When was the last time you updated your SEO keyword list? Coming up with competitive keywords is essential to web visibility and content marketing.

Choosing keywords is one of the most commonly accepted components of an SEO or content marketing strategy, but it can seem like a nitty gritty task – and, from my experience, a lot of marketers tend to shy away from hunkering down and doing the work. Some businesses simply defer to a list of paid search keywords they’ve used in Adwords campaigns, or perhaps stick to targeting best-selling products as primary keywords. The bottom line is there’s more a company can be doing to find keywords that will hit home with relevant online audiences and increase web visibility.

Although the SEO landscape is constantly evolving, understanding keywords and how they play a part in your online marketing strategy remains integral to a successful business site. In this two-part blog series, I’ll offer a clear-cut set of guidelines for choosing keywords that will help you achieve your online marketing goals and insights on analytics tools that take the guess work out of keyword research. In Part Two, I’ll cover the keyword evaluation metrics that can help you maintain a competitive, winning keyword strategy.

Why organic keyword research is essential for your site

Keywords don’t really matter anymore, right? Wrong! Spam levels of keywords on your site will hurt your search engine optimization efforts, but appropriately using phrases that indicate what your site (and a particular content page) is about is still a must.

No matter where on the web people are looking for information, they’re using specific search phrases to find the content that matters to them. In fact, Brafton has reported that searches on social network Facebook tweaked its search results last year to accommodate category searches. Twitter updated its search features throughout last summer to encourage people to mine the microblogging site for related content. And, of course, studies show search engines are a top resource for shopping research.

Even as personal search filters and new Search Plus your World developments bring more social data into SERP visibility, on-site optimization still counts – and this includes using keywords that will draw the right types of visitors to your site.

Getting started with keyword research

Be honest – how long has it been since you evaluated your keywords? If you need to get your feet wet with the process again, begin with your URL, a list of 12-15 of your best-selling products or services and some descriptive words for your business. The more descriptive you can make your list, the better. For instance, “women’s capri pants” is stronger than “pants.”AdWords for basic keyword insights

Use a reliable keyword research tool, such as Google Adwords Keyword Tool to compile an initial list of 100-150 keywords. (We’ll be narrowing these down to a focused list later on.) Enter your list and website URL, then choose a category that best fits your industry (optional). It’s not necessary to check the box that says, “Only show ideas closely related to my search terms,” as this will limit your results to only include keywords that contain phrases from your list.

You should receive a list of 100 Google suggested terms, plus insights on the terms in your original list. You can easily download and export the entire list to an excel document, to make narrowing down and selecting your keyword candidates easier. 

Consider the increasingly social side of search

Google’s tool can give you great insights on the search volumes around keywords, but you can also take it upon yourself to come up with some user-friendly keywords based on the phrases desirable prospects are already discussing. Content sharing is becoming huge for online visibility . It’s important that your keywords fit into actual industry conversations – and sometimes, there’s a huge difference between how we talk about our products or services and how online audiences describe them.nail design on forums

Go to social forums, such as Yahoo Answers or LinkedIn Answers, and put in some of the search phrases you’ve found in Google AdWords. The more niche the forum, the better. For instance, businesses in the spa and beauty industry that offer nail art might check out Soompi or CozyCot forums, where beauty buyers often share manicure tips. Google AdWords shows that nail art has huge global search volumes, but when I enter “nail art” in these forums, I see that a lot of users are talking about “nail designs.”nail design on forums

Search research might suggest that “nail art” is a more popular phrase (and, by the way, it has a “low” competition rating in spite of its massive amounts of global searches), but the forums show girls are sharing tips on “nail design.” AdWords suggests this is still a good term to target because it also has a nice amount of global search volumes.nail design search volumenail art search volume

While this example might not be groundbreaking in the sense that a beauty shop might have already put “nail design” in its arsenal of keywords, it might offer insights on prioritizing content built around this phrase. And this is just one example – other social research might help generate keywords you would never even have thought of using.

Find your brand’s unique keyword opportunities

So now you have a sense of what prospects are looking for on forums… next, think about what customers are saying. Consider the biggest selling points for your business to develop keywords that can hit specific searches.

Foursquare recently came out with a new local search tool that might help marketers think about this type of keyword brainstorming: as Brafton reported, the mobile Explore feature will now let users search for “experiences.” So someone searching for a nearby restaurant can opt to search for “killer guacamole” or “romantic ambiance” instead of just searching for, say, “Mexican restaurants.” The development puts a premium on unique offerings that set a company apart.

While the foursquare search app culls results from user-generated reviews, marketers can consider this development when planning their content marketing campaigns and really think outside of the box about what people are looking for. So if you run a food supply store and customers rave about your pre-made guacamole, think about a variation on “killer guacamole.” (AdWords might come in handy here, as a quick search shows “best guacamole” has a much higher search volume, but hits the same vein…)

Unique positioning such as this is a great opportunity to optimize for your secondary keywords. And now it’s time to narrow the scope.

Tips for narrowing down your Keyword list

You’ll want to target 8-12 primary keywords, and choose a list of 20-30 secondary fallback keywords, so you’ll have a considerable amount of narrowing down to do. Here are my top tips for narrowing down your keyword list:

  1. Get rid of misspellings/ awkward phrasing: Eliminate keywords with awkward phrasing that will be difficult to incorporate naturally, as well as misspellings. These aren’t going to support a quality content marketing campaign! You can also get rid of any keywords that aren’t aligned with your product offerings or business.
  2. Think about global and local search: Consider both global search volume as well as local when selecting your list – don’t ignore one or the other. If your business has a strong domestic presence, then focusing on the local search volume may work best for you.
  3. Be realistic about search volume: There should be a disparity in the search volume for the keywords you choose, but you can eliminate those with extreme results. For example, if you’re a Denver auto insurance broker, you wouldn’t want to optimize your site for the keyword “insurance,” which has 68 million search results monthly, as you won’t realistically rank for that term. However, a term such as “Denver auto insurance,” which has 1,300 searches per month, is realistic and an attractive amount of traffic for a small business.
  4. Include some localized terms: Include geographic descriptors, or localized terms such as city and/or state. This is especially important if you have a local presence or brick-and-mortar establishments. If you mostly, or only, cater to customers in your area, then it is essential that you include localized search terms. But even if you have a national presence, local key phrases that let consumers or buyers know you have a presence in their areas are good.
  5. Remember that variety broadens your reach: Look for variety when selecting your keywords, as this will result in a more natural inclusion of a wide range of topics in your content marketing. For white hat SEO, you will be using these keywords on your site frequently, not just “behind the scenes,” so variety of key terms positions your content writers to easily write things that  can appeal to a range of prospects.
  6. Don’t forget long-tail keywords: Long-tail keywords, key phrases that contain two or more words, encompass over 70 percent of organic search queries, so select these opportunities when possible. Single-word keywords are generally too vague and too competitive to target. 
  7. Check your current rankings: Run your list through a rank-checking tool (such as Rank Checker) to see where your website is currently ranking for each term. Target keywords that you’re already showing some visibility for so you can build on this success.

Once you’ve got your core list of keywords, it’s time to start incorporating them (naturally and usefully!) into your site content. But this isn’t the end of keyword research – complacency is no good.

We’ll continue our keyword coverage in the next installment where I’ll review competitive analysis and how to track and measure the success of your organic keywords so you can update accordingly. 

Adrienne Lumb is a content marketing strategist in Brafton's San Francisco office. She works directly with clients and alongside editorial staff, social media experts, and graphic designers, to come up with dynamic content portfolios that drive client results. A San Francisco enthusiast, she considers fog horns in the Bay the ultimate lullaby.