A basic understanding of search engine optimization (SEO) is essential for your small business. If you want traffic to your site (and who doesn't?), you have to get found on Google. Optimizing your site for search helps people find you and generates organic traffic.
But how do you optimize your website for search? You need an SEO keyword plan.
In a previous article, we discussed some background basics of SEO—what it is, why it's important, and how to get started. As we note in that post, good SEO starts with making a strategy. Thinking about what you are trying to achieve, and then making a plan to achieve it, is one of the best ways to ensure your success.
The first part of that strategy? Determining the keywords you want to target. This post is all about how to decide what keywords you want to go after. It covers thinking about your audience, brainstorming, doing keyword research, and ultimately selecting your keywords.
The Importance of Keywords
Keywords are the foundation of SEO.
Search works by connecting what people say they are looking for with the content that is indexed in the search engine. A person types (or, increasingly, says) what they are looking for. This is their search query.
You want your site to rank high for a certain set of search queries—those queries that are relevant to your site. You do that by making sure that your site contains the words that you think people will include in their search queries. These words that you're targeting are keywords.
By making sure your content contains the primary keywords that your audience will likely search for, you will help the search engine understand your site is relevant for that query.
Step 1: Know Your Audience
Ultimately, you want to make a list of keywords your audience is likely to search for and then make sure you have content that is useful to them and that includes those keywords. So, what's the first step?
Know your audience.
If you haven't already, you should develop a clear idea of the group of people you're trying to target. If you're a Clinic offering Dialectical Behaviour Therapy in Toronto, your audience will likely be individuals looking for therapy services in the Toronto area. If you're a bike shop in Seattle, your audience will be cyclists and people who might be interested in getting started.
Think deeply about who you want to visit your site. Create profiles, including their names, what they value, what they are motivated by, and what their problems are. Think about how your business or website can offer solutions they're looking for. Brainstorm several different potential customer profiles. Write this all down.
By the end, you should have a pretty clear idea of who you are targeting.
Step 2: Brainstorm Target Keywords
Here's where you get a little creative. Start by making a list of phrases and words that are relevant to your small business and what you do. At this point, keep phrases to between one and five words long.
Write down descriptions of what you sell and what you do.
Make sure you think about it from your customer's point of view. The way you describe your business might not necessarily be what a potential client would search for. Use your customer profiles from before to help you.
Make sure that for each of the keywords you list, the person who searched for it would be happy to come across your page. You want to choose keywords that your site is actually relevant for.
Include location keywords.
Are you a local company? Make sure you include your location and other local descriptors on your list. You're more likely to rank for "tattoo artists Vancouver BC" than you are for "tattoo artists". And, people that are looking to get a tattoo are likely to use search terms that include their location.
Include branded keywords.
Branded keywords are keywords that include the name of your company. You want to make sure that people who search directly for your company can find you. You want to own the keywords that make up your brand.
For example, we want people that search "Crisp Text" to be able to find our company's website.
Make sure your list of keywords includes some branded keywords. They can be things like "Your Business Name" or "Your Business Name + contact" or "Your Business Name + reviews".
Step 3: Add Target Keywords From Google
You should now have a list of some keywords that make sense for your small business: words and phrases that potential customers are likely to search for. They'll include words about what you do, what you sell, and branded keywords.
Use Google suggestions to broaden your list.
Next, augment your list by looking up those keywords on Google. The autocomplete feature of the search bar is useful because it provides a list of other terms that people commonly search for. Add some of these to your list, if appropriate.
For example, lots of people apparently search "Tattoo artist Vancouver reddit". You might choose to add "Reddit" to some of your keyword phrases.
Also, look at the bottom of the Google search engine results page (SERP) where you can find a list of other related search terms. This is another place you can get some inspiration to broaden your list of keywords.
Use your competition.
Another strategy is to use your competition to know whether your keywords make sense for your business. When you search for the terms you've brainstormed, do your competitors come up? If so, you're probably on the right track.
Also, notice what your competitors are saying about themselves and their services. This will give you a sense of what keywords they're targeting. If some of these terms are relevant for your business, add them.
Step 3: Find Out Where You Rank
As you're searching for your keywords, take a second to note where your company is ranking in the SERP as well as who else is ranking. This will help you understand what kind of competition you have for a particular phrase or word set.
