The Ultimate SEO Strategy and Keyword Research Guide

The Ultimate SEO Strategy and Keyword Research Guide
June 20, 2023

Search engine optimization is a big topic – and it should be, since it’s so valuable for digital marketing. But it’s not enough to just cover the basics of SEO. You also need to develop a thoughtful SEO strategy. Without a strategy, you’re just stuffing keywords into blog posts and hoping your prospects find you.

But tackling SEO can be overwhelming – what do you approach first when you’re a business owner with too much on your plate already? Don’t panic. We’ve got the three most important steps to take right now to start reaping the benefits of search engine traffic.

  • First, develop an informed SEO strategy for your business so you go in with a solid plan and thoughtful goals.
  • Next, it’s time to go over your existing site to see how you’re already doing with an SEO audit.
  • And finally, you should perform keyword research so you can find the content your ideal audience is looking for when they’re searching the internet.

Ready to get started? A year from now, you’ll be glad you did this today. Let’s go!

SEO Strategy Basics

If search engine optimization is the art of helping users find your content on search engines, then SEO strategy is the backbone that ties all those individual efforts together.

An SEO strategy helps you organize your site by content, which in turn helps Google and other search engines understand their users’ intent when they’re searching. Without this organization, you’re just blindly creating content based on a glance at a search volume metric. Before you begin churning out content, you need to think through what you’re trying to achieve with SEO.

Set your goals carefully. Using SEO to get as much traffic as possible isn’t a good goal. Traffic by itself won’t do your business much good, because traffic is not sales. It’s just eyeballs. And if you’re attracting a lot of eyeballs but not a lot of purchasers, you’re not going to get that bump in sales you need.

Set Smart SEO Goals

What’s a better goal? This is where your wider digital marketing strategy comes into play as well. Who is your target market for your product? That’s your traffic target too. Now start thinking about what problem your product or service is solving for them – are they looking to save money, lose weight, get healthy, or care for a pet? Those are the types of questions or needs you should be using to create content. If you’re selling budget travel, you don’t want to attract people who are looking for a luxury package vacation – they’re not going to buy what you’re selling.

Your SEO strategy should cover what your target audience is searching for – not just the target keyword they’re using, but what kind of information are they seeking? Are they searching with the intent to make a purchase, or do they need to be nurtured to a sale? Are the topics you’ve decided to cover really relevant to the people who actually purchase your product?

These are the questions you need to ask to get started developing your SEO strategy. But there are a few more pillars of the strategy to include as well.

On-Page SEO

This is, quite simply, SEO for content that’s actually on your page. This can be anything from the pages of your website describing your product or service, your blog posts, or anything else that’s contained in the content on your site. This is what most people think of when they think of SEO.

Setting your strategy for on-page SEO is where you are thinking about what your audience looks for when they’re online. What brings them to your page through organic search, and what keeps them there engaging with your content? This is a more thoughtful form of keyword research – not just looking for what’s popular, but what’s relevant to your audience.

One under-used piece of SEO strategy is using long-tail keywords. Sure, target keywords can be short like “blender”, and those shorter keywords tend to be popular with both searchers and content writers. But there’s a lot of opportunity in longer keywords as well. They won’t have the high search volume that the shorter, more popular keywords have. But they can dig deeper into the content topic you want to cover.

Long-tail keywords help you attract people who are attracted to various parts of what you offer. They bring in a wider variety of prospects. So “blender” becomes “fastest blender on amazon” and “easiest blender to clean under $200”. Now you’ve started to attract people who want to buy your blender because it’s fast, and people who are interested in it because it’s easy to clean. Use all three keywords in one past, and you’ve got some SEO juice coming your way.

Off-Page SEO

Now we get into the less-known (but still critically important) parts of SEO strategy. Off-page SEO is the search engine optimization that focuses on links to your website from other parts of the internet, mostly other websites. Search engines like Google will rank your site more highly if other reputable web pages link back to your site. This is because it shows your site is a credible and useful resource – it must be, if other sites are sharing a link to it.

These links are called backlinks, and they’re vital to getting your site ranking up. You can wait to attract backlinks by putting out great content and hoping it gets noticed – but that takes a long time. Or you can ask other local businesses if they would include a link to your website on their page in exchange for a link on yours. Guest posts for other businesses or blogs that are in your field are a great opportunity to get a link to your site too. And those posts can even bring in some new traffic on their own – paying off double for one effort.

Technical SEO

The third leg of the SEO stool is technical SEO. It’s the least glamorous part, but still vital to a well-rounded SEO strategy. The technical part refers to the architecture of your website. Google pays a lot of attention to how your pages are set up, as well as the content.

