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No. 81
May 6th, 2008

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Salk Institute, by TheNose

A Quick and Effective Keyword Research Strategy for Small Businesses

Why you should do keyword research

Without doing keyword research, you might think that “office supply store” is the single most important keyword that you want to show up for in search engines, and that’s where you might throw all of your marketing efforts. But the problem with a small business going after a generic keyword like “office supply store” is that you’re probably going up against Fortune 500 companies who are spending gobs of money on their online presence, and you’ll be lucky to show up in the Top 5 pages of results, let alone the Top 5 results.

Keyword research might also tell you that “office supply store” gets half the number of searches, on average, that “office supplies” does (true story). And while you might not have a chance to get found for “office supplies” going up against the Office Maxes, Office Depots, and Staples of the world, you might stand a very good chance of ranking for “office supplies Salem, OR.” Ascertaining your most lucrative set of keywords is the foundation upon which your website can be built–that’s why it’s the First Commandment!

Follow-up: Literally as I was writing this post, Jennifer Laycock at SearchEngineGuide authored her own excellent post on the importance of doing keyword research in which she points out that when your customers perform searches, they may use much different words than your marketing agency—yet another great reason to make sure you get your ducks in a row before developing or re-developing your website.

How to do your keyword research

If you have the budget (and the time), running a Pay-Per-Click advertising campaign (called “Adwords” at Google) for a couple of months is a great testing ground. You get actual data on how many people are searching for exactly what keywords you think they’ll search for. And even better for locally-oriented businesses, if you target the scope of your ads to your metro area, you’ll get a fairly good idea of what people in your particular region are looking for. Your ongoing return on your PPC investment is probably not going to be as high as it is for SEO and Local SEO (see below), but it still might provide solid marginal revenue, so you might continue it even after the “trial” period.

***Personal preference: be sure to limit your PPC account to the Search Network ONLY. You’re going to get lower-quality clicks and screwy volume numbers if you include the Content Network. Unfortunately, the default (at least in Google; not sure about Yahoo or MSN) is to include the Content Network. So you’ll need to go in after you’ve set up your account to turn off Content Network. Click the “Edit Settings” button from your campaign Dashboard, and then UN-check the Content boxes on the right-hand side under “Networks.”

But even if you don’t run a Pay-Per-Click campaign, you can still use Google’s Keyword Research Tool and see what people are searching for. Plug in a few keywords that you think people will use to find your business. Google will show you data for those keywords, and suggest several others that seem similar in concept.

Look at the size of the bar in the righthand column (average search volume) and compare it to the size of the bar in the lefthand column (advertiser competition). Usually if there are a bunch of advertisers, it means it’s a pretty hard keyword to rank for. If there aren’t many advertisers, but it looks like there are a fair number of monthly searches…well, that’s your sweetspot!

For a little more detailed analysis, you can export the data from Google directly into an Excel Spreadsheet. I’ll typically open that Excel CSV file and create a formula in the far right column that looks something like =SUM(D2-B2).

***Personal preference: Unless you’re a site that relies on a lot of Holiday or otherwise time-sensitive traffic, you can typically use the “Average Search Volume” column as your main indicator of customer interest and ignore the Search Volume from the previous month.)

That formula gives me what I call a “Lucrativity Index,” making it easy to sort those keywords that I want to target: fewer advertisers and more searches. Scores will range between -1 and 1. A high positive number (like 0.4, for example) is a great keyword to target.

Below is a screenshot of what that spreadsheet looks like for the keywords I target on my own website. Sorry I had to blur them; can’t give away ALL my secrets to my competitors 🙂

Keywords with a negative index may still be worth targeting if they’re high-volume keywords, or keywords that you know are going to convert into business. They’ll just be harder to rank for.

That’s the skeleton of my keyword research strategy for clients with small budgets. There are obviously a number of nuances that depend on the industry and the client, but this will generally yield a pretty effective keyword list of ~500 – 1000 phrases (if your site is sizable enough to target that many) in a couple of hours. I’d love to hear from other folks in the comments if they’ve seen or used other techniques that are equally or more effective!