Using Search Tools for SEO

You’re not supposed to use a screwdriver like a hammer or a chisel. I’ve done both. It may not work as well as using the right tool, but it got the job done. In a similar way, you can use certain tools to help you with some SEO tasks, despite the fact that they weren’t designed for these tasks in the first place.

Before I continue along these lines, I want to emphasize, especially to those of you who are new to SEO, that there are many, many SEO tools you can use for free. You’ll find links to plenty of them to the left of this article, under “SEO Tools.” If you read various threads in our SEO Chat forums, you’ll probably find links to even more; some will be free, while others will charge a flat fee or a subscription for their use. They can help you accomplish an amazing number of tasks, such as researching keywords, calculating the cost of your AdSense campaign, checking the age of your domain and the size of your pages, and many more. None of the tools or techniques that I’m going to suggest is intended to replace these sorts of purpose-built tools; at best, they’re meant to supplement them.

If that’s the case, then why should you use these tools at all? They can give you a different perspective. The search engines created some of these tools specifically to improve the search experience of the user. So using these tools can help you get into the mindset of someone who is looking for your site, or at least what you offer. If you’re thinking like a searcher, you’re in a better position to set yourself up to be found.

Some of these tools might even lead you in directions you didn’t originally anticipate. Here’s an analogy by way of example: a doll maker’s needle is relatively thick, about five or six inches long, and used for such tasks as sewing the eyes on dolls. However, it can also be used for making certain forms of lace. In fact, it’s actually easier to use for that task than the tool it replaces.

Using this analogy, imagine that your site is a little like the doll maker’s needle. In that case, you’ll want it to be found in the places that cater to doll makers, and in the places that cater to lace makers. And reaching those different places will require optimization for somewhat different sets of keywords. Do you follow me so far? Good, because we’re about to take a look at a “tool” that can help you with keywords.

{mospagebreak title=Yahoo Search Assist, for SEO}

If you’ve never used Yahoo Search Assist, I suggest you play with it for a while to understand it better. Or you can read my article reviewing the new, free service from Yahoo. Keep in mind that this tool is intended to improve the user experience by suggesting related terms. So how does that help you?

Well, let’s assume for a moment you’re putting together a web site that will focus on holiday recipes. Food is a topic that is near and dear to the hearts of a lot of people, so one can imagine that this is a pretty competitive keyword. Look what you get when you put that keyword into Yahoo Search Assist, however:


You can be more specific about the focus of your site, attracting a subset of web surfers interested in specific categories of holiday recipes. Do you want to lure those looking for healthy holiday recipes? Or perhaps the busy folks who need easy holiday recipes fit your target demographic better? You can scroll for more options. And all this without even clicking to do the web search!

So what happens when you click the web search? You get all the sites that Yahoo thinks show content relevant to the key phrase. But if you hit the little tab underneath the search window, you also get to explore related concepts, as you can see in the screen shot below:


In addition to recipes for various specific holidays, related concepts include party recipes, crafts and dessert. You can also scroll sideways for more ideas.

Every single one of these related concepts, as well as the original options Yahoo turned up for you with Search Assist, is a possible keyword related to your main keyword choice, “holiday recipes.” Many of them help you with what’s known as the “long tail” of search. These are longer, more specific search terms. Web surfers make fewer searches using them, but there are also fewer web sites trying to compete for those words. Searchers who use long tail keywords know what they’re looking for, and are more likely to convert than searchers who use more general keywords.

{mospagebreak title=SEO When Timing is the Key}

Since we’re already on the subject of the holidays, let me address this next section to those of you who are selling goods and/or services that are affected by holiday trends. I’m talking to sellers of Halloween costumes, Thanksgiving turkeys, Christmas hams, gifts and holiday decorations of all sorts – you know who you are. I’m also talking to those who sell goods and/or services that are affected by the seasons: landscapers, construction companies, wedding consultants, and more.

If you’re a brick-and-mortar merchant, chances are you know when to set out all the seasonal goodies. But SEO is an entirely different ballgame. When do web surfers start thinking about Halloween costumes? Decorating for December holidays? Getting something for their sweetheart on Valentine’s Day? And how do you find out?

In this case it’s Google Trends to the rescue. Yes, you can compare two or more terms to see which ones are most popular where. But you can also use it to trace the popularity of a particular term over time. You want data for at least the last 12 months, and if your business is local you want to specify your particular region of the world. Let’s try a search for Christmas trees, for the last 12 months, in all regions of the world. Check out the screen shot below:

As you can see, web surfers started thinking about Christmas trees in September this year. If you didn’t start your SEO for this phrase some time in August, you were late off the bat.

But what if you’re trying to optimize for Valentine’s Day? The news is quite a bit better:


It looks like Valentine’s Day hits the radar of most searchers by the middle of December. That means you just might have enough time to optimize your web site for the holiday, but you’d better hurry. Remember, you want to start optimizing your site some time before searchers start getting serious, so your campaign will have picked up a little steam and be registering in the search engines right around the time searchers are ready to think about what you have to offer them.

{mospagebreak title=Fun with Google}

Some of Google’s advanced options seem tailor-made to help SEOs. Take the link: operator. Put that into Google’s search box with a URL, and it will tell you all the back links for that particular web page. For example, will reveal all of the web pages that have links that point to SEO Chat’s home page.

You can use this operator at least two ways. You can find everyone who is linking to your competitor’s site and consider trying to get links from them yourself, on the theory that if your competitor’s content is relevant to the linker’s web site, then so is yours. You can also use it to help you track the success of your own link-building campaign.

You probably knew about that one, but did you know that Google can help you search for synonyms? Just use the tilde ( ~ ) in front of the word if you’re interested in finding out its synonyms. What Google returns is not a list of synonyms, exactly, but a list of sites whose content is related to that word and its synonyms. If you’re having problems coming up with keywords, you can try using this to help you brainstorm for ideas.

For example, a searcher interested in food facts, nutrition, and cooking information might put ~food~facts into Google’s search box. The first link returned is for, followed by several “food facts” sites, with a couple of cooking tips and recipe sites near the bottom of the first page. The last entry on the first page is from, and it features “Economic and statistical information about the US restaurant industry.”

Each of the links includes snippets from the sites, of course, and it’s interesting to see what Google put in bold in each one. Food, of course, and facts; but in the snippet from, both “information” and “restaurant” are bolded, to show that they are related to “facts” and “food” respectively. Google offers many different little tricks you can do to help you with your site’s SEO. In fact, all of the major search engines offer advanced search features that can be helpful when used for SEO. All you have to do is think outside the box.

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