How Small Business Owners Can Conquer Competitive Keyword Research

It’s no secret that SEO has evolved greatly over the years: after all, Google does what they can to keep us on our toes when it comes to content creation and optimizing small business’ sites for the SERPs.

One essential question remains: does keyword research still matter when it comes to getting to the front page of Google?

Well, let’s start by looking at how Google has adapted to modern searchers .

Perhaps one of Google’s biggest evolution in regard to SEO for small businesses is predictive search, also known as “autocomplete.” By autocompleting queries,Google is basically attempting “guess” what the user might search for based on related search. For example, typing “best New York” in Google, the following results come up:

Keyword Research google autocomplete

However, consider “text to speech” applications on mobile devices which have become all the rage over the past few years. These programs attempt to identify more colloquial terms that would occur naturally in speech instead of on a keyboard. Considering that the iPhone’s Siri searches queries in the form a question, what impact does it have on search results?

Keyword Research mobile devices

Despite both “best New York pizza” and “what is the best pizza place in New York” essentially representing a very similar query, the search results for each are completely different.

This puts business owner in a sticky situation as they feel stuck doing double-duty in terms of ranking for keywords.

If Google is getting “smarter,” how are modern businesses supposed to respond?

Forget keyword research altogether?

Smarter Search Engines = Smarter Keyword Research

According to Moz founder Rand Fishkin, keyword research is here to stay: the best way to rank for keywords and drive traffic in the modern era of marketing is a mixture of an old-school and new-school approach to keyword research.

To summarize, the old-school approach attacks specific keywords, while the new-school approach goes after broader topics.

The Classic Approach to Keyword Research

The classic means of keyword research is relatively straightforward: target terms that you want to rank for that are related to your business. Then, create specific content pages dedicated to those terms and ensure that you’re using keywords in your on-site content.

For example, a pizza restaurant may go after “New York pizza place,” “New York pizzeria” and “best Pizza in New York City” simultaneously throughout their site. The more content produced, the more likely they are to rank.

Keyword Research Google adword

The pro’s of such an approach are that it’s time-tested and proven to work: the con is that ranking for such words can be incredibly challenging in the face of stiff competition.

The New Approach to Keyword Research

Rather than focusing on specific keywords and keyword density, some sites build their content strategy around “intent.” That is, they don’t specifically target terms throughout their content but instead strive to catch Google’s attention with a more natural, laid back approach.

The pro’s of this approach are rather obvious in the sense that such sites don’t have to worry about coming off as spammy or shoehorning keywords throughout its content. The problem, however, is that such sites will never rank for competitive terms as Google will never be able to pick their content without targeted keywords in place.

The fact remains that you can write the richest, best content on the planet that gets modest shares: however, without the technical aspects of SEO in place (keywords, title and image optimization, etc), you can’t hope to outrank a competitor that does employ such principles on their site.

In short, conventional wisdom tells us that keyword research can, does and will continue to matter. Although the algorithms may change and the nature of search may be changing in the face of predictive queries, tried and tested research is here to stay.

So, a new question emerges: how do businesses perform smarter keyword research for the modern web?

The Unspoken Challenges of Keyword Research

The fact that keyword research isn’t going anywhere poses a huge problem to small businesses and brands online looking to stake their claim in the SERPs. That is, they have absolutely no idea where to start.

And who can blame them? There’s so much noise out there when it comes to marketing advice, with “experts” and “gurus” pulling us in multiple directions. It’s often difficult to figure out which pieces of advice are ultimately worthwhile. Despite the various content marketing myths out there, you absolutely need a plan in place before you hope to rank for any significant keywords.

The challenges of keyword research are threefold for budding businesses, as each of the following questions constantly come up:

  • Which keywords would most benefit my business?
  • Which keywords can I realistically rank for?
  • How do I go about ranking any keywords in the first place?

The ideal approach to ranking is good old-fashioned keyword research that also relies on the principles of covering broad topics that people actually want to read about.

Unlocking the answers to each of the previous questions takes some time, energy and a keen understanding of your industry. However, if you’re willing to put in the legwork, you can rank for your desired keywords.

But where do you start? What keywords should you go after and how can you rank for them?

 Choosing Your Keywords

Determining which keywords to attack requires a three-pronged approach: brainstorming, competitive analysis and refining your terms.

Step 1 – Brainstorm

Before doing anything else, brainstorm a list of keywords and ideas: this will help serve as the basis for your research. As you brainstorm ideas, keep the following in mind to help you get started:

  • Think about the specifics of your products and services: the more targeted your terms, the better
  • Consider terms that could make great topics for blog content down the road
  • If you run a local business, think about keywords to help you get found in local search engines (for example, “New York pizza restaurant” versus simply “pizza” or “pizza restaurant”)

Note: we’ll discuss the importance of local keywords later.

