What are keywords? Why do they matter? How do you find the best keywords for SEO and conversions?
I’ve put together this Keyword Research Guide to pull back the curtain on this tricky topic and bring you bang up to date with best practice.
What are keywords?
As you’re probably already aware, keywords are the words and phrases that describe what your online content is about (more about this below).
Search engines crawl and index web pages and then decide which ones to list in search results based on what content seems most relevant to the user’s search. Keywords can help the search engines to understand this.
How we use keywords has changed over the years.
To rank highly for a search term, webmasters used to focus on keyword density, stuffing copy full of the same keywords to drive home to search engines what each page was about.
But this didn’t make for a good user experience. Copy that was repetitive and poorly written could rank higher than informative, natural-sounding, relevant text because people were able to game the algorithms.
Over time, these became ‘black hat’ (bad) techniques. The search engines rightly decided to prioritise the user experience and, because the way we use keywords changed, how we do keyword research changed too.
Why do keywords matter?
As we mentioned above, keywords are the words and phrases that identify what people are searching for and that describe the topic of a web page. For the best results, you should be writing about the topics for which people are searching.
Ideally, each page should have a single topic focus with links to related content or side topics. It’s best to aim for a unique keyword for each web page as you don’t want to end up competing in searches with your own content.
(I touched on the strategy of creating content in topic clusters in a recent blog – you may find this helpful as it explains more about linking related content on your website.)
Although Google announced back in 2009 that it wouldn’t use the keyword tag as a direct ranking signal anymore, it’s fair to say that keywords do have an indirect impact. Search engines use keywords to help them decide what the content of a web page is about and where it should rank in a search, based on its probable relevance, trustworthiness and authority.
Equally, website visitors will scan a web page for obvious keywords that highlight whether the page will contain the information they’re seeking or whether they should ‘bounce’ away to find another, more relevant website.
Why is keyword research so important?
Keyword research can help you understand the topics that really matter to your audience at any given point in time. You can use this information to inform and support your content strategy by creating content that you know your audience is looking for.
You can also find out what keywords your competitors are targeting to help you to grow your web traffic in the same area or identify gaps in the information available that you can fill to differentiate your business from its competitors.
User intent, relevance and context: the big three issues affecting keyword research today
In Google’s Search Quality Evaluation Guidelines, example pages are assessed based on the extent to which they answer the intent of the searcher. Search engines want to know that, based on the most popular reasons to use a search term, the majority of searchers would find exactly what they need on a page for it to rank well.
“Ranking for keyword phrases is no longer about ranking the web pages with the most links and the most complete content. It’s about ranking the web pages that most fully satisfy the most popular user intent.”
For this reason, it’s essential to understand why someone would look for specific content and to focus your keyword research around this intention.
Knowing this, the effective use of keywords is about choosing a topic and sticking to it, supporting that topic with related content, answering questions, and thinking about how people are searching and why.
Google’s Answer Box
Google’s introduction of ‘Answer Boxes’ near the top of page one of SERPs shows just how much the search engine prizes relevance.
The answer box features copy from just one website that appears to best answer a specific question (see the ‘What is keyword research?’ example above). This pulls out the copy from the chosen site, highlighting the relevant keywords, so that people can find the information they need without even needing to visit the website in question. Visitors can then click on the link to read the page in full, if they so wish.
How voice searches and artificial intelligence (AI) affect keyword research
People are likely to make different styles of searches based on whether they want to do something or know something, and whether they’re seeking broad information or something specific.
As we explored in a recent blog about how artificial intelligence is shaping SEO, the actual devices that people use to search have changed too.
More and more of us are using voice searches via our mobile phones or using digital assistants such as Siri or Alexa.
When we’re talking instead of typing, we’re much more likely to use natural language and ask questions, such as “OK Google, what is the forecast for today?”
