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SEO Step One Of Ten: Keyword Research

Back in October 2004 I launched a series of articles outlining the ten crucial steps to a well optimized website. The steps were:

  1. Keyword Selection
  2. Content Creation
  3. Site Structure
  4. Optimization
  5. Internal Linking
  6. Human Testing
  7. Submissions
  8. Link Building
  9. Monitoring
  10. The Extras (all those things that didn't fit in the first 9 steps)

Well in case you've been asleep for the last few years on in case you've just recently joined us in the SEO-realm, I - along with some of my good friends in the web marketing world - have decided to re-write the series with new information and new perspectives.

The New Series

In our updated series we'll be dropping some of the articles and adding others to account for changes in the industry. Another major change in this series is that we're going to compliment it with a weekly segment on Webmaster Radio's Webcology on Thursday afternoon at 2PM EST where we'll be conducting interviews and discussing tools with their manufacturers to help our readers and listeners make the most of this information. If you miss the show, you can always download the podcast free of charge afterwards.

The 10 steps covered in this series will be:

  1. Keyword Research & Selection
  2. Competition Analysis
  3. Site Structure
  4. Content Optimization
  5. Link Building
  6. Social Media
  7. PPC
  8. Statistics Analysis
  9. Conversion Optimization
  10. Keeping It Up

Step One: Keyword Research & Selection

There are two times in a site's life when keyword research is conducted - when researching a site to rank in the organic results on the search engines and when researching keywords for a PPC campaign. In our article today we're going to focus on the former and save the research involved with PPC campaigns for step seven in this series.

So we've got the topic down to "just" keyword research and selection for organic SEO campaigns - from there the topic once again gets split into a variety of areas. Those that we will cover here are:

  • The raw data
  • Studying those who've gone before
  • Understanding your choices

The Raw Data

The raw data is the raw estimated searches/day that you can expect a phrase to get on the major search engines. There are a number of tools you can use to compile this information. Here are some of the more commonly used:

Overture Keyword Suggestion Tool
Yahoo!'s keyword suggestion tool. It's fast and it's free but it has some serious drawbacks. The tool often mixes singular, plural and common misspellings into one so it could lead you astray (admittedly it's gotten much better lately but still far from perfect).

Is a bed and breakfast in Banff, BC better to target "banff accommodation" or "banff accommodations". How about the very common misspelling "Banff accomodations"? That said, it's based on easily the largest pool of search data made available in this way which gives it a huge edge in accuracy based on the pool of data it's collecting from.

WordTracker
WordTracker is easily one of the most popular of the paid keyword research tools. It solves the problem with the singular vs plural vs misspellings however the data it accesses is from a few meta engines and is not as comprehensive as one might like.

They offer a free trial and have options to pay for just a day or up to a year so they provide options for people who simply need it for a quick round of research on one site to SEO firms who need it on a daily bases. It sells for $59/mth.

Keyword Discovery
This tool is very similar to WordTracker in the advantages/disadvantages category. Better specification of keywords, lower pool of data to base them on. I personally prefer Keyword Discovery simply for some of the features and the ability to export data for clients to view easily. Of course, that could well be due to my increased experience with it.

They have a free trial as well and it sells for $69/mth.

Aaron Wall's Summary
Noted above are some of the most popular tools and the ones I've used the most. There are some other tools definitely worth taking a peek at. Aaron Wall did a great summary on his site of the major tools, their pros and cons, etc. Definitely worth taking a peek at. Admittedly it's a couple years old so some of the features have changed a bit but most of it is still valid and accurate.

Now What ...

Now that we've looked at the tools, let's take a look at what we're supposed to do with them. As noted, we'll cover how to use these tools when launching or updating a PPC campaign in a future article, however there are still a few areas and considerations that we need to consider here.

So let's get started ...

In case no one told you - size doesn't matter. It's not how big it is, it's who's using it. Let's use as an example a phrase we at Beanstalk targetted and that's the phrases "search engine positioning". At first this was our big phrase which now gets 7,689 estimated searches/mth (a bit higher than it was back then). "search engine positioning services" gets a lowly 2,636 searches/mth. Of course we should be targeting the one with the higher number of searches (or so I thought).

