A Keyword Research Crash Course For Driving Local Search
By Colin Ryan
The web has given businesses more access to consumers than ever before–but that doesn’t mean success is guaranteed. On the contrary, marketing online is a noisy affair, and it’s easy to get lost in the chaos. To connect with your customers, you need to reach them where they live: on search engines.
While plenty of factors contribute to search success, keyword research is still the most important step. Effective keyword research means:
Understanding how search engines process data from users and websites
Discovering the terms your target customers are using to look for you
Investigating your competitors for keyword ideas and opportunities
Compiling a final list of primary, secondary, and long tail keywords
If this seems daunting, don’t worry: our crash course has everything you need to get started.
Let’s begin by talking about how search engines are changing.
The Future of Search: Google Hummingbird
In September 2013, Google announced a brand new version of its search algorithm: Hummingbird. While Hummingbird introduced lots of subtle changes, the most significant improvements are to Google’s “conversational search” functionality, which aims to understand the intent behind users’ search queries, instead of simply matching them with pages that contain the same words.
Some search experts panicked after the Hummingbird announcement, suggesting that the new algorithm was a death knell for SEO. Thankfully, they’re wrong, for a few key reasons.
Hummingbird can’t hurt your ranking. In fact, the algorithm had been up and running for more than a month before it was announced, and no one even noticed.
Hummingbird takes some of the pressure off keywords. In a nutshell, conversational search basically rewrites incomplete or imprecise searches, funneling them to the terms people are really interested in. In other words, Hummingbird relaxes all the arbitrary rules of old search engines, allowing you to focus on what’s more important: providing real value with your web presence.
Hummingbird isn’t perfect. For all its improvements, Hummingbird is still a computer program, and the Internet is still a chaotic place. Until it’s jacked directly into your brain, Google will continue to use the same old keyword standards and practices as a foundation for delivering the most relevant results for searchers.
As for what those standards and practices are, let’s start by looking at what not to do.
Generally speaking, ineffective keywords have at least one of two major problems. To illustrate, let’s say you’re a Realtor in New York City. You figure that, since your customers are looking for homes in your area, you should make new york homes your target keyword phrase. Makes sense, right?
- Competition is too high. While you’ve realized that new york homes is a phrase your customers are likely to search, so has every other real estate agent and broker in the area. Plus, big real estate portals like Zillow will also be pursuing this keyword–and unless you’re the biggest, richest agent in town, it’s not likely that you’ll win.
- Conversion is too low. Let’s say you’ve actually managed to rank for new york homes. You may appear in search results for a lot of people. You may even get a flood of visitors to your site. But New York is a big place. Some searchers will have their sights set on a specific neighborhood–the Upper East Side, for instance, or Chelsea. Others may actually be interested in Buffalo, or White Plains, or Albany. Still others are in the earliest stage of the process, and may not be ready to buy. In any case, most of these people will likely refine their searches and move on, making your hard-fought ranking for new york homes essentially worthless.
Now that we’ve gotten bad keywords out of the way, let’s look at what makes a good keyword.
- Length: Keyword phrases should be between 2-4 words long, and include only the important terms, rather than a full sentence or question.
- Location information: As a real estate agent, it makes sense to include terms related to the “where” of your business: city, state, region, neighborhood, etc.
- Relevant product or service terms: These are words and phrases related to the “what” of your business: real estate, homes, apartments, rentals, foreclosures, etc. It’s crucial that these service terms match your website content and company focus.
- Content descriptors: When marketing your expertise with blog posts and other content, include terms that describe exactly what you’re offering and who it’s for: guide, handbook, plan, how to, study, infographic, introduction, beginner, steps, how to, etc.
- Commonly used words and phrases: Put yourself in the average real estate consumer’s shoes. Remember, your customers don’t have your expertise, so try to avoid using overly technical terms.
A Note On The Long Tail
So far, we’ve focused on the most competitive, sought-after keywords. But it’s important to remember that the top 10,000 keywords only make up less than 20 percent of overall search traffic. The vast majority, 70 percent, comes from the less glamorous but crucial keywords in the long tail.
As their name suggests, long tail keywords are usually longer (4-6 words) and more specific than the average keyword. In real estate, some long tail keywords refer to a certain neighborhood, property type, or industry niche: downtown columbus ohio luxury apartments. Others might be exact title matches for existing marketing content: owner’s guide to preparing your home for vacation rental.
