Before I dive into practical stuff about choosing keywords, I’ll get something ridiculous out of the way.
By now, you may have heard that “keywords are dead” or “they don’t matter.”
The dubious claims aren’t accurate, but they’re not quite like the viral urban legends, sensational conspiracy theories and hoaxes that ignorant people fall for on the Internet, especially social media. You know them well (or Snopes.com will help). No, Mark Zuckerberg didn’t “pledge” millions of dollars to people willing to share a “thank you message.”
By discounting the value of keywords, online marketers basically argue that it’s old school to make them an SEO priority. I guess there are fine strands of truth in the thinking that makes marketers overlook keywords – to their own ranking peril.
For starters, Google evolved. Way back in 2011, Google embraced encrypted searches. Over the next two years, keywords started disappearing in Google Analytics, hidden behind the dreaded “Not Provided” wall.
In 2012, Google introduced the Knowledge Graph, its way of dealing with people, places, art and more. At the time, Amit Singhal, Google’s SVP of Engineering, wrote that the Knowledge Graph is an intelligent model that looks at “real-world entities and their relationships to one another: things, not strings.”
Along those lines, Google released its Hummingbird algorithm in 2013. A significant aspect involved the ability to process and interpret the rise in voice searches that are often long and conversational. Mostly, this roll out reiterated how much Google favors discovering the meaning or intent of a queries, not just the precise phrase.
Google in 2015 rolled out RankBrain, a machine learning-based algorithm that explores the meaning of searches based on previous queries and searcher intent. It’s so sophisticated now that more websites can rank for keywords they didn’t use on a page. In its 2017 Ranking Factors 2.0 study, SEMrush found that 18% of websites that ranked well didn’t feature the keywords in their content.
Google continually emphasizes quality (i.e. write for people, not search engines), including with its Search Quality Raters Guidelines. Marketers in turn argue that they just need to concentrate on good content and the keywords will take care of themselves.
I have no doubt that some content creators can pat themselves on the back for producing content without even looking at keyword data. They generate tons of natural search traffic from dozens of top rankings. Bravo. Time for a standing ovation.
With search technology history behind us (and anti-keyword marketers dreaming of their next victory), let’s deal with common reality.
Ahrefs in 2020 released fresh data from its Content Explorer index (over a billion pages) and discovered something astonishing. Their study found that 90.63% of website pages don’t get any traffic from Google and 5.29% of website pages attract 10 visits or less each month.
I’m convinced that several critical factors are at play. Google, for example, never promises to pay attention to every website page. Maybe many pages are thin, meaning they have severely limited text that doesn’t lead to high rankings or any search traffic. Or they could just lack authority that’s largely determined by backlinks from other websites; those links affect rankings. Backlinko in early 2020 found that 95% of website pages have zero backlinks; the study looked at nearly 12 million Google search results.
Could it also be that online marketers used the wrong keywords or didn’t have a keyword strategy in place? Maybe the absence of a plan affected page titles, page content headers (the visible headlines), subheads and keyword-rich topic clusters (sets of related pages).
For many years, I’ve worked with business executives on keyword selection. Sometimes they get it – they just want to rank for what’s realistic. But too many others look like they’re bounding through an apple orchard, snatching one ripe apple after another or grabbing whatever they want like a kid shoving his hand in a glass candy store jar. Choosing keywords isn’t that easy or simple.
Here are 15 vital considerations to keep in mind every time you ponder what keywords to target for your website content:
1. Know Your “Sweet Spot.”
You know – your sweet spot. Every website has one and the size depends on the depth of their mix of products or services.
Your sweet spot is the ranking zone where you perform the best. You can see it or define it by the correlation of keyword rankings and average Google search volume for those same keywords.
Let’s pretend (because that’s always fun) you have a magical set of 100 keyword phrases. Maybe you really have 1,000 and that will earn you a large sweet spot that is even more satisfying.
So focus on the 100. Maybe only 15 rank among the first 1-10 positions on Google, the first page of results. And maybe the search volume ranges from 50 to 200 for most of those keywords. That’s your sweet spot!
Oh, by the way, you might want to exclude variations of your company name and products.
