Just like every good house has strong foundations, and every good marketing campaign is preceded by a well thought-out plan or strategy, in-depth keyword research should be carried out in order to give an SEO campaign the best possible chance to succeed.

Even so, some businesses and marketers either research their keywords quickly and haphazardly - not giving the process the attention it deserves - or don't even bother doing it at all and simply select keywords based on guesswork and assumption. It may be because they are simply so eager to get started on their SEO, but it’s worth taking the time to conduct proper keyword research before any actual work is started or carried out. You never know, it could make the difference between absolute success or complete failure in the SERPs (search engine result pages).

So what is keyword research?

Keyword research is simply the case of establishing which keywords you should be targeting as part of your SEO campaign. Wikipedia's definition sums it up pretty well, too.

Ideally, keyword research should be carried out right at the start of an SEO campaign, as its results may dictate which keywords you use, and therefore how you word the content on your website (in terms of SEO copywriting) and the types of links you try to get (in terms of link building). It should also be reviewed on an on-going basis, just in case keywords become obsolete or less important going forward.

What's important to consider in keyword research?

There are a number of factors to consider when conducting keyword research for SEO:

  • Search volume: Obviously, one of the most important factors is the number of people who actually search using a particular keyword. The last thing you want to do is assume a keyword gets lots of search volume, only to find that no one actually uses it!

    Fortunately, Google provides search volume data, via the Google AdWords Keyword Tool, which is free to use. Although it's designed for AdWords/PPC users, its data is general and can therefore be used for SEO purposes, too.
  • Competition: Marketers should also consider the level of competition for each keyword. Logic dictates that a keyword with high search volume should be more competitive (e.g. it may be more difficult to rank #1 for "shoes" compared to something like "ladies black and white shoes"), and although this is often the case, it's worth looking into, as you may find a golden, uncompetitive opportunity that’s there for the taking.

    But how can someone judge competition more accurately? The main way is to consider the number of competing pages. When you search for the keyword, how many pages does Google say it's found (when it says "About x results," below the search bar)? Is it in the millions, thousands or dozens? Another way is to use SEOmoz's Keyword Difficulty Score tool, which gives a rough indication - based on its own metrics - on how competitive a SERP might be. However, this particular tool is only available to PRO members of SEOmoz.
  • Current rankings: It's surprising how much this one tends to get overlooked. If you're already on page 2 for a particular keyword, it might be easier to optimise it further - and get it onto page 1, where it's more likely going to get spotted and clicked - than to spend time concentrating on a keyword where you're currently on page 10, for example.

It's time to choose some keywords - now what?

Once you've gotten your list of keywords along with their search volume, competition and ranking data, it's not simply a case of choosing based on the best numbers alone...

You should also consider the following:

  • Trends: Is a keyword likely to see a major increase or decrease of searches in the future, based on what's happened in the past? This is important to consider, especially as the Google AdWords Keyword Tool is based on past data. A good example would be keywords including "2012," e.g. "best careers 2012" - this keyword will probably get a lot of search volume in 2012, but come January 2013, is it likely to continue performing so well? A good tool to use to judge trends in Google is the Google Insights for Search tool, which is free to use.
  • Demographics: It's also important to consider demographics. Who are your customers? Who do you want as a visitor for your website? Do older searchers (the elderly) use different types of keywords compared to younger searchers (young adults), for example? This could be important if your site or business in general is targeting a particular demographic - you'll want your keyword choices to reflect that demographic, wherever possible and if it's possible to ascertain such information.
  • Conversions: Do some of your products or services convert better than others? If you know of some areas of your business that convert well, does it make sense to concentrate on those areas more than others with your keyword choices and overall SEO campaign?
  • Profitability: Similarly, are some products and services more profitable to you? Should you be concentrating on areas that would be worth the most money to you?
  • Long term plans: Keywords can take a while to rank and can be difficult to change mid-campaign. Will you still be providing a particular product or service in 6-12 months' time? For less permanent and more short-term online marketing efforts, you might want to consider PPC as well or instead. I recently wrote a guide explaining the differences between SEO and PPC for small businesses, which covers this aspect in more detail.

Ideally, a mix of keywords should be selected. You do not want to put all of your eggs in one basket and rely on just a handful of keywords. Consider a mix of short-, mid- and long-term keywords (perhaps a mix of easy/uncompetitive keywords as well as difficult/competitive keywords) as well as content-related keywords for possible content creation purposes.

What's so important about keyword research?

As mentioned above, keyword research is important as it acts as the foundation for your overall SEO efforts. The keywords chosen are likely to dictate all onsite and offsite work, including copywriting, content strategy and on-going link building.

The last thing you want to do is realise 3-6 months down the line that you've been concentrating on the wrong keywords. You may find that your previous efforts have been a waste of time, and rectifying them may absorb additional time as well as money.

So as eager as you might be to get started on SEO, spending a few hours on keyword research might help you to avoid wasting hours, days or even weeks of time in the future. You might also find a keyword that the rest of your competitors have missed, which could be very valuable in terms of generating new business.

In Part 2, we'll cover the 6 most common mistakes people make when conducting keyword research. Keep an eye out for it next week!

EDIT: Part 2 is now live and can be found here!

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