As time passes, many of the concepts of running a small business remain the same. You need to bring in new customers and maintain existing ones, regardless of what products or services you have to offer.

In the past, if you wanted to catch the attention of prospective customers that were looking for your products and services, you would often place an advertisement in the phone book. You might even purchase airtime on the radio and TV. And while some of these methods may still be a part of a company’s overall marketing plan, digital marketing has all but replaced traditional mediums like phonebook ads and newspaper ads.  The foundation of solid digital marketing starts with optimizing your website for search engines (also known as search engine optimization, or SEO) by using relevant keywords.

While the process of identifying good keywords may seem daunting to some, the basics are actually quite simple. When keyword planning, your goal should be to rank highly on search engines like Google or Bing so that potential customers searching for specific topics that align with what your business offers are able to find you.

For example, let’s say you own a luxury consignment boutique in Seattle. Targeting keyword phrases like consignment boutique in Seattle and Seattle consignment store would make a lot of sense. By ranking near the top of the results on search engines, it increases the likelihood that whoever is conducting the search will probably visit your store.

Some businesses use broad keywords in their content, as well as more focused keywords. So, for example, if you have an ecommerce site that sells clothing, you may want to consider targeting a keyword phrase like fall fashion to cast a wider net, and then use fall fashion trends for women to target a smaller subset of potential new customers.

The rest of this guide is going to walk you through what goes into keyword planning, what the search engines actually look for when someone searches relevant keywords, and how to effectively target your keywords.

Check out The Small Business Guide to SEO

Why are keywords important for businesses?

People use Google 40,000 times every second to search for products, reviews, services, and answers to their questions. For most people, Google and other search engines like Bing or DuckDuckGo are the first places they go when they need to find something. In essence, search engines have become the new phonebooks. Instead of flipping through pages of services, people now browse pages of results for the search term they have entered.

If you don’t do proper keyword planning, you’re going to be working from a disadvantage.

Here’s why.

If your competition appears first in the search results, then your website will receive less traffic from search engines. In fact, search results that appear on the first page of Google are estimated to earn as high as 92% of the clicks from the people who are conducting the search. That means as few as 8% of users take the time to click through to page two, and businesses that appear on later pages are competing for a much smaller pool of business.

But that’s not all.  If you’re hoping to drive a lot of organic traffic to your website, you need to rank in one of the coveted top 3 spots.  62% of all clicks go to these top 3 search results.  As such, it’s extremely important to optimize your website for search engines so that when people are conducting their searches, they can actually find you.

Proper keyword research is also important if you’re planning on running pay-per-click ads on Google, which are the listings that appear at the very top of the search results.  After all, you probably don’t to be paying for ads that aren’t attracting people who are going to be interested in your products and/or services.

Are there different types of keywords?

Keywords can either be broad or targeted. A broad keyword is relevant to a number of different results and increases competition. This may seem like a negative at first but it’s important to note that broad keywords can be valuable. At the end of the day, you want to go where people are going, and if they are using broad search terms, then it’s imperative for you to target those terms.

An example of a broad keyword would be consignment boutique. Yes, ranking for such a broad term will be difficult, which is why you should use a combination of broad and targeted keywords in your strategy.

Targeted keywords are very specific to a product or service, and people who are using this particular keyword in their online searches have a very specific result that they are looking for. Targeted keywords have the benefit of less competition, as most businesses default to targeting broad search terms. One thing to keep in mind is that these targeted keywords also have much lower search volume. An example of a targeted keyword would be consignment store in Seattle, WA.

Search engine algorithms are improving daily, and are now able to piece together various terms to deliver more accurate and relevant search results, which is why using both broad and targeted keywords is so important.

There are also long-tail keywords and short-tail keywords. This simply has to do with the length of the search term you are targeting. A long-tail keyword tends to have 3 or more words, while a short tail keyword is very basic. An example of a short-tail keyword would be vintage Chanel handbag, while a long take keyword would be something like vintage black lambskin Chanel handbag.

See how much more specific the second one is?

Because it’s longer and very specific, the amount of search traffic it generates will be much lower.  But, it will be easier to rank for, and the quality of traffic coming to your website as a result of such a specific search term will be of extremely high.

How do I identify good keywords for my business?

The easiest way to start identifying keywords is to simply sit down and write a list of keywords that relate to your business. This exercise shouldn’t take long, and you should be able to generate 10 to 20 relevant keywords and search terms relatively quickly. Using both broad and targeted keywords is a smart strategy. Broad searches will drive more traffic to your website, while more targeted keyword phrases are typically easier to rank for. The same thing goes for long-tail and short-tail keywords.  Also, take some time to analyze your competition and how they are marketing themselves online.

