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How to choose keywords

An introduction to Keyword Research using free resources
how to choose keywords for website seo

How to choose keywords

This article is for businesses and individuals that want to take advantage of the many excellent free resources available to get their search engine rankings off to a good start, before exploring paid options like online ads or SEO experts.

Of all the ways to get traffic to your website, organic search produces one of the best returns on investment, and optimizing a web page to rank well in search engines all starts with the right keywords.

However, keyword research can do more than connect you with searchers — when explored fully, it can also give you valuable insights into changes in the market and your customers’ motivations, allowing to you to consistently offer them products and services they will love.

So, what are keywords?

Keywords are the search terms we type into search engines (like Google). The search engines list the websites that closely match those keywords, ranking them in order of relevance.

By anticipating which keywords your target audience would use to search for websites like yours, and then using these keywords throughout your content and underlying code, you can improve your page’s ranking position for those keywords, and get more of the right visitors to your website.

Your keywords will be derived from your overall business strategy, and can influence your content and site structure, and so I recommend doing this exercise during the planning stage of your new website.

Ready to start? Let’s get to it!

1. Determine your website’s main topics

Starting from your business plan and/or site map, develop a shortlist of main topics that you want to be found for. These should be concise 1-2 word descriptions and could include different key aspects of your business, and/or any products, services or categories.

For example, for a coffee shop that imports and roasts its own coffee beans, the main topics could be:

  • Café (general overview)
  • Coffee beans (product category)
  • Wholesale (aspect of the business)
  • Shop (aspect of the business)

These main topics can now be expanded and used to develop lists of associated search terms.

2. Identify your target audience

This part is important, so spend some time trying to get a sense of who your customers are, and whether there are other groups of people you could also be targeting.

Look at demographics like age, gender, marital / family status, location, occupation, income level etc.

Also see if you can identify their attitudes, values, interests, goals, priorities and challenges.

Creating a user persona (like the example on the right) to represent each of your target market segments, can help with this.

how to choose keywords for website seo

3. Create a starter list of possible keywords

3.1 Brainstorm a preliminary list of search terms

Now go back to your page topic and think about your customers’ goals and challenges, and the search terms they are most likely to use when searching for web pages (like yours) to meet those needs. Write down as many different variations as you can think of, including any synonyms your user personas might use in their searches.

A few more questions to help stimulate ideas:

  • Are you solving a particular problem for your customers?
  • Does your business cater for a particular event?
  • Is time a factor? E.g. Fast food delivery or delivery by Christmas?
  • Are there any other characteristics you could include, like language?
  • What is your geographic reach? Are you limited to your town, city, or country?
  • Are you targeting one or more groups of people?
  • Do you offer different products/services to the same audience at different times? e.g. florist (birthdays and weddings)
How long should your key phrases be?

As we can see from the table below showing key phrases of increasing length and their corresponding number of search results, one-word or Head Keywords have crazy amounts of competition because they are so broad. Also, people who use them are usually still at the early stages of researching a topic, or just browsing casually, and so Head Keywords don’t generally convert well (i.e translate into sales).

BELOW: Search results from as on 7 November 2015

coffee 1 080 000 000
coffee beans 23 000 000
coffee beans unroasted 252 000
coffee beans unroasted wholesale 34 400
coffee beans unroasted wholesale raw 19 900

Body and Long Tail Keywords allow for more specific or ‘targeted’ searches. These are the less popular searches and have less competition, but they give away more about the searcher’s intent. For example, someone searching for “take-away coffee shop near me” is further along the sales journey, and more likely to take action and buy (i.e. convert).

According to SEO guru, Brian Dean, the phrase length sweet spot is 2-3 words, as these Body Keywords usually automatically rank us for slightly longer, related key phrases as well.

3.2. Identify your competitors

Is there anyone else that provides the same services to your target audience as you? Is there anything that distinguishes your business from theirs? Why should your customers choose you?

Add any new keyword ideas to your list, and remember to include synonyms and different word combinations.

3.3. Identify any niche markets

If there is a lot of competition for what you offer, a more effective strategy might be to see whether there is a sub-section of that market (niche) you could target. For example, if you are in the coffee business, instead of going up against international giants by using the exact same keywords as them, you might want to narrow your focus by including differentiators like location or product quality (e.g. organic, fair trade, single origin) in your key phrase.

Again, add any new ideas to your list.

3.4. Generate more ideas online (free resources)

There are many wonderful keyword generation tools available, but the following are available to South Africans, are free, and don’t require you to register an account:

Enter a key phrase and scroll to the bottom of the page to ‘Searches related to’ for suggestions.

Google Trends
Check a keyword’s popularity over time and by region, as well as related topics and searches.

Enter a topic and see its Table of Contents for suggestions of possible sub-topics.

Keyword suggestions from all the major search engines at once.

Another great keyword suggestion tool.

See if any of these tools spark any new keyword ideas, and add them to your list.


4. Check keyword difficulty

Now that you have a nice long list of contenders, you need to work out which key phrases will hit that sweet spot between search volume and competition we talked about above. The quickest way to see how popular a keyword or phrase is, is to search for it in the major engines and get a feel for the competition.

For something a bit more rigorous, check out Google Adwords’ Keyword Planner Tool (GKP), and also Bing’s Keyword Research Tool*. Google Adwords is a platform for creating paid search ads, but as part of its ad creation process, it offers users a very useful – and free – tool for keyword generation and comparison. The GKP allows you to check whether a particular key phrase is actually being used, and how many people are searching for that phrase every month.

In order to access the GKP, you have to create a Google Adwords account and create a test ad campaign (you don’t have to go through with the ad campaign or complete your billing details). Once you can see the full dashboard, navigate to Tools > Keyword Planner. Go to Find new keywords and Get search volume data and complete the form. You should now see something like my screenshot on below:

how to choose keywords for website seo

The Search Volume Trends graph above shows how many people search for your key phrase per month, and also how that can fluctuate over the course of a year. Some keywords can have quite dramatic changes in search volume due to seasonality and/or shifting cultural and economic trends, and so frequently monitoring your keyword performance, and adjusting your keyword strategy if necessary, is generally a good idea.

Once you have measured search volume, any low-volume keywords should be taken off your list.

*A lot of people tend to focus their SEO efforts on Google, and in South Africa currently has 92% of the search engine market share. But if your customers are die-hard Microsoft users, it may well be worth trying to get Bing’s 6% as well (stats for October 2014 October 2015, from


For each of your website’s topics or pages, you should now have a final shortlist of winning key phrases, striking a balance between search volume and competition.

These keywords can now be used to plan and/or revise your content, and given to your web designer to use in your website’s underlying code and on-page SEO (to be covered in a future blog post).

Remember that choosing the right keywords for your page is just the first step in optimizing its ranking potential, but it is the most important. It’s the foundation on which all your other SEO efforts will be built.

Do you have any comments or questions?

Please feel free to share your thoughts below.

Further reading

Moz | The Beginner’s Guide to SEO | Keyword Research
This easy to understand, illustrated guide to SEO is a brilliant place to start for newbies.

Backlinko | Keyword Research: The Definitive Guide
A more in depth look at Keyword Research and niche marketing.

Backlinko | How to Use the Google Keyword Planner
A step by step guide on how to use the GKP.

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