Because they’re so specific, long tail keywords are searched much less often–anywhere from a dozen to a couple hundred times a month. Still, they’re important for two reasons:
- Less competition. It’s clear that “downtown columbus ohio luxury apartments” returns far fewer results than “columbus ohio apartments.” That means there are fewer sites out there actively pursuing that keyword, which gives you a better chance of reaching the number one spot with less time and effort.
- More qualified leads. Visitors who end up on your site as a result of a long tail search will be much easier to close. After all, anyone searching something as specific as “owner’s guide to preparing your home for vacation rental” already knows what they’re looking for.
Now that you know what keywords are made of, it’s time to build some of your own. While there are lots of tools for keyword discovery, Google offers just about everything you’ll need.
The Search Bar
To begin, you can use Google’s conversational search to research your keywords without ever leaving the search results page. Start typing in the search bar, and Google’s instant search function automatically provides suggestions for finishing your search. As results appear below the search bar, Google also bolds related terms in the listings themselves.
Google Adwords Keyword Planner
The Google Adwords Keyword Planner, which replaces the AdWords Keyword Tool, measures the popularity of a given keyword and suggest others. The AdWords Keyword Planner shows results for paid search (i.e. ads) rather than organic search, but many of the insights will carry over.
To use the Keyword Planner, simply type in a potential keyword phrase and hit search to get a list of suggested keywords, which can be ranked according to relevance, competitiveness (High, Medium, Low), and average monthly searches. You can refine your results according to product category, location, language, and a host of other filters. Use the Keyword Planner to find keywords that strike a comfortable balance between popularity and competition.
Obviously, you’ll want to pursue keywords that are becoming more popular with time, rather than less. With Google Trends, you can evaluate keywords according to their popularity across the web as far back as 2004. You can also see stats on multiple keywords at once. Simply add your target keywords, and you’ll get a line graph with different colors for each word.
Google Trends also allows you to filter your results according to time, region, and category. You can even do some basic forecasting to see how your keyword might fare in the coming months.
No business operates in a vacuum: there are always competitors to consider. Thus, when researching your keywords, it’s important to have a sense of what phrases your competitors are targeting.
While you can’t view their keyword documents, you can use a variety of tools to gather public data about your competitors’ search profile and behavior. Here are a few of our favorites.
- SimilarWeb – The only free-as-in-free tool on this list, SimilarWeb tool offers a goldmine of performance and content info on competitors. Just type in a competitor’s URL to see their referring keywords, along with traffic, audience demographics, and more. You can compare up to three sites at once.
- Keyword Spy – This tool offers data on how much a site is spending in paid search, what keywords they spend the most money on, and who their competitors are. You can also export this information to a Google or Excel spreadsheet. While paid subscriptions start at $90 a month, Keyword Spy offers a lifetime free trial.
- SEOmoz Keyword Difficulty Tool – Built by the experts at SEOMoz, this tool provides a “keyword difficulty score” for any term or phrase and shows the top 10 rankings for any keyword, along with competitive analysis metrics. You’ll need a subscription to Moz Analytics, which provides a 30-day trial for its $99-a-month-and-up plans.
- SEMRush – Just type in a competing site’s URL, and SEMRush will show you their search positions for the keywords they’re tracking. SEMRush can also tell you the value of your existing keywords by comparing the organic traffic generated by a keyword to the cost of buying the same amount of traffic through ads. SEMRush offers free access to the top 10 results for up to 10 searches per day, while the full tool starts at $70 a month.
The Keyword Pyramid
Once you’ve generated some keyword ideas and checked them against your competitors, it’s time to compile a final list of keywords you’ll target going forward. You should divide these keywords into three categories:
List 1 – Primary Keywords
3-5 of your ideal keywords: the shortest, most popular, and most competitive phrases you’ll target with every page on your site. While ranking for your primary keywords is your long-term goal, you should start out by concentrating on the comparatively easier-to-win terms of the next two lists.
List 2 – Secondary Keywords
3-5 slightly more specific keywords with lower competition than your primary keywords. These may be targeted all across your site, or on specific landing pages. You’ll be pursuing these words more actively and aggressively than your primary list.
List 3 – Long Tail Keywords
4-6 long tail phrases that are easier to win and highly relevant to your business. Typically, you’ll target these phrases on a select few pages, using them to funnel visitors to your main site. This long tail list should inform your site content so people looking for those specific terms will find you.
Want more tips and tools for effective keyword research? Download the complete 2014 Marketer’s Guide to Keyword Research!
Published on March 5, 2014