How Should You Choose Your SEO Keywords?

By Tom Shearman

Do you want to hear something about SEO that totally blew my mind when I heard it?

You’ll always rank for something.

Alright, so that may not have quite blown your mind too, but let me elaborate a little. You could throw together a website in twenty minutes, hit publish, and it’ll get organic traffic. Sure, it’s more likely to be a trickle than a deluge, but let’s reframe that this way:

Given enough time and effort, you can rank for almost anything.

Now that isn’t to say that if you owned a Chicago running shoe store that you would outrank a business like Amazon or Zappos for a term like “running shoes”, but you could certainly outrank them for “Chicago running shoes”. But how do you choose the keywords that are worth this time and effort? Ultimately, there are going to be three factors that come into this equation for you:

Choosing the right keywords for your SEO strategy

  1. Search volume: you’ll want to target higher volume keywords, all things being equal.
  2. Keyword competitiveness: you’ll want to target lower competition keywords.
  3. Keyword value: you’ll want to rank for keywords that have higher value for your business.

What’s the search volume?

While some of the metrics we’ve outlined above are going to be relatively subjective, the easiest metric for you to find objective data is going to be on search volume, which measures the average monthly searches for a given keyword. For example, let’s take one of the keywords in our very own keyword universe, ‘digital marketing Chicago’, and plug it into Google’s Keyword Planner. Here’s a look at the search volume of this term (plus some related terms): How to find the volume of keyword

So ‘digital marketing Chicago’ is a term that’s searched, on average, 140 times per month, while ‘digital marketing agency Chicago’ is searched 110 times per per month, and so on. For more detail on how to use the Keyword Planner for SEO keyword research, check out Brian Dean’s great guide at Backlinko.

How competitive is the keyword?

While there are plenty of different tools you can use for measuring keyword competitiveness (my personal favorite being the very simple Keyword Difficulty tool from Moz), you can actually get a pretty good picture of how competitive a keyword is from the ‘suggested bid’ column in the keyword planner results. What that column is showing you is an average of the cost-per-click that advertisers are paying for AdWords clicks on ads targeting that search query. What this provides you with is a pretty decent approximation of the ‘commercial intent’ of a given keyword. So if we compare the top two rows:

Using the Keyword Planner to gauge how competitive a keyword is

It appears that advertisers are willing to pay around $3.10 more per click for ‘digital marketing agency Chicago’, so we can assume that this keyword variation has higher commercial intent- which typically means that it’s also more competitive.

What is the value of the keyword to your business?

This last question goes from the joyful land of finite, objective numbers into the terrifying ambiguity of subjective judgement. In order to find a sweet spot between high volume queries, and queries that are simultaneously easier rank for, you might have to start considering how these keywords fall into any of the following categories.

  1. Informational: These kinds of queries might be relevant to your audience, but lower in commercial intent and higher up the sales funnel. To our previous example, this might include queries like ‘how Google works’. There might be some relevant, awareness-level traffic in there for us, but there’s also going to be a lot of noise, so they’re going to have low value.
  2. Research: These are the kinds of keywords that are a little further down the funnel, searching things like ‘how to increase organic traffic’. These kinds of keywords tend to fall in somewhere between awareness and consideration phases, so they have moderate value.
  3. Transactional: These are the real bottom-funnel keywords that we’ve been talking about, and are more likely to convert highly, like ‘digital marketing agency Chicago’. These keywords have high value.

How different types of keywords fit in your marketing funnell

So while you may be able to objectively rank various keywords for volume and competitiveness, assigning their value can be somewhat more tricky. If you’re currently running a PPC campaign, your AdWords data should provide you with great insight on the average CPA and conversion rate of visitors coming in via a given keyword. Alternatively, you could take a look at the keyword data in your Webmaster tools account.

Striking a balance

So how do you find a middle ground between volume, competitiveness and value? This is where keyword mapping comes in, targeting specific pages of your site to certain groups of keywords. Typically, you’ll map your highest authority pages to the keywords with the highest commercial intent. To find these top pages, you can use Open Site Explorer, plug in your website’s URL, and use the ‘Top Pages Report’. You can use keyword research to start identifying opportunities where lower competition meets higher volume and higher value.

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