“I want to rank in the first position for ______”. I should have hundreds of bags of hypothetical dimes to match the number of times I’ve heard this ambitious goal over the years. In the evolving age of online marketing, the importance of keywords has morphed from “Add it to your site, see the traffic roll in!” to “Is this keyword the best phrase for the page and does it match the searcher’s intent?” In that sense, a website’s keywords are about so much more than skyrocketing to the top of a search engine results page. Choosing which keywords to focus on when developing a keyword list is a process of research, segmentation, search intent and relevancy.
While hiring an external firm to do your keyword research for you might be easy, it can have two major drawbacks. Hiring someone to build a keyword profile for you can be expensive, and you’re never sure what you’ll get. Far too many contractors are either unfamiliar with your market (which makes it impossible to make insightful keyowrd decisions) or are just looking to make a quick buck. Either way, it’s far too likely that you’ll get a list of semi-relevant keywords with high search volumes (and difficulty scores). Not only is this not helpful, having a bad keyword profile means that you’ll spend time, effort, and money on unrankable keywords – which can put you out of business. The good news is that it’s possible to build a high-quality keyword profile fairly quickly using your industry expertise and a few easy tools, giving you an actionable keyword profile at a minimal cost.
Start with Search Engines
The best place to start (and end) your keyword research is always the search engines themselves – after all, this is the best place to learn about what people are searching for, what sorts of results are being returned, and who you’ll be competing against (more on competitor research later).
Begin by pretending you’re a customer searching for your product or service. What sort of terms would you type into Google to find what you’re looking for? What phrases are being suggested in Google’s Autocomplete feature? What questions are listed in the “People Also Ask” box? Spend some time trying every relevant search phrase and question you can think of, and get a feel for how your customers are searching for your products. At this point, you’ll need to focus on building up a large keyword profile full of all relevant keywords – we’ll cut it down to only the most relevant keywords in the next steps.
Find Monthly Search Volume and Keyword Difficulty
Next, you’ll need to determine the existing search volume for a keyword phrase and how many competitors are optimizing websites for that same phrase. The keyword phrases you intend to use on your site should already have some level of search volume; finding a healthy balance between search volume and competition is key.
- Incredibly popular phrases are difficult because the competition space is crowded.
- Unpopular likely means fewer searchers using that phrase.
- Lots of competition makes it harder to stand out using that phrase.
- Little competition likely means other sites don’t consider the phrase to be important.
Don’t panic if you’re unsure how to find that perfect keyword phrase that’s not too competitive and not too popular! The point here is to find keywords which are already naturally associated with your industry, your competitors and the customers you’re trying to reach. While a little trial and error is inevitable (even veteran SEOs don’t rank for everything they set their sites on), try to be honest with yourself about what you can rank for. If there’s already high-quality content from a high-authority site taking up all of Page 1, it’s probably out of your reach. Using a simple red/yellow/green coloring strategy can help you sort out which keywords look great, which you need to do a little bit more research on, and which are definitely not going on your finalized list.
Try to narrow down your possible keyword selections to just relevant, low-difficulty keywords during this phase. While those large-MSV keywords are tempting, they’re almost impossible for brand-new sites to rank for. If your site is brand new or this is your first time trying to rank for something, try to focus on keywords with a difficulty of 0-10, with poor-quality content ranking on Page 1 in the search results. While this sort of keyword is difficult to find, they do give you a significant chance of ranking on Page 1 just by writing high-quality content.
Competitor Research and Search Data
After you’ve narrowed down your potential keyword list to relevant keywords with a good balance of MSV and difficulty, it’s time to see what the competition looks like. For this part of your research, no tools or services will help you – you’ll just need to head back to Google and search for each keyword and see what’s ranking.
We’re looking for low-quality, off-topic, or otherwise unhelpful results. Any time you see a piece of content and think “I could do that better”, add that keyword and a quick description of the issues you’re seeing in the search results to your finalized keyword list – e.g. “the keyword ‘wool vs. cotton jackets’ lacks a table showing the pros/cons of each material side-by-side”. This will tell you both what you’re trying to rank for and how you plan to rank for it.
Where Do Keywords Naturally Fit on the Website?
