For a long time, digital marketers organized their entire content calendar around specific keywords. They'd work with their teams to brainstorm core keywords relevant to their products or services, as well as all the variations of that keyword most likely to bring them high-converting traffic.
And, ultimately, it worked. Users from around the world could enter specific search terms into a search engine and, if their intent matched your keywords, they'd land on your site.
Unfortunately, as time went on, publications began stuffing irrelevant, poorly-written content with specific keywords just to get more traffic. Search engines weren't helping users find the information they needed anymore, because searches weren't going to relevant information -- they were just going to a keyword-stuffed filler page.
Eventually, search engines realized they had to adapt to account for bad content. As search engines, largely led by Google and its constantly-changing search algorithm, became more advanced, the power of keywords waned in favor of a more contextual-based approach to content.
Nowadays, it's not uncommon to see a plethora of articles with titles proclaiming the "death of keywords", to mark the shift away from a purely keyword-focused world of SEO.
But don't buy flowers to send to the funeral just yet. While keywords may not be the SEO powerhouse they once were, they're still hugely important to growing your organic traffic.
Mastering keywords can still help your content strategy substantially as long as you approach them with an updated perspective -- here, we're going to tell you how.
What are keywords in SEO?
SEO keywords refer to words or phrases that describe what a given piece of content is about. Keywords allow search engines to properly rank your content, and also help users find relevant content to their search queries. For instance, you might search 'what are popular Instagram hashtags?' on Google, and a blog post ranking for the keyword phrase 'Instagram hashtags' will appear on page one.
Once a search engine crawls a website and determines what it's about, the search engine is then able to associate a piece of content with certain keywords being searched. This helps relevant content show up for specific searches.
As previously mentioned, for a long time this meant bloggers could stuff their content full of specific keywords and rank well -- but that's no longer the case. More sophisticated search algorithms have changed the way keywords are associated with content.
Now, while keywords are still useful tools for conceptualizing and planning your content strategy, their effectiveness is entirely rooted in context.
Remember, the purpose of a search engine is to deliver the most useful content to each user. Ultimately, search engines aim to deliver a similar experience to the way people communicate with each other in real life. If I were to walk up to you on the street and say "marketing", you wouldn't find the conversation very useful (and you might think I'm crazy).
However, if we were sitting together in a cafe and I said, "I enjoy creating content that helps people get better at digital marketing," you'd have context regarding my intentions, and we'd then be able to engage in a dialogue.
Keywords work the same way. The power of a keyword is not in the word itself, but in the context in which it's used. When it comes to search engines understanding what your content is about, think of your entire website as various parts of a sentence. You may have a blog post centered on the keyword "software", but if it's an orphaned blog post and the rest of your website doesn't mention software again, you're probably not going to see much organic traffic to that post.
However, if you've written other pieces of content about the various aspects of B2B software and have been fleshing out a topic cluster to show that you're an authority within the field, then Google is going to have the context it needs. Your keyword "software" won't be standing on its own -- Google and other search engines will be able to see it as a complete thought: "I am an authority on this topic, so this piece of content is likely to prove useful for the person searching this term."
Unfortunately, the internet is a busy place, and it's virtually impossible to be the only person writing about any given topic ... so even if you're creating great content about a specific keyword and providing helpful context for search engines to understand your content, how do you stand out from the crowd?
That’s where keyword difficulty comes into play.
What is keyword difficulty?
Keyword difficulty, otherwise known as keyword competitiveness, is a measure of how challenging it is to rank well for a specific keyword. In addition to how many pieces are already ranking for a specific keyword, your domain authority and paid search volume factor into the keyword difficulty for any given search query. The lower a keyword's difficulty, the easier it is to rank for that keyword.
Oftentimes, the keywords with the highest difficulty are the ones for which everybody in an industry wants to rank well. For example, broad keywords like "insurance", "marketing", or "technology" are all going to be highly competitive because they apply to a wide variety of searches, and there's already a ton of content written on these topics.
