Keyword optimization is a critical aspect of on-site SEO that can make or break the success of your SEO campaign. Optimizing your site content with the right keywords involves the following steps:

Steps for keyword optimization

  1. Researching & organizing a list of keywords that are most relevant to your website content and your target audience. Keywords with the highest probability of driving targeted traffic to your website when ranking well for them.
  2. Prioritizing keywords based on current ranking competition for the keyword in search results.
  3. Optimizing your page content with keywords as naturally as possible, and placing keywords in vital sections of your page (discussed further down).

Optimization and keyword intent

Researching, organizing, and optimizing keywords for your content to better align with a user’s keyword intent is how you realize better results with on-site SEO. Once you’ve got your keywords figured out, you’ll have a better sense of direction. As a result, creating content optimized for search engines becomes an easier process.

Understanding the right keywords to optimize for will help you develop content that truly helps your target audience. Search engines like Google will then reward your website with higher rankings and higher quality web traffic that can lead to more potential business.

Before diving into keyword research, let’s take a look at the types of keywords involved.

Types of Keywords

Depending on the context and user intent, many words and phrases of topical significance can be considered “keywords”. Thinking about which keywords to target becomes more manageable when we go ahead and break keyword phrases down into types:

  1. Broad Keywords. Usually one word or 2-word phrases. Broad keywords cover larger scopes of a topic, like “business”. Broad keywords are very competitive and used often in the language of discussing the related topic/field/industry. For example, this post is about “keyword optimization” (a somewhat broad subtopic keyword phrase) which falls under the umbrella of “SEO” (a very broad topic/field/industry keyword).
  2. Long-tail Keywords. Usually phrases of 3 or more words. Longer-tailed keywords are generally less competitive and more specific than the broad topical keywords they relate to. For example, “credit card offers no interest” would be a long-tail of “credit card offers”, a phrase that can also be perceived as a long-tail phrase stemming from the broader “credit card” keyword phrase.
  3. Local Keywords. Local or “geotargeted” keywords are either broad or long-tail keywords with local-based intent to them. Targeting the right local keyword phrases is vital to the success of local SEO efforts. Local businesses, especially those with a storefront, need to target the right local keywords in their site content and in 3rd party local listings/directories/sites to increase search engine visibility and improve local keyword rankings for their local area.

Further keyword categorization

You can also categorize keywords further: Example categories include competitor names, interests of your target audience, industry leaders, industry suppliers, products, services, tending industry-related terms. (Check out Google Trends for this type of analysis.)

Breaking down keywords by category can help you examine your industry and related topics through several lenses. Researching keywords based on your audience interests, for instance, might reveal some new marketing opportunities you’d never think about otherwise.

Don’t confuse the keyword types above with Google AdWords PPC keyword match types. The PPC match types are keyword variations used to control which searches trigger pay-per-click ads.

Next, we’ll go over user keyword intent. The user intent behind the keyword phrases that make up user search engine queries. Great content that ranks high for a specific search query or keyword phrase tends to satisfy the user intent behind the query extremely well, and better than competing page results.

Understanding Keyword Intent

Your SEO content efforts should align with a user’s keyword intent. This “intent” can also be viewed as the purpose, aim, intention, goal, or desire behind a user’s search query. All SEO campaigns require focusing on matching page content to the keyword intent behind relevant search queries used by your target audience for best results.

Give people what they want

Keyword-optimized content is required to give people exactly what they’re looking for when querying search engines like Google and Bing. Over time, the content best aligned to a reader’s search query intent should end up ranking very well for that specific search query and/or other related search queries.

Matching your content with intent

This is where some keyword research comes into play.

Create a Google Search Console (GSC) property, submitting your site’s sitemap if you haven’t done so already. Search Console provides data for you to better understand how Google views your website, including your site’s indexed presence in Google Search Results. Similarly, submit your site’s sitemap in Bing Webmaster Tools and get similar web presence data from Bing’s search engine.

Check search console for strong keywords

Example: In Google Search Console, you can view user-searched keywords that Google has displayed your site for in its search results. (Note: The search data is not real-time and update times vary. The data is often behind by 2-3 days.) In the Search Console, find these keywords by following “Search Traffic” -> “Search Analytics” under the console menu on the left-hand side of your screen. If your site is new, light on content, and/or hasn’t submitted a sitemap file or has no pages indexed, you will see little to no data until your content is further optimized for your targeted keyword topics and crawled again by Google’s search bots.

Search Analytics in Google Search ConsoleLearn intent through competitors

Note the keywords found under Search Analytics in Google Search Console that you want to improve rank for. Google these search terms and review the competitor content currently ranking well for these keywords when searched. Examine not only into their page content, elements, and writing style, but their site’s content structure and design too. If you have the time and are not feeling overwhelmed, go crazy by starting off-site SEO research, analyzing the competitor sites’ links to and from other sites, and record this data in a spreadsheet for revisiting during outreach and link building efforts.

