target until you assign it to a page and begin optimizing for it.
Keyword Tracking Tips
You may be tempted to toss all your keyword candidates into a ranking tracker and monitor them. I advise against this.
Keyword candidates are not the same as keyword targets. Any keyword you have not matched to a specific web page will just be a distraction.
Reports filled with unassigned keywords tend to go unused. Also, if your boss or your client sees a bunch of keywords that are not on their website or for which the rankings and traffic are low, it will open you up to uncomfortable questions. Don’t put yourself in a position where you have to say, “Oh, just ignore those.”
What should you track? In my book the most important measurements are:
- The number of organic visitors that each assigned target keyword brings from each search engine.
- Exact Match
- Phrase Match
- The total number of organic search visits.
- Keyword diversity: the number of different keywords bringing traffic to the website from each search engine.
I still track rankings for high-tail keywords, grudgingly, once I assign them to a specific URL and start optimizing for that keyword. Actual search engine rankings are difficult to track. Too many different things influence the rankings.
Universal search result inserts (news, images, video, etc.), local search results, Query Deserves Freshness, Query Deserves Diversity and other factors all change the contents and display of the organic listings.
If I search for coffee house in Seattle and then in New York, I will get two completely different sets of results. Track traffic as your key performance indicator and use rankings as an imperfect estimate to determine things you cannot measure directly, like how much traffic your competitors may be receiving for the same keywords.
What About Long Tail Keywords?
If you are pursuing a long-tail content strategy, you may want to add rankings for recently used long-tails to your reports, but I would remove older long-tails from your reports as you add new keywords and content.
Unlike high-tail SEO, long-tail optimization tends to be “set it and forget it.” If you are not actively working on optimizing a keyword, it probably should not be on your reports.
A good alternative to traditional ranking reports are the search query reports in Google’s and Bing’s webmaster tools. These show average rank, clicks and impressions. This data is now in Google Analytics as well under Reports » Traffic Sources » Search Engine Optimization.
I like having clicks and impressions because, if a targeted keyword gets lots of impressions but few clicks, either the listing needs work or the keyword is a poor target. The downside is that these offer no competitor data.
Keyword Assignment Tips
It is important to be realistic when assigning keywords to URLs as search engine optimization targets.
- Understand keyword difficulty. Blindly optimizing for the most heavily searched keywords can lower non-paid search traffic. When a website has nowhere near enough authority to earn a top ranking for a high-volume keyword, but optimizes its most linked-to pages for that same keyword, this may steal an opportunity to optimize for a more realistic keyword.
Be honest in your perspective.
- Use embedded keywords. Optimizing a page for a medium-tail keyword that also contains a high-tail that can get rankings and traffic now, while the page earns the authority to rank for the high-tail.
A medium-tail keyword is defined by whether you can successfully compete for a ranking as much as the number of search queries it receives.
- Use long-tails to support mid-tail and high-tail keywords. Not every page can be an SEO hub page — a page targeted for a specific, competitive keyword. The classic content strategy is to create lots of pages for long-tail content. As you do this, try to create content related to the higher-tail keyword hub pages and link from your articles — using optimized anchor text — to those pages.
- Do not try to optimize every page for a keyword. Every website has pages that will never receive search engine traffic. For example, a webpage showing a process chart may be great for people but thin content for web search. Think carefully before assigning a decent keyword on such a page.
- Consider searcher intent. People may search for information or entertainment or acquisition. Don’t optimize a sales page for an information keyword. Try to match page content and keyword assignments with intent. Start by looking at what types of pages already rank.
At the start, I wrote that we owe it to our websites and clients to get keyword research right. With all the research and reporting tools out these days it is easy to spend too little time preparing or researching then attempt to track more keywords and metrics than we can ever use.
Invest the time and thoughtfulness up front. Select which keywords you will optimize for. Choose pages for those keywords. Remove distractions. Do this and you will always focus on things that matter.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.