I love words. I mean seriously love them. In fact, I love words so much that I’m not ashamed to admit I have a favorite dictionary that lives on my desk. How does one establish a favorite reference tome, you might ask? It’s not the precise definitions, helpful illustrations, or consistent cross-references that do it for me. No, my favorite dictionary is the best because it includes etymological information (which is much more important than most people realize).
In my opinion, performing keyword research is a lot like thumbing through the pages of my dictionary. I’m searching for a specific word with an exact meaning. But it doesn’t end there. We also have to find the intention behind the keyword. That’s where etymologies come in, showing you the history of how and why the word became what it is today. And what is search intent if not the etymology of a keyword?
Finding the best keywords is all about balance and discovering the thought process behind the search terms. But because there are few marketers who are also psychologists, this can get tricky. But never fear, I’ll help you make sense of the process. In the words that follow, we’re going to talk about where keywords come from, why they’re important and how you can find the best ones to reach your target audience.
Where Do They Come From?
Keywords get a lot of attention in the content marketing world. They’re those magical little phrases that optimize a piece of content so you appear higher in the search engine results pages (SERPs). But where do they come from? Who decides what’s a keyword? Can you make one up on your own?
Keywords are “created” more or less by crowdsourcing. So you can’t make one up on your own, but if enough people are searching the same phrase as you, it could become a ranking keyword. That’s because search engines keep track of what people type into the search box and assign scores to those words and phrases. As certain search terms gain popularity, they become viable keywords for businesses to target.
Why Do You Need Them?
The whole idea behind using keywords in digital marketing is to increase search engine optimization for that content. When content is optimized, it gives you a better chance of appearing at the top of the results page and generating more organic traffic to your website.
Keywords can help you work within a search engine’s ranking algorithm not only by tailoring content to frequently searched terms, but also by helping you match search intent. Google, the most-used search engine, is all about creating a positive user experience. So it not only indexes items that match search terms, it presents resources that match the reason people are searching. You can use keywords and search results to guide the type of content you create so it matches what your audience is looking for.
Content marketing is all about delivering value, and keywords help you determine what is valuable to your audience.
3 Elements of Keyword Research
Before you dive into your own keyword research, let me tell you about the three main SEO principles that should guide your process: relevance, authority and search volume.
Relevance (Search intent)
A successful keyword strategy hinges significantly on relevance—both to your brand and your ideal user. If your content doesn’t match the search intent behind the keyword, then you have little chance of ranking in organic search results. (This goes back to Google trying to make the search process as easy as possible for its users.)
Before you decide on a keyword phrase, you need to understand the search intent behind it. Most keyword research tools allow you to view the SERPs for a keyword in their interface, but you can also just type the phrase into the search bar and see what comes up. Review some of the top hits and keep an eye on content type, format and focus. Does it match what you plan to create? Is the topic in line with what your brand can speak to?
It’s incredibly important that you do not ignore the search intent during your research process. I’ve had to forgo plenty of great looking keywords because the audience searching it just wasn’t who the client was trying to target. I promise there’s always another keyword that better fits your plan.
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Authority is a top three ranking factor for Google not just for content but for your website over all. It determines website authority through a number of metrics, among the most important of which are backlinks. Backlinks are links to your website from another website, and they help you establish authority by showing Google that other sites trust you as a source of valuable information.
So how does this fit with keyword research? Through keyword difficulty, of course! As you scroll through a list of keywords, you’ll see a difficulty score next to each one. This score represents how tough your keyword tool thinks it is to rank for that keyword or how much competition there is to rank for that keyword (depending on how you look at it). Brands with more authority can compete and rank for keywords with higher difficulty scores.
Of course, this means keywords with less competition will have lower scores and be more attainable for emerging brands. As you create your content marketing strategy, keep in mind your brand’s level of authority and let that guide your decision on which keywords to pursue and which to save for later.
The final factor to consider as you do keyword research is the monthly search volume for each term. This metric is exactly what it sounds like: how many searchers are typing in that keyword each month. It’s helpful because it shows which keywords are worth spending time optimizing for and which simply don’t have enough opportunity to warrant the effort.
Ranking at the top of SERPs is great but if only five people see your link, it won’t do much for your sales pipeline. Instead, look for keywords that have a healthy search volume—I tend to stick with 100 and over—so you know you’ll target enough of an audience to generate some conversions from your content.