The search engines need to understand the context of that question, e.g. the searcher’s location and that people usually mean the weather local to them when they talk about a ‘forecast’. This search is far different from the ‘Newton Abbot weather’ search that someone might do on a desktop.
The search engines’ algorithms have a better understanding of natural language these days, recognising that different words and phrases can be used to describe the same topic. Therefore, when writing web copy, we can afford to vary the language we use to discuss a topic, as long as it’s relevant.
The search engines also recognise that the same words can apply to different topics, which is why context is so important.
By using different words to describe a topic, we can help to give the search engines more context to draw on to return the correct results.
For example, if you wrote an article about Jaguars but included other phrases such as ‘big cats’, ‘Panthera’ and ‘carnivore’, it would help search engines to understand that you’re writing about the animals, not the luxury cars.
Google also uses mathematical entities known as context vectors in its algorithms to look at other searches the user has made and how they’ve interacted with those search results to understand what information they might be looking for.
Types of keyword
Before you begin your keyword research, it’s helpful to know that there are three main types of keyword:
- Head keywords (AKA ‘Short’ keywords), which are one to two words with a high search volume
- Body keywords (AKA ‘Modifier’ or ‘Medium’ keywords), which are two- to three-word phrases with medium search volume
- Long-tail keywords, which are phrases of four or more words with low search volume
Long-tail keywords account for the bulk of web traffic. Although they tend to attract less search traffic per phrase than head and body keywords, long-tail keyword traffic has relatively high conversion rates because of how specific the phrases are.
Here’s an example.
Imagine you are a woman who needs to find the perfect pair of black shoes for a black-tie dinner event. A ‘head’ keyword search might be ‘black shoes’ but this brings up more than two billion search results!
The search engines need to know more to narrow down the results. After all, are you looking for black school shoes, black shoes for men, black boots, black sandals or something else altogether?
You could narrow down the search some more with a ‘body’ keyword search of ‘womens black shoes’, which slashes the search results to from two billion to 620 million but that’s still like looking for a needle in a haystack. Plus, as we can see from the screenshot below, none of the pictured products scream ‘evening do’!
Your best bet to make your search as effective as possible is to add in some descriptive elements and opt for a long-tail keyword such as ‘womens black evening shoes kitten heel peeptoe’. This will shrink the search results to under three million listings – still a lot but the majority of the results feature shoes that might fit the bill for your footwear requirements.
From the retailer’s perspective, yes, there might be fewer people using this long-tail keyword to search but there’s also less competition and a much higher chance that the searcher needs the item described and will, therefore, make a purchase.
For this reason, long-tail keywords are often described as low cost and risk with a high probability of conversion.
Mind you, there is a caveat to this.
Long-tail keywords work well for optimising product descriptions but, with the rise of voice searches, so-called ‘middle-of-the-pack’, medium-tail keywords seem to be performing better for blog articles and cornerstone web pages. These are phrases that are not too generic nor too specific but describe the overarching topic of the page.
Search intention is everything
The secret to the most effective keyword research is understanding the reasons why people are searching for your content, whether you’re selling products or services or you want to attract more readers to your blog.
Practical Ecommerce says keywords can be broken down into four categories, depending on the intention of the searcher:
- Informational searches where users search for the answer to a question, e.g. what kind of mobile phones are currently available?
- Navigational searches where users search for a particular website or brand, e.g. users go to URLs for specific phone brands.
- Investigation searches where users search for information that may lead to a transaction, e.g. users compare the features of several different phones to see which best fits their requirements.
- Transactional searches where users are ready to buy, e.g. where readers go to a page featuring a precise product description that includes the option to buy.
Keywords in this category tend to include what the SEO industry refers to as ‘money phrases’ such as ‘cheap widgets’ or ‘where to buy widgets’. Roger Montti of Search Engine Journal says that the top five ‘money phrase’ keyword categories are:
- Competitor comparisons
- Discount price searches
- Product reviews and ratings
- Coupon code searches
- Searches for sales
Google also breaks down search intentions/search types into four different categories:
- Know/Know Simple – this is when users want to find information or the answer to a specific question.
