Welcome to the world of search engine optimization! This is a beginner article on one of the fundamentals: keywords. We’ll answer these questions to get you started:
- What are organic keywords?
- How do keywords work?
- How do you rank for keywords?
- How do you figure out a keyword’s intent?
Keywords aren’t the only aspect of SEO—not by a long shot—but they are one of the oldest and most well known factors. Early search engines used to run almost entirely on keywords back in the 1990s, including Google! It got to the point where some sites used the nefarious black hat tactic of keyword-stuffing their pages to the point of absurdity.
But these days even keywords are more complicated than that.
How Do Organic Keywords Work?
Google (and all search engines) correlate certain words and combinations of them with a specific intent. Shorter keywords tend to be broad in intent, whereas longer keywords tend to carry a specific intent.
Keywords can, of course, be two words or more—they’re not relegated to a single “word” as we understand them grammatically. Successful content tends to target those longer keywords because they’re also the least competitive on the Internet—a popular keyword can easily correlate to billions of results, so it just makes sense to find smaller watering holes.
Optimizing certain pages for certain keywords that serve the same intent is a big part of on-page SEO.
How to Use Google Keywords
For example, a search for “plumbing” probably just wants to know what plumbing is, a bit about how it works, and some other general knowledge about it. In contrast, a search for “plumbing service Guelph” probably wants to hire a local plumber in the very near future (just try not to think too hard about why that person needs one, in this case!). What are organic keywords going to help with in this case?
- Local search results.
- Companies in a specific trade.
- A specific commercial need.
You can also see the differing kind of intent from that example. “Plumber” is going to connect the user with introductory material, while “plumbing service Guelph” will connect the user with specific companies that could lead directly to hiring a plumber.
How Many Keywords Can I Use?
Conventional wisdom says you should only aim to rank for a single keyword on a single page.
Generally speaking, that’s still a good idea for most pages and blogs you’ll publish on your site. Most pages need to to fulfill one specific purpose in a timely manner in order to be effective, or else we’d all spend 15 minutes reading through dozens of paragraphs before finding something basic like “hours of operation.”
There are some exceptions to that rule:
- Cornerstone pages can rank for multiple keywords with closely related intent.
- Blogs can rank for synonym keywords (LSI keywords for the initiated)
Those are more advanced strategies though. Top-level pages and blogs should generally aim for one. As for how many on a single page? It can change according to your word count, but I’d recommend using your keyword 3-5 times for a post that’s 750-1,000 words. If your website runs on WordPress then you can also install the Yoast SEO plugin, which is a handy (and free) SEO tool that I use every day.
How to Choose Keywords
This will depend on the tools or consultants at your disposal (ahem). But even without an expert on your team, you can find the keywords you need with some free tools:
- The Google Keyword Planner (you’ll need to sign up for Google Ads)
- The Moz Keyword Explorer
While using one of those tools, keep an eye out for something that’s relevant, searched frequently, and (if possible) not too competitive. Finding the sweet spot is the key. The most important metrics you want to look at include the monthly search volume and the overall difficulty to rank for a keyword. Here’s a screenshot from a keyword planner that I use, as an example.
Disclaimer: Google’s Keyword Planner displays ad-related keywords more focused on products and direct services, and Moz’s Keyword Explorer is extremely limited. They’re good for developing general ideas but lack the precision and nuance that a professional would use to find the most competitive keywords. What are organic keywords doing in Google Ads, you ask? Google monetizes keywords for advertising purposes, then puts the ads right into the search results. How the keywords are used determines if they are “organic” or “paid.”
How to Rank for a Keyword
This is where things get a bit more complex. Both pages and entire domains can rank for multiple keywords, and—just to add to the confusion—Google went and made its search algorithm account for 249 other factors.
So it’s not as simple as putting a keyword on your page and hoping it will make the first page of Google’s search results. A lot can go into an SEO strategy. With all other things being equal, your site can gain prominence in a certain topic area. These topics are straightforward to write because they’re all about your business and what it does.
How to Check My Keyword Ranking
Checking your keyword ranking isn’t actually as difficult as some would have you believe, to a certain extent. Yes, it’s true that Google holds the keys and doesn’t like to talk about its algorithm’s details. However, you can get an idea of how well you rank for certain keywords using Google Search Console. This free SEO tool can tell you a lot about a given keyword, including:
- How many clicks it earned for your site.
- How many impressions it earned for your site.
- Your position in the search rankings for all queries or specific ones.
It’s something I use everyday. The only caveat is that Search Console takes keywords very literally, interpreting slight differences in spelling as distinct keywords. That’s why I also use professional SEO tools like SEMrush. What are organic keywords to Search Console can be (essentially) the same collective inquiry to human eyes, so it helps to understand how many searches per month a given keyword is likely to yield from those professional tools.
Pro Tip: Within Search Console you can also check out stats on a page-by-page level to see which kinds of topics, questions, and answers are resonating with your audience.
How to Find Longtail Keywords
There are a few ways to find longtail keywords. The first and the obvious method is to use one of the free keyword tools we mentioned above, although they’re limited in scope and precision. I use paid software to get more accurate data. It looks like this.
Another quick and dirty way to find longtail keywords is to type a question or a phrase into Google, then scroll all the way down to the bottom of the results to see alternative suggestions. There’s no related data to speak of this way, but it’s surprisingly handy at finding questions your customers are asking.
Keywords are an integral part of on-page SEO—and your content strategy, by extension. We hope this helps you form some early thoughts about your site’s content.You know where to find us when you’re ready to take it to the next level!
What Are Organic Keywords’ “Intent” All About?
What’s often overlooked is the intent behind a keyword. I’ve seen many agencies and “gurus” out there try to cram their marketing messages into every keyword tangentially related to what their clients were selling. That didn’t work for several reasons:
- They were just trying to sell something when they should have been creating value for the visitor. The content suffered, and visitors could tell.
- When someone searches for “what is [your field],” they’re not ready to buy. They’re just learning. Trust and knowledge come in time (with good content campaigns).
That’s why keywords need to be used realistically. Keyword-optimized blogs attract traffic to your website, but that doesn’t mean visitors are going to inquire about your services or buy from you right then and there. That’s like two people getting married on the first date—it just doesn’t happen.
Your content exists to help visitors find answers to their immediate questions, but it also introduces you to those visitors to put you on their radar. They get to poke around your website, look at your services, and then sleep on it for a while. If your content is informative and helpful, then you build trust with those prospects. A certain portion will come back, find you through other searches, and they might even sign up for more content over email.
After a handful of positive interactions, some will even reach out to you directly. It’s all about generating client-driven sales conversations, where the clients actually want to speak with you after reading what you have to say. That’s the long-term goal, and it’s one of the keys to building a sales funnel that does the heavy lifting for you.