by John Eberhard

Keyword research is a vital part of search engine optimization, and is the first step of SEO.

The overall concept for keyword research is that you want to find keywords that have a good amount of traffic (i.e. people are searching on search engines for those keywords) but do not have a ton of competition.

With SEO, the amount of competition is key, because if you try to rank for a keyword that has very high amounts of sites competing for it, you just won’t be able to rank, period. So you have to find and select keywords that have good traffic and not high competition. And sometimes you might have to abandon some keywords that you thought were “the ones” for your market. I note that this is very hard for clients sometimes.

Most people who I talk to who are not trained in these facts tend to think that they want to target keywords that describe the overall category, usually single word keywords, like “golf,” “consulting,” “dentist,” “chiropractor,” “marketing,” “computers,” etc. Although these single word keywords tend to have lots of searches, because of competition, usually in the millions, you won’t usually ever be able to rank well for them.

Compiling Your List

Here is how to compile your list.

1. Make up a list of at least 20-30 potential keywords, by trying to think of what phrases people would type in to find your product or service. Put these phrases into a spreadsheet, one keyword per row.

2. Go to one or two competitor websites. Select View | Source and see if they have a group of keywords in the HTML code near the top (not everyone does but many will). Select any that are appropriate for your business and add them to your list.

3. Use the Google AdWords Keyword Tool and paste your list of keywords into the tool. It will then come up with additional suggestions, many of which are very good. Paste them into your spreadsheet, but go through the list carefully and delete any that are not appropriate for your business.

You should now have a pretty good sized list, anywhere from 100 to 300 keywords.

Researching the Keywords

Now we have to find out the amount of traffic and the number of competing sites for each keyword. There are several good tools to do this, none of which are free. Google’s keyword tool shows traffic and then gives you a percentage which supposedly gives you an idea of the number of competing sites, but I don’t find this very helpful.

Over the years I have used a number of tools for this research, including Wordtracker, which is a paid monthly online service ($45 per month I think) and Keyword Discovery ($75 per month). I found Wordtracker to be kludgy and confusing although some people swear by it. Keyword Discovery is easier to use but more expensive.

Then a couple years ago I discovered Market Samurai, a desktop based software product that you only have to buy once. I tested it, then bought it and have been using it ever since. This product also has some other very useful features, including determining how high you rank on Google, Yahoo and MSN for your entire list of keywords, which is a report I run monthly for some of my clients.

Through Market Samurai you can find out how many people are searching for each keyword, and the number of competing sites.

I sort the list according to the number of competing sites, from low to high. I then go through the list and highlight the ones that have more than a certain amount of traffic.

Next I take the highlighted ones and place them into several groups, based on how many competing sites they have. This gives us groups that are graded according to desirability for use in search engine optimization. I won’t give you my number criteria because I can’t give away all my secrets.

Use of Your Keywords

Now that you have your list of keywords that are most desirable and useful for SEO purposes, what do you do with them?

1. On-Page Optimization: This term refers to putting the keywords into appropriate places on the pages of your web site. This includes meta-titles and descriptions. These are the titles and descriptions that appear on Google (title underlined in blue) when the listing for your page comes up. You can also create a meta keyword block, though some people argue that this is not relevant any more. You can also put the keywords into your headlines on the page, using the H1 and H2 tags, and you can put them into the “alt tags,” which you see when you mouse over an image on a page.

2. Off-Page Optimization: Off-page optimization refers to creating links to your site from other sites on the web. Google says that the number of links to your site is the most important criteria in how high they will rank your site. So the trick is to build up lots of links to your site. The most valuable link, so say some SEO gurus, is an “anchor text” link, which means a keyword of some kind that is linked to your site. Now that you have a list of the best keywords to use, you should use those keywords in your blog posts, press releases and articles, and link them to your site when you can. All of these actions are geared towards getting your site to rank well for those keywords and raise them up onto the first page of search results for those keywords. That gets you traffic from search engines.

3. Pay Per Click Advertising: For pay per click advertising (PPC), you want to select keywords with high traffic. But here you are not really concerned with how much competition there is for a keyword. And with PPC you want to choose both multiple word keywords and more general keywords. PPC is a different animal and if you only choose long tail keywords (multiple word, more specific keywords) you will probably not get enough traffic to make it worth your while. There is a lot to know about PPC and I’ve covered that in other articles and will continue to write more in the future.

Good luck with your keyword finding efforts.