What Is a Keyword and How Does it Help SEO?

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.

How Do Google’s 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.

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 (but don’t think too hard about why).

You can also see the differing kind of intent in those examples. The first is going to connect the user with introductory material, while the second will connect the user with specific results that will result in buying a service.

How Many Keywords Should I Use per Page?

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 and menu options 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.

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

Disclaimer: Google’s Keyword Planner focuses on 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 we use for content strategy.

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.

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.

But 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.

But you can get an idea of how well you rank for certain keywords using Google Search Console. This free software 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

It’s something we use everyday here. The only caveat is that Search Console takes keywords very literally, interpreting slight differences in spelling as distinct keywords.

Pro Tip: 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.

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!

Andrew Webb

Andrew Webb

SEO and Content Marketing Consultant

Andrew is the digital marketing consultant at Webb Content. He's worked in a few different agencies full-time and with another seven or eight as a consultant.

He's usually writing new content, creating the occasional website, and constantly finding new ways to optimize those sites. It's kind of an addiction.

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