Your Misunderstanding and Misuse of Keywords Is Preventing Consistent Page 1 Rankings [Part 1]
What The Heck Are Keywords and What Do I Need to Know Before Using Them?
One of the major halves of the internet manipulation practice known as SEO. The other half, of course, is links (often referred to as backlinks).
The next two sections are about why I think this topic is important.
Skip down to the header, “What is a keyword?” to get to the meat of why you came to this article if you’re feeling impatient.
Side Note: In this issue, I’ll be using the terms “keyword” and “query” interchangeably. Google does the same and you’ll notice that if you’re ever in Google Search Console.
Now, I know what you might be thinking. You’ve read about keywords before, and you understand what the definition of a keyword is.
And I have no doubt that you in fact do understand what they represent.
But have you ever tried to actually take the leap from understanding the definition of a keyword to doing something actionable with that definition?
Probably. That’s why you’re reading this right now. Remember that feeling of being asked to “get” one of those keywords? Suddenly, knowing what a query was felt inadequate and unhelpful to actually perform your job.
It was the toughest learning curve for me when I started in SEO.
I found plenty of theory or high-level conceptual information, but I needed someone to tell me how to “use” a keyword.
Isn’t this topic a bit elementary? Not at all.
When people try learning a skill like SEO, they want to know what is going to lead them to making 💰💰💰.
“What do I, at a minimum, need to know in order to be employable and to get the results for clients or my company?” they impatiently ask.
In my opinion, understanding the function and role of keywords is exactly what will put you ahead of 80-90% of the SEO hacks running around the market.
And I have a vested interest, as an SEO myself, in people understanding how this profession works. All of us being proficient means being able to produce repeatable results. Repeatable results mean the reputation of SEO as a profitable marketing channel continues to gain respect. And we all win.
My 3 core reasons for tackling this topic
I have three reasons for presenting you with this topic.
I think it’s at the core of why most SEOs are not able to produce meaningful, non-brand-related results for companies.
I remember the pain of trying to learn what I was supposed to do with a keyword in practice. And I don’t recall ever finding a document that helped in the way that I intend this and subsequent newsletter issues to do. They probably exist, but they’re not easy to find.
I have been through the pain of hiring SEO freelancers to help me with keyword research. They’d charge $100 an hour (that’s fine). But then they’d come back with a roadmap of recommendations that were not only off-target but illustrated that they themselves did not know how keywords worked.
Roll up your sleeves — we’ve got a lot to cover. It’s all valuable. Let’s dive in.
What is a keyword? Yep. We’re starting here
Most resources get the general definition of a keyword right. I’ll go as far as to say that there are two definitions.
The definition of a keyword for the search engine user (the person doing the searching)
Keyword = The word or phrase that a user inputs into a search engine in order to find what they are looking for.
The definition of a keyword for an SEO professional (that’s you!)
Keyword = The word or phrase that you want your content or webpage to embody so that your URL comes up on page 1 when searchers type it into a search engine.
Think of all keywords as questions
Let’s add a framework or lens that I find helpful when thinking about all keywords.
All keywords represent questions. It doesn’t matter if they’re a single word or a full 15 word phrase.
If a user types in a word or phrase, it’s because they’re looking for something. And, at this point, we’ve been trained on how to best use a search engine like Google.
It’s strange, but you have likely been using their search engine for so long that you have an intuitive sense of what exactly will trigger the results that you want.
The reason it’s helpful to think about keywords as questions is that it will help you get into the mindset of asking:
“Why is a person searching for this?”
“What type of experience do they want?”
Pro Tip: The answer to both of those questions can be found by typing your keyword into the Google Search Bar or your keyword research tool (more below)
Understanding short keywords, head terms, or seed keywords
If you’ve ever been thrown a keyword target by your CEO or your client, it’s likely been for a one or two-word keyword (different SEO professionals will call these different names like head terms and seed keywords).
They typically come with the sexiest monthly traffic volume numbers and the least experienced folks with SEO often label them as the biggest priority targets.
If you worked for a company that sold pet fish and their biggest moneymaker came from selling goldfish, you can imagine a CEO sending you an email saying, “I want us to be number 1 for the keyword “goldfish.”
Even more terrifying is if they send you a screenshot of the keyword from one of the keyword research tools (image below).
That 137k number on the right, of course, is Ahrefs monthly traffic volume estimate for that keyword.
It’s your job as an SEO to be able to set expectations around demands like this. And that means that you need to know a bit about keywords.
