Updated July 12, 2018
"May I have a doughnut, please?"
As a child, you likely had the experience of asking for a snack, only to have your request met with a question: “What’s the magic word?” Now that you’ve grown up, you know words don’t possess mystical qualities, but you’ve hopefully developed an appreciation for them as a form of social currency. Simply put, words are important for getting what we want—a fact that applies equally to hungry five-year-olds and business owners trying to compete on the web. In the latter case, the power of words takes on a whole new significance as a fundamental pillar of search engine optimization (SEO). In this context, these “magic words” are known as keywords.
When correctly employed, keywords help generate website traffic in a couple of ways. First, since most web traffic consists of users searching for specific items, targeting commonly searched keywords increases a site’s chances of showing up in search results. Furthermore, keywords are a major criterion search engines use to assess and organize web content, so they play a large role in search ranking. That’s why, if you’re a small-business owner trying to compete on the web, you simply can’t ignore the importance of keywords.
So…what’s the magic word?
Determining keyword value
OK, so there’s no such thing as a magic word (even on the web), but some keywords are definitely better than others. For SEO purposes, the value of a keyword (or keyword phrase) is determined by three factors:
- Competitive viability
Relevance is simple enough: Is the keyword relevant to what users are looking for when entering a search query? If not, it won’t be of much help to you or anyone else. Let’s say you own a doughnut shop that specializes in potato-flour doughnuts (yes, it’s a thing). You might think “potato” is a relevant keyword to target, but doing so will only confuse search engines and irritate potato enthusiasts who stumble upon your site. This will ultimately hurt rather than help your site’s performance and ranking.
The next factor to consider is popularity—after all, it only makes sense to target keywords that users are actually searching for. To find out what these words are, you’ll need to do some research (did we mention SEO requires research?). Fortunately, there are plenty of keyword research tools and resources available on the web (more on this later).
However, popularity isn’t everything, which is why the third factor for determining keyword value—competitive viability—is critical. The reality is, as a small business competing against much bigger companies, you can’t expect to corner the market on the most popular keywords. While the keyword “doughnuts” is eminently searchable, if you target it for your small doughnut business’ website, you’re going to get buried beneath bigger competitors like Krispy Kreme in search engine results. To increase your competitive edge in a saturated web marketplace, you’ll need to target keywords that are a little less common and a little more specific.
The "long tail" advantage
Imagine a graph that charts the popularity of all terms used in search queries throughout the entire internet. At the far left of the graph, you’d see a proliferation of the most widely used (popular) keywords, all bunched together; this is the graph’s short tail. From there, the data would taper down into the wider pool of less common terms and phrases composing the graph’s long tail. These long tail keywords are a small business’ bread and butter when it comes to SEO keyword targeting.
While long tail keywords may not be as widely used as short tail ones, their specificity provides a niche advantage. After all, the internet is a big place, with plenty of room for uniqueness. That’s why you’ll get a lot more traction with the keyword phrase “handmade potato flour doughnuts” than you will with just “doughnuts.” (Don’t forget the truncated form, “spudnuts,” which, while technically not a long tail keyword, is helpfully specific.) By utilizing long tail keywords, you can sidestep the popularity contest and connect with an audience that’s looking for the unique products or services your business offers.
Now that we’ve identified what determines a keyword’s value, let’s talk about strategies for finding yours. First, employ your entrepreneurial instincts. Put yourself in the consumer’s shoes: What terms would you put in the search bar if you were looking for the kinds of products or services your business offers? Don’t be afraid to start broad (“doughnuts”) and narrow down to the more specific (“spudnuts”).
While these brainstorming sessions can be helpful, the true foundation of a finely tuned keyword targeting campaign is research. Luckily, there are plenty of free and paid research tools that you can access online. Here are just a few:
Keyword Research Tools
- Google Trends provides real-time analytics of search data, including how and where search terms are being used.
- Google Ads Keyword Planner helps with keyword ideas and allows you to run a test campaign to see how a particular keyword would likely perform.
- Moz, KeywordSpy, and WordStream offer free keyword tools with limited functionality and the option to subscribe to access more.
Another important keyword strategy is to utilize your location. As we previously determined, your small doughnut business won’t be able to compete for the keyword “doughnuts”; however, it may perform quite well for “Danville doughnuts,” as the phrase pertains to your shop’s specific location rather than doughnuts in general. With more and more people using search engines to find resources in their immediate area, the power of local is something you’ll want to harness for your business’ digital campaign.
Even after you’ve found your keywords, your task is far from over—you still need to apply them, and to do that, you need to know where to put them. Consult the following list of places your keywords should appear throughout your site:
- Title tags – As the HTML element that appears most prominently in search results (among other areas), title tags are critical for SEO. Any page or post published on your website has a title tag, and it’s typically the first glimpse users will get of your site and content. Google shows the first 70 characters of a title tag, which should give you enough space to include both your brand/business name and a targeted keyword phrase. For example: Danville’s Best Spudnuts | Joe’s Doughnut House
- Meta description tags – A meta description is the summary of a page or post that appears beneath its title tag in search results. Since meta descriptions are intended to give users an idea of webpage content, you’ll want to make yours as compelling as possible. However, you should also include keywords in your meta descriptions—that way, they’ll appeal to users and search engine bots alike. Google limits meta descriptions to 160 characters, so be descriptive yet concise.
- URLs – A URL is just a webpage’s home address, but it can have a surprising impact on SEO. Besides influencing click-through rate (users tend to trust a concise, relevant URL more than a convoluted one), URLs are a factor for search engine rankings, so having one that includes a commonly searched phrase can be advantageous.
- Alt tags – Images are an important part of any webpage, but search engines aren’t capable of indexing them. That’s where alt tags come in—by providing short text descriptions, they help search engines assess the content of images and index them accordingly. This provides another opportunity for keyword placement; however, keywords should always be relevant to the image being described. For example, you wouldn’t put “potato-flour doughnuts” as the alt tag for an image of a toaster—that would just be silly (not to mention misleading).
- Content – Like so many sprinkles on a doughnut, your targeted keywords should be sprinkled throughout your site’s content, from landing pages to blog posts. When composing a new content piece, have your keywords top of mind so you can fit them in where appropriate.
While keywords can increase your site traffic, you need use them carefully—otherwise, they may have an opposite effect. First of all, don’t overdo it. With today’s savvy algorithms, keyword stuffing and other forms of keyword abuse are easy for search engines to spot and can get your website penalized (hint: not great for SEO). Instead, use your targeted keywords naturally. After all, the quality of your content will ultimately win the day, so it’s better to invest in writing compelling, relevant copy for a human audience than trying to bamboozle the bots.
It’s also important to understand that keyword popularity isn’t fixed; rather, it can fluctuate unpredictably, so you should keep track of the trends and adjust your strategy accordingly. While this makes keyword optimization more challenging, it also makes things more exciting, with opportunities to benefit from sudden surges in popular usage. To make the most of your targeted keyword campaign, considering hiring an SEO expert who can devote time and energy to this specific task.
Like most aspects of SEO, keyword optimization has a steep learning curve, but with time and research, you’ll be able to employ it effectively. And who knows—if you’re lucky, you may find a magic word after all.
To learn more about SEO basics, check out the other entries in our SEO for SMBs series.
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