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It doesn’t matter how smart Google gets, Keyword Research isn’t going away.

This is a post for all of you who have heard the term “keyword research” bandied about but aren’t entirely sure what keywords are, how you research them, or why they’re important for your business. To be very succinct, keywords are the words or phrases people use when they search for things online. They’re important because knowing what words and phrases people use to find your business or the services you offer—and more importantly, knowing what words and phrases you want to be found by—will help you target your ideal client.

Keyword research is the process of finding the best phrases and search terms to reach your target audience. How often are these search queries made? How hard would it be to rank for these terms? Who else appears at the top of the search results? How can I get Google to rank me higher?

Keyword research can answer a lot of these questions, but first it’s important to understand what your keywords can and can’t do for you.

What keyword research isn’t.

A common misconception is that, when you optimize keywords on your site, you’re somehow submitting your keywords to Google and telling its algorithm what phrases you’re trying to rank for. This isn’t actually the case. There’s no way for you to tell Google what your keywords are. Instead, Google infers your keywords from the content on your site, and ranks you according to how much you talk about that subject, how visitors to your site respond to it once Google directs them to your page, and how often your site is referenced as an authority on that subject.

In other words, Google doesn’t want you to tell it what keywords you’re trying to rank for, it wants you to create a site that ranks for those keywords organically. Because when you optimize your site in this way, Google knows you’re providing your visitors with useful content, which creates a good user experience. And as we’ve said before: Google’s all about making sure you provide your visitors a good user experience.

Keyword research isn’t just for Google: it’s for you, too.

With all this emphasis on Google, maybe you’re starting to think the whole point of keyword research is to make Google happy. But it’s not all about Google. For one thing, Google’s algorithms are becoming more and more intelligent with regard to linking searchers with appropriate content. In some ways, this may lead you to believe keyword research isn’t as important as it used to be (because if Google’s so smart, they’ll rank your content anyway, right?). But thinking this way would ignore all the important data keyword research can tell you about your ideal visitors.

For instance, keyword research can tell you how many people are searching a particular term, or if a variation on that keyword might position you better in the search engine rankings. It can tell you how many other people have written about that subject, and how hard it will be to out-rank them. So as undeniably useful as it is to know what you’re trying to target with your keywords, it’s just as valuable to know exactly which keywords will play best into your SEO strategy.

How do we pick strategic keywords? It’s time to take a look at the fat head and the long tail.

Fat Head vs. Long Tail

Keywords are usually split up into two groups: The fat head and the long tail. Fat head keywords are ones with a lot of traffic, but typically low conversions. In the classic example, think about someone searching for the word “shoes.” What are they looking for? Running shoes? Children’s shoes? Dress shoes? Information on shoe production? Pictures of shoes for their Pinterest board? The point is: you don’t know. Hundreds of thousands of people search for the word “shoes” every month, but you’re probably wasting your time trying to attract them to your website (assuming “shoe” is relevant to your business).

Imagine, on the other hand, someone searching “women’s tan leather oxfords size 9.” This is what we call a “long tail” keyword, and it has far less traffic per keyword, but a much higher conversion rate. You know a lot about what this searcher is looking for, and you can precisely evaluate how valuable their traffic is to your store.

Furthermore, while each individual fat head keyword tracks a lot of traffic, a full 70% of all internet searches use long-tail keywords. If you look at your own search habits, you’ll probably recognize this pattern. Most of us type in very specific phrases, sometimes entire questions, to find the most accurate results. It’s relatively rare that we type in a fat head keyword, because we don’t want to have to bother sifting through all the results.

Who else is ranking for these search terms?

The other all-important piece of information keyword research can give is insight into who else is ranking for your chosen search term. You may spot a keyword or a phrase that has a lot of traffic and is very relevant to your business, but then you check the SERPs (Search Engine Result Pages) and realize that several of your industry behemoths have already written into that subject. That’s not to say it’s a bad topic, but you should probably think of a different angle on the subject that might benefit you in the rankings.

This is where your long tail keywords benefit you the most. Because they are more selective, you stand a better chance of standing out and attracting visitors to your site. This means that your golden ranking opportunity for keywords are those that have a moderate amount of traffic, but low competition. Essentially, keyword research will help you find areas of content opportunity, where there is clear searcher interest but relatively little content to fill that demand.

Keyword research gives you the competitive edge.

Keyword research isn’t just about finding terms or phrases that are relevant to your business. It’s about finding hidden areas of content demand, understanding your customer, and helping your business find a niche position where it can excel in an otherwise busy and bloated Internet.

Published 03/30/17 by Laura Lynch