Search engine optimization (SEO) starts with researching the best keywords for your site — but this is easier said than done.


Oh yeah, bring out the SEO-optimized clipart!

Good SEO requires you to know what language your customers and prospective customers use when they are looking for you, for companies in your industry, or for the problems you solve.

And by language, I don’t mean language in the vague sense: you need to know the exact keywords they literally use, in which order, and with what general intention. This is even tougher because customers may be forgetful, confused, or really poor spellers.

So how do you find the best SEO keywords?

Don’t rely on SEO consultants to research keywords for you

First of all, don’t expect your search engine optimization consultant to find good keywords for you. Several times I’ve seen SEO companies neglect proper keyword research. Here’s how it happens:

  • SEO consulting firm walks in and shows you how bad your ranking is for a few keywords.
  • SEO firm promises to do better, citing its experience and magical voodoo.
  • Marketer pays a monthly retainer; SEO consultants edit your whole website.
  • SEO consultant takes credit if your search rank improves in six to twelve months.
  • Marketer keeps paying the retainer for fear of losing the magical voodoo.

The problem with this story is: what if the SEO consultant didn’t choose the right keywords in the first place? Maybe they are optimizing you to find people who aren’t going to buy, or who are low in quality. Or maybe they are missing some keywords, and so you missed a crucial source of new customers.

I can’t blame SEO agencies for choosing the wrong keywords. Finding the right keywords is hard, and since many marketers treat search engine optimization like mystical, untouchable voodoo, the agencies often don’t get the cooperation or help they need from their clients to do the best job. Or they rely on automated tools that spit out a ton of keyword ideas, a few good, most bad.

If you’re a marketer doing SEO on your own, or you’re about to face an SEO consultant, you need to understand how to research good SEO keywords. It’s not voodoo, and it will empower you to guide your efforts in the right direction.

How to find good keywords for SEO

Here’s how marketers can identify the best keywords for search engine optimization:

  • Set up web analytics. If you don’t already have a web analytics tool installed (like Google Analytics, which is free), then do it TODAY. That way you can get a sense of how customers are finding you now, and see which search terms are already working for you. Plus while you’re at it, set up Google Webmaster Tools — that will verify that the Googlebot can actually see your site in its entirety, and alert you if there’s a problem.
  • Identify ALL your current and prospective customers. Take a step back and think about the big picture. Go back to your marketing plan (or if you don’t have one, write one by using a simple marketing plan template) and list every type of client who buys or should buy your product. Don’t just jog your memory by looking at your current website — your site may be missing content relevant to large categories of potential customers.
  • List top competitors or inspirational business in your space. This is not to copy what they do, but they can be a good source of ideas, as we’ll see below.
  • For each customer type, imagine the search journey that leads them to you. Nobody is born knowing your company’s brand name. Most likely, a prospective customer starts their search looking for anything but your brand name, including:
    • A problem to solve (“how to evaluate employees” or “can redheads wear yellow?”)
    • A function (“buy stock”)
    • A product or service (“chocolate caramels”)
    • A company type (“online brokerage” or “chocolate maker”)

Depending on the customer’s sophistication, it may even take a few rounds of searches, say from generic problem (“branding”), to company type (“branding agency”), to shopping (“top brand agencies”), to your company name (“Global Brand Positioning“). Each of these keywords is a potential opportunity. Write them all down.

