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Do keywords still matter to SEO?

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keyword research SEO
In 2017, keywords are still your best friend for step-1 SEO strategy.

While the direct significance of keywords to SEO has dwindled in comparison to other signals that stress user experience thanks to the 2013 Google Hummingbird update, keyword research is still such a critical step 1 for just about any on-page, site architecture, or marketing SEO project.

Sure, keywords aren’t as sexy as newer SEO topics. But it’s worth re-hashing their many benefits, and why the keyword research document is (still) your best friend – particularly when it comes to justifying all the hard work you’ve done to your client.

If you believe in a holistic SEO approach that considers all data available to you, like I do, you’ll tell your clients that keywords ARE still relevant in a post-Hummingbird search world. And keyword research can uncover surprises with some serious business impact.

Let me explain.

Why include keyword research in step 1?

After I review a new freelance client’s expectations (sometimes as general as “make more money online”), I’ll start with a discovery phase of the SEO. Here I’ll uncover findings using a gap analysis, prioritize accordingly, and put together my keyword research, where I:

1) Target keywords critical to the business using a keyword research tool (like AdWords’ free Keyword Planner). At this stage I’m less concerned about in-depth data on competition; it’s more about qualitatively what their business should be ranking for, if that makes sense.
2) Estimate current rank for each keyword/phrase (using a tool like SEM Rush), and expectations for improvement
3) Prioritize the keywords by business value, brand relevance, and rank improvement “level of difficulty” given overall competitiveness factors
4) Uncover new opportunities that are being under-utilized or not utilized at all

This is huge: keep your research clear, simple and approachable.

site audit SEO
A site audit, for example, might be a better SEO tool for developers than business decision makers.

Why? You’ll increase the odds that clients will be as excited about the opportunities for search visibility as you are. Clients like simple. I like simple. I’ve found that a site audit (right)in comparison looks like minutae to most clients and is more useful for my own reference later on.

One approach that I like stressesrelevanceas the highest priority.

• What is the site? (E.g., the business’s brand name)
• Which keywords best describe what the site does to the people looking for it the most?

From there, list out other searches most likely to lead to the “happy-path” sale or conversion.

Local biz? Maximize benefits from local SEO research

When I researched keywords for the Chicago location of a high-end Swiss chocolatier, I saw they weren’t ranking highly at all locally, even though they had their business information in all the requisite directories and had Google MyBusiness set up.

Part of that was simply that their online experience wasn’t set up to encourage high traffic. The e-commerce platform was in need of a theme update. But they were selling some original, top-shelf products, so in my eyes it was a matter of targeting the low-hanging fruit… er, chocolate first – local Chicago searches (where they certainly deserved a higher rank) – and moving up from there.

So, after banking on improved UX with a new BigCommerce theme, I created a location page and added Schema markup, factoring in local SEO keywords in the title tags, headers, and internal linking where possible. Chicago is a culture of food, so I was really interested in improving exposure to local searchers who simply might not be aware of the store’s brand and product quality right in their backyard.

Keeping things simple, I had a great start to the SEO work to guide client expectations and show them where they should expect to improve first.

Success! But why, exactly?

After I fixed the architecture and included local SEO & business-critical keywords strategically, the new theme went live in September 2015, and traffic quickly shot up around 50%… likely due to more hits, increased browsing and mobile views from regular customers interested in the new design.

site traffic increase

By October, I had achieved my keyword targets to rank on Google page 1 for “chicago chocolate” and “chocolate chicago” (with 250-600 avg. monthly views) and it appeared the bump in traffic had been sustained; there was no drop-off after the first month. But I noticed something more interesting in keyword ranks. We’d climbed to 14th for a global search: “Swiss chocolate.” Because the brand is Swiss, and Google was recognizing some authority in this area, it was now simply a matter of refining focus to get a piece of these roughly 3,600 search queries per month.

So, tweaking my local SEO approach just slightly, I made sure “Swiss chocolate” was strategic in title tags, headers and meta, but didn’t confuse Chicago users looking for things like location info.

After Google reindexed the site, in November we then saw a more modest bump to roughly double the site traffic of six months prior, and 10% over the previous month. The store’s holding on to a page 1 position (per SEM Rush), and as of this writing, I’m looking at search queries over the past 90 days, through the store’s busy holiday season and SEM campaign, and I see that “Swiss chocolate” is the 5th most-popular query leading to site clicks – and the highest non-brand query (a search not including the brand name) overall.

Reaping the benefits of keyword research: it just makes sense! And here as you can see it’s with a local store location getting brand & e-commerce exposure on a global scale.

Next steps: long-tail & SEM

But let’s dive into it a little more: since they’re based on a generic search, how likely are these clicks to lead to conversions?

It’s great brand exposure… BUT in terms of conversion rate %, a click’s probably not as likely to convert as that from a long-tail search like “buy [brand] chocolates.” Now the next steps are to leverage data for long-tail clicks as well as search marketing (e.g., individual product visibility via Google Shopping).

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