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Search engines have moved away from matching keywords in search queries to keywords on webpages, a process that accelerated in 2012 with the introduction of the Hummingbird update.
The impact on SEO has been a shift in keyword research toward a deeper understanding of what words mean in different contexts and especially as a part of an overall topic.
Keyword research is still important, but in a different way than has been practiced in the past.
The strategic choice of topics and word phrases continues to be important, and this guide will show you how to research keywords in a manner that is appropriate for the way search engines appear to rank webpages today.
The first step for keyword research is to define what kinds of keywords you want to target.
Most of us by now know about search intent and the different kinds of intent that keywords have, so I won’t bother with that.
I’ll only point out that the intent maps to a searcher’s reason for searching, to find information, to buy something, to research something, etc.
If you need a refresher, read this article about user search intent.
However, it is worth pointing out that choosing keywords by their search volume is not always a good approach.
There are additional keyword dimensions to consider beyond user search intents.
- Keyword Search Volume.
- Keyword Intent.
- Keyword Meaning.
- Keyword Latent Meaning.
There are at least six issues to consider regarding high search volume keywords:
- High-traffic keywords can have multiple search intents (not all of them your chosen intent).
- The People Also Ask feature encourages search query reformulation.
- High-traffic keywords don’t always convert.
- High-traffic keywords aren’t always relevant to the website’s goals.
- Google diverts some high-traffic keywords to local SERPs.
- Google reformulates vague queries.
The takeaway about high search volume keywords is that it’s important to research why people are searching with those search phrases and make decisions based on whether those keywords align with your goals, whether that’s to sell more products, get affiliate clicks, or more advertising revenue.
We can’t really know all the different reasons why searchers use specific high-volume keyword phrases unless we study the search results.
And once the different reasons are understood, we can begin to understand the keyword dimension of the latent meaning.
We can understand the hidden reasons why people use vague search queries because the search engines provide clues.
Clues To High Search Volume Keyword Phrases
The best keywords are those that communicate a user need that aligns with the solution a website offers.
A keyword phrase like [what’s the best home router 2022] expresses a very clear need and is a useful phrase for an electronics-related site.
A keyword phrase like [heart attack] is vague and does not express a precise need. Often, vague keyword phrases like [heart attack] express multiple needs.
Those multiple needs are what I call a latent meaning.
Latent means hidden or not immediately apparent.
Vague keyword phrases like [heart attack] contain latent meanings and express users’ needs that are hidden within the words used in search queries.
Let’s take a look at the search query, [heart attack], as an example.
Search engines provide clues as to what users mean when they use vague search queries.
So, if you want to rank for a high-volume search query, take a look at the clues that are hidden (in plain sight) within the search results.
Here’s a screenshot of the featured snippet for the keyword phrase, [heart attack]:
Google ranks a page about Heart Attack Symptoms for the search phrase, [heart attack]. The title of the page shows that the page is about Heart Attack Symptoms.
And here’s a really cool observation about that page.
A search for Heart Attack Symptoms shows the exact same page from CDC.gov ranking #1 for that phrase.
It’s clear that Google is ranking a page about Heart Attack Symptoms for the phrase [heart attack] because Google is understanding that when people search for this phrase, what people really mean is Heart Attack Symptoms.
Understand The Latent Meaning Of Keyword Phrases
Earlier in this article, I wrote that every keyword phrase has a latent meaning, a meaning that is hidden.
The above search results are an illustration of my observation.
When someone searches for [heart attack], most people are really searching for [heart attack symptoms].
What that means is that if you want to rank for the high traffic search phrase [heart attack], then what you should really optimize for is [heart attack symptoms] because according to what Google is ranking, that’s what most people mean when they search for [heart attack].
Now, let’s take a look at the rest of the SERPs and see what they tell us.
The next three top-ranked webpages (positions 2, 3, and 4) are about heart attack symptoms.
But if you look at the page ranked in position #5, it looks like the latent keyword phrase is [what is a heart attack].
- Q: What is a heart attack?
A: Myocardial Infarction
- Q: What is a heart attack?
A: A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart suddenly becomes blocked.
Google Ranked Positions 6, 7, 8, and 9 For [Heart Attack] Keyword
If we examine the next positions, six to nine (there is no position 10), we see something really interesting.
The next four positions have a meaning that corresponds to:
- Symptoms of a Heart Attack.
- What is a Heart Attack?
