The key to picking the right keywords (SEM 101)

Mark Twain once famously said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Twain never saw a webpage or performed search engine optimization (SEO) in his life, but his assessment of the importance of using the right words is, shall we say, illuminated.

So why are words important in terms of SEO? Because users type them into search engines to try to find you! That’s what separates regular body text words from keywords. Focusing on the wrong keywords on your website may, at best, bring visitors who don’t see the relevance of and aren’t interested in what your site has to offer. At worst, they’ll bring no visitors at all because your site will rank so poorly in the search engine results pages (SERPs).

Words and phrases

Recall that in my last post, I discussed defining your intended primary audience. I encourage you to now think about the words those folks would use to describe the theme of your website. I want you to also think about your goals for your website. Most often, the goal is a conversion of some sort, be it a sale, a download, a subscription, or some action you want the visitor to take so they “convert” to being a customer.

The best words to use for keywords are often not individual words, but short phrases. Brand names as individual keywords are probably good bets if you own that brand. But if you don’t own such a property, then individual words are likely to be too generic. You need to distinguish your site from the masses. By combining generic but relevant keywords into key phrases, you add a significant level of specificity that will help users find you.

Let the brainstorming begin

So how do you begin? Simple. Just begin. Think, but don’t edit. Brainstorm. Write down all words and phrases you think of (sure, you can use your computer!). Include your brand, descriptions of your products, services, or features, and your URL. When you’ve exhausted all your ideas, get ready to continue. You’re not done yet. You’ve only just started.

Now think like your customers, not like you. What terms would they use to describe your business or service? Write them down. Raid the thesaurus for synonyms. Note that plural forms of words are counted separately in the eyes of search engine indexes, so include them, too. Remember that individual words can often be too generic, so think of both single words and short phrases for greater specificity.

Next, talk to friends and relatives. How would they describe the theme of your site’s content? Is your physical location relevant? If your primary audience is local, add references to your location to your growing list as well. Are there any online forums that pertain to your site’s product or service offering? If so, check there for more prospective keywords and phrases. Consider common acronyms and abbreviations. Even write down typical typographical or spelling errors for these words as well. Harvest all of that into your collection.

Tool time

Lastly, augment all of that good data with professional keyword research tools. Microsoft offers a keyword research tool called Microsoft Advertising Intelligence for Microsoft Office Excel 2007. (Note: You’ll need to set up an adCenter account before you can use the tool. Luckily, unlike most other online ad vendors, adCenter offers customer support over the phone with a real person — at no cost to you! — to help you get your account set up and running.) Both Google and Yahoo! offer their own keyword research tools. In addition, there are many third-party keyword research tools available, some for free, others for a fee.

Microsoft Advertising Intelligence can do the following:

  • Scan your current website and extract the keywords that offer the highest confidence levels based on their current usage
  • Suggest new keywords based on user behavior or your existing keyword list
  • Provide:
    • Research data on top performing keywords
    • Performance data on the keywords you specify
    • Information on keyword usage based on geographic and demographic data

Note that the keyword tool is primarily designed to help users figure out which keywords to use with their Pay-Per-Click (PPC) advertising campaigns. However, the tool’s output is also extremely relevant to developing or revising a keyword list for your website as part of an SEO update. We’ll talk about the process of creating a PPC campaign in later posts.

To use the tool, I recommend adding your keywords (one word per line) to an empty Excel spreadsheet, listing them in column A. Select the words for which you want to see adCenter’s confidence level rating, click the Ad Intelligence tab, and then click the lower half of the Keyword Suggestion button on the toolbar, using both the Contained and Similarity tasks. You’ll get a list of additional suggested keywords and phrases that correspond to each of the keywords you selected. Use the ones that are relevant to your site’s theme and content to augment your burgeoning keyword list. For detailed information on how to take full advantage of Microsoft Advertising Intelligence, see the Advertising Intelligence Installation Guide.

Separate the wheat from the chaff

Once you have your master list from the brainstorming sessions and the keyword research tools, you then need to pare it down. Sort the words for relevance and specificity to your site. Lean your preferences toward highly specific keyword phrases over generic individual words; there’s likely too much competition for single words. Look for keywords that identify relevant niches in which you can stand out. Weed out the jargon to that only your customers will use, not that used specifically by industry insiders (unless they are your primary audience!). Note that each page of your site should have one or more unique keywords for themselves, but a carry-over theme of certain keywords will span the page boundaries across your site. Those cross-boundary keywords and phrases will define the theme of your website for search engines.

As part of the winnowing down process, review the keyword tools again for data on how prevalent your emerging favorite keywords and phrases are with searchers and how many other sites key on them. If the competition is too great for those keywords, you’ll still be lost in the crowd. And if searchers never use the keywords you choose for searches, no one will ever find you, even if you grab the top rank.

In the end, the keywords you pick should identify both the content and the thematic goals of your website. A list of no more than 15 or so keywords or phrases is good (and not every page needs so many, but every page containing valuable content needs at least a few good keywords).

Once you have your keywords and key phrases selected, you’re ready to begin strategically implementing them in your website. This way the search engines will see their optimized use on your site and increase your site’s relevance to those words. And because you wisely selected the right words, as Twain encouraged, you’re site will be properly illuminated for all interested searchers to see.

If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, feel free to post them in our SEM forum. We’ll talk about strategic keyword implementation techniques next time. Later…

— Rick DeJarnette, Live Search Webmaster Center