Search Engine Optimization has emerged as a sink-or-swim digital-age skill, and critical to SEO mastery is the next-level discipline of knowing how to choose priority keywords and adeptly leverage them.
Competition for keywords is fierce. It calls for a depth of research, consistent messaging, frequent fine tuning based on the ebb and flow of keyword rankings, and close monitoring of competitor activity.
Let’s begin with a quick review of a few SEO basics. Keywords refer to efforts to align website content with the terms that potential visitors enter as search engine queries. They can be single words, combinations of words, longer phrases, or even questions. The overarching goal of great SEO is positioning the right keywords in the right places on a website to grab the attention of the search engines, resulting in a high placement for organic search on a search engine results page (SERP). The expectation, of course, is that top placement on the SERP will draw visitors to your site who are interested in what you have to offer.
Knowledge of the highest volume search terms that pertain to your market is not just critical strategic intelligence for optimizing visits from organic search, keywords also factor into the effectiveness of paid advertising. It’s also important to keep in mind that the value of keyword research goes far deeper than knowing what terms to strategically integrate into the content and metadata on your site. Insight into the most frequently used search terms and phrases provides a level of understanding into how customers think, what they are concerned about, and what they are looking for. Effectively leveraging this intelligence leads to more engaging messaging, more compelling calls to action, and improvements to the overall user experience of your website.
Even though Google is among a few search engine options, its dominant position is reflected by the fact that the company name has emerged as a verb with “Google it” being synonymous with “search for it online.” Acknowledging that there are other players, we refer in general terms to the “search engines,” but Google is far and away the biggest fish in a sea of much smaller search engines, currently accounting for 86.86 percent of global search. The next largest player, Bing, accounts for 6.43 percent of the global search market. While others (Yahoo, Baidu, Yandex RU) may rise and there’s no guarantee that Google will hold onto its top spot forever, for now, Google rules. What this means for all practical purposes is that SEO = knowledge of how Google thinks and operates, and playing within those parameters.
It also calls for an understanding that the Google algorithm is constantly evolving and that recently, it’s become wicked smart in identifying quality content and sniffing out cheap shortcuts to boost SEO.
This means, among other things, that the days of gaming the system by cramming a web page with keywords out of context, or even hidden on a page in white type in order to improve search results for particular terms — AKA “keyword stuffing” — are long since over. In fact, Google dings sites that still engage in this kind of practice with the threat of the dreaded “Google Penalty,” which can result in a page’s altogether disqualification for appearing on a SERP.
The fact that the Google algorithm is constantly being updated and refined means that a site’s ranking relative to keyword search terms is always subject to change. Staying tapped into how Google thinks and works can be more than a full-time job, but the overriding truth is this: Google’s ultimate objective relative to any search query is a successful user experience by producing links to quality content that is aligned with specific search queries.
If life were easy, keyword research would reveal the highest volume search terms relative to your market, and you would simply incorporate that intelligence directly into your website’s content strategy. Great plan, but here’s the wrinkle: all of your competitors are doing the same thing. So it’s complicated. The actual goal of keyword research is to find the sweet spot — the terms for which you are already ranking, or that have the greatest significant strategic value relative to your brand, your product, and your market, as well as the keywords or phrases for which you have a chance for ranking relative to the competitive landscape. These are your priority keywords and we recommend 10 to 20 to include as part of your content strategy.
The “ranking” goal is the top first, second, or third spots — possibly top five — organic positions on a SERP. Anything lower than fifth for organic search is kind of the equivalent of an honorable mention — not bad, and clearly there’s potential.
That’s where the second phase of keyword or keyphrase research enters into the process, involving analyses of your audience and your ideal customer profile along with the development of strategies to align your website search performance with content that connects with your desired audience.
In most instances, we’ve found that a well-rounded strategy includes both organic and paid campaigns for a mix of long-term and short-term results.
The keyword research process begins with a deep dive into the entire ecosystem of search terms that pertain to your market, industry, products, or services.
Top tools for conducting this kind of research:
SEMrush — a multi-featured digital marketing services provider with keyword research capabilities that include:
Spyfu — a comprehensive competitive research tool for help in refining keyword strategy by gaining insight into behind-the-scenes data concerning competitors’ keywords, ranking history, pay-per-click campaigns, adwords, and budgets.
Google Ads Keyword Tool — a pay-per-click online advertising creation resource that offers a depth of data on highest volume keywords and niche opportunities for targeting specific customers.
AlsoAsked.com — leveraging the fact that an increasing number of Google searches are actual questions, and that Google now includes a “People also ask” list under the answer snippet, AlsoAsked.com offers insight into how questions are typically grouped, for purposes of creating content that serves as the answer to a question that might appear on a “People also ask” list. This insight is particularly helpful for FAQ questions on your site and for determining long-tail keywords to target.
Long-tail keywords or key phrases refer to longer or more specific search terms or phrases. Search volume for long-tail keywords is lower — sometimes considerably lower — than for the most popular search terms, but the advantage of a long-tail strategy is that it can fuel a greater degree of focus or market segmentation than might otherwise feel necessary. Initiatives to rank for specific long-tail keywords can actually be the driving force for defining the vision for a company or a brand.
Let’s take the example of small- to medium-sized residential real estate brokerage in Chicago. Searches for homes for sale using standard search queries such as Chicago Homes for Sale or Chicago Real Estate indicates that the major players — Trulia, Redfin, Zillow, and realtor.com — appear to have home search SEO sewn up. A similar dynamic plays itself out in many fields.
Diving a bit deeper with search terms such as the following, reveals that these same players are very committed to getting out in front of online home search, but points to some targeted search opportunities for firms that are committed to defining a niche.
The keyword search tools listed above can provide a far greater depth and breadth of insight into competition for high volume search terms and possibilities for key phrases that stand to get a mid-sized firm to a top position on a SERP.
There are multiple moving parts to the process of identifying priority keywords as a step toward optimizing search strategies. Those who are dedicated to sharpening their focus and exploring new possibilities are in for a fascinating journey of discovery that is as strategically rewarding as it is fun.
Looking for some help in sharpening your SEO skills and identifying the priority keywords that stand to bring you the biggest benefit? Let us know! We’d love to help.