The death of keywords has been a bit exaggerated. Despite Google’s efforts to move towards entity search (“things, not strings“), understanding the words that people use to search for things is likely to continue to be valuable for online businesses.
That said, it is true that some of the “old ways” of keywords optimization simply don’t work as well as they once did.
As Google has been inundating webmasters with pandas, penguins, and other species over the last few years, I’ve seen business owners and marketing departments alike become increasingly confused about how to actually target a specific keyword that they want to rank for.
So, how should you be thinking about keywords in this “create great content” era of search engine optimization (SEO) and online marketing?
In this post, I’ll walk through how to incorporate keyword research and keyword targeting into high-quality content, thereby positioning it to help drive leads, links, shares and sales.
Trond Lyngbø recently wrote a great post about effective keyword targeting. In it, he outlined the three steps you should be taking to target specific keywords:
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to assume you have a list of terms you want to target, have a sense of how you want to prioritize them, and are ready to “act” and start integrating them into content.
Note: If you’re looking for a more comprehensive guide to the first two steps, Nick Eubanks’ paid course is a great walkthrough of thorough keyword research and evaluation, and both SEO Moz and Brian Dean from BackLinko have created excellent free guides to getting started.
Once you’re ready to “act” and start mapping keywords to actual content, there are five key questions to take into account:
This is going to have a major impact on what kind of terms you can target with what kinds of content (and should impact your overall SEO strategy in general), because an authoritative domain can target more competitive terms with less promotional effort behind a specific piece of content. Conversely, a less authoritative domain will likely need meatier content with more promotion effort behind it to rank for the same terms.
Let’s imagine I’m looking to apply the keyword research I’ve gathered to help drive traffic to my (fictitious) accounting software company, which sells a B2B product designed for accountants.
To understand the competitive landscape here, I want to look at two types of competitors:
Here is the search results page for [software for accountants]:
When I click the SERPs Redux bookmarklet, I can quickly grab the “plain listings.”
Now I can take that list of URLs and expand it a bit by running the top few competitors through SEMrush to see the top organic competitors. This will help show if there’s anything I missed.
Focus on the top 5-10 results for each term, and limit the number of organic competitors you’re adding to your list to a handful. You’re not worried about how you compare to sites that are ranking 30th for your target terms. You want to know how you stack up to the sites that are where you want to be — on the first page.
Once I have the list, I can quickly drop it into a tool called Moz Check to get Moz metrics (which is free up to 2,000 links at the time of writing):
Or, use Ahrefs’ “Batch Analysis” tool:
Now I can compare the top domains in these SERPs to my own. Are the authority scores similar? Do I have a markedly better domain authority? Am I lagging way behind? This will all be important when I go to actually determine which type of content I can (or need to) create to target each keyword.
If you want to dig further into the topic of competitive analysis, there are some great resources on the topic, such as:
Obviously, a fundamental aspect of keyword research is understanding the search volume and potential value to your business of each keyword. You can further extrapolate the value of a keyword by:
Keyword value and prioritization is covered in greater depth in the paid keyword research course I mentioned previously, and SEO Book has an excellent in-depth walk through on the topic.
Understanding how competitive your niche is and how authoritative your domain is in relation to that niche is a great first step. You also need to understand, more granularly, how competitive the individual keywords (and groups of related keywords) you want to rank for are.
This is a bit trickier than getting a rough sense of relative authority, but there are a number of processes and tools that can help you get a sense of individual keyword difficulty and competitiveness. In terms of a guide, a couple useful resources include:
There are also a variety of different tools (most of them paid) that can help with this research:
Once you understand how authoritative and well-aligned with your keywords competitive pages are (again, focusing on the top 5-10 that are actually positioned where you want to be), you can better understand what you’ll need to do to rank.
User intent is important in keyword research. It’s also very important in keyword targeting and mapping; you need to understand what your searchers are really asking with their queries in order to effectively target those queries with the right content.
Identify keywords that are informational (and the type of information and experience that user is likely to be looking for), navigational (and what those searchers are trying to navigate towards), and commercial (and what those folks are looking to buy). If you’re looking for a more fleshed out process, you can even go so far as to create your own “keyword matrix.”