What you need to know about short keywords in general:
Short keywords are hard for Google to interpret because it’s often less clear what exactly a person wants when searching for a single word. To try and get a searcher what they “most likely” want, Google will deliver a diverse range of answers. That means there is limited room on a SERP for any one type of intent.
They are often the most difficult keywords to rank on page 1 for. They’re either so top-of-funnel and broad that Google will only give them to the most authoritative websites on that subject OR they are in fact so valuable that companies with the most amount of money to spend on SEO efforts will spend a small fortune on backlink building and updating their content to stay in position 1-3.
Let’s take our “goldfish” example to the SERPs to illustrate my first point above
Short keywords are hard for Google to interpret because it’s often less clear what exactly a person wants when searching for a single word.
When you type in the word “goldfish” into the SERP, the first result is a local map pack.
Google’s first guess for that keyword is that you either:
a) Are looking to buy a goldfish? And you want to know where you can buy one locally?
b) Are looking to attend the Goldfish Swim School that is nearby your location?
The rich snippet map result means that the results for this search will not be the same for every searcher.
Try it for yourself. Unless you’re located in the Tampa Bay, FL area, your results will be different than mine and anyone else that doesn’t live near you.
What else does Google think a searcher might be interested in when searching “goldfish?
It looks like Google knows that other searchers are often interested in:
understanding what they are, and some facts about them
what to expect when caring for a Goldfish as a pet
some existential wondering about the capacity of a Goldfish’s brain
video results to learn about goldfish
The Goldfish snack brand’s Twitter feed and products
And even information about a DJ music duo
Explaining what this keyword means to a client or your CEO
Your role as an SEO is to help advise your CEO or your client on the hurdles and realities of “ranking #1” for such a query. Additionally, you should advise on what action steps can be taken to ensure you’re optimized to come up on page 1 for results like these.
If you’re a small family-owned business that sells pet fish, the best you’re going to do in this space is:
Have an optimized product page for local search
Make sure that your Google Business Profile is as descriptive and up to date as possible so that you come up in the maps
Beyond that, the sheer authority and size of the competitors, and the diversity of topics that the keyword “goldfish” displays should give you confidence in advising AGAINST sinking excessive funds into the pursuit of this keyword.
Understanding longtail keywords (longer phrases)
On the flip side, we have things called longtail keywords. Longtails are typically phrases composed of 3+ words.
As you can imagine, longer keywords are much more specific in their intent than seed keywords are, and their specificity often results in less sexy search volumes.
An example, to continue our goldfish theme, might be:
With a still impressive volume, of 2,100 people searching this every month, it’s clearly much less than the 137k per month associated with the seed keyword, “goldfish.”
What you need to know about longtail keywords in general:
Longer keywords are easier for Google to understand what it is that a searcher is looking for because the length of the phrase often adds context.
They tend to have less monthly search volume associated with them, but what you give up in volume, you gain in control of both targeting an audience and the type of page you can create in order to rank on page 1.
These keywords also tend to have less competition associated with them so longer tail queries often make great targets for newer websites or companies that have not yet built authority around topics on the internet.
The specificity of a longtail keyword also means that whoever lands on your page is likely looking for exactly the content that you’re serving them and can result in much higher conversion rates. Said another way, it’s less likely that someone unintentionally lands on your page looking for a different experience.
Let’s take a look at our SERP for “what do goldfish eat” to illustrate the above:
You’ll immediately notice that there is a common thread between all the organic results on this page. They’re posts about what goldfish can eat.
There is way less confusion about what people want to learn. And even the subtle differences between a couple of the results can be addressed with a single post or article. This is a much more stable keyword to target.
You could understand why a pet food store might want to target a keyword like this. Answer what it is that a goldfish can eat, then mention how you have a product to help feed goldfish if they’re looking for a new food option.
Keywords and two forms of intent you’re going to hear about
In SEO, you’re going to hear the word “intent” or phrase “keyword intent.” This actually means two things and I constantly have to ask which one people are referring to when they start talking about intent matching.
If you’re going to understand which keywords you should or should not be targeting based on your business objectives or page-type that you wish to build, you need to understand these two types of intent. Period.
1) There is the marketing funnel intent of a keyword
Marketing funnel intent or buyer journey intent is the broad or conceptual understanding of what type of content experience someone is looking for when they type a certain keyword into a search engine.
These are generally broken into several categories (And, SEMrush actually added these to their keyword tool which is pretty AWESOME!)
The 4 intent types are:
Informational - someone is looking to learn about a topic. This means they’re looking for educational materials, generally something that’s top of funnel. These often make good longform blog posts or informational service pages.
