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SEO checklist part 3: Keyword research


Part two of this series, SEO scorecard, provided a template for analyzing, scoring and prioritizing all types of SEO factors including on-page content optimization, off-page optimization, site-architecture and navigation, accessibility, and competition. Armed with an organized list of areas with the most room for improvement, you can (finally) begin to tackle and measure progress for each SEO factor. Parts four through twelve of the SEO checklist series will provide detailed tactics, tips and tools to help you optimize all major areas of SEO.

But, before diving into the nitty-gritty, all search engine optimization experts know that detailed keyword research is the foundation of SEO. One must understand when, how, and most importantly, what, people are searching before one can begin to optimize content.

Best keyword research tools

There are hundreds of tools dedicated to keyword research. Each one has its own pros and cons, but the services listed below are the most comprehensive SEO tools available. With the exception of the Google Keyword Planner, all the others are freemium products.

The future of SEO is semantic search

Even two years ago, keyword research was simple. Search engine marketers would start with a core keyword and then develop a list of target keywords related to the core concept. SEOs would then optimize individual web pages for a single keyword or keyword phrase. That strategy is now defunct because of Google’s Hummingbird search algorithm that launched in October 2013. While there have been other updates to the algorithm like Penguin and Panda, Hummingbird was a total algorithm replacement.

The new algorithm helps return more accurate search results based more on concepts and topics than on individual keyword searches. Basically, Google took one large step forward in its goal to return better results by interpreting the context, meaning and intent behind a user’s query – not just the query itself. Semantic search considers thousands of variables before returning results. Some of these variables include context of the search, location of the user, correlation of intent, variation of words, synonyms, specialized queries, conversational searches and concept matching.

Google "that movie with that guy that I liked" search image

Consider AMC’s hit TV series The Walking Dead. If you search “TV show with zombies and guy with crossbow,” Google returns results related to Daryl Dixon, a main character of the show. It’s not because those web pages contain keyword phrases like “zombies and guy with crossbow.” Instead, Google is simultaneously associating three concepts: TV show, zombies and crossbow, and returning results with the highest statistical correlation.

It’s important to note that “semantic search” should not be confused with an older keyword research tactic called “long-tail keywords.”

The value of long-tail keywords

Targeting long-tail keywords is a concept that’s more closely related to the old method of optimizing individual pages based on a single target keyword. Long-tail keywords are clusters of three, four or more keywords that follow each other sequentially.

Instead of searching, “schedule doctor appointment,” people may search for “where can I schedule a doctor appointment” or “schedule a podiatrist appointment.” In theory, SEOs have a chance of ranking high for these low volume but less competitive phrases by optimizing individual pages with a combination of exact long-tail keywords.

This method of search optimization is still valuable, but now there is a greater need to consider the intent behind a keyword phrase. 

How does semantic search work?

Google now focuses on the “things” or entities that keywords often describe, instead of the keywords themselves. Keywords are imprecise, because keywords can be used to refer to the same entity.

For example, the queries “who did ginny weasley marry in book,” “ron weasley’s best friend” and “harry potter” all refer to Harry Potter. Google assigns unique identifiers to each entity, and then identifies all the possible connections, properties and values between them.

In the past SEO was about targeting data (keywords). Now it’s about targeting the connections between data.

Semantic SEO keyword research

Starting your research with a core concept is the first step. Using this core concept, start creating a list of seed terms, including related terms and synonyms.

Healthcare SEO - marketing with semantic searchIf you started your research with the core concept of “hospital marketing,” your keyword list would likely grow to include phrases like “ hospital marketing plan,” “hospital internet marketing,” “healthcare marketing strategies” and “hospital marketing ideas.” A proper list can include thousands of keywords and keyword phrases, so now you need to create categories and assign keywords to them based on their properties.

You can structure your content based on the services and products you offer, with subservices and subproducts that interlink based on their properties.

