Arguably the most important aspect of writing or editing an article with search engine optimization (SEO) in mind is choosing the best target keyword phrase. It can also be one of the trickiest strategies of content SEO to master. But if you choose the right keyword phrase for a given article and weave it into an engaging and well-written piece, your article could be well on its way to a page one ranking in search engines for that phrase.
The target keyword phrase should be a two- to- four-word phrase (maybe even more words) that conveys the article’s core topic or message. While a given article might rank in search engines for a handful of different keyword phrases, the target phrase best conveys what the article is about and thus is emphasized more than other keyword phrases. If you could wish for your article to rank highly for any phrase, this would be it.
Beyond the importance of shooting for a page-one ranking, there are at least three additional reasons why the target keyword phrase is so critical.
- It will make up a significant portion of your headline and meta title — usually the first part of your article a potential reader will see. It’s in those nanoseconds when you’re most likely to hook or miss a potential reader.
- The research you put into choosing the target keyword phrase can trickle down to the rest of the article. What you don’t choose for the main phrase can become secondary keyword phrases that will enrich the article’s deck, intro, subheads, etc., further enhancing the article’s clout in search engines’ indexes.
- Studying the keyword phrases people search for will make you a better writer and editor. Simply put, the research gives you insight into how your potential audience thinks about and looks for information.
Below is a step-by-step look at how to choose the best target keyword phrase for an article, including a hypothetical example to illustrate the steps. There can be plenty of nuances to this setup depending on different situations, but the basic steps can be applied whether you are writing or editing and whether your article is an online-original or the digital version of your latest magazine piece.
After you have a headline with a strong target keyword phrase, don’t consider your SEO work done. The best SEO isn’t just bolted on to an article or to the editorial workflow. What you learn via keyword research can be applied throughout the whole writing or editing process to improve the article’s readability and findability.
The ultimate goal here isn’t to just please the search engines’ algorithms. It’s to make an article better for and more easily accessible by its potential audience.
1. Consider The Article
What is its main topic? Not broadly, but specifically. What is its main reader benefit? What questions does it answer?
Example: An article about the advantages and disadvantages of cork flooring — why it’s “green,” its pros and cons for different rooms in a house, different options of colors and textures, how much it costs, etc.
2. Brainstorm Your Keywords
Before you go anywhere near a keyword research tool, ask yourself what you would search for if you wanted to find an article on this topic. Scribble down a few phrases of varying lengths, but nothing shorter than two words (more on that later).
Example: cork flooring, cork flooring cost, is cork flooring green?, cork flooring uses, cork flooring options
3. Do Your Keyword Research
My favorite resource for this step is the Google Keyword Planner. There are numerous keyword research tools out there with a variety of different options. Some of them are free; some are not. For me at least, it’s hard not to use the tool from the No. 1 search engine. When you open the (free) Google tool, start by entering the best phrase(s) from your brainstorm list in the “Word or Phrase” box. Leave the “Website” box blank, unless you want to limit the results to keywords that bring your website traffic.
4. Review The Results
At the top of the results list, you’ll see the phrases you searched for. Below that will be related phrases. The columns to the right of the phrases show search volume and trends in different ways, and there are a few options to sort and customize the information. After you have your feet wet with this keyword tool, check out those customization options. But for now, I recommend focusing on the Global Monthly Searches column.
Jot down the search volume numbers for the phrases you searched for and any of the related phrases that truly reflect what the article is about. Avoid phrases that aren’t natural language because they will be difficult to work into headlines and the text (more on that below). You may need to repeat steps three and four a couple of times to find good phrases, or you might find great options right away.
Example: cork floors (90,500), cork flooring (74,000), cork flooring pros and cons (5,400), cork flooring prices (1,600), cork flooring cost (1,000)
Even though you’re looking at bunches of numbers, don’t forget that those numbers represent real people using search engines to find the information your article might provide. If you’re unsure whether a particular phrase matches the article’s topic, or you’re looking at words that can mean different things in different contexts, Google the phrase. The results will show you what the search engine regards as relevant results for that phrase. Googling the phrase will also reveal the competition for that phrase (both who and how much).
5. Resist The Temptation of Big Numbers
I know I said to focus on the Global Monthly Searches column, but don’t just run with the short and broad phrase that has the highest number of searches. Your odds of ranking on page one will be higher for a more specific phrase that gets less search activity. It’s far better to rank on page one for a phrase that gets a few thousand searches a month than to be on page 19 for a phrase that gets a few hundred thousand searches a month.
The trick is to look at phrases that most accurately reflect what the article is most specifically about and then use the numbers to weigh the different options within that. There’s no magic number of search volume to choose or ignore. I’ve found that, for people who are new to SEO, choosing one phrase out of the options is the hardest part of optimizing content and that the temptation of big numbers is hard to resist. It’s really important to focus on the relevancy of the phrases and use the different search volume numbers more so as a tiebreaker than a compass.