Here’s a quick example. I’d say this company’s sweet spot is 20-90 – maybe 200 depending on the keyword phrase.
What happens if you wander beyond your sweet spot? You might rank well. Life will feel bliss – just like birds singing in the morning and crickets chirping at night. Or, you could really waste your money, not rank and attract zero prospects.
2. Favor Relevance
Sometimes you can’t target a keyword phrase that is 100% related to your product or service. Include “firm,” “company,” “manufacturer,” “supplier,” or “agency” and you’ll likely be found by people in the same industry or job seekers. But prospects will be in the mix too.
3. Spotcheck Google
I routinely check the first page of Google, especially for borderline phrases. What do the search engine results pages (SERPs) look like? Is your industry represented – maybe at least 25% of the results?
4. Don’t Rule Out Low Search Volume Keyword Phrases
I work with a publisher that uses 100 as the low end of the Google monthly search volume it will consider. In their case, that is fine. They routinely rank among the top five Google positions for keyphrases that are searched more than a thousand times a month, sometimes several thousand.
What if the search volume is only 10 or 20? I hope that’s not a real turnoff for you. If you sell low-cost consumer items, I get it. You need activity – lots of it. But many businesses sign deals for products and services that cost $10,000, $25,000, $50,000 or more. Don’t you want to be in front of the right prospects?
Besides, the same content page can rank for several low-volume keyword phrases. Be patient. Let them have a chance and collectively work for you.
5. Make Sure Your Target Page Is Worthy
If you have a keyword in mind, what’s going to happen if someone reaches your preferred website page? Is there a clear call to action? You’re not going to have 15 paragraphs and throw in some Contact Us link and phone number at the end, right? Make sure there are a couple prominent options – even if it’s just your prominent phone number in the design.
6. Shoot Through Your Content Ceiling
Don’t stop making content. Keyword choices shouldn’t only depend on current rankings for website content. What’s your capacity to add more? Do you have in-house writers and marketers? Can you outsource the work?
Recently, I spoke with a residential and commercial junk hauler. Her family’s business has only six pages. I explained that more pages will be needed to support primary keyword phrases and variations. The company is located near one of the nation’s largest cities so there is potential. But the owner couldn’t comprehend how more pages could be created around a limited service.
Without a contract, I didn’t give advice on FAQ pages, client success stories, testimonials, how-to pages (like separating junk from treasure), junk definitions, etc. Heck, the company could have offered ancillary content about what’s not junk and how to sell some valuables. You always need to be creative with text, videos, infographics and more.
7. What’s Your View at the Top of the Funnel?
Sometimes searchers just want to be educated when they arrive at the top of your funnel. Can you be the expert and establish relationships with them? For example, a searcher might be in the market for keyword phrases about website hosting. An article or how-to guide might rank well for a search query like “advantages of dedicated server hosting.” You might not get a sale of even see a new lead. Wouldn’t a new email address or blog subscriber be enough?
8. Remember, Searcher Intent Matters
Word choices make all of the difference in the world with the buyer’s journey. Of course, you can just target the words that signal, “I am ready to buy this second.” But it makes more sense to cast multiple nets in different types of waters. You should have varied content types to introduce your company to first-time visitors. Yes, you want that lead or immediate sale. Someone using “reviews” or “shipping” in a search query may be ready to be your next customer. The soon-to-be-customer may even say “buy.” Your content can resonate with keyword phrases with “how …” or “what are …” For more perspective, see my Content Marketing Institute article, 15 Search Intent Tips, Examples, and Resources for SEO Keywords.
9. What Are Your Competitors Doing?
How your competitors rank can influence your keyword decisions. If one of them ranks #4 and you’re #42, don’t be too discouraged. It’s not like the other company has an in with Google. They may have more content conditions in their favor – stronger themes (more content around that topic), a better set of backlinks, etc. Remember, your competition isn’t just who you define. It’s any website that ranks above you. If the biggest names in the business hog the top 10 positions, can you really beat out some of them? Maybe. But don’t get too aggressive too often.
