Tips for Keyword Research

As an organization, it’s vitally important to our success that we have an understanding of the language being used by our target audiences when searching for us online. That understanding must also be reflected in how we architect both our site and its content. Because people tend to think about information in varied ways, there are many different paths that potentially lead to the same content.

As such, we must take every opportunity available to align our internal terminology with that of searchers to ensure we position ourselves in front of them on as many of those paths as possible. Keyword research is a key tool in helping determine (or at least making us consciously aware of) the language being used by those individuals searching for our content, products and/or services online.  

Preparation - Creating Your Master List

The first step in the process is the groundwork. I always allocate a certain amount of time upfront to plan and prepare the list of initial keywords to be used as a basis for conducting keyword research. You need to have an inventory of words or phrases to get started, so why not put some thought and effort into generating a solid list to work from? From my perspective, the better the plan, the better the results. So let’s get to it.

Preliminary Evaluation & Client Input

Conduct a brief audit of the existing content to determine what, if anything, can be used to help get you started. I’ll take a quick look at the site and start a list of keywords found in page titles, metadata, headlines and body copy as well as those appearing in site navigation. In addition to providing a place to start, it also gives me the opportunity to become more familiar with the client’s content and how it has been structured. The next task is to meet with a variety of stakeholders from throughout the organization with the intention of soliciting the keywords they would typically use to describe the content being targeted on the site. This helps to uncover internal language use and identify marketing jargon or industry speak.

Another great source for keyword identification are search logs. Uncovering and analyzing the keywords visitors are currently using to arrive at your site will also help establish the delta between the current and desired states. Analysis of search logs can be a daunting task, but have no fear, there are many web analytics programs out there that can help you make sense of all that data. If you don't have anything in place, a great place to start might be with an application such as SmarterStats or an online service like Google Analytics.

Competitive Analysis

While surveying stakeholders, I also normally ask for a list of who they believe their competitors are online. I say “believe” here simply because the competition for a keyword may or may not come from a direct competitor, but perhaps from a blog post, industry Articles or association website. This information also becomes an important part of the overall plan and is a good way to see if their direct competition is actively pursuing their own keyword strategies. Next, you start plugging some of the initial terms into Google (or another search engine) to see what you get. This is somewhat of an iterative process but has the potential to provide some valuable insight into the industry. Items of interest found on competitor sites along with those from the search results are documented and added to the list.

Search Tip: Placing a tilde (~) immediately before a keyword when conducting a web search using Google will return the search term in addition to synonyms for that keyword.

Recursive Term Expansion

Now that we have spoken with the client and gathered data from the competition and the search index, we have a fairly complete list with which to start our research. There is, however, one last thing we need to do to make it slightly more comprehensive. We need to expand our root words to include things like prefixes, suffixes and plurals (a process also applied to our synonyms and related concepts). Any new or related terms added to the list are also put through this same process until the results have been exhausted, hence the name recursive term expansion. Finally, our list of keywords along with the synonyms and related concepts are then integrated with what I call descriptors, which assist with further defining the words and phrases to better describe the content we’re trying to target. This includes things like consultants or consulting if the company is offering a service, or a list of brand names if it is for a product. I’ll use a tool like the SEOBook keyword list generator to combine it all together into a single master list. Let me walk through a simple example to illustrate the whole process.

Example: “Digital Forensics”

Take, for instance, a company that employs techniques in forensic sciences to solve computer crimes. This company intends to create content on their site targeted at a specific keyword. Let’s look at the phrase “digital forensics” and follow the method outlined above to build a master list of keywords. A brief competitive analysis and term expansion leads to the following:

Root Terms: Digital, Forensics Related Concepts [Digital] - electronic, computer

Related Concepts [Forensics] - evidence, examination, examinations, investigation, investigations, science, sciences

Related Concepts [Digital Forensics] - firewall forensics, database forensics, mobile forensics, data remanence

Term Descriptors [Corporate] - business, businesses, engineer, engineers, company, companies, service, services, expert, experts, specialist, specialists, professional, professionals

Term Descriptors [Actions] - analyze, analyzing, collect, collecting, collection, identify, identifying, identification.

After putting it all together we get a total of more than 700 keywords in our master list! That’s a far cry from the single two-word phrase we began with. Examples from the master list include:

  • analyzing digital evidence
  • digital evidence experts
  • digital forensics companies
  • digital investigations
  • electronic evidence specialists
  • electronic forensics

This may sound like a lot of work but it really isn’t. To complete the process, the final copy of the master list is sent to the client for review before the keyword research is started to ensure what’s been added is relevant to the organization. Now that we’ve done all the groundwork and assembled our master list of terms, we’re ready to tackle the research part of our keyword research.