The keyword “what do goldfish eat” is a good example of an informational keyword. They might not be at a buyer state but they’re trying to learn something related to your industry.
Navigational - the searcher is looking for something specific, often a location or a company’s webpage they know about and are attempting to find again.
The keyword “goldfish swim school” is a great example of a navigational keyword. They’re looking to learn exactly where the school is located or what that company offers.
Commercial - this searcher is generally looking to buy something but they’re not ready to buy a specific thing yet. They’re either searching for a type of product/service to see what’s available on the market or to compare various things against one another.
The keyword “best goldfish tanks” is an example of a commercial keyword. This person is clearly in the market to buy a tank or aquarium, but they’re not sure which one they want, yet.
Transactional - This person is ready to make a purchase. They know what they want and they haven’t indicated that they are necessarily doing comparison shopping anymore.
The keywords “goldfish for sale” or “goldfish food” are good examples of transactional keywords. They know that they need a product and they’ll be buying in the near future.
An example of using this type of intent for practical purposes
Say you’re a content marketer and a client says, we do really well with paid ads for the phrase, “goldfish for sale” so we’d like you to help us rank on page 1 for that phrase to help cut down on our ad spend.
You need to be equipped to consult them on the best way to obtain that keyword.
In this case, you could type that keyword into your keyword research tool or into Google’s search bar and see:
1. This keyword only returns e-commerce category pages that contain a bunch of listings for all the types of goldfish they sell.
2. There are no blog posts on this keyword’s SERP so we should not create one with any hope that it will rank on page 1 or that a customer is looking for that type of experience.
Your recommendation to the client would be that they need to create a category page on their e-commerce store’s website for all the productized ways in which someone can purchase a goldfish.
If they’re not an e-commerce store, then they need to at least create what feels like an e-commerce category page on a service, product, or even their homepage. That means they need to have a section that links to multiple (the more, the better) types of goldfish that a user can buy from their business.
chuchugoldfish has a good example of a non-ecommerce page giving users the same experience.
Shoutout to chuchugoldfish being confused why 150+ people randomly come in when this newsletter drops
2) There is topical intent of a keyword (aka what I see most early-stage SEOs get wrong)
Above we covered what type of experience a searcher might be looking for based on where they’re at in their journey.
The topical intent gets into the question of, “What all do I need to talk about on a page in order to target a keyword?”
This is what a lot of SEOs refer to when they talk about intent-matching being accurate or misaligned. If you’re not covering the right parts of a topic or enough parts of a topic, you likely aren’t matching intent and that’s why you’re not ranking.
The two biggest errors I see when it comes to topical intent matching are:
Targeting 1 keyword for any content that you create.
Not covering all of the topics that a user wants to learn about when seeking content using that keyword to search.
In regards to point 1 above:
If you’ve ever read one of those boring LinkedIn or Twitter posts about SEO best practices, they all say, “Don’t target keywords. Target themes or topics.”
That’s good advice. BUT WHEN YOU’RE STARTING OUT, THAT’S SO PAINFULLY VAGUE!
Why are people paying hundreds of dollars per month for these keyword research tools if I’m not supposed to be targeting the keywords in them?!
What does a topic or theme even mean?!
In theory, aren’t all words and phrases communicating a topic?!
SEOs advise you to target topics because a single piece of content doesn’t rank for just 1 keyword.
A single piece of content often ranks for 10s, 100s, and sometimes 1000s of keywords.
And you won’t know what these keywords should be without a tool and knowing how to do some investigation - which I’ll walk you through below.
Side Note: It’s important to remember that SEOs often present roadmaps to clients and to writers that have a single keyword target presented. You might even see “secondary keywords” that are provided if the writer is well-versed in SEO.
It’s often pitched this way because showing a client the 1000 keywords you’re targeting with a single post is overwhelming/not helpful.
The target keyword is meant to give the client a general idea of what you’ll be writing about. It should be presented with examples of what the page 1 competitors are discussing in their posts that target this keyword for specific context building.
In regards to point 2 above:
By extension, if a piece of content often has many keywords associated with it, it likely means you’ll be covering multiple inquiries within it.
If you were targeting a keyword like “what is a goldfish.” You’ll notice that there is a range of content types that come up on page 1.
You have some definition-based, webster-like pages and you have more thorough pages such as Wikipedia and blog posts that contain lists of common questions asked about goldfish.
If you only provide a 50-word definition of what a goldfish is, you’d likely fail to match the rest of the intent needed to rank.
