If you have any knowledge at all about SEO, you’re probably somewhat familiar with – or have at least heard of – keyword research. For the uninitiated, keyword research is all about determining which specific keywords and topics to incorporate into your web content in order to attract a good volume of well-targeted traffic from the search engines. It’s a fundamental part of online marketing.

On the surface, keyword research appears to be a straightforward task. You launch your keyword research tool of choice, find keywords that are applicable to your industry, and select the ones with the highest search volumes.

Unfortunately, this approach rarely yields any meaningful results. The reality is that the practice of doing keyword research effectively is much more involved than meets the eye. So let’s dig a little deeper.

First, as a primer, we’ll look at the 3 fundamental criteria that any keyword analysis should be based on. Then, we’ll look at 5 of the biggest mistakes marketers commonly make when doing keyword research that can derail an otherwise solid SEO strategy.

The 3 Criteria Fundamental to Successful Keyword Research

Without further ado, here are the three basic criteria that must be considered in any keyword research project:

  1. the relevance of particular keywords to your audience and your business
  2. the traffic potential of these keywords
  3. the competition for these keywords i.e. the likely level of difficulty to rank highly for these keywords

All three of these criteria are critical. If you miss one – any one – you’re leaving your online success to a great deal of chance, and more often than not you’re heading for a significant failure from a keyword targeting perspective.

Think about it. Can you succeed if the keywords you’re targeting aren’t relevant to your audience and business? Or if practically nobody is actually searching these keywords?

And even if your keywords are highly relevant and receiving thousands of searches per day or month, will you see any traffic gains if your online competitors are so much stronger than you from an SEO perspective that you have no realistic chance of ranking well for these keywords? Not a chance.

So again, all three of these criteria are critical.

With these basic criteria in mind, let’s take a look at the five biggest mistakes that I see businesses commonly making when doing keyword research.

5 Common (and Big) Keyword Research Mistakes

In no particular order, here are the most common mistakes I see marketers making with respect to keyword research.

Mistake #1: Not doing keyword research.

The most common mistake by far is simply not doing any keyword research at all. There are several common reasons for this:

  1. Ignorance — they just don’t know about keyword research.
  2. They have some familiarity with keyword research but don’t understand its value and importance to SEO so don’t bother to do anything about it.
  3. They just assume that the terms they’re using on their website are well-searched by their target audience. This is a common but often incorrect assumption.

    Furthermore, search volume is only part of the keyword research equation. You do recall the “3 criteria fundamental to successful keyword research” discussed earlier in this post, don’t you?
  4. They try and give up.

    Keyword research & analysis is a skill that takes time to learn, and often requires a great deal of patience. Not knowing where to start, ensuring you’re not missing out on good keywords, understanding how to properly assess keyword opportunities, knowing which data to consider and which to ignore… it can all become quite confusing and frustrating.

    Having a process that works is half the battle. Once you’ve nailed down an effective process, becoming competent is just a matter of practice, just like any other skill.

    If you have the time and inclination to learn on your own, then go for it! If not, then consider hiring someone qualified who can help.

    Ideally, you want someone who can take care of the core keyword research for you (the heavy lifting), and then train you (or your web team) to effectively handle supplementary keyword research needs on your own.

Mistake #2: Focusing too much on search volume and not enough on relevance.

Among those who do take a little time to do some level of keyword research, this is one of the most common mistakes. Focusing on search terms with the highest search volumes may seem like a logical approach, but if you’re doing so at the expense of keyword relevance then you’re likely asking for disappointment.

A simple example:

Let’s say you sell used office furniture. The screenshot below shows the average monthly search volume for a few of the keywords you’re considering targeting.

Keyword Planner keywords screenshot 2

Many people would make the mistake of optimizing their site for furniture and/or office furniture. They’re enticed by the fact that these keywords receive 5-12 times more searches than used office furniture, focusing on traffic potential at the expense of relevance. But it’s a tradeoff that would almost certainly cost them dearly.

Time and time again, real world case studies have shown that relevance trumps search volume when it comes to delivering results. Even if these broad, higher volume keywords deliver more traffic than the more relevant, lower volume keywords, it’s just wasted bandwidth if that traffic doesn’t convert. Traffic for traffic’s sake is meaningless. You want traffic that ultimately turns into sales.