For example, a local gym in Atlanta, Georgia may come up with a combination of the following terms during their brainstorming session: gym, gym membership, gym trial, weight training, cardio, weight loss, fitness, nutritionist.

Not a bad place to start. Someone local to the gym would more than likely be searching for such terms if they were interested in joining, right?

Well, at least we think so.

However, you can’t afford to guess when it comes to targeting keywords. To understand what terms we can realistically rank for, we need to spend some time performing competitive analysis.

Step 2- Competitive Analysis

The purpose of the competitive analysis is to understand what we’re up against. For example, you may find that some keywords are simply out of your reach in the early stages of your business because your competition has been around for so long; however, you may be able to rank over time with consistent content creation and link-building over time.

So, how can we figure out what competitors are ranking for?

Keyword Research competitive analysis

We can gain some serious insight from a number of free tools out there that allow us to “spy” on our competition’s SEO efforts. For starters, pick five competitors in your space (preferably a mixture of popular and fresh sites) and spend some time digging through their content. Ask yourself the following:

  • Does it appear that they’re targeting keywords themselves? What keywords do you notice? (Pay close attention to titles, H1s and meta descriptions)
  • Do they have a company blog or an active social media presence?
  • How “deep” is their site in terms of content? Is it a static page or does it have multiple pages?

If the answer to such questions is “no,” you may have what it takes to outrank your competition sooner rather than later. Regardless, you still have some work to do; however, there are a number of free competitive analysis tools to help us out.

You can use a combination of the following tools to spy on others in your space. Some of these tools are free or have a subscription option, but chances are you can get what you need through the free options.

MozBarThis browser extension by Moz allows you to look at a site’s “domain authority” a glance. In short, domain authority represents how authoritative a site looks in the eyes of Google based on the scope of its content and the number of other sites linking to it. If you notice that you competitors’ domain authority is relatively low (~25 or lower), chances are their web presence is tame enough to outrank in a short span of time.

SocialMentionSocial media plays a significant role in site-rankings and content -sharing: SocialMention allows you to monitor your competitor’s presence on sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

SEMrush – This tool allows you to look at organic keywords (basically Google queries) that your competitors are ranking for, which can help give you ideas for competing content and help understand what terms they’re going for and which ones they aren’t

Open Site Explorer – Another tool by Moz, the Open Site Explorer allows you to explore the backlink profile of your competition. Backlinks are incredibly important aspect of ranking for keywords: the more links you have, the more “link juice” that passes your way to help you rank in Google.

Keyword Research online tools

If you’re curious as to whether or not your competitors are truly spending time and energy on SEO, such tools can provide an eye-opening answer.

Step 3 – Refine Your Terms

Finally, make sure that you register for a Google Adwords account so that you can take advantage of Google’s Keyword planner to refine your search terms and start uncovering which ones you can realistically rank for.

Let’s face it: you can’t hope to rank for everything. Thankfully, the keyword planner offers insight as to whether or not users are actually searching for your terms and how stiff the competition is.

Google’s Keyword Planner isn’t necessary the definite “answer” to ranking for keywords, but rather a tool that gives you an approximation of the following:

  • How often a term is being searched monthly
  • The term’s “competition” in terms of paid advertising in Google
  • Other related keywords based on similar searches

In short, the Keyword Planner can not only help you uncover new ideas for keywords, but also let you know how often your potential terms are being searched.

Let’s go back to the example of the local gym in Atlanta looking to boost their rankings. They’ve done their brainstorming and understand what they’re competition is up to, and now they’re ready to zero in on what they want to rank for:

Keyword research google adwords keyword planner

Immediately we notice that the terms related to this query have crazy high search volume: much higher than a local business could ever hope to rank for. However, you’ll also notice some related terms that we didn’t catch in our initial brainstorming session.

So, how can we refine our search to uncover terms we can actually rank for?

Simple: target long tail keywords.

The Benefits of Targeting Long Tail Keywords

As a small business, you’ll more than likely be wasting your time and money if you target a bunch of insanely competitive, high traffic keywords. Instead, you need to focus on the long tail.

But what does that mean?

Long tail keyword represent the following:

  • Keyword phrases (often four words or more) versus single terms
  • Phrases with extremely specific searcher intent
  • Keywords that are relatively low competition because they’re so specific

Long tail keywords represent approximately 70% of search terms, meaning that if you aren’t targeting longer terms, chances are you’re missing opportunities to drive traffic to your site. Check out this graph from search guru Neil Patel which notes exactly how much long tail terms dominate the SERPs.

Long tail keywords research

Additionally, the benefits of targeting long tail keywords include:

  • Understanding the specific intentions of your traffic: if someone is searching for rock climbing gyms in Atlanta, chances are they’re intent on purchasing a membership based on the nature of their search
  • The ability to rank, obviously: even if only a few dozen people are searching for a term per month, every bit of targeted traffic helps improve your site’s credibility in the eyes of Google
  • Building up your chances of targeting shorter, more competitive keywords in the future

The final bullet point is especially interesting. Think about it: the more long tail terms you target, the more higher competition, “base” terms you can rank for in the long-run.