Imagine walking through a grocery store. Products are naturally segmented into overarching groups and then broken down into smaller segments by shelves or displays. The intent is to guide a shopper by making it intuitive as to where he or she can find certain foods. Not by coincidence, foods are arranged to follow a natural shopping flow from first entry to checkout, preventing frozen goods from melting and cleaning supplies from mixing with fresh produce.
Keywords help funnel customers (and search engines) in a simple, logical path, hopefully leading to a conversion.
A website’s keywords need to work the same way as a grocery store. “Men’s formal clothing” naturally fits on the homepage of a website, whereas “button-down dress shirts for men” pertains to a select grouping of products. Even more specific would be a phrase such as “men’s white cotton dress shirt,” which naturally fits within a product’s optimization strategy. Keywords help funnel customers (and search engines) in a simple, logical path, hopefully leading to a conversion.
In general, keywords should be broad at the homepage level, and get more specific as page depth increases.
Tip: Watch our keyword hierarchy webinar to learn more about the theory of natural keyword segmentation on a website.
Do Those Selected Keywords Match User Intent?
Understanding and matching your content to searcher intent is the most important (and the most commonly-overlooked) part of SEO. Information-based searches are becoming more and more prominent in search. Whether it’s a DIY enthusiast trying to learn how to build a backyard deck or someone trying to get tips for cleaning a leather couch, informational searches broaden the spectrum of search intent beyond standard ecommerce searches.
It no longer suffices to choose a broad keyword phrase that could have any number of applications.
It no longer suffices to choose a broad keyword phrase that could have any number of applications. If we have a page on our site that offers leather-care supplies, we need to make sure our keyword list matches the page’s purpose so we can match the searcher’s intent of finding leather-care sprays or wipes. If we have a blog post that highlights five key leather-care tips for furniture, then our keyword list needs to reflect that. “Leather care” is simply too broad to apply to both searches.
This is where you apply all of the knowledge you gained in Step 1, when you were pretending to be a customer searching for your product. Understanding and answering searcher intent is the key to ranking well – this is why we’re focusing so much on competitors with poor content in search result pages. At the end of the day, the site that is best at understanding searchers’ needs and fulfilling those needs is almost always the site that ranks best.
This is usually the most difficult part of keyword research – giving up on good-looking, high-volume keywords due to a mismatch in search intent. If you ever find yourself thinking “well, this content is sort of relevant if you think about it this way…” it’s a good sign that you’re headed in the wrong direction. A search engine’s job is to deliver the most relevant, highest-quality results – in that order. Trying to force a page to rank for a keyword that’s only tangentially relevant is contrary to what Google and searchers want. Even if you do manage to rank, most organic visitors will immediately “bounce” off of your website after realizing that your content doesn’t meet their needs, so it’s a lose-lose.
Tip: Perform a regular search (in a private browser tab) to see what sort of results are associated with a phrase. If those results fall in line with the intent we want, it’s a good sign that search engines are making the logical connection between the keyword phrase and the corresponding content on websites.
Are Those Keywords Relevant to the Page?
This is a big one. No amount of search volume or healthy competition will make a difference in a website’s organic position if the keywords being selected aren’t relevant for the page. Imagine working on a website that solely sells cases for Android mobile phones. A broad term such as “mobile phone cases” isn’t relevant to our website because that term could include a large number of phones. Similarly, if we’re focusing on a product page for a Galaxy S7 phone, we would want to choose keywords more specific than broad terms such as “Android mobile phone case.”
Specificity is everything.
Specificity is everything here. We want to show search engines exactly what they can expect to find when crawling the pages of our website so that those pages are rendered in relevant user search queries. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the keywords that we’re targeting are hyper-specific, just that we’ve chosen the most specific keyword possible for a page – for instance, ‘Menswear’ is a vague keyword, but is perfect for a broad Menswear category page.
Tip: Pretend selected keywords are being used to describe a website and its products to a blind person. Can he or she understand exactly what you’re describing with your keyword phrase selection?
Evolving search engine algorithms and a breadth of available information on the internet have naturally changed the purpose of keywords when it comes to ecommerce. They’re now tools intended to provide context and specificity to the pages of a website (which will, in turn, bring more valuable traffic to your site) rather than just a means to rank highly for certain terms. By reviewing existing data, naturally segmenting a website’s categories and products, considering the searcher’s intent and staying relevant to the page in question, a keyword list can be refined, succinct and exactly what a website needs.