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June 13, 2007

The SEO Edge: Choosing your Keyword battles and Fighting Them Well

Looking forward from the early stages of web site development and search engine optimization can be a daunting thing. A little research will show you that trusted domain names that have been around for several years will almost always outrank new domains. This fact can cause some distress among webmasters – it can seem that you’ll simply never catch up. Combine that with the fact that there is now massive competition in just about niche, and it’s almost enough to bury your head in the sand.

But chin up, there is hope.

For starters, take a look at some of the competition in your niche. Take a close look at their source code. Looks sloppy? Table-based layouts, improper markup techniques, title tags that do nothing to target search traffic? Every optimization point that you can find that your competition isn’t fully utilizing is another place where you can develop your edge.

That said, there are simply going to be some keywords and search phrases that will be too general or competitive for you to hope to rise above the organic search competition and get to page one of results. There is more search traffic every day and more competition as well. The general keywords return millions of results, and there will always be competitors who have been at the SEO game longer than you, have done more writing, have older domains, more inbound links, etc. That’s just the way it is. However, with the increases in competition a natural phenomenon has occurred.

Recognizing this phenomenon is as easy as putting yourself in the place of your target audience or customers. A potential customer visits his or her favorite search engine with the intention of satisfying whatever need it is that your product, service or information targets. There was a day several years ago when they could enter a simple, generic search phrase and get limited results. That day has long gone.

A fact: search users are getting smarter. Just as you have realized your inability to compete effectively for the more general search phrases search users have come to terms with the fact that they’ll need to enter more targeted phrases to get the results they’re looking for. Maybe they’re looking for local services, or they want to weed-out low-quality, cheap-o products from their results. While major search engines strive every day to better their search results search users are creating their own internal filtration systems. Nobody wants to waste his or her own time – if being more specific when searching saves them a few moments of browsing results pages you’d better believe search users are going to do so.

What this means for you, woeful newfound webmaster, is that there are more search phrases to target. If yours is a product or service that is more likely to be sought geographically start targeting geographic keywords with your content. If your product or service satisfies a niche need or has a unique quality or feature find out what search terms users are entering when looking for it.

In short: do your keyword research. It’s the first step to any successful SEO campaign, and for new webmasters keyword research will be the cornerstone to your content creation efforts. Find out what users are searching for in your niche, run a few test searches yourself and see what kind of results show up. If it doesn’t look like your competitors are targeting that particular phrase it’s a likely place for you to dig in.

This is best done with a keyword research tool such as WordTracker, but there are plenty of free utilities out there to do some keyword research. Google’s keyword tool, while more geared towards AdWords management, can give you a general idea of how much traffic there is for a given keyword and how many competitors are bidding on that keyword. If there aren’t many advertisers bidding for a keyword there’s a chance it is also under-targeted for organic SEO.

It’s a brave new search world out there, true. For new webmasters it is easy to become discouraged at the level of competition – and most of them have been at it longer. Fret not – research your keywords, find out where you can take advantage of something your competition has overlooked or not-yet-discovered. Then set yourself to the task of creating as much quality content that your users will find beneficial and interesting – the kind of content they might willingly link to. Targeting the right keywords with high-quality content is still the recipe for success with organic search engine rankings – and success is still very much within reach.

Author:  Mike Tekula handles SEO, SEM, usability and standards-compliance for NewSunGraphics, a Long Island, New York firm offering Search Engine Optimization, Search Engine Marketing, W3C-Compliant web design using full CSS layouts and all things web design/development