Let’s say that you’re targeting the term “Altana gym trial membership.” Therefore, you could rank for the base term “Atlanta gym” as follows:

Atlanta gym trial membership
Atlanta gym trial
Atlanta gym

Essentially, long tail keywords allow you to get more “bang for your buck” when it terms to SEO. Additionally, since the Google Keyword Planner doesn’t always show long tail terms, there’s a strong chance that you can over opportunities that your competition isn’t going after granted they haven’t done their own homework.

However, you can still use the Keyword Planner to uncover new long tail terms and inspiration for low-competition searches: for example, consider the following suggested queries based on the phrase “Atlanta gym membership:”

Keyword research long tail keywords adword tool

Again, more potential targets for long tail terms that weren’t part of our brainstorming session. As you can see, the possibilities are seemingly endless when you’re targeting the long-tail.

But How Many Keywords Should I Target?

There is no hard and fast “rule” concerning how many keywords you should ultimately go for. Ideally, you should have a handful of keywords to implement in on-site content, all of which are related topically, that you can sprinkle naturally throughout your site.

This approach to SEO combines the aforementioned “old school” keyword research with the new-school emphasis on topics outlined by Rand Fishkin. It represents the sort of best of both worlds as you can both ensure that your site is being seen by Google while also focusing on what your readers want.

Implementing Keywords On-Site

Perhaps the biggest mistake that small businesses make in terms of SEO, beyond not having a strategy at all, is trying to stuff keywords throughout their content in hopes of ranking. Unfortunately, this is huge spam signal to Google and your readers alike, which could eventually hurt your site’s ranking.

Bringing your research together can seem overwhelming at first, but implementing your keywords on-site becomes second nature once you know what to look out for and have the right tools at your disposal.

Optimizing Your Pages and Blog Posts

The more “technical” side of SEO may require you to get a bit creative with your on-site content. That is, you need to understand how to combine your keywords with your content while still ensuring that it’s readable and looks good to viewers.

For example, long tail keywords can sometimes be bulky and feel unnatural as the title of the article (for example, “How to Find the Best Gyms Atlanta” sounds a bit spammy). Therefore, don’t worry about optimizing everything 100% of the time, but rather doing everything you realistically can to get your keywords on-site.

Keyword research on page optimization

If you have your small business’ site setup on WordPress, you can take advantage of the Yoast SEO plugin which provides an in-depth SEO checklist for on-page optimization, from title tags to readability and beyond. Regardless, don’t ignore the following opportunities to insert keywords on your site that are easy to overlook if you’re not particularly familiar with SEO:

  • The title and header tags of your site in addition to page URLS
  • The “alt-tag” attributes of any images within your content
  • The meta description of your site and posts

In terms of how often you should insert keywords within your content, try not to go overboard. Yoast suggests a keyword density rate of somewhere between 0.5% and 2.5%. For example, if your target keyword appeared 10 times in a 1,000-word article, that’d be a keyword density of 1% which is totally natural and readable for your audience.

Consistently Creating New Content

The more you blog, you more chances you have to rank for keywords. Plain and simple.

In addition, sites that blog regularly get exponentially more traffic than those that don’t.

However, consistently creating new content can be a huge struggle for SMBs who don’t see themselves as having the time or budget to do so.

Even if you’re strapped for cash, the fact remains that you need at least some sort of on-site content to bolster your results. From reviews and testimonials and beyond, there are a number of short but sweet posts you can craft that won’t require tons of time and research.

If possible, strive to at least create one post per keyword that you’re trying to target. If nothing else, you can build a foundation of static content that will get picked up by the SERPs over time as your site begins to build its following.

Links and Shares

Link building is arguably one of the best ways to improve your search presence: additionally, a lot of link building happens as a result of social sharing. The more content you have to blast to social media, the more likely you are to build links.

Besides, modern businesses are expected to boost their content via sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Additionally, more advanced marketing tactics such as guest blogging can help get your site in front of more visitors beyond the social sphere.

While such tactics may be the last thing on your mind when it comes to marketing your business, consider how a few links here and there could be the difference between having the top spot in Google for your respective keywords.

Bringing It All Together

To summarize, keyword research is very much alive and well. Ranking for keywords requires a keen attention to detail versus simply guessing: businesses that take the time to do such research will ultimately see results versus those who ignore it.

Building your brand’s search presence from scratch can be incredibly daunting, especially if you’re brand new to SEO. Regardless, you simply can’t hope to get found organically without a defined content strategy backed up by solid data and keyword research. Whether you have any questions regarding keyword research or simply want to get your business’ site off the ground, contact us so that we can help.

About Kostas Chiotis


Kostas Chiotis is the Founder and Head of Outreach at Iris Signals

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