Choosing the best keywords for SEO is both an art and a science.
On the one hand, the SEO keywords you choose inform people and search engines about the content of your website. On the other hand, those SEO keywords are the linchpins to the lion's share of your site’s traffic.
In fact, 53% of all website traffic today comes from organic search.
With so much riding on keyword selection for SEO, it’s no wonder you sought out help.
First things first: Let’s make sure the assignment is understood. Because Google owns 92.26% of the search engine market share, most SEO should really be labeled GSEO or GEO.
And what’s helping Google determine which content belongs at the top of the search engine results pages (SERPs)? Its proprietary algorithm, of course — the one that changes all the time, causing you to rethink and tweak your organic search strategy.
That said, regardless of whether your site’s traffic or Google’s algorithm updates inspired you to seek advice on how to choose keywords for SEO, you’ve come to the right place. Let’s dig in!
5 Tips on Choosing the Best Keywords for SEO
At the time of writing, the following organic keyword selection principles are up to date with current industry best practices and Google Search Central’s SEO starter guide.
Tip #1. Look for Volume ... But Don’t Stop There
Monthly search volume is the average number of times a keyword was searched for over the past year, divided by 12 to provide a per-month estimate. Monthly search volume (MSV) is important, because a keyword with a proven MSV is a safe bet for increasing your site’s organic search visibility.
Think about it this way: You want to answer queries for which people are actually searching.
Now, there are times when your handy-dandy keyword research tools might not show any MSV for a particular keyword or phrase. Don’t panic: Think semantic — as in semantic search.
Google’s Hummingbird and RankBrain algorithm updates attempt to apply user intent and the meaning (or semantics) of words and phrases to find the right content, going beyond keyword matching into the realm of concepts and context to perform in a more human-like manner.
For example, imagine a user searches Google for a “wind speed gauge”. A purely keyword search would fail at returning results for an “anemometer” unless the algorithm has been programmed to treat “anemometer” as an equivalent to “wind speed gauge”.
However, there are also times when semantic search hasn’t caught up to the latest colloquialisms or industry jargon. This often happens with thought leadership content. In those instances, gambling on keywords with no MSV might make sense if the keywords are known trends in language that align with the features and benefits of your product and service offerings or with the interests of your customers. (Here at Mole Street, we refer to this as “staking a claim in the SERPs”.)
That brings us to our next piece of advice.
Tip #2. Evaluate Relevancy
Keyword relevancy can be explained as simply not targeting “running shoes” when your company sells “project management software”. In reality, keyword relevancy can be as nuanced as the difference between targeting “project management software” and “software”.
The difference matters.
While you initially might be inclined to pick the keyword target with the highest MSV (in that last example, the MSV for “project management software” was 22,200 and the MSV for “software” was 40,500 per SEMrush), doing so is like opening up a fire hose to full blast. You sacrifice accuracy.
- People searching for “software” likely don’t know what type of software they’re looking for.
- People searching for “project management software” likely do.
Remember: The goal is to attract qualified traffic (and leads) to your website.
Unqualified traffic will bounce. Qualified traffic will stick, providing that your web page delivers the desired content and a positive user experience.
Unqualified leads waste your sales team’s time. Qualified leads can add to your bottom line by becoming customers.
Another important aspect to consider when evaluating keyword relevancy is timing. We’ve all heard the adage that SEO is a marathon, not a sprint — meaning, it can take approximately four months to a year to realize the full benefits.
What will your business goals be four months to a year from now? That’s when the organic search traffic from your keyword targets should begin to roll in.
Will your sales team be fully trained and staffed to support lead nurturing at that point in time for whatever product or service lines align with your keyword targets? Will industry conferences, national holidays, or other factors of seasonality come into play during that time frame?
Long story short: Tie your keywords back to the goals of your business as well as its operations.
Related Read - Digital Marketing Best Practices
Tip #3. Assess Uniqueness
When multiple pages of a website target the same or similar keywords, they compete against each other to hurt the site’s organic performance. This is called keyword cannibalization.
For example, let’s say your website has two pages about “technical SEO”. If you could get more organic traffic overall by combining the two pages into one, that’s a cannibalization issue. The existence of those two pages is eating away at the site’s organic performance.
Finding and fixing keyword cannibalization is possible, but sometimes it’s better to prevent the issue rather than spend time and money to fix it.
One of the best ways to prevent keyword cannibalization is to hone your targeting so there’s no competition or problematic overlap. In a nutshell, this means optimizing different pages to target different keywords and search queries, and not repeating the same keywords and phrases in meta titles, meta descriptions, headings, etc.
There are two steps to take to assess the uniqueness of potential keyword targets:
- Review your existing keyword rankings to see if the potential targets have been acquired already. At the same time, try to determine if any existing keywords could overlap with those targets (i.e., think semantic). When in doubt, drop each potential keyword target natively into Google to do a site search.