One of the best (and most affordable) ways to do keyword research is to enter search terms and phrases into the search engines to see the results. This will reveal a lot about the keyword in question, like search intent and competition. If a massive Fortune 500 company appears in the top results for certain keywords, then it may be unrealistic for a small business to compete for the top result on that same keyword, and it’s probably best to avoid it. Let’s say you have an ecommerce business that sells running shoes. It’s reasonable to expect that brands like Nike and Adidas are going to own the top organic search spots. As a small business, you simply can’t compete with the budget these brands bring to the table, which is why it’s important to conduct basic research so that you know what competition looks like for certain keywords.

Basic research like this can be very revealing and, best of all, it doesn’t cost a single penny. But this really only scratches the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the number of resources that are available to help you identify the best keywords for your business.

How do I conduct keyword research in Adwords?

Google AdWords is a platform that allows people to buy ad placements on Google and other websites.  And included in this platform is the Google Keyword Planner. This free keyword research tool pulls data directly from the world’s most popular search engine. Simply input a keyword or phrase to see how popular the term is, how much competition there is, and even how much other businesses are paying to appear at the top of search results for that specific keyword. Since the data comes directly from Google, you can get a good sense of the keywords that may be ripe for targeting.

What free keyword research tools are available?

Google Keyword Planner is one of the best free tools available.

Answer the Public is another quality tool that can take a simple, broad keyword like handmade jewelry and suggest a number of other related search terms using various questions and propositions that might be used along with that keyword. This can help identify popular long tail search terms that you may not have already thought of.

Suggestion Keyword Finder uses Google’s auto-fill suggestions to help you find more relevant search terms that you can target in the future. Enter your keyword and the tool will populate the 10 most popular auto-fill suggestions for that specific keyword. Again, this is a very easy tool to use that pulls valuable information right from Google.

What paid keyword research tools are available?

Jaaxy is a fantastic keyword research tool.  Simply input a keyword and Jaaxy will suggest a number of related keywords or phrases that are relevant. Then, scroll through the list of results to see which keywords are actively being targeted by other businesses. There’s also a free 30-day trial, so that you can “try it before you buy it.”

Serpstat offers a free plan, but an upgraded subscription is where you’ll get the most value. It crams in tons of features into a single user interface, including keyword suggestions, content marketing help, difficulty ratings for keyword rankings, search volume, and competition. If you’re someone who liked to dig deep into data, Serpstat has plenty of it.

And last, but certainly not least, is KWFinder, a fantastic all-around tool with plenty of options available for keyword research. Their metrics help businesses analyze keywords to determine which ones will perform best. Like other tools, KWFinder can also suggest auto-fill search terms and related keywords, as well as display competition. All of this is packed into an easy-to-use tool that makes keyword planning feel simple and intuitive.

What are Google snippets?

Google Snippets appear at the top of Google’s search results, and show a small preview of content on a website that quickly answers a question about a specific term or phrase that someone is searching for.  This is a fantastic place to look for high-quality, high-traffic keyword phrases. On average, long-tail keywords are more suited for snippets positions since Google’s algorithms are better able to find clear answers to these search terms in comparison to broad, short-tail search terms that will likely have many results.

The other great thing about Google Snippets is that once you have identified a keyword or phrase that lends itself to a short paragraph answer, you can craft content on your website to make it suitable for such a coveted spot on Google’s search results.

What makes for a good keyword?

A good keyword is a keyword or search phrase that has a high volume of searches, a buying intent, and little competition. This doesn’t mean you should completely avoid keywords that don’t meet all 3 criteria perfectly, but it’s a good general rule-of-thumb to follow.

For example, if you own a gaming store, you could start with a broad keyword like gaming accessories. The term is broad enough that people doing very general searches will be reached. Unfortunately, however, this may be a tough keyword phrase to rank highly for, which is why incorporating more focused, long tail keywords is also important. In this example, using a search term like programmable wireless gaming mouse will result in more targeted traffic coming to your website.

If you own a sporting goods store, you may want to target softball equipment as a broad keyword, along with a related long tail keyword like top softball gloves under $50.

Once you get the hang of it, it’s easy to come up with broad terms and then build out lists of long-tail search terms based on the original broad keyword.

How do I choose the right keywords for my business?

Once a list of potential keywords has been identified, it’s time to vet it.  To start, you’ll want to consider the search volume of the keywords you have identified. High search volume terms means people are frequently using those keywords in their searches. Often, high volume indicates more than 100,000 searches per month.

