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A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding SEO Keywords

A Beginner's Guide to Understanding SEO Keywords

What are Keywords (and Keyword Intent)?

Search engines deliver a list of relevant web pages on a Search Engine Results Page (SERP) when an individual searches on a search engine such as “calendar”, “pizza toppings”, “women running shoes”, or “best BBQ restaurant near me”.

If the query is a single word or a phrase, it’s referred to as a “keyword” and it acts as a magnet for linking you to webpages with authoritative and relevant content to the keyword’s intent.

The intent of your keyword determines your search intent. Shorter single-word keywords do not give search engines as clear a picture of a keyword’s intent as long-tail keywords do.

As an example, a long-tailed keyword like “best BBQ restaurant near me” gives search engines a clearer understanding of your search intent (e.g., to find a BBQ restaurant near you to eat BBQ). By contrast, a broad keyword such as “calendar” can be used to discover a wide range of search intents: to define calendar, to buy a calendar, to get a calendar app, to print a calendar, and so forth.

Why are Keywords Important?

The purpose of keywords is to give marketers and SEO analysts powerful clues about searcher/consumer behavior in order to inform website content and content strategies.

Keywords can provide insight about:

  • By examining a keyword’s search volume, you can learn what topics and subtopics are in demand (most searched) by searchers and consumers (for instance, food bloggers may be interested to learn that a keyword such as “best BBQ restaurant” is frequently used).
  • To drive organic traffic to your site, you can optimize the on-page headers and metadata for your content with relevant keywords (i.e., obtaining maximum visibility to attract your target audience).
  • It helps determine seasonality for keywords and target topics through a data-driven content calendar.

Simply put, keywords can be thought of as “data-driven truth serums” for understanding your target audience and connecting your content with them.

Types of Keywords

Search engine results are not generated by all keywords, and you should be aware of the most common types of keywords and how they affect search results.

Long-Tail Keywords (vs. Short-Tailed)

A keyword can be a single word or a phrase made up of several words. When there are more than three words in a keyword, it is called a long-tail keyword. Long-tail keywords are descriptive phrases with specific intent.

A short-tail keyword has a lower search volume, but a long-tail keyword tends to drive more conversions because short-tailed keywords are more general.

A well-optimized site that addresses long-tailed keywords will likely rank higher on SERPs and meet their target audience’s needs.

Geo-Targeted Keywords (Local vs. Global Keywords)

Local search intent is implied by some keywords – the intent to carry out a transaction locally. A specific city name (i.e., “top veterinarian Seattle”) can also be used as local qualifiers (i.e., “near me” or “where”).

Keywords with local search intent (keywords without global search intent) will always return location-specific results, such as the Google Maps Local 3-Pack, and their monthly search volumes will always be much smaller than those with global search intent.

Branded Keywords (vs. Unbranded Keywords)

The official brand name is included in brand-specific keywords (i.e., “Nike shoes”, “Starbucks coffee”). Branded keywords generate the highest conversion rates of any kind of traffic (since searchers using branded keywords are looking for that brand specifically), however optimizing your content with only branded keywords is not optimal.

A personal blog reviewing Nike running shoes, for example, is not affiliated with the brand whose branded keywords you use. In terms of ranking and relevance, your blog will never be able to overtake the Nike site that holds authority over “Nike running shoes” keywords. The best approach is to compete with non-branded “running shoes” keywords with qualifiers like “reviews” and “bad” or “good.”

How to Choose the Right Keywords (with Keyword Research)

Optimizing your content for the right keywords can be time-consuming and confusing. Researching keywords is a process of identifying how people search in search engines to optimize content and increase visibility and inform content strategy.

Generally, the data-driven keyword research process consists of 5 steps:

1. Define your business objectives. Is your content strategy intended to drive more sales, leads, or conversions, or increase visibility and engagement? Depending on the goal, there are different types of search traffic and searchers with different purposes. It is important to determine what type of key words you should be researching based on the outcome you desire (i.e., long-tail, short-tail, local, global).

2. Examine the competition for your target keywords. According to a famous quote, “good artists copy, while great artists steal”. In other words, if you see something that works, do it too. Likewise, your competitors’ keywords should be looked at as well, and you should see how they have optimized their content (i.e., on-page header tags and metadata) for which topics and how.

3. Establish a seed list for keyword research. Identifying your goals and knowing your competitors will help you determine which topics and keywords to research. As an example, if you are a pet company, and you want to improve searcher engagement with your blog content, you might include keywords like “dog health insurance”, “summer activities for dogs”, “healthy cat food”, “pet carriers for cats”, etc.

You will use the initial target keywords in your keyword research as a seed list. You can use a keyword research tool, to generate even more keyword ideas from your seed lists by grouping similar keywords together (e.g., all dog keywords together and all cat keywords together).

4. Align your raw keyword list with your business goals. Having researched keywords in your seed list, you should end up with a long list of raw keywords that are related to the keywords in your seed list. Here you can see the raw topic landscape for a particular topic (i.e., “dog health insurance”).

Your raw topic landscape will be broader and more diversified (compared to niche long-tailed keywords such as “health insurance for senior dog surgery”), the more short-tailed your keywords are in your seed list.

Your next step is to narrow down this large list to the keywords that align with your business goals, and some may not be relevant to them. To optimize your local line of women shoes, you may want to collect long-tail, branded, or local keywords (i.e., “Reptile Store womens blue jogging shoes”; “where to buy womens clog sandals near me”).

5. Create, optimize, or defend content strategy for optimization efforts. Don’t let those keywords go to waste! Having narrowed down the list of target keywords, you can now determine the best content strategy to optimize them.

The three types of content strategy with SEO keywords are:

a. Defend – Content optimized for keywords, topics, and business goals can be considered as the “defense” of your content’s ranking, relevance, and authority. Several actions in this strategy involve optimizing metadata (meta titles and descriptions).

b. Optimize – This strategy pertains to content that already has the target keywords and topics, but is under/incorrectly optimized and not performing well. In order to improve and realign the content, this strategy carefully analyzes what works and what doesn’t.

c. Create – You do not currently have content targeting keywords and topics to help you meet your business goals, so you must create new content in order to do so. For example, creating a blog post, a new category page, or a new landing page might be part of this process.

Keywords remain essential for SEO. A searcher seeking content on “races” will be provided with content about “marathons” and not the abolition, and search engines will become more intuitive to the needs of searchers (e.g., delivering local results to keywords with local search intent).

Whether you are a consumer or a marketer, it is beneficial to understand how your search queries/keywords are being interpreted when you type them into search engines.


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