Understanding search queries is the most important aspect of search engine optimization (SEO). That’s because SEO is about optimizing for people who are looking for what you offer, not the search engine itself.
What is a keyword?
As noted above, a keyword is a word or phrase on your website that matches the words and phrases people are entering into search engines. By learning what keywords or phrases your target audience uses when they search for your product or service, you can create and optimize content to answer their query. It’s vital to rank for terms that are relevant to your business so that when users navigate to your site, they find the content they need and expect.
Answer search queries with keywords
When you use a search engine, the search query is the input, and search results are the output. A search query (or search term) is the exact word or set of words that a user enters into a search engine.
On any given webpage, the content might be a suitable search result for any number of search query variations. That’s why marketers use keywords to optimize in a way that’s useful for both searchers and businesses. Keywords are words or phrases in the content of your web pages that match the words and phrases users are entering into search engines as closely as possible.
Keywords allow you to build an SEO strategy around specific target phrases in a way that’s meaningful and measurable.
The journey of a search query
A user’s search query can indicate a lot about what (if anything) they know about your business. It can also tell you where they are in their journey to conversion.
If someone searches for “Mailchimp guides,” for example, it indicates a degree of pre-qualification. This means that they’re already aware of the Mailchimp brand, possibly already a user of Mailchimp’s all-in-one Marketing Platform, and they're at a stage in which they need help of some sort.
Many steps may have taken place before they made this search query. It could look something like this:
- Search “how to market my business.”
- Decide to try email marketing.
- Search for “the best email marketing software.”
- Compare different options.
- Decide to try Mailchimp.
There might be minutes, days, weeks, or months between any of these steps. At each stage, the user becomes more qualified—meaning that they’re closer to a purchase. This is known as the marketing funnel.
When searching for a solution, the user starts without knowing what path they’re going to take. They gain awareness as they move through the funnel. Eventually, they settle on a range of solutions for consideration and make a decision about what kind of solution they need. Then they research the potential suppliers, build a consideration set in their mind, and begin to compare their options. Eventually, they make a purchase decision and move forward with a specific supplier.
If you understand the journeys that users take on the way to becoming your customer, you can create content to capture their attention at each stage.
Why keywords matter
Identifying keywords that have the potential to fit with customer needs at different stages of the funnel enables you to effectively target your content. But before you can do this, you need to know why keywords are important to your business.
Keywords are the starting point for all optimization you do on your website. They're the culmination of your research, the basis of your strategy, and one of the core metrics you can use to measure success.
The workflow is fairly straightforward:
- Determine keywords.
- Implement keyword optimization on your website.
- Track keyword rankings, as well as traffic and conversions.
You'll iterate this process over time, constantly improving content with new target keywords.
Prioritize your keywords
In SEO, keywords are the thing you want to rank for because, in theory, higher rankings should result in an increase in relevant traffic (and more conversions, like a sale or newsletter signup).
But some keywords have more people searching for them—known as search volume—and therefore have a higher potential to drive more traffic. Some keywords will align with users much further down the funnel, so the underlying intent is more purchase-driven, and users are more likely to convert (meaning that they take an action you want them to, like buying something).
When evaluating keywords, it’s important to take search volume and user intent into consideration. Search volume is very intuitive; it’s an estimation of how many people will search for a given keyword.
Searcher intent is also intuitive but requires a bit more explanation.
Consider searcher intent
Intent relates to what the searcher was actually looking for when they typed in their search query—it falls into 4 broad categories.
- Informational intent. The user is simply looking for information, learning or exploring a topic, or answering a specific question.
- Navigational intent. The user knows roughly where they want to end up, or they’re searching for a specific web page, and normally knows the website they're looking for.
- Transactional intent. The user is searching with the intention to buy in the near future.
- Commercial intent. The user is searching with the intention to buy, but not quite yet, and they’re doing research before they can make a purchase decision.
With the customer journey in mind, you can see how the user’s underlying search intent changes as they move through the funnel. This allows you to map the data against your target keywords. Using this data, you can start to prioritize content.
Finding the best keywords
Determining which keywords to use in your website content requires keyword research. It’s an essential step in search engine optimization.
