Why is Keyword Research the most Important Step to Increase my Rankings?
Keyword Research is a process of discovery of the sought-after keywords that you would want to rank for organically in order to achieve your website’s goals by attracting as much relevant and targeted traffic as you can. It’s a key step in the SEO process because it focuses your strategy and efforts to the keywords that really matter and to stop you from wasting time on keywords which don’t. The process starts off with Discovery by brainstorming and researching keywords and finally Keyword prioritization which checks the competitiveness and traffic potential for the keyword.
What is a Keyword?
A keyword is the word that people would usually type into a search engine to search for information. Essentially a keyword is just a word or phrase, but used in context it means the word you use to search in a search engine. The same applies for ‘keyphrase’ which refers to a phrase which is placed into a search engine query.
When SEO’s undertake keyword research they will start to differentiate the keywords by either grouping them together into categories which have a common theme or by recognizing intent keywords versus a browsing keyword. By differentiating and categorizing keywords it will help you prioritize your efforts.
SEO professionals would also refer to a term called “longtail keyword” or the “longtail” which are, put simply, keyphrases or a string of keywords. For example a keyword would be “jacket” or maybe even “blue jacket” depending on how you define it for your needs and then a long tail keyword would be “blue jacket with a zipper and hoodie”.
The longtail is a statistical phenomenon where in some probability distributions (zipf, power law graph, pareto distribution or stable distribution), there would be more occurrences i.e. keyword searches in the tail end versus the bulk area of the graph. The concept of the long tail was popularized by Chris Anderson in 2004 in a Wired magazine article. While the majority of keyword searches might seem to be from a group of one or two keywords, the theory is that there would actually be more users in total would be searching with more keywords.
Keywords can also be branded and unbranded. Branded keywords are typically words or phrases which relate to your company’s brand. If you’re a retailer called Acme Inc and you sell Acme Inc branded widgets as well as SoftMicro’s Widgets and PleAp’s Widget’s, the “branded traffic” is restricted to your own Acme Inc branded widget’s and the other widgets are unbranded. Unbranded keywords are every other keyword which aren’t ‘branded’.
A word of warning: ranking for singular keywords is very hard as it’s highly competitive while ranking for long tail keywords are easier in general as there is less competition. Ranking for your own brand is usually easier than ranking for an unbranded generic term.
Why are Keywords at the Core of SEO?
Keywords are at the core of SEO because the main aim of the game is to get to number one in the search results. Keyword research is essentially the most important activity for SEO as it helps you strategically plan your marketing and prioritize your efforts.
To help you prioritize your efforts, consider the potential traffic and the level of competitiveness for each keyword. You don’t want to be investing time and money trying to rank for keywords which don’t attract much traffic. And you don’t want to be investing time or money in trying to rank for keywords which are impossible to rank or unrealistic at your current business size, nature or phase.
I keep seeing small business owners being fleeced for not being aware of the importance of keyword research. One way this can happen is when they are promised that they can rank for a branded long tail keyword such as “Morgan’s Lonsdale City Arborist Services”. You shouldn’t pay an SEO to help you rank for a branded long tail search like this. Ranking for your own business name is typically a no-brainer exercise as you alone would have that unique name and no one else. (Unless there was another arborist, in an identical city somewhere else on Earth with also the same business name). What would be more valuable is to be able to rank locally for a shorter root term like the keyword “arborist” or “Lonsdale arborist”.
You Need to Create a List of Target Keywords
The first step in any SEO journey is to generate a list of target keywords. This is an activity that will be constantly repeated and updated as competitors, your customer and trends change. Through time you’ll discover more keywords as you understand your customer and target market’s search behavior.
When compiling your list of keywords, try to keep focused on relevant and related keywords. Although at the same time with any brainstorming or discovery sessions, you would want to keep an open mind as possible and organize the elimination step at the end of the process.
Brainstorming is your first stop of keyword discovery. You or your client would know a lot of industry terminology and jargon. You or your client would also know what keywords your target market is looking for based on the services or products you or they provide.
Use a whiteboard, piece of paper, a word document or a spreadsheet to jot your ideas down. Personally I use a spreadsheet so I have everything organized in one place and to save time in having to type up any ideas after the session. But if you have trouble typing and writing is faster for you to get your ideas on to paper you can do it that way too! List as many keywords ideas as you can in one sitting without disqualifying or discounting any ideas that come to you.
