what are keywords and how do they work?

You throw the word around because it’s marketing nomenclature, but do you really know anything about keywords? C’mon. We’ll keep it between us and the screen you’re reading right now.

You don’t know as much as you like people to think you do, do you? That’s okay. Keep reading. We’ve got your back.

Keywords are words or strings of words that potential customers use to search for something online. Usually those words describe something your company is known for: business consulting, web design, children’s clothes, etc. They’re more than a hashtag (although you might see them there) and different than a tagline (there, too). Keywords are the link (pun intended) between you and your customers in an online marketing environment.

Put another way, keywords are the common ground of communication between three parties: a search engine, a website, and a searcher. All three parties need to be on the same page, the planets properly aligned, for optimal communication.

Discovering or determining keywords is a bit like backwards detective work. Instead of finding clues and having those clues point you to a solution, your website is the solution and you have to work backwards to discover the clues leading potential clients to you. Your default thought process at this point might be to think the more keywords you have the better. Not true. The goal of keywords is to narrow the focus of the search, like funneling water into a specific location for the purposes of growing crops.

Still on the struggle bus? What if I told you to think of keywords as search terms instead? What would people who need/want your product/service type into Google when they begin their search? That’s where the quest for keywords begins, but it shouldn’t end there.

How Google Interprets Keywords

If you had to choose one word or phrase to represent what you do or what you sell, what would it be?

Go ahead. Think about it. I’ll wait.

Got it?

Now think about what would pop up in the search engines if somebody typed that word.

Seriously. Think about it.

Better yet. Just open up another tab, do the search, and then come back. I’m not going anywhere.

What do you notice?

Is the word too broad (e.g. printing or design)? Are there multiple meanings (e.g. nursery or medium)?

Google is getting smarter and smarter. Think artificial intelligence is gaining on actual human intelligence kind of smart. The search engine is “learning” synonyms and how groups of words might be related to one another, but there is still plenty of room for misunderstanding. In case you haven’t noticed, English is a whacked-out language that intermittently breaks its own rules. We park on driveways, drive on parkways, and make words with completely different meanings sound exactly the same: two, to, and too as well as their, there, and they’re. Google hasn’t quite mastered all of the nuances just yet, but it’s getting awfully close.

keyword synonyms

For example, a search for the word “nursery” may return results for a store that sells plants or it may return results for a baby’s room. (Google is learning to use context clues, but it’s not a foolproof process.) A “medium” could be a t-shirt size or a category of art. “Design” could be a noun or a verb and the way the word is used determines the results. Crazy, right?

So when you’re thinking about keywords, don’t let yourself get tunnel vision and only think of terms as they relate to your specific context. Narcissism works against you. Think about all of the ways potential keywords could be used and then clarify as well as you can.

It may help to envision a stream of consciousness. Initially the searcher typed this, but the results weren’t what they had hoped so they adjusted the search to that. And so on until they find what they’re looking for. Follow the same path to discover your keywords.

Discover Your Optimal Keywords

When you’re doing keyword research, you want to consider the following things:

  • How people might search for what you’re offering
  • Long tail keywords (phrases rather than single words)
  • Location specific keywords
  • How competitive your preferred keyword is

How people might search for you

We’ve already discussed the one word search briefly. Let’s talk about other search possibilities. With voice recognition becoming more prevalent, people are more likely to ask Google or Siri for answers on their phones. What questions might your target market ask that could lead them to you? Those questions can be blog post titles (more on that later) or contain potential keywords or key phrases. For example, the parent of a child with food allergies might search for gluten free menu items by asking Siri, “Which restaurants near me serve gluten free food?”

On the other hand, at home on a desktop computer, a mom typing “gluten free food” in a search bar could be looking for restaurants, for groceries, or for recipes. The results of her search may lead her to type in a more specific search (or to use one of the suggested search terms Google automatically lists).

search barThese scenarios tell you lots about how people search. The way they search points to keywords you might want to target. Using our example, if you are a restaurant with a gluten free menu, you might target the keyword phrase “restaurants that serve gluten free food” or “gluten free menu in (your specific city)”. However, if you sell gluten free cake mixes, those particular searches won’t necessarily apply to your target market.

Do a few of these types of searches to find a list of potential keywords. If you run out of ideas, look at the suggested searches provided by Google to supplement your list.

Long tail keywords

Long tail keywords are basically keyword phrases. We’ve hit on them a little bit already. Instead of just searching for “restaurants” people might search for “restaurants with a gluten free menu”. Once upon a time searches were more vague, choppy and simplistic: “restaurants gluten free.” Now they’re more natural and specific. People are more likely to search a specific question thanks to verbal search options (Siri and ask Google) on mobile devices. Long tail keywords address the current search environment.

Location specific keywords

Similarly, you want to keep your location in mind. People who live in your area and people who may be visiting your area may use location specific search terms to find you, especially if you’re a brick and mortar store. For example, a bride may be looking for a wedding venue. It’s doubtful she’ll just type “wedding venues” into search because it will return results from all over the world. Even if she wants a destination wedding, I doubt that’s how her search will begin. Instead she’ll probably search for something more location specific like “wedding venues in Phoenix”. Will your target market be looking for something in a specific location (near me, close by, etc.)?

