This is part 7 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.

How to find search phrases

I'll continue where I left off last week, looking at the different factors involved in finding relevant search phrases. You'll remember that we discussed the first three; Time, research and deletion. The fourth factor is a bit more involved and it has to do with analyzing the phrases in a bit more detail.

The split / combo factor

Phrase Branches

Depending on your keywords, a search for any particular core term may produce results ranging from 0 to 1000 different keyword search phrases. Obviously if it produces zero then that core term can likely be scrubbed, or maybe set aside for a day if/when it gains in search popularity. If you've broken down your core terms correctly you will usually get a list between 10-300 keyword phrases returned, but again, this varies by industry and term. In the real world, things don't always work out like we hope.

As you research out your core terms you'll notice that there are three types of results produced. The first will be a core term that returns a very small list of search phrases. Almost too small to do anything with. The second is one that produces a healthy list of phrases that you can easily organize for optimization. The third produces an extremely long list of phrases that can be broken up into several other sub-core terms and groups.

Combining core terms

Puzzle House put togehterThe ultimate goal of this keyword research process is to end up with very tightly focused groups of keywords that will be optimized most effectively into your website. Many of these groups will come together quite nicely, but others won't. And this is when you have to really start thinking about how to combine core-terms and groups of keywords so that they can still be optimized effectively. We're working towards maximizing our keyword resources instead of wasting them.

When you plug your core term into your research tools and you get very limited results, this is a good sign that you might want to look at combining this core term group with another. If you take a few core terms that are searched well enough, but neither produces a great list of search phrases, you can benefit by finding another like-minded core term to pair with.

When to combine: There are two good rules of thumb when it comes to deciding if a core term is a candidate to be combined with another.

The first is if the research simply didn't produce many phrases associated with that core term. If you use enough research tools you'll no doubt be able to produce a decent size list in almost any circumstances, but we have to weigh here the number of viable, traffic producing phrases that will be valuable to you. If there are less than a handful, say 10 phrases, then you could throw this core term keyword group in with another core term group to optimize together.

There are always exceptions, of course, most notably if you are in a very niche industry. If the number of core terms you have is limited and the phrases produced for each term is also limited, then you may not need to worry about combining and it could be to your advantage not to.

The second is if most of the search phrases produced have very low search volume. Optimization for each keyword group requires a certain amount of effort. No sense wasting all that effort on one or two good-volume phrases and a bunch of low-volume phrases when you might be able to combine with with another core term with similar results. By doing this you can double the benefit for the same amount of effort.

How to combine:There are a few things to keep in mind when combining different core terms.

1) Group most similar. Some core terms will be very similar in meaning and searcher intent. These make a great pair. For example "school supplies" and "student supplies" are likely used by two people looking for the same thing: supplies their child needs in the classroom. Look for core terms that would be a great natural fit in terms of what the searcher expects to find.

2) Avoid inconsistent spellings. Despite the rule above, don't combine different spellings of what is essentially the same core term. If you're dealing with words that can be spelled differently and still mean the same thing such as "duffelbag" and "dufflebag" it's generally not a good idea to try and target both spellings on the same page. If you mix the spellings the inconsistency can look unprofessional to your users and dilute the focus of the page being optimized.

3) Verify on-page unity. Once you've combined based on the rules above, the next thing you look for is to make sure the terms all work together on the same page. This is simply a matter of determining if the page content will be able to support both core terms and their phrases seamlessly. You don't want to force keywords together that won't allow you to write compelling content that maintains a singular focus.

Splitting core terms

Puzzle House splitJust as there are times to combine core terms, there will also be times to split them into separate sub-groups. In your research you'll find that some core terms produce so many results that it needs to be broken down into more manageable chunks. Buy splitting these core terms you'll not only make the optimization process easier, but you'll create a much more tightly focused optimization campaign.

When to Split: A good determination of when a core term needs to be split is if it produces more than 150 search phrases. In a search for the core term "travel bags" we found that over 50 of the 250+ results contained the word "golf". This knowledge can tell us that "golf travel bag" can be a core term in and of itself.

Now if you remember back when we discussed researching core terms I said not to write down terms with qualifiers. Here now, you are creating new core terms with the qualifiers that were ignored. I had you ignore this in Phase I to keep the process as simple as possible. It's not until you get to this point that you get a sense of which qualifiers matter more than the others.

The number of qualifiers that can/should be split into new sub-core terms depends on the results produced from the original core term. If you see any specific qualifier over 10 times (all with healthy search volume) then splitting that qualifier out is probably a good idea. If you get several hundred results you may be able to split numerous new core terms.

You may even find that a sub-core term split out can be split again. For example, let's say that the new core term we created, "golf travel bags", produced 15 phrases with the word "leather." If that happens then "leather golf travel bags" can be a new sub-sub-core term, giving you an even more tightly focused group of keywords. This isn't as likely, but a possibility you should be aware of.

By splitting and combining core terms at this stage in the process you'll ultimately save yourself a lot of work later on. The more core term groups you have that can produce decent search traffic, the more tightly focused you'll be able to keep each optimized page, resulting in a more focused and rewarding optimization effort.

Tomorrow we'll dive into Phase III of the research process to discuss analyzing and eliminating keywords based on their overall value to the marketing campaign.

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

October 20, 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.


Stoney, this is a great guide for keyword research. I've forwarded the URL for this series to several people who I knew would benefit from it. Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

Hi Stoney,

I just stumbled in from a Google search & after 30 minutes am still here reading ! That has to be a big plus for your articles.

Anyway I just had a thought, not sure if it is correct, but where you talk about core terms, could these actually be categories within a website & then a sub-core term would become a sub category..?

It makes sense to me, but that does not mean it is correct eh..?


You can have a category of Battery Chargers and that can be a core term, but further in the site you have 12V battery chargers which can act as a core term with phrases such as "12v motorcycle battery charge," "12v gel battery charger," etc. So yes, it can, but it's not always necessarily the case.

Thanks for clarifying that point Stoney,

One other thing that has just dawned on me whilst re-reading your articles.

You often mention about choosing terms / keywords with a high search quota, but is it not the case that most of the highly searched terms are too competetive to be able to rank well for..? This is certainly the case with a new site, as I experienced myself.

Usually I will choose keywords with less than 50% competition based on Googles figures, this obviously means less search volume, but at least I can normally get onto page one with Google, Yahoo & Bing.

So I'm afraid I'm a little puzzled with your focus on high search volume keywords, or is the theory that if you have many connected keywords & phrases on the same page, eg. core - sub core - keywords, that this will actually strengthen your position on each one..?

Regards Steve

I don't generally look at how competitive a keyword is before deciding if I should optimize for it. I use competitive data to keep my expectations in check. When you target competitive keywords along side lesser competitive, you get rankings for the latter while building a foundation for improvement for the former.

I see, so basically the less competitive words give you your ranking fairly quickly, but the highly competitive words would improve over time & as the site ages!

Ok thanks for that Stoney & keep up the good work ;-)

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