Choosing and Researching Keywords

It can be difficult to choose the keywords that describe your business so that users will see your website when they perform an online search. How do you go about it? This article offers some useful tips.

You’re ready to start building the website that will make your business a success. You understand how search engines work, at least enough to know that they will send programs called spiders to your site, and that the information these spiders send back to the search engines will help determine in what position your website will appear in the search engine results pages (SERPs). Obviously, you want people who are searching for what you can provide to find your website near the top of those results pages. How do you manage this feat?

The easy answer is “by using keywords and key phrases.” These are the words that people type into search engines when they are looking for something. For instance, if I wanted to learn how to juggle, I might go to Google or Yahoo! and type in the phrase “juggling lessons” along with my geographical location to find out where I could take a class. The tricky part of that answer, as you might have guessed, is that you need to use the right keywords. Choosing the wrong keywords for your website’s search engine optimization will guarantee that nobody ever sees your website. After all, when was the last time you went through all six million or so results that turn up in Google for a general word like “juggling”?

Choosing and researching good keywords is a process that takes several steps. I won’t have the room to cover all of the steps completely in this article, so I will cover the rest in a subsequent article. Basically, the process goes through four stages:

  • Collecting initial keyword ideas. This is also known as brainstorming. Come up with plenty of ideas; ask other people for ideas, too, including your customers. In this article, I’ll discuss some do’s and don’ts so you can target your ideas a little, and maybe even come up with a few you wouldn’t have thought of originally.
  • Checking keyword research tools. There are online tools that offer information about the number of times users perform searches for specific words. This is very important, because it will help you not at all to optimize for a keyword the search engines never see. Two of the best-known keyword research tools are Wordtracker and Overture.
  • Selecting keywords. This is the point where you put the information from your research together and decide which keywords are going to deliver the best performance for you. Note that I said “performance;” the best keywords might not be the ones that will deliver the most traffic.
  • Analytics. After you’ve chosen your keywords and optimized your site, you need to perform measurements to see whether it’s delivering the amount of traffic and conversions you expected. You can use this information to make adjustments and refine your keyword strategy.

With keyword selection so important to making your website work for your business, let’s take a look at the factors to consider when making that initial pool of keywords.

If you have had anything to do with marketing, you’ve probably heard the phrase “think like a customer.” You’ll need to do that when you think about what keywords you want to use for your website. If you wanted to buy the product and/or service that your business offers, what words would you type into the search engine? I’ll give you one hint: chances are it won’t be the name of your business, or the name of a competitor’s business.

You could do worse than to start your brainstorming by looking in a business directory phone book. Those yellow pages are already divided into various categories, and users have let their fingers do the walking for decades. The trick is, you certainly can’t end your brainstorming there.

Keywords, unlike listings in a business directory, aren’t something you buy and don’t depend on factors such as the cost of ink and paper. Therefore, they can be as specific as you wish. Remember the six million plus results for “juggling” in Google? What do you think the odds are that your little juggling and magic shop could make it to the top of that list? Choose keywords with a narrower focus; you’ll face a lot less competition. Besides, now that the web has been around for ten years or so, most savvy users know that the best way to get good search engine results for their queries is to be very specific and search for phrases rather than single words: “Silver Saturn Ion with sunroof” instead of “Saturn Ion,” for instance.

If you’re having problems coming up with keywords that are specific enough, don’t panic. Start with your list of general keywords, then add specific words to each one. Using our earlier example of juggling, you could try “juggling balls,” “juggling lessons,” “juggling with fire,” “juggling performances,” or whatever would fit, based on your particular business.

Think about the goods and services you offer. You may say you’re already thinking about that, but if you run an electronics store and the only keywords and phrases you’re coming up with are “electronics,” “computer,” and “DVD players,” you can be doing a lot better. Are you trying to market your systems to gamers? Try the phrase “gaming computers.” Do you buy and sell used computers? Maybe “refurbished PCs” will work for you.

