Keyword Research for Search Engine Marketing

Keyword research may be one of the most important activities you undertake as you promote your website and business online. Learn some of the basics before diving into this vital marketing task.

As you tackle the thorny issue of search-engine marketing for your small business, keyword research – determining which keywords to target in your search-advertising and optimization efforts – may be the most important task you undertake.

More than simply a smart tactical move, researching keywords and brainstorming will help you focus on the concepts and content that define your business and Web presence.

Got your attention yet? Then let’s dive into some of the methods and tools of the trade to help you whittle down the list to just the right set of keywords for marketing your business online.

Resources for keyword research

Ultimately your goal is simply this: Find keywords that send qualified visitors to your Web site. To accomplish this, you need to find search phrases that your ideal (target) customers are using (traffic).

To unearth the right keywords, take advantage of as many resources as you can – both free and paid research services. Free tools include the Google Keyword Tool, Google Search-Based Keyword Tool and Google Insights (for which  Paid options offer much deeper analysis of search terms, suggestions for additional phrases and easy export of results). Two popular choices are Wordtracker and Keyword Discovery. Both services offer monthly and annual subscriptions; investing in one of them for a month of intensive research is well worth the cost.

Just as you would when using a search engine, start broadly with your research – if you’re a marketing services company, start with “marketing services,” and drill down into the lengthier phrases and synonyms you find.

All the tools mentioned above will provide an estimate of the traffic for a particular phrase. Once you’ve gathered a set of phrases that have some measurable traffic and relate to your Web site, it’s time to figure out which terms you’re going to use in your search-marketing efforts.

Measurable and profitable results of keyword research

At the outset, some of your decisions about which phrases match up best with your product or services will necessarily come down to instinct. The best choices are going to marry a strong amount of traffic to a descriptive phrase clearly related to your business. When you’re narrowing down to a shorter list of phrases, make your first cut on that basis – good traffic and obvious relevance to your products or services.

So you’re done, right? Not so fast. Before you head off to optimize your site or set up a search advertising campaign, you have to grapple with Return on Investment for those key phrases. That means sizing up the competition.

Beating your head against the wall trying to rank well or buy a search-ad position against a powerful, entrenched competitor is going to send the I in ROI out of control, and most likely kill any chances of a decent return as well.

To evaluate how stiff the competition will be for a particular phrase, you’ll want to take a look at some or all of the following factors:

  • The top-ranking sites for the term. Not surprisingly, you’re going to have a tougher time unseating a big, established Web site than a smaller player. Although you need to take their results with a big grain of salt, Google Pagerank and Alexa ranking are two measuring sticks you can use to compare different sites. Use them for guidance, but understand that many factors contribute to the results and they can sometimes be misleading.
  • The current cost to rank highly in search ads. This can change almost by the moment. Tap the Google AdWords bid checking tool for this information.
  • Exactly which sites are optimizing for your search phrases. Use Google’s advanced search operators, such as “allintitle” and “allinurl”, to determine this. A search for your term may turn up millions of results, but only a fraction of those sites are actively optimizing for your phrases. These searches will give you a better idea of how big the competitive field really is.

There are even more methods of evaluating overall competitiveness, but these should give you a clearer picture of what you’re up against in targeting each of your phrases. You’ll find the best ROI with those phrases that have the right mix of a competitive opening and solid traffic.

Keyword research never ends

Now that you have a good list of phrases for your search-marketing campaigns, you’re ready to begin optimizing your site for search and/or setting up a search-advertising campaign. But don’t think you can stick that keyword list on the shelf and forget about it.

Your competition will invariably shift over time, seasonality and other events will shift traffic across the phrases you’ve targeted, and your own business priorities may change. So keyword research has to become part of your overall, ongoing market research efforts. Use Google Trends to keep up-to-date on the shifting demand for keywords over time.


Just as your customers’ needs change over time, so will their search behavior. If you’re not ahead of the curve, someone else will step in with their own search-marketing scheme. Keep an eye on the horizon, and one over your shoulder, and you can be a contender.

Chuck Fuller is the Online Marketing Director at StartupNation.

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