Keyword research is about finding the right keywords to target with your SEO efforts. But how do you know which keywords are feasible to rank for?
The typical client usually wants – and often expects – nothing less than top rankings for big, generic keywords. But we all know that for most client sites, with the budgets and timescales we’re given, we can’t even begin to touch those keywords.
Instead it often makes far more sense to target less popular long tail keywords where the query space is less competitive. Yet we don’t want to do our clients a disservice by getting them to rank for keywords that nobody searches for.
When it comes to targeting the best keywords, the right balance needs to be struck between search volume (and thus competitiveness) and ranking feasibility. Here are some tips on how to do that.
I’ll assume you’ve done your basic keyword research and got a nice list of juicy keywords that are relevant to your client’s business. Now you just need to find the ones you’ll be focusing your SEO efforts on.
Start with the client site
First of all you need to know what you’re working with. Start by doing an SEO audit of the client site, both the on-site SEO aspects and the site’s link profile. This will give you a good idea of the foundation of your SEO efforts, and will help you determine which keywords are feasible to rank that site for. A site with horrendous on-site optimisation and a weak link profile won’t easily rank for top keywords.
I recommend using Alan Bleiweiss’s SEO audit approach, or something like an expanded version of Danny Dover’s 15-minute SEO audit. Whatever works for you, as long as you get the information you need in a quick and efficient way.
Look at the SERPs
Next up, start throwing some of the keywords you gathered in your keyword research in to Google and see what comes up. This will show you what tactics you might need to employ. Do the SERPs have a lot of universal elements such as videos, news, and images? Is it a local SERP with lots of local business listings? if so, how does it look when you search from a different location?
At this stage you could also use a plugin like SEO Book’s SEO for Firefox. This’ll allow you to get all kinds of information about the sites appearing on those SERPs, such as their TBPR, Alexa rank, backlinks, domain age, and much more.
Some of this info is pretty useless in isolation, but when looked at in aggregate you can often get a good idea of how much SEO work those sites have been exposed to. You can export this in to a CSV file and compare the metrics of these sites to those of your client site.
Analyse your key competitors
Often you’ll find that the same sites show up in the SERPs for many of your client’s preferred keywords. These are your key competitors. You’ll need to find out why they rank as well as they do, and how you can beat them at it.
I usually do a quick SEO audit of the top competitor sites – no more than 15-20 minutes each – to get a good idea of what we’re dealing with. How have they implemented the target keyword on their site? Is it their homepage that ranks for multiple keywords or do they have optimised landing pages for each? Is their site architecture well designed and their code properly structured? Also be sure to take a look at their sitemap and robots.txt file.
I also pay close attention to their content strategy. Do they have a blog? Do they publish videos? Are they active on social media sites?
And lastly it’s a good idea to analyse their link profile. Open Site Explorer is a good tool for this, as it’ll give you some useful information like the anchor texts that are most often used to link to these sites. This can tell you if a site’s ranking is very heavily dependent on keyword-rich anchor texts, or if it’s a brand-based SERP.
Abandon all science
At this stage you’ll have a pretty good picture of what you’re up against. You’ll know who your client’s main competitors are on the SERPs, and what tactics you can employ to gain more search engine visibility for your client site. You’ll know how well your client site compares to its rivals and you’ll have a good idea of how much effort is required, on-site and off-site, to get the client site on the first page of the SERPs.
The question is, how can you relate this back to the keywords you’ve researched? You could use the metrics the Google Adwords keyword tool provides, such as competition index and average CPC, to see which keywords are most competitive.
But this only gives you a partial picture – it tells you how well those keywords convert in a PPC environment, which is not necessarily an accurate indication of what those same keywords do in an organic search context (and let’s not forget the issues with last-click-attribution that further skews the picture). And the data Google’s tool provides isn’t necessarily 100% accurate either.
Of course the budget and timeframe of the project play a big role. If the budget is limited and the timeframe for results tight, you’d be a fool to try and tackle the biggest generic keywords – unless the competition is truly weak or you’ve got some aces up your sleeve.
SEO is not an exact science, and there’s no such thing as rules. It’s impossible to throw all these factors in to a formula – Var A = X and Var B = Y so keyword much be N – and get an outcome.
No, at this stage you’ll often find yourself relying on nothing more than gut instinct. With the information you have about the competitiveness of the query space you’ll be working in, you’ll usually have a good idea (which you may not necessarily be able to explain in detail) about which keywords are feasible to rank for.
Sure, you can overwhelm your client with stats and graphs and Keyword Effectiveness Indices, and thus justify to the client (and to yourself) why you think it’s best to target keyword A instead of keyword B, but in the end it’s just not as scientific as that.
It’s experience and instinct at work here – in other words your subconscious mind, the power of which you should never underestimate – and it’s OK, even recommended, to go with what that tells you.
That’s not to say that all the research and analysis you’ve been doing is useless. Quite the contrary. Without all this you’d have no basis at all to make any decision, even an instinctual one. And your subconscious mind thrives on masses of data. You might not be able to consciously comprehend it all, but your subconscious mind can.
So do your research, listen to your instincts, and be sure to learn your lessons from one project to the next. SEO can never be learned from books and blogs alone, it takes hands-on experience to become a master.