SEO Basics: Keyword Research Made Easy

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When it comes to optimizing your website for search engines, knowing the best keywords for your brand is critical. But sometimes the process of researching your keywords can get out of hand.

A keyword, or keyword phrase, is an easy way of referring to the queries people type into the search bars of their favorite engines. As a website owner, you want to know which keywords your customers are searching for so that you can use SEO best practices to optimize your site for them and improve your chances of appearing in the natural search results for these queries.

Say, for instance, that you run a pet-grooming business in Bloomington, Ill. You want your website to appear at the top of Google's list for the keyword phrase "pet grooming Bloomington, Ill."

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You might have already read about the importance of things like keyword competition or keyword search volume when conducting your keyword research. But forget all of that for a moment. The only keywords you need to worry about when you're starting out are the keywords your customers are actually typing in to their search engines.

There are a few different ways you can find these keywords:

  • Use your customer research knowledge. Nobody knows your market better than you do. Instead of relying on a third-party keyword generating tool, start writing out a list of all the different keyword variations your customers might be searching for. Following our previous example, a pet grooming keyword list might include "pet haircut Bloomington, Ill," "dog grooming Bloomington, Ill" and "pet grooming Ill."
  • Look in Google Analytics. If you have Google Analytics installed on your website, log in and head over to the "Traffic Sources" menu. There, you'll be able to separate your organic search visitors and see a list of the keywords they used to get to your website. Unfortunately, a large number of your results will come up as "Not Provided" (thanks to anonymous browsers and Google's proprietary reasons), but add the phrases that you do see to your growing keyword list. You can also find similar information in your Google Webmaster Tools account.
  • Leverage Google's "Related Searches". You can also head over to Google and conduct searches for each of the individual keywords you've come up with to this point. Then scroll down to the bottom of the results. There, you should see a separate section where Google lists other keywords that are related to your original phrase. If any of these keywords are relevant to your business, they deserve a place on your keyword list.

Once you have an initial keyword list compiled, you can start thinking about keyword search volume and keyword competition. Head over to the Google Adwords Keyword Planner, which recently replaced the External Keyword Tool. You'll need a Google Adwords account to access the tool, but you should be able create an account without funding it right away. Alternatively, if you prefer to use another keyword tool, such as Wordtracker (plans start at $69 per month) to research search volume, use that one instead.

Related: A Look at Google's 200 Search Ranking Factors (Infographic)

Once in the Google Adwords Keyword Planner, select the option labeled "Enter or upload keywords to see how they perform" and paste your list into the text box that appears. Modify the targeting options if necessary and then click the "Get search volume" button.

The screen that appears will give you a rough estimate of the average number of monthly searches each keyword receives and how competitive Google thinks the phrase is. There's no hard and fast rule about the minimum number of monthly searches you should aim for, as your threshold will be determined by the size of your audience and the profit margins of your products.

For example, if your market is small and your website only receives an average of 1,000 visitors per month, a keyword with a monthly search volume of 100 visitors could be quite lucrative. But if you're serving a larger market and operate on miniscule profit margins, it might not be worth your time to optimize your site for keywords with less than 3,000 to 5,000 average monthly searches.

Search competition is similarly subjective. If you're in a competitive market, you might not have a choice but to target tough keywords. At the same time, just because a keyword has low competition doesn't mean you should optimize your site for it -- especially if it isn't well-targeted to your customers.

If you're struggling to get started with keyword research, I recommend not worrying too much about either one of these metrics. Start by tailoring your sites to the keyword phrases your visitors are mostly likely to use to find your site, assuming that their Keyword Planner results show at least a few monthly searches. Only after you've cut your teeth on these introductory phrases should you start to worry about metrics-driven keyword research.

Related: How to Use Google's New Top Charts Feature to Improve Your Web Content

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