SEO keywords are the most important parts of any SEO strategy. But the way experts use SEO keywords continues to evolve as search engines adjust their algorithms. This is what you need to know about SEO keywords in 2022 if you want to effectively use SEO to drive web traffic and increase profits. And they’re especially important if you want to use SEO marketing to increase your conversion rates.
Read on, using the table of contents on the right to jump around as needed, or listen to the audio version.
What are SEO keywords?
SEO keywords are the most important (or key) words and phrases that people type into search engines. For that reason they’re also often called ‘search queries’, however, it’s important to note that SEO keywords are usually not identical to the actual search queries that people enter into search engines.
For example, if you google ‘what are SEO keywords?’, your search query is ‘what are SEO keywords?’ and the SEO keyword is ‘SEO keywords’.
When SEO is done properly, these SEO keywords and search queries are also the topics and ideas that pieces of content focus on.
Websites benefit from traffic that more closely fits their target audiences when the SEO keywords on their pages are relevant to what their target markets are searching for — when SEO keywords meet searcher intent.
Are SEO keywords important?
Yes! You may see some commentators saying that SEO is dead, but it’s simply not true. As long as we can search the internet (and specific platforms on the internet), search engines will need to be able to discover content, understand what that content is about, and figure out how that content serves the needs of their search users. And in order to do that, search engines use keywords.
SEO keywords are vital if you’re going to optimise any kind of content for search engines. And while SEO is not technically necessary if you want to generate decent website traffic, it certainly makes attracting visitors much easier. So SEO keywords are very important if you want to drive more traffic to your website and digital content on other platforms.
The reason SEO keywords are so important is that they’re the most effective way to encourage search engines to display your content when attempting to fulfil a searcher’s needs. By designing content around real search queries and using those queries within your content, you make it much easier for search engines and human visitors to understand how your content resolves those search queries.
Correctly using SEO keywords is as much about matching your language with that of your ideal customers as it is about ranking well in search results.
Here are a few examples that illustrate why.
If you’ve just opened a new night club and you want to attract people looking for a new and interesting place to hang out on a Friday night, you might think targeting a keyword like ‘new clubs’ might be the best way to go. But if you’re not careful, you could end up attracting golfers wanting to buy new golf clubs or thugs looking for a replacement for their weapon of choice. (Ok that last one might be a stretch — I doubt many thugs use clubs anymore — but hopefully you get my point.)
If you own a shop that sells exotic animals, you might think ‘buy bats’ is a suitable keyword. But you might attract people looking for baseball bats, softball bats, cricket bats or any other kind of bat.
If you’re advertising ‘the perfect toast’, are you going to attract people looking for something to eat or something to say?
How to use SEO keywords
As you look further into the world of SEO, you’ll probably come across criticism of the practice. And as part of that, you’ll likely discover the term ‘keyword stuffing’. This issue is a perfect example of why you’ll need to learn how to use SEO keywords correctly.
You see, in the past, lots of people used dodgy SEO techniques to boost their search rankings. One of those techniques was to cram as many SEO keywords into each piece of content as possible and it was effective because search engines put a lot of weight on how many times a keyword was repeated. This was an easy way for search engines to assess the relevance of a piece of content to a given search query, but keyword stuffing meant that written content became a nightmare for humans to read.
It didn’t take long for search engines to discover the flaw in this approach. And they’ve since adjusted their algorithms so that they no longer reward high keyword densities. In fact, if you use a keyword too many times within an given piece of content, search engines are likely to prioritise competing content and your search rankings will deteriorate.
Despite this, the negative impact of keyword stuffing on readability has left a persistent stain on the practice of SEO. (The prevalence of dodgy SEO companies also taints the industry, but that’s a topic for another article.)
How to use SEO keywords correctly
So, if cramming SEO keywords into your content isn’t the way to go, how do you use SEO keywords correctly? There are whole courses on this topic, but for now, here’s what you need to know.
SEO keywords need to be used in a few strategic locations.