- Do/Device Action – this is when users perform a specific action with the view to accomplishing a goal, e.g. installing a game to play on
- Website – locate and visit a specific site
- Visit in person – locate and visit a physical location (typically local to the searcher or to somewhere they plan to visit)
The intention of the searcher will change the kind of keywords that they use. People will also adapt their search based on whether they’re using a desktop, laptop or a mobile device to type a search or whether they’re using an Intelligent Personal Assistant (IPA)/digital assistant to make a voice search as we discussed above.
Here are some examples from Google’s Search Quality Evaluation Guidelines (see pages 66-71):
1. Know/Know Simple queries
2. Do/Device action queries
How to carry out keyword research
Step One: Identify your goals
It isn’t enough to say that you want to bring more traffic to your website. That won’t determine your success – unless you have plenty of time, money and your philosophy is that if you throw enough balls you’re bound to hit a coconut eventually!
A better approach is to set goals such as:
- Increasing conversions
- Bringing in higher quality traffic from people likely to become customers
- Feeding different stages of the sales funnel
- Building awareness of your brand, products or services
You might need to be creative in how you approach your keyword research. Although it would be tempting to have a website full of the ‘money phrases’ we mentioned above, they’re also incredibly competitive and high risk/cost.
Sometimes it’s better to take a less direct route to a sale, concentrating instead on creating content that builds your authority and reputation in your field.
Google’s Search Quality Evaluation Guidelines state in section 3.2:
“The amount of expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness… that a webpage/website has is very important.”
If you can rank highly for medium- and long-tail keywords, Google is more likely to rank your content for the money phrases too.
Step Two: Brainstorm
A good starting point is to write down the search terms you would use to find specific information.
When you have a list of phrases, pop them in Google to see what search results come up. Do the search engine results pages (SERPs) reflect the information or answers that you were looking for? Do you have to modify your search to bring up more relevant results?
Make a note of the phrases that bring up the best search results.
You will also want to think about the information that your audience wants from you at different stages in their buying journey.
What sort of questions do they ask on social media or via the different ways of contacting your business? What hashtags do they use? What do they say when they comment on your blog articles?
This could give you some insights into keywords for your customers.
Step Three: Think about related phrases
There may be keywords that tie in brilliantly to your business and your audience that you haven’t thought about before. Tools such as Answer the Public and LSI Graph – see below – can provide you with phrases related to your main keyword and might inspire you with some future blog topics.
Another handy tip is to enter your main keywords into Google one at a time and scroll to the bottom of page one of the search results to see what other terms the search engine has listed as related terms.
For example, I typed in ‘keyword research’ and Google suggested the following related searches:
You can also get suggestions from Google’s autocomplete facility where you begin typing in a keyword into the search bar and it gives you a dropdown list of previous searches:
What are the best keyword research tools?
There is a fantastic range of tools available to help you carry out keyword research. Some are free and some are only available with a monthly subscription or annual license. Below, I’ve listed what I consider to be some of the best keyword research tools currently available:
Currently costs $99/month for the Lite Plan (try before you sign up with the $7 trial for seven days)
Use the Ahrefs ‘Keyword Explorer Tool’ to generate keyword ideas, carry out an in-depth analysis of specific keywords, view metrics for keywords, review potential search volumes, view other related keywords from the top 10 pages that rank for a chosen keyword, and access autocomplete search suggestions.
Ahrefs includes an at-a-glance indicator of keyword difficulty, i.e. how difficult it will be to rank for different keywords.
Simply type in a keyword and Answer the Public will return a graphic of related long-tail phrases and question suggestions with links to the search results for each. This is great for optimising your content for voice searches.
Although the Google AdWords Keyword Planner is a tool to help people plan their PPC AdWords campaigns, it can also give you a good steer on potential keywords for your organic web traffic.
