Keyword Research: How You’re Doing It Wrong

Posted on /by Natalie Sisson/ in Build Your Online Business / 9 comments

The keyword is the driving force behind building an online business that  gives you leads and referrals and generates sales. Tracking keywords that people search for and making sure that you are the most relevant (or at least most prominent) result forms the basic concept behind SEO. So why do so many people get it wrong?

Well, there are a lot of mistakes to make, and a lot of ways to make them. It’s not as simple as picking a keyword, stuffing a site full of it, then building thousands of links back to said site using, you guessed it, that same keyword. And if you’re doing that, you’re doing your keyword research wrong. That seems like a silly mistake that a green web developer would make, right?

But we’re not talking about those green web developers today. We’re talking about all those little mistakes that can, and probably will, creep up in your keyword research at some point. Those seemingly trifling mistakes will kill your web development efforts, before you even figure out what went wrong.

How Keywords Function in the “Blogosphere”

But first, it’s important to understand how bloggers use keywords, and why they’re so important for both your audience and the robots sent by Google to rank your page. In their simplest form, keywords appear in blogs as tags.

Most bloggers like to organize posts based on relevant keywords – ideally so readers can relate information in one blog posts to others. In fact, tags are a perfect way to think of page relevancy in organic traffic results.

If you determine that a particular blog post should be relevant to one or more keywords, the following is generally necessary to make this relevancy clear, both to your readers and from a semantics point of view:

  • Your keywords must appear in the title of the post, or the H1 tag on the page (if you use WordPress, the title of your post becomes the H1 tag).
  • The keywords must appear periodically within subtitles of the post (also known as your H2 and H3 headers).
  • The keywords should appear within relevant content in your post. This means that the keyword must be inserted in content that contextually makes sense (don’t simply insert the keywords in random places, in other words).
  • The keywords should appear in your post tags.
  • The keywords should appear in any links coming back to the blog post as anchor text.
  • The keywords should be included in your post’s URL structure. So, if you’re targeting “spongebob games” with a post titled “How to Find Cheap Spongebob Games,” the URL structure for that post is much more effective as, than

So your keyword research almost always begins with an idea on which keywords your blog will target. Once you accomplish that, your research can either confirm that your ideas are good ones, or help you identify areas that you might be better off targeting. But there are many ways you can perform this keyword research incorrectly, and spoil your efforts.

“Spongebob Games” Gets 1.5 Million Searches Per Month

Well, if you believe the heading of this section, you’ve made your first deadly mistake – forgetting to switch the “Match Type” in the Google Adwords Keyword Tool from “Broad” to “Exact.”

After making the switch, we find that the keyword “spongebob games” actually gets about 673,000 searches every month. That’s still some decent search volume, but you have no idea how often the broad results show about 600 searches (a reasonable volume for the beloved long-tail), but the exact shows a big fat zero.

There’s a big difference between broad and exact keywords, especially when talking about conversions. You have to put yourself in the mindset of your customers – they want specifics. If you’re in an industry that can cross into other niches, picking short keyword phrases can cause a lot of confusion. Let’s consider an example using some anchor text:


Now, if you were to click that link, what would you expect to find? Some customers might think of a bright, shiny new prop for their boat’s motor, while others might expect to find some rugby information. Little do they know, you sell movie costumes and props. If you were to use this specific anchor text instead, you’d eliminate confusion and attract targeted traffic.

But this goes even further. Remember, the more specific keywords you have, the less competition you face. There could be millions of different sites targeting the anchor text “props,” but you represent a smaller niche targeting “movie costumes and props.” You are literally competing with entire industries if your keyword research is too broad. So, now that you understand this mistake’s raw power to reduce your website to ruins, what can you do to avoid it?

  1. Trust in the long-tail. (Vacations for senior citizens in Rhode Island vs. vacations.) Unless you have an enormous budget and around a year to wait, there’s just too much competition for many smaller keyword phrases. You won’t be an overnight millionaire targeting long tail keyword phrases, but you can count on consistent conversions with less effort.
  2. Really think about what your audience expects. You can rank number one in the SERPs for “props” and sell boat props, but this won’t do you any good if 90% of the searchers expect to find movie props.

People That Search for “Spongebob Games” Will Buy My Spongebob Products

Once again, you’ve made a costly mistake. But before you get entirely fed up with that annoying spongelike creature and pour all of your money into something simple like “weight loss,” (not a good idea, by the way), let’s look at exactly why you’re wrong this time.

Think about how often you actually search in a “buying mood,” that is, looking for something to buy. More often than not, you’re just surfing randomly for some information. After all, that’s what the Internet’s for. Sure, you might see a powerful sales pitch along the way, but you can’t be counted on for a serious revenue stream. You searched “spongebob games” because you like the guy, and you want to spend a few mindless minutes throwing a seashell back and forth to his friend Patrick.

But what if you had searched for “buy spongebob games.” Suddenly, your whole mood has changed. You’re in a buying mood and you’re looking for something that countless web developers want to sell you. We call these “money keywords.”

