Everything you need to know about SEO, delivered every Thursday.
Why Do Search Engines, Keyword Research & SEO Really Matter?
Let’s go, you and I, on an imaginary trip to Oslo in Norway.
Now, the first two things you’ll want to do is arrange flight tickets to Oslo, and find a good place to stay. Where do you go for this information?
A small (but growing) fraction of the online population will hop over to social networks like Twitter or Facebook and ask their network of friends and contacts for advice.
But 9 out of 10 Web surfers will hit up a search engine like Google or Bing.
Search engines are complex software tools that send out scouts called ‘robots’ into the World Wide Web to find, analyze and index webpages, blogs and other forms of content, constantly growing their database of information about the Web.
Using ‘intelligent’ algorithms, they sift the content gathered (by various criteria), and organize the information in a fashion relevant and useful to searchers.
Search engines then present the results in an ordered format that tries to list the most valuable material highest so that their users can find them quickly and conveniently.
In a philosophical sense, search engines try to create order out of the chaos of information and data on the Internet.
An interesting twist in recent times is that search engines have allowed businesses and individuals to advertise on relevant sections of their search results pages, giving paying customers the means to reach an eager audience who is already looking for this kind of information.
While 70% of search engine visitors rely on “organic search” for their results, 30% click on these paid ads, making it the single biggest revenue source of the multi-billion dollar behemoth Google.com.
Another interesting metric is that 60% of all clicks on organic search go to the links listed at the top 3 positions on search results, making them coveted positions that thousands of businesses fight tooth and nail to secure.
That’s Where SEO Enters The Picture
SEO (search engine optimization) is a series of iterative processes that are designed to make any Web resource more attractive to search engines and convince them to list the site or page at or near the top of their organic search results.
The purpose behind SEO is obvious. A site listed in the top 3 positions will get more visibility (and clicks) than a similar link in the “paid search” listing which costs the advertiser per click. Effective SEO can save a business thousands, or even millions of dollars in advertising and marketing expense.
So, to return to our example of a trip to Norway, when we plan to book a hotel in Oslo, we type in certain search terms (called ‘keywords’) into the box at Google.com or any other search engine. And these keywords are at the core of an effective SEO strategy.
Google (and other search engines) are essentially ‘dumb machines’. They do not have any innate insight or knowledge into your mind as you search. But what they do have is access to (and the capacity to instantly retrieve and process) enormous volumes of search data across populations of millions of users just like you and me.
Their powerful data processing engines crunch the search terms you type into the box, match them against other similar queries, rapidly mine their database of websites, and pull up a short list of the most relevant results to help you find what you’re looking for – a hotel in Oslo, Norway.
What’s almost magical is the incredible speed at which this processing happens, and the enormous mounds of data the machines sort through at warp speed. In such an environment, if a webmaster is hoping to get a website that lists hotels in Norway visible to their ideal prospects, there are many things that must be optimized in order to rank high on Google.
These collectively fall under the ambit of SEO strategy.
What Makes Keywords So Important?
Keywords are what a searcher types into an engine. Now, the search engine itself has no way of “knowing” what you mean when you type in “hotel Norway”.
- Are you looking to book a stay?
- Do you want a directory of all hotels in Norway?
- Is your quest related to statistics about the tourism industry in Norway?
- Or are you an architect looking for design ideas from Norwegian hotels?
A search engine has no way to tell – unless you tell it your intent. And the only way you tell the search engine what you’re looking for is by getting even more descriptive with your keywords.
For instance, “booking a hotel room in Oslo Norway” is far more detailed than “Hotel in Oslo”. Because there could be thousands of searchers using Google.com to research Norway hotels at any given time, a webmaster has no control over what they use to query the engines, and the webmaster must prepare for every possibility.
That is what makes keyword research the foundation of any digital marketing effort. And at the heart of it, keyword research involves an understanding of the different phases of research and buying.
When you prepare to travel to Norway, you might begin your search for a hotel with the term “hotel Oslo”. Google throws up a set of results. You explore each and get some information.
Now you want more details, such as what kind of hotel each one is, or what other guests staying at it had to say. So you may run the next search query on a short list of hotels in Oslo, typing in “hotel Oslo reviews” or “hotel Oslo rating”.