Another tool you can use is a mind mapping tool. You can structure your brain storm sessions into a mind mapping exercise if you are visually inclined. Mind maps are those diagrams which are centrally themed around one concept. And then you can create multiple branches from each stem with various and related ideas. This can help you structure your idea generation and brainstorming which will help with sorting out your keyword lists into a logical groups in later stages.
Using Google Ads Keyword Tool to Find Keywords
One central tool in finding keywords is the Google Ads Keyword Planner. This tool is primarily used by Search Engine Marketing (SEM) professionals in researching ad groups and keywords and their associated estimated traffic and the Cost Per Click (CPC).
Google Ads Keyword Planner
If you haven’t logged into Google Ads before, upon sign up you will be prompted to start a new campaign and add your billing details. Ensure that if you do follow this signup process that you’ve paused any campaigns otherwise you might end up inadvertently advertising on Google. When I last tested the minimum required details to use Google Ads Keyword Planner, what I did was sign into the homepage for Ads with my Gmail/Google account which forced me to start the campaign process. But I bypassed this by Googling “Ads Keyword Planner” and visiting the direct link listed above. If it still doesn’t work, then you just continue with the signup process. Ensure that you pause any campaigns the signup process forced you to create! (Otherwise you may be publicly publishing advertising your campaign)
Like any Google property, they tend to change and update through various times but fundamentally the tool works similarly as it has for years. (Well – that’s a lie because one thing they did take away from us a few years back was to give us the ability to find out estimated keyword traffic for broad and exact match). So I’ll write about the generalized process in how to use this tool.
1 – Sign in.
2 – Choose either “Get Search Volume and trends” or “Search for new keywords using a phrase, website or category”.
3 – Input your keywords.
4 – Click Submit.
Using Competitors to Find Keywords (and more Tools to help find more keywords!)
What sweeter way to beat your competitors at game than learning from their own SEO strategy? There are a few methods you can use to glean the keywords that your competitors use from their own website.
One obvious way to obtain your competitor’s keywords is to browse though their website and observe the names of the page titles. The page title is the name of the page which you can see in your browser tab or window. You can also see this by inspecting the HTML code by right clicking on the page and selecting View Source from the pop-up menu or pressing CTRL+U on your keyboard when you’re in the Chrome browser then finding a tag. Once you’ve got the source open search for this string “<title>” without the quotes. You will find something like:
<title>This is the Page Title Which May Contain Your Competitor’s Target Keywords – Website Brand</title>
The text located in between the html tag <title> and the closing tag </title> is the page title. If your competitor’s site is small you can easily do this manually. But for larger sites a crawling tool like Screaming Frog can help you to effectively crawl the whole website. In respect to page titles, the tool can grab all the pages from a website and you can run through it in a spreadsheet to systematically breakout and group the content into categories and discover your competitor’s focus area.
Another way to find out your competitor’s keyword strategy is by using the old Meta Keywords tag which is still present and used by people who don’t know that this feature isn’t relevant any more to help with ranking in Google. I still find the odd website that still uses this tag which makes our job that much easier.
To find the meta keywords tag you can search for something like the following: <meta keywords=”many, keywords, could, possibly, be, found, here”> You can search for this by viewing the source of the page (you can right click on a browser window and look for the link to view page source or in chrome by pressing CTRL + U) and searching for “keywords=” without the quotes.
Keyword density tools are another hack you can use to determine the main keywords of a page. The keyword density tool is rooted in the early history of search optimization where software would count the number of time a keyword or keyphrase would appear on the page and then give you a percentage summary of the results on a website or page level. The SEO community were discussing the perfect ratio and balance between target keyword to the bulk of the textual content. People were suggesting only 2-3 mentions while others said 3-5% of the content should be your target keyword root. Strategies like these probably worked in the past, but now the algorithm has evolved so much that it can probably figure out if it was okay to repeat your keyword over and over many times just because it was relevant for your content or not even mention your keyword at all and still be ranked for certain words.
Going on a tangent for a second, Google Webmaster Tools provides a rundown of keywords it thinks is “significant” for your website. You can take a look by logging into the Google Search Console and going to “Google Index” and then select “Content Keywords”. From there you will see two columns: Keyword and Significance which is represented by a blue horizontal bar for each keyword. From there, select “Download this table” where you’ll be given a CSV file with a table containing these data columns: Keyword, Occurrences, Variants Encountered and Top URLs.