Once we have attained top 3 rankings for both I started looking through my stats and setting up filters for conversion (forms filled out and visits to our contact page). People who entered "search engine positioning" were sure interested in our blog and articles but only those who added the word "services" contacted us. And so the big phrase was abandoned as a target and we began focusing on what I refer to as "buy phrases". So bigger isn't better if the people you want are searching using phrases with a lower search volume.

There's another time when bigger isn't better. Which of those two phrases do you suppose we ranked for first? If you guessed the services phrase then you're right. When you launch a new website (which we had) you're likely up against sites that have been around for a while, have some solid backlinks and a good number of pages. You're not going to want to go up against them for the top phrases out of the gate. Choosing to go with phrases that are lower in search volume and lower in competition will almost always result in higher rankings faster, put some money back in your pocket and ready you to go for the bigger phrases.

It's here that the model we followed works well. When you're selecting your short term and long term targets it's wise to choose phrases with the same root keywords ("search engine positioning" and "search engine positioning services" for example). This basically enables you to work towards your long term goals during link building for your short term targets. And who doesn't like to kill two birds with one stone? Or perhaps you have all the time in the world and you're one of those people who likes nothing more than working on developing incoming links.

Which brings us to ...

Studying Those Who've Gone Before

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Let's just hang onto that thought while we research what those who are successful in your industry are targeting in order to glean some insight into what works.

I've recently discovered (much to my pleasure) a very cool tool that, while a bit pricey for some, simplified MANY of the processes of keyword research, tracking and competitor keyword dissection. A company called AdGooroo has created what I've now discovered to be an awesome keyword tracking tool (I'd call it keyword research but it does a lot more than list off search phrases). The tool allows you to do the generic keyword research that we're all used to with the same limitations as the tools above (i.e. Google doesn't hand out their search keyphrase volumes) but that's just the first step.

They then take a look at your competitors on both the organic and PPC results, figure out what they're ranking for and bidding on and provides some great reports on saturation levels, competition levels, and a lot more. With this in hand you can then begin to analyze how they're ranking (that'll be covered next week in our article on competition analysis).

The folks at AdGooroo also store historical information so you can look back over trends in the past and compare that to what you see now. As noted, a bit pricey for some but worth it for those who can afford to know this level of information on who's doing what and what you should be doing.

I should also note that I'm experienced in their SEM Insight product which costs $399/mth. They also do offer AdGooroo Express which has a lot of the same feature (but missing a lot of the ones I personally feel can give a researcher a HUGE jump on their competitors). The Express version however sells at $89/mth so far more affordable for some. And like all my favorite tools, they provide a free trial. :)

But if you can't afford that level of information you'll want to run ranking reports on all your top competitors (you likely know who these are but if you don't - they're the ones who rank in the top 10 for the most competitive phrases). You can either do this manually or use a reporting tool such as WebPosition Gold (again, has a free trail).

If you find weaker sites ranking for large numbers of phrases, you know who to watch (again, we'll get into this more next week). The only problem with this method is that you can only think of what you can think of. The site might be ranking for phrases you never thought to look into and which, in knowing, might provide some great insight into additional targets and tactics. Of course, you might well be from an industry with very obvious and defined keywords.

Understanding Your Choices

So now you've got choices to make. You've got a list of perhaps hundreds of keywords and you need to shorten that list down. The number of phrase you target will only be limited by your site and the amount of time you have to dedicate to it.

You will likely need to pare down your choices to those that will produce the fastest and highest ROI possible. This will likely be the phrases that provide the lowest competition levels for the highest searched "buy phrases". Once you have attained these rankings you can move on.

The alternative is to go for the gold and target the biggest phrases in your industry. This will take longer (99% of the time) but might be necessary if there are no suitable secondary phrases. In this event you have to ready yourself for a slow rise to the top and a longer period of stagnant traffic with a big return (hopefully) at the end.

Another major choice you'll have to make (especially if you have a large number of potential phrases) is whether to start out with a PPC campaign for the traffic or to test keyword phrases for an organic promotion. While these will be covered in more detail in part 7, if you just can't wait you can find a past article on the subject titled "Using PPC To Maximize Your Search Engine Positioning ROI".

More Info On This Series

As noted but worth mentioning again, this article series is being supplemented with a weekly show on WebmasterRadio.fm. Be sure to tune in or download the podcast to get the full information and hear some great interviews with the tool makers and experts.

Next week the topic will be competition analysis and will be written by StepForth, Inc. author and owner Ross Dunn. Ross will of course be on the show with us next Thursday along with some great guests.

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