Selecting Keywords Today
by John Eberhard

The ways in which keywords are selected has changed a lot over the years. Just in looking back on the articles I have written over the last five years, I was shocked at how much it has changed.

The first thing to do today is to determine how you will be using the keywords. Will it be for pay per click advertising? Will it be for search engine optimization (SEO)? And if for SEO, are you doing SEO for a strictly local business?

SEO Keywords

Let’s say you are selecting keywords for SEO, and first let’s take the scenario that yours is a national business, meaning you have customers all over.

At the beginning of the search cycle, people type in more general keywords, either single words or phrases that describe the whole category of thing they are searching for, such as “MP3 player.” Then after they have done some initial searches and learned a bit about the category, they will then enter more specific phrases, such as “ipod mp3 player.” Then as they are getting ready to buy, they will enter even more specific phrases describing the specific product they want to buy, such as “ipod nano 4GB.” Note that this final, third phase is the time when the person is most likely to BUY. At that point he is usually looking for places where he can buy the product and comparing prices.

Keywords that are from this third phase of the searching cycle, are most descriptive and which tend to be 2-4 words or more are called “long tail” keywords. These keywords are not only usually easier to have your site rank for them, they tend to be the phrases the person types in when he is closest to being ready to buy.

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, people typing them in are not usually at the buying point in the whole search cycle, and because of another factor which I’ll describe next, you won’t usually ever be able to rank well for them.

Competition and Number of Searches

When selecting keywords for SEO, one of, if not the primary consideration, is the number of sites that are competing for that keyword. The other primary consideration is the number of people searching for that keyword. The key is to find keywords that have low competing sites, and high search traffic.

When I am doing keyword research, I compile a spreadsheet with the keywords, and then I put the keywords into a software package I use called Market Samurai. This software finds the number of searches for each keyword, and the number of sites that are competing for that keyword. I used to use Wordtracker and Keyword Discovery, both online services where you pay monthly. One advantage to Market Samurai is that you pay once, and it’s a good program.

Once I have the search and competition data, I export the data into a new spreadsheet. Then I sort the list by the competition data, and put the keywords into groups according to the number of competing sites. The reason for this is that if you have a keyword that has 1 million competing sites, you are just not going to be able to rank well for that keyword – period. At least not for a fairly long period of time.

As mentioned above, the key is to find keywords that have low competing sites, and high search traffic.

When I am sorting through the keywords I try to select from my first group, which has the lowest number of competing sites, but select keywords within that group that have high search traffic. And you have to consider the 3 levels of keyword searching and select keywords that are more likely to be used by people who are closest to the buying part of the sales cycle.

Once you select your keywords, the next job is to write titles and descriptions for each of your pages that use those keywords.

Local SEO

When we are talking specifically about local SEO, we are talking about setting up your site to rank well for local keywords. So what’s a local keyword?

By “local keyword” I mean a keyword that mentions your topic and also includes the name of a city or town in your area. Like “dentist Glendale” or “computer repair Los Angeles” or “pizza Sylmar.”

Local keywords tend to be much easier to start ranking well for. But a caution which I have mentioned before: I see a number of supposed SEO experts selling people on how they will get them to rank on page one of Google for their local oriented keywords. And they can. But the point is, how many people are entering those keywords? If you rank on page one of Google for a keyword that has 2 searches per month, what good does it do? I’ll remove any uncertainty and answer – None!

So getting your site to rank well for local keywords is a great idea. But before you spend any money on such a plan, make sure the person tells you, for each of the keywords, how much search traffic they are getting. That way you’ll know if you are investing in something that is worthwhile.

Keywords for Pay Per Click (PPC)

With pay per click advertising on Google AdWords and MSN Ad Center, the rules for selecting keywords are very different.

With pay per click you want keywords that have as many searches as possible. You don’t care as much how many competing sites there are. The number of people that enter your keywords in pay per click is called the number of impressions, and you want high impressions because that will give you more people clicking on your ads.

So in PPC you DO want to use more general keywords, because they will get you more impressions and more clicks.

But, you have to also consider conversions. In PPC a “conversion” is definied as some who came to your site from your PPC advertising and then responded, either by filling out a form or calling you and becoming a lead, or by buying something if you are selling something directly online.

With Google AdWords and MSN Ad Center, there is something called “conversion code” which you put on a certain page of your site, and that sends a message back to the interface telling it that a conversion has occurred.

It is vital in PPC to set up this conversion code on your site. One of the advantages is that your Google or MSN interface will then show which keywords people typed in, that resulted in a conversion. This is important because although it is OK to use general, one word keywords in PPC, you might find after a month or two that you are getting lots of clicks on those general keywords, but no conversions (remember earlier about keywords and the buying cycle). Since the name of the game with PPC is to get lots of conversions, for as little money as possible, in such a case you might want to pause the general keywords and stick with the ones that got you the conversions.

Good luck with keyword selection.