The use of these search terms suggests that you are now more advanced along the path to booking your hotel room than you were before.
As you examine the reviews and find the ideal hotel you plan to stay at, you move up yet another level on the “path to purchase”.
Your next search keyword may be “Hotel Holmenkollen Oslo Norway booking information”. That’s the phrase a ‘ready to buy’ customer might type into search engines.
Good and effective SEO understands and analyzes this continuum along the buying journey.
It peers into the mind of a searcher, trying to figure out the intention and attitude of an interested prospect, and then position your website to be visible prominently to the ideal kind of customer.
A lot of thinking, planning and psychologic profiling goes on behind the scenes before keyword density, on-site optimization and purely technical matters enter the picture.
Technical Nuances In Keyword Research
SEO and Search Engine Marketing (SEM) have grown more complex over the years. The ability to laser focus your keyword strategy on any niche of the overall market has given SEO specialists a powerful lever to boost profits for their clients.
Keyword metrics need analysis, especially when you can distinguish between the number of searches carried out on the exact phrase or term, versus a broad match or phrase match search. This has serious implications on your overall search strategy as it is possible to optimize a page to rank high on a search term that doesn’t have much potential traffic, wasting all the time, effort and money spent on pursuing that term.
With geo-targeting becoming a popular trend, we are increasingly seeing local businesses seek to rank high on search results for their target audience – which is also locally based!
Seemingly minor factors such as having a regional domain name or hosting your site on a server that is physically located in the same country could impact the search engine ranking you secure for geographically targeted searches.
And then there are typographic errors, regional spelling variations, local dialects and jargon, all of which influence the keywords that searchers type into their query boxes, and for which your site must be optimized in order to rank high on those searches.
All are elements which a good SEO consultant or agency will guide you on and factor into their services on your behalf.
Innovative SEO Approaches
Traditional SEO worked on the basis of two major things:
- On-page SEO – involves optimizing your website for the right keyword density, heading tags, site structure and internal linking patterns, design elements and other things on the page.
- Off-page SEO – involves getting linked from as many relevant, high quality ‘authority’ sites on the same niche as possible.
But there are other creative approaches to SEO today that supplement these basic methods, and become crucial in hyper-competitive markets where it is necessary to be more aggressive. Optimized press releases that rank high on search engines and serve as traffic magnets to funnel targeted visitors back to your main website is one such example. Another is to have a comprehensive and scalable content strategy that organizes your content into themes and ‘silos’ that are easy to navigate around.
Building such models takes more time and effort than other simpler approaches, but it helps build a barrier against competition that can shield and guard your high ranking positions on search engines for many years.
Keyword Research To Ensure You Rank Well
At the heart of all SEO approaches is comprehensive and detailed keyword research. This helps reverse-engineer likely terms that searchers use to find you and your business, and then design sections of your web presence that gets in front of them effectively.
When you correctly identify the best keywords for your business, and study the competition you’ll face while trying to rank your website for these terms, you can formulate an intelligent keyword and content development strategy that will accomplish your SEO goals.
Knowing your key terms and their competitiveness, you will be able to seed content and links on news pages, choose keyword rich domains, optimize your code, plan anchor text of your back links and more. It also helps you design your site architecture better and organize your code and templates for scalability and future growth.
Well-thought keyword research can play a major role in maximizing your onsite SEO and internal linking when your website’s architecture is built strategically.
Every new piece of content you add will support, strengthen and showcase other relevant sections of the site, making your Web presence ever stronger as you grow bigger.
This matters more when you are going after highly competitive keywords and phrases, especially when your content will be contributed by diverse groups of people (like bloggers, product managers, Web editors or journalists) who do not have much knowledge or experience with SEO related issues. It also helps a company take control of how Google perceives and then presents the website to searchers.
Let me clarify with an example.
By optimizing your website’s framework or theme and sectioning it into a perfect ‘keyword-‘ and ‘user-psychology’ driven blend, the simple act of publishing an article inside a sub-category like “Hotels Norway > Hotels Oslo > Budget Hotels” will give you additional advantage from Google’s ranking algorithm for related keywords like ‘Hotels Norway’ or ‘Hotels Oslo’ that make up the ‘breadcrumb trail’ leading to the actual content which is only about ‘Budget Hotels’.
