If SEO terminology and best practices intimidate you, you're not alone.
In our SEO training courses, we bring people up to speed on where the SEO world is today, whether they come with knowledge and experience or they're total beginners.
If you find yourself in the latter category, this article is for you! Read this guide to build a solid foundation of search engine optimization knowledge and skills. If you already have the basics down, check out Keyword Research Revealed: How to Find Keywords for SEO.
What Is a Keyword?
A keyword is a word or (more often) a short phrase describing the topic of a webpage. In practice, a keyword is the search query that you type into the search engine before hitting enter and seeing what it pulls up.
When someone searches Google for, say, “men’s basketball shoes” Google tries to discern what the user is looking for, and it returns a list of web pages that address that topic. If your website uses the exact phrase the user searched for as a keyword, part or of the phrase (“basketball shoes”) or a related phrases (e.g. “men’s shoes,” “Adidas” or “high top basketball shoes”) Google is more likely to show the user your website.
Why Are Keywords Important?
In one word: ROI. Keyword targeting — choosing the right keyword phrases and using them correctly for SEO — is one of the easiest and most effective ways to get more users to your site.
Search engine optimization (SEO) — that’s marketing speak for “tweaking your website so that Google likes it and ranks it higher than your competition” — is crucial to your business’ success, and keywords play a major role in SEO.
Users find their way onto your page in a variety of ways, including referrals (links from other sites), social media and direct traffic (typing in your URL or clicking a bookmarked link). However, in online shopping, searches generate the biggest share of traffic (38.98%) — more than direct traffic (35.88%), referrals (19.34%), or social (3.91%).
What is Organic Search?
Organic search refers to results that Google’s algorithm select because they meet the needs of the reader. Organic search represents 94.95% of all search traffic, or 35.21% of total traffic.
That means only 1.97% of total traffic comes from users clicking paid advertisements, despite the fact that ads often comprise all the above-the-fold content. Keyword targeting isn’t just more effective than paid ads — it’s also more cost effective
Only 1.97% of total #search traffic comes from users clicking paid advertisements. #SEO Click To Tweet
You’ll only get good ROI if you can target keywords effectively.
91.5% of search traffic goes to sites that rank on the first Search Engine Results Page (SERP). Of that, the top 3 results take 61.5% of the clicks, with 32.5% going to the first result. Unless you can rank in the top ten results, you’ll get very little search traffic.91.5% of #search traffic goes to sites that rank on the first Search Engine Results Page (SERP). #SEO Click To Tweet
Good SEO doesn’t just increase visitors and your ranking in the search engine results pages (SERPs) — it also means more conversions, and better engagement and brand recognition.
In a recent survey of marketing professionals, 48% of respondents rated keyword research as one of the “most effective SEO tactics.” The only factor rated higher was “relevant content creation.” In other words, the only thing more important than finding the right keywords is putting stuff on your website that people want to see. The importance of creating content that has real value to the reader (your target audience) cannot be overstated.
How Can Keywords Inform Your Content Strategy?
Keywords aren’t just things you stick in your writing — they also inform your strategy. They help you understand how people are finding your website, and whether you’re creating the right kind of content for your audience. For example, let’s say your site ranks #15 for “men’s high top basketball shoes.” You might decide to add more content to that page in an effort to push your site up to the first SERP and get more traffic.
On the other hand, if you’re ranking high for a keyword but getting very few clicks, it might be a sign that the word is a waste of effort.
For example, imagine your company sells clothing to college students, primarily on the West Coast. Wanting to bring in customers and help improve a fashion-forward brand identity, you decide to target “college fashion trends” and other keywords associated with college fashion. After a couple months, you attain a #5 rank for the targeted term, and make it into the top Google search engine results page for a few related terms.
If you find that your traffic isn’t improving much or that users aren’t staying on your site after clicking the article, it could be a sign that you’re wasting your effort. The problem could be that your customers see your clothes as basics instead of high fashion. Alternately, your keyword could be missing them because your market doesn’t primarily identify with the word “college” — at least where clothing is concerned. They might be using search terms that are:
- Location-specific (e.g. “West Coast clothes” or “San Francisco fashion.”)
- Seasonal (e.g. “summer fashion trends.”)
