This is part 2 of a 12 part series on keyword research. This series will guide you through four distinct phase of the keyword research process, providing you step by step guidelines to help you gather, sort and organize your keywords into an effective marketing campaign.

Phase I: Finding Core Terms

When most people start with the task of researching keywords they often start by looking for keywords they are familiar with. They'll use their familiarity with their products or services to find new word variations, maybe a few new relevant words, or even learn some new ways of phrasing what it is people are looking for. While this approach provides valuable information to the researcher, it's somewhat disorganized.

Because keyword research is so crucial, a more organized approach to it is essential. Instead of starting the research process looking for words you essentially already know but are just in an unknown order, you must start the process looking for what is unknown. In order to find those unknown phrases, you have to start with a foundation that will guide you from where you are to what it is that you're trying to find, a list of keywords that can be optimized into your site.

The keyword research process starts not looking for search phrases, but core terms that are the foundation of what your site, or specific pages of your site, is all about. Let's start by defining what a core term is.

What's a Core Term and why do you care?

A core terms is a unique word or phrase from which dozens of others search phrases can be created using variations and varying word combinations.

Core term list

The idea of the core term is to be the sole representation of a particular topic on a page. While conventional wisdom states that you should optimize a page for "no more than three keywords", it's possible to optimized a page for dozens of keywords at a time, provided they all stem from a single core term (and some other factors that we'll discuss later.) The core term is the core focus of the page while the rest of the keywords are just variations on that theme.

Typically, core terms are one-, two- or three word combinations that provide a very broad summary of what you offer. Typically two words make the best core terms at least to start with and then later in the process you can create valuable three-word core combinations. The number of words in a core term are determined by other factors which will become clear as we move forward.

The core term also has to play a balancing act. It can't be so broad that it will not be able to attract valuable targeted traffic, and it can't be too specific that unusable in finding the valuable key phrases that do draw targeted traffic.

Look at the above list again. You'll notice two core terms that contain the word "bag". I added the first word to the list to make a point. The word "bag" is too broad to be useful as a core term because it doesn't tell us what kind of bag the searcher is looking for.

Core terms

If the core term does not sufficiently define the page's topic or is unable to draw targeted traffic, then it's not a core term that needs to be considered. "Bag," therefore, can be tossed out and we can find more specific core terms such as "sports bag," "golf bag," and "travel bag" provided they are all relevant for the site.

Something worth noting, achieving rankings for such broad terms is near impossible. And even if you were to somehow get top rankings for such a phrase the percentage of the traffic produced that was actually interested in what you offer would be incredibly low. A top ranking for this keyword might produce some sales, but it would also produce a significant drain on the businesses resources creating a very low and possibly negative return on investment (ROI).

Sticking to the "bag" theme, in the course of our research we may find the following phrases:

Not really core terms

Out of that list, there really is only one core term: "sports bag". The rest are simply variations on that theme which refer to more or less the same product. So as you compiling your research, once you find the word "sports bag" you need not worry about any of the others. (Don't worry, they'll come back up later in our research.)

While good core terms are typically short on the descriptive qualifiers, there are some cases where they are needed. For example, in our original list above you'll see I added "kids ski clothing" as a core term. For a site that sells ski clothes, the "kids" part is one qualifier too many, leaving "ski clothing as the correct core term. However, for a site that sells only kid's clothing the "kids" becomes an essential part of the core term.

That could also be turned around. A possible core term could be "kids clothing," but not for a site that sells only winter and ski clothing for kids. This goes to show why core terms need to be as simple as possible. In this first phase of the research process you don't want to get slowed down worrying about every potential word combination or variation. You're simply looking for the core words that will help you find more highly targeted phrases later in the process.

More core term disqualifies & organization tips

As you begin your research for core terms remember what a core term is and isn't. You're looking for two- or three-word combinations that have limited qualifiers. If "sports bag" covers your topic sufficiently then don't bother documenting "wholesale sports bag," "rolling sports bag," "large sports bag," etc., as core terms.