Equally important to understanding what type of content you need to create to target a specific keyword is figuring out what you can actually do as a company. Key things to determine here will be:
Once you’ve done a bit of self-assessment about the authority of your domain, the competitiveness of individual keywords you’ll want to target, what searchers are actually looking for and expecting, and what your internal resources look like, you can actually get started on mapping keywords to different types of content assets.
Now that I’ve done the legwork to understand where my domain is at and what my strengths and weaknesses are, I can start to map my keyword targets to specific content. Let’s go back to my hypothetical accounting software example and start to actually determine what types of assets I want to use for what types of keywords.
Let’s assume the following is the output from my keyword research process. (This would be a pretty poor output from a thorough process — but again, for a more in-depth keyword research process, see the earlier mentioned articles on keyword research in general.)
First off, I’m going to be able to knock out a lot of these terms just based on intent; most of these search queries are likely people looking for personal or small business accounting software (I’m selling directly to accountants). Let’s get a better list:
This still isn’t what I’d expect in terms of output from a thorough keyword research process, but the intent is certainly a lot better aligned with what I’m selling here, so we’ll work off of this for the purposes of thinking about how to map content ideas to specific types of keywords.
Now that I have a list better suited to likely prospects, we can finally get down to mapping keyword ideas to specific content types.
Like a lot of content marketers and post-Panda SEOs, I love long posts with a lot of unique content (you’re reading one right now), but there are still many instances where short content actually works.
If you have a strong domain and a keyword with low competition, you might not need to create an opus on a specific topic in order to rank for it. If you are also resource constrained and the term has relatively low business value, shorter content starts to become a much more viable option for ranking here. You’re able to create that content more cheaply (so you need less traffic, leads, and sales to justify the asset), and it doesn’t require as much of an internal commitment (or financial commitment, if outsourcing) to create.
Here are some good, specific examples of shorter, less shared content types that might rank for lower competition terms:
There are a ton of topics you’ll find in most niches where some sort of informational approach would be best, where competition exists but isn’t overwhelming, and where the traffic you’ll get will be valuable. You’ll need to get some shares and links but won’t need inbound links from hundreds of unique domains to have an asset rank.
For these topics, a few types of assets tend to work particularly well:
Compiling these types of assets (in a thorough, high quality way) is extremely time consuming, but by virtue of the fact that they’re featuring experts, tools, and other great resources, it’s likely they’ll obtain some distribution through social media and at least a link (or a few). For valuable mid-competition terms, this is frequently more than enough to rank, and your content will be very well aligned with the searcher’s intent (netting you high click-through rates and even more traffic).
For more competitive terms in niches where you’re at a disadvantage (or just average) in terms of domain authority, you’ll likely need to create something that’s highly “linkable.” This is where capacity (internal strengths/resources and available funds) comes into play, as these kinds of assets commonly:
That last bullet is an important one. As much as you might work to fail proof your content ideas, often times when you create a large, expensive content marketing asset, it will fail — if not entirely, then at the very least it may fail to get the kind of traction necessary to rank for the terms you want to rank for.
Researching the potential link opportunities and building on top of an existing, successful asset can be a great way to hedge; even so, it’s important to note that not all of your ideas will be winners.
This type of content could include things like:
Furthermore, each piece of content in this vein needs to be accompanied by great outreach.
With these kinds of assets, I might go back to my accounting software keyword list and try to target something much more broad and competitive; but, if I didn’t have the budget and resources to create multiple assets here, I might be better off targeting mid- to lower-level competition terms with different types of content assets.
That last point is an important one in general as you’re attempting to target your core keywords with compelling content.
Some of your swings will miss.
If you have a bucket of keywords you’re targeting:
Learn from any assets that don’t work (some won’t), and make adjustments. Measure your success with content marketing in aggregate — you’re building a portfolio of content where some assets will be home runs and some will be busts. Don’t just roll out one piece of content designed to target a specific term and abandon the process if it doesn’t immediately rank for the term you wanted to target.
By mapping the right content to the right types of terms, you’ll not only put yourself in a great position to rank for your target terms, you’ll also make sure you’re doing it in the most efficient way possible, which will help you to maximize your ROI from the content you’re creating and promoting.
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