Analyze competitor content

Get a sense of the type of users your competitors’ content is marketed to. These are the same kinds of users you should probably market to as well if you’re looking to align your content to rank for similar search queries and engage the most relevant potential visitors and customers. It can be useful to think about all ranking content from the searching user’s point of view as well. Examples: Will this page answer my question on the topic? Will the answer be thorough enough for me, or will I need to visit a different page? Does this page answer my other questions on the topic too?

Fresh ideas to align with keyword intent

Performing this kind of keyword research using Google & Bing’s webmaster tools. If you apply more of what you discover in this keyword data, your page content will begin to move up the ranks for more phrases.

Ultimately, you will create better content that aligns with a user’s keyword intent simply by performing systemic, in-depth keyword research.

Preparing for Keyword research

Effective keyword research happens when you understand your business, including the following aspects:

  • Your products/services/offerings
  • Your target user’s keyword intents and buyer persona
  • Possible keyword research techniques to use
  • Possible keyword research tools to use

About the above aspects

The first two aspects listed above can help transform your thoughts into initial keyword phrases to start keyword researching. Going through the technique motions may help a bit as well. Tools will move along the keyword research process more efficiently.

As a business, your target user’s buyer persona is very helpful to understand. As defined by HubSpot, “a buyer persona is a semi-fictional representation of your ideal customer based on market research and real data about your existing customers.”

Understanding keyword intent can help you more accurately form your target user’s buyer persona. All it takes are some simple, but powerful thoughts to fuel the direction of your keyword research and content strategy.

Target user questions to think about

Why would your target user or audience want to read your service page, blog post, or article? Is it to be entertained, learn, or buy? Are they just curious or bored? What are their possible reasons behind searching a keyword phrase, finding, and reading your content? You’ll want to understand these types of questions as thoroughly as possible to really hone your content for your target users. And, to develop your content in the context of keyword searches used by your target audience to find the piece of content.

Thinking about these things whenever you have the time, especially before you create a new page of content is powerful. You will become a natural at aligning your words with user intent, and you’ll do better keyword research for SEO campaigns. You will also create better content for both search engines and users.

Compare content with competitors

Compare your branding ideas and current website content with your competitions’. Form a list of “head” or “broad” keywords and “long-tail” keyword phrases you find valuable that competitor site pages are active and ranking for. Build upon this list over the life of your SEO campaign, experimenting with keyword research tools. There are many awesome free ones out there, and a few worth paying for if you have the budget, such as Ahrefs and SEMRush. Both awesome sources of keyword and competitor keyword data, including the ability to track custom lists of keyword data, and other great features to hone your on-site and off-site SEO.

Organize your keyword ideas

Use your favorite spreadsheet software like Excel or Google Sheets to record keyword ideas and related information discovered over time. In addition, you might find mind mapping software like XMind useful for recording your keyword research thoughts. Mind mapping is an incredible way to visually organize brainstorming and all kinds of information.

Performing Keyword Research

You can begin performing keyword research by taking advantage of search data tools like the Keyword Planner tool in Google AdWords, Google Search Console, Bing Webmaster Tools, Google Trends, paid keyword tools like Ahrefs or SEMRush, free tools online, and by performing strategic manual Google and Bing searches.

Google Keyword Planner

Although this tool is geared towards keyword research for pay-per-click (PPC) ads, you can still get a valuable sense of keyword phrases commonly searched in Google, how often they’re searched based on location, and how competitive they are based on suggested PPC ad bids from keyword planner provided for free by Google. You’ll just need a Google AdWords account to access the tool.

Google Search Console & Bing Webmaster Tools

Review historical website and keyword data in the webmaster tools provided by Google and Bing. In both Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools, you can analyze which search queries have and are displaying your website pages at specific ranking positions. That is if you’ve previously submitted your website’s sitemap, or your site has been indexed already. Discover user query or keyword stats like clicks from search, impressions in search, click-through rate (CTR), and average search position. Improve your website content by building off of this query data.

AdWords Search Terms Report

If you’re also running a Google AdWords campaign that’s targeting similar keywords, the search terms report can be a valuable addition to your keyword research process. You’ll see all the terms searched by users who are finding your ads. It’s a great way to see the types of terms you might want to incorporate into your content.

Google Suggest

Experiment with Google searches that stem from your target keyword by using Google’s autocomplete search function known as “Google Suggest”. When searching in Google, take advantage of the auto-suggested phrases provided by this search feature. These suggestions are based on commonly searched keyword phrases in Google. Phrases that Google deems most relatable to the words you’ve so far typed into your Chrome browser or Google search bar. Bing also provides a similar auto-complete function. Perform more extensive keyword research utilizing both and noting differences in phrase output.

Google Trends

While doing keyword research, Google Trends is a great tool to discover and visualize keyword search trends. You can research keyword trends based on location, timeframe, category, and type of Google Search (ie. web search, image search). You’ll also get data on related topics and related queries that you might find helpful to improve your content or create supporting content on your website.

