UPDATE: This article was updated on Sept. 12, 2016 to reflect new announcements about Google’s Keyword Planner tool. See below for details.
There is no sense in planting a palm tree in Wisconsin, just as there is no sense in creating content about Beyoncé on a gardening website. The goal is to provide a wide variety of content while ensuring it is relevant to your audience.
We like to use a public garden as a metaphor for your website. Read more about the garden metaphor for SEO.
Your garden should contain plants that research shows would be good for climate, light and water conditions for your area. And if you are trying to attract visitors, you should probably plant things that are widely popular, not just row after row of lettuce, (even if you are the world’s biggest salad fan).
Your website content should contain researched and relevant keyword phrases that your audience will be using to search for content like yours. The relevance factor is used to determine that a site with information similar to the keywords the searcher uses could also be useful. So someone who searches for a “clay planter” will certainly be able to find websites that sell clay planters. But they will also be served relevant websites that are selling terra-cotta pots. Search engines have complex algorithms that help them sort through all the online information and determine that clay planters and terra-cotta pots are similar. Thus, they assume they would have intersecting relevance for searchers and will show up on SERPs even if the exact words were not used in the search.
The more relevant your content is to the specific query of a searcher, the more likely that person is to stay on your site for a longer period of time and interact. This could be in the form of making a purchase, reading additional articles, clicking around to multiple pages on your site or filling out a contact form. These are all actions that you want the user to take on your website, which prove to Google that the user found your website to be relevant. The more engagement users have on your website, the higher you will rank.
In order to find out what keywords might be relevant for your audience, you must perform research. Keyword research is one of the essential tasks of search engine optimization. You need to know what keywords people are typing into the search engines, at what frequency and how relevant those keywords are to you and your business. You also need to know how competitive a specific keyword phrase is.
If you have a website about gardening, you might think trying to rank for a keyword such as “gardening” would be the obvious choice. But after doing keyword research you would probably find out that it is too competitive, meaning it is highly unlikely that you would ever be able to rank on the first or even second page of results. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use the word “gardening” on your website—you definitely should. But you might instead try to optimize your a page on your website for a more specific keyword phrase such as “vegetable gardening tips for beginners.” This type of phrase will be much easier to get ranked for.
Understanding which websites already rank for your keyword or keyword phrase can give you valuable insight into the competition and also give you an idea how hard it will be to rank for a given term. Typically, if a keyword search is showing many ads, this indicates it is highly competitive. Multiple search ads above the organic results often indicate a highly lucrative and directly conversion-prone keyword such as “buy tulips”.
One way to evaluate the competition of a specific keyword is to examine the Pay Per Click (PPC) side of things with Google AdWords. You can see how many people are trying to pay for advertising for a specific keyword and what they are willing to pay for it. If a keyword’s AdWords PPC suggested bid is extremely high, you can bet the correlating organic keyword will also be very competitive.
Do a Google search and see what comes up. Obviously, if you are competing with Amazon or Home Depot for a keyword, it may be virtually impossible for your small business or organization to outrank these behemoths.
But often, local searches are highly attainable for small businesses. Instead of trying to rank for “tulips” on a national level, you might want to just start with targeting local searchers who type in “tulips Madison.”
Tip: When doing keyword research like this, it is important to log out of any Google products or social media you may be automatically logged into in that browser. It is also a good idea to clear your web browsing history, or better yet, use a different computer altogether.
If you are logged in to various accounts, or if you have prior history of visiting certain sites, this will skew the results that show on the SERP. Notably, a site that you have visited before (i.e. your own) will often get ranked higher for you than for someone who has never before been there. This can make you think you are ranking better than you really are.
Resource: To perform keyword research, we recommend setting up a Google AdWords account and using their Keyword Planning Tool: https://adwords.google.com/KeywordPlanner
The Google Keyword Planning Tool suggests alternative keyword phrases, estimates traffic and even tells you how much you would need to bid to place an ad for that keyword. It’s a great idea to run a few test AdWords campaigns to help figure out the best verbiage for your organic strategy. Update: Unfortunately, as of July 2016, Google announced that its Keyword Planner Tool will only be available for people who have an active Google AdWords account. In addition, AdWords users with a “lower monthly spend” could see limited data in the planner. Read more about this change to Google’s Keyword Planner Tool here.
Once you have identified a large list of keyword phrases to use for your website, you will want to select 5 or 6 to start with. If you try to optimize your website for too many different keyword phrases at one time, you will spread your efforts too thin and struggle to get good results. Start with the “low hanging fruit” keyword phrases. In other words, start with phrases that are not highly competitive. Once you start ranking on the first page for some of those keyword phrases, then you can leverage your momentum to go for more competitive keywords or keyword phrases.
Once you have your short list of keyword phrases, you might be wondering what you are supposed to be doing on your website to optimize it. The most important action to take at this point is to create content around those keywords.
When writing and creating content, use terminology laypeople would use (assuming of course that your customers are laypeople), including “long-tail keyword phrases” in titles and headings. Long-tail phrases are those that are longer than just 2 or 3 keywords and often contain questions such as “how do I…?” “what is the best…?” or “why is it important to…?” Long-tail phrases are easier to rank for, and people searching by specific “long-tail” phrases are often further down the sales funnel and therefore may be easier to convert into paying customers.
The placement of keywords on a web page is one factor in on-site SEO. Search engines (and of course humans!) want to know quickly whether the content on the page is what they are looking for, which is why it is important to use keywords in page titles, page headings and page URLs. You want to use the same keyword phrase at least a couple of times in the body text. Use keywords in the text for buttons and hyperlinks (also known as anchor text). So for example, instead of something generic like “Click here!” your button or link text might say “Buy Tulips Now!”
Keep your writing natural, and use keywords only as it makes sense to do so. In other words, don’t over-optimize a page to the point it looks obvious to a user of your website. An example of an over-optimized headline is “Buy Tulips, Purchase Tulips, Order Tulips Online.” This headline would never be used in a print advertisement because it doesn’t make sense. So avoid “stuffing” keywords like this on your website.
Resource: If you have a WordPress website, we recommend this tool to help determine the right balance of keywords on a single page for SEO. https://wordpress.org/plugins/wordpress-seo
All this research and strategizing can seem overwhelming. But when all else fails, stay focused on your high level marketing strategy and your audience. When considering relevance in SEO keywords, you must ask yourself whether or not the keyword accurately reflects the nature of your product or services. After all, the point of SEO is to drive qualified leads to your site who may actually become your customers.
Sore Thumb SEO
It can be tempting to add a giant list of keywords to a single page on your website in order to optimize a page for multiple keywords. This will hurt your SEO. Stick to one keyword phrase per page, write naturally and don’t “stuff” keywords. A user should never be able to tell that you are trying to optimize your website.
It’s also a bad idea to try to optimize your site for a popular term that has nothing to do with your business (think “Beyoncé photos”). Even if you are tricky enough to get ranked for something that is not relevant to your products or services, eventually you will get penalized for misleading users. And that’s not to mention the backlash from the users!