Ironically, people who don’t do any keyword research at all would likely yield better results by just writing their content completely naturally than those who try to tweak their content based on search volume data alone.

Bottom line: It’s almost always better to have a bigger slice of a small pie than a smaller slice of a big pie.

Mistake #3: Focusing too much on individual keywords and not enough on keyword themes or topics.

Continuing with our office furniture example above, let’s say you sell a variety of used items including filing cabinets, office chairs, desks, etc. Your keyword research reveals the following additional related keywords and search volumes:

Keyword Planner keywords screenshot 1

The common mistake that many people would make here is automatically ignoring many of these related keywords, thinking their search volumes (such as the ones with less than 100 searches/month) are too low and not worthwhile given that used office furniture is getting 1,000 searches/month.

While search volumes certainly do matter and in many cases it is the correct decision to ignore low volume keywords, there are several reasons why it’s important to not be so quick to dismiss these low volume, more topic-specific keywords (known as ‘long-tail’ keywords, as compared to broader keywords which generally tend to contain only 1-2 words):

  1. Collectively these relatively small keyword volumes may be substantial. I’ve seen many situations where there are literally hundreds of keywords with only slight variation in their wording – each with a low search volume – but the meaning and/or intention behind the search is the same or highly similar.

    Multiply a couple of hundred keywords by 10-100 searches/month each and you’re looking at thousands of additional, highly relevant searches each month.
  2. Google will have a better understanding of what your site is about if your content includes secondary and tertiary words that relate to your primary topic. So if you have a page about used office chairs, you might include content about different kinds of chairs – leather vs. cloth, height-adjustable, ergonomic; the different brands of office chairs you carry; your warranty; etc.

    First and foremost, think about what your audience wants. Then, ‘tweak’ your content (including headlines, main body text, title tags and meta descriptions) to incorporate some of the terms you uncovered in your keyword research – even if these terms have relatively low search volumes.

    These are the words that your audience most relates to and is interested in, so by appropriately including them you’ll be making your content more relevant to your audience and better understood by Google, likely leading to better rankings, higher clickthrough rates from the search engine results pages, and visitors who are more engaged.
  3. In September 2013, Google announced its new search algorithm called “Hummingbird”. In short, Hummingbird is Google’s attempt to pay more attention to the intention of a search query as a whole as opposed to just the individual words contained in the query, and to then deliver search results that are better aligned with what the searcher is intending to find.

    While Hummingbird is far from perfect, there’s little question that overall it has succeeded in providing search results that are more relevant to what searchers are looking for.

    So what does this mean for site owners? It means that Google may do a better job than previously of displaying your site in their search results for searches that are relevant to what you offer, even if those search queries don’t contain the words that you’ve used in your site content.

    For example, post-Hummingbird you might show up in search results for the search query second hand business furniture whereas pre-Hummingbird you may not have. Google’s algorithm now better understands that second hand means the same as used, and that business furniture means the same as office furniture.

    This doesn’t mean that Google will deliver the same search results for both searches — they won’t. There are lots of other factors at play when Google decides which pages to display in its search results.

    But here’s the point:

    There’s less need than before to optimize your web pages for individual keywords. In fact, more than ever, over-optimization could even raise flags and a potential penalty.

    As I suggested above, simply incorporate variations of your target keywords in your content. There’s no need to agonize over it. It should appear completely natural to your readers, so just write naturally.

    Then, tweak your content and tags appropriately by giving some priority to the primary keywords you’re aiming to rank for based on your keyword research and appropriately incorporating secondary keywords into your content, title tags, and meta descriptions as well.

    If you do this, your site will be more appealing to both Google and your audience, (and you’ll be reducing the risk of having pages that are seen by Google as ‘duplicate content’ — an important SEO topic you may also want to learn about).

Mistake #4: Not geo-targeting your research to where your target audience is located.

This one sounds obvious, but it’s commonly overlooked. Search volume data will vary greatly by location, and even the level of online competition (discussed in the next section) can vary significantly in different regions.

If your target audience is in Canada, then make sure your keyword research tool’s geo-targeting setting is set to Canada. Keyword Planner gives you lots of flexibility with geo-targeting.

If Canada and the US, then add both Canada and the US.

If global, then either add specific relevant locations – or remove all locations which will then default to “All locations”.

