By Mihaela Lica

Keyword Research Essentials Part 2: How to Select the Right Keywords

By Mihaela Lica

keywordsIn the first part of the Keyword Research Essentials I made a list of what I consider the best free tools that help both beginners and skilled SEOs select the right keywords for an SEO campaign. Having the right tools, without the right methods to use them, is a waste of time frankly.

Do Not Optimize for Keywords that People Don’t Search For: Traffic Volume vs. Google.com Competition

Research tools are great, but they can never replace human intelligence – after all, you are targeting human visitors and not bots. Many SEOs promise high SERP results in 24 hours or less for a given keyword phrase, but is that phrase relevant? Sometimes the keyword phrase in point sounds “good”, but if no one searches for it; there is almost no use for its high rankings. Over the long term it might bring a visitor or two, but in the short term you will face a situation like: “I have top positions for many keyword phrases, but the search engine traffic is very low.” The point is: do not expect traffic for keywords that people never use.

This is where the keyword research tools I mentioned last week come in handy. Before choosing to optimize for a certain term, test it with various keyword popularity tools to see how many visitors might be interested in it; then test the phrase with Google AdWords suggestion tool to get some indication of performance within Google’s advertising network. This helps you gather some performance data, but please be aware the research is not complete without a few “refinements.”

You can see how many sites compete for the same keyword phrase by simply typing it into Google’s search query box. Use Google.com if you target international rankings, and use the local version of Google if your target is in your geographic.

For example, for the term online PR Google.com delivers over 65,000,000 results. This means over 65 million possible competitors, including some of the most powerful public relations sites on the Web.

Google keywords competition.

To optimize a site for a term with so much competition might be tempting, and seeing your site on the first page in Google.com for this term is certainly an “ego booster”, but does this term convert well? The WordTracker tool I mentioned in my last article estimates about 5 daily searches for this term.

Wordtracker traffic estimates.

Assuming that your site ranks among the top 3 results in Google.com’s SERPs, out of 5 users who might look for “online pr” on a given day, how many will actually land on your site?

Popular Doesn’t Mean Appropriate! – Business Value vs. Traffic Volume

Starting from the example above, let’s see which is the most popular keyword phrase related to “PR.”

WordTracker also says that “PR Newswire” is the most popular term, with over 400 searches daily. Obviously, if you run a PR site you would like to capture some of the potential traffic for this term.

Google.com says that there are only 29,300,000 sites competing for the term – obviously much better than over 65,000,000 for “online PR.”

Google.com keywords competition.

But, is it appropriate to optimize for PR Newswire? No. PR Newswire is a well known press release distribution vendor, or in other words a well known brand. Unless you are affiliated with PR Newswire, optimizing for this term is pointless: you might get the traffic, but it will not convert. When you choose a keyword phrase keep in mind what your users want and whether that phrase is relevant for your own site.

It’s hard to “guess” what a user wants, but the keyword research tools do provide a lot about what users are looking for. A search for PR Newswire indicates clearly that the users wants to find www.prnewswire.com or reviews about the company. A search for “online PR” is too nebulous: the searcher might be looking for general information, definitions, or even a company specialized in this field. In contrast, a search for “PR Prices” might indicate a users looking to buy PR services, or a PR apprentice researching the PR industry.

From this short analysis we can conclude that one of the most important factors when choosing a keyword is the “business value” – meaning how the term will convert for your business.

Be Specific and Comprehensive: Relevancy

When users search for specific products online, they try to refine their searches by typing in longer keyword phrases, getting closer to the “semantic search” ideal from a behavioral stand point. These “longer” key phrases hold higher relevancy than generic terms. Let’s see a “refined” version of a search containing “PR” – our “root” keyword for the day.

A customer running a law company will most likely type in “pr for law firms” – which is a “long tail” keyword phrase, assuming that you offer pr for law firms.

This phrase is very specific to what you are selling, and it will probably convert a visitor into a customer. Conversions depend on a large number of factors, not only on keyword choice – but we will discuss this another time.

Keywords selection factors chart.

Relevant and highly specific keyword phrases rank faster and easier than generic keyword phrases, and the competition is usually less daunting. Generic keywords do bring more traffic, but the conversion rates are very low. Unless you depend on traffic stats to monetize your site, it might be a better idea to go for relevancy rather than the market value.