In the example above, healthcare marketing is the core concept and pages for Internet marketing, traditional marketing and internal communications could be subpages. Each of these subpages can interlink based on common properties such as ROI, case studies, strategies and plans. By organizing your content this way, you’re forming relationships between entities, rather than forming entities (keywords) themselves.

Local context and Google Instant

Adding geographical information is another way to help Google pair your results with user queries. Google uses your IP address to give the search engine geographical context that can help you find information quicker. If a user begins to search, “Hospitals in,” Google will automatically offer suggestions based on your location and previous search history. When Google offers search suggestions, the search engine is using Google Instant.

Local SEO for hospitals image - Google search box

How can you use this information to optimize for user intent? If you’re a large healthcare system with multiple locations, you could add location specific information on appropriate pages. For example, if one of your hospitals is located in Charlotte, North Carolina, you could add a location specific information on pages for ER wait times in Charlotte or urgent care services in Charlotte. One option is to create a subfolder for each of these properties, organize them by location, and interlink them at a deep page depth.

Again, it’s less about combining the entities “Charlotte” and “hospital” and more about the amount of connections between the locations and services offered at the entity itself.

Structured data markup

Make sure your web pages utilize the correct structured data markup format to ensure Google and other search engines can understand and categorize data on your website. Google’s Structured Data Markup Helper can help you generate schema.org vocabulary markup to your HTML pages.

This allows search engines to better understand the context of your products and services, and offer users rich snippets and enhanced displays. Google calls this their Knowledge Graph and uses it to display structured and detailed information about a topic in addition to a list of links to other sites. The goal is to offer users high-level information without the user having to navigate to our websites and pull the information themselves.

Using structured data markup is important because it helps Google to better understand and categorize the content on your site. If done correctly, your website will rank higher than another website with identical information that didn’t have the back-end schema markup.

Keyword research in practice

With the basics of semantic search covered, actually performing the keyword research requires patience and third party tools. Google Keyword Planner is free, accurate and the best overall tool to start your research.

The keyword planner is located within the tools section of Google AdWords. This tool’s specific purpose is to give Google advertisers a workshop for building, testing and getting new keyword ideas for pay-per-click search campaigns. Information such as keyword volume, competition and relevancy are provided and can be extremely valuable for SEO.

Start with a handful of core concepts based around your audience’s needs. Then sort the keyword ideas that Google generates by traffic, competition and relevancy to select several hundred keyword phrases. Once you have your list, you can categorize each according to the entity each phrase relates to. Eventually you’ll end up with tightly themed concepts with several dozen targeted keywords in each.

You can use this information to audit your content, generate new content ideas, reorganize your website, and make sure that your content matches your audience’s search intent.

Know what your audience is searching

Matching your audience’s search intent means understanding what your audience wants, needs, and how they search for those things. A common misconception is to believe you already know all of this. By using Google Keyword Planner, you can use quantitative data to verify what search terms your audience is searching by location.

For instance, between November 2013 and November 2014 in Charlotte, the term “paleo diet”Healthcare SEO image - Diet vs Paleo Diet searches was searched 1,614 percent more times than “diet.” That’s impressive in and of itself. Let’s say that you knew the paleo diet was a popular weight loss craze. You may think that the paleo diet would be even more popular in a trendsetting city like Los Angeles where many health fads start. Google Keyword Planner proves that’s not true. In fact, in L.A., the “paleo diet” is searched only 1,200 percent more than the search term “diet.”

The insight gained from that example is infinitesimally small compared to the amount of knowledge you can gain by performing your own keyword research. Armed with that information, you get a much more accurate picture of what your audience is searching for and what terms they are using.

Thinking about writing a blog post? Why not take a peek at the data before you decide what topic to write on.

Next steps to keyword optimization

Once your keyword research is done, you can begin to re-think the content on your website. Stay tuned for more of this SEO checklist series to learn tactics for utilizing keyword research when performing on-page SEO optimization.

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