If you have a more local audience like just Toronto, then set it to Toronto.

Here’s what the setting looks like in Keyword Planner. Just click the pencil icon to edit your setting:

Keyword Panner targeting screenshot

Mistake #5: Not paying attention to keyword competitiveness, or assessing the level of competition the ‘wrong’ way.

This is hands-down the most common missing link in most keyword research projects. It’s so important yet so often overlooked or done incorrectly that I’m devoting about half of this post to it. So heads up – this section is a fairly long!

You could do a stellar job with the relevance and traffic potential criteria outlined earlier, but if you’re not filtering the keywords you’ve identified based on your ability to rank for them, then as mentioned previously, you’re leaving your opportunities for search engine visibility to a great deal of chance.

In fact, unless you’re either in a very tight niche with very little online competition (rare) – or are one of the dominant players in your field and have relatively high domain authority (also rare, and an important concept we’ll touch on below) – then your likelihood of ranking well for most or all of your important target keywords is slim to none.

Unfortunately, even many SEO consultants don’t do a keyword competitiveness analysis (also often referred to as a keyword difficulty analysis) for their clients. There are a few possible reasons for this. Either:

  1. they just don’t know any better
  2. they don’t know how to do it properly, or…
  3. they do know how but don’t want to spend the time, as doing a keyword difficulty analysis properly can be a very tedious and time consuming exercise – particularly if you’re evaluating a large volume of keywords.

I see this all the time with new and prospective clients.

And of the few consultants who do take some time to do some sort of keyword difficulty analysis, most of them (to be blunt, not trying to be a wise guy) don’t do it right, resulting in poor keyword targeting decisions that ultimately leaves their client with a seriously compromised on-page optimization strategy.

Assessing Keyword Difficulty

There are a few of ways to properly assess keyword competitiveness and many more ways to do get it wrong. First, I’m going to show one way how not to assess keyword difficulty, because this ineffective approach is so commonly used.

Then, I’ll show you a simplified approach to assessing keyword difficulty the right way.

How Not to Assess Keyword Difficulty

Google’s Keyword Planner is the most popular tool for doing keyword research. It has some terrific features, and is free to use. (Note that you need to set up an AdWords account in order to have access to the tool, but the account setup is free and you don’t have to actually do any paid advertising).

However, when it comes to assessing keyword competitiveness, Keyword Planner can lead the uninformed into making some bad decisions.

Here’s a screenshot of some keywords in the adventure travel industry. Note that this time I’ve included the “Competition” column, along with the keyword and search volume columns shown in previous examples:

Keyword Planner competition screenshot

Notice that for each keyword, Google displays the level of competition as either High, Medium, or Low. Here’s the problem: Many people using this tool interpret the level of competition shown as an indication of how easy or difficult it would be to rank well for a search term in Google’s organic search engine results pages (SERPs), and then make their keyword targeting decisions accordingly.

Don’t do this! This competition indicator is not a measure of organic keyword difficulty. It’s a measure specific to AdWords’ paid advertisers that is based on, in Google’s own words, “the number of advertisers bidding on each keyword relative to all keywords across Google”. Google further adds: “This data is specific to the locations and Search Network targeting option that you’ve selected.”

If you’re not an AdWords advertiser then this last part above may not be clear to you, but no worries. The main point is that the Competition measure you see in Keyword Planner is an indication of how many AdWords advertisers are bidding on a keyword, and has no bearing on how easy or difficult it would be to rank for a keyword in Google’s SERPs.

So please, please – just ignore the competition column. Use Keyword Planner to generate keyword ideas and to gather search volume data, but for assessing your site’s ranking potential for any particular keyword, keep reading below.

The Right Way to Assess Keyword Difficulty

When it comes to assessing your site’s ranking potential for particular keywords, you need to understand what really matters – and what doesn’t. Here’s what doesn’t matter:

  1. The number of real-world competitors your business has. I often hear from prospective new clients, “We have very little competition so it should be easy for us to rank highly”.

    It may be the case that you have few competitors in the physical world, but online, virtually every business has plenty of real competitors (hundreds, thousands, or more), all vying for the top spot in Google’s search results.
  2. The number of online competitors your website has. This may matter in theory, but in practical terms, it’s rarely going to make a significant difference whether you have 100 competitors or 100,000.