Keyword Research Tools

There are a number of different tools available on the market to conduct your keyword research with. Below is a list of some of the more popular ones, but if you look around there are certainly others out there you might want to use.

For this little project, I’m going to use WordTracker to begin with and then, if needed, the Google AdWords Keyword Tool to help verify the validity of some of the results. I typically do not put much faith in the actual numbers returned by the tools themselves. What I’m really looking for are trends or general guidelines that can help in choosing high value keywords for the site. For instance, I might find out that keyword X is searched for five times more often than keyword Y and therefore keyword X is a better candidate for inclusion in my content.

I login to my WordTracker account, navigate to the keyword universe section of the site, and begin to copy from the master list I have created and paste into the tool. WordTracker allows you to input up to 100 keywords at a time, so with our list we will need to repeat the process at least 8 times. As I work my way down the list, sets of words and phrases that match or are related to the terms I’ve entered are returned. Each time through, I save the results to my keyword basket.

After I’ve made my way through the entire list, there’s one last thing to do. I take all the keywords I’ve saved and perform a competition search on them. The outcome of the competition search is a metric called the Keyword Effectiveness Index, or KEI. This metric is intended to identify keywords that are highly searched while at the same time having low competition, thus potentially providing an improved opportunity of making it to the top of the rankings. Typically however, most if not all of these keywords require further research and analysis, preferably in another tool. After collecting search frequencies and competitive search numbers, the next step is to perform some analysis.

Keyword Analysis: Interpreting the Results

The analysis part of the process is where the real insight comes from. This step provides the ability to determine, based on searcher behavior, which additional words should be used in close proximity to the target keywords as well as those that should be leveraged in an effort to tap into the long tail.

Doing keyword research for as long as I have, the need for the custom development of some specialized software has been a necessity. Software like this provides the ability to import, tag, slice and dice very large data sets in a multitude of ways. A quick glance into the data tells me that on average, 7.5 times more people search for the phrase “computer forensics” than those that search for “digital forensics”.

I’m going to assume, however, that you don’t have access to a utility like this, so in order to provide you with a quick visualization of the keywords appearing most often in the data, I’m going to use another tool named Wordle. Pasting the result set of our research into this tool creates a tag cloud-like visualization with the larger text representing those words appearing most often.

Putting it into Action

Now that I have analyzed the data, I’m ready to choose and implement the keywords into the copy on my page. Based on a quick analysis of the research, here’s what I’ve come up with as a template for this page’s metadata and key headlines:

Title Tag: Computer Forensics: Experts in Digital Forensic Investigations

Meta Description: Computer forensic investigators specializing in the discovery of electronic evidence. <Company Name> leverages expertise in digital forensics for electronic discovery and data investigations

Meta Keywords: computer, forensics, forensic, expert, experts, digital, investigate, investigation, investigation, investigations, investigating, investigator, investigators, electronic, data, evidence, database, discovery, crime, crimes, analysis, examiner, company, service, services, <company name>

Page Header 1: Using Computer Forensics for Solving Digital Investigations

Page Header 2: Forensic Investigators providing Expertise to Clients around the Globe

As you can see, based on the research, rather than going with my original plan to target the phrase “digital forensics”, I’ve decided to go after “computer forensics” instead. Further, as part of the long tail, we might also see visits from a variety of combinations taken from the above including "digital forensic(s)", "digital investigation(s)", "computer investigation(s)", "expert forensic(s)" and many others.

Without performing keyword research in the way that I did, I would never have been able to determine which keywords to target and how best to implement them within the content on my page. Further, I would've missed out on the opportunity to capture searchers using these keywords in this niche.

In Summary

One important benefit I’d like to point out as a result of taking these steps is that, many times, the language used by stakeholders to describe the company or its products and services is much different than what the typical searcher uses when attempting to find those same products and services online.

A client of ours was adamant about using the term “notebooks” rather than “laptops” because that is how they referred to it within their organization. An analysis of the search logs from the site along with some additional keyword research was the ammunition needed to force the change, a change that ultimately made a considerable improvement to the findability of the product on their site.

So that’s it! The intention of this Articles has been to get you to start thinking about the importance of including keyword research as part of the process for developing your information architectures, taxonomies and content online.

Earley Information Science Team

We're passionate about managing data, content, and organizational knowledge. For 25 years, we've supported business outcomes by making information findable, usable, and valuable.