Updated for 2015: Improving your search engine optimization (SEO) is about more than keywords. These days it is about the comprehensive user experience for your website, as well as the keywords.
Shaking the keyword ranking obsession of the past but still finding the right words to use to generate traffic to your website is quite the balancing act these days. What the average person doesn't know is that Google and other search engines constantly fine tune ranking algorithms which are a complex set of variables that determine how to prioritize the list of websites that will be displayed to someone looking for information. In fact, hanging a hat on keyword ranking as the lynchpin of your online business strategy doesn't work like it used to and is a very fragile approach. A few tweaks to the ranking algorithm and all of the time, effort and money is lost, literally overnight.
Beyond Finding the Best Words
You are called upon to go much further than just finding the words to get your site to rank well in the search results. Some thought must go into what happens once you have the traffic because engines are examining you for the best experience as well as the technical hulabaloo associated with programming a website. Millions of visitors to your site won't help if they don't stay, click through your site and convert to leads and customers. Beyond the benefit to you in converting visitors to leads, Google doesn't want to waste the time of people looking for things by showing them websites that don't perform well. This reflects poorly on them. So, even if you think you've plucked out a nice set of keywords to use - how you use them is even more important.
Creating Valuable Content
Think of your audience first, last and always. Value is the heart and soul of engaging and commercially valuable content. What information will your audience find of value? This is what you should be sharing. Identifying a marketing persona (fictional "Mr. Customer") and imagining what this person would need to find on your website is the source of your content strategy. Create content that would be meaningful to your ideal customer. It’s what you will use to decide on topics for articles, white papers, web text, calls-to-action, landing pages, blog posts etc. When it comes to keywords, they have a role here too but it isn't the old cut and dried formula of merely trying to be the website that uses the phrase the most on their website or checking off a laundry list of SEO oriented tasks (in spite of all those scary reports that are showing up in your email box on a regular basis). How the content delivers is important too, in fact in 2015 Google will stop delivering websites in their search results for those using a mobile device that are not optimized for mobile.
How to Find the Right Words
The keywords should meet 4 important criteria to be of any value for helping people find your useful content. They must be relevant to what you have to offer, commercially valuable, produce enough search traffic and not be too competitive for you. There are a wide variety of tools available to evaluate keywords for these criteria. An online search will provide many options for you to consider for finding a tool for evaluating your keywords. You need one that at minimum evaluates the keywords for search volume and competition since you can make an educated guess for relevancy and commercial value. Here is a deeper explanation of the four criteria:
- Relevancy. The words and phrases must make sense in terms of what you have to offer. User-friendly words that people would logically associate with your business and not just a pile of terms you grabbed because they are popular and throw a high volume of traffic. This sounds simple but it gets a little more complex when you add in the other 3 criteria.
- Commercially valuable words for your business goals. THis is where it can get much more difficult because there are very popular words and phrases that are entirely relevant to goods and services a business has to offer but whether they are commercially valuable depends on the intent of the person looking for information. Why are they using the term in search. If they are primarily looking for information that is not specifically or likely associated with an intent to purchase something then they shouldn't be on your list of target words. They can certainly supplement but avoid focussing on these to drive business goals. They will generate lots of traffic for you but it is traffic that is very unlikely to convert. For example, if you sell garden hoses and you find the phrase "how to water your garden" has a very high volume of monthly search traffic you might be tempted to just grab that phrase and start writing content around it to start the process of ranking for it. The disappointment comes when you realize that thousands of people per month are using that phrase to learn just what it says, how to water their gardens but not to look for the garden hose. On the other hand, "how to choose a garden hose" has a higher liklihood of being used by someone with an intent to buy something and so would make a better target phrase if it has a decent amount of monthly search traffic.
- Monthly search traffic is simply the number of times people are typing a word or phrase into a search engine each month. Many businesses are easily sent into panic by SEO companies that show them they don't rank number one in search for some seemingly obvious keyword phrase and then go on to suggest they can deliver front page ranking for a fee each month. The fee is paid and presto, they actually deliver on the promise and the business owner feels like they have achieved something. The devil is in the detail of monthly search volume. By simply adding one word to a phrase it can reduce the search volume to virtually nothing and turn a valuable phrase into a worthless one. The worthless ones are very easy to rank for because there is no competition for them. There is no business value realized on a search term that very few people are using to search for things.
- Competition for a keyword is what makes it more or less valuable for business use when used alongside the other 3 factors. When you find a keyword with a high volume of search each month, high relevancy to your business and the word has a high probability of someone seeking to make a purchase the competition will also be fierce for it. What you should aim for are words with a decent search volume each month that meet the other criteria and have a lower competition score (the tool you use will give you definitions of how to determine if something is high or low in the competition arena. Low search volume and low competition on some word or phrase is what allows the scare tactics to work and dupes people into believing they are recieving value.
The growing trend online is away from pure search engine optimization and toward the inbound marketing approach which includes not just relevant keywords but high quality, well planned websites that provide value and not just sales pitches to people who are looking for information in order to make qualified buying decisions. Take the time to create excellent content, consistenly use language that encompasses not only the keywords you identify as valuable but human, helpful engagement from them. Do all you can to help people find what they need in a convenient package to turn your website into a qualified lead generation machine!