Effective SEO Keyword Research and… Better Search Engine Rankings, 5 Steps

One of the best feelings working as an SEO expert, with my clients, large or small, in Ottawa or across the continent, is seeing a site rise to a reasonable position in the google search engine rankings, to eventually achieve a first page result. Even better when it’s a keyword that is highly relevant to the content on the site, and appetizing to the target market in terms of search volume. Achieving such targeted rankings, using ethical but competitive methods, propels search engine optimization that is both sustainable and truly organic. This keyword research can also be used as a cornerstone for a solid search engine marketing (SEM) foundation. The most interesting part is: the weapons to do this are at our immediate disposal… but there is a catch.

Success can only be attained by a conscious choice of good SEO keywords that match the content, and themes of your site, while having enough search volume to bring in some good quality traffic. A keyword list of such terms is a powerful resource for any business and can be created in varying degrees of depth, using free or inexpensive resources; most of which are universally available, thanks to the incredible knowledge sharing capacity of the internet.

Solid SEO keyword research for improved search engine rankings is both an art and a science, requiring creative and analytical steps:

  1. Brainstorm for Keywords: Site owners usually have intimate knowledge of their target market, from many angles. As a first step in forming a keyword list, I often go through a brainstorming exercise with clients, asking them to put themselves in the shoes of their prospects. Who are these people?  What kind of search terms do you think they will use to find your site? What are some of the buzz terms in your industry?  We then jot down the first reasonable keywords (usually 2-4 words per search term, such as “ottawa seo blog”) that come to mind. A couple dozen such terms is usually a good place to start, although larger and more established sites might need a few more search terms, particularly if there is a lot of content to cover.
  2. Review of Website Analytics: The next step is to review which keywords are currently driving traffic to the site. Google Analytics is a free application, which is easy to install and provides this information quite nicely (in Traffic Sources/Overview). Keywords that are driving significant traffic should be noted and explored (often used as is for this reason alone). For larger or longstanding sites, some prioritizing will likely be needed.  I like to use the number of overall visits to the site, comparing the number of visits for any particular keyword to establish a relative threshold. For example, a keyword receiving 100 visits should likely be used if the total number of visits to the site is 1000… but perhaps not if the total number of visits is 100,000). Google Analytics provides nice bar graphs beside each keyword indicating the percentage of ‘search traffic’ that each keyword brought in. The caveat here is to watch for really desirable keywords that might be under-represented in terms of relative traffic… at this point! Sometimes you’ll have a gut feel a certain keyword, which could be more effective with a bit of SEO work (e.g. by building quality backlinks with that keyword as the anchor text).
  3. Competitive Analysis: As a site owner it helps to be aware of other websites offering similar products and services. You may know who some of your direct competitors are, and you can find others by conducting a search using the terms you already have in your budding keyword list from steps 1 and 2 above. By reviewing the source code (publically available for most sites in most browsers) and by examining the important metadata, by priority, including: the title element, the meta description and meta keywords, the keywords that your competition is targeting can usually be determined. By looking at other elements of the site (presentation, traffic levels, readability) you can then judge whether you think some of their keywords might be useful. Almost any close competitor has some useful keywords somewhere on their site, whether they are aware of it or not!
  4. SEO – SEM Keyword Research:  This is where it really starts to get fun! Google’s free keyword tool provides the search volume for any keyword you may be interested in, as well as close variations (great for generating keyword ideas). The appropriate search volume threshold will vary depending on the maturity of your site and the scale of your business. Healthy monthly search volume (‘local’ means to the country you are targeting in the settings, and is usually more useful for SEO than ‘global’) is a key indicator (triple digits is good, especially for “exact” match, which is really what you want for SEO keyword research). Competition for the number of the webpages indexed can be determined by searching for the most promising keywords in the actual search engine. Note: the number of results returned indicated at the top of the page in Google is only an estimate of the number of search engine results indexed for that keyword, but it can be a good measure of competition, especially if you keep your process consistent for each keyword you explore. “Competition” in the keyword tool itself represents relative competition among advertisers for that particular keyword. This is more relevant for PPC bidding, and even then it is only one metric to be considered, but it is a good idea to make note of it for each of your target seo keywords, for possible integration with SEM later on, and to provide some indication of the business value associated with a particular keyword.
  5. Market Testing: A keyword list is a living, breathing creation that is neither static nor theoretical. Only by properly implementing your chosen keywords (on and offsite) then monitoring their performance in terms of driving relevant traffic to your site, can you determine which keywords are effectively working for you in cyberspace. As successful and effective keywords are identified, additional seo keyword research can be conducted, to exploit further traffic opportunities and to create thematic keyword clusters. Diversification of search terms will also help maintain a reasonable keyword density and further strengthen the thematic relationship of various pages across your site. As the themes of your site start to emerge, the search gods will take notice, increasing your chances of good search engine rankings across many keywords, and vastly improving the quality of your site for search… Samurai Marketing Style!

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A Very interesting article, gained a lot of knowledge from it .. even though i am an SEO expert myself.

Comment by SEO Ottawa on April 8, 2012 1:17 pm

Hello SEO Ottawa,

Thanks for stopping by, always great to connect with colleagues. I would love to hear what you found most useful about this post.


Comment by jtaylor on April 8, 2012 5:15 pm

I like how you broke down each step into further steps, and how you shared your best practices. It’s always nice to be reminded of the different tasks to undertake for an effective SEO campaign.

Comment by Shelby Gibbs on June 5, 2012 5:44 am

Thanks Shelby,

As the frontier of seo is constantly evolving, sharing knowledge and best practices seems like a good way to keep the energy flowing in a positive direction.


Comment by jtaylor on June 5, 2012 8:37 am

Nice article. You’ve made some excellent points, I agree that Keyword Research is the most important thing to do at the beginning of an SEO campaign. I actually just wrote an article on this subject not too long ago — http://www.ottawaseoblog.com/the-importance-of-keyword-research-for-your-seo-campaign

Please let me know your thoughts.



Comment by Brock Murray on August 24, 2012 2:12 pm

Hi Brock,

Thanks for stopping by! You make some good points in your post about the importance of doing keyword research upfront.



Comment by jtaylor on September 7, 2012 10:27 am

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