10. What’s Your Domain Authority?
Your ability to rank is influenced by your backlinks from other websites – companies, associations, blogs, media, directories and more. Moz has a 1-100 score largely based on the number and quality of backlinks. What’s your score? What’s the domain authority of the website that ranks #10 on Google for the keyword phrase you care about?
11. Do You Have a Keyword-Rich Domain Name?
Do you have a keyword in your domain name? Say “yes” and it will make my day and yours. You have a better shot at ranking for a phrase that includes the word in your domain name.
Digital marketers don’t agree on the value of keywords in domain names. I think they still make a difference for many websites regardless of the business size.
Back in 2012, Google made a stink about exact match domains (EMDs) and downplayed them with search results. But Google primarily attacked the spammy ones like this make-believe one: new-york-ny-nyc-condos-rent-luxury-units-big-apple.com.
In my 2020 study, Small Businesses Aren’t Mining SEO Gold, 73% of small business websites had at least one keyword in their domain names.
Here are some examples:
You don’t need a dash to separate the words. In fact, that’s not a good idea. It’s too hard for someone to remember the dash when he or she enters your domain name on a browser.
Some marketers question whether these keywords still matter. Yes, they do. Try three or four search queries and note the domains names among the first 10 results. Those keywords help with search visibility.
12. Leverage Pay-Per-Click
Yes, you should pay attention to pay-per-click (PPC) trends when selecting keywords. Look at your data or competitors’ keyword strategies through third-party tools like SEMrush, SpyFu and iSpionage.
- If related companies buy a keyword, especially over time, it might be an indication that the keyword has value.
- PPC keyword research and your own paid search data can help you uncover some keywords you haven’t considered.
- It never hurts to comb through your conversion numbers either. Sometimes paid search can boost an ROI by including custom designed landing pages that remove the navigation while playing up the text, visuals, phone number and response form.Sure, it’s much easier to pay for the #1 spot on Google to grab relevant traffic. In organic search, maybe you’re way down at #34. But you should be aware of the conversion trends in case you can build your organic traffic.Whether it’s a regular SEO page or a custom one, you have something else in your favor – the ability to achieve high natural search results through keyword variations. For example, maybe you can’t land a top organic result for “applicant tracking software.” But you could have a better shot for “applicant tracking system software.”
13. Grade Your Research and Adjust
Were you thorough – within reason? Webinars, conference presentations and books like this one can be overwhelming. It’s easy for me to rattle off advice. Time is another factor. But as you ponder your keyword selection options, new keyword phrases may come to mind. Add some more. You can always refine the list at another time.
14. Do They Live Up to Your Business Objectives?
You will need to prioritize if you have thousands of products. Even with a smaller set of products or limited services, the keyword possibilities can grow as you run through them, including geographic and singular and plural options. What portion of your business matters the most? Are there new products or services. Sometimes you need to go a different direction if there are no searches for your preferred phrase. For example, if people aren’t searching for “Dallas corrugated metal roof coatings contractor,” try something else. Maybe use “Dallas commercial roof repair” or “Dallas commercial roof contractor.”
15. Don’t be Misled by Keyword Difficulty Data
Some tools will list Keyword Difficulty data – usually 1% to 100% or a 1-100 scale. Please don’t get fixated on this data (for the most part). If it says 80% – and you know that’s very difficult – you may be persuaded to avoid the keyword phrase. But maybe it’s in your domain. Maybe your domain authority isn’t too far off compared to websites in the top 10. Maybe you have the ability to make one or several pages related to the phrase. If it’s a low percentage, you might jump at the keyword phrase and lose sight of relevancy and your business objectives. The Keyword Difficulty percentage doesn’t account for your current rankings, ability to modify existing content, your willingness to create new website content and on-page SEO variables. Primarily, it’s just an indicator of the competition. Don’t let it mislead you.
As you can see, you have plenty to think about as you make tough choices on what keywords to pursue. I can’t blame you if you chase after some that are probably out of reach. Be sure to include some that are similar to each other to monitor which version performs the best. In the long run, you’ll want to add and delete keyword phrases. But give your first roster several months to bake. Your new content, backlinking progress, internal linking and more can all make a difference. Regardless, you’ll be in better shape because of the extra knowledge that should serve you well. Do your best and it will pay off.