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Back to SEO Basics With Keyword Research

December 1, 2010

I was speaking with a client the other day who commented on my home page, which talks about my tried-and-true SEO process. "Has your process changed much over time?" the client asked.

I stopped to think for a moment, and realized that while there have been plenty of Photo Credit: Valerie Everettincremental changes to my SEO process at any given point in time, the fundamentals have mostly remained the same. While Google likes to keep throwing curve balls at SEOs, their algorithm changes and new products and services don't impact most well-developed websites.

It bothers me no end when I go to search marketing conferences to find perhaps 3 sessions that focus on SEO fundamentals, while 100 others focus on the superfluous SEO techniques du jour that may or may not bring more targeted visitors to your website. Don't get me wrong -- those more "advanced" sessions can provide awesome nuggets of information for those who already have their fundamentals in place. Yet sitting in on site clinic review sessions often reveals that most of the attendees' websites have a long way to go with even the most basic SEO strategies.

With this in mind, today's article focuses on your first line of SEO defense -- keyword research. Optimizing for the wrong keywords -- either those that are not truly relevant to what your business offers or those that aren't being used by searchers -- will have the dire consequence of making you think that SEO is mythical marketing magic that doesn't work.

To make it easier for you to follow, I've broken down my keyword research process into the following 7 steps:

1. Brainstorm
2. Categorize
3. Research
4. Compile
5. Winnow
6. Determine Competitiveness
7. Choose

Brainstorm Keyword Phrases

Think about the various ways in which someone seeking your website's product, service or information might type into Google. What phrases would they use if they were looking to buy what you offer? Jot down as many of these as you can think of. Ideally, you'll want to look at every page of your website, because they usually have different focuses.

While your own ideas are important regarding what phrases people might use, you should also ask others to do the same thing. Find colleagues, family, friends and anyone else who might help. If you can run a small focus group consisting of people in your target market – that's all the better!

Categorize Your Keywords

Using your brainstormed keywords, start to separate them into categories. I like to use an Excel spreadsheet with multiple worksheets for this. So, for instance, if you sell consumer electronics, you'd have multiple categories such as televisions, radios, computers, with specific keyword phrases listed under each category. For something as broad as this, you'd likely have multiple subcategories as well, such as plasma TVs, large-screen TVs, etc.

Research Your Phrases

Head to Google's keyword suggestion tool and paste in your brainstormed keyword phrases, one category at a time. Using our consumer electronics example, you might plug in your brainstormed plasma TV keywords to start. Note: Be sure you're logged into your Google account when using the tool or it won't provide you with all the relevant keywords available.

After you submit your first set of brainstormed keywords through the tool, change the match preference from "broad match" to "exact match" or your data will essentially be useless. (You'll see the keywords in square brackets if you've set it up correctly for exact match.) Take a quick look at the phrases that the tool spits out to make sure they're fairly relevant, and if so, export them to a comma-separated values file (.csv).

Repeat this process for each of your categories and subcategories.

Compile Your Keyword Lists

Open each of your saved .csv files full of researched keywords, and paste them into the appropriate Excel worksheet, according to the category or subcategory in which they belong. At this point, you shouldn't be too concerned with what the keyword phrases are or any of the numbers associated with them -- you just want to compile your lists for use later. Having them all in one Excel workbook will make things a lot easier as you continue with the keyword research process.

Winnow Out Irrelevant Phrases

While Google's keyword research tool gives you tons of relevant and related keywords to the brainstormed ones you originally entered, it also adds a lot of unrelated junk phrases. Now's the time to remove them. There's no easy way other than using your own brain to determine what's related and what's not. You can use Excel's sorting and filtering tools, however, to search for specific words that you see a lot which you know are unrelated, and then remove them in one fell swoop. In the end, you should be left with lots of relevant keyword phrases for every category and subcategory of your website.

Determine the Competitiveness

The idea here is to learn which keyword phrases are within your reach. This simply means that they are phrases people use at Google, but many of your competitors may not have thought to optimize for them yet. Unfortunately, determining keyword competitiveness has proven to be one of the trickiest aspects of the keyword research process. It's become even more difficult over the past year because Google doesn't seem to want us to be able to do this easily. While their keyword research tool has a column for "competition," it's based on paid search, not natural search, and therefore I find it to be not very helpful in deciding the true competitiveness of any keyword phrase.

