In terms of search engines, a keyword is any search term entered on Google (or another search engine) that has a results page where websites are listed. 

Keywords are search terms that a website owner or SEO professional will use to optimize a website in the hopes of ranking at the top of Google’s results for specific keywords.

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Anything searched on a search engine, whether a single word or a phrase, is considered a keyword. For example, here’s the results page for the keyword “what plants grow in the desert.” 

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Why are Keywords Important?

Keywords are important because they can be targeted with marketing.

When your website is listed at the top of the results for a search, that keyword acts as a free source of website traffic for you. 

If you have an advertising budget, you can place pay-per-click (PPC) ads on specific keywords. That is how Google Ads operates; advertisers bid for the space at the top of a results page for specific keywords. 

Generally speaking, there will be more advertisers focused on a keyword that implies some sort of monetary action that will be worth paying for the price of the ad.

For example, the keyword “loans” has four advertisements at the top of the results, while the example above “what plants grow in the desert” had no ads. 

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As you develop a marketing strategy for your website, you will need to choose specific keywords to target with your website. Through search engine optimization (SEO) and content marketing, you can acquire high rankings organically (not via ads). 

All of your remaining keyword needs can be covered via advertising through Google Ads. 

Why Choose a Keyword?

For an online business, keywords are your strategy; they are the battles you choose to fight in hopes of out-doing your competitors and directing the people using search engines in your market to your site instead of theirs.

When you look at the keywords that a website has rankings for (aka their keyword portfolio), you can see the website’s strengths and the area where they excel over their competitors.

When we look at all of the keyword positions that homedepot.com ranks for, we are able to understand what their website is about and what products they are marketing online. 

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Keyword research is the process of finding the right keywords for your own website to target. You don’t want to target the most popular keywords about your product/industry; those would be too competitive and expensive to advertise. 

You also don’t want to target keywords that no one is searching for. So how does one go about keyword research? It is important to understand the qualities that we use to define a keyword’s value. 

Qualities of a Keyword

 The main qualities of a keyword include:

  • Search volume

  • Competition 

  • Price (cost per click)

  • Word count

  • Intent

Search Volume of a Keyword:

Search volume tells you how many times a keyword is searched on Google. SEMrush measures this metric in average monthly searches by location. 

This metric lets you evaluate how popular a specific query is and how much potential traffic you could direct to your site with a high position.

For example, as of March 2020, “What plants grow in the desert” had a volume of 140 monthly searches in the United States. You can see that it also had a global volume of 210.

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Meanwhile, as of March 2020, “Loans” had a volume of 1.5 million monthly searches in the United States and a global volume of 5.5 million.

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Obviously, investing in a keyword with a tremendous keyword search volume has the potential to attract more visitors to your website. But, this is easier said than done. 

Volume isn’t the only thing that determines how hard it will be to actually rank. To help you understand that, you will need to look into a keyword’s level of competition.

Competitiveness of a Keyword

No matter how impressive the search volume of a keyword is, you should be mindful of the competition. The more sought-after a keyword is, the more likely there will already be tons of websites and marketing agencies vying for the top spot. 

Most keyword tools have a way of measuring competition - on SEMrush, there are two metrics:

  1. Keyword Difficulty - This metric tells you how competitive it is to rank organically at the top of the results page. This is based on how strong and reputable the websites are that are already on the first page. To outrank what is already there, you need to provide something better in the eyes of Google.

  2. Competitive Density - This metric tells you how competitive it is to rank an advertisement at the top of the results page. This is based on how expensive the bids are and how strong the current advertisers are. 

In general, Keyword Difficulty helps you manage your SEO campaign, and Competitive Density helps you prioritize your advertising campaign.

Price of a Keyword

Speaking of advertising, every keyword has a price - a “cost per click” (CPC) that tells you how much it costs an advertiser every time a searcher clicks on their ad after searching the keyword. 

For “loans,” in the US, the CPC was listed at $3.94. That means every time someone in the US searches “loans” on Google and clicks on an ad, the advertiser pays Google $3.94 in exchange for the website visitor. 

When you’re planning an advertising campaign, evaluating the CPCs of your target keywords is necessary for managing your advertising budget and estimating the cost of a campaign.

Is it worth it for you to pay nearly 4 dollars to get a person that searched “loans” on Google to visit your site? 

That is the question you would need to answer. 

Word Count of a Keyword

Word count refers to the number of words in the phrase; “loans” has a word count of 1, while “what plants grow in the desert” has a word count of 6.

While looking for keywords in a keyword research tool, the search volume, and the competitiveness of the query is more important than the number of words in the phrase. However, word count is still a way to hone your research. 

For example, in a keyword research tool like SEMrush, you can filter a list of keywords by word count — to look at only keyword phrases that have at least 5 words or more in them. 

Why would you want to do this? Well, you can find more specific queries this way and get more context into the intentions of every search. Look at how the phrases with 5 or more words have more context to them than simply “loans.” 