You can use the famous SEO Book website’s Keyword Density Tool. Aaron Wall’s SEO Book made its mark in the SEO community as he documented the main SEO guidelines of the day into a PDF and had an up to date SEO blog. His book and a few others were circulating in the early days before Google started to document its own documentation around webmaster best practices. The set of Google webmaster guidelines is the set of rules by which all of SEO is generally based on. Definitely a must read for everyone involved with developing websites and creating content.
SEO Book Keyword Density Analyzer
Google Webmaster Guidelines
SEMRush is the final method from which you can glean competitor insights. There are comparable services, software and websites like Wordtracker, Market Samurai, Similar Web and Spufu (comparable to varying degrees, when choosing a service be aware of the marketing spin used to market comparable features) but I found that SEMRush was useful on two fronts – for both SEM and SEO and the price was competitive for my use. Essentially, SEMRush (and some of the other comparable tools) provide a peek into the keywords your competitors rank for both SEO and SEM and an estimated traffic value. By searching for keywords and by searching for competitors within the SEMRush interface you can export large keyword lists to extend your ever growing keyword list.
Using Google Search to Find Keywords
To continue our quest for keywords, we will use a tool that you probably use every day. You can use the Google Search Engine to glean some extra keywords. One Google feature that was released in 2004 in labs and then again in 2011 is the Google Auto Complete function. You’ve probably noticed that when you search on Google, a drop down appears with Google’s best guess on what you’re searching for? You can use this tool to find out some long tail search ideas. This drop down updates with each letter that you type and you can step through every possibility to find some interesting topics or questions to write about or answer. Google will also list keywords which has been recently trending as well.
For example if I typed in “How to ea” and stop typing Google will suggest:
– How to eat healthy
– How to earn money
– How to earn money online
– How to eat chia seeds
– How to eat less
– How to eat grapefruit
– How to eat custard apple
Another feature is the “Related Searches” which typically appears at the bottom of the Search Engine Results Page (SERP) just above the pagination numbers. Similarly with the Auto Suggest feature, this feature suggests popular related searches to the search you just executed.
For example when I searched for “How to eat healthy”, scrolling to the bottom of the page will show the related searches:
Searches related to how to eat healthy
– how to eat healthy and lose weight
– healthy eating plan
– how to eat healthy on a budget
– how to eat healthy on a budget recipes
– how to eat healthy for kids
– how to eat healthy on a budget and lose weight
– how to eat healthy on the go
– how to eat healthy at subway
Relevancy and Elimination
It’s time to whittle down the keywords you’ve discovered into a focused list of relevant keywords. Hopefully you haven’t disqualified any keywords you’ve found in your Keyword Research as this step would hone down keywords which are especially important for you to target.
At this point your spreadsheet should have at least two columns: One with “Keywords” and one called “Relevancy”.
Extra Brownie points for people who have a third column called “Category”. Categorizing your keywords will help you organize your keywords a little further, if you know SEM and Google Ads, this concept of grouping your keywords into Categories is the same as using Ad Groups.
In this step of the process you would be using the Relevancy column to quickly sift through your keywords and spend time going through each keyword and marking “y” for Yes it’s relevant or “n” for No it’s not relevant for the keyword. For this exercise you would be tapping on three keys only repetitively: “y”, “n” and “Enter” to move to the next line. You can use your filtering option in your spreadsheet to later filter out the n’s from the y’s.
So how do you determine if a keyword is relevant? If are working on a content site, any keyword within your niche would be relevant. If you’re a business which sells products and services then your keyword research would be more refined. Put yourself in the shoes of the search query to help you determine if the user who is searching has a definitive intent to complete your desired goal. Usually before someone buys a product or service they do a bit of research before actually buying. Ask yourself these questions as you go through your list of keywords. If a customer searches for this keyword…
…are they researching a solution for a problem?
…do you provide a service or product that solves that problem?
For example if you sold bow ties and your keyword was simply “bow tie” and you sell bow ties, then your answer for both questions is yes. If the keyword was “black bow tie” and you sell black bow ties, then your answer for both questions is yes. If the keyword was a long tail keyword asking “how do I choose a bow tie” or “what sizes are available for bow ties?” then the answers are still yes. However if the keyphrase was “how do I tie a bow tie?” then the answer is yes for the first question and no for the second, which makes this keyword not relevant to you.