Using my method, I try to figure out how many web pages are using the keyword phrases in their title tag. My reasoning is: Because title tags are given so much weight by Google, any page that is using the phrase in their title tag is at least rudimentarily optimized for the phrase, and is therefore one of those that you're competing against.

To do this, you can go to Google and type into the search box:
Allintitle: "your keyword phrase here"
...and see how many pages used the phrase in their title tags. One problem: While this works if you use it sparingly, as soon as you start doing a few allintitle searches in a row, our lovely friend Google will block you from continuing. (Have I told you lately how much Google dislikes SEOs?)

The only workaround I've found so far is to use Google's Advanced Search page and search from there. It's time consuming, no doubt, but the information can be valuable. Due to the difficulties with this process, however, these days I save it for only those keyword phrases that I feel are highly relevant to the website I'm optimizing.

You may ask, "What number of pages using the phrase in their title tag is a good or bad amount?" All I can tell you is -- it depends. You'll have to use your own judgment here based on your skills as an SEO and the market that you're competing in, as well as your overall marketing budget.

Choose the Phrases for Which You Will Optimize

When trying to decide which keyword phrases to optimize your pages for, keep in mind that it's not an exact science. The main criterion should always be relevancy. There's no sense in optimizing for keyword phrases that are too general and untargeted that also have millions of other pages already targeting them. You'll simply be wasting precious time that you could spend optimizing for the keyword phrases that completely and accurately describe what your site has to offer.

If a phrase is highly relevant to what you offer on your site, you should choose it, regardless of how many other pages are also using it. Just remember that if millions of other sites are optimized for your exact keywords, you're going to have your work cut out for you. In which case, you will have to figure out why Google should show your page rather than your competitors' pages, and make it so. If you're going to be throwing lots of marketing dollars at your website, you can likely shoot for more competitive keywords than if you're not doing any other marketing besides SEO.

Once you've completed all the keyword research steps above, you should end up with categorized lists of keyword phrases that you can then use to optimize each page of your website. Your next step will be to make a map of your site and choose 3 to 5 phrases that relate to each page, then work them in accordingly, based on sound SEO principles.

I hope this information provides you with a good start for creating your own tried-and-true SEO process!


Jill Whalen is the CEO of High Rankings, an SEO Services Company in the Boston, MA area since 1995. Follow her on Twitter @JillWhalenJill Whalen

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Post Comment

 Zachary said:
Pretty basic, common sense stuff here... I like it!
 Rob Willox said:
Agree that the first action in any SEO project is finding the keywords that your or your client's potential customer use when they search.

Too often a client uses or lists the keywords and phrases they would like to rank for and they don't necessarily match those being searched. And, if some are, they are most likely to be generic terms with high competition which it will be difficult to compete with for a new site.

As far as finding the best keywords and long tail phrases is concerned which give the opportunty of beating some of the competition the process you outline works but is time consuming and involves a good bit of number crunching.

I use and would suggest to any serious keyword researcher, as an investment, to look at Market Samuria as it provides all the information you suggest is needed eg competing pages, globally and locally, key phrase in title, inurl, in headings and more. It's competition module enables you to compare your own site/page with your top 10 ranked competition with analysis of contributing ranking factors including backlinks to both site and selected ranking pages.

The time it saves is immeasurable and the quality of the data first-class. You might have guessed that I am a convert and have been since first installing it 6 months ago.
 JadedTLC said:
I have a question: If you have multiple writers and cannot give access to your adwords account, is there a way to login to google adwords tool with an account that does not have adwords? This question feels very confusing. Let me know if I need to clarify.
 Robert said:
I'd be interested to hear Jill's take on Market Samurai...
 Jill Whalen said:
JadedTLC, I believe you can log into any Google account, doesn't have to have Adwords.
 Judd Exley said:
I've been preaching that the beginning needs to start with keyword research (competition research really) for YEARS.

So nice to see such a good article on it. Cheers for that Jill!
 Mike Seddon said:

There's a nice feature in the keyword tool that lets you filter out keywords that are irrelevant. It's a bit like using negative keywords. That's wherI do a lot of my "Winnowing Out Irrelevant Phrases".