Example: In this case, all the phrases related to cork flooring are specific enough for consideration. But say the writer had turned in the article with a vague headline like “Great Flooring Option for Green Homes” or “Great Green Flooring Option.” “Flooring” (4 million) is way too broad and too big. “Green homes” (74,000) isn’t necessarily too big but is broader than the specific topic of the article. And “Green flooring” (6,600) isn’t specific. Say the author used a headline like “Why Cork Makes for Great Floors.” The problem with that is that it doesn’t really target any phrase. It doesn’t cover “cork floors” (90,500) because there are other words in between.
6. Choose The Long Tail
After you have experience researching keyword phrases, if you still have trouble weighing the options and/or feel the temptation to choose vague phrases with super-high search volume, try this: You can get a sense of the ideal search volume for your topics and website by using Google Analytics.
Look up the top entrance keywords for your website, then enter those phrases into the keyword tool. Then compare their search volume to the number of visitors they actually bring to your website. You might be surprised that some of the most continually productive entrance keywords for your website don’t have huge search volume. Enter the Long Tail theory.
Whereas a shorter and more general phrase may have a much higher search volume than a longer and more specific phrase, the people searching for the latter are on a more focused and determined path. Generally speaking, when people search for short and broad phrases they are in early research mode and they’re likely to refine their search quickly to something more specific. When people search for a longer and more specific phrase, they are closer to making a “conversion,” which could be any or all of the following: read the article, share it on Facebook, sign up for your newsletter, subscribe to your magazine, etc.
These days, ranking for long tail keywords is more important than ever. People are becoming increasingly savvy with using search engines at the same time as the amount of information those engines access continues to expand exponentially. On a related email exchange with Josh Loewen Co-founder at The Status Bureau, he mentioned that “Nearly 60 percent of search queries are for three words or more, and the fastest growth in number of searches is for six- to seven-word queries”.
Example: “Cork flooring pros and cons” caught my eye from the beginning. It conveys the content of the article and speaks to an audience that knows about cork flooring, but needs to know if it’s right for them. And this phrase is especially advantageous with the next tip in mind.
7. Double Up If You Can
Know that if you target a multiple-word phrase, you’ll also effectively target the words and phrases within that phrase. A win-win scenario is when a high-volume, broad phrase is verbatim in a longer and more specific keyword phrase.
Example: “Cork flooring pros and cons” effectively covers both that phrase and “cork flooring” (74,000)
8. Write The Headline
Look at your short list of target keyword phrase options and write different headline options for the article. If you want the article to rank on page one for the phrase, odds are the phrase needs to be in the headline. Your best bet is to start the headline with the target keyword phrase.
If that’s awkward, place the phrase as early in the headline as possible. A strong keyword phrase early in the headline will please the search engines’ algorithms. It also will hook the attention of quick-moving readers when they see the exact same phrase they searched for in a headline on a search results page.
Keep in mind that your final headline needs to be clear and engaging, with natural language. The last thing you want is a franken-headline that makes the reader do mental acrobatics to understand it.
Example: “Cork Flooring Pros and Cons” is pretty strong. Ideal headlines for SEO are a little longer (about six to 12 words), but I think adding another phrase to this headline would make it awkward. This example isn’t an especially challenging one, but it’s not uncommon for a headline to fall into place like this once you have a good target phrase.
9. Weave It In
If you want an article to rank for a given phrase, it must be in the article. If it works naturally, use the target keyword phrase again in the deck and subheads of the article. If not, use secondary phrases. Definitely use the target phrase at least once within the article’s introduction. Then sprinkle it here and there throughout the piece.
There’s no magic number for this — too little or too much will depend on the context of the article and what the search engine considers natural for that topic. Generally speaking, for a feature-length article, aim for at least three uses in the body copy: intro, middle and conclusion. But don’t force it.
“The target keyword phrase should be a valuable phrase for the article, so using it a handful of times shouldn’t be awkward,” said to me Mariia Lvovych the founder of Getreviewed. “If you find yourself struggling to rewrite a sentence to get the phrase in there for the Xth time, stop” she continued.
Example: It should be easy to use “cork flooring pros and cons” in the introduction and in the conclusion. But it may not be natural to use it more than that, which is fine.
10. Use Secondary Phrases
Phrases from the cutting room floor are great for to use in the deck, subheads, body text, etc. You may even discover new ideas for related articles or sidebars.
Example: Phrases such as “cork flooring durability,” “cork flooring installation,” “cork flooring prices” may naturally be in the body text and lend themselves to subheads.
All of this may sound like a lot of steps, but with practice, you’ll find that the whole process generally moves swiftly and smoothly for most topics. Each time you do it, you’ll get faster, and you’ll learn something new.
The payoff can be enormous — 15 to 30 minutes of work in choosing and applying a target keyword phrase can lead to thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, more people reading your hard work. Plus, you’ll become a better writer/editor because you will be all the more in touch with your audience.