Know your keywords

These days, effective keyword research is an increasingly important skill for digital marketers. Not only do they need to know how to develop a good keyword list for PPC and SEO, but smart content marketers use keyword research to find out what topics they should write about and what phrases they should use while writing.

But if you’re reading this, you probably already know how important keyword research is. You’re just here to learn how you might do it better or more effectively.

There are quite a few great, thorough keyword research guides on the internet (see here, here, and here). In general, they tell you to follow this process:

  1. Create a seed list of starting terms
  2. Expand your list using keyword research tools
  3. Refine your list with competitive research

Creating your seed list

A seed list is your initial set of keyword ideas. Write down the six keyword categories. Then use a combination of brainstorming and investigation (see below) to fill out the list with keywords, spending the most time on brand and product terms.

You want this list to be thorough in terms of capturing all the things your product does and the problems it solves, but you don’t need to be exhaustive in coming up with synonyms, etc. That will happen in the next step.

1. Research your audience. What terms does your audience use to describe your products or services? What other relevant terms do they use in their day-to-day lives? Look at blog posts and comments, forums, LinkedIn groups, and your own support requests.

2. Find the search terms in use now. Use your analytics tool, Google Webmaster tools, and your weblogs to see what search terms people are using to get to you. If you have access to data on your internal site search, look at those terms to see what people are looking for.

3. Get some suggestions. Soovie is a tool that lets you enter a keyword and see what the top autocompletes are for a number of different search engines and other sites. It’s not worth running every keyword through Soovie, but you might try a couple to see if you missed anything.

4. Check out the competition. Tools such as SpyFu or SEM Rush let you see what competitors are bidding on. As with Soovie, there’s no need to spend hours on these sites. But it can be helpful to put in a few competitor names or key terms to see if there’s anything you didn’t think of.

Building your keyword list

Now it’s time to expand your list. Pop open your favorite keyword research tool and start entering your keywords.

“Wait!” I hear you saying. “What should be my favorite keyword research tool? Do you have a secret weapon?”

Nope. Many keyword research articles recommend a whole list of tools, but in my opinion you can start and end with the Google Adwords Keyword Research Tool. In the U.S., the majority of traffic comes from Google, and the proportion of PPC traffic is even higher, so you might as well get your words – and your traffic estimates – from the authority. A few tips for how to use it:

1. Group words by topic. As you start putting in your keywords, you can enter more than one keyword at a time, but keep them topically grouped. For example, if you sell both mustard and ketchup, you can put “mustard” and “Dijon mustard” in at the same time, but put ketchup in separately.

2. Under Match Types, select Exact. You can find a thorough explanation of Google match types here, but basically Exact Match will give you the number of searches for that term and that term only. This is a better and more conservative estimate of the search traffic you might get from a term.

3. Under Advanced Options and Filters, select the language and location you’re interested in. If you want only Spanish speakers from San Francisco, set up the filters that way. The number you see in Local Monthly Searches will reflect searches from people matching your criteria.

4. Set up your columns. Select the columns Competition and Local Monthly Searches. There are columns with other data, including approximate CPC, but I never have found them as useful as these.

5. Check off the keywords that seem interesting; then select Download/My Keyword Ideas. This will produce a spreadsheet of your results. The keyword ideas stay in the left column as you enter more seed terms, so you can just download after you are finished.

Refining your keyword list

Now that you have a good list of keywords, it’s time to refine it and zero in on the best keywords. This is especially important if you’re developing a keyword list for SEO, where there is a limit on how many words you can reasonably optimize for. There aren’t any hard-and-fast rules here; you’re generally looking to eliminate less interesting words. Some factors to consider as you hone your list:

1. Keyword Category. If you ended up with 500 audience keywords but only 15 product keywords, you probably can drop some of the less interesting audience terms. Focus on the categories closest to the center of the target.

Also, use the categories to understand the intent of the search. In other words, if you sell a B2B financial product, then “financial management” is a potential product term, but “financial management jobs” is an audience term and therefore less interesting.

2. Competition. In the online tool, Google rates keyword competition from Low to High. In your downloaded sheet, they’ll have changed this to a number from 0 to 1, with higher values meaning more competition. Google’s number relates to paid search only. Moz has a tool (available to paid subscribers) that gives a keyword difficulty score for SEO.

These tools can help you find words that you might have an easier chance of winning. Don’t spend a lot of time fretting over these numbers, though. You shouldn’t be discouraged from going after more competitive words, just understand that it might be harder.

3. Search Landscape. Enter some of your most important terms into Google (or another search engine) and see what comes up. For example, if you’re doing a campaign for the bath-and-body brand The Body Shop, until you see the search results, you might not realize that “body shop” also refers to cars.

Also, if you have a marginal term of ambiguous meaning, it might be worth dropping it off the list. And you can start making a list of potential negative keywords for any off-topic results you see (that is, keywords you don’t want your ads to appear for).

4. Semantic Grouping. As you go through your words, create a column to group them semantically. For example, words like “free website,” “free website creation,” and “free website tool” might be grouped under “free website.” These tightly-connected groups of words can be used later as your PPC ad groups. If you find a group with a large number of words, you might drop some of the ones with a lower search count.

Many people want to know how big their keyword list should be. This depends a lot on how big or complex your product or service is, but it doesn’t need to be huge. Unless you are developing a list for a large enterprise, think dozens or hundreds instead of thousands. In PPC, you can use broad match (to capture long-tail terms) and Google’s keyword reports (to add the effective ones to your list).

Categorizing your keywords to capture the interest and intent of the searcher can help you develop, refine, and analyze your list. Have you tried something similar? Let me know in the comments.

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