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Congrats on launching your website — now you’re ready to start spreading the word about your online presence! (If you’re still building your site, check out our Build tutorials.) The following guides will walk you through the process of curating an audience for your site.

What Are Keywords?

What are keywords? And why should you care about them?

Well, most people don’t need to. 

Unless they’re marketing a business online. And if you’re here, we’re going to guess that you are. If that’s the case, the long and short of it is that you can’t afford not to care about keywords. They’re going to be your best friends, and your worst enemies. Your biggest stressor, and the root cause of your greatest rewards when it comes to search engine optimization.

But honestly, keywords are nothing to be scared of. Once you know what they are and how to use them, researching keywords and using them in your content can actually — yep, really — be loads of fun.

If you’re completely new to keywords just start from the top and we’ll teach you all you need to know. Alternatively, you can use the jump links below to skip to an area of interest. 

Why Are Keywords Important?

There are three angles we could look at this from: 

  1. Search engines
  2. The user
  3. The marketer

We’re going to focus on the marketer.

The main reason keywords matter to marketers is simple: They drive users to websites. 

Sure, you can generate traffic via other means. Offline advertising. Email marketing. Referral traffic via external links. And if you’re a big brand, a large chunk of your traffic may well be direct (i.e., visitors that come straight to your site via your URL.) An estimated 56.75% of Amazon’s traffic, for example, is direct.

Traffic sources for Amazon.com.

However, for the average online business, search engines — and the keywords users put into them — are going to drive the bulk of their site’s traffic — whether that’s via organic or paid search.

Which brings us to . . . 

How You Can Use Keywords to Improve Search Engine Rankings

Search engines feature two primary types of results — organic and paid. In both cases, using the right keywords will gain you more visibility in the search results and drive more potential customers to your website.

What’s an organic result?

Organic search results are the natural or “free” listings (i.e., there’s no cost to website owners when a user clicks on a link) that form part of the search engines’ results pages (or SERPs.)

Organic results used to dominate Google’s SERPs, but this has changed over time — especially when it comes to transactional keywords. 

To drive more profit, results for transactional searches (i.e., those performed by users presumed to be looking to buy) now heavily feature search engines’ ads — especially on Google. This is to the detriment of e-commerce companies — especially small online shops — who tend to feel the effects of Google’s ever-changing ads much more than household brands.

Unless, of course, they buy their way into those ads — or paid results — themselves.

What’s a paid result?

Google displays two types of paid results in its SERPs.

Standard text ads:

DreamHost paid search result.

And shopping ads:

Shopping results for Nike men's sneakers.

Over time, Google has made it trickier to distinguish between those text ads and a natural (or organic) result. 

Even in 2017, 60% of users admitted they couldn’t always differentiate between a paid ad and a natural listing (and its ads have become even harder to identify since.)

This can be both good and bad for online marketers — depending on whether you’re investing in text ads, relying on organic listings, or employing them both. 

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How to Find Keywords

How can you find potential keywords to use on your site? 

With a keyword research tool.

There’s a ton to choose from. What you use will depend on things like . . .

  • The purpose of your research
  • Your budget
  • Your personal preferences

Keyword Research for Paid Search 

The go-to tool for Google Ads is, naturally, Keyword Planner. It’s free to use. It forms part of your ads account. And the data’s coming straight from the horse’s mouth — so you know it’ll be pretty accurate.

Keyword Planner was once the go-to for organic keyword research, too. That changed a few years ago. Today Keyword Planner is near useless for organic keyword research. In fact, you can’t even make use of it unless you have an active Google Ads account (albeit you don’t need to spend anything to extract data.)

However, if you’re paying to advertise on Google, Keyword Planner’s a no-brainer.

The same applies if you want to advertise on Bing. Their own version of Keyword Planner is your obvious go-to tool.

Researching Organic Keywords

We’re going to touch on two types of keywords here — transactional and informational.

Transactional keywords are used by those that (likely) have an intent to buy. This makes them especially valuable to businesses. It can also mean (at least in most industries) that they’re extremely competitive. 

Some examples of transactional keywords would be “womens’ shoes” or, to be a bit cheeky and reference ourselves, “web hosting services.”

Informational keywords are used by those who — you guessed it — are looking for information. This includes users researching a product or service (“what is SEO and is it worth it?” for example.)

However, phrases from anything such as “who are the Kardashians?” to “what is this weird spot on my leg?” come under the umbrella of informational keywords.

Informational keywords are generally used by marketers to influence blog content and guides, as well as create more in-depth and useful category and product pages. 

Here’s just a selection of tools you can use when researching both transactional and informational keywords.

Another good way to find keywords is to look at what you’re already ranking for and pinpoint keywords that, with an extra push, can climb the search results and drive more traffic. 

One way to uncover what you’re already ranking for is to manually track target keywords. Loads of tools do this, but we’ve got to give a shout-out to Advanced Web Ranking — it’s arguably the longest-standing keyword tracking tool on the market.

Another couple of tools we can’t not mention are Sistrix and Semrush. Both allow you to track your own keywords, but they themselves also track a massive database of search queries. This allows you to spot keywords you didn’t know you were ranking for and hadn’t considered targeting. You can also do this (for free) in Google’s Search Console.

Bonus tip: Sistrix and Semrush’s databases are also super useful for spotting what your competitors are ranking for. 

Bonus, bonus tip: If you’d like to give Semrush a try, we’ve worked out a free 14-day trial with their team (who are an awesome bunch, by the way.) You can play around with all its features — from keyword research tools to backlink analyzers and content auditors — without the commitment. Sign up for a free trial here.  