Some of your keyword ideas might turn up very low search volumes but be right on par with search intent. In that case, you can use your keyword explorer to look at related keywords or keyword suggestions, which will show you similar keywords with hopefully better scores. Ideally, you’re looking for keywords that have low difficulty, high search volume and reflect your audience’s search intent.
It’s worth noting that some industries may have predominantly lower volume keywords because they operate within a specific niche. That’s okay. Most articles will rank for more than one keyword, so even though your target term only shows 10 search volume, you may rank for 10 words with 10 search volume and then it’s like compounding interest but for SEO.
How to Perform Successful Keyword Research
So now we know why keywords are important and the attributes to look out for as your research. Next comes the process of actually finding those keywords.
Fair warning: this can be time consuming. Sometimes it might feel like a game of Where’s Waldo. It’s important to stick to your guns and keep searching until you find the right keyword that matches your content and audience.
I take a four-step approach to keyword research for our clients. This helps me determine a direction, choose my tool and evaluate potential keywords.
Determine a Direction
First things first, you need to do a little prep work. Before you start creating new content, you should know what kind it will be and what its goal is. It might be a blog, video or infographic aimed at educating or enticing your audience.
Once you know what you’re creating, you’ll need a research framework. This is a document that helps organize your keyword research by providing a few different topic clusters to guide your content ideas. The topics you choose will represent a specific area of your business or segment of your audience that your content will focus on.
Choose Your Tool
The next step is to choose which keyword research tool to use. There are lots of options to choose from. I use AhRefs, which can give lots of SEO insights aside from just keyword discovery. SemRush and Moz are two other popular choices both for their paid versions and free tools.
Whatever tool you choose will show you existing keywords along with their difficulty, search volume, and SERP results. You’ll notice the tool almost always pulls Google rankings as opposed to Bing or Yahoo! results. This is because Google search hosts roughly 95% of all search queries, so it’s the most likely to have accurate keyword data.
Evaluate Potential Keywords
Now it’s time to start researching! Start brainstorming possible search terms that would fit into each of your topic clusters and type those into your research tool. It’ll pull up a report if your specific keyword exists or offer lists of close matches. As you scroll through potential keywords, remember that you want a balance of difficulty, volume and search intent.
Don’t lose hope if you don’t find a keyword right away or if all the search phrases you type in are a bust. This research process is marked by trial, error and discovery. It sometimes takes lots of sifting to find the gold you’re looking for.
If you’re having trouble thinking of or finding keywords, you can try a reverse search technique. Type your search term into Google and see what results come up. Skim through them until you find content that closely matches what you’re hoping to create. Copy that link and paste it into your research tool, then you can see what keywords the page is ranking for. This might help you find viable options you hadn’t thought of on your own.
The keywords you find through the research process will each be a primary keyword in a piece of content. But the buck doesn’t stop here. As you move through content creation, you want to add even more keywords to support your primary term. These are called relevant keywords and they include related terms that the same users typically look for in their search results.
In some cases you can use the same research tool to find primary and relevant keywords, but not all tools offer this feature. For example, we use ClearScope to generate relevant keyword lists and grade content based on SEO principles. But SemRush has tools for both keyword discovery and generating lists. It just depends on what capabilities you need and how much you’re willing to spend.
As you write, you want to include as many relevant keywords as possible. The more you can work into a piece of content, the more likely you are to rank on search results and drive organic search traffic to your site. You still want your content to sound natural, though, so try to craft your topics around the keywords you need to include.
Important note: Don’t stuff your keywords. It might be tempting to haphazardly throw relevant terms into your content in hopes of better optimization, but this actually hurts your chances. Google’s algorithm is primed to detect keyword stuffing and doesn’t promote links that engage in this practice. It might even flag your site as an unreliable source and hurt your rankings for your other pages. Create content around keywords and not the other way around.
The Search Is On!
Keyword research is how you optimize your content marketing. It’s how you reach the right audience in the right place at the right time. And it’s how you let your content work for you by capturing organic searchers and bringing them into your sales funnel.
I perform keyword research for our clients through the Blog Content Strategy process and love finding those little nuggets of opportunity buried in a keyword list. So if you need some help with your research or have any questions, feel free to reach out to us. We’d be happy to help!
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