Look at some of the other headers and questions answered on the same pages that rank for “what is a goldfish.”
If you look at the image below, you’ll also notice that the most thorough pages related to goldfish tend to have the most keywords associated with them. Being thorough can mean more traffic potential.
How to evaluate which keywords share topical intent
Let’s say your strategist has given you a keyword worth targeting for a blog post.
For this example, we’ll use: “what do goldfish eat”
Enter your target keyword into a keyword research tool and the SERP to begin the keyword analysis process
Open up your keyword research tool and enter the target keyword you were given in the search bar at the top.
Now scroll down to where it shows an overview of the SERP. It should show all the competitors, their estimated traffic, and their estimated number of keywords.
ALWAYS double-check what the actual SERP looks like on Google. There is often lag or inaccuracies in these third-party tools. This one generally looks good.
As you get more proficient, you can focus on the movement of these pieces on page 1.
Aka which ones are new or moving up in rankings over time and which ones are moving down.
This helps you understand what Google has noticed most users want to know about any given topic (the evolution of intent on a SERP changes over time based on user behavior around these topics).
Now let’s go back to our keyword tool and the competitors for our target query (repeated image below for ease of navigation).
The first thing I want you to notice is the number of keywords for each page. Each one is associated with hundreds of keywords.
I recommend looking at the post in “position 3” here as the piece that will tell us the most about what keywords you’ll want to be targeting.
The reasons for this:
It is ranked in the top 3 positions and is technically position 1 of the organic URLs
Pieces that end up in the featured snippet spot are often not the best pieces for ranking on that page in positions 1-3. They’re often articles that would otherwise be in positions 3-8 but have the best formatting for acquiring the snippet.
It has been recognized for significantly more keywords than the other top URLs for this keyword.
Side Note: Notice the two columns traffic, and keywords. This is a great example of a target keyword in which the top 3 positions are not actually associated with the highest traffic volume.
Again, this is where SEO professionals make their money, and we get into a bit of strategy (I’m not going to go into too much strategy for this piece).
There are a few things worth considering here.
Is the piece in position 8 fundamentally different than the pieces above it in layout or the way it presents the topic?
If it is different, it might very well be the case that it cannot rank higher than position 8 for our specific keyword target because Google believes its intent is less fulfilling to a searcher than those presented in positions 1-7. In which case we should look at higher ranking pieces for our topical guidance.
Is the piece in position 8 fundamentally the same as the first 7 positions, but more thorough?
If it is, then there is a good chance that you might want to pay attention to this piece more than just the first 7. You’ll get more eyeballs and still be aligned with the experience that your strategy called for.
Is the piece in position 8 moving up the SERP over time?
In Ahrefs, on our overview page for a keyword, you can see the position chart to understand how a piece of content is doing.
For the overall SERP, position movement looks like this:
Isolating the URL that’s in position 8 (image below), it looks like it either has grabbed the featured snippet or been closer to the middle of the SERP.
It’s a conversation worth having with your strategist to tease out if you should have more keyword target focus similar to this piece of content than the original keyword target.
But for the sake of this post example, we’re not going to utilize this post as an illustrative piece.
Evaluate a top competitor URL of your choosing to understand the keywords that a single page can rank for
If you understand how to execute this step and what the signals are, you’ll be in the top 5 percent of SEOs in the on-page SEO biz.
Let’s go ahead and evaluate the URL that we discussed above by clicking on the hyperlinked number in the keyword column associated with it (image below).
You should now be seeing what looks like the screenshot below:
Now we know that this piece of content is associated with hundreds of keywords. But what’s important to note is that this piece of content is not ranking on page 1 for all of those keywords.
The quickest way to understand the keywords that you’ll be targeting is to only focus on the keywords that are ranked in positions 1 through 10 for the competitor URL you choose.
What you need to know about the keywords ranked in the top 10 positions for this URL
First, these keywords usually belong to one piece of content. They either share the exact same intent or intent so closely related to the others that you should be targeting these with a single piece of content.
Based on the last point, if an SEO specialist or strategist tells you to target “goldfish treats” for one piece of content. Then she or he tells you to target “treats for goldfish,” with another piece of content, call that SEO out immediately for not knowing how to do their job. These two keywords have the same intent and generate the same SERP.
What happens when you target two keywords that have the same intent with two different pieces of content?
They cannibalize each other. Google’s algorithms have historically tried preventing one website from being on page 1 for a keyword multiple times. So Google will choose which piece it prefers and it will often depricate both of your pages’ rankings meaning that neither of them will rank on page 1. De-index 1 of them, and you’ll see the other perform better.