Your most important SEO keyword for a piece, called the ‘primary keyword’, should be at the beginning of your SEO title so search engines and humans alike know that’s the primary focus of the content. Similarly, the primary SEO keyword, minus any ‘stop words’ (like ‘and’ or ‘but’), should form the basis of your URL slug. (The slug is the last part of the content’s URL and is the bit that you can edit whenever you create a new piece of content). Including this primary SEO keyword in your meta description helps cement the relationship, though it doesn’t directly impact on search rankings.
You’ll also get better results if you include your primary SEO keyword in the title of your content, the first paragraph of any text, the title and alt text for any media like images, videos and audio, (where relevant) and in at least one heading if there are any. Scattering the keyword through the rest of the content, where it would naturally go, is also best practice. And the conclusion of your content is another logical and powerful place to include the primary SEO keyword.
The key with any SEO keyword, is to use it wherever doing so will improve the experience your target audience has when consuming your content. If you find yourself struggling to use it naturally, you’ve got the wrong keyword for the content.
In addition to the primary SEO keyword, most pieces of content will also have one or more secondary SEO keywords that complement the primary keyword and lend structure to the content. You’ll get the best results if you use these in the meta description, throughout the main content and in relevant headings and subheadings.
A good rule of thumb is to focus one section of your content around each secondary SEO keyword or specific search queries. The more valuable keywords should show up in level 2 headings (or segment titles for video and audio etc.) and the associated content, and less valuable secondary SEO keywords might show up in subheadings or just in the body of the content.
SEO keyword FAQs
Here are some common questions about SEO keywords that might have occurred to you.
The exact number of SEO keywords you choose for a piece of content will depend on the length or size of the content.
If you’re writing a 500-word blog post, you might choose two or three keywords, or even just a single primary keyword. Or if you’re creating a 30s video, you might focus on a similar number of keywords.
If you’re crafting a massive infographic or a 5000-word article, you might have 50 or so keywords or you might use a narrow range of keywords but target several search queries for each keyword.
If you’re creating an ad campaign, you might target hundreds of keywords, though you’ll likely only include a small number in the ad itself.
Unless you’re creating an ad campaign, the answer is a resounding ‘no!’. In order to properly target any keyword, you need to devote a reasonable amount of your content to that keyword. If you cram too many keywords into a piece of content without increasing its size, the ranking signals from the content will be diluted and your search rankings will suffer.
If you find yourself with a long list of keywords on a particular topic, that just means you either need to create a large piece of content, or you might need to create several pieces on different parts of the keyword set.
If you find yourself devoting less than 300 words (or the equivalent for other types of media) to any given keyword, you’re probably not going to rank well for that keyword in relevant search results. If your ratio of keywords to content length is more than that, you probably either need to expand some sections of your content or properly target some of the keywords with another piece of content.
In the latter case, you could still mention all the keywords within the content, but you might then create another piece of content that goes into the topic in more detail.
As an example, I’ve written fairly short answers to each of these FAQs because I believe doing so will offer value to you as a reader (or listener). I don’t expect this piece of content to rank well for those search queries.
If I want to rank for those specific search phrases in the future, I’ll keep these FAQs here and create and link out to a blog post or video, or some other piece of content, that covers the question more comprehensively.
For the search query ‘how many keywords is too many?’, for instance, I might include statistics about average content length and how many keywords are in the average blog post and video. And I might provide some examples of great content with the right number of keywords and terrible content that’s got way too many keywords.
Long-tail keywords are SEO keywords that have fairly low search volumes. They tend to be longer (contain 3-4 or more words) and therefore narrowly focussed. And because of this narrow focus, pieces of content that target long-tail keywords tend to have higher conversion rates than those that target shorter, less specific SEO keywords.
If you’re wondering why they’re called ‘long-tail’ keywords, this graph from ahrefs offers a good visual description.
SEO keywords that form the basis of a lot of search queries, tend to be popular and so have high monthly search volumes (there are a lot of people searching for those keywords). On the other hand, unpopular SEO keywords that have low monthly search volumes tend not to be included in a large number of search queries. This leads to a long ‘tail’ on the right-hand side of the graph, hence the term ‘long-tail keywords’.
And you can probably appreciate logically why longer keywords tend to be more likely to be long-tail keywords. The greater the number of words in the SEO keyword, the more specific it is and therefore it is less likely to form the basis of a wide range of search queries.