Low search volume means the term is not very popular amongst search engine users and will see very little searches per month. If very few people are actually searching for a specific word or phrase, some experts feel that there’s very little value to it since it won’t drive much traffic to your website. They argue that focusing on a keyword with low search volume is the equivalent to buying a billboard in the middle of nowhere. Others will tell you that using keywords with low search volume is an excellent strategy, since these keywords are easier to rank for and competition is lower, which means it’s easier to maintain a high ranking.  The main caveat with this strategy is that you will need to target a lot of these low volume keywords to drive any respectable amount of traffic to your website.

Some keywords may surprise you when it comes to their search volume, and some that you would expect to be highly searched may not be popular, while more obscure keywords could actually prove to be quite popular.

You also need to understand the intent of the search. Let’s take a home improvement retailer, for example.  New faucet installation is a specific keyword that focuses on a specific area of home improvement. What’s important to identify is what people are actually looking for when they use this search term. Luckily, this can easily be done by entering the term into Google and then seeing what types of results come back. Perhaps new faucet installation returns a large number of results for instructional videos and blogs, rather than products or services. This could indicate that people using this specific search term aren’t actually looking for a new faucet for their home, but instead want to learn how to do the installation themselves. These would not be the ideal people for you to target as they are unlikely to spend any money.

So, what are the best keywords to use?

The best keywords provide you with the best opportunity to rank near the top of search results with little competition to push you lower. Appearing as a result with an included snippet is another ideal quality to look for.

Here’s a good example.  Let’s say that you own a golf pro shop, and your broad search term is golf apparel.  After conducting a little research, you find that what to look for in good golf apparel is a great long-tail keyword phrase since it has good search volume and low competition.  Plus, since it’s a question, there’s always the possibility of your answer being featured as a Google Snippet.

Identifying good keywords is only the first step in the process.  Step 2 is your content.

How do I incorporate keywords into my content?

Now that you have identified good keywords for your business, it’s time to actually incorporate those keywords into your marketing strategy.

In order to rank well with the search engines, you’re going to need to create quality content. Web copy is the most basic form of content, and what people see on your homepage, as well as your products and/or services pages.  When writing the content for your website, be sure to incorporate keywords into your web copy to help your website rank highly for those keywords. As Google’s bots scrape the web to archive information, they will keep tabs on the terms used on your website and, if the your content is properly optimized for a specific search term that someone searches for, your website will rank higher in the results.

TIP: Don’t go overboard with jamming in your keyword as many times as possible. Simply incorporating the keyword three or four times per 500 words on a page should be sufficient. Write naturally and conversationally rather than trying to shoehorn content around your keyword.

You’ll also want to incorporate your keywords into blog articles that you write.  Blogging is a great way to build trust and credibility, while simultaneously adding new pages to your website, which Google bots look upon favorably. No one truly knows exactly how Google’s algorithm works, but it currently tends to favor longer content. Paragraphs should be short and easily scannable, verses long blocks of text.  Most importantly, content must be original and unique to your website.

Some experts say that creating engaging social media content can help you rank well in the search engines for certain keywords.  More important than this, however, is the fact that popular social media sites like Facebook or Twitter use their own search algorithms to return the most relevant results to users. Naturally incorporating keywords into your social media content will make it easier for people to find you.

So, if you own a sports shop, and know that best baseball bats for teens is a popular search term, you may want to consider incorporating it upcoming social media posts. A good example post would be something like:

What are the best baseball bats for teens? Our reviewers put the hottest models of the season to the test!

A link to a relevant article on your website would help provide even more value to readers, and indicate to search engines that there is relevant content the original searcher may be interested in.

What are bad keyword strategies?

There are a few things things you’ll want to completely avoid when incorporating keywords into your content.

Many businesses make the mistake of doing something called “keyword stuffing.” What this means is that once they’ve identified a good keyword, they will use that keyword as much as possible to try and rank higher.  This results in content that’s unnatural to read, which Google frowns upon since it makes for a terrible end reader experience. Google’s algorithm has advanced to the point where it can recognize keyword stuffing, and will flag content as spam, which can hurt search engine rankings.  In some instances, it can result in the website being completely de-indexed, which means it will never show up in search results.

TIP: use keywords naturally and sparingly, as if you were having a regular discussion with someone in real life.

Always create original and unique content. Plagiarism isn’t just unethical, it can get your website penalized when it comes to search engine results, which can have long-standing effects on how your website ranks.

Set forth on your SEO journey

Keywords are the foundation of a good SEO strategy, which is why it’s important to use targeted words and phrases that will help people who are interested in the products and services you have to offer actually find your business. By following the strategies outlined above, you’ll be able to identify these keywords, as well as incorporate them into your digital marketing strategy for maximum effect.