“May I have a doughnut, please?”
As a child, you likely had the experience of asking an adult for something, only to have your request met with a question: “What’s the magic word?” Now that you’ve grown up, you know that “please” doesn’t possess any genuine mystical qualities, but you’ve hopefully acquired an appreciation for the value of words as a form of social currency. When it comes to the Internet, words are equally important for getting what you want—which, if you’re a small-business owner, is increased traffic to your website. In SEO parlance, these auspicious terms are known as keywords.
Keywords can help generate website traffic in a couple of ways. First, targeting terms commonly used in search engine queries increases your site’s chances of showing up in search results. Furthermore, since keywords are a major part of the criteria search engines use to assess and organize web content, using them properly is crucial for getting your site indexed (which influences 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 Internet), but some keywords are definitely better than others. For SEO purposes, the value of a keyword 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. You might think “potato” is a relevant keyword to target, but doing so will only baffle search engines and annoy any potato enthusiasts who stumble upon your site. This will ultimately hurt rather than help your site’s ranking.
The next factor to consider is popularity—after all, it only makes sense to target keywords that users are 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 (see below).
However, popularity isn’t everything, which is why the third factor for determining keyword value—competitive viability—is crucial. The reality is, as a small business competing against much bigger companies, you can’t expect to corner the market on the broadest keywords (at least, not right away). While the keyword “doughnuts” is eminently searchable, if you target it for your small doughnut business’ website, you’ll likely get buried beneath bigger competitors like Krispy Kreme in search engine results. To increase your competitive edge in a saturated web marketplace, you want to target keywords that are a little less common and a little more specific. These are often referred to as “long tail keywords.”
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 keywords, all bunched together; this is the graph’s short tail. From there, the data would taper down into the wider pool of less popular 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 can provide 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 “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 AdWords 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.
Even after you’ve found your “magic” words, 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 tag – As the HTML element that specifies your website’s name, the title tag is critical for SEO. In most cases, it will be the first glimpse users get of your website, as it’s displayed on SERPs (usually in the form of a clickable link), web browser tabs and social media sharing links. Google typically shows the first 50 to 60 characters of a title tag, which should give you enough space to include both your brand/business name and a targeted keyword phrase.
- Meta description tag – This is the summary of your website that appears beneath its title tag in SERPs. Since meta descriptions don’t directly factor into Google’s ranking algorithm, you should focus more on writing a compelling summary than a keyword-laden one, but try to have both. Search engines usually cut off meta descriptions longer than 160 characters, so try to say as much as you can within this limit. Ideally, your keyword phrase should appear near the front.
- Site URL – A URL is simply the address where a website lives, but it can have a surprising impact for SEO. In addition to influencing click-through rate (users tend to trust a concise, relevant URL more than a convoluted, extraneous one), URLs are a factor for search engine rankings, so having one that includes a commonly queried search phrase can be advantageous.
- Image alt-text – Search engines can’t index rich media like images (or audio or video, for that matter), so placing your keywords in the alt-text of at least one image on each page is helpful. You can also supplement audio/video clips by supplying a text transcription on the page.
- Content – Like so many sprinkles on a doughnut, your targeted keywords should be sprinkled throughout your site’s content, including landing pages, blogs and news items. When composing a new content piece, have your keywords top of mind so you can fit them in where appropriate.
While keywords are valuable for SEO, there are some important things to be aware of before employing them. First of all, more doesn’t necessarily mean better. “Keyword stuffing” and other forms of abuse aren’t just ineffective, they can be detrimental, especially with today’s improved search engine ranking algorithms. So, don’t overdo it; use keywords naturally. After all, the quality of your content will ultimately win the day, so skip the shortcut tactics and invest in creating compelling, relevant content for a human audience.
It’s also important to understand keyword popularity isn’t fixed; rather, it can fluctuate unpredictably, so you need to keep track of the trends and adjust your strategy accordingly. While this makes keyword optimization more of a challenge, 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 specifically to this 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.
Want professional assistance designing a search-optimized website? We can help!
Read the previous article in our SEO for SMBs series.
To read more of James Florence's work, check out his blog posts for diamondcertified.org.