Login to Google AdWords and go to Tools>Keyword Planner (see above) and choose between the options ‘Find new keywords’ or, later, ‘See search volume and forecasts for your keywords’.
As an example, I entered ‘keyword research’ in the ‘Find new keywords’ option and was given a list of 539 related words and phrases with data about their search volumes and competition.
Google Trends is a fantastic free tool to keep an eye on the topics – and keywords – that are trending up or coming down in popularity. It can also help you to work out regional and seasonal patterns that might affect your keywords and your content schedule.
Two searches are available free of charge or you can sign-up to get five free keyword searches per day. Alternatively, there are paid-for packages for more in-depth information and a greater number of searches.
Enter a keyword and KWFinder’s keyword generator will return a list of related search terms with their level of difficulty/competitiveness. You can also see which content is ranking highly for this search term across the web.
Simply type in your main keyword and this tool will return a list of related words and phrases.
You can register to get 10 free keyword searches. To use SEMrush more frequently, it currently costs $99/month for the Pro Package for freelancers and small businesses
Research potential keywords for organic and pay per click (PPC) campaigns. Explore phrase matches and related keywords, as well as long-tail keywords, the potential cost per click and search volumes.
FREE (you will need to register for a free account)
This tool is a good alternative to the Google Keyword Planner that shows you search volumes, related terms, estimated keyword value and more. Simply enter one of your main keywords and the keyword tool will give you a list of similar and related terms, including the daily search volumes on the major search engines, the cost per click and value of the keyword.
Many of the features can be used free of charge but projects can’t be saved and date can’t be exported without paying for the Professional or Enterprise licenses
SEO PowerSuite gives you access to a host of free tools that analyse your website and make keyword suggestions. Enter a URL and see which keywords it’s already for.
Plenty of helpful information can be accessed free of charge. Serpstat also offers a choice of packages if you want to use the more extensive suite of tools.
Just enter your chosen keyword(s) for a breakdown of the related organic and PPC phrases, how the keyword is trending, the keyword difficulty and competitors’ performance for the same keywords.
Using Google Analytics and Google Search Console
If you already have a website rather than starting up a site for the first time, Google Analytics and Google Search Console can provide you with valuable information about the keywords people are using to find your web pages.
In Google Analytics, you need to go to Acquisition>All Traffic>Channels and click on ‘Organic search’ in the table.
These days, the keyword data you can see – especially if you haven’t linked your Google Search Console to Google Analytics – is quite limited. It’s likely that in position one of the ‘Organic search’ table, it will say ‘(not provided)’. Depending on your search volumes, there may be some keyword data in position two and onwards.
Don’t despair, there are other ways to access keyword data.
If you have linked your Google Search Console account to Google Analytics then stay in Analytics and go to Acquisition>Search Console>Queries. This will bring up a table of search terms people have used for one of your web pages to appear in SERPs.
Alternatively, you can go into Google Search Console itself. If you haven’t registered with Search Console, here’s a great tutorial from Moz to follow to get you up and running.
Once in Google Search Console, you need to click on the web property you want to view if you have more than one website.
You will then be taken to the dashboard for that site. In the left-hand column, click on Search Traffic>Search Analytics.
On this panel, make sure the Queries option is selected and tick Clicks, Impressions, CTR and Position.
As well as a list of the Queries (keywords) people have used to see your content listed in SERPs, you’ll be able to see the number of impressions (times your pages appeared in SERPs), clicks (number of times people have clicked through to your website from a SERP), the click-through rate (percentage of impressions that became clicks) and your average position on Google for the search term.
Are there any search terms that appear to be attracting plenty of impressions and clicks but that don’t rank in the top five positions on Google?
If so, click on the search term and then select the Pages option (next to Queries above) to see which page Google is ranking for that search term. It might be worth going into the page and adding the popular search term into the copy (see below to find out where).
