Keywords — how we find them, what we do with them, and especially how people use them to search for what they want — is one aspect of SEO that has changed tremendously in recent years. Keyword research is still important, but the keyword discovery process has evolved. Here, we fill you in on what you need to know.

The most important thing to remember is this:

The key to keywords is not to get fixated on a handful of keyword phrases you (or your boss) deem important, but to go after the “long tail” — the variations on a single category or topic that can run into the dozens or hundreds.

Why the Long Tail of Keywords is Critical

Remember that two people may search for the same thing in two different ways. One person’s “enterprise firewall solution” is another’s “firewall for enterprise.” Long-tail keywords are variations on a theme. Other examples include “athletic sunglasses” versus “outdoor sunglasses,” “homeowner association laws” versus “ HOA rules and regulations,” or “organic grass fed steak” versus “grass fed beef.” Before, SEO best practice dictated pursuing a relatively short list of specific keywords (often termed “keywords silos”). Optimizing for long-tail keywords means not having to choose between one or the other.

If content is king, context is queen. Because the keyword permutations and combinations people use today are endless, your website must publish content in a way that is best suited to capture all of these variations around a single theme or concept. The best way to target those buckets of long-tail keywords is to focus first on developing an SEO content strategy [link to new page], with the aim of attaining visibility for whole categories rather than just specific phrases.

In short, start thinking about “owning” or ranking for category topics and themes, not just individual keywords. Here’s an example, using a simple illustration of how a traffic lawyer might approach his or her content strategy. The center sphere represents the primary category (“Traffic Law”), and the surrounding circles are themes that could have many sub-topics:

Keyword Theme Research

Optimal keyword usage happens when companies target distinct categories and related themes, and then create plenty of content around them. That content helps Google to understand the context of your site, and where it should rank not just for specific keywords, but entire categories, with themes and topics underneath it. Content turns your site into an authority. (Another reason why this contextual ranking is important is Google’s Hummingbird update, but that’s a whole other story!)

A few examples of the content categories we’ve helped to designate for clients include:

Outdoor health tips, for a maker of luxury performance sunglasses

Supply chain issues, for an industrial supplier

Rehabilitative care tips, for a provider of physical therapy services

The Role of Keyword Research

Once you have your content categories and sub-themes, SEO keyword research should be employed to identify particular themes or keyword phrases that may present good opportunities in terms of both potential traffic volume and competition. Keyword research tools such as the Google Keyword Planner Tool and third-party platforms like Moz, SEMRush and Market Samurai can help to determine if a relevant phrase or topic gets a decent amount of eyes, and at the same time if relatively few websites appear to be competing for it. (One thing that hasn’t changed: the best keyword phrases are often those with the lowest amount of competition.)

Diagramed, the keyword selection process should look something like this, with specific keyword phrases being the last items designated, not the first:

Keyword Research Diagram

It’s About Performance – Not Being King of the Mountain

Too often, website owners seek to rank for or “own” certain keywords on Google. But being king of the mountain is meaningless if the people clicking on those top rankings fail to turn into a phone call, a qualified lead or a paying customer.

An effective content strategy that helps you compete for long-tail keywords can deliver exponentially more traffic. Rather than targeting “top 3” rankings for a relatively short list of keyword phrases that may deliver several hundred visitors, a cohesive array of content can deliver thousands of visitors for a wider set of keywords that may rank lower but are nonetheless visible and clickable to prospective visitors.

Make sense? Cast a wider net. You may not always get the big fish, but you will get plenty of little and mid-sized ones.

Map Your Content, Then Your Keywords

Ready to get started building a content-first keyword strategy? Download Traffic’s Content Sketching worksheet here!