Like you I then use Excel to prune the list even more.

Also there is a step you missed in the above. It's called "put the kettle on!". Keyword research needs caffiene :)

Nice article.
 Steve Malone said:
Hi Jill,
Maybe its just me but when I type in Allintitle: "keyphrase" I just get a bunch of results with allintitle in the description. Has this feature been quietly withdrawn?
 Toad said:
Good to see the structural approach in finding the appropriate keyword for any business..
very basic but in an organized manner..
categorization is the most important to me...
nice work...
 Alex Miranda said:
Personally I think Marketing Samurai is a major rip off. They will find errors that really do not exist. Jill Whalen hit it on the nail. Yes it may be time consuming and number crunching, but a true SEO professional will skip snake oil applications such as Marketing Samurai ans stick to old fashioned research which in the end will give you outstanding results. I know my clients are extremely pleased with my results and I use the same strategy as Jill.
 spidersilk said:
I haven't found Google's keyword tool to be very helpful at all. It seems that just being logged into your Google account is enough - you have to specifically have an Adwords account for the site you're searching for, or else it gives you next to nothing (except a message scolding you for not having an AdSense account).
 Nathan O'Leary said:
Hi Jill,

When you are determining the competitiveness, do you ever use any tools such as the SEOmoz keyword difficulty tool? I've found it very accurate to determine how hard it might be to rank for the keyword.
 Jill Whalen said:
@Nathan, no I haven't tried that one yet. Do you know what it uses to decide difficulty? I don't always agree with the SEOmoz methods, so I'm hesitant!
 Resell Rights said:
Sticking with the bottom line basics will always ensure positive long term results in the SERPs. I too, like Rob Willox mentioned above, have found that Market Samurai is a huge time saver. For anyone performing keyword research and competition analysis on a regular basis should look into investing in Market Samurai.

Excellent article Jill. I look forward to hearing you chime in on Market Samurai.
 Ken Jansen said:
Hi Jill,

Thank you for the great article. Two questions, First I was wondering do you have a suggested keyword research tool for the SEO enthusiast that speeds up the process and actually works. I see a lot of them touted, but fear they might be a bit scammy - too good to be true. Second, what about SEOMOZ methods are you not a fan of? Now that I ask this, I realize this might not be the place you would want talk about it. hmm...

Thank you again.
 Jill Whalen said:
@Ken, I mainly just use the Google Adwords KWR tool, as I stated.

Regarding SEOMoz, much of what I read over there often seems to me to mix up cause and effect, causing people to use SEO techniques that sound good in theory, but have no practical use.

That said, I don't read a whole lot over there, and perhaps things have changed.
 Ken Jansen said:
Thanks Jill. I appreciate the quick reply. :)

Mixing up cause and effect would be a big deal. OK thank you.

 Sam Beamond said:
Jill, I see you don't mention anything about search volume. I tend to try and pick RELEVANT keywords that show the lowest competition yet have the highest search volume and then optimize for those. Whats your take on search volume?
 Jill Whalen said:
@Sam, search volume is important more as a relative number. Such and such keyword phrase gets twice as many as another, etc.

But yeah, it's part of the choosing keywords aspect. You don't want to choose keywords nobody is searching for. On the other hand, choosing only those that are highly sought after is likely not going to be a good idea for most sites.
 MArk Adkinson said:
From what as a beginner in this business have been able to discern aparently one nneeds to get a balance between relavancy and search volume, I did it and so far am number 1 in searches for over 80% of my keywords that were certainly well researched. It may also help that 80% of my competitors closed down due to the current economical state of affairs.
 J. Garland Thurman said:
Jill I pretty much knew the above, but the layout of your ideas above was extremely helpful to me and further cemented the thoughts in my own mind. Haven't seen such a good and logical layout on keywords anywhere else. Thank you very much.
 Barbara said:
Thank you for a very organized and helpful article. While I appreciate learning a step-by-step method for gathering, organizing, and listing possible keywords, I'd very much appreciate guidance from an expert in *how to decide which ones to keep* -- like perhaps examples or case studies to illustrated how other small, medium, or large businesses have done it. Very helpful article, though. Thank you.
 Jill Whalen said:
Barbara, if you watch my SEO Course at I go over that. I think you you can watch all the videos for as low as $25.