Master Your Keywords, Part 2: New Web Sites

The comments and emails that I received in response to Part 1 of this series demonstrate that keyword research is a fundamental issue for many web developers — and rightly so. There are undoubtedly many real challenges to tackle when performing keyword research in order to shape your online presence.

The problems web developers face from an SEO perspective — particularly when launching a new site — include the following:

  • You have absolutely no history on which to base your keyword decisions.
  • Your site has no history in Google’s index.
  • Your site has no inbound links.

If you were to ask around (for example, on SitePoint’s SEO Forum) for advice on how to overcome these problems, the standard response you are likely to receive is that, until you have those incoming links in place, you’re likely to fall victim to the "Google sandbox."

Reputedly, this sandbox is a staging area that lives somewhere on Google’s servers, although there is some debate as to whether it actually exists. The theory is that new sites are sent to the sandbox until they age a little, at which time they are promoted to Google’s regular index. If this much is true, clearly the sandbox represents a real obstacle for new web sites.

However, whether the sandbox exists or not isn’t really the point — what matters is that the effect of the Google sandbox exists. In other words, the way the Google algorithm works leads to the hurdles that many people blame on the sandbox.

One standard approach to launching a new site is to publish the site, get some low-quality links, leave it for a year, and then come back to the site after it has an established history.

In the real world, though, it’s not practical to just leave a site for a year — you’ve got to do something. And I’m convinced that by performing good keyword research, creating good content, and soliciting high-quality inbound links, it’s possible to develop new sites that quickly prove successful.

With this in mind, here’s how I approach the launch of a new site:

  1. Determine the primary keywords (and the hot issues).
  2. Find authority sites.
  3. Start publishing web content and attracting keyword-rich links.
  4. Look for early evidence of search engine success — no matter how small.
Determine the Primary Keywords (and the Hot Issues)

The success or failure of your site will depend on the quality of the research that you do. Start by looking for as many related or lateral keywords as you can find. For instance, if you were performing research for a comedy club, you could use Wordtracker’s lateral search to suggest related keywords such as "comedians," "comedy shows," "nightlife," "night clubs," "standup," "stand up comedy," and so on.

This process will require you to be persistent and think outside the box a little. For example, after finding related words for comedy clubs, you should then apply the same process to keywords like "nightlife," "stand up," and so on. You’ll need to spend some time and think laterally and creatively in order to build a collection of seed keywords.

Once you’ve compiled a comprehensive list, group them and compare their relative popularity. (You can do this using the free Wordtracker tool).

Here’s a snapshot of some of the results of this process for this comedy club example.

Wordtracker results

Find Authority Web Sites

Authority sites are important for two reasons: they can tell you a lot about the market, and they can be a source of future links. Once you’ve determined the authority sites for the industry you’re targeting, look for trends, debates, and major issues upon which you may be able to piggyback.

Then take those "big" keywords (the most popular terms) and perform a few searches — not on Google’s regular web search engine, but on Google News and Google Blog Search. This process will yield some very useful information.

For our comedy club example, you can use this information to:

  • Become informed about the news in the comedy industry.
  • Identify journalists from major news outlets that write about comedy.
  • Identify specialist publications on comedy.
  • Identify bloggers who really know the subject.

What we’re trying to do here is map out the online marketplace around the focus of our research — in this case, comedy.

As you work through this, keep a spreadsheet open that allows you to keep notes as you read. Include columns such as keywords, hot issues, authority sites, names, and content details.

Here’s a small selection of the sites I found that are related to comedy:

Your next step is to sign up for the newsletters or RSS feeds published by the best of these sites. I’d also recommend setting up Google alerts for those big keywords.

After a week or so of immersing yourself in this world and devouring as much information related to your keywords as possible, pull all of your findings together and draw out the most pertinent information.

If you’re performing this research for a client, now is a good time to meet with them and present your research in detail. Your goals for this meeting are to give the client confidence that you really understand the industry you’ve been researching, and to gauge the client’s reaction and thoughts about your approach. That feedback will guide you in the next step of your research — starting to publish.

Start Publishing Web Content and Obtaining Keyword-rich Links

I always try and publish as early in the project’s lifecycle as possible, in order to start building some history in Google’s index and within the industry, and I recommend that you do the same. Of course, you should submit your site to all of the standard directories — both general and industry specific — but don’t expect any great results initially.

To really give your site a kick-start, you should begin to explore one or two issues in depth. Focussing on these issues will provide a platform for you to start building your web presence.

Consider our comedy club client again (actually a real client of mine). While we chatted about this project, he mentioned in passing that he had just published a great video clip of one of his comedians dealing with a heckler in a funny and effective way. I immediately paid attention — that’s the sort of thing that can be built into a worthwhile piece of content.

I immediately did some searches on "heckle," "heckling," "dealing with heckling" and found over 1,500 videos on YouTube, over 240 current stories on Google News, and over 100,000 results in Google Blog Search. These results convinced me that heckling was a hot issue in the world of comedy.

So how can we put this to use? The answer is to spend a lot of time developing creative ideas for content around that topic — in this case, heckling.

Try this exercise yourself. As yourself questions like:

  • How can I create something that is newsworthy?
  • How can I create an idea that will spread virally?
  • How can I build relationships with some of the bloggers and journalists in the industry?
  • How can I leverage user-generated content?

The formula I use to guide my thinking in this exercise is a simple one:

Keyword + Hot Issue = Content Idea

For the comedy club, you might come up with a content idea like "Comedy Club’s Classic Heckler Put-Downs," where the keyword is "comedy club" and the hot issue is "putting down hecklers."

You should invest a massive amount of time developing this simple idea into something creative and spectacular. Time spent developing great content that will bring in links will be time well spent; the tedious job of soliciting links is unlikely to be as effective, and the links usually turn out to be low quality anyway.

Once you’ve nailed your content, issue press releases about it on PRWeb.com, and contact bloggers and journalists that you identified during your initial research. This takes time but is certainly worth it.

Look for Early Evidence of Search Engine Success

Your early success may be minimal, but don’t lose heart — you’ll now have some initial inbound links, some real visitors, and some search engine traffic.

Two important tasks now need to be addressed:

  1. Look at the inbound links that your content has attracted. How can you build relationships with the people who have given you a link?
  2. Look at the keywords that have brought you traffic. Take each keyword in turn and explore its long tail for more keywords that you can optimize on.

Here are some long tail keywords for the phrase comedy club.

Long tail keywords

Finally, remember that finding keywords and building links and traffic is not easy. Many people do give up. But to be successful, you really must push yourself the extra mile.

In my next article, I’ll look at the challenges faced when conducting research for sites that already exist. Until then, good luck with your keyword research!

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