7 Keyword Research Mistakes That Stifle Your SEO Strategy

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Corey Wainwright
Corey Wainwright



keyword researchintermediate

Getting found in organic search is one of the most cost-effective means of lead generation, so it's no wonder marketers and SEOs spend plenty of time optimizing their online presence to get ranked in the SERPs for important keywords. And whether you're just starting out with SEO or it's been a part of your internet marketing strategy for a while, you're probably familiar with the need to conduct keyword research to inform the content and SEO strategies that help achieve that rocking organic presence.

The thing is ... there are kind of a lot of keywords out there. So which ones do you choose? How do you even approach researching and selecting keywords to target in your content creation and link building efforts when you could realistically have hundreds of thousands in your arsenal?

While it's not a bad idea to keep an eye on a lot of search terms -- you know, to see if some become more or less important to your strategy over time -- you won't get far spreading your efforts so thin. So here are some common mistakes to avoid when conducting your keyword research so you don't end up with too many keywords, the wrong keywords, or an unhealthy mix of keywords to target in your SEO strategy.

1) Selecting Keywords That Don't Reflect How People Actually Search

Sometimes the search terms companies target reflect how they think about their industry, not how their target audience does. Are your search terms full of industry jargon that aren't even part of your leads' vocabulary yet? Are you targeting branded terms that describe your specific solution that many searchers aren't familiar with yet?

For example, not all of the traffic that lands on HubSpot's site actually knows that we sell inbound marketing software. In fact, some don't even know what "inbound marketing" is. But they do know they want to learn more about a component of inbound marketing -- like how to use social media to generate leads. So while it's important to target a search term like "inbound marketing," it's crucial to also target a long-tail term like "how to get leads with social media." That lets us capture traffic for the long-tail term and educate those readers about how generating leads through social media relates to inbound marketing.

If you're having trouble getting inside the minds of your target audience, it's time to get social -- in every sense of the word. Talk to your leads on the phone, ask employees on the front lines with your leads and customers how they talk about the concepts in your industry, and watch how leads and customers on Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks talk about your industry. This will give you a good indication of the language and terms they use to describe their questions. That being said, it's important to confirm that the keywords you brainstorm are on point -- you know, that people actually use them as search terms. Simply check the search volume using HubSpot's Keyword Tool or the Google Keyword Tool. If your search term yields little or no monthly search volume, you haven't hit the mark. If the search term turns up hundreds or even thousands of monthly searches, congratulations! You've got a great new search term to target.

This isn't to say you shouldn't target jargon and branded terms in your search strategy -- you should! But it should also be balanced with the typically longer tail variations of keywords that people use when they don't know exactly what they're looking for (but you know what they're looking for is you!).

2) Failing to Perform Competitive Keyword Analysis

One of the reasons you're optimizing your organic search presence is so you appear higher up in the SERPs than your competitors. Research from Optify shows that websites that appear in listing position 1 in Google had an average click-through rate (CTR) of 36.4%. It drops to a CTR of 12% in position 2, and a 9.5% CTR for position 3. Do you want your competitors getting those clicks, or you?

If you don't perform competitive keyword research, two things may happen: you could end up targeting keywords that don't actually help you capture any competitive market share, or you miss important search terms your competitors are targeting but that you forgot to include in your keyword arsenal. Let's take a look at the "Competitors" function in HubSpot's Keywords Tool, for example.

competitive seo analysis

This indicates the company in question is 17 listing positions away from beating its competitor for the term "using facebook for business." Is this an important keyword with an appropriate level of competitiveness for your business? That is to say, could you realistically move from position 18 to the top 3 for this search term, or is the search volume so high with so many other sites trying to rank for the term, that you would need far more content creation and link build resources than you have to be successful? For this term, there are 1,600 searches, so moving 17 positions is likely well within your grasp.

