A fundamental aspect of both your website business plan and of any SEO project is good keyword research. It should be addressed at the earliest possible opportunity to ensure that there are sufficient searches taking place to allow your website a realistic chance of attracting and converting enough visitors to make a profit.
In order to conduct this research you need to get inside the mind of the potential customer. Pretend you know nothing about your business, forget all the buzzwords that the insiders use, and imagine you are just an average person who wants to buy the product or service. Imagine what you would use to search for it. Then try that in a search engine and see what results you get. Are they relevant? If not try again until they are. Get your family to do the same thing - they probably don't know the jargon. Get your staff to try the exercise - they may be more in touch with your customers than you are. And most important of all if you do talk regularly to your customers try asking them. Do you have a rival who does well in search engines? Ask them - their site will tell you. Look at their site and view the source code - near the top of the code you should fine their title tag and their meta description tag.
Compile all the words and phrases into a spreadsheet - the poor ones as well as the good ones; just make sure you keep them separate. If you ever do pay-per-click marketing you will find the poor ones are useful to avoid bidding on.
Assessing Search Traffic
Now you've got your list you want to confirm that people really do search on these phrases and get an idea of how often they do it; so you have an idea of the traffic you could be aiming at. You won't get precise figures because the largest search engine of them all doesn't give them out except in heavily modified form via their Google Adwords system. However you can get the figures for searches in Yahoo and MSN by using the Overture online tool. Alternatively you can pay for software such as Wordtracker which attempts to give you more detail. Whatever you use try to explore the various phrases to find others that you hadn't thought of and see if they are worth following up.
Your spreadsheet should now be sorted into sensible groups of related terms so you can see the relations between them in terms of searches made.
Checkout the Competition
Add to these figures the total number of competing pages. You can get these figures easily from a Google search where they appear at the top right of the screen. This information is needed to work out how achievable your target phrases are. If your market is the UK then do the searches in the UK-only version. A figure of over 2,000,000 is pretty competive, 800,000-2,000,000 is midrange, under 800,000 is usually fairly easy. You'll probably have an idea of how easy or difficult your market is already, but to get a better idea you could check against some really cut-throat markets - e.g. cheap loans, DVDs, mobile phones. If your numbers are comparable to those then it will be very difficult to achieve rankings, but most normal businesses should be rather better off than that.
The final part of the equation is the quality of the opposition - if it's very high quality then you may be better to go for the more niche terms, but if it's not so good then you may be able to go straight for your highest traffic search terms. Sometimes the top half dozen sites are very good and then the rest tail off quickly. You can tell good sites by various methods - is there plenty of text and does it read well? Use a link command to check how many backlinks these sites have - the more links the harder they are likely to be to get past.
Having amassed all this information sit back and view it as a whole. Work out whether you need traffic quickly - if you do then you may be best to go for the easiest search terms first in order to get at least some results as soon as possible. If you can afford to wait then try to build up the site gradually and go for some of the middle or harder terms for the longer term benefits they will bring. Above all be realistic. Rome wasn't built in a day and neither are search engine rankings.
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