How to Choose Keywords

Most keyword research tools divulge various data, including search volume, keyword difficulty, and CPC (cost per click).

When researching organic keywords, your focus will be on search volume and keyword difficulty. As a general rule, the higher the search volume and the lower the difficulty score, the more valuable the keyword.

But a few other factors ought to influence your target keywords.

1. The authority of your own site (and the difficulty score of the keywords you want to target)

Want results on a brand new website? Your target keywords should have as low a difficulty score as possible. High difficulty scores mean you’ll be competing (or trying to compete) with established sites and brands. And you won’t win. 

Depending on your industry, this may mean you need to target longer-tail keywords with a lower search volume.

You can build up to more competitive keywords that have higher search volumes later. In the meantime, create campaigns that target many low-competition keywords. 

Think incremental wins.

2. Search intent

There are four main types of search intent.

  1. Transactional
  2. Navigational
  3. Informational
  4. Commercial investigation

When determining your target keywords, it’s essential to consider what someone searching for that keyword is likely trying to find.

For example, if you’re selling web hosting, your target keywords need to have transactional or commercial investigation intent.

Suppose you’re writing content to draw in users lower down the sales funnel. In that case, whether this is for your blog, a content hub or resources section, or a category page — your focus should be on keywords with informational or commercial investigation intent.

3. Price (or Cost-Per-Click)

When carrying out keyword research for the purpose of paid search, you should still (needless to say) be considering search volume.

You also need to look at the average CPC (or cost-per-click).

Average Cost Per Click infographic
Image Credit

CPC varies according to factors including your quality score and bidding strategy; however, average cost-per-click will help you gauge what you can expect to pay for a given keyword.

In other words, whether or not that keyword’s within your budget.

How to Use Keywords on Your Pages

Relevant keywords need to appear on your site in order to help search engines associate them — and related, semantic keywords — with it.

There are right ways and wrong ways to do this. 

Where to include keywords

Keywords should feature in your title tags and throughout your on-page copy — particularly in your main headings (H1s) and subheadings. It’s also beneficial to include them in meta descriptions. This isn’t because search engines use meta descriptions as a ranking factor (at least Google doesn’t — or so it says.) It’s because when the keyword a user’s searched for appears in a meta description, Google highlights them. This can then increase click-through-rates.

For example, you can see the words “meta description” highlighted in the search snippet below.

Example of a meta description.

Match content to the page

This is important for two reasons:

  1. It ensures your content is relevant to the page and matches search intent.
  2. It can help prevent keyword cannibalization.

In other words, your site’s pages should contain only content that’s relevant to the subject matter.

Sound obvious? It might do. But it’s not uncommon for inexperienced marketers or writers to struggle to correctly match content and subject matter. 

Including long-tail keywords in the content

Assigning one head keyword to a page can result in several problems. 

  1. Short-tail head terms tend to be really competitive — i.e., your chances of getting a specific page to rank for them are slim.
  2. It can encourage keyword stuffing.
  3. It means you’re going to miss opportunities to rank for less-competitive, long-tail keywords.
  4. Focusing on one or two short-tail keywords shows a lack of understanding of how search engines analyze a page’s contents — such as how their algorithms use LSI (or latent semantic indexing). Naturally, that’s going to affect rankings.

Pages that include a variety of long-tail, semantic keywords should be viewed as more relevant to the topic at hand in the eyes of search engines. A long-tail keyword is typically far less competitive than its short-tail counterparts. This means that while, in isolation, it will drive less traffic than a competitive head term, collectively, it has the potential to drive a substantial amount of traffic (and capture featured snippets.)

Use tools to help you optimize content

Content optimization tools use machine learning to analyze content and suggest ways to boost rankings (or identify roadblocks that may prevent content from performing as well as it could do.) 

Here’s some tools that are especially useful for those who are new to writing for the web.

What Not to Do With Keywords and Content Optimization

Here are three big fails to avoid when optimizing content:

1. Not considering search intent

Failure to take users’ intent into consideration results in pages that don’t sufficiently answer user queries. The consequences being poorer performance in search results (both in terms of rankings and click-throughs) and lower conversion rates.

2. Keyword stuffing

Keyword stuffing was very effective (the bee’s knees, even) circa 2008. Today it’s cringe-inducing at best. It also doesn’t work in the long run.

Keyword stuffing — i.e., including the same specific search query at an unnatural volume or aiming for a specific (and high) keyword density — may get results initially. However, search engines have long been wise to these tricks, and as soon as they realize the game you’re playing, you can expect your content to drop right down the SERPs — or disappear entirely.

In short, use a wide variety of semantic keywords in your content. Don’t — ever, ever — stuff a single page with one or two keywords.

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3. Targeting unrealistic keywords

As touched on earlier, the keywords you ought to target — and can reasonably expect to rank for — depend on the authority of the site being optimized.

The newer the site, and the lower its domain authority, the less competitive the keywords you can go after.

At the extreme end of the scale — let’s just take a super high-authority site like Amazon as an example (DA96). Amazon’s most likely going to jump straight to the top of the search results — regardless of the keyword, its search volume, or how competitive it is.

In other words, don’t punch above (or below) your weight. Only target keywords you can reasonably compete with.

Still struggling with what keywords are and how to use them? We can help. Just ask us about our SEO marketing pro service. We don’t want to toot our own horn, but our team includes a super-talented bunch of digital specialists, including SEO strategists, WordPress developers, and content writers. Plus, we’ll assign you your own dedicated account manager. Plans start at just $399 a month. 

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If you have questions or just could use some help figuring some thing out, get in touch. Our team of web experts has been in the business for over 20 years and knows how to help you figure out the right next steps.