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Keywords with more context, more clear intent, can be easier to target effectively. 

Intent of a Keyword

The intent of a keyword tells you what a searcher is intending to do. It is 2020, and people use search engines for every question and intention under the sun. 

Are they searching with the intent to buy something? Are they simply looking for a definition? 

Are they shopping around to gather information and see their options, but don’t want to purchase yet? 

Intent has been generally defined in the SEO community as capable of falling into three main categories: 

  1. Transactional intent

  2. Navigational intent

  3. Informational intent

Transactional – Queries that represent a strong intention to make a transaction on a website.

Examples:

  • Buy used Nikes online

  • Size 10 red sneakers under 80 dollars

  • Where can I sign up for cheap flight alerts

Such queries include words like “buy,” “subscribe,” “for sale.” As a rule, these keywords are more specific as well; they may describe the product or service more precisely: “neon blue unisex watch.”

Informational – Queries that are looking for information such as directions, facts, knowledge, etc. without an explicit intention to make a transaction related to this search.

Examples:

  • Where is the Taj Mahal

  • How long does it take to boil water

  • Best home stereo reviews

With these queries, people are searching for information to support their idea of purchasing a certain product they have already decided to buy, read reviews, or compare prices. 

While these words aren’t likely to give you a good ROI from advertising, targeting them can help bring general traffic to your site and help your reputation if you can provide a lot of helpful information to people. 

Navigational – Queries that show an intent to navigate to a specific website or content. 

Examples: 

  • Barack Obama twitter

  • Bank of America login 

  • Kurt vile youtube

These searches already have an idea of where they want to go and just want to find the correct Internet address to get there. Such keywords are usually helpful when the brand of the site is well-known and popular. 

In addition to keyword intents, there are a few more common keyword “types” that marketers use to categorize targets. 

Branded Keywords

These are queries that contain a brand name such as “Adidas tracksuit for sale” or “Gucci bags.” 

Long-Tail Keywords

Long-tail keywords are searches that are characterized by having low search volume but very specific intent. If you map out search demand on a chart with search volume and conversion rate, these keywords fall on the orange “long tail” of a search demand chart as seen below:

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Targeting SEO long-tail keywords can greatly help your website stand out from the competition and provide awesome help to users. 

Think about it this way; when you type in a super-specific search on Google and get the perfect, super-specific answer, isn’t that a great feeling? You should strive to provide that feeling to the people searching for answers in your market. 

Geo-targeted Keywords

These are queries that contain a location such as “dentist Philadelphia.” These are great targets for local businesses to go after via SEO and advertising. 

Negative Keywords 

These are keywords you can add to a Google Ads campaign plan to indicate keywords where you don’t want your ads to appear. 

For example, by adding the word “free” as a negative keyword, you will tell Google Ads not to show your ads to any searchers using the word “free” in their query.

The reason you will need to indicate negative keywords is that Google Ads allows you to specify your targets as “broad match,” meaning Google might show your ad on a keyword’s result page that is not exactly the keyword you indicated, but a closely related one. Negative keywords then let you specify what you absolutely do not want your ads showing up for. 

How to Use Keywords

Commonly, the way you “use” keywords is by planning a campaign that targets them. That is where SEO, content marketing, and PPC advertising come into play.

The most simple way to use keywords is to make sure that your website content (page titles, text, categories, and subsections of webpages, etc.) are all worded in the same way that your audience writes their search engine queries. 

This way, when your web pages appear in the search results, they will appeal to the people that just searched with the same language.

You can write optimized blog posts that provide answers to keywords that ask questions, or provide general information on your website that educates people about the topics around those target keywords in an effort to improve a site’s SEO.

Or, build landing pages on your website for your advertising campaign that appeal to each specific keyword you want to target with your campaign. 

SEMrush offers some great tools that will help you know what keywords to use in SEO, content, and advertising. Check them out:

How to Choose Keywords for SEO or SEM

Choosing your target keywords defines your online strategy and shapes your reputation. Whether you want to know how to find keywords for SEO or PPC targets, here are some general guidelines:

  • Check your site’s current search referrals via Google Search Console and build off of them.

  • What content/webpage do you have on your site that would satisfy someone’s search? What words would you search for to find that content?

  • How would you describe your product to a novice? 

  • Try to avoid words with multiple meanings.

  • Look for low-hanging fruit; long-tail keywords with specific intent and low competition.

  • Do not choose words that are too competitive if you are not a major player in your market. 

  • Ask people around you how they would search for your web site to help define keywords for SEO, content, and PPC.

  • Plan one central target keyword and 2-5 related target keywords per landing page / blog post in your campaign.

Conclusion

Hopefully, this article has answered at least some of your questions about keywords and provided some tips on how to define a keyword while conducting keyword research

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Luke HarselContent team member writing about SEO and Semrush's SEO toolkit.
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