I pinged Aaron and asked him if he would take me through the basics of keyword research for those readers of the blog who are just starting out, and help me create a beginner’s guide to keyword research, as it’s one area I’ve not really touched on.
For the complete novice, what is it ?
In the offline world companies spend millions of dollars doing market research to try to understand market demand and market opportunities. Well with search consumers are telling marketers exactly what they are looking for – through the use of keywords. And there are tons of free and paid keyword research tools out there to help you understand your market. In addition to those types of tools lots of other data points can be included as part of your strategy, including:
- data from your web analytics tools (if you already have a website)
- running test AdWords campaigns (to buy data and exposure directly from Google…and they have a broad match option where if you bid on auto insurance it will match queries like cheap detroit auto insurance)
- competitive research tools (to get a basic idea of what is working for the established competition)
- customer interactions and feedback
- mining and monitoring forums and question and answer type websites (to find common issues and areas of opportunity)
Just how important is it in the mix for a successful SEO campaign?
Keywords are huge. Without doing keyword research most projects don’t create much traction (unless they happen to be something surprisingly original and/or viral and/or of amazing value). If you are one of those remarkable businesses that to some degree creates a new category (say an iPhone) then SEO is not critical to success. But those types of businesses are rare.
The truth is most businesses are prettymuch average, or a little bit away from it, with a couple unique specialties and/or marketing hooks. SEO helps you discover and cater to existing market demand and helps you attach your business to growing trends through linguistics. You can think of SEO implications for everything from what you name your business, which domain names you buy, how you name your content, which page titles you use, and the on page variation you work into page content.
Keyword research is not a destination, but an iterative process.For large authority sites that are well trusted you do not have to be perfect to compete and build a business, but if your site is thin or new in a saturated field then keyword research is absolutely crucial. And even if your website is well trusted then using effective keyword strategy helps create what essentially amounts to free profits and expanded business margins because the cost of additional relevant search exposure is cheap, but the returns can be great because the traffic is so targeted. And since a #1 ranking gets many multiples of traffic that a #3 or #4 ranking would get, the additional returns of improving rankings typically far exceed the cost of doing so (at least for now, but as more people figure this out the margins will shrink to more normal levels.)
Where do you start?
What kind of ambitions do you have? Are they matched by an equivalent budget? How can you differentiate yourself from competing businesses? Are there any other assets (market data, domain names, business contacts, etc.) you can leverage to help build your new project? Does it make sense to start out overtly commercial, or is there an informational approach that can help you gain traction quicker? I recently saw a new credit card site launching off of the idea of an industry hate site “credit cards will ruin your life”.
After they build link equity they can add the same stuff that all the other thin affiliate websites have, but remain different AND well linked to. Once you get the basic business and marketing strategy down then you can start to feel out the market for ideas as to how broad or narrow to make your website and start mapping out some of your keyword strategy against URLs. And if you are uncertain about an idea I am a big fan of launching a blog and participating in the market and seeing what you can do to find holes in the market, build social capital, build links, and build an audience – in short, build leverage…once you have link equity you can spend it any way you like (well almost).
And (especially if you are in a small market with limited search data) before you spend lots of money on building your full site and link building it makes sense to run a test campaign on AdWords and build from that data. Doing so can save you a lot of money in the long run, and that is one of the reasons my wife was so eager to start a blog about PPC. Her first few campaigns really informed the SEO strategy and she fell in love with the near instantaneous feedback that AdWords offers.
What does keyword research involve?
Keyword research can be done in many different stages of the SEO process – everything from domain name selection, to planning out an initial site map, to working it into the day to day content creation process for editorial staff of periodical content producers. And you can use your conversion, ranking, and traffic data to help you discover
- new topics to write about
- ways to better optimize your existing site and strategy
- anchor text to target when link building
One of the more ambitious keyword strategies I have seen mentioned publicly is how Brent Payne does SEO for the Tribune company. Keyword research helps define everything from what site hosts the content, to the page title, right on through to what anchor text to use when cross linking into hot news.
Which tools can be used to create a successful keyword list spread?
There are so many great keyword tools that it is sorta hard to keep track of it all. I try to list most of the general keyword research tools I like here and we have a keyword tool which is powered by Wordtracker which also cross-references a lot of other useful keyword tools.
Google has the best overall keyword data because of their huge search market share. Their (fairly) new Search-based keyword tool is awesome, but for some odd reason sometimes Google will skip showing some related keywords that you would expect them to show, unless you search for exactly those words. Due to that selective and random filtering of Google’s data, it also makes it important to use other keyword research tools to help fill in the gaps. This is where tools like Wordtracker and WordStream‘s keyword tool shine.
In addition, many search engines recommend search queries to searchers via search suggest options that drop down from the search box. We have an SEO site planner tool for our paying members which helps them grab this data from multiple sources and use it to help plan out their site structure. Such search suggest tools are typically driven by search query volume with popular keyword variations rising to the top.