- Budget-friendly (e.g. “cheap fashionable clothing.”)
- Subcultural (e.g. “clothes for surfers.”)
- Clothing (e.g “flannel shirts.”)
- Branded (e.g. “American Apparel shirts”)
The problem could also be with the content itself. It might be written in a style that doesn’t appeal to your audience, deceptively titled, or just not very good. Tracking a single keyword might not tell you very much, but by looking at how dozens or hundreds of keywords affect your site site metrics (what pages bring in visitors, how long they stay, what percentage convert, etc.) you can develop a winning content strategy.
What are Long-tail Keywords?
Long-tail keywords — phrases that are 3 or more words — can help companies target their articles more effectively while boosting SEO.
How Can Long-tail Keywords Help Your Content Strategy?
The more your content caters to your customers specific interests, concerns and needs, the more effective it will be. For example, if you sell basketball shoes, you’re more likely to attract customers with a blog comparing Nike and Reebok than a blog comparing athletic shoes and dress shoes.
The same goes for keywords — the more they have to do with a customer’s interests, the more they’ll help you.
If you’re like the company in the above example that is struggling to sell clothes, you might want to take a look at what long-tail keywords you’re ranking (or not ranking) for. If “college fashion trends” isn’t generating a lot of interest, but “fashion trends” still is, you might want to explore more options, such as “cutting edge fashion trends” or “west coast fashion trends.”
The article you’re reading is also a great example of how to use long-tail keywords effectively.
We wrote it to share SEO and keyword basics with entrepreneurs and business people who might want to hire The Content Factory for digital marketing.
We also wanted to appeal to people outside the marketing world, so we used the title “what is a keyword?” — a long-tail keyword that someone looking for basic information might type into Google. That helps us in two ways: it makes it more likely that Google will rank our site for searches by our target audience, and it lets users see at a glance that this article answers their question. We’ll explain more about how keywords fit into titles a little later on.
What Is Keyword Research for SEO?
Google has a secret method of ranking websites that is continuously evolving and becoming more complex. Marketers use a range of tools to help them choose keywords that will make their websites more competitive.
Each keyword research tool has different features, but there are a few basic things most of them can do. Here’s some of the information Google AdWords Keyword Planner provides when you search for “what is a keyword”:
What is average monthly search?
In keyword research, average monthly search is pretty self-explanatory. The higher the number, the more often people search for it each month, and the more potential traffic it can bring to your website.
However, that number doesn’t tell the whole story. The search term in this example is a long-tail keyword, meaning it’s more likely to meet someone’s exact search criteria. For example, the search term “keyword” has much higher average monthly search, but it is so broad that it’s not worth targeting.
What is keyword competition?
Competition refers to how many advertisers are bidding on the keyword (paying money to show up on ads at the top of Google search results). Keywords that are really competitive in paid search tend to be pretty competitive in organic search, which can make them much harder to rank for.
What do suggested bid and CPC mean?
Suggested bid is the average cost-per-click (CPC) — how much advertisers typically pay each time someone clicks on that particular keyword. In general, higher CPC words tend to be more valuable to businesses (although that’s by no means the rule), so you can use the number as one factor to help you decide which words to target.
Most keyword research tools (from SEMrush to AdWords) can help you find keywords that are related to whatever keyword you searched for. This can help you improve the SEO of your website by finding additional keywords you can use in your blog posts, or additional keywords you can target in the future.
Something to keep in mind is that all these numbers are just — well — numbers. Each tool has its own features and its own ways of crunching the data down, so it helps to use a variety of tools. Additionally, keywords with good numbers can end up being off-topic, or way harder to rank for than they look.
To find keywords for SEO, you need to consider other factors, such as what your customer wants, which words your competitors are targeting and the quality of page one search results.
If you see Google results that make you think, “I could do better,” it’ll be easier to rank for that keyword. It takes a lot of work to get a knack for it, but we’re not complaining — that’s why businesses need marketers!
Pro Tip: The single most power tool we use when doing keyword research is SEMrush. We love it so much, we've become their affiliate partner. You can get a FREE week trial subscription to SEMrush Pro here.
What Is a Keyword Worth Targeting?
Depending on your goals, you may want to target transactional keywords or informational keywords.