That said, I’ve structured my process of elimination in such a way that you can revisit these eliminated keywords again in future. If you’re extra keen, you can perhaps add another column “Blog Content Idea” and place a flag that showing potential customers how to tie their bow tie could be great blog content for both a branding and SEO content exercise. But in terms of keeping our priorities focused it doesn’t place in our list of priorities as the intent isn’t to buy a bow tie.
How to Prioritize Your Keywords
Now that you’ve completed focusing your list down to the most relevant keywords we can start to prioritize the keywords to help you organize and prioritize your workload.
One metric that will help you to prioritize your keywords and save you time is the level of competitiveness for a keyword. To find the metric, execute a search for the keyword on Google and the SERP will tell you how many total pages it had found for that keyword. On the page somewhere, most of the time it appears on the top of the page for desktop search you will find something like: “About 29,300,000 results (0.74 seconds)”. This tells you that for the keyword you searched for you had 29,300,000 other competing pages.
In your spreadsheet, add another column titled “Total Competitors”. Populate this column by searching for each of your keywords and entering the relevant number of searches adjacent to each keyword.
This number is essentially all your competitors for this keyword. If you are rank #1 out of 1,230,000 pages Google found, it means that out of those one million plus other pages, the algorithm found you to be the most relevant result. Therefore, we make the assumption that the higher this number is, the more competitive the keyword.
The next metric to help you prioritize your work is to look at the potential traffic that each keyword can bring to your website. This is the best number to tell you if you’re wasting your time on trying to rank for certain keywords.
The one tool that can do this for you is the Google Ads Keyword Planner which we previously touched on as a tool to help you discover more potential keywords. Once logged in to this Planner and looking at the page with the input box for the keywords is to paste in the keyword list I have in groups of 800 (this is the maximum number of keywords per search on this tool).
Once the search report is completed, I export out the keyword list in CSV format (which is an abbreviation of “Comma Separated Values” (because if you open the file in notepad, you will see that the data is essentially each row as a line in the spreadsheet and each column is separated with a comma). A spreadsheet just makes the data look presentable and easier to edit). This CSV file can be opened in any spreadsheet program. The export will also have other columns included such as estimated bid price among others which you don’t need for this analysis.
You can hide the additional columns or just delete them. After you’ve run all your keywords through the planner, join all the separate keyword lists you’ve exported by combining them together into one master list.
Prioritization and Elimination
Now you’ve got two keyword lists to play with: one telling you the level of competitiveness of each keyword and the other list with the keywords with the most potential traffic.
The common thread for both of these lists is the keyword. We can call the keyword the “key” between two lists and we can use this to combine the two lists into one table. The first step in combining these lists is to move the Potential Traffic sheet (or sheet tab or spreadsheet page depending on how you refer to it) into the spreadsheet containing the competitive metric.
We can’t simply take the column from one table and paste it next to the other table because the keywords would all be in a different order in each list. If your keyword list isn’t too complicated you could simply sort both tables according to keyword alphabetical order. Now, since the information is in the same order you can copy the potential traffic column next to the total competitors column so that you have the keywords in the first column, competitors in the second and the potential in the third.
From this point on, the process of prioritizing your keyword list will become more of a subjective analysis – subjective to your own particular circumstances. The factors that would sway me to target highly competitive keywords with lots of lucrative traffic are:
– you have plenty of time, plus
– a large budget, plus
– have a company or client which is a dominant player in the offline world (in terms of scale, number of bricks and mortar stores and service area size), or
Another data point to include in your research to paint the complete picture is your current ranking. You can do this a number of ways: searching for each keyword, counting and then recording the number ranking. Or you can use Google Webmaster Tools which is also called the Google Search Console to export out an Average Ranking Value. A final way to get periodic reports of your ranking is by using the relevant ranking reporting tools provided by Moz.com or Advanced Web Ranking. There are plenty of tools out there and I’ve found that these tools are great for most small to medium (and even enterprise clients).
Once you know your keyword ranking for each of your keywords in your list, you can start to formulate a plan around which keywords would need your attention and effort. You can add your keywords to an SEO tool like Linkio which will help you with tracking your positions on the search engines and suggest you fixes in your off-page activities in order to gain more visibility and traffic. Part of the job of an SEO is to choose a strategy which they think would provide the business with the most relevant potential traffic that would either generate leads, sales or other favorable outcome.