Also, note how many paid advertisements you see. These advertisements will tell you that other businesses are paying to rank for those keywords. The more paid ads there are, the more competitive that particular search phrase is.
This helps you understand the keyword a bit better: maybe it's one that would get you lots of customers if you could rank for it, but it might be difficult to rank for.
SEO is competitive.
This brings us to one of the difficult (but fun) features about SEO: it's competitive. SEO experts spend their time thinking about how to tweak their content, website, and other factors to try to get to the top of the SERP. As a small business owner, it can be a bit daunting, but it can also be a fun challenge.
One of the tricks to competing is to go after those keywords that are doable for you.
It's often better to be a big fish in a small pond than it is to be a small fish in a big pond. The majority of web traffic—over 90%—goes to the first page of the SERP. That's where you want to be. You'll end up getting more traffic being first on a search term that fewer people search for than you will if you rank on the 10th page of a popular search term.
For example, you almost certainly won't rank for "tattoo", but you could rank for "tattoo artist San Antonio Texas". You'll end up with more traffic if you target the latter.
Long-tail versus short-tail keywords.
This brings us to a discussion of long-tail versus short-tail keywords. Short-tail keywords are those with 1 or 2 words in them; long-tail keywords are those with more than three words. People tend to search more often for short-tail keywords, so they have the most search volume. However, because they are also the most competitive, they are also the most expensive and difficult to target.
They also have lower conversion rates, which means fewer of these searchers end up becoming a customer. This is because people that search for specific long-tail keywords are more likely to be looking to make a purchase or procure a particular service. A person searching for "photography" may be looking for a photographer, but they also may be looking for a photography class, or simply to look at some beautiful photos. A person searching for "affordable wedding photographer Albany NY" is much more likely to be looking to buy a photography service.
All that is to say, consider targeting long-tail search terms specific to your business and service.
Step 4: Take a Closer Look at Your Competitors
You've now done some poking around on the search engine and made some notes about what your competitors are doing. It's time to do a bit of research. Here are some competitor research tools to help you.
Spyfu. This useful tool helps you find out what keywords your competitors are targeting. There is a free version that doesn't provide all the insights of the regular version but should be enough to give you a sense of what they're doing. It gets at both organic and paid advertising.
iSpionage. Like Spyfu, this tool can tell you what search terms your competitors are targeting for both organic and paid advertising. It gives you a sense of how they are ranking and how many people are searching for a given term.
What you are doing here is figuring out what your competitors' strategies are. That will help you by giving you a sense of what terms you might be able to rank for. Perhaps you think you can out-compete your competitors on a given set of search terms. Or, maybe your research shows you that there is an opportunity because some of your terms aren't being targeted by your competitors.
Knowing what your competitors are doing will help you determine what terms you have the best chance of ranking for.
Step 5: Narrow Down Your List
Now you're looking to narrow down your list. You'll want to do this with the help of some keyword research tools. We've reviewed some of the most popular keyword research tools.
Use these tools to look for search volumes for the words on your list and how competitive they are. Make a shortlist of the keywords that are most related to your site or brand, have good volume, and have relatively few competitors. This shortlist will help you focus your content and know what keywords to optimize for.
How many keywords should I have?
It's up to you. Some sites aggressively go after three or four keywords. Others go after a large number of keywords. Others have pages that target different groups of keywords.
However, the shorter the list, the more focused you can be. This might allow you to be the most successful. If you're just starting, pick three or four keywords, and focus on these. Once you've had some success, you can go back and choose some more.
You may still have a long list of words, even after narrowing down your list. One strategy to narrow further is to group similar words into families. These might be synonyms or abbreviations or the plural and singular form of the same word. Maybe the terms are all related to the same intention of the searcher.
Once you have a set of different families, you can optimize a page for a whole family.
What is the perfect keyword?
The perfect keyword is one that your customers will search for. It will be one that has a pretty high search volume, meaning that quite a few of your customers search it. But it will not be very competitive, so you will actually have a chance to rank for it.
Think about all of these factors: whether people search it, whether it's competitive, and whether it will bring you paying customers.
Next Steps: Make an Optimization Plan
Okay great, you have a list of keywords you're going to target. Now what?
Now it's time to start optimizing your site for those keywords. Check out the next post on what to do with keywords on your site to optimize for search.
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