What do you do when you set out to attract search traffic? If you start by optimizing your pages, you might not succeed, because you must answer the question, "Optimize for what?" You must optimize your pages only for a specific set of search keywords. If you accept at face value that you already know the search keywords you must optimize for, you might be in for a rude awakening. You might be wrong.

Google Search homepage

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Often, we think that we know what people are looking for, but we're wrong. We think that people are looking for our product names or other names we call our products, but they might be searching for something else. People often use different words than we expect. I remember when I worked for IBM that we insisted on calling our computers "notebooks" even though "laptops" was the word that searchers used the most. So, if you spend an enormous amount of time optimizing for "notebooks" then you might be surprised when it helps a lot less than you'd expect. 

If this might be happening to you, you have another option: keyword research. It's a high-fallutin' name, but what it means is that you must use tools, such as Google 's Keyword Tool or other similar tools. You enter the words you think you should be optimizing for, and see what the tools tell you. They might tell you add other words, which you can do. You can also try entering those new words by themselves, to see what they conjure up.

For some of you this is basic advice, but small business owners come up to me all the time convinced that search optimization doesn't work precisely because they've skipped the step of keyword research. I think they do this, in part, because search experts (me included) sometimes spend so much time talking about optimizing title text and ensuring spiderability and attracting links and using social media that we forget the "marketing" part of "search marketing," causing people to hear only the "optimization" message. If we don't (as an industry) help businesses to identify their customers' needs, then we are selling a cure for a problem they don't have (yet).

Don't assume that you (or your clients, if you are in the industry) know what people are looking for. Find out what they are really searching for before you optimize, because it doesn't help to optimize for words that aren't the right ones. You'll attract mostly the wrong people, or perhaps no one at all.

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June 14, 2010

Mike is an expert in search marketing, search technology, social media, publishing, text analytics, and web metrics, who regularly makes speaking appearances.

Mike's previous appearances include Text Analytics World, Rutgers Business School, SEMRush webinar, ClickZ Live.

Mike also founded and writes for Biznology, is the co-author of Outside-In Marketing (with James Mathewson) and the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (now in its 3rd edition, and sole author of Do It Wrong Quickly, named by the Miami Herald as one of the 11 best business books of 2007.


Researching keywords is possibly 'the' most important aspect of SEO, I must spend more time looking into what the business does and what they want to achieve and then research what people actually look for and try and find the best possible matches through Google keyword tool.

I often get clients that tell me that they want to optimise for for this and that and then I look up the search results for them and they can be poor, so alternatives need to be found and the customers convinced that this is the right thing to do if they want traffic to their site, even if it is not from the keyword/phrase they wanted.

That's wise, Damian. I, too, rarely find that my clients ask for the right keywords at the start of an engagement. Sometime they ask for words that are used far less often than other words that they omit, and other times they ask for words far broader than they can hope to compete for. Either way, as you say, keyword research is the difference in these cases between successful SEO and someone walking away thinking it "didn't work."

Hi Mike. Great post and although some might consider it a basic point, it does get overlooked or not researched enough. I still actually get the odd call from prospective clients asking to rank for their brand name, so to the layman, the idea of keywords that drive traffic and sales can sometimes be a novel concept.

Research has been the key since the dawn of time. David Ogilvy was an ardent proponent of market research. Although the tools and methodologies have changed, the philosophy has not. Even the book, "Art of War" speaks of intelligence gathering before embarking into battle.

Some time it happens when you're not able to judge or concentrate on you keyword while writing content or linking to your sites. pages with diverse content create this type of situation. so try to target a page specific to your topic and link sites to relevant sites.

Hello David
Thanks for sharing your knowledge, Yes keyword research is the most important part and the first cab of the rank as it is the basis for every thing that follows, unfortunately many get a site set-up without any thoughts to what or how keywords are to be used and optimized.

Look forward to your next installment


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