Keyword research is a specific discipline within search engine optimisation (which I’d argue is itself a discipline within Design) whose purpose is to identify the most competitive footing on which to focus your web site’s content.
It is probably the #1 most critical factor in any web site’s success, and certainly offers great return on investment.
New tools available to SEO specialists today make the process of identifying profitable content key terms quicker than ever, so there’s no reason not to invest in a little research, even if your site is already established.
Here are my 3 steps to using keyword research to boost your site’s search engine performance.
1. Find Your Main Keyword
Your site really needs to be “about” something. (Ideally, this will be a keyword that lots of people search on, but gets relatively low competition.)
A site that’s “about” two different things is fine in many ways, but you’ll usually benefit most from being stronger on one thing than quite strong on two different subjects.
The reason for this is to do with the way the traffic you get from search engines is skewed in favour of the top-ranked results. Getting the top spot on a search engine can get you 3x more traffic than position two, which in turn can be twice as good as position three, and so on. If you looked at the traffic each position gets on a graph, you’d see a very sharp fall-off from the top few results down to the “long tail”.
We can deduce from this that you’ll likely get more traffic if you’re top of the rankings for one term than to be at position #11 on two different terms.
Your main site keyword is the main term for which you want your site to rank highly. Once it’s identified, you’ll ensure your site embodies this subject throughout.
What we’ll usually do is start with the most obvious keyword, and do some expansive analysis to compare related terms and hopefully find more specific terms that are likely to deliver better value, i.e. those that get a healthy level of search traffic but for which the leading results are relatively weak from an SEO perspective.
For example, one of my students chose “quality web design” for her site. This phrase gets searched for 480 times per month in the UK, and a top-3 position would give this designer a useful amount of traffic. However, the competition is far lower than it would be for a term like “web designer”.
How Keyword Research Evaluates Relative Value
There’s a lot of information available online to help SEOs and site owners establish the relative market value of any particular keyword. Some professional tools combine data from many of the following sources to speed up the process. At a high level, the way to work out a market’s attractiveness is:
- How many people search on that term in a given period?
- What proportion of people searching on that term are likely to be looking to buy, rather than just find free information?
- How much competition is there for the term, and how focused is the competition on the term? (It’s OK if a lot of sites claim to be about a term, but few are focused to compete directly for it.)
- What’s the likely monetary value of a visitor looking for the term? (The open market forces of Google AdWords auction gives a great indicator of this.)
When you combine all this information, which is obtainable by comparing data published free-of-charge by the main search providers, it’s possible to evaluate the relative benefit of getting clicks on different terms.
The Secret of Competitiveness
OK, it’s hardly a secret, really just common sense. In short, it’s better to get a big slice of a small pie than a tiny slice of a big pie.
In real language, there’s not much point competing directly for a highly competitive search term. If you’ll struggle to get inside the top 50 results for a term, the drop-off of traffic will mean you only get crumbs, and then for a generic term.
A much better option is to compete in a smaller, more accurately-defined market niche, where there’s less competition for the traffic. If you can get in the top 5, even if for a narrower term, you’ll probably benefit because you’ll get a much healthier share of traffic plus your visitors will be better-defined if your term is more accurate.
2. Identify Lower-Level Keywords
We’ll then look at various sub-sections of the site, using a similar process, to find strong terms for each particular category.
As a rough model, consider your site arranged in a pyramid, with the home page at the top, the main section (L2) pages on the second level, which correspond to the direct, permanent links in your main navigation. The third-level of pages are the ones deeper in the site sections, not directly accessible from the home page, but from the second-level menu pages.
Each level of the site will have its own level of key terms, which extends downwards.
- Your whole site has its own main term, which applies strongly to the home page, and also to every other page on the site.
- Your second-level pages (sections) inherit the site’s subject, and can/should also each have a more specific term, which applies to the section menu page, and also other pages within that section.
- Third-level pages should inherit the site’s aboutness, their section’s aboutness, and can also have another level of specificity of their own.
In this way, search engines will get that the whole site is about your main keyword, which is vital for competing strongly. When someone’s looking for that term, the search engine will know that your whole site is about that term.
When someone’s looking for something more specific, and that term matches the term for one of your sections, you should perform competitively, as you have a number of related pages that share that term. Of course, it’s common to find a search term that comprises both your top-level term and a lower-level term, which is another good reason why your whole site should be strong on its own term.
If I’m searching for “Film Review Star Trek”, a site is more likely to match if it’s strongly about Film Reviews already, and has a page that specifically reviews the Star Trek movie – compared to a site that happens to feature such a review.
Again, these terms won’t always be the most obvious ones. There may be more valuable terms that don’t seem to you to be the natural choice, but which will bring in more useful traffic.
3. Apply Your Selected Terms (On- and Off-Site)
Clearly, it’s not enough just to identify your target search terms. You need to convince the search engines that your site and your pages are really “about” those same terms.
Search engines are just machines following programmed rules, so the key is to show them that your site/page is focused on your selected term, and also that other related sites consider your site/page to be about the same thing. If those two things happen, a search engine has no reason to come to any other conclusion, and it comes down to which site is most about the term.
There are two general approaches here, which should be used in tandem:
- On-site SEO: Your site clearly says it’s about the target terms
- Off-site SEO: Other sites that link to yours say it’s about the target terms
I’ll briefly cover some of the main techniques used in each of these approaches.
On-site SEO: Your site clearly says it’s about the target terms
How do you tell a search engine that a certain page is about a certain thing?
- Use the term frequently in your content, but not too frequently – keep the language natural! – and make sure it’s used near the top of the page (equating to higher-level meaning).
- Use the term in the tags that describe what your page is about: The title, the main heading (h1), other headings, and the meta description.
- Make sure your markup is relatively clean and uncluttered, so maximise your density of keywords to chaff and move all your content higher up in the flow.
- Use the terms within links that point to relevant pages.
Off-site SEO: Other sites that link to yours say it’s about the target terms
There are two main ways to get other sites to link to yours: paying them to do so, and not paying them to do so. Not paying is better, although when you pay for a link, you can often get to set the specific link text, which is in effect telling another site what to say your site is about.
The very best way to get inbound links is to write great content that people find valuable and choose to link to of their own accord. This is hands-down the safest and most beneficial path to take.
The links you get are likely to be around for longer, they’re likely to come from a variety of related pages that you’d otherwise never know about, and – perhaps most importantly – your great content will give people a rewarding experience, making it more likely that they’ll bookmark your site, return to it, link back to it, and send their friends, which can create a self-generating virtuous loop.