Which Keywords Should We Pick for SEO?

Optimizing a website is not easy. It's certainly not a simple matter of picking some keywords and getting started. In fact, in today's landscape of search engine optimization, "picking keywords" is often a vastly overrated part of the process.

In the past, a successful SEO campaign was all about the keywords. You could pick the top keywords in your industry, optimize the heck out of them, rank at the top of search and watch the money pour in. Of course, it wasn't quite that simple. You still needed to have the technical know-how to get those rankings. But you could just pay someone to do that.

The search engines have really wised up in recent years. A successful SEO campaign in today's world of search means a lot more than picking some keywords.  

Keywords Still Have Meaning

Before we get too far into this, let's make something clear: keywords are still important. It would be quite difficult to run a successful SEO campaign without having a keyword strategy. Whether you call them keywords or search queries, the search results are still dictated by the words people type in the search engine. Without a sense of the right keywords for your website, you'd be hard-pressed to optimize for anything. It's not time to declare death of the keyword—yet.

Forget About the Traditional Keyword List

Old SEO campaigns often started with a keyword list. You'd do some keyword research, find the best keywords for your industry (best here usually meaning the ones with the most search volume), and then you'd optimize the site around these keywords.

With the many advancements in search technology, having a set keyword list for your website often doesn't make sense. Algorithm updates like Google's Hummingbird, along with many other changes to the way search results are generated, have devalued the traditional keyword list. If you're basing your SEO campaign around a keyword list, then more often than not you will end up with a site that isn't really optimized for search. And it definitely won't be optimized for your users. 

What Should I Optimize For?

The most obvious answer to this question is this: optimize for the products and services you provide. This is hardly a revolutionary idea, but it's not the process that many businesses seem to want to follow. Oftentimes, a business will approach an SEO expert and ask, "What keywords should we target so we can get the most traffic?" They're expecting some sort of magical list that will put them at the top of the search engines for everything.

Before setting off on a wild goose chase for keywords, you need to make sure you have a clear understanding of the products and services you provide. Once you have that, you need to make sure you actually have content on your site that discusses these products and services. If you don't have content for a service, you aren't going to rank for it no matter how many variations you put on a keyword wish list. Google doesn't know what your business does if you don't put it on your website.

Finding New Keyword Opportunities

Your optimization shouldn't end with the existing content on your site. It's still essential to do proper keyword research for a few reasons, including:

  1. To make sure the language you are using on your website matches the industry standards that people are actually searching for.
  2. To find additional opportunities to drive more qualified traffic to your website.

If you want to maximize your business, you need to make sure your content and terminology reflect what people are actually looking to find. If you refer to your dental clinic as a "canine cleaner" without talking about your services in ways that are actually known in your industry, it's going to be really hard for people to find you. Of course, this means you have to be willing to change your content.

Target Customers, Not Rankings

Finding additional keyword opportunities doesn't just mean you are looking for new ways to rank in the search engines. It means you are trying to find new ways to drive customers to your site. Yes, there is a big difference between those two. You don't want to rank for the sake of ranking. While it might make your traffic data look better in analytics, it won't help your business unless you actually provide a related product or service.

When looking for new keyword opportunities, business owners often say something like this: "Hey, I see a lot of people are searching for this. Can we rank for that?"

In many cases, the answer is that you can't. You can't rank for content you don't have. But the big question isn't whether or not you can rank for a particular keyword. The real question is whether or not you should actually want to rank for that keyword. It all comes down to whether or not you provide a related product or service. You don't want to chase rankings for "dog washer" if your business is cleaning people's teeth, even if you do refer to your teeth cleaning as "canine cleansing."

The keyword lists of yesteryear are long gone—or at least they should be. Instead of basing your optimization strategy around some big list of keywords, you need to optimize for the services you provide and the content you have. If the content you have isn't reflective of your services, then you need new content. And if no one is searching for the services you offer, then you may need a completely new business strategy.  


This post is part of Internet Marketing Mysteries, a weekly column addressing actual client questions related to SEO, analytics, website best practices, and any other topic connected to internet marketing. Have a question you'd like to see tackled in a future post? Let us know in the comments.

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