Having solid technical SEO means that search engines can easily find, assess, and categorize your website. Fortunately, most technical SEO best practices will be built into your site by your web host or your digital marketing agency.

One place you can ensure your technical SEO is up to par yourself? Make sure you’re keeping the title URLs of your blog posts short, lowercase, and relevant. URLs have a big impact on SEO, so you want to be sure yours are all clear and easy to understand.

SEO Strategy as a Whole

As you can see, SEO strategy has several related and interdependent parts. You need to think about who you want to find your site, come up with a plan to figure out what they’re searching for, and create content that speaks to their needs (not just their search terms). And with the three pillars of SEO, you are in a position to make lots of organic traffic happen for your website. When that traffic is people who are interested in your products or services? Well, you’ve got some new customers now. And that’s what growing your business is all about.

Conduct an SEO Audit

Now that you know what an important role SEO plays in your digital marketing strategy, it’s time to check how your website is doing. What happens if you realize your existing site and content isn’t up to date on SEO best practices? Maybe you set it up before you were a search engine whiz, or before your goal was to boost organic traffic. That’s when you need to do an SEO audit of your site.

What’s an SEO Audit?

An SEO audit is a checklist of steps to improve your website’s health and visibility to search engines. It an important tool in your SEO Strategy.  If you set up your site a while ago without adhering to SEO best practices, or you just want to check in to make sure your site is all tuned up, you need an SEO audit. And with the speed that SEO information changes, what was working well for your site two years may not be producing results for you today. Having a proper SEO setup on your site is just as important as other SEO elements like your backlink profile.

To start your SEO audit, you can begin by using an audit tool like SEMrush to crawl through your pages for any errors. This is a great option if you’re using a paid tool, as the site crawl will surface any problems like broken links that will bring your score down.

Performing an SEO Audit

But if you’re not yet using a paid tool? You’re not out of luck. There are a few steps you can do through Google’s own free tools to review your site structure and the pages on your site for any issues. Look at your submitted sitemaps in Google Search Console to be sure they’re submitted correctly – if not, Google won’t be able to easily navigate your site. You also want to check your Index Coverage Report in Google Search Console to be sure all your pages, new and old, are indexed. Any errors will come up in red so you’ll know exactly which page needs to be fixed.

Check Your Mobile Experience

Next, you want to be sure your site is mobile-friendly. Many, if not most, of your users will access your site at some point from their phones instead of a laptop or desktop. Does your page load correctly and look good when you access it from your phone? If not, that’s dragging down your site rankings. Google has recently said it is using mobile–friendliness as an important ranking factor, so you need to have this set up if it’s lacking for you.

How can you tell if you need to fix your mobile version? Google has a free tool for that. Just plug in your web address and get the data you need.

Broken links are a factor that will drag down your search engine ranking and damage your user experience too. And they pop up more frequently than you’d think – whether because of a typo, a deleted internal page, or a change to an external site. Run your site through one of the many free broken link checking pages and make sure those are deleted or cleaned up quickly.

Check Your Site Flow

Up next in your SEO audit? Making sure your site structure still makes sense. It’s common for growing sites to have little structure or a confusing one, because it might not have been a concern when you first set your site up. Make sure your categories still fit your content, and that all the content on your site is easily findable with less than three clicks.

A thoughtful site structure encourages visitors to spend more time on your page, which increases your SEO rankings. If you would like to move your site to a new domain, make sure to set up a 301 redirect so your traffic from your original site doesn’t get lost. You should also set up a 301 redirect for all the different URLs of your page (www vs. without, etc) so all your traffic directs to your https site.

Check Site Speed

Site speed is a very critical element of your SEO rankings. We all know the frustration of waiting for a needed web page to load – it’s not a good user experience. Google knows it too, and punishes long load times. What are the best resources to check your page speed insights? Don’t worry, Google has a tool for that too. It’s called Google Page Speed Insights and it’s free. It will tell you the loading time for both the desktop and mobile versions of your site.

Check SEO in Your Content

It’s not just your overall site that needs an SEO audit. The individual pages of content you’ve created need one as well. Each blog post and site page has to be optimized for SEO. And if you created your site a while ago, before you were an SEO master, there might be a lot of room for improvement. That can sound worrying but it’s great news – you’re just a few steps away from a big boost in your search rankings.

First, check your title tags. Are all of your page titles coded in your HTML with the proper title tag? This helps search engines figure out what your content on the page is about. You should use a form of the keyword you’re trying to rank for on that page. Keep the title to about 60 characters so it shows up in search results well.

Meta tags are another important tag system on your website. The meta HTML tag will provide search engines with a description of what your content contains. Meta descriptions are short paragraphs that tell searchers what your content is about. For best SEO results, each page should have a meta description that contains a keyword but also provides an engaging blurb that makes users want to read more.