Long-tail keywords can be valuable for a business despite their low search volumes because ranking well for lots of long-tail keywords can end up driving reasonable or even significant volumes of highly targeted search traffic for months or years to come. The better targeted, or more relevant, the traffic, the easier it is to tailor sales messages to that exact audience and therefore the higher the visit-to-sales conversion rate will be.
This is a common cause of confusion because when we normally think of a keyword, we think of a single word. But in terms of SEO keywords, each keyword could be a single word or a phrase. In most cases, your SEO keywords will be phrases as it is very difficult to rank for single-word keywords and the majority of search queries are four words or longer.
Keyword density is the number of times a given keyword is used in a piece of written content as a percentage of the total number of words in that piece (rather than the number of SEO keywords in relation to the content size or the number of instances of every keyword in relation to the content size). Back in the days when keyword stuffing improved search rankings, keyword density was a good predictor of search rankings.
Some people still recommend specific keyword densities or ranges of densities to aim for, but such advice isn’t relevant to modern SEO. Having said that, if you’re not using a keyword or variations enough, the keyword probably isn’t a good fit for your content. And if you’re using one too much, you might get penalised by Google and other search engines. So anyone who says keyword density doesn’t matter for SEO isn’t telling the entire truth.
Real data indicates that top-ranking written content generally has a keyword density of around 1.5-2.5% for the average niche. (Your niche may be different so you will have to do your own experiments to see what works best for your brand.) Always use your SEO keywords naturally and in logical places, but using this value as a guide may help you identify when you’re not using your keywords naturally or if your keywords aren’t a good fit for your content.
How to find SEO keywords
Once you decide you want to use SEO practices to drive website traffic and increase profits, you’ll need to know how to find SEO keywords that are relevant to your goals for each piece of content you publish. For that, you’ll need SEO keyword research.
What is SEO keyword research?
SEO keyword research is the process of investigating real search queries that people from your ideal audience are using to find the information, resources, answers and media they’re looking for, and then extracting the most valuable key terms.
When you perform SEO keyword research, you discover search queries that are actually being used, not hypothetical terms, and analyse them to determine how much value there would be in you publishing content that resolves those queries. This gives you valuable strategic direction and also shows you what language your target market uses.
From there, you can pull out relevant SEO keywords and then optimise your content for those key terms.
There are several kinds of SEO keywords, such as informational, transactional (sometimes called ‘commercial’), and ‘local’, which enable you to target search users at different stages of their buyer journey. Some will be more relevant to you than others. For example, if you’re a SAAS business, alternatives and comparisons, and task-oriented search keywords will be especially important.
What is local SEO keyword research?
Have you ever searched for a type of business in your vicinity? For instance, have you ever googled something like ‘pizza near me’? If you have a physical, bricks-and-mortar shop, you’ll get far more foot traffic if you can show up in the search results for these kinds of searches.
Local SEO is the way to improve your chances of ranking well for these kinds of local searchers.
And by extension, local SEO keyword research is just like normal SEO keyword research except that you’re focusing specifically on the SEO keywords that relate to local search queries.
How to do SEO keyword research
The process of conducting SEO keyword research is another one of those topics that could form the basis of a whole course, so here is the overview you need to get you heading down the right SEO path.
SEO keyword tools for keyword research
In terms of the tools you could use to conduct your SEO keyword research, there are a lot to choose from. Some are free, while others come with a financial cost. Here are some popular choices you can start with. Once you’ve had some experience with keyword research, I recommend you explore the many available tools to find the ones that work best for you.
TLDR — What SEO keywords are and why SEO keyword research can help you increase your profits
SEO keywords are the key terms used in real search queries that are strategically placed throughout a piece of content and its SEO particulars to increase the chances of search engines prominently displaying the content in their search results.
Effectively conducting SEO keyword research will enable you to discover the real language your target audience uses and then tailor your content to exactly fit your audience’s needs and expectations. At the same time, you’ll be able to optimise your content so search engines can understand the value of and prioritise it, resulting in you attracting larger volumes of exactly the right kind of visitors and then converting more of those visitors into paying customers.
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