  • Find SEO keywords creatively. This is often a big problem for agencies, because they want to get to work quickly. Look for keywords in a variety of places:
    • Competitor sites. View the source code of your competitors’ websites and look at the titles, meta description, meta keywords, and URLs for your competition. (Meta keywords don’t actually do anything, but many SEO agencies still dutifully fill them in, thus revealing exactly what keywords they are optimizing each page for. Thanks, competitors!)
    • Web analytics. If you don’t have this on your site already, it’s time to get cracking. The free, one-two punch of Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools is more than adequate to begin with. Analyze in particular the non-brand keywords that currently direct traffic to your site — you can often edit pages to improve this traffic. (Note that with recent changes being made by Google, it will be getting harder and harder to get this keyword information.)
    • Search engine marketing. Google Adwords is an excellent and often neglected source of information for SEO. In effect, search marketing gives you the opportunity to test out keywords that you don’t naturally rank for. Search marketing can quickly find not only interesting keywords, but the keywords that are most prominent when people are in a buying mood. If you’re not optimizing for your most highly converting search marketing keywords, then you’re really not doing SEO right.
    • Google Keyword Planner. Whether or not you do search marketing, Google Adwords’ Keyword Planner is a powerful way to research the volume and value of each keyword. (Accessing the tool requires a free Google Adwords account. No, you don’t need to give them your credit card information for it to work.) The Keyword Planner will tell you if a keyword is hopelessly generic (“red shoes”) or pointlessly overspecific (“red shoes with black and white striped heels”). It can also tell you if a keyword is highly desirable — or in other words, highly expensive, like the term “ERP software”. Keywords are most likely to be expensive when companies have learned that people use them when in a shopping or decision-making mood.
    • Google search engine results pages. Is “performance evaluation” the same as “performance appraisal”? Turns out the answer is yes. Is it the same as “performance assessment”? Nope. You can figure this out just by doing a search on Google: the organic results, ads, and related searches will converge when terms are closely related. Knowing these “search synonyms” is important, because you may want to optimize for mix of these similar keywords, rather than over-focusing on one particular term. Also, if search engine results do not lead to companies or solutions like your own, there is no point investing much time with it.
    • Other tools. There are a bunch of automated keyword recommenders out there — none of them very good, in my opinion. Doing the research as outlined above is much more likely to be productive, and to make it clear that keywords are truly relevant to your customers.

Once you’ve done all this research, you should now have a list of your customers, their general search path toward enlightenment (i.e., your company), and the magic keywords, you can handle your SEO (or face your SEO agency) with confidence.

Interested in search engine optimization services? Contact me!

6 Responses to How to find the best SEO keywords

  1. Ben Goodman says:


    Nice article! This pre-supposes that your website doesn’t suck. Mine does …No point in helping people find me until I fix it…Gonna try to make it to the reunion…

    – ben g.
    Haas MBA ’98

    • Daniel says:

      Ben —

      The best way to redesign (or fix) your website is start with SEO, to see who is responding your existing site and why. Contact me if you’d like to consider the possibilities….


  2. frazier says:

    Hi Daniel – The best keywords are not only ones that customers use to find your site, but also ones with high volume and low competition. How do you balance between three factors of SEO… 1) intent matching, 2) volume, 3) competition (current ranking may be a 4th)?

  3. Daniel says:

    It’s true that high-volume keywords can be good, but sometimes these keywords are simply too generic to make it feasible to get a top rank. Moreover, the intentions of those searching for generic terms are usually pretty unfocused. If you sell shoes, for example, it’s great if you can be #6 for the generic term “shoes”, but it’s basically pointless to end up as #45 because nobody is going to dig that deep — and who starts a search to buy shoes by typing in “shoes”?

    Ultimately, as with search marketing, it’s all about ROI. You should invest in SEO for a term only if you expect to get a return related to that term. This return need not be financial or immediate, but it needs to be somehow beneficial to your brand — or else your efforts are better spent elsewhere.

  4. frazier says:

    So you’d argue that good match with user intent trumps any volume or competitive considerations.

    • Daniel says:

      Well, speaking as a performance marketer, I only consider volume valuable if it results in a measurable benefit. The benefit, however, does not need to be immediate — for strategic reasons, you may wish to make an SEO effort today in order to start building your keyword history and reputation in preparation for a long-term play. And you may also wish to occupy a space a competitor is already in, to demonstrate that you are at least equivalent to them.

      The only way a volume-at-all-costs strategy could help is by boosting your site’s overall PageRank, which can increase the value of other pages on your site — but you’d have to direct a massive amount of volume to do that, and Google still has to believe that you are providing a good user experience to visitors. In my opinion, time is better spent focusing on the terms of people with intention to buy my product, rather than trying to make a play for every tangentially related keyword.

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