Nothing Lasts Forever: Search Trends

It’s hard to predict what search users will be looking for in the next season. Sometimes search traffic fluctuates based on trends that are influenced by economical changes, season, fads and etc. It’s always a good idea to check out a keyword trend tool to determine what’s hot and what’s not. Recommended: Google Insights for Search.

Google Insight for Search.

To see what’s “hot” with our “root” term, simply type in the Google Insights query box your term, then refine the search by selecting the appropriate time range and a relevant category. For “PR” in 2009, business, we note that the top searches are marketing pr, jobs pr, pr firms, media pr, etc, while a very important “rising” search is social media pr. The rise of the “social media pr” is no accident, considering the actual Web trends. Although WordTracker and other keyword suggestion tools show low daily traffic estimates for most of the “rising” search terms, remember that there are many situations where software cannot replace human intelligence. Always watch the market trends and use the rising keywords phrases to your benefit.


So, tools are essential for optimizing the selection of keywords for SEO value, but they are only effective if used properly. It is also important to understand that search engine relevance is a two way street. Google is trying to supply the most relevant results, search users want these relevant results, and viable businesses want to “be” relevant for potential customers. Ranking without relevance can only produce “visitors”, not long term customers. Keyword selection based on human logic and experience, refined and narrowed with the right tools, is the correct methodology for selecting the most suitable keywords.

  • Dan

    Another great keyword post! I noticed you briefly mentioned brands, and I’d like to expand on the importance of brands in regards to SEO (particularly in reference to title tags).
    One of my SEO clients is a big brand in a specific industry, and wasn’t performing as well as they could for the high search traffic keywords they cover. So naturally, I optimized the title tags for these terms like so: Product A, B, C – Company. (Their old title tag format was simply: “Company – Motto/Slogan”).
    I varied the products and title tags for each page, and called it a day. Their ranks improved for the different products, and traffic from those keywords shot up through the roof (first page or even top 3). Good job me, right?
    Though the search engine loved the results (and they still ranked #1 for all their branded keywords/searches) the actual search engine users clicked on the client’s website A LOT LESS (up to 50% decline in traffic for some terms). Note: Some of the long-tail keywords were causing the brand name to be pushed into an ellipsis…. thus harming the user experience.
    Once I changed the title tags to: “Company – Product A, B, C” the traffic came back and the rankings remained.

  • rumberg

    Great story Dan. For most people out there seo is still not a term and so you can achieve great results for them with only a little understanding of search enginges (well, google) and optimizing the code of a website.

  • I have to stifle a laugh when I hear someone say “my site is on the front page of Google” because they obviously don’t know what a meaningless statement that is. I want to scream, “For what search term?!”

    Fact is they rarely even know.

    So often it comes down to ego vs bank account. Like Dan said above, ranking high does not equal traffic. And as the article pointed out, traffic doesn’t necessarily convert. I’ll take my bank account over my ego (most) every time. ;)

  • GenesisDavies

    Yet another useful post, Mihaela! You`ve done an excellent job of covering the information needed for keyword selection. I do have a question though:

    When you do a search for a particular term in Google, the results will bring back any of the words in the search, not just the phrase. I was told to use “search term” with the quotes to find a more accurate number on the competition. What are your thoughts on that?

  • Genesis, the quotes narrow the search, basically telling Google to consider the exact words, in the exact order, without any changes. Not a very great SEO achievement to rank for terms that need this technique – as not many users “bother” to use the quotation marks.

    There are many other ways to use Google search though, formats the ordinary users are not even aware of. Take a look at this link: http://www.google.com/support/websearch/bin/answer.py?answer=136861

  • Good post! I appreciate that you pointed out that relevancy and ROI (meaning dollars) are what really matter. I find this aspect of the web very interesting… the many SEO tactics available to get someone to your site in the first place, and then the on page human factors to get them to click, or “buy” if you are selling.

    By targeting highly relevant (although possibly not as popular) terms it makes the “click” that much easier, because the user has already been qualified to some extent. There is a company in Jacksonville, FL – Marketing Experiments (MECLABS) – that makes available a ton of data and formulas for on page marketing optimization (meaning treatments, not seo). The tactics and formulas are both interesting and helpful in getting that ROI once you have drawn the user to your site.

    I am not affiliated with MECLABS but they do have some good stuff, worth checking out. http://meclabs.com

Get the latest in Entrepreneur, once a week, for free.