With the help of a solid search engine optimization (SEO) strategy, you can optimize your website to rank higher in search engines for relevant user searches. In time, that means your website will attract more visitors, earn more attention, and generate more sales.
It’s a valuable strategy, but not one that’s easy for newcomers to understand. Google doesn’t publicize the inner workings of its index or search ranking algorithm, so we’re forced to figure out how it works through our own analyses (for the most part). We’ve learned more than 200 ranking factors affect how you’re ranked – and making sure you’re contextually relevant for your audience while optimizing for those factors can be quite the juggling act.
Fortunately, the picture begins to get more straightforward when you have a clear, overarching direction for your campaign. Who are you targeting? What do you want to achieve? And how are you going to get there?
One of the most essential elements of this discussion is SEO keywords, but what exactly are these strategic targets, and how can you choose them appropriately?
Why Do Keywords Matter?
Let’s start with a basic explanation of what SEO keywords are and why they matter. When you conduct a search on Google, you’ll type in a word or a phrase to find relevant results. Google will then search the web for pages that are contextually relevant to your query.
In the earliest days of Google’s operations, keywords worked in a very simple and straightforward way. For example, if you searched for a keyword phrase like “best ice cream,” Google would look for a page on the web that included the exact phrase “best ice cream” the highest number of times. Unfortunately, finding the exact phrase led to a variety of problems, including businesses that copied and pasted the exact phrase over and over on each page of their website.
Obviously, Google has grown to be much more sophisticated since then. Today, keyword optimization isn’t about stuffing repetitive words and phrases into your content as often as possible; instead, it’s more about establishing the context of your content so Google can properly “understand” it and present it to the suitable types of audiences.
For example, if “best ice cream” is one of your primary target keywords, you’ll work to optimize your site (and the pages within it) for “best ice cream.” With enough time and effort, you could eventually reach rank one for this user query – or at least the first page.
Semantic Search and the Importance of Context
We need to talk about semantic search, because simply including a keyword or phrase on a page isn’t enough to help you rank for that keyword query. If you’re too ambitious, this approach could actually work against you.
That’s because Google employs an approach known as “semantic search,” and has ever since the Hummingbird update of 2013. Essentially, Google, instead of processing a user query verbatim, will attempt to learn and internalize a user’s intent, then find results that match that intent.
If we take our earlier example of “best ice cream,” Google will understand that you’re probably looking to buy the tastiest ice cream available to you and give you results that match that intent. Because of this, Google takes synonyms, slang terms, and alternative phrasings into account when processing queries and formulating results. If you have a lot of content about the “most delicious dairy desserts,” there’s a good chance you could still rank for “best ice cream” – as long as everything else is in place.
Thanks to this, modern keyword research and keyword optimization must include evaluating synonyms, semantically related phrases, and similar keywords.
Choosing the Best Keywords
So which keywords are the best to target?
That depends on what you mean by “best,” as different companies may have other goals in mind. You can research keywords using any number of tools, including Google’s own Keyword Planner tool. You’ll have to do some initial brainstorming on your own, but once you have a collection of terms in mind, you can get some data on them.
Generally, you’ll need to keep in mind the following:
- Relevance. Is this keyword subjectively relevant to your target audience? Does it have something to do with your business? Is it the kind of thing your target customer might actually search for? A keyword might be an attractive target in other respects, but if it’s not relevant, it’s not worth using. Accordingly, this should be your highest priority.
- Search volume. Next, you’ll need to think about search volume. This measures how many people search for this term over a given period of time. Generally, the higher the search volume, the more valuable the keyword will be, since that means you’ll tap into a more significant stream of potential traffic. However, increasing search volume also introduces another kind of complexity.
- Competition. Think about the level of competition for each keyword. As search volume increases, so does competition, making it harder and harder to make any progress in the SERPs. You’ll want to find keywords that have an appropriate balance of search volume and competition.
Of course, choosing keywords is only half the battle. Your choices will be irrelevant unless you utilize them properly.
- Choose primary and secondary keywords. It doesn’t make sense to choose 100 keywords and try to focus on all of them; if you do, you’ll end up dividing your attention and never making progress on any of them. It also doesn’t make sense to choose only two keywords and dump all your effort into them; if you do, you’ll miss out on a ton of potential. Instead, choose a selection of keywords (10-25 is ideal for people just starting out) and sort them into “primary” and “secondary” keywords. You might even include a selection of tertiary keywords eventually. Rank them in terms of priority to your business and devote proportional attention to them accordingly.
- Keep both domain-level and page-level relevance in mind. In the SEO world, your domain will have its own authority and its own set of keywords. Likewise, each page of your site will have its own authority and its own set of keywords as well. Therefore, keep both page-level and domain-level keywords in mind when planning your strategy.
- Dedicate one page per keyword. For the most part, every target keyword on your master list should have a representative page on your site. It’s a good idea to dedicate one significant page to each of your important keyword terms.
- Prioritize natural inclusion. In pursuit of keyword optimization, many SEO marketers have succumbed to the temptation of “keyword stuffing,” or including keywords and phrases for their own sake, with no regard for content quality or user experience. Avoid this at all costs, lest you face a penalty; instead, your keywords should be included as naturally as possible, preserving your content quality.
- Consider using local variants. If you’re interested in local SEO, be sure to include local variants of keywords in your strategy. It’s an easy way to become more relevant to the population of a given city or area.
- Embed keywords in both onsite content and links. Keywords aren’t purely meant for your onsite content. You’ll also need to keep them in mind for your offsite content and link-building efforts.
- Avoid keyword cannibalization. When possible, avoid having multiple onsite pages competing for the same keyword terms. It’s better to have one high-quality, high-ranking page than several pages that never get a chance to build individual momentum.
Your SEO campaign can only benefit from better SEO keyword targets and the strategic sense to use them properly. Unfortunately, it may take you several iterations of research before you start to build momentum. Still, with a better index of keywords backing your plays, you’ll likely see much better organic traffic and much more relevant visitors.
Image Credit: Liza Summer; Pexels; Thank you!