Google Trends for Keyword ResearchUsing Keywords in Content

After you’ve researched your target keyword phrases, it’s time to apply them and optimize your content piece for Search.

Create a framework

When creating keyword-optimized, unique content, it helps to start with a skeletal framework. Think about the theme/topic of your content piece, such as the subsections included to make the topic easier to digest for your readers. Without organizing your thoughts and recording your findings in an organized manner as you go, it can be easy to get overwhelmed when researching keywords and then creating content for both your target audience and search engines.

Push keywords forward

Where possible, test pushing your primary keyword phrase forward in your page’s search title and <h1> title. Small changes like these may change how search engines perceive your content in relation to your target keyword. Same with your keyword’s use and positioning within your page’s body copy and subheadings. Test adjustments like these gradually, once you have page clickthrough and ranking data to compare to, on a monthly basis or timeframe that you feel suits the page. However, keep in mind that there are many more search engine ranking factors taken into account to rank a page for a keyword phrase.

Spread out keywords

Spreading out the use of keywords in your content can help provide a more optimized, fluid piece of content. While its best to write naturally versus over-optimizing, it can be helpful to take the positioning of keywords into account before publishing or when revisiting a piece to update. For example, you might have used a keyword phrase ten times in the first half of your copy, and nowhere in the last half. In terms of optimization theory, it may be safer to spread out keyword use where possible, as well as for related terms you use, to produce a more balanced piece for gaining better keyword visibility traction in search engines.

Combine keyword types

Combine LSI keywords and synonyms to boost target keyword relevance of your content. LSI (latent semantic indexing) keywords are words related to your target keywords and topic. LSI keywords help provide more relevant and understandable information for your target audience and search engines. Creating optimized, relatable content by incorporating LSI keywords and synonyms can do wonders for the search engine reach of your content.

Optimize keyword locations

Improve your content by testing the use of your target keyword in specific sections of your site. If you feel it helps your target audience understand your content better, or helps in navigation, you might as well test out these types of changes. Google search bots examine sections of your website for indexing and ranking by crawling through your site’s HTML and JavaScript, to discern meaning and relevance in relation to user searches. The bots determine keyword relevancy for pages on your site, and how this relevancy ties into other signals for ranking in search engines (within the algorithm). Like other SEO tactics, optimizing keyword location can help provide more clarity and context to Google, improving your ranking ability for your target keyword.

This free keyword density analyzer tool by SEOBook is a very useful tool for discovering your usage of keyword phrases in your content. With this keyword research tool, you’re able to compare the phrase usage of your page content with competing pages by opening up multiple browser tabs. In doing so, you might discover related keywords to incorporate into your piece. You might also uncover keyword correlations, such as noticing 3 of the top-ranking pages for your target keyword are using the same x phrases.

You can further optimize for target keywords by including them in the website sections listed below:

Important keyword locations:

  • The top-level domain name (toplevel.com)
  • Subdomain name (toplevel.subdomain.com)
  • Title Tag of page (title in search results)
  • H1 Title Tag of page (title before 1st paragraph)
  • Meta Description Tag of page
  • Links where relevant
  • Content of page

Don’t worry

If you’re existing domain doesn’t include any of your target keywords, don’t worry. Having a keyword-heavy domain or what’s called an exact-match domain (when a domain is an exact keyword phrase like “usedcars.com”) was stronger in signal in the past and is less of a major ranking factor now in the grand scheme of ranking signals.

While you may notice some exact-match domains ranking or receiving slight relevance boosts from this, these types of sites can still be outranked, if you satisfy the other more important SEO factors like having positive local reviews online, a social presence, quality links pointing to your website, and helpful, informative copy on your site.

Keyword Over-Optimization

Avoid keyword stuffing and unnatural use of keywords. Since April of 2012, Google’s algorithm has become much more capable of detecting website activities like over-optimization, thin content, linking up with spammy, low-quality sites, and duplicate content.

Silly tactics

There are a variety of low-quality, deceptive, and manipulative SEO tactics that go against Google’s webmaster quality guidelines. Check out Google’s guidelines for a better understanding of these prohibited activities.

Improved detection capabilities

Other popular search engines like Russia’s Yandex and Microsoft’s Bing have also been improving their website crawling and detection capabilities for low-quality page content that shouldn’t rank or appear in search results, so quality is more important than ever.

Publishing content that you would enjoy reading yourself if you were a part of your target audience is one of the best ways to reduce the risk of being penalized by search engines like Google. As if you were a searcher online who just discovered your page through search query variations you’re optimizing for.

Content isn’t always permanent

Remember, you can always update and refine your site’s content but avoid publishing too prematurely. At a minimum, your content should provide value to your readers in a way that satisfies their search/keyword query intent. Once this is complete, you can begin optimizing keywords in-depth.

Keyword Optimization is An Ongoing Process

Once value and user intent are achieved for your webpage, you can be more flexible in improving your content’s keyword optimization. Follow the keyword research and optimization advice above and you will be running a strong content-driven SEO campaign in no time.

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