Are you beginning to see how powerful this can get?
By intelligently planning a framework for your website, your non-SEO savvy content providers can just drop their work into relevant categories, and their contribution will automatically get ‘energized’ by related keywords (even hard to rank ones) which are in the category titles or the search-friendly URLs.
Without a structured approach, it is practically impossible for you to rank for a generic keyword.
On the other hand, setting up your architecture this way will work towards building a less “keyword stuffed” content resource, and a site that is human-friendly, barely recognizable even by experienced editors as a search optimized powerhouse!
But more important is the fact that going after the right keywords will make the work of key personnel more efficient, and lower your overall content development costs by focusing only on what works to attract profit generating customers instead of wasteful traffic that does not convert into sales.
To use our earlier example of an Oslo hotel, you would be more likely to reach potential guests who intend visiting your hotel by optimizing your site for “booking room Rica Hotel Europa Oslo” than for “hotels Norway”.
It is possible that far more people will search for “hotels Norway” – but if you are the owner of a hotel based in Oslo, then most of that traffic is completely irrelevant to you!
Pitfalls To Avoid With Keyword Research
Not all is sunshine and roses along the path to effective keyword research. There are potholes and craters you should steer clear of when doing your analysis. Exact match keywords give you the specific terms that users type into search boxes. Broad search only means that the words appeared somewhere in the search string, not necessarily in the same order or context.
This has serious implications when it comes to planning your SEO strategy. Broad match search results do have a place in the brainstorming phase of your keyword research.
But if you target broad match phrases to create optimized Web content, regardless of the high search volumes you’ll uncover using keyword research tools, your results will be horrible even if you manage to rank high (which itself can be very difficult!)
That’s why it is important to look at “exact matches”, a simple enough task while using Google’s keyword tool that involves checking a box on the left side of the screen. Knowledge really is power!
Using Keyword Research To Uncover Promising New Markets
Keyword analysis is not only critical when planning to build and grow your existing business, it can even help unearth potentially profitable new niches and market opportunities that you’ve overlooked, or even never considered before.
Powerful keyword research tools that can help automate and speed up many repetitive processes include Google Keyword Tool, Market Samurai, Google Insights for Search, and Google Trends (that can help reveal seasonal and other trends). Analytically reviewing the consolidated data they throw up puts into startling relief many hidden opportunities just waiting to be exploited.
But no matter how powerful the tools for keyword research, it is never wise to trust their output too much or rely heavily upon great numbers.
In the ultimate analysis, be guided by your strategy and overarching objectives and see how best you can fit the keyword data into it. Unless it delivers on the bottom line goals of your business, they will not be of much value.
SEO – An All-Embracing Specialty
If there’s one thing the above discussion has spotlighted, it’s that SEO is not all about technology, even though technological innovation has extended its capabilities and potential. SEO involves a lot of psychology and economics. It has much to do with research and analysis of your market’s needs and problems.
When you take the broad picture perspective, Google isn’t just a content indexing service but a search engine driven by the vision of helping people find solutions to their pressing problems and needs.
That is why listening to your customers, identifying their needs, and striving to help them solve their problems is far more critical to your success than merely hiring a cheap SEO expert to iron out your code and keywords.
Good keyword analysis is akin to detective work. You can use keywords to find out what people are looking for – and then give it to them.
In the past, big business houses and corporations safeguarded such data with their very lives… because their existence and competitiveness depended upon it. They would crunch numbers to help them decide about budgeting, marketing, product development and new ventures.
Today, this rich treasure trove of information is accessible to anyone at the click of a mouse. The level of granularity and specificity of information that we can now acquire is almost intimately personal, and might even be considered illegal in some parts of the world!
Yet we can study it, analyze it, and use it to gain an edge in any marketplace – if we are smart enough to take advantage of the incredible power locked up inside it.
There’s no more guesswork or estimating necessary to launch a new business or venture if you understand how to harness the power of keyword research and SEO.
Search engine optimization has well and truly come of age. It is a multi-pronged specialty that has powered many businesses to warp speed growth and wild success. Isn’t it time you tapped into its vast reserves and boosted your own?
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.