SEO Basics: Effective Iterative Keyword Research

The value of any SEO effort lies in the keywords you choose. It’s really that simple — you can’t overestimate the importance of strong keyword research.

Although keyword research is also important for search engine optimization (SEO), testing can happen more rapidly in PPC advertising, and changes can be made with immediate results. For SEO, you have to stick with the keywords you chose for at least long enough to get that page indexed and help develop links that utilize the keyword in the anchor text to that page.

Keyword research should be an iterative process that is never solely dictated by the client or by the agency/SEM firm providing the consultation. This week, we’ll go over some of the keyword research basics, and hopefully some of our readers will share some additional tricks and tactics in the SEW Forums thread, “Back to the Basics 2008: Keyword Research.”

Who’s On First?

The keyword research process should be clearly defined and not resemble an Abbott and Costello routine. Additionally, no matter how much an organization trusts an agency or consulting partner, the keyword list should be developed iteratively. There should be no feeling that “this is the final list” until everyone is happy with the keywords chosen.

Above all, the keywords should be relevant to the products or services represented on the Web site being optimized. Keywords, which include single- and multiple-word phrases, should also be assigned to pages that are most relevant (more on this in a future column).

There may be a problem if your SEM partner insists on using only the keywords that they have chosen for optimization on your site. Many scammers will pick non-competitive keywords for a client that they’re sure will get rankings, and then rely on ranking reports to prove results and demonstrate SEO success. Make sure that keywords chosen are actually popular, and will bring you qualified traffic. A dozen top-five listings for keywords nobody searches for aren’t worth squat for bringing in organic traffic.

One Right Way

Thorough research that uses a number of data points and includes the client (who ultimately is the most knowledgeable about their products or services) is one of the “right” ways to do keyword research.

The chosen keywords must satisfy two major criteria: relevancy and popularity. Relevant keywords include those that are both brand- and product-related. Popularity is determined by using a set of proprietary tools. Our SEO strategists select keywords using a combination of the following processes (or all of them, when possible):

  1. Research of the client and competitor sites. Beyond looking just for the meta keywords tab, keep a close eye on phrases being used in page titles, header tags, and alt attributes.
  2. Information gathering sessions with the client. If we’re designing or redesigning a Web site, the creative and marketing teams have often discussed and documented much of the desired product or service focus.
  3. Careful review of analytics data. Fortunately, we deal with many larger clients that are already using “industrial strength” analytics systems, such as WebTrends, Omniture, or Visual Sciences (now owned by Omniture). These systems, assuming they have been properly configured, will provide granular keyword information, including conversion data if applicable.
  4. Analysis of paid search impression and conversion volume data. This is the most valuable information you can get for predicting volume. If a client has been running a large-budget campaign, get that impression data. However one word to the wise: don’t confuse “broad match” impressions with exact match, which are more valuable in this case.
  5. The use of keyword research tools such as Trellian’s Keyword Discovery (our top choice), Wordtracker, and WordZe (both used for verification by some strategists on our team).
  6. Analysis of inbound link anchor text to client and competitor sites.
  7. Evaluation of Forrester research data around the industry or product lines.
  8. Evaluation of social sites. Looking for competitor or industry pages within social communities such as MySpace, Facebook, or LinkedIn can yield additional keywords through the analysis of consumer interaction with these portals.
  9. Evaluation of trending tools, e.g., Google Trends, Quantcast, and now likely Google’s new Ad Planner. Hitwise is helpful if the client has a seat license, as well as Nielsen and comScore marketer data. These tools all provide additional insight into the demographics and Web habits of target demographics. Truly enterprise level keyword researchers will take the time to understand these behaviors in order to find other sites and keywords that may be relevant by one or two degrees of separation.
  10. Use of the human brain. This is the most important tool in keyword research, and this is where the client and the partner can work together to see from both inside and outside of the box.

Once a good starter list is established, use as many of the above tools as possible when you’re ready to assign keywords to pages, which is an entire process on its own. Anyone looking for SEO help should ensure that people are using at least some of the above methods to choose keywords. Otherwise, you may end up with a lot of number one rankings and no traffic to show for it.

Frank Watson Fires Back

It’s funny how this area of our industry seems to have become so established. Given how important it is, there’s a need to constantly be adjusting how and what we gather. Over the past five or six years, there has been a noted change in the number of keywords people use on average when searching, yet many people still concentrate on one- and two-word phrases.

What many forget is that SEO and PPC are different. Paid search in most cases is broad matched, so the expanded terms are covered. But in the optimization space, each combination needs to be worked.

Great topic, Chris. We need to keep focused on this integral part of our industry. While many of our efforts spill over to longer terms, keeping it in mind at the start is something that should be part of the established method.

Share your keyword research tricks and tactics in the SEW Forums thread, “Back to the Basics 2008: Keyword Research.”

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