As with most aspects of SEO, the more competitive your market, the more effort you’ll need to put into keyword research. But for new websites or even those that are new to SEO, you’ll see results even with only a basic approach.
Keyword research basics
Keyword research should always start with your own understanding of what your website (and business) is about—the types of products or services you provide and the words you use to describe them.
Write down the primary topics you associate with your business. Start by thinking broadly, perhaps of the 5 to 10 interests or needs your business brings to mind. If you already have a website, these might align with the pages of your site, for example.
If you don’t have a website yet, you can gain inspiration by looking at competitor's websites and talking to potential customers. Ask them what things they search for and what words they use. There are many free SEO keyword research tools to help you with your research.
If you run a website that sells dog supplies, for instance, then your topics would be something like:
These might not be your keywords, but you can use these relevant topics to come up with a 2-word phrase for each that represents your seed keywords.
In this case:
- Dog clothing
- Dog toys
- Dog treats
- Dog beds
- Dog walking
Then, use each of your seed keywords to generate a list of keywords and corresponding search volumes. If you have access to a Google Adwords account, you can use their Keyword Planner tool to do this. If you don’t, a free option is to use SEObook’s keyword tool (though you must sign up for a free account to use it).
For each keyword you enter, it will generate lots of related ideas, and tell you search volumes and impression data for each keyword variation.
This allows you to take a broader view of the search landscape, and gives you some more context to decide what keywords you should prioritize in your website content.
In addition to search volume, it’s also important to understand what Google delivers as search results for a given keyword in a search query. (There are other search engines, of course, but SEO best practices typically focus on Google’s algorithm.) Search results are delivered on a search engine results page (SERP).
If you found that the phrase “dog walking” led to results about hired dog walkers, rather than dog walking equipment, this is an indication that you should shift your keywords. You might decide to instead switch this one to something like “dog leads,” which fits more closely with the actual product offered on your site.
By analyzing the SERPs for the keywords you plan to target, you can learn whether the results reflect the type of product or service you offer, but also if Google thinks the intent is informational, navigational, transactional, or commercial.
Understanding the long tail
When evaluating keywords, search volume isn’t everything. The intent behind each search is important, too.
There are 3 ways to define searches.
- Fat head. One or 2-word phrases with more generic intent. For example “dogs” or “vacation.”
- Chunky middle. Two or 3-word phrases with more specific intent. Like “dog supplies” or “Italy vacation package.”
- Long tail. Two, 3, or 4-word phrases (or longer) with much more specific intent. These could be something like “buy dog collars online” or “Lake Como, Italy vacation package.”
Very popular keywords will have hundreds or thousands of daily searches, but these are highly competitive, and often more generic one or 2-word keywords. But 70% of all search volume exists in the “long tail,” which also has a more defined intent.
When choosing target keywords, you should typically ignore the fat head entirely. These keywords are usually dominated by larger businesses with the means to invest heavily in SEO. Instead, focus on keywords from the chunky middle or the long tail. As a rule of thumb, if you optimize your content around chunky middle keywords, you will usually also rank for some related long tail keywords.
Matching keywords to content
In some respects, website content and information architecture determine your keyword strategy. When doing keyword research, you may encounter keywords you wish to target, but do not currently have content that fits. It’s also likely that you’ll find keywords that fit within the current site configuration.
For e-commerce sites, you’ll often find that chunky middle keywords lend themselves well to pages dedicated to a category or subcategory of what you sell, whereas long tail keywords are appropriate on product pages. It’s often wise to simply use the product name as the target keyword for product pages.
However you decide to do it, it makes sense to assign target keywords to existing pages, and plan new content (like blog posts, or new subcategories, etc.) for other high-value keywords.
Doing this for every section or topic that your website represents will give you many keywords to target, one for each URL that exists on your site (and/or pages that you intend to build). This is keyword mapping, and it allows you to form a more defined strategy with measurable results. With each effort to rank for a keyword, you can evaluate whether a particular page and content are ranking as you expected.
Keywords are the heart of SEO
Defining keyword targets is essential for later implementation phases of search engine optimization. Before you can start optimizing, you need to know the words and phrases that are most important to your business.
Written by Patrick Hathaway for Mailchimp. Patrick is the co-founder of Sitebulb, a technical SEO auditing tool.