Keyword Research Guide: Where to use keywords
Having carried out your keyword research, I thought I would add a few pointers about where to use keywords in your content. I really want to provide as much value as possible in this Keyword Research Guide.
You don’t need to slavishly adhere to these rules – (there is no magic formula for keyword density + keyword placement = page one ranking) – but they can help to summarise what the content is about at a glance.
- SEO title
The SEO title tag should ideally contain your main keyword as near to the front of the tag as possible. This is the header that people will see in SERPs, so try to accurately reflect what the page is about.
- Meta description
The meta description is the description below the headings that people see in SERPs. This can persuade people whether or not to click on your listing, so try to include the main keyword while making the meta description a compelling, benefit-led call to action.
- Main heading on page
The main heading (H1 tag) of a web page is typically where people look first to work out what the page is about. If you use a heading that reflects the overarching topic of the page, it will help people – and search engines – to spot the relevance to their query at a glance.
As people often skim-read online text, subheadings are a fantastic way of breaking up the copy, signposting what each section is about and using keywords that relate to the main topic of the page.
A keyword-focused URL can be an immediate way of showing that the content is relevant to a specific search query. It can also make it easier for searchers to guess what a topic-specific URL on your site might be, bringing important direct traffic to your site.
- Internal links
Throughout this article, I have linked to sources of further information so that if you want to read more deeply into related topics, you can. The text used in the links includes topics such as ‘context vectors’, ‘medium-tail keywords’, ‘Google Search Quality Evaluation Guidelines’, various keyword research tools and more. This helps users and search engines understand how the content on my website ties together and provides sources and citations for an external reference.
- The opening paragraph
It’s often suggested that the opening paragraph of a web page should include the main keyword as near to the beginning as possible. Again, this is to tell searchers and search engines that the content is staying on topic.
- Within the copy, especially bold text or bullet points
It pays to think about where people look when they’re skim reading content. Try incorporating keywords into text that’s in bold or bullet points as people are likely to pay attention to these.
- Image alt tags
As search engines can’t analyse images, alt tags help them to understand what an image is and how it relates to the content of a page. They are also important for anyone using screen readers to view a web page. It’s a black hat tactic to stick loads of keywords in your alt tags but one clear tag per image that encapsulates what the image is can be helpful.
- Call to action
Including keywords in the call to action or summing up at the bottom of a web page/blog article can again help to show the ongoing relevance of the content to a single topic, especially to people who are skim reading.
- Hashtags on social media
It’s advisable to use your chosen keywords as hashtags when you share your content on social media. This will encourage people to identify specific keywords with the shared piece.
Keyword research is important because it helps keep you focused on what your audience wants and to achieve clarity when creating your content.
But before your potential audience can read the content you create for them, they have to be able to find you. Using the right keywords is like adding a key to a map – it vastly increases the chances of your content being discovered.
As I hope I’ve made clear in this keyword research guide, the most important thing when writing for the web is to aim for relevance, context and reflecting the search intent of visitors. Do that and you’ll find your main keyword and related terms should occur naturally. In turn, you should see better rankings, more clicks and conversions.
Due to popular demand SEO+ now provide a keyword research service
The most important element of a successful SEO strategy is choosing the right keywords to target. We use powerful keyword tools to do our research; we also analyse the competition and the data in Google Analytics and Google Search Console to identify the best keywords to target.
Our Keyword Research service will provide you with the main focus keyword, long-tail keywords, and related terms – this is known to be the most effective strategy for building up authority for the competitive keyword.
If you’d like an expert to do the hard work for you and find the best selection of keywords for each of your topics or pages, contact me here.
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Hazel Jarrett, director of SEO at SEO+, is well-known in the SEO space, has won many awards during her 20-year career and has been published on various well-known sites. Through her services and training programs, her SEO strategies have generated 10s of millions of sales for her clients, earning her a big reputation for delivering the results that matter.
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