3) Not Focusing on Profitable Terms

No matter what your competitors are doing, you should always focus on whether the search terms you're targeting affect your bottom line. If your biggest competitor is in position 1 for a term that doesn't actually yield you any leads or customers, who cares, right? Use closed-loop analytics to determine which search terms generate that great traffic that converts into leads and customers so you can prioritize your optimization efforts.

First, take a look at which keywords are driving conversions. In the example below, the keyword "free advertising" yielded a lead, but the keyword "don corleone" didn't give bunk (wonder why?).

profitable keywords

Prioritize the keywords that have the best conversion rate from lead-to-customer, and then take it one step further: look at which keywords drove the most customers. Traffic and leads are good, but customers are better. Based on the closed-loop analytics below, it wouldn't be wise to spend time creating content and building links around the term "lil wayne," despite the fact that it led to some website visitors. Though for what, I can't be sure.

no customers from search terms

4) Having an Uneven Distribution of Keyword Difficulty

Not all keywords are created equal; some are extremely difficult to rank for, and others will be a quick win for your business. The key to seeing constant gains from your organic strategy is constantly targeting keywords of all difficulty levels. If you target only competitive terms -- head terms with search volume in the hundreds of thousands -- maybe you'll see significant gains in several months. Or you could target keywords with low search volume that are easy to rank for -- typically long-tail keywords, which do drive highly qualified traffic -- but never see that big win that comes from ranking for a hugely important head term with tons of traffic.

So the best inbound marketers target both, and they let the long-tail keywords they target feed their campaign to rank for important head terms. So if you're trying to rank for the (possibly) highly competitive head term "unicorn farms," you can spend time improving your rank for it while also generating traffic from long-tail terms like "unicorn farms in boston," "unicorn farms with good reviews," and "best unicorn farms for kids."

5) Not Knowing Your Geography

This first little detail is easy to overlook -- before targeting a search term, ensure the traffic originates in your area of business. If you only sell to customers within a certain geographical location, what good is it to rank for a search term that is searched largely in a place you don't do business? You can filter your searches by location in Google's Keyword Tool.

And if you're a local or regional business, get proactive with geographic search terms. If you're one of just a few unicorn breeders in Michigan, for example, you may be fine to just target terms like "Unicorn breeders in southwest Michigan," "Unicorn breeders near Detroit," and "Unicorn breeders in Michigan." If you're in a much more competitive market, though, like unicorn insurance providers, your geographic terms should be more granular. Consider terms like "Unicorn insurance providers in Royal Oak," "Unicorn insurance providers on Woodward Avenue," and "Unicorn insurance providers 48201."

6) Not Monitoring Search Trends

When considering keywords to target, consider how their popularity trends over time so you can get ahead of a potential search boom before your competitors. This is also a crucial research tactic for seasonal businesses so you have enough content written in advance to rise in the search rankings during the off-season, and keep you in the top when your season is in full swing. You can use tools like Google Insights for Search to see how a certain search phrase performs over time -- you can see when the search starts to increase for "halloween costumes," for example, in the graph below.

keyword trends

This is also crucial to consider because of the way Google presents search traffic -- as a 12-month average. If your business' search traffic has major seasonality swings, the search volume estimates you're receiving could overstate or understate the current importance of targeting any given search term.

7) Failing to Maintain and Adjust Over Time

Just as you should monitor the search trends of keywords over time, you should also monitor your performance for keywords over time. First, see if your content creation and link-building efforts are helping you improve your listing position in the SERPs for the search terms you're targeting, and whether that improved listing position is actually driving traffic, leads, and customers.

keyword tracking

But, just as important, is watching how your performance tracks for search terms that you've already gained top positions for. Often, marketers stop optimizing for search terms that they are always in the top of the SERPs for, because come on, they already made it to number 1! But you can easily slip from that position if competitors ramp up their efforts to rank for that term. Continue to create content and build links around these terms, or you could find yourself struggling to regain lost positions -- and all the traffic, leads, and customers you lost with it.

What other pitfalls should marketers avoid when targeting keywords for their SEO strategy?

Image credit: Danard Vincente

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