I’m not suggesting that every page of your website should be “buy this” or “best that” – variety is important. Also, when you’re doing your keyword research, don’t assume that even a 1/4 of people’s past keyword searches had anything to do with purchasing something. If your focus is more monetary though, choose money keywords like:

  • [keyword] review
  • best [keyword]
  • compare [keyword]
  • [keyword] comparison

Each niche will call for different money keywords. If you’re unclear about how saturated a niche is for money keywords, try typing those phrases into Google and see what quality of sites pop up. If they’re a bunch of low quality sales sites, you’re good to go.

If you have some rough big box competition fighting for the top results, choose a different keyword (even our friend the long tail) instead of abandoning the niche altogether. While and Linens N’ Things will dominate the first results for “buy bedding,” you’re going to kill them when it comes to ranking for “buy bedding for kids” or, of course, “buy bedding for senior citizens in Rhode Island.”

Most People Will Describe My New Spongebob Games Site as “Spongebob Games”

Well, maybe. Sadly, this assumption is only half-correct. If you manage to climb your way to an authority position, it’s true that the vast majority of links coming back to your site will make sense with the anchor text “spongebob games.”

It makes perfect sense that millions of people have linked to using the anchor text “Google.” But millions of others used something entirely different. Some vagabonds even dared to link using something like “click here” and “check this out!”

So when it comes time to apply your keyword research to link building, be careful about how natural your efforts look. Your fresh new site that gets 1,000 links within days (using the exact same anchor text) looks anything but natural to Google, and they can penalize you for doing it.

A better way to handle keyword research is with variety in mind. If you’re doing your entire link building campaign, you might even throw some strange anchor text in there to keep things natural. But, for all of your keyword research efforts, think of all the possible ways a person could describe your site, services, products and brand. Then, broaden your keyword research to target all of those ways.

So, for spongebob games, you might mix things up a bit (even if there isn’t much search volume for some of them… yet):

  • find spongebob games
  • games about spongebob
  • best spongebob games 2012
  • spongebob game rules
  • how do spongebob games work?

Your keyword research will reveal some related keywords that you can target, but you might need to get a little creative. Although you want to rank for “spongebob games,” all that anchor text coming in with some variation of the phrase (or containing some portion of your targeted keyword phrase) will establish relevancy for your site.

So, if your plan is now to target “spongebob games,” you should do so without making at least three big mistakes. Web developers tend to overcomplicate everything they do – partly to disguise just how easy it is and to keep all that competition from creeping into their territory.

thinking like your customers is exactly what you need to do to avoid making costly mistakes in your keyword research. Take a page from Spongebob’s book and keep things simple, relevant to your audience, and fun – and most of your work will be done for you.

Who would’ve thought that a children’s cartoon character had so much to say about keyword research?

  • Hi Natalie,

    Saw your face pop up in my Tribal Stream plus the headline sounded right up my alley, and I decided to check you out.

    I think this post would work really well in a video format as well….a kind of “peak inside your mind” as you’re doing the research….but anyways, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Danny Iny did a great job bringing you into his Engagement From Scratch…what a sausage fest that tribe is, huh? lol

    Anyways, the real reason I wanted to leave a comment is that I dont appreciate you making the rest of us look bad. I’ve read your About page and now I feel like I have to run a marathon just to keep up 🙂

  • Natalie,
    This is one of the better articles I have read on the subject(a lot of the articles covered the same ground, but, you have a way with words and explaining things so they become easier to understand). I will no doubt be sharing this article, if it is okay with you; so don’t be surprised if you find it linked in odd places, if you keep track of that sort of thing.

  • Very interesting article. I know a thing or two about keywords after a year of blogging but I’ve found new concepts I didn’t know. Also having a refresher always helps and your writing style is very good.

    I’ve found it pretty funny that you mentioned the hundreds to zero traffic switching to exact instead of broad as I’ve been conned a lot with this. I had to find it through trial and errors though. 🙂

    Thanks for the interesting article and have a great Sunday!

    • Natalie

      Hey Andrea

      Thanks for the comment and I think when it comes to keywords and anything to do with getting found online there is always more to be learned, even when you think you know it all, which I certainly don’t.

  • Cute article. I loved that you used Sponge Bob as the example! This was really useful to me because I just got a new opportunity to be a social media consultant/SEO internet marketing and feel like the topic is basically common sense but something I haven’t really “got” myself into much. Or really “get”. It shouldn’t take much to learn though! Implementation is just a bit tedious 🙂 But I enjoy tedious work.

  • Hey Natalie,

    I had subscribed to your newsletter a long time back, always used to read it. Today is the first time I visited the site and actually read the post.

    Well, I am a beginner in the blogosphere and I feel that this post on keyword research is the best that I have ever come across and also at an appropriate time when I am just starting out (my blog born some 5 days ago).

    Anyways thanks for the extended and excellent post. I wonder if you could do a similar post on back linking as well (I hope I am not asking for too much).


  • Great reminder of whats important to get traffic in blogging. Thanks Natalie

  • Hi.Natalie .you catch me with this keyword:-), keyword research its really cool article. Thank for best article!
    Regards Imuzcorner from Indonesia

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