So what actually matters? Here it is:

It’s not the number of competitors that matters; it’s the strength of your top online competitors from an SEO perspective relative to you that matters.

While there are literally hundreds of factors that account for a site’s ranking strength, authority is (arguably) the most important factor overall.

Measuring Authority, and Knowing How To Use It

Almost every domain as a whole, and almost every individual webpage on a domain, has some level of authority. Fortunately, there are tools available that we can use to get a reasonably accurate measure of their authority.

The authority data provided by Moz is my favourite. While they offer a ton of data that’s great for technical and SEO-obsessed folks like me, we’re going to keep things simple here.

First, let’s review a couple of simple but important concepts: Domain Authority and Page Authority.

As the term implies, Domain Authority (DA) is a measure of authority from 1-100 for a domain as a whole. Similarly, Page Authority (PA) is the measure of authority (also from 1-100) for an individual page on a domain.

It is important to note that DA and PA are based purely on inbound link metrics, as links to your site from other sites (both high quality links and low quality links) are generally the most reliable predictor of ranking potential.

DA and PA do not take into account any on-page factors such as title tags, URLs, or any of the multitude of content elements (all of which are still extremely important – and which you have full control over when optimizing your website).

To get the DA and PA of your own site and its pages (or other sites and their pages), as well as to compare your own site’s DA/PA with that of the top ranking sites in Google for the search terms you’re assessing, you’ll want to download and install the MozBar, which is a free browser add-on available for Chrome and Firefox.

Once installed, you should see the MozBar sitting near the top of your browser, like this:

MozBar toolbar screenshot 3

Note that if using Firefox (as in the screenshot above), you’ll need to make the MozBar visible by clicking the View menu, then Toolbars.

Now, to see the authority metrics of any site, just visit the site… and its DA and PA will automatically show up in the MozBar:

MozBar toolbar screenshot 1

Now for the real magic: To see the DA and PA of sites showing up in Google’s search results, click the Settings button, then click Display SERP Overlay:

MozBar toolbar screenshot 2

Now search for a keyword you’re interested in. In the example below I’ve searched for adventure travel:

MozBar SERP screenshot

As you can see, just below each search result is a new section containing the DA and PA metrics.

Now you’ll want to compare the DA and PA of the top ranking sites with your own site’s DA and PA, which again, you can get by visiting your own site. (Of course, if your site shows up in the top search results, then you’ll find your DA and PA right there).

The majority of searchers don’t click beyond the first page of results, so you’re mainly interested in assessing your site’s potential to rank on page 1 (meaning in the top 10 positions, as this is how many organic results are generally displayed per page).

Here is a simplified process and some very general guidelines for gauging your site’s potential to rank on the first page:

  • Focus at first on DA only (we’ll get to PA shortly). Scan the DA of the sites on the first page and get a sense of how they compare to your own site’s DA.
  • If a site has a DA of not more than about 5 more than yours, then you may have a reasonable chance of competing with that site in the rankings battle. For example, if your site’s DA is 25, then you should have a reasonable chance of competing with sites that have a DA of 30 or less.

    Remember, these are just ballpark guidelines. There are situations where you could be outranked by a site with a DA of 15 and where you could outrank a site with a DA of 50. Lots of other factors at play here.
  • Now, let’s have a look at PA. For the time being, we’re only interested in the PA of site’s whose DA we can compete with. Just assume for now that you won’t have a reasonable chance of outranking the sites that have you beat in terms of DA.
  • There are two kinds of PA comparisons you want to make: The PA of your own site’s homepage vs. the PA of any ranking homepages, and the PA of your inner pages (i.e. pages other than your homepage) vs. the PA of any ranking inner pages. You need to do apple-to-apples comparisons, so don’t compare homepage PAs to inner page PAs. (You’ll usually find that homepage PA is the highest authority page on most sites).

    Regarding your own site’s inner page PAs: If the page you’re trying to rank for is either a new page – or an existing page with no other sites linking to it – then it will likely have a PA of 1. You generally need at least one other site linking to the page for it to have a PA of greater than 1.

    Since a page with a PA of 1 isn’t helpful for comparison purposes, you need to estimate what the PA of your inner page would be once you have at least one other site linking to it.

