To some, it sounds incredibly simple. To others, it's somewhat mind boggling. Search marketers toss around lingo like "keywords" and "keyword phrases" as if they're part of everyone's vocabulary. While it's true the words are nothing special, the concept can be foreign to someone new to the industry. This article offers up a quick and simple primer on the concept of keywords and keyword phrases in regards to organic search engine optimization.

(SEG Bootcamp articles are part of a beginner's level series designed to bring small business owners up to speed on the concepts and techniques needed to market their businesses online.)

So What's a Keyword?

Simply put, a keyword is any word someone might type into a search engine to find a web site. It makes sense then that a "keyword phrase" is a string of words used to describe what the searcher is looking for. Of course even complete novices to search marketing tend to understand what a keyword is from the "searching" side of things.

It's understanding how a search engine identifies a keyword or keyword phrase that throws many people for a loop. I've had quite a few people ask me how a search engine knows which of the words on their pages are the "keywords." These people are under the assumption that engines like Google and Yahoo "read" through a page and compile a list of keywords the page is about.

That's not exactly how it works.

For a quick and dirty understanding of how search engines identify keywords, let's look at some examples. Let's say you have typed the search phrase "red marbles" into Google. Google would then look through chunks of content seeking out the words "red marble." They might view a paragraph on a site a little like this:

text text text red marbles text text text text text text red marbles text text text text text text text text text text text text text red marbles text text text text text text text text text text text text red text text marbles text text text text text text

Now, let's say you've typed in the phrase "rubber balls" as your search term. Google could read the exact same paragraph this way:

text text text text text text text rubber balls text balls text text text rubber balls text text text text text text text text rubber text text text text text text text rubber balls text text text text text text text text text text text text text

You see that time, Googlebot wasn't looking for "red marbles" it was looking for "rubber balls." That means it looked at the exact same snippet of text but found completely different keywords.

Search engines work by matching up patterns.

For the most part, search engine spiders don't understand the words on your site. A red marble and a rubber ball are effectively the same to them. They are keyword phrases BECAUSE a searcher has typed them into a search box and the engine has gone looking for that same pattern of letters on web sites. Gobbledegook like "flugenfrump" could be a keyword if someone searched for it and an engine could find it on a web site somewhere.

Search engine spiders can look at how often this keyword appears on the site (and where it appears on the site) and use that as an indication of how relevant the site is to the keyword or phrase. Now things obviously get more complicated than that, but it IS the basic idea of how a search engine finds keywords on your web site.

That said, search engine algorithms are progressing quickly. A concept called "latent semantic indexing" is on the move and could completely change the way search engines understand keywords. It's a complex concept, but basically it would let search engines understand certain words were related. Thus, if they saw the words "iPod" and "Nano" on a page, they could check them against their databases and realize the site is probably about mp3 players.

Until that technology is perfected, search engines will simply be looking to match up strings of letters against other strings of letters while the rest of us call them "keywords."

February 6, 2008

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.


Great insight into what on the surface seems like a simple subject. I look forward to seeing the next few pieces of this series.

I've recently posted a quick SEO basics article that brain-dumps the 4 keys that I believe are important to Search Engine Optimization - Keywords, Links, Content and Age.

Thanks for the great content,

Thanks a lot to be so clear. I'm doing an Italian blog on Executive Marketing for Junior Account and read your ideas is always very usefull.
Do you have any experience about the right choice between a blog or a website to communicate a time limited sales offer for a software?
We already have an URL address registered, but spiders seem don't like it, now we have to launch this new sales promotion that will last untill the end of July 2008 and maybe a blog linked to that URL could be easily and quickly loved from Google. What do you think about? Of Course we have thought about a keywords campaign by Google but we have enough budget.

Thanks in advance


Thank you for writing this! I often find that when a new client is confused about how keywords work, it's confusion about how a search engine "knows" what the keywords you're trying to rank for. I've thought about writing an article on the topic but frankly, it makes me tired to think of how to explain it in plain English. Thanks for doing my job for me!

keyword services, Thank for very cool link!

Jennifer, that was one of the best descriptions I have ever read on the subject of keywords you could not have broke down any simpler than that.

It is clear that more descriptive keywords usually have less competition when it comes down to search engine rankings and as a result, you have a higher chance to get a better position, but if you are looking to get ranked on more generic keywords, this may a lot harder since there are a lot more competition. For example, your site could be ranked really well under "red marbles", but not be ranked at all (or ranked not within customers reach) under "red" or "marbles". It would be very interesting to know what those other factors are.

nice way of explaining..
please tell me the keyword for my blog

Go to google and find Google Adwords Keywoord Tool. It provides a lot of data for keywords such as competition level and searches a month.

Its really advisable to pay enough attention with keyword picking, I usually focus on few several keywords first that has lesser competitors but normal amount of searches, as those keywords generates traffic to my website..

by the way thanks for this very informational entry, I'm learning a lot from you guys..

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Search Engine Guide > Jennifer Laycock > Search Marketing Bootcamp: What's a Keyword?