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December 1, 2010

Back to SEO Basics with Keyword Research

I was speaking with a client the other day who commented on my home page, which talks about my tried-and-true SEO process. “Has your process changed much over time?” the client asked.

I stopped to think for a moment, and realized that while there have been plenty of changes to my SEO process at any given point in time, the fundamentals have mostly remained the same. While Google likes to keep throwing curve balls at SEOs, their algorithm changes and new products and services don’t impact most well-developed websites.

It bothers me no end when I go to search marketing conferences to find perhaps 3 sessions that focus on SEO fundamentals, while 100 others focus on the superfluous SEO techniques du jour that may or may not bring more targeted visitors to your website. Don’t get me wrong — those more “advanced” sessions can provide awesome nuggets of information for those who already have their fundamentals in place. Yet sitting in on site clinic review sessions often reveals that most of the attendees’ websites have a long way to go with even the most basic SEO strategies.

With this in mind, today’s article focuses on your first line of SEO defense — keyword research. Optimizing for the wrong keywords — either those that are not truly relevant to what your business offers or those that aren’t being used by searchers — will have the dire consequence of making you think that SEO is mythical marketing magic that doesn’t work.

To make it easier for you to follow, I’ve broken down my keyword research process into the following 7 steps:

1. Brainstorm
2. Categorize
3. Research
4. Compile
5. Winnow
6. Determine Competitiveness
7. Choose

Brainstorm Keyword Phrases

Think about the various ways in which someone seeking your website’s product, service or information might type into Google. What phrases would they use if they were looking to buy what you offer? Jot down as many of these as you can think of. Ideally, you’ll want to look at every page of your website, because they usually have different focuses.

While your own ideas are important regarding what phrases people might use, you should also ask others to do the same thing. Find colleagues, family, friends and anyone else who might help. If you can run a small focus group consisting of people in your target market – that’s all the better!

Categorize Your Keywords

Using your brainstormed keywords, start to separate them into categories. I like to use an Excel spreadsheet with multiple worksheets for this. So, for instance, if you sell consumer electronics, you’d have multiple categories such as televisions, radios, computers, with specific keyword phrases listed under each category. For something as broad as this, you’d likely have multiple subcategories as well, such as plasma TVs, large-screen TVs, etc.

Research Your Phrases

Head to Google’s keyword suggestion tool and paste in your brainstormed keyword phrases, one category at a time. Using our consumer electronics example, you might plug in your brainstormed plasma TV keywords to start. Note: Be sure you’re logged into your Google account when using the tool or it won’t provide you with all the relevant keywords available.

After you submit your first set of brainstormed keywords through the tool, change the match preference from “broad match” to “exact match” or your data will essentially be useless. (You’ll see the keywords in square brackets if you’ve set it up correctly for exact match.) Take a quick look at the phrases that the tool spits out to make sure they’re fairly relevant, and if so, export them to a comma-separated values file (.csv).

Repeat this process for each of your categories and subcategories.

Compile Your Keyword Lists

Open each of your saved .csv files full of researched keywords, and paste them into the appropriate Excel worksheet, according to the category or subcategory in which they belong. At this point, you shouldn’t be too concerned with what the keyword phrases are or any of the numbers associated with them — you just want to compile your lists for use later. Having them all in one Excel workbook will make things a lot easier as you continue with the keyword research process.

Winnow Out Irrelevant Phrases

While Google’s keyword research tool gives you tons of relevant and related keywords to the brainstormed ones you originally entered, it also adds a lot of unrelated junk phrases. Now’s the time to remove them. There’s no easy way other than using your own brain to determine what’s related and what’s not. You can use Excel’s sorting and filtering tools, however, to search for specific words that you see a lot which you know are unrelated, and then remove them in one fell swoop. In the end, you should be left with lots of relevant keyword phrases for every category and subcategory of your website.

Determine the Competitiveness

The idea here is to learn which keyword phrases are within your reach. This simply means that they are phrases people use at Google, but many of your competitors may not have thought to optimize for them yet. Unfortunately, determining keyword competitiveness has proven to be one of the trickiest aspects of the keyword research process. It’s become even more difficult over the past year because Google doesn’t seem to want us to be able to do this easily. While their keyword research tool has a column for “competition,” it’s based on paid search, not natural search, and therefore I find it to be not very helpful in deciding the true competitiveness of any keyword phrase.

Using my method, I try to figure out how many web pages are using the keyword phrases in their title tag. My reasoning is: Because title tags are given so much weight by Google, any page that is using the phrase in their title tag is at least rudimentarily optimized for the phrase, and is therefore one of those that you’re competing against.

To do this, you can go to Google and type into the search box:

Allintitle: “your keyword phrase here”

…and see how many pages used the phrase in their title tags. One problem: While this works if you use it sparingly, as soon as you start doing a few allintitle searches in a row, our lovely friend Google will block you from continuing. (Have I told you lately how much Google dislikes SEOs?)

The only workaround I’ve found so far is to use Google’s Advanced Search page and search from there. It’s time consuming, no doubt, but the information can be valuable. Due to the difficulties with this process, however, these days I save it for only those keyword phrases that I feel are highly relevant to the website I’m optimizing.

You may ask, “What number of pages using the phrase in their title tag is a good or bad amount?” All I can tell you is — it depends. You’ll have to use your own judgment here based on your skills as an SEO and the market that you’re competing in, as well as your overall marketing budget.

Choose the Phrases for Which You Will Optimize

When trying to decide which keyword phrases to optimize your pages for, keep in mind that it’s not an exact science. The main criterion should always be relevancy. There’s no sense in optimizing for keyword phrases that are too general and untargeted that also have millions of other pages already targeting them. You’ll simply be wasting precious time that you could spend optimizing for the keyword phrases that completely and accurately describe what your site has to offer.

If a phrase is highly relevant to what you offer on your site, you should choose it, regardless of how many other pages are also using it. Just remember that if millions of other sites are optimized for your exact keywords, you’re going to have your work cut out for you. In which case, you will have to figure out why Google should show your page rather than your competitors’ pages, and make it so. If you’re going to be throwing lots of marketing dollars at your website, you can likely shoot for more competitive keywords than if you’re not doing any other marketing besides SEO.

Once you’ve completed all the keyword research steps above, you should end up with categorized lists of keyword phrases that you can then use to optimize each page of your website. Your next step will be to make a map of your site and choose 3 to 5 phrases that relate to each page, then work them in accordingly, based on sound SEO principles.

I hope this information provides you with a good start for creating your own tried-and-true SEO process!


Jill Whalen is the CEO of High Rankings, an SEO Consulting company in the Boston, MA area since 1995. Follow her on Twitter @JillWhalen.

2 Responses to “Back to SEO Basics with Keyword Research

    avatar Myles Vives says:

    Hi Jill, I agree. Many people overlook the importance of the fundamentals. The first being Keyword Research.

    To even get started properly, a lot of people do not follow any kind of effective process and often think they need a lot of expensive tools.

    Benj Arriola created a quick start keyword research video that compliments this article (http://websitetrafficattraction.com/keyword-research-without-expensive-keyword-research-tools). It’s a good overview for beginners and teaches people that they can rely on their common sense as well.

    Thanks for your insights!

    avatar Stephen Monday says:

    You are dead-on the money in this article. Too many people think effective SEO is about understanding every nuance of the search engines algorithms. This is simply not the case for they are kept secret anyway. The main integral part is about keeping all of the writing relevant to the subject.

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