Just because a keyword has good numbers and is related to your product doesn’t mean it’s going to help you. Searchers know what they’re looking for, and expect SERP links to deliver. Never try to get users who aren’t interested in your products or content to click your page — it won’t make a sale, but it will damage your SEO and reputation.
Instead, understand the types of keywords, and use them to give users the content they want.
What's a transactional keyword?
Transactional keywords are what they sound like — things people type when they’re looking to buy a product or service. All the keywords in the clothing example are transactional. They can be very broad (“dress”) or very specific (“plus-sized prom dresses in Madison”).
Transactional queries convert well, but they can be very competitive. Finding well-targeted long-tail keywords with low competition is key. Terms that can help you target more effectively include:
- Adjectives (“best,” “discount,” “red”)
- Brand names (“Nike shoes”)
- Specific product descriptions (e.g. “men’s high-top basketball shoes”)
Don’t get greedy and try to rank for products or brands you don’t sell. It’s much more likely to hurt than to help.
What's an informational keyword?
Informational keywords are terms searchers use to learn about something. They often are often have question words like “how” or “what,” but intent is more important than phrasing. For example, “Japanese history” is an informational keyword.
These keywords can be used to boost your authority and brand recognition by sharing expertise with your audience. However, informational keywords can also convert, since people often search for information on a topic before buying a related product. For example, someone looking for “types of guitars” is probably interested in buying a guitar after doing some research.
With informational keywords, it’s important not to be too salesy.
Searchers expect to see authoritative, well-written articles. You should put in a CTA and promote your products when it’s appropriate, but the article needs to be valuable as information, not just as sales copy.
What's a navigational keyword?
Navigational keywords are phrases people type to get to a particular page or website — either because they can’t remember the URL, or because they don’t feel like typing it all in. “Microsoft homepage” and “The Content Factory” are examples.
It’s important to rank for your own navigational keywords, but usually a waste of time to target someone else’s. Users looking for the “Microsoft homepage” probably aren’t going to click on the homepage for Apple or Debian Linux, even if they pop up in the SERP.
What Is Keyword Density?
Keyword density is how often a keyword phrase appears on a page as a percentage of the total words in the page. Density is one of the ways Google figures out what your article is about.
If a particular term only occurs once in the whole article, it probably doesn’t have anything to do with the the topic. So, using a search term over and over helps boost your ranking, right? Actually, it’s not quite that simple.
Google and other search engines used to rely heavily on keyword density before they got good at recognizing language. At one time, if you used a bunch of related terms, Google would assume your article was about those subjects.
What is keyword stuffing?
Keyword stuffing is a shady technique some marketers and webmasters used to inflate their ranking by cramming in as many related terms as possible. For example, a company selling basketball shoes might do an article titled “The Best Cheap Basketball shoes,” and cram a bunch of loosely related keywords into it. Now, keyword stuffing is a great way to ensure Google doesn't rank your content well.
It wouldn’t matter if the article was good or not – in fact, sometimes it could just literally be a single paragraph followed by a list of keywords. Google wasn’t sophisticated enough to judge quality, so "black hat" SEO experts could climb the rankings just by posting lots of low quality content and using a few dirty tricks.
There was an arms race between Google and marketers for awhile. As Google got better at recognizing language, marketers couldn’t just publish massive lists of keywords, but for a while they could still game Google using lots of poorly written articles with a certain keyword density.
Fortunately, that stuff doesn’t work anymore — in fact, Google punishes spammy websites that use keyword stuffing.
You still should mention your keyword phrase a few times in the page targeting it (and in the title as well as your headers), but using a keyword as often as possible won’t help you in search, and could easily hurt you. It’s much more important to write good, readable articles.
Types of Keywords: What Is a Keyword’s Weight?
Search engines don’t just look at the text in your page — they also look at the code. When you do a search query, Google displays titles, URLs (website addresses) and descriptions of each page. In many cases, it also displays images, news results, videos and featured snippets. Tags tell Google (or Bing, or Yahoo) what to show searchers, and many of these tags require their own types of keywords.
What is a title tag?
Title tags are the bold lines of text that show up in a Google search. They’re also the titles displayed in the top of a visitor’s browser when they’re on a page. Title tags should be short because Google cuts off text that goes beyond 50-70 characters. Usually, it’s best not to go beyond 55-60.