When you combine all the specifics of search, you’ve narrowed your target keywords by honing in on your target market. Instead of a vague keyword like “dogs”, you now have a specific long tail keyword like “shelter dogs for adoption in Juneau”.

How competitive is your keyword

Now that you’ve come up with a list of possible keywords, you want to find the best one for you. How many other companies/organizations are trying to rank for the same keyword?

You can do an initial assessment of how competitive your keyword is by looking at what turns up in the search results when you type it in. Look for the following:

  • The number of ads at the top of the list
  • The other websites that are ranking on the first page of results (Are they direct competitors? Huge corporations? Educational sites like Wikipedia? Review sites?)
  • The types of content that show up in results (news, images, videos, blog posts, ebooks, etc.)

For example, if you’re a local business that sells custom sunglasses, you’ll struggle to compete for the keyword “sunglasses” for the following reasons:

  • There are four ads at the top of the list meaning it’s a very competitive keyword.
  • The websites ranking on the first page of Google results are brand names like Warby Parker, Ray Ban, and Oakley.
  • Other websites on page one include franchises that sell sunglasses, like Sunglass Hut or LensCrafters, and have greater name recognition than a local business.

You’ll quickly realize that you need to find a keyword that works for you. It may be a localized keyword like “custom sunglasses in Orange County” or “customized sunglasses in California”.

This step will help you whittle down the list a bit.

moz keyword explorerAfter the initial whittling, use a tool like Google Keyword Planner or Moz Keyword Explorer to determine how difficult it might be to rank for a specific keyword. Narrow the focus down to two or three keywords for your website. Trying to rank for more than that initially will just wear you out. You can always add more later.

Confused? Maybe an example will help.

A Keyword Discovery Example

Ardent is a website design firm, but we also do graphic design and digital marketing. Initially, we might guess that our customers found us by typing “new website” into the Google search bar. Without doing any further research, we might assume that “new website” is our primary keyword because that’s what people are looking for when they find us.

Typing that phrase into the Google search bar reveals how vague it is.

SERPsWe’re not looking for people who want to create their own websites. Also, did you notice that the search yielded more than two billion (with a “B”) results? That’s not a viable keyword for us.

On our next attempt, we tried “web design”.

In reality, “web design” is a really broad search term that would potentially return results from all over the world or results that have nothing to do with creating websites*. It might turn up tutorials on how to do web design. It could even lead to a page about techniques spiders use to design their webs. The search term is too broad to be an adequate keyword. Even if Google understood that the user wanted to find a company to design a website for them, it’s pulling results from every web design firm on the planet. That’s a lot of other companies to compete with.

Our target market with that keyword would be businesses or organizations looking for a new website. And while we have the capacity to create a site for a company anywhere in the world, most of our clientele comes from the Dallas/Fort Worth area.

* More and more often, Google uses information from your phone or computer to determine your geographic location and provide the results nearest to you. Google is big on wanting to deliver the most relevant results, because well, money comes with being the most popular search engine. To test this out, ask a friend in another city to type in the same keyword into a search bar and compare their results with your results. Google is working towards personalized results.

So we narrowed our keywords to the two largest cities in the Metroplex area and came up with “web design Fort Worth” and “web design Dallas”.

Keywords and SEO

Keywords help to narrow the focus for SEO. The operative term is “narrow”. Let’s say you’re a retailer who specializes in women’s clothing. It’s unrealistic to try to rank for every individual item you offer because that would be too many keywords. Every page of your website would have to find a way to include every keyword in the content. That’s sloppy and manipulative and is building a website for Google instead of for people. Poor form.

Google is smart enough to pick up on keyword stuffing, doesn’t like to be considered naive, doesn’t like to be tricked, and punishes those who try. That’s right. Google has a penalty box that lasts as long as they want it to.

Those who do internet marketing for a living buzz every time they sense Google has changed an algorithm for this very reason. Don’t let the cute animal names fool you. Panda and Penguin updates were the true tests for SEO ethics.

Where to put keywords for the greatest impact

Use the keywords naturally where they fit in the content of your site. In other words, don’t just cram them in places that don’t make sense. With that thought in mind, do what you can to make sure one of your keywords is placed in each of the following locations:

  • Page title
  • As a follow-up to the page title, make sure the URL of that page contains the keyword rather than just a list of obscure numbers.
  • Within the content of each individual page (Just focus on one keyword per page in the beginning.)
  • Alt text description for images
  • Headlines/H-tags

The more you know

Now when you use the word keyword, you can do so with full confidence that you know what you’re talking about. Even better, your website and potential customers will connect giving you viable leads. Properly used keywords lead to increased traffic to your website. Increased traffic means more leads. More leads mean more sales. More sales mean profitability, company growth, and a promotion to Vice President of Marketing and Keywords. You’re welcome.