Depending on your business, you might want to consider adding keywords that represent a particular geographical location. The most obvious example of this is real estate; no real estate company worth its salt would forget to mention prominently the location it serves! But it is certainly not the only one. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, and other professionals typically service clients in a particular region. Well-known restaurants may claim a clientele from all over the world, but most of them cater to the locals. Hotels, as part of the tourist trade, would do well to use the city in which they are located as part of a keyword phrase.

Even if you don’t think it makes sense to use a keyword for a specific region,  geographical location might affect your choice of keywords in a different way. Different parts of the world, even if they speak the same language, use different terms for the same object or idea. For example, the enclosed box that carries passengers up and down a shaft in a building is called an “elevator” in the United States, but a “lift” in the United Kingdom — and while there are “lifts” in the United States that serve a similar purpose, they are very different from “elevators.” Even within a country — especially one as large and diverse as the United States — regional differences prevail. Is that carbonated beverage called “soda,” “pop,” “tonic,” or what?  

You might find it helpful to see what terms your competitors are using. You can do this easily enough by visiting one of their web pages and clicking View –> Source. If you can read HTML (or know someone who can), you will be able to see what terms they used in places such as the title, description, and keyword tags. You don’t necessarily want to copy them; certainly not exactly, and certainly not if those terms are trademarked! But they can help you generate ideas for other terms that might work for you, and maybe even get you thinking about what will get you ahead of them in the SERPs.

Still having trouble coming up with keywords? Don’t worry, help is available online! Google has a keyword suggestion tool called the Keyword Sandbox. It’s intended for users of Google AdWords, but anyone can use it. Type in your general keyword, click enter, and you’ll get two lists. On the left you’ll see a long list of words that are more specific. Our “juggling” example in this case turns up everything from “juggling supplies” to “cat juggling” to “juggling tricks” to “juggling shows, ” and on and on. The list on the right is very handy too; Google explains that “Users who searched for your keyword(s) also searched for the following terms.” This will turn up things that you might not have thought of as being related (like “unicycle,” in this case), as well as common misspellings.

Overture also has a keyword selection tool. Type in a general search term, and it will not only give you a list of keywords that are related to that term, but it will also tell you how many times each of those words and phrases were searched on for the previous month. Again, this tool is designed for people who are looking to advertise; Overture is a pay-per-click search engine, and is designed to give users an idea of what terms to bid on, and how high to bid. Keep in mind that users will often check their own rankings after bidding for spots on Overture, so you might get distorted results. Still, it should give you a general idea of the popularity of the terms you’re considering.

WordTracker, as I mentioned, is one of the most popular keyword research tools. They offer a free trial, for which you must register. After putting in your name and your email address, you get a friendly screen that allows you to start the trial (and includes a link to WordTracker’s privacy policy). Click the link, and you get a screen in which you enter a general keyword. WordTracker will show you 30 keywords related to your keyword, as well as tell you how many keywords you would have seen with the full version of WordTracker (in the case of “juggling,” it would have been 287!).

Click the words you’d like to research further and WordTracker will show you the information it has for the word in its database, set up as a nice chart. The data is taken from all Dogpile and Metacrawler queries over the previous 120 days. The chart has four columns: one with the keyword and its variations (for instance, “juggling equipment” includes such variations as “custom juggling equipment,” “fire juggling equipment,” and so on for 72 entries); count, which shows the number of times a particular keyword has appeared in the database (giving you a feel for how often users search for the phrase); predict, which is “the maximum total predicted traffic for all of the major search engines/pay per bids and directories today;” and finally, dig, which lets you closely examine the results for just one keyword out of the chart.

When you use dig, WordTracker applies its Keyword Effectiveness Index, which compares the number of times a keyword appears in their data with the number of competing web pages to help you determine which keywords are most effective for your campaign. Here, we discover that “custom juggling equipment,” when measured in the MSN search engine, has a KEI of less than four — not very good at all, according to WordTracker. (In the fee-based version of WordTracker, KEI is measured for all other search engines as well).

I strongly suggest you try out each of these tools for yourself, particularly WordTracker. Once you do, you should have enough information to move on to the next phase, choosing the actual keywords that you will (finally) start using to optimize your site!

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