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Back to SEO Basics with Keyword Research

I was speaking with a client the other day who commented on my home page, which talks about my tried-and-true SEO process. “Has your process changed much over time?” the client asked.

I stopped to think for a moment, and realized that while there have been plenty of changes to my SEO process at any given point in time, the fundamentals have mostly remained the same. While Google likes to keep throwing curve balls at SEOs, their algorithm changes and new products and services don’t impact most well-developed websites.

It bothers me no end when I go to search marketing conferences to find perhaps 3 sessions that focus on SEO fundamentals, while 100 others focus on the superfluous SEO techniques du jour that may or may not bring more targeted visitors to your website. Don’t get me wrong — those more “advanced” sessions can provide awesome nuggets of information for those who already have their fundamentals in place. Yet sitting in on site clinic review sessions often reveals that most of the attendees’ websites have a long way to go with even the most basic SEO strategies.

With this in mind, today’s article focuses on your first line of SEO defense — keyword research. Optimizing for the wrong keywords — either those that are not truly relevant to what your business offers or those that aren’t being used by searchers — will have the dire consequence of making you think that SEO is mythical marketing magic that doesn’t work.

To make it easier for you to follow, I’ve broken down my keyword research process into the following 7 steps:

1. Brainstorm
2. Categorize
3. Research
4. Compile
5. Winnow
6. Determine Competitiveness
7. Choose

Brainstorm Keyword Phrases

Think about the various ways in which someone seeking your website’s product, service or information might type into Google. What phrases would they use if they were looking to purchase what you provide? Jot down as many of these as you can think of. Ideally, you’ll want to look at every page of your website, because they usually have different focuses.

While your ideas are important regarding what phrases people might use, you should also ask others to do the same thing. Find colleagues, family, friends and anyone else who might help. If you can run a small focus group consisting of people in your target market – that’s all the better!

Categorize Your Keywords

Using your brainstormed keywords, start to separate them into categories. I like to use an Excel spreadsheet with multiple worksheets for this. So, for instance, if you sell consumer electronics, you’d have multiple categories such as televisions, radios, computers, with specific keyword phrases listed under each category. For something as broad as this, you’d likely have multiple subcategories as well, such as plasma TVs, large-screen TVs, etc.

Research Your Phrases

Head to Google’s keyword suggestion tool and paste in your brainstormed keyword phrases, one category at a time. Using our consumer electronics example, you might plug in your brainstormed plasma TV keywords to start. Note: Be sure you’re logged into your Google account when using the tool or it won’t provide you with all the relevant keywords available.

After you submit your first set of brainstormed keywords through the tool, change the match preference from “broad match” to “exact match” or your data will essentially be useless. (You’ll see the keywords in square brackets if you’ve set it up correctly for exact match.) Take a quick look at the phrases that the tool spits out to make sure they’re fairly relevant, and if so, export them to a comma-separated values file (.csv).

Repeat this process for each of your categories and subcategories.

Compile Your Keyword Lists

Open each of your saved .csv files full of researched keywords, and paste them into the appropriate Excel worksheet, according to the category or subcategory in which they belong. At this point, you shouldn’t be too concerned with what the keyword phrases are or any of the numbers associated with them — you just want to compile your lists for use later. Having them all in one Excel workbook will make things a lot easier as you continue with the keyword research process.

Winnow Out Irrelevant Phrases

While Google’s keyword research tool gives you tons of relevant and related keywords to the brainstormed ones you originally entered, it also adds a lot of unrelated junk phrases. Now’s the time to drop them. There’s no easy way other than using your brain to determine what’s related and what’s not. You can use Excel’s sorting and filtering tools, however, to search for specific words that you see a lot which you know are unrelated, and then delete them in one fell swoop. In the end, you should be left with lots of relevant keyword phrases for every category and subcategory of your website.

Determine the Competitiveness

The idea here is to learn which keyword phrases are within your reach. This simply means that they are phrases people use at Google, but many of your competitors may not have thought to optimize for them yet. Unfortunately, determining keyword competitiveness has proven to be one of the trickiest aspects of the keyword research process. It’s become even more difficult over the past year because Google doesn’t seem to want us to be able to do this easily. While their keyword research tool has a column for “competition,” it’s based on paid search, not natural search, and therefore I find it to be not very helpful in deciding the true competitiveness of any keyword phrase.

About The Author
Jill Whalen is the CEO of High Rankings, an SEO Consulting company in the Boston, MA area since 1995. Follow her on Twitter @JillWhalen .