You also need to check your on-page images for a few things. Review the file size – if it’s over 1 MB compress it, or it will slow your page. Also, check to make sure you have alt text written for each image. Alt text should describe what’s in each image, helping search engines understand what each image contains. Stuffing alt text with keywords that don’t quite match isn’t a good idea – just describe what each image contains.

And finally, don’t forget to boost your blog posts and articles on social media. The greater the number of people who access your content directly or from search, the more authority Google assumes your website has and so it will likely rank your site higher. Social media doesn’t just mean Facebook – don’t forget about LinkedIn for business-related content.

Your Next Steps

Your SEO audit is done – but you still have work to do. You still have two more steps to complete your audit.

Setting up a way to track your results is a great idea after an SEO audit. Chances are you won’t be able to update the SEO on each post and page at once, so note which ones you’re updating first and track their progress after the update. Are you seeing a boost in traffic, and more critically, in traffic that converts? This will give you insights for updating the rest of your pages in your next batch of updates.

Your final step is to set a regular schedule to perform an SEO audit. Once a year is a good minimum time. A lot can change with SEO best practices in just 12 months. You want to have a plan to stay on top of any changes so you don’t lose all the boosts you just got from completing your audit. It’s a good idea to check for items like broken links more frequently as these can happen quickly.

Great job – for now! SEO audits are a lot of work, but they usually pay off with big results. If you’re tracking your results, you should see an uptick in a few weeks, with bigger results coming down the line. Always remember, when you invest in SEO, you’re playing the long game – not looking for instant results.

seo strategy

SEO Keyword Research

Let’s review: now you know the basics of good SEO strategy, and you’ve reviewed your website to fix any issues getting in the way of attracting plenty of search engine traffic. Well done!

Now we start on creating your SEO-friendly content. And the best way to do that is starting with thorough, thoughtful keyword research. This is how you can make your content as effective as possible at bringing in organic traffic and sustained leads, and start seeing real results sooner.

What is Keyword Research?

Keyword research is the process where you find and analyze search terms that people are entering into search engines like Google or Bing. By researching these actual keywords that people are using, you can develop an effective content strategy as well as informing your overall digital marketing strategy.

Analyzing Search Volume

Let’s break it down a little more. If you know what your target audience is searching for on Google, you have a valuable line of sight into what they want to know, what they’re interested in reading, and what questions they want to see answered. Keyword research tells you what topics your audience is interested in, which allows you to create content that speaks to them.

For example, if you’re running a bookstore, you can use keywords to see what kind of book content people are looking for. If you were debating between writing a blog post about “Top Ten Travel Books” and “The Best Books About England,” you would check a keyword research tool like SEMrush to see which term has a higher monthly search volume and write an article based on which one is more popular with searchers.

About Keyword Difficulty

But overall search volume doesn’t tell you the whole story. After all, there are plenty of other companies in your industry who are also writing content about the same topics. (That’s unless you’re in a very specific niche, which we’ll talk about later.)

This is why you need to take keyword difficulty into account when planning your keyword strategy. Keyword difficulty tells you how many other competing websites have written a lot about this topic. If search volume is high but so is keyword difficulty, you might be best served by choosing a long-tail keyword with a little less volume but less difficulty if your site is new.

Your Research Plan

While keyword research can sound intimidating and technical, you already have more tools at your disposal than you think. You’re the expert at your business, and you already have some idea of what your customers want. That’s a very strong starting point. Let’s get going on the rest of the plan.

Make a List of Topics

Start any keyword research for your SEO strategy by making a list of about 5-10 topics that are important and relevant for your business. These should be pretty easy to put down on paper – they’re the topics you blog about frequently, topics you talk to customers about often, or topics that are important for your industry. You’re using your own years of expertise as a business owner to come up with these pillars of your keyword strategy. What kind of topics is your target customers searching for where you would want them to find you?

Let’s use ContentFirst.Marketing as an example. Our topic buckets would look like this:

Next, you want to look up the monthly search volume for each of those topics. Topics with a higher amount of search traffic are more important to your audience. That means you will want to write more frequently and on a wider variety of related sub-topics.

Refine Those Topics Into Keywords

Now that you have your topic buckets, we can get started refining your topics into a list of keywords. These are keyword phrases you consider important to rank for in search engine results pages (SERPs), because that’s what your target customers are looking for when they search.

This isn’t your final list of keywords – it’s just a draft of ideas to get you started. For ContentFirst.Marketing, our list of ideas for the content marketing bucket would look something like this:

  • Content marketing ideas for small business
  • Best practices for content marketing
  • Blogging ideas for businesses

And so on.