    The quickest and easiest way to make this estimate is to simply look at the PA of some of your other inner pages that have a PA of greater than 1, and assume that the page you’re trying to rank for will have about the same PA.
  • Now, of the pages that you can compete with on the DA front, see how many of them you can compete with on the PA front as well. Like we did with DA, look for pages with a PA of not more than about 5 more than your own page’s PA.
  • When comparing your own site to those ranking on the first page, give significantly more weight to DA than PA.

As a general guideline:

  • If you can compete with 7 or more sites in the top 10, then you have an excellent opportunity to rank on the first page.
  • If you can compete with 3-6 sites, you have a good chance of ranking on the first page.
  • If you can compete with 1-2 sites, you have a slim chance of ranking on the first page.
  • If you can’t compete with any of the top 10 sites, you probably don’t have much or any chance of ranking on the first page.
  • You need to adjust your likelihood of ranking based on the degree to which your own site’s DA/PA differs from your competitors. If your DA/PA is much higher than your competitors, then your chances of ranking highly are much greater.

    Similarly, if most or all of your competitors have much higher DA/PA than you, then you have little-to-no chance of outranking them.
Now The Disclaimer…

The above outlined process and guidelines offer a simplified approach to doing a pretty good job assessing keyword difficulty. However, there are many, many more factors at play that are beyond the scope of this post. The idea here is to give you an approach that produces good results with a relatively small amount of time and effort.

But even this approach will require some time and patience the first few times you try it. After you’ve analyzed a few keywords, you should get the hang of it and the process should go much more quickly.

Digging a Little Deeper

With so many factors that go into assessing keyword difficulty that cannot be automated like DA and PA can, there’s no substitute for going the extra mile and using a greater degree of human observation and judgment.

If you really get into it want to take your analysis a few steps further to get a more accurate read on your ranking potential, I’d suggest looking at the following additional factors:

  1. The domain name of your competitors. Sites with your target keyword in their domain name (not in the full URL, just in the domain name) – referred to as ‘exact match domains’ or ‘EMD’s – will sometimes undeservedly outrank sites that are significantly more relevant and higher authority.

    Take note of how many EMDs are occupying the positions you’re competing for and consider them to be much more difficult to outrank than would otherwise be the case.

    While EMDs aren’t as big of a ranking factor as they were years ago – and while many EMDs are spammy and rank poorly – they still seem to make their way into the top results at times based almost solely on the strength of the EMD (after all, some EMDs are completely legit).
  2. The title tag of your competitors. The title tag is the most important on-page factor in SEO. If you see that your competitors have relevant, well-written title tags, it’s probably an indication that they’re paying at least some attention to on-page optimization and have likely optimized other on-page factors as well. This will usually be the case with most sites that are ranking on the first page.

    Similarly, if you see that your competitors’ title tags are not too relevant, not well-written, or are spammy, then you have a significantly better chance of taking their spot and knocking them down.

    For a good primer on best practices for writing title tags, check out this page on Moz.

While my own approach to keyword research for client sites goes deeper than this and I use more advanced tools, the essential ingredients are the same.

I also use the same approach as outlined above when training clients on how to do keyword research – albeit customized to their own website and needs, and delivered in person on-site – but it’s the same process and has produced terrific results.

So give it a try if you’re so inclined!

If you prefer to leave the core keyword research to the pros, make sure you ask the SEO consultant you’re considering hiring about their keyword research process. If they don’t mention anything about doing a keyword difficulty analysis, it may be a flag – but to be sure it isn’t just an oversight, proceed to ask them if they do a keyword competitiveness analysis and listen carefully to their response.

Hopefully this section has at least armed you with some good knowledge so that you can be a little smarter when hiring an SEO consultant or agency.

Summing Up

Congratulations if you’ve made it through this entire post! I realize it’s a long one and a lot to absorb.

Are you making any of these keyword research mistakes?

There’s no doubt that thorough and effective keyword research is a time consuming and often tedious task. But done right, you’ll be in a position to much more effectively optimize your on-page factors.

Of course, there’s much more to SEO than just keyword research (there are literally dozens of factors that play a part in SEO that are unrelated to keyword usage) – and there’s much more to keyword research than just overcoming the common mistakes discussed in this post (and I’ll be writing more about keyword research in future posts).

But I hope you’ve learned something here that you can use to improve your keyword research process.

Thoughts? Questions? Please share them in the comments below.