- Look at your keyword map to see if the potential targets have been assigned already. Again, try to determine if any existing keywords could cause an overlap. And don’t forget to check your potential targets against any targets assigned via your content marketing editorial calendar. (Note: Just because your site has yet to rank for a keyword, doesn't mean you haven't already assigned that keyword as a target for a piece of content in the works. It also doesn't mean you haven't already published a piece of content with that keyword target, but the content has yet to be indexed by Google.)
Need a Keyword Map? We Can Help.
If you do find competition or problematic overlap, don’t fret! This could be an opportunity to freshen up or re-optimize your existing content instead of creating something new. Research shows a clear relationship between time indexed and keyword/page performance. Meaning, rankings can improve much faster with re-optimizing and re-indexing your existing content.
In fact, re-optimization is a great tactic to use to get more life out of stale or out-of-date content. Just be sure you’re actually adding value with your content updates and not just rolling forward publishing dates, as there are several factors that affect freshness in the eyes of Google.
Tip #4. Champion Intent
Intent is the user’s purpose for an online search. Google’s algorithm is designed to rank pages that best fit the keyword someone is using, as well as the intent behind the query. That’s why you need to make sure your content fits the keyword or search intent of your audience.
There are 4 basic types of intent:
- Informational - Wants answers to questions, wants to know more about a certain topic (ideal for blog posts and articles)
- Navigational - Wants to visit a specific website, often searches by company name (ideal for branded searches)
- Transactional - Wants to buy something at that moment, often already knows exactly what they want and just wants to get to that product or service page right away (ideal for product or service pages)
- Commercial - Wants to buy in the near future, uses web for product and service research (ideal for product and service pages)
At first glance, you might think that because your business sells branded products and services, you should only target keywords with navigational, transactional, and commercial intent. You only want motivated buyers to visit your website, right?
If you target keywords with navigational, transactional, and commercial intent for blog posts, those posts are unlikely to rank well. Similarly, if you target keywords with informational intent for product and service pages, the pages are unlikely to rank well.
Blog posts and articles are predominantly top-of-funnel content. Top-of-funnel (TOFU) content is meant to raise awareness and educate your target audience. Hence the need to target keywords with informational intent at TOFU.
Product and service pages, case studies, and other core web pages are predominantly middle- and bottom-of-funnel content for the consideration and decision stages of the buyer’s journey.
In the middle of the funnel (MOFU), people will browse your website for more information, read product and service descriptions, and explore your customer reviews and testimonials. In the bottom of the funnel (BOFU), leads become customers — meaning, those leads are motivated buyers. Hence the need to target keywords with navigational, transactional, and commercial intent at MOFU and BOFU.
If you don’t believe us, Google the keyword phrase “how to do content marketing”. This phrase exhibits informational intent. Note that the results on page one (i.e., positions one through 10) are almost exclusively blog posts and articles.
Key takeaway: Assign the right keywords with the right intent to the right kind of URL for the best results.
Related Read - How to Optimize Your Website for SEO
Tip #5. Consider Authority
Speaking of page one (or the artist formerly known as page one, thanks to Google Search's recent adoption of continuous scroll for desktop), 75% of people don’t scroll past position 10 when conducting a Google search. In fact, the first search result in Google averages 26.9% of click-throughs on mobile devices and 32% on desktops.
Clearly, positions one through 10 of Google is where your website needs to rank. The question is — how do you get there?
The answer is — authority.
Many SEOs preach the importance of E-A-T (i.e., expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness). For our keyword research purposes, let’s roll expertise and trustworthiness under the umbrella of authority.
Google uses multiple criteria or signals to assess authority. We use a free tool called MozBar to assess authority during our keyword research. After installing MozBar as a browser extension, the default view gives you domain authority scores and linking breakdowns for all the pages in a SERP.
Domain authority (DA) is a number from 1 to 100 used to help predict how likely a website is to rank. It’s calculated by evaluating multiple factors, including linking root domains and total number of links, into a single DA score. This score can then be used when comparing websites or tracking the ranking strength of a website over time.
What does DA have to do with keyword research?
It’s a score you can utilize when trying to determine the feasibility of your website ranking in positions one through 10 of Google for a particular keyword. Although DA is not the be-all and end-all of ranking in these peak positions, it is a good indicator to use as a rule of thumb.
In other words, if your website’s DA is higher than the DAs of the websites appearing in positions one through 10 of a keyword SERP, the likelihood of your site’s URL ranking in these coveted positions is high — as long as the value of your content is the same or better.
Related Read - Content Marketing Best Practices: The Ultimate Guide
The Best Keywords for SEO: Final Thoughts
The best keywords for SEO are the right keywords in terms of volume, relevancy, uniqueness, intent, and authority. If — even after this crash course — you want to leave your keyword research and organic search strategy to the pros, we can help!
Schedule a call with Mole Street today. We’ll evaluate your website, apply our SEO expertise, and work with you to increase your site’s organic search visibility to acquire qualified traffic and leads.
Originally published February 2020. Updated January 2023.