Second, if your post ranks for a keyword that does not mean that that keyword is explicitly written out on the page.
This post has more than 150 keywords that it ranks for in positions 1-10 (are on page 1). We no longer live in the age of keyword stuffing — we live in the age of intent. You shouldn’t make an effort to put each phrase on the page. These don’t work like hashtags on social media.
Remember that Google can’t “read” like you and I read. It doesn’t comprehend things from left to right. It takes in each word individually, and then it has to figure out how to interpret how the order and types of words impact the actual meaning of entire phrases, sections, etc. on a page.
So if you talk about “goldfish treats,” your writer might naturally say something like “The types of treats that you can safely feed your goldfish…” Google’s system will recognize that that is a sentence about goldfish treats and related to many keywords without you stuffing in 50 synonyms for that phrase.
Third, target keywords and secondary keywords.
Skilled writers will already know how to evaluate everything I’m teaching you in this post. That’s why they can charge $1.5k - $4k per post (seriously).
If they’re not able to do the research, you’ll often provide an outline like the one I built in my last issue about the Zapier content update.
Less skilled writers, however, can be given the target keyword plus secondary keywords.
The target keyword should clue them into which competitor pieces to evaluate.
Our target keyword is:
what can goldfish eat
In addition, provide them with a list of secondary keywords. Secondary keywords are any other keywords that rank in the top 10 for your competitor article AND that give additional context as to what the writer should be talking about.
From our screenshot above, the secondary keywords might be:
what can you feed goldfish other than fish food
Examples of unhelpful secondary keywords would be:
Unhelpful secondary keywords:
what food does goldfish eat
what food do goldfish eat
what kind of food do goldfish eat
The unhelpful secondary keywords all have the same exact intent. They don’t help your writer. If you naturally talk about what goldfish eat, Google will give you all of these keywords.
Pro Tip: If you’re just starting out, I can’t recommend enough to utilize tools like Clearscope or Content Harmony.
They’re not perfect, but they provide a grading system that helps writers better understand if they’re discussing what the top competitors are also discussing and where certain keywords are located in the best performing pieces.
Bonus: The SERPs will tell you if it’s okay to target two seemingly related keyword targets
Targeting keywords can be understood from the lens of real estate. Your job is to help guide a company in its ability to own as much prime real estate on the SERPs as possible.
When in doubt about whether or not you should target two seemingly related topics, you can use the SERPs to help you make that decision. You’ll do this by comparing the results that you find on both pages.
If the URLs on both SERPs are overwhelmingly the same, then those keywords likely belong to one piece of content, not two.
Example of keywords with similar intent providing the same URLs on the SERP
If the URLs on both SERPs are entirely different, then you know that you’re safe to go create two pieces of content to target those queries.
Example of keywords that are different enough in intent that they generate different SERP results and can be targeted with two different pages:
Side note: There are times when there is a 20% to 30% overlap of URLs between two keywords. This makes for a slightly riskier gamble on whether or not these pieces will cannibalize.
However, you can evaluate whether or not to go after them based on which positions those overlapping URLs are in.
If the top-ranking URLs for 1 keyword are in positions 8-10 for a more specific longtail keyword that you want to target + you notice that the top-ranking pages for the longtail’s SERP are also much more specific in what they talk about = it’s okay to then target these keywords using separate pieces of content.
You can always fix cannibalization with a copy/paste & a 301 redirect.
End of part 1 for understanding keywords
This concludes part 1 of understanding keywords.
Thanks for sticking in there. The material is dense, but it’s vital. I really do believe these core components of keyword comprehension represent what is missing from most beginner-level SEOs’ understandings.
In my next issue, I’ll continue to talk about how to actually apply keywords/intent within your content to make it rank.
The SEO Trade School will be skipping a week
As you can imagine, these posts take me several days to put together. I have some close friends visiting next weekend so I won’t be doing part 2 immediately. But I’ll be right back at it the following weekend!
Derek works for an agency that specializes in SEO and content marketing for growing SaaS brands called Ten Speed. Interested in learning more about their work?
Feel free to enjoy some of my first posts (lighter, high-level thinking about content marketing and SEO as a career) if you haven’t had an opportunity to read those yet.
I have been looking everywhere for a comprehensive article on SEO. This has been the most helpful article I have stumbled upon till date.
This is really an amazing article about keywords and their intents. I had some misconceptions before. But you laid out all the things so easily. What I would like to request you, can you create video or video series regarding keyword research, intents and other related things? That would be so much helpful.