There is no more important step in the search engine optimization (SEO) process than keyword research. The most successful SEO campaign can provide lackluster results if the wrong keywords are targeted or the keywords are targeted in the wrong order. You’ll need to dig beyond simple search volume numbers and at ways to prioritize and determine action-items to go after the phrases that stand the best chance of providing a solid return on investment (ROI).
Before we get dive into this topic, it's important to understand the mentality I will be writing from. As a business owner more than an SEO, I like to spend the money I’m making a lot more than the money I'm not. At times I'll even delay specific revenue opportunities to work first on less profitable but faster paying ones. This is as true with organic SEO as it is with any other marketing strategy.
When my agency launched, we targeted “search engine positioning services” out of the gate due to the low competition and faster potential for quick gains. The traffic was far lower but the ROI was faster. It wasn't until later that we went after more competitive, higher search-volume phrases and in the process we were generating revenue from the search traffic we already had. In the end it took us longer to rank for the high-traffic phrases and looking at a seven year revenue total, we probably could have made more had we “gone for the gold” out of the gate, but I'm a conservative business owner and remain such to this day.
I don't mention all of this to discuss business policy. You'll need to take up your tolerances and attitudes with your accountant, business partners, spouse and lifestyle. No, I mention this only to illustrate the attitude I take in keyword selection to make sense of the recommendations that follow. They are written from my approach, yours may differ however if that's the case I hope you'll still find value in the strategies and processes.
The Sample Promotion
For the purposes of this article, we’ll use a fictional downhill mountain biking website as our example. Our fictional website owner is looking to “go it alone” on the SEO front with a brand new site and a new domain. We’ll assume the site is well-developed with clean code and unique descriptive content for the products on crawlable pages.
To keep things simple, only free tools and resources will be referenced. Many of these free resources (as well as some that are also affordable for small businesses) were covered in “78 Resources For Every Internet Marketers Toolkit”.
The Initial Research
Our downhill mountain bike enthusiast has started a website. Time to begin the keyword research process.
The logical first step is to head to Google's AdWords Tool and enter “downhill mountain bike” and see what comes up. Don't forget to switch your match-type from Broad to Exact (or include Exact if you want to see both). If you don't know the difference be sure to read Google's support page on match types so you get a better understanding of what data you're looking at.
For most query types, check off the box “Only show ideas closely related to my search terms”. While the non-filtered results can sometimes give you insight into alternative targets, often it produces in a dataset filled with generic terms that results in a significant drop in useful possibilities. For example, a search for “downhill mountain bikes” mixes in “bikes”, “bicycles”, “bmx bikes”, etc. This will make it difficult to get the full scope of related phrases. After a quick glance for anything you may have missed, limit the search around your known terms.
It's extremely important to make sure you're thinking of all the possibilities. For instance, “downhill mountain bikes” may be referred to as “dh mountain bikes” or “down hill mountain bikes”. Be sure to include these in the queries to pull data from. Similarly, you should know the terminology and abbreviations of your industry and be sure to include them in your queries.
Once this is completed you'll download the list of phrases for future use and repeat the process in logical groupings. In this example, you would enter the various type of equipment (brakes, gears, armor, shocks, dual suspension bikes, etc.) and place those in one group, then build a list of all the brands you’ll be selling and add that to another list. Time spent on keyword research is never wasted and you may want to build up additional lists based on blogs, forums, articles and press areas, etc. depending on what you will be adding to your site.
Sorting Through The Keywords
Starting with so many separate lists will help us in the weeding process. The first step in this process is to go through and remove the phrases that don't apply. These will include phrases that are generally irrelevant and those that include keywords you want to filter out (“free” is generally at the top of my list in this category).
Once these tasks are completed, it's time to go through the product and brand phrases and look at them with an eye for ROI. At this stage we're not working to determine which phrases to target but rather to establish a value per phrase.
Rather than calling a 1-900 psychic line, it's time to pull out the calculator and figure out what the profit is per sale. More important than search volume for this stage is really getting an understanding about the profit per sale and if possible (this may be tricky) trying to understand which items may lead to the sale of other items and what the total value of that sale would be. For example, the sale of a tire may well lead to the sale of tubes or rims, especially if you're running a sale, free shipping for orders over a set dollar value, etc.
Of course, it's likely you won't know for sure what products will lead to multi-item sales unless you have previous experience in the industry, so you may need to go with instinct. If you don't have any of that (or even if you do) you'll want to visit the sites of top competitors, especially those heavily invested in AdWords (and hopefully doing A/B testing) to determine which items they've found tie well together by going through their buying process and seeing which items they recommend in their various sections or as add-ons.
Once you've determined to the best of your ability the profit per item for the brand and product-based phrases, it's time to review your generic phrases. Going through the list and looking for phrases that include the terms “buy”, “online”, and other buy-phrases is the first step. Models, colors and other specifics can also be solid indicators in most instances of someone past casual information gathering and closer to the conversion funnel.
Essentially, we're looking to build groupings within our list of generic phrases versus conversion-oriented phrases.
Prioritizing Your Phrases
Now you know (give-or-take) what you'll make per sale and you know your search volume. While you don't know your site conversion rate (and that will likely differ by phrase type) what's important at this stage isn't getting an exact value for a phrase but rather, relative values. You'll never know in advance exactly how much a phrase will make you; however you will have a way to rank your similar phrases and know which stands to make you more.
To reference the downhill mountain biking example, we'll know whether the phrase “Marzocchi 44 Rlo” or “Marzocchi 44 TST2” will likely be more profitable. The Rlo has a higher search volume but the tst2 has a higher retail value.
Knowing the profit per item and not just the retail price would provide conclusive numbers, though affiliates will be working in percentages similar to the example below. We’ll have to assume a uniform 20 percent markup on both the products to illustrate the method for determining the relative value of one phrase over another. This would give us the following:
Marzocchi 44 Rlo
Retail - $305
Presumed Markup - $61
Estimated US Search Volume – 210
Marzocchi 44 TST2
Retail - $389
Presumed Markup - $77.80
Estimated US Search Volume – 170
If we assume a 1 percent conversion rate on all queries the Marzocchi 44 Rlo would produce a profit of $128.10 and the Marzocchi 44 TST2 a profit of $132.26. The specific conversion rate doesn't matter here – what's important is that we know which product will produce a higher profit considering search volumes and profit per unit. This will allow us to determine the priority of each phrase. When you’re working out which phrases to build links to and which pages to prioritize when optimizing the content, this is the data you’re looking for.
Looking At Competition
So what we now have before us are spreadsheets with the keywords, their search volume, the profit per unit sold and a method of establishing the relative profitability of similar phrases. The last step in the process is to look at the competition levels of each of the phrases to help us prioritize the time frames we'll be dealing with as discussed above.
In the Marzocchi 44 Rlo vs the Marzocchi 44 TST2 example, we're dealing with products of essentially the same competition level – this won't always be the case, so we need a way to prioritize the phrases to attain rankings for the lower hanging fruit first, thus securing some quick revenue but always building to the highest competition generic phrases, products, and brands.
More on that subject next time.
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