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Effective Keyword SEO Research, Part 1

Keyword research is one of the most fundamental SEO (define) activities, but it's also one of the least talked about. Yes, personalized search, social media, and SEO for Flash are all very exciting, but without the right keywords, SEO efforts will go astray.

Keywords are the building blocks of SEO. Although the days of the keyword meta tag being the golden ticket to top rankings are undoubtedly over, keywords themselves are still one of the most important aspects of good SEO. Just their application has changed. It's not about stuffing a hundred keywords into meta tags or your copy to get rankings. It's about uncovering the keywords that make the most sense for your business and using them in a way that drives targeted, qualified traffic to your site.

A bunch of links point to your site from reputable, authoritative, and relevant sites. But without the right anchor text, how much are those links really worth? Do you ensure your site is designed and developed in a way that's intrinsically search-engine-friendly? If your pages don't contain the keywords you want to optimize for, how will spiders know to return them for those queries?

You get the point: keywords are important. Let's talk about finding the right ones.

Defining Keyword Research

The process of uncovering and selecting the appropriate keywords for your site is called keyword research. Very simply, it involves undertaking an often painstaking investigation to discover what terms people search for, how often, and how many and which other sites appear for those terms. Keyword research is a strategic exercise that enables you to determine which queries your site is most relevant for and for which you can feasibly expect a return, then optimize your site accordingly.

Get it wrong and you may not even have a chance at the first few SERPs (define). Do it right and your potential for top placement soars.

Doing It Right

You can probably think of at least 10 to 20 keywords off the top of your head you think are relevant to your site. However, the way you think about your organization or business may be very different than how customers or the average Joe thinks about it. A financial institution might call its product an "auto loan," but you or I would probably use the term "car loan" when searching online. Maybe we'd search for "car loans" (plural) instead of "car loan" (singular). Similarly, the terms you automatically think of may be too broad or widely applicable to be appropriate for SEO.

Keyword research tools are essential for seeing what users truly search for. These tools generally house data on search engine queries that have been conducted over at least the past month, more often over the past year. They enable you to get an idea of which specific terms are searched for, and how often. They typically also allow you to enter one term and get back other related terms, including synonyms, variations, plurals, and misspellings.

Not only do these tools provide data on search volume, many will give you an idea of the number of search engine results for each term. This is usually referred to as the level of competition. All other things being equal, the lower the competition for a given keyword, the better your chances of getting a good ranking.

The best keywords have the following qualities:

  • Strong relevance to your site: terms for which you have content to support
  • Relatively high search volume: terms people are actually look for
  • Relatively low competition: terms with a small number of search results

Without the above criteria, you'll typically land in one of two scenarios:

  • You choose highly popular -- and competitive -- keywords. You end up with terms so broad that about a billion other sites are competing for them. You don't stand a chance of getting a top ranking.
  • You choose very narrowly targeted or niche keywords. You end up with terms that are so specific that no one actually searches for them. A top ranking is wasted because no one's there to see it.

When you select keywords that meet the three key criteria, you exponentially increase your chances of ranking high in SERPs.

Helpful Tools

As mentioned earlier, don't select keywords without strategically researching and exploring your options. There are several very good paid subscription tools out there to help you conduct keyword research. Two I've used and like are KeywordDiscovery and Wordtracker. Both are available for short-term rental. However, if you're a sole proprietor or new to the SEO scene, it may be easier and more cost-effective to make use of the many free tools out there.

Two free tools to try:

  • Google's Adwords Keyword Tool provides a long list of related terms and indicates search volume based on a five-point ranking.
  • Yahoo's Keyword Selection Tool provides actual keyword volume for the most recent month it has data both for the term you type in and for related terms.

Note that these free tools typically don't provide competitive data. That means you may have to manually search the engines for each keyword to see how many search results are returned, potentially a time-consuming and tedious task.

No matter how much time is invested, the knowledge you'll gain from conducting keyword research will be invaluable for any SEO initiative.

In part two, a step-by-step method for exporting, extracting, and analyzing your keyword research data to help make those important keyword decisions.

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