No qualifiers and no stemmed variations

Also, you don't need to worry about stemmed variations. For instance if you sell "teaching supplies" then stick to the root word "teach" and don't worry about "teacher," "teaches," or "teaching". At least not at this time. I strongly recommend creating a spreadsheet to document all your findings. This will help keep you organized, the benefit of which will become apparent as we continue to outline the research and selection process.

In the next post in this series we'll look at six different steps in uncovering quality core terms for your website.

Missed one of the steps in this series? Click here to go back to the introduction and follow the links at the bottom.

October 9, 2008

Stoney deGeyter is the President of Pole Position Marketing, a leading search engine optimization and marketing firm helping businesses grow since 1998. Stoney is a frequent speaker at website marketing conferences and has published hundreds of helpful SEO, SEM and small business articles.

If you'd like Stoney deGeyter to speak at your conference, seminar, workshop or provide in-house training to your team, contact him via his site or by phone at 866-685-3374.

Stoney pioneered the concept of Destination Search Engine Marketing which is the driving philosophy of how Pole Position Marketing helps clients expand their online presence and grow their businesses. Stoney is Associate Editor at Search Engine Guide and has written several SEO and SEM e-books including E-Marketing Performance; The Best Damn Web Marketing Checklist, Period!; Keyword Research and Selection, Destination Search Engine Marketing, and more.

Stoney has five wonderful children and spends his free time reviewing restaurants and other things to do in Canton, Ohio.



I think that this article has valuable information in terms of the steps you have to follow to create your list of keywords. It is simple and offers good examples so you can understand exactly what you have to do and how you have to think.

Thank you

Hi,i love this site and thank you for the article it is very timely for me as i am doing just this process right now,cheers.

This is an interesting way to think about a page and can be especially useful for products pages that have several similar products on the page.

What is your thought on LSI? I have heard people say it doesn't work...I think of what you are describing as similar to LSI techniques because you are using words that are related. I think LSI does work, but I am curious about what the pundits think.

On a different tangent, i would like something similar to the site that i have mentioned in my URL box. You get everything at one place i.e. content + marketing resources + web pages (adsense websites) + tools etc...

I am head over heels on this site and am searching for more.

@ Colleen - Actually, core terms isn't so much about LSI as just finding the single word (or words) that a bunch of phrases have in common. Now, of course, you're looking for many different core terms that all might have similar meanings. Different core terms will be optimized on different pages, each supported by a number of qualifiers that are relevant.

But, I do think there is merit to LSI. Whether it has been fully implemented or not, it's definitely where the engines are headed.

The basics of keyword is to use LSI variations and long tail keyword. Try to include as much LSI words as possible on the page. You may find that you have many unexpected traffic from LSI words.

easy diets

Should I use only separated words as keywords or it is also a good practice to use phrases as keywords?

ex. "organic, food, clothes, dogs, etc" or it is better "organic food gods, dogs clothes, etc

Please help!

In your content you write naturally using key words as they are searched, as much as possible. In your keyword tags, it doesn't matter at all.

I really like the information you have shared. I tried so many sites for information like this but didn't find so much detailed....

thanks man..


Stoney, this is a great guide. Keyword strategy is so important, and too many still underestimate its value.

There is one thing I'd like to add to your thoughts on this page. The results of introspection (who am I, what am I selling? etc) need to be matched against the way you are perceived by your target groups (how do they look for what I have to offer?). It is their behavior which ultimately decides whether you have chosen the right terms.

This has implications for how you position your site. Here's a hypothetical example: If you sell 'kids ski clothing', you still may find that your customers tend to ignore this more precise search term and stubbornly go looking for 'ski clothing'. And that is what counts. So, you may not like it, but in this case , you are competing against all other ski clothing shops (and maybe manufacturers, too...), and you'll have to optimize your site accordingly.

Thanks for your valuable information, and keep up the good work!


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Search Engine Guide > Stoney deGeyter > Comprehensive Guide to Keyword Research, Selection & Organization, Part II