SEO Keyword Optimization and Research Guide

In a time when Google was not as smart as it is now, keyword stuffing helped almost unreadable websites with terrible content rise to the top of search engine rankings. Now that search engines have become more advanced, they are able to block and penalize websites that over-optimize their keywords.

With the importance of keywords as a direct factor in determining website rank moved down the priority list for Google, is keyword optimization still a good SEO strategy?

Keywords Explained

Words, phrases, and even full sentences can be considered keywords. Looking at it from the side of a potential visitor looking for an answer, it would be the search term that they enter into a search engine. A webmaster, on the other side, tries to tailor their site content to reflect those terms.

Someone searching for “online auto mechanic training,” for instance, hopes to find a website that offers exactly that. If a website has a lot of content for “auto mechanic training” but does not specify that they provide it online, they may have just lost out on a potential customer. If Google does not understand everything about your site, they cannot recommend you as a destination.

Here are the top 5 organic search results for “online auto mechanic training”

Google search results for the keywords "online auto mechanic training"

While these are the first 5 organic search results for “auto mechanic training”

Google search results for the keywords "auto mechanic training"

As you can see, one slight difference in keywords changes what is displayed on the search engine results page (SERP) dramatically, from national online training programs to local classes. Discovering what your potential customers are looking for through keyword research is a very important part of both a solid SEO campaign and should also be a part of your content plan.

Types of Keywords

SEO professionals have come up with a lot of terms to explain different types of keywords. The way people use search has changed over the years, so new keyword types pop up all the time. This is not an exhaustive list, but some of the highlights that you should consider in your research.

Short and Long Tail Keywords

Also known as “head” keywords, a short tail keyword is a general search query that consists of one to two words. Using our example above, a short tail search would be more along the lines of “mechanic training,” while the original is considered a long-tail keyword.

The drawback of short-tail keywords for the searcher is that the results are going to be extremely general unless Google is able to infer their intent from other data they keep on-hand. For SEO, a general keyword may be difficult to rank for, since there will be more players fighting for that one big term. 

Long-tail keywords, ranging from 3 words to full sentences, have the benefit of the user receiving very specific and targeted answers in the SERPs. Because the combination of so many words can be harder to tailor with all their different permutations, long-tail keywords are easier to rank for when they directly apply to your product or business.

Short tail queries will generate the most results, but in many cases, will not create as many conversions. Long-tail keywords are the opposite, there will not be as many retrieved records in SERPs, but the customers who do click through are more likely to purchase the item or service they were searching for since it is so targeted.

Branded Keywords

Keywords with a company or website name in them are called branded keywords. These are normally the easiest keywords to rank for, since your business should have a unique name. If another company in your industry is ranking for your branded keywords, this is something that should be immediately addressed, through content audits on your site as well as checking the competitor website for stolen content.

In keyword and SERP tracking, branded keywords are not ignored, but they are given a much lower priority than non-branded keywords. Customers who want to find your specific company will ask for you by name, but you want to attract new customers using search queries to ask about a business you provide instead of just your business name.

Local Search Keywords

If your company has a physical location, or multiple physical locations, you will want to tailor your website to reflect that. Customers in your area will want to find locations close to them, and without focusing keywords towards the location of your business, you may be missing out on that.

Here are the top 5 organic search results for “san diego auto mechanic training.”

Google search results for "san diego auto mechanic training"

You may notice that the results are mostly the same as the previous search results, but in a slightly different order. Google is able to tell in most instances where a search is coming from, and I’m obviously searching from San Diego. When changed to a location-specific search term, the order of the search results changes to better identify pages that have the words “San Diego” in them, either in their title, content, or URL.

Primary and Related Keywords

Primary keywords are your most important keywords, either for the entire website or for specific pages. In planning your keywords from the top down, start with primary keywords, and then, either by brainstorming or using a keyword tool, it is easy to find secondary related keywords that you can focus on as well.

Google Keyword Planner is a great tool to find related keywords by starting with the primary. You can choose to not include branded keywords, and even use a domain name as a filter to only include services Google knows that you offer.

Sample of how to use Google Keyword Planner

The data that we are interested in are the keyword suggestions, average monthly searches, and level of competition.

Sample data of keyword suggestions

You can use Google’s suggestions to add different keywords and broaden your original search. This can give you a huge number of relevant keywords that actual Google users are searching for, important information that will help in all facets of your SEO plans.

Since this tool is designed for Google Ads, a pay-per-click (PPC) service, it is not perfect for SEO keyword research, but it is free. Paid tools will generally provide more information and options, and many of the other free services will only give you limited data unless you purchase one of their “Pro” plans. 

Other Tools for Keyword Research

  • KWFinder – Excellent paid service that combines SERP data with keyword suggestions.
  • Keyword Sheeter – Free service that uses Google’s autocomplete to generate lists of related keywords. Paid options only add the same data that you can get for free in the Google Keyword Planner.
  • Keywordtool.io – Similar to Keyword Sheeter, but offers searches in YouTube, Bing, Amazon, eBay, and more.
  • Keywords Everywhere – Paid browser add-on for Chrome and Firefox.

Using Keywords for Effective SEO

There are many places on your website to add keywords, but the most important thing to keep in mind is that their use should occur as it would in everyday speech. Search engines have evolved to the point where grammatically incorrect sentences that are only focused around keywords will not be counted, and that page (or entire website) may be penalized.

Places to Use Keywords

  • URLs
  • Main content, with primary keywords above the fold
  • Title tag
  • Meta description
  • Hyperlinks to related pages
  • Filenames
  • Image alt tags
  • Video transcripts
  • Structured Data like Schema

When keywords are used within the content of your website, be sure not to over-optimize for them. This called keyword stuffing and can trigger a penalty. Mix up related keywords with the primary, and expand your content based around those related keywords.

Keywords in meta descriptions will not affect your ranking for those terms in Google. The description should be intended for the person searching to decide on clicking your site rather than the others around it. In addition to attracting a new visitor, the number of times your search result is clicked (CTR) is another ranking factor.

When using keywords in a hyperlink pointing to an internal page, it is important to note that the link, and the page itself, should be targeted toward the same primary keyword as the page the link is placed on. This can lead to keyword cannibalization, where different pages on the site are optimized for the same phrases, effectively cancelling each other out.

Context in the text next to and around internal hyperlinks is also very important. This helps Google specify if the intent of the linked page matches with the intent of the searcher. Think of it as optimizing a different page to help boost the rankings of the page it is pointing to.

Wrapping Up

The main thing to keep in mind is that keywords that your website is optimized for are actually going to be used by people trying to find your services. Keyword research is important in this regard, giving you the necessary data to help guide your focus.

Optimizing keywords is an ongoing process. Once you complete your first optimization project, sit back and track results for a while before playing with too many different variables. By the time you will start to see results, it will probably be time to optimize even further.

Zach Good
 

Zach Good is the Technical Director of 201 Creative, LLC. He specializes in search engine optimization including technical, internal, and local SEO.

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