In most cases, a title tag should contain the primary keyword, but sometimes it’s not possible to do that without going beyond the maximum character count.
This is one reason most marketers try to put the keyword near the beginning of the title; even if it is cut, the reader can still figure out what the article is about. In spite of the name, the title tag isn’t the actual title that appears at the top of your blog — that’s called a header tag.
What are header (<h>) tags?
Header tags are used to mark the beginning of an article or a section. The title at the top of a blog is an <h1> header tag, but there are also <h2> headers, <h3> headers and so on, for when you want to break the site down into smaller sections.
Every page should have exactly one <h1> tag, which should usually have the primary keyword included in it. In many cases, sites use the same “title” for title tags and headers. There’s a lot of debate about whether or not they should use the same text. In general, as long as your title and header both use the keyword, describe the content accurately and appeal to the audience, they’ll do well whether or not they’re the same.
What is a meta description?
Meta descriptions show up under the title tags in Google search results. They’re the slightly longer blurbs that describe what’s in the page. Think of this as your pitch. It should be short (usually under 155 words) and written in a way that gets people interested in your site. Viewers skim titles or descriptions pretty quickly, so having a keyword in here can help catch their eye.
How do I optimize URLs with SEO keywords?
URL keywords are the keywords located in the actual URL that leads to your blog post or website. The way you structure the pages on your website can affect your SEO performance in pretty complicated ways, and keywords aren’t always the most important factor. For example, if you have an established brand, it usually makes more sense to use the brand name in the domain instead of a keyword describing the products you sell (that’s why Nike’s site is www.nike.com, not www.athletic-footwear.com).
Additionally, domain names that are too optimized can look suspicious to searchers. For example, when we searched for “how to interview for a job,” here’s the first thing that comes up:
This is a featured snippet — Google has determined that the information on this site answers my query, and displayed it prominently.
But even if Google didn’t feature this result, we might click on it because the title and the domain — www.careeronestop.org — both look legitimate. If the page were called www.how-to-interview-for-a-job.com, however, I’d probably assume it was a spam site, and not click it.
The path — the part of the URL after the last slash that usually ends with “html” — is where keyword optimization makes sense. In the example above, the path is partly cutoff, but you can see it has “interview-tips” in it — the keyword for the article. This makes it look legitimate, and has SEO benefits.
By the way, this example also shows why you don’t have to optimize for every keyword. Google knew “interview tips” would give me valuable information, even though the article wasn’t optimized for my search term.
How do internal and external links affect SEO?
Links are objects on a website that users can click to go to another page, video, website, image, or just about anything else. Internal links — links to other pages in your own website — can improve SEO, and help users navigate your site and hopefully, buy your products!
External links can also help in some cases, but they usually benefit the site being linked to most (this is also why it’s important to do some content marketing — backlinks are crucial!)
What is anchor text?
Anchor text is the part of a hyperlink that contains the words you click on.
Usually, it’s best to link using anchor text instead of images, because text links boost SEO and are easy to understand. Links can use the exact keyword phrase you’re targeting, but they don’t always have to. A partial match or a related keyword can also boost SEO, and help users explore your site.
What Other Factors Influence SEO?
Keywords are important, but they’re not magic. Good content is always key, and plenty of other things can influence the success of your website including:
- Backlinks (links from other websites to yours)
- Website design
- User experience
- Images and media
- Technical SEO (the way your website is built)
In addition, your goals can also play a role in your SEO strategy. Optimizing for conversion (for example, selling a product or getting a customer to sign up for a webinar) works a lot differently than optimizing for clicks. Similarly, a company with a mature web presence and good rankings will need a different content strategy than an organization that is virtually unknown online.
Digital marketing is about communicating with your audience. Keywords are just one of many tools to help find and engage customers and prospects.
Learn More With Online SEO Training
This guide is a great start to your SEO education, but we can do even better than that!
We offer online content writing and SEO training in two formats: one-on-one training customized to your business, and affordable comprehensive SEO training you can take at your own pace. Both courses will take you from novice to pro in about eight hours of intensive, entertaining learning. Enroll in our self-paced SEO course today, or check out our free webinar on common SEO mistakes to level up your content marketing game!
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