Starting a new SEO project, or want to check ongoing projects? Use the following approach, which includes a mix of specific keyword research, testing important assumptions, and growing traffic and rankings with link building and copywriting.
Step 1: A Specific Way to do Keyword Research
Good keyword research starts with good market knowledge. Keyword research can even serve as additional market research.
I always start keyword research with a brainstorm session together with my customer. During this session we create a map with every topic and subtopic related to their services. We list a couple of keyword examples for each subtopic.
It's important to get client-facing people involved in this process, because companies tend to think in industry specific terminology that their potential clients would never use as keywords.
Search Volumes (Average Monthly Volume)
Reliable keyword data is scarce and Google only gives you rough estimates from the AdWords Keyword Planner. Search volume estimates and their historic trending provide a good enough starting point for strategic SEO choices. You can always get additional keyword ideas from paid tools (like SEMrush), but Google is the only real data source for search volumes and others can only guess.
Start out by creating a huge list of potentially interesting keywords based on your map. The AdWords Keyword Planner has a "Search for new keyword and ad group ideas" function in which you can enter groups of keywords to receive additional related keyword combinations.
Once added to so-called AdWords plans (even if you don't intend to use them for AdWords), you can get search volume estimates for [exact match] combinations. Various paid tools have similar functionality, but the end result should always be the same: A huge list of >500 keyword combinations with their historic monthly search volumes for the localities your client services. You can use Excel for further processing.
Conversion Rates (Conversion Probability)
Adding estimates for conversion rate and value makes the search volumes a lot more usable for strategic choices. If there is no existing data to base your assumptions on, a guess on a 1 to 5 scale on "how relevant is the keyword to our services" is a good start.
You can always tweak this data once you've had more experience with similar keyword combinations. Having grouped or tagged your keywords during this first stage makes that a lot easier.
Competitiveness (Top 10 Probability)
Competitiveness and the likelihood that you'll reach a top 10 position also makes certain keywords more interesting than others. Again, a guess on a 1 to 5 scale is a good start, but there are paid tools available that do keyword-specific competitive analyses.
The end result is a list of keywords you can order and sort in different ways to help you make various strategic SEO choices. It is, however, a list based on assumptions and the certainty of each of those assumptions should also be taken into account.
Step 2: Testing Important Assumptions
Important keywords from your keyword research should have a high search volume, a high conversion rate/value for that search traffic, and a likely top 10 position within a short timeframe with a reasonable amount of effort.
Conversion rate assumptions are often based on the conversion rates you already have on existing search traffic. If you aren't sure certain keywords are similar enough to existing traffic, using AdWords traffic allows you to test your message and landing page on real searchers.
For a real sale or conversion, you might need too much (in this case paid) traffic, so focusing on KPIs that indicate interest in an earlier stage allows you to get an educated guess before you start investing heavily in SEO traffic.
CTR on your search ad is a great way to test your message. The bounce rate on your landing page shows if a visitor likes your welcome message. And every click toward a potential conversion increases the quality and value of that search traffic.
Assumptions on the likeliness of reaching a top 10 position can also be tested. Competitiveness in five stages can be seen as the chance of reaching a top 10 position, just by creating a dedicated page focused on that keyword.
- Sure hit: Having a specific page will result in a top 10 or even top 5 position.
- Likely top 10: More than 75 percent of the specific pages you create for such keywords will result in a top 10 position.
- Barely top 10: Half the keywords reach top 10 and most others top 20 positions.
- Barely top 20: Half the keywords reach top 20 and most others top 50 positions.
- Extremely hard: A top 10 position is very unlikely. Much link building will be required to even reach top 20 with your dedicated page.
To test these assumptions, you can create a couple of test pages, which should be perfectly focused on a particular keyword combination and linked to from various important pages within the website. Make sure you can't blame anything but the links to your website if you don't reach the predicted position. See this article for some additional advice.
Step 3: Growth Strategy
For keywords in Stage 1 and 2, the ideal strategy would be to just create the required pages or to integrate the keyword combinations in existing pages. The importance (search volume combined with relevance) of a keyword combination determines if that is worth the copywriting effort.
For keywords in Stage 3, it's important to be able to find commonalities between keyword combination barely in the top 10 and the ones left in the top 20. Find themes that allow you to do link building for a larger group of related keyword combinations with a single strategy. The combined importance of those keywords should make that link building worth your while.
Keywords in Stage 4 should only earn your focus when they are part of a smaller related group of interesting keyword combinations that combined allow you to direct your link building effort toward them. Additional research and calculations are often needed to justify a focused link building campaign that might eventually not even result in many top 10 positions, traffic, and conversions.
Keywords in Stage 5 should not receive any focus or your time. The strategies required to reach a top 10 on those within a couple of months are often seen as unnatural and are full of risks and uncertainty.
Only because these top 10 positions are a future goal, you want to know about the interesting keywords in Stage 5. The link building you do for keywords in Stage 3 and 4 also brings you a step closer toward the keywords in Stage 5 within the same theme.
Do Your First SEO Steps Need to Focus on Link Building or Copywriting?
If there are plenty of interesting keywords in stage 1 and 2 left for you to address, start by creating pages for those. Because copywriting often requires other resources than link building, link building can start at the same time. If almost all interesting keywords are currently out of your reach, link building is the first SEO step to undertake.
Can You Earn Back Your SEO Investments?
If you've done a couple of tests that make the outcome of specific types of SEO effort more predictable you can bring every choice back to a simple ROI calculation. Writing unique copy for a page can be earned back with the few keyword combinations that increase in ranking because of it.
Choose keywords that you're able to rank for with your existing links. Link building can be earned back once you have written relevant content that includes important keywords. Link building (opposed to copywriting for a page) always has a broader effect than just the few keyword combinations.
Keep calculating what a top position for certain keywords is worth to you, even when the playing field changes when you've already put in the initial effort. Avoid an arms race!