The fate of an SEO campaign is sealed by the keywords it selects. No matter how adeptly a company executes the many complex tasks of on-site and off-site optimization, if it chases the wrong keywords, the likely outcome is failure: low organic traffic, unqualified organic traffic, minimal sales lead conversions, and minimal e-commerce revenue generation. A strong keyword-selection process covering these five factors will help you make the right choices and put your SEO campaign on the right track.
Fundamentally, the purpose of SEO is to put your company in front of people who are looking for the things you sell, but don’t know who you are. Your target audience, then, is people who intend to make a purchase, either immediately or down the road.
However, other intentions come into play when search engine users enter queries for keywords relevant to your products and services. For example, a search for “packaging tape” could be a person trying to find a supplier of sealing tape, a student doing a research paper, or a person looking for a training podcast.
By considering user intent, you can narrow your keyword selection to phrases that would be used by someone interested in making a purchase. In this example, phrases with a higher degree of buying intent include:
- “packaging tape supplier”
- “packaging tape products”
- “packaging tape in stock”
Without considering intent, a company may target keywords that attract non-qualified traffic — students, people interested in training, or people searching for something else entirely. For example, “lens cleaning” could be used for searches relating to contact lenses, eyeglasses or cameras. To maximize conversions, intent must be high on your list of keyword attributes.
Google Search Volume
A big hazard in SEO is focusing on “ego” keywords; i.e. getting the No. 1 position on a keyword, a business owner or executive is fond of, rather than a keyword that produces traffic and conversions. Focusing on ego keywords squanders resources, and can be avoided by placing proper emphasis on Google search volume when selecting targets.
This is not to say a company should only target high-volume keywords; in fact, doing so could be a huge mistake if those keywords fail regarding the other four factors being discussed here. There is a minimum threshold, though. A keyword with an average monthly volume, of say, 50, is too low for targeting in almost any circumstances. Yet even here, there are exceptions. For example, if you sell exotic cars, you’d probably want to be visible on Google for Bugatti Veyron keywords with search volumes below 10. With a retail value of more than $2 million, one sale would pay for a year of SEO and then some.
The most important SEO issue Google search volume addresses is budget setting. If you think about SEO in terms of optimization cost per keyword, you will see that no budget can support an unlimited number of target keywords: there are only so many keywords a company can afford to support with dedicated website pages, on-site blog posts and off-site content.
There is a lot to be said for going after “longtail” keywords as well as popular ones; but targeting 10,000 longtail terms on a budget that can realistically support 1,000 will lead to campaigns that are a mile wide and an inch deep — in other words, highly ineffective.
Current Ranking Position
Unless you are starting your SEO campaign from ground zero, your company has keyword turf to protect as well as keyword turf to go after. A solid keyword strategy considers both.
If you are already ranking in the top three to five positions for a strategically important keyword (keep in mind absolute rankings are a thing of the past), you will want to maintain your position at minimum, and if possible, move up. Having extremely high visibility on Google for standard search, the Local Pack, and other segmented search displays translates into traffic — and lots of it. You get far more bang for your SEO buck making a strong position stronger for one keyword than focusing on, say, moving up from page 25 to page 20 on 100 lesser keywords.
Also, if you fail to protect your ground on keywords for which you are performing well, smart competitors will come after you. SEO failure is more than just losing traffic: it can mean losing sales leads and revenue to direct competitors. Think in those terms and your keyword strategy will stay on the right path.
Your keyword research will also identify certain keywords which have very high value, and for which you are currently ranking in a position close enough to the top to wage an all-out assault. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll revert to a somewhat outdated way to think about this, but still essentially true: You’re much better off moving from page 3 to page 1 for a keyword than moving from page 4 to page 3. Keywords where you are in the former position are likely to become the centerpieces of your campaign, because that’s where you can move the dial the most and get the biggest payoff.
Competitiveness of the Keyword
Despite everything I just said, some SEO battles are not worth fighting. For instance, suppose you are in the No. 3 spot for a super-juicy keyword. It would be tempting, and in many cases advisable, to target that keyword with everything you’ve got. However, suppose further that your annual campaign budget is $10,000, and the competitors ahead of you have budgets of $100,000. It becomes a bit like suing the U.S. government — you’re going to run out of money before it does, no matter how well you execute your legal strategy.
In situations like these, it is better to wage an indirect assault by targeting a large number of keywords that are still valuable, but not as competitive as the best of the best. It is often said that SEO is a long-term Internet marketing strategy, and it is never more accurate than when facing large competitors with fat wallets. Though keep in mind that with a sustained strategy pursuing second-tier keywords, you should see sustained improvement in leads and e-commerce revenue. With positive ROI from your SEO campaign, you will be able to budget for the top keywords, .
Quick Win Keywords
Sustaining a long-term SEO campaign does not mean you can’t make cash quickly here and there. A solid keyword strategy not only looks for long-term value in keywords, it looks for keywords with the potential to pay off immediately. Keywords with quick-win potential include:
- Keywords where you can move from, say, page 5 to page 1 with little effort.
- Keywords for new products, services and industry terms where even large competitors have not had time to establish dominance.
- Keywords for products and services where a major competitor(s) has dropped out or re-organized under a new name and/or domain.
- Images that can be optimized to attract lots of relevant traffic.
As you can see, to be opportunistic in this way, your keyword research must be ongoing, not a one-off exercise. In particular, you can never take your eye off the competition. What today seems like an impossible keyword to go after could become priority No. 1 tomorrow. Also, be sure to watch for competitors on the way up who may be targeting you for some quick wins!
Measure to Manage SEO
In the last few years, Google has made it difficult to strategize and evaluate SEO campaigns. Google no longer shares organic keyword data with webmasters, no longer has absolute rankings, and no longer has a single space on the page where organic search results reside.
Because things are at the same time more complex and more vague, SEO campaigns must rely on accurate tracking and analysis more than ever to continuously improve results.
To amplify on what I mentioned a moment ago, keyword research must be viewed as an ongoing component of the SEO campaign. To be frank, a certain amount of guesswork and a good number of assumptions will go into the initial keyword selection: What constitutes buying intent? What is an affordable number of keywords to target? Where do we rank? Where can we win quickly? And other questions are not easily pinned down in the absence of detailed, reliable data.
It is, however, possible to track organic search traffic and its sources. It is also possible to track conversions — e.g., form submissions and phone calls — back to their source when proper lead tracking setup exists. Finally, it is possible to monitor keyword position (although not 100 percent accurately) to observe ranking trends.
All of these data points enable companies to refine SEO keyword targeting. When coupled with staying tuned in to what the competition is doing, campaigns can be measured and managed, and are capable of producing steady ROI improvement.