The market for these and similar broad terms is completely saturated. Getting a foothold for a search term like "marketing" would be like constructing a generic coffee shop with no name recognition between a Starbucks and a Dunkin' Donuts -- you may get a bit of business here and there, but if someone thinks of coffee in your area, they're probably going to go to one of the established businesses they know.
For your business to truly gain SEO traction, then, it's important to take less competitive keywords into consideration. Focusing on less competitive keywords enables you to demonstrate what makes you different and reach an audience that's best fit for your business.
If we go back to the coffee shop example, concentrating on less competitive keywords is like branding yourself as the only 'specialty cat cafe' in the city. In this situation, it's easier to stand out because you're focusing on what makes you unique to your target buyer persona.
After all, the person looking for a cat cafe to sit in and relax is probably not the same person wanting a quick cup of coffee on their way to work -- just like someone searching for "technology" is not the same person searching for "small business technology setup service".
What's great about leaning into less competitive keywords is that it will allow you to clearly define your niche and build your authority within a specific field. Because there is less competition, it's easier to establish yourself as a thought leader on a given subject -- and, ultimately, establishing authority is invaluable when it comes to SEO.
The more authoritative you are on niche topics, the more authoritative your website will be overall. Building authority through great content, backlinks, and user experience is your best bet for getting your foot in the door and being able to compete with established players for more competitive and more valuable keywords.
Unfortunately, there's no magic trick to jump to the top of the food chain when it comes to SEO. To rank well on search engines, you need to consistently create high-quality content and plan ahead to think about how all of your content will fit together in the long-term.
How to find keywords
- Clearly define your target persona
- Narrow your focus and investigate competitiveness
- Collect data, analyze results, repeat
1. Clearly define your target persona.
Having a clear understanding of your ideal audience is going to be key for any marketing endeavor. With keyword research, it's especially important to understand what questions you can answer or problems you can solve for this target persona. At this point, it's okay to think in broad terms regarding what those problems or questions are.
For instance, if you're a PR agency, you need to find leads who are interested in hiring a third-party to help them run a PR campaign. To do this, perhaps you begin by writing content that answers the question "How to run a successful PR campaign".
A broader topic is a good starting point for building a pillar page for your topic cluster.
2. Narrow your focus and investigate competitiveness.
Once you've determined the overarching question or problem you are addressing, it's time to get more specific. Getting more specific allows you to cater your content to your audience, and it helps you leverage less competitive keywords.
I like to narrow my focus by using lsigraph.com. LSI, or latent semantic indexing, is a process of generating search query variations by determining how closely a given search term relates to other search terms. Think of using latent semantic indexing tools as a way of brainstorming and generating a lot of keyword ideas quickly and easily.
From there, using other tools to analyze how competitive a keyword is -- such as Google's Keyword Planner -- can help you determine which keywords have the most potential for your business. Again, if you're organizing your content in a topic cluster, this is a good way to decide what your sub-topics and supporting content will be.
3. Collect data, analyze results, repeat.
As you create content around specific keywords, keep in mind that a great content strategist doesn't just throw content out randomly to see what sticks. Consider using a tool like Google Search Console to keep track of how you're performing for your keywords.
Google Search Console can also help you see whether you're generating traffic from keywords you hadn't planned on ranking for, which can inform your future strategy. Having this knowledge is crucial for further refining your keyword planning and identifying those green territories that have significant potential to bring you new customers.
Whether you're just getting started with keyword planning or looking to amplify your SEO efforts that are already underway, keep your customer persona at the front of mind and don't be afraid to recalibrate your strategy as you collect more data. Great inbound marketing is about having the right content reach your ideal potential customers when they need it, and getting smart with your keyword approach is a fantastic way to do that.
Originally published Apr 18, 2019 7:00:00 AM, updated April 17 2019