Keyword Research Should Include The Latent Meaning Research
Creating a list of keywords ranked from high volume to low volume is just a start.
High-volume keywords should be lumped together with their latent meanings, and those latent meanings should be ranked according to whether those latent meanings are top-ranked by Google or lower-ranked by Google.
For the example of the keyword phrase, [heart attack], the real keyword to chase is [heart attack symptoms] if you want to rank #1, because that’s what most people mean when they search for [heart attack], according to Google’s search results.
And the cool thing about this is that you can confirm this observation with Google Trends.
In the following screenshot, what’s notable is that the keyword phrase [heart attack symptoms] has significantly more search volume than the keyword phrase, [what is a heart attack] and also [what is heart attack].
What’s cool about the Google Trends for those two keywords is that the above trends match perfectly with what we saw in the search results for the keyword phrase, [heart attack].
The top result for the [heart attack] keyword phrase related to Heart Attack Symptoms clearly has more search volume than the secondary latent meaning, What is a Heart Attack.
- Understand all four keyword dimensions before making a decision on which keywords to create content for.
- Search volume is just one dimension out of four for understanding the relative importance of keyword phrases for your project.
- Traffic should not be the leading reason for choosing a keyword phrase target.
Awareness Building Phrases
There are several obvious kinds of keyword phrases that are defined by goals.
You can create lists and order those keywords by their goals.
Examples Of Typical Keyword Goals:
- Sales (aka the money phrases).
- Sales funnel segments.
- Awareness building.
That last one, awareness building, can be fairly important.
It could help a site rank for competitive keywords and major keyword phrases in addition to driving direct sales. (More on this strategy a little later. Keep reading!)
Once you match keywords to keyword goals, you can then develop content topics to address those goals that can become the building blocks of a content strategy.
The first two categories are directly sales and potential customers related; they solve a business problem directly.
The last category can be seen as grooming searchers to become customers and building recognition as a trusted site for solving problems with products, reviews, and other forms of content.
The sales category focuses on what some in the SEO industry call “money phrases.”
Money phrases are so-called because they tend to convert at a higher rate.
These are keyword phrases with a commercial intent that are associated with a high level of sales (e.g., “cheap widgets” and “where to buy widgets”).
Money phrases are important (and competitive!) because they almost always result in a sale.
They are also important to ad-supported sites because the site visitor, being predisposed to making a purchase, is also more likely to click an advertisement and earn revenue for the web publisher.
Advertisements that are associated with money phrases usually have a higher cost per click, resulting in higher advertising earnings.
That’s why these keywords are called money phrases!
The Problem With Money Phrases
Money phrases are highly competitive and difficult to rank for. That’s a given.
A more important consideration that many are unaware of is that pay-per-click (PPC) ads will siphon off traffic from the organic search results, with the rest of the traffic distributed to the organic results.
Let’s examine how to deal with this issue.
Anatomy Of Money Phrases
Aside from the obvious phrases containing words like “buy” in them, there are an additional set of (long-tail) keyword phrases that indicate a user’s intent to make an immediate purchase.
I have categorized long-tail money phrases into five categories.
Each category represents a multiplicity of keyword phrases and their variants (singular and product name variants).
5 Money Phrase Keyword Categories
- Competitor comparison.
- Discount price searches.
- Product reviews and ratings.
- Coupon code searches.
- Searches for sales.
Money Phrase Keywords & Site Architecture
It’s possible to build a site around different money phrases, and to use them as the basis of creating different sections of a site.
But that’s kind of one-sided and might not build lasting repeat traffic, yet that’s an option, just not one that I am comfortable with.
For some merchants, it’s important to create content that discusses the different qualities of a product and to help a consumer choose the most suitable product.
But for now, it’s worth considering that many top-ranked sites, even ecommerce sites, are not built with a site architecture that revolves exclusively around money phrases.
Google Trends For A Comprehensive Set Of Keywords
Google Trends: Seasonal Fluctuations
A site that is comprehensive can generally weather the ups and downs of search-related cycles.
Google Trends is a good keyword research tool for identifying seasonal cycles for keywords.
It’s useful to research keywords on Google Trends to identify regular dips and rises in order to maintain steady traffic throughout the year.
Google Trends can also identify keywords that are losing appeal.
Google Trends: Regional And Changing Trends
Understanding changing trends, as well as regional patterns, will better help you to know when to roll out certain kinds of content, whether to abandon a keyword phrase and even to help identify the best regions to focus your link building on.