Six other ways to build (or expand) fairly large keyword lists are our keyword list generator, broad or phrase matched bidding on Google AdWords, looking at your web analytics data, competitive research tools, viewing link anchor text of competing websites, and any sort of structured data (like a Google News RSS feed, a Twitter feed, top seller lists on Amazon.com, a Delicious tag list, etc.).
How much keyword research do you do on a project?
It depends on how serious of a commitment the project is. Sometimes we put up test sites that are start off far from perfect and then iteratively improve and reinvest in the ones that perform the best.
If we know a site is going to be core to our overall strategy I wouldn’t be against using 10 different keyword tools to create a monster list of terms, and then run that list through the Google AdWords API to get a bit more data about each. On one site I know we ended up making a list of 100,000+ keywords, sorted by value, then started checking off the relevant keywords.
Do the keywords change as the project progresses?
Yes and no. Meaning as your site gains more link authority you will be able to rank better for broader keywords that you might not have ranked for right off the start. BUT that does not mean that you should have avoided targeting those keywords off the start. Instead I look for ways to target easier keywords that also help me target harder higher traffic keywords. For example, if I aim to rank a page for “best credit cards” then that page should also be able to rank well (eventually) for broader keywords like “credit cards.”
You can use a tool like SEO for Firefox to see how competitive the search results are and if you have enough resources to compete for a particular phrase.
You can think of your keyword traffic profile as a bit of a curve (by how competitive the query is and the number of keywords in the search query). This type of traffic distribution curve starts off for new sites far to the right (low competition keywords with few matches in the search index that are thus easy to rank for based on on-page optimization, often with many words in each search query) and then as a site builds link authority and domain authority that curve moves left, because you are able to compete for some of the more competitive keywords … which often have their results determined more based on links-based metrics.
Can you give me an example how you would keyword research a specific niche – the steps you’d normally take?
Everything is custom based on if a site exists or is brand new. And if it exists how much authority does the site have? How much revenue does it have? There is not really a set normal.
Sometimes while doing keyword research I come to the conclusion that the costs of ranking are beyond the potential risk-adjusted returns. Other times there is a hole in the market that is somewhat small or large. Depending on assets and resources (and how the project compares to our other sites) we might have vastly different approaches.
But a general starting point for a general website is discussed in our site architecture section of our training materials, and here is a graphic for sorta an example of how we would map out keyword permutations and modifiers against URLs.
How would you deploy your keyword research in 3 areas – on page, on site, and in links
The above image sorta highlights our site building strategy. As far as on page optimization goes, in the past it was all about repetition. That changed around the end of 2003, with the Google Florida update.
Now it is more about making sure the page has the keyword in the title and maybe sprinkled a bit about the page content, but also that there is adequate usage of keyword modifiers, variation in word order, and variation in plurality. Rather than worrying about the perfect keyword density try to write a fairly natural sounding page (as though you knew nothing about SEO), and then maybe go back to some keyword research tools and look at some competing pages for keyword modifiers and alternate word forms that you can try to naturally work into the copy of the page and headings on the page.
As far as links go, it is smart to use some variation in those as well. Though the exact amount need depends in part on site authority (large authoritative sites can generally be far more aggressive than smaller lesser trusted websites can). The risk of being too aggressive is that you can get your page filtered out (if, say, you have thousands of links and they all use the exact same link anchor text).
There is not a yes/no exact science that says do xyz across the board, but generally if you want to improve the ranking of a specific page then pointing targeted link anchor text at that page is generally one of the best ways to do so. But there is also a rising tides lift all boats effect to where if you get lots of links into any section of your website that will also help other parts of your site rank better – so sometimes it makes sense to create content around linking opportunities rather than just trying to build links into an unremarkable commercial web page.
Is there anything people should avoid when compiling keyword research?
I already sorta brushed off keyword density. In addition, many people worry about KEI or other such measures of competition, but as stated above, even if a keyword is competitive it is often still worth creating a page about it which happens to target it AND keywords that contain it + other modifiers (i.e. best credit cards for credit cards).
Don’t look for any keyword tool to be perfect or exact. Be willing to accept rough ranges and relative volumes rather than expecting anything to be exactly perfect.
A huge portion of search queries (over 25%) are quite rare and have few searches. Many such words do not appear on public keyword tools (in part due to limited sampling size for 3rd party tools and in part because search engines want advertisers to get into bidding wars on the top keywords rather than buying cheap clicks that nobody else is bidding on).
Once you start getting feedback from ranking data that is THE BEST data you will ever get because…
- it is actual market data (no estimations required)
- it is unique to your site (which means not everyone else has access to it)
- it tells you what is already working (so you can look for ways to do more of it)
An example of that third point is to take your traffic and/or earnings data by keyword from your analytics and plug those keywords into a rank checker. Look for high earning or high traffic keywords that do not rank #1 and try to think of how you could improve those rankings (like changing page titles, creating new content based on those keywords, and/or link building).
Thanks Aaron! :)
So there you have it. Keyword research for beginners from somebody who knows what he’s on about :)