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At the Search Engine Academy, whenever we teach an SEO class, the very first thing we cover is keyword research. We don’t talk about HTML. We don’t talk about how to do SEO. We don’t talk about Google Analytics.

Before we talk about anything else, we teach the students how to do keyword research.

I usually tell my students, “If you’re guessing at what keywords to optimize for, you’re probably wrong.”

Most of us who have businesses, are experts in our respective fields. That’s why we have a business. We know all the technical jargon and all the things that we do to make our services and products do what they’re supposed to do and stand out from our competitors. Because of that, it’s really easy to slip into the mistaken idea that we know exactly what our customers are searching for on the search engines like Google.

A classic example is that a lot of web design companies take our class, either for their own business or to provide SEO services for their clients. The first thing web designers typically look for in the keyword research tools are keywords around “web design” or “web designer”. They’re always disappointed when they can’t come up with a good, high scoring keyword phrase.

It may be true that their customers are looking for “web designers”, but often the competition for these types of phrases is so high, that it’s impossible to rank well for them.

Criteria for Good Keyword Phrases

When we do keyword research for our clients or ourselves, we want key phrases that fulfill three basic criteria:

  • They have a lot of searches
  • They have low competition on the search engines
  • They must be relevant to your business

The keyword phrases can be used in your website copy (for organic results on the search engine results pages or SERP) or even used in your paid placement (like pay per click) advertising.

I recently ran across the following example of a keyword phrase that doesn’t have anything to do with the business.

It seems that a lot of people are typing into Google: “Where is my social security check” wondering when they’ll get their check in the mail. One of the top positions in the paid placements is a company that does website security checks. They have nothing to do with social security. I can just imagine the conversations their customer support staff are having every time the phone rings: “No, I’m sorry sir, we don’t know where your check is. We do website security checks.” “What’s that?”

This company has not done their research and is wasting not only money on clicks from people who don’t want their services, they’re wasting valuable employee time on the phone answering these questions over and over again.

Some simple changes in their ad keywords would fix this and stop wasting money.

Management Told Me So

The other classic mistake I hear about is that the marketing department was told by the company’s executive staff what keyword phrases to optimize for or advertise with.

There is no forethought or research into what their customers actually want. Management just “knows” what the customers want or maybe they had a meeting and brainstormed some ideas. This is a great start, but should not be the end.

It’s crucial to do the research to see what your customers really type into Google before even considering SEO or what content to write or what Adwords to create.

If you’re jumping to conclusions or your management is “telling” you what to optimize or advertise with, consider doing the keyword research first and find out what your customers really want. John Alexander has several excellent articles about keyword research.

Put the time in, and I guarantee you’ll be surprised by what you find out.