This is an important insight!
In the example above, it is clear that the search phrase [Uber] is wildly popular compared to the generic phrase [taxi].
The trend line also shows that the phrase taxi is trending downward.
Comparing keywords with brand names is highly useful to confirm suspicions of why a keyword phrase may change, trending up or down.
For example, the keyword trends for [digital cameras] trended downward with the introduction of the iPhone.
Another example is a comparison of the trends between the phrases [radio station] and the brand name “Spotify.”
The phrase [radio station] is trending downward while the brand name “Spotify” is trending upward.
There is no direct correlation between the two trends; the trend does not mean that Spotify is eating into the demand for radio.
But it does point to a change in how people are consuming music.
Insight: When you see a traffic decline even though your rankings are unchanged, it can sometimes mean there is a change in consumer behavior tied to the introduction of a new product or service.
Google Trends: Compare Known Keywords
Google Trends only shows relative traffic levels. It does not show the exact number of queries.
However, if you have an idea of keyword volume for one keyword phrase, then you can compare that keyword phrase to a target phrase in order to get a close estimate of what the actual search volume is.
Google publishes a daily list of trending searches that contain a rounded-up search volume.
It’s possible to use that list with actual search volume attached to search queries to compare with keywords that you’re researching and get a pretty close estimate of what the search volume is.
Google Trends: Related Queries
Google Trends has a feature called Related Queries that can be useful for teasing out possible latent meanings within vague keywords.
As can be seen in the screenshot below, the related query for the keyword phrase [heart attack] is the keywords [heart attack keywords].
That’s pretty interesting how the top “related query” ([heart attack symptoms]) exactly matches the latent meaning for the keyword [heart attack], which is what we saw in Google’s search results.
Using the Google Trends tool like this could be helpful for understanding which keywords to choose in order to rank for high search volume keyword phrases, or to help you decide to devote your time to better keywords (because traffic is not everything).
The Related Queries feature offers two settings within the drop-down menu:
Select Top to see what queries are related, including what appears to be latent meanings within vague keyword phrases.
Lastly, select the most relevant category of the topic from the top dropdown menu.
Because we’re searching for medical information, choose the Health Category:
Should You Worry About Latent Semantic Indexing Or LSI Keywords?
In a word, no.
Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI) is a very old technology, developed nearly 20 years ago.
While LSI may be in use in some form, perhaps to identify stop words in a document, it’s a super old technology, and we are in the age of Natural Language Processing and AI in search.
Background reading about Latent Semantic Indexing:
Google’s John Mueller is on record saying that LSI is not something that any competent SEO should be thinking about.
According to John Mueller:
“First of all, we have no concept of LSI keywords. So that’s something you can completely ignore.
I think it’s interesting to look at LSI when you’re thinking about understanding information retrieval as a theoretical or computer science topic.
But as an SEO you probably don’t need to worry about that.”
Should You Use Keyword Synonyms?
With the advent of the Hummingbird update, Google started using strategies like keyword expansion in order to select the best answer to a search query from a broader selection of webpages.
Query expansion can use synonyms to expand the original search query.
The goal for query expansion is to identify more webpages that are relevant.
The goal is not to rank webpages that contain the keyword phrase and synonyms. That’s not how it works.
So, the answer really is no, adding synonyms is not a way to rank better and this can be verified by looking at the search results.
Third-Party Keyword Tools
All third-party keyword tools use a proprietary source of keyword data that is used to calculate an estimate of actual keyword search inventory.
So, it’s not an exact count of keyword inventory, it’s an estimate.
Nevertheless, the tools provide excellent opportunities for speeding up the keyword research process and that is a significant value to investigate to see how it fits into your process.
Keyword Research Is More Than Search Volume
In the old days, researching keywords used to be an easy process of identifying the phrases with the highest search volume. That’s no longer the case.
Today, it’s important to cross-check the search results, and go deep into understanding what a keyword phrase means for a user and what they’re trying to accomplish.
It’s also important to think in terms of topics.
In 2018, Google added what it calls a Topic Layer in order to understand topics and subtopics from all the content on the internet and identify content that is evergreen (relevant year after year).
These are the kinds of challenges the modern SEO faces today, to expand the research process beyond search volume in order to keep up with how search engines rank content today.
Featured Image: Paulo Bobita/Search Engine Journal
All in-post images created by author, March 2022