Another great way to come up with relevant keyword ideas? Find out which keywords are already getting visitors to your site. You can get a look at your existing search traffic by accessing Google Search Console or Google Analytics for your site (which you should set up if you don’t already have it). Take a look at your traffic sources for your site, and Take a look at your traffic sources for your site, and look through your organic search results to see the keywords people are currently using to find your site.

Repeat this step for every topic bucket you have created. If you’re running out of ideas, there are plenty more sources out there. One of the best ways to get keyword ideas is to ask your sales team or service team what kind of questions they frequently get from customers and prospects. If they’re asking your team members, they might be searching online for those same questions too.

Find Related Search Terms

Need more ideas for potential keywords? All this brainstorming can be tricky the first time you try it. But there’s plenty of help on Google itself for finding related search terms so you can get creative with content.

Go to Google and type in a keyword, then take a peek at the related search terms that come up at the bottom of the page (you’ll notice it under the “searches related to…” header). Right there is a goldmine of related terms you can use to think of more keyword ideas for your content. For extra points, click on one of those related search terms and find the related terms for that related term. The possibilities are endless at this point!

Mix Short and Long Keywords

Now that you’ve come up with your general content ideas, let’s get into the details of researching exact keywords. You won’t write a blog post based on just one keyword – with the vast variety of information available on the internet, it will get lost in the shuffle. You will want to plan a mix of head keywords and long-tail keywords for each piece of content.

A head keyword is a short (think 1-3 words) keyword that’s typically more generic. A long-tail keyword is, of course, longer. It’s also more specific and targeted. Why do you need both kinds? People search for head keywords more frequently, but they’re also more competitive. Over the long run as your SEO strategy starts paying off, you could begin ranking for these. But in the shorter term, you want those specific and less-competitive long-tail keywords to bring in visitors.

And while long-tail keywords might be less popular, they can be more effective at getting visitors who are ready to take action. Someone who is searching generically for “digital marketing” and finds ContentFirst.Marketing might just be curious about the term, and not a good prospect for us. But someone who searches for “how to create digital marketing strategy” is likely much more ready to create their digital marketing strategy, and a better bet to convert to a frequent reader or customer.

Research Competitor Rankings

You don’t need to blindly copy your competitors – you already know that in your business, and it goes for keywords too. But it can be informative to see what keywords your competitors are ranking for in search engines. It’s another tool to use to evaluate your list of keywords.

If you notice your competitor is ranking for a keyword that’s on your list, it’s reasonable to try to improve your rankings for that keyword too. But don’t disregard keywords your competitors are ignoring – they could be a great opportunity to increase your market share on your own terms too.

How can you find the keywords your competitors rank for? You can search in an incognito browser manually for your list of keywords and see where they come up in the rankings, or use a tool like SEMrush to run reports for you.

Like we discussed in your mix of short and long keywords, balance is key in any keyword strategy. You want to move toward short-term success while also planning for growth in the long-term. Maybe you won’t rank for those competition keywords just yet, especially if your website is new. But you don’t want to ignore them entirely. SEO is a game for the long haul.

Use Keyword Planning to Refine Your List

It’s time to narrow down your keyword list with some more research. There are plenty of paid keyword research tools out there, but it’s possible to use Google’s own free tools to do this work too.

Use the Google Ads Keyword Planning Tool to get traffic estimates and keyword volume for your keyword ideas. (You have to sign up for a Google Ads account, but you won’t have to create an ad.) Use the data you find here to rule out any keywords that have too little or too much search volume.

Now it’s time to do some trend-watching. Using the Google Trends tool, you can find which search terms are trending upwards – they’re a good investment of your time even if current search volume is low. Write now, reap the search traffic benefits later. Google Trends can also help you narrow your list down if it’s too large, allowing you to focus your efforts on the most promising keywords.

The Goal of Keyword Research

Keyword research is really a way of developing content ideas that will resonate with your target audience. Search keywords are a line of sight into what your prospects care about and need. With some thoughtful research, you’ll some be creating content on topics that grow your business.

Don’t let this process be a one-time effort, either. Track your keywords in a spreadsheet and regularly check on how they’re performing. And don’t forget to make this keyword research process at least a quarterly event. Search trends shift over time, and you can’t afford to get left behind.

Once you’ve established a strong SEO strategy, performed your SEO audit, and planned your keyword strategy, you’ll begin to see your organic search traffic grow and start converting those visitors to customers.

Get an SEO Expert on Your Side

If you’re strapped for time but know how important a solid SEO strategy is for your business, give ContentFirst.Marketing a call and talk to our digital marketing experts. We’re here to help you grow your business through proven SEO techniques, excellent writing, and measurable results. You take care of running your business – we’ll handle the digital marketing for you.

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