If you’ve ever gone on a vacation in a new or unfamiliar city, chances are strong that you referenced a map of some kind. Maps are necessary for any tourist who doesn’t want to wander the streets aimlessly! A well-made map, whether on a smartphone or in a shiny brochure, has the potential to guide any newcomer smoothly to their destination. They’re essential tools for finding even the most popular destinations and tourist attractions, while helping a visitor also find the smaller ones that aren’t necessarily featured on the broader map.
Doing search engine keyword research online is a little bit like figuring out how to create the ideal general map for the tourists who visit your city. It involves finding out where people want to go, and then listing those destinations on the map. Because it’s a general map, it won’t necessarily need to list, say, every bike trail or every pizza parlor in the city, but the challenge will be to provide all the vital basics! Because every tourist is unique, not every tourist will want to go to the same places. But in general, a Chicago mapmaker, for example, can assume that it’s a smart idea to highlight the Willis Tower, the Shedd Aquarium,and Gino’s East Pizza because these are places tourists frequently visit and love.
What is the best way to make sure you’ve created a useful map? Real life facts about the places on the map, statistics, and solid information on who goes there. Basing the map’s creation on research - what locations receive the most traffic, and what tourists’ favorite spots are - will ensure that the map proves helpful to the highest number of people and guide those people where they want to go.
Keyword research guarantees that you get on the map!
Are you getting the connection here between old-fashioned maps and keywords for SEO? The keywords that you target for your website are like the locations on the map where people are headed in droves. Your job as the “mapmaker” - a.k.a. SEO consultant - is to find out where people are congregating in your city (your industry!) so you can include those destinations on your overall city map. The city map, in this analogy, is your keyword strategy - that method by which you will attract website visitors!
If you’re a little lost on what exactly key phrases are, I blogged on how key phrases factor into SEO earlier this year - maybe take a pit stop before you keep reading.
How you can conduct better initial keyword research
When I do initial keyword research for a website, I obviously want it to pay off in great traffic and excited visitors who find it by searching the terms I've targeted. Here are the five steps I follow.
1. I determine what this website needs or wants to be found for (i.e. products, services, offerings, branding). I will sometimes create a visual listing key terms, phrases that sum up what the company does, and the company's top offerings. Then I'll compile a list of basic possibilities. These are untested and unresearched, but it's good to get my brain going before I use any tools.
2. I list all the local areas that people might search in conjunction with this company or brand. This could be the city the company is located in, cities served, the name of a metropolitan area, or the state.
3. Using free or paid tools, I get ideas. I plug in in all important services/products/words and (if applicable) geographic locations, if that is important to the business, to get keyword ideas backed by actual traffic information. I also test keywords that I already have in mind. I try to test all possible combinations of services, main descriptors, and location-specific words (if relevant).
SEO's used to love Google AdWords' Keyword Tool to come up with keywords to target for SEO campaigns. Now that tool is no longer available, but Google recently introduced the new “Keyword Planner,” which modified the previous tool and aims to create better Ad campaigns for AdWords users. Even if you don't use AdWords, the tool can still be a big help for SEO purposes. (Note: you do need an AdWords account to use it.) I don't think it should be the only tool you use, however, as people debate the accuracy of the search volume it gives. See it as a tool and not a magic wand!
Below is a list of helpful tools that can steer you in the right direction for keywords to select. It's not a comprehensive list, but it's a list I've used with success:
- Google Trends
- Google AdWords Keyword Planner (Search Engine Land explains in this article how to use it)
- Local marketing source keyword tool
- MOZ keyword difficulty tool
When you do keyword research and compile choices, make sure to keep a spreadsheet documenting all of the following information:
- The keyword itself.
- Monthly search volume. Global and local. You may only want to focus on local results, or global results, depending on your business.
- Relevancy. This is your opinion. Use your common sense. Is the keyword truly a good fit?
- Ranking difficulty. For MOZ pro members, their keyword difficulty tool I list above is my favorite. Otherwise, you can simply type the keyword into the search results and check out the Page Rank or Domain Authority of the sites that are currently dominating for that keyword. If these sites are comparable to yours in size, look, content, and relevancy, give the keyword in question a low competitive score - say, 1 on a scale of 5. But if it seems like it will be very difficult to outrank one of these sites, rank it higher, like a 4-5.
4. I determine how easily I could incorporate these key words into existing website pages. Do I have homes for them? Will it be natural to include them in specific pages? Will I have to create new content for your website?
5. If possible, I consult with other team members to get their opinions. I'll admit, when I know a key phrase gets a ton of traffic, it can be tempting to get greedy and justify targeting the key phrase when it's really either out of my reach or irrelevant. Getting someone else's opinion keeps my feet on the ground and keeps the keyword strategy logical.
6. Finally, I select the most relevant keywords that encapsulate your business offerings and seem to provide worthwhile traffic to target. And hopefully these keywords are the ones that will work!
Now for my final advice to you:
DO consider both short and long key phrases. For every extremely popular and short keyword, there are 100 long, rambly keywords that mean basically the same thing but bring in a ton of traffic. For example: “spaghetti recipe” is very broad, but “homemade healthy spaghetti pie recipe with olives” is very specific. If your sole goal is to get traffic for your recipes, and you have a healthy spaghetti pie recipe that includes olives, by all means, go for this key phrase!
DO determine your business size. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by selecting a super competitive keyword with millions of searches per month if you are a tiny store in North Dakota!
DO use your head. The best starting place and ending place is human common sense. Work with a team to make sure every keyword you choose makes sense for your business.
DON'T make assumptions. When it comes to your marketing budget, you don’t want to rely on assumptions - no matter how sure you are that a specific term will bring traffic to the site. We may have ideas about what will rank, or we might assume “well, of course that phrase will rank!” but it doesn’t mean that’s the truth. A little research will give you greater peace of mind about investing in the search term. There’s always the risk that you won’t rank for it, but at least if you put some research into the decision to target the search term, your investment will feel more secure.
DON'T underestimate the importance of keywords. They’re worth your time because they’ll be the guide to your site for people who are looking for you!
DON'T be afraid to tweak the strategy even after you implement it. I've done this time and time again with strategies, sometimes with minor changes, and sometimes re-doing all my research. It's all trial and error. There are no guarantees that you'll rank, or that the keywords you research will work for you. Getting it right takes a combination of solid research and solid intuition.