Keyword Selection for SEO… or what should we try to rank for?

17 Rebecca D'Cunha

The first step in any SEO project is to establish which keywords/phrases we should pursue rankings for. For some clients, the question is an easy enough one to answer – I sell blue widgets, so I want to rank for ‘blue widgets’, ‘buy blue widgets’, cheap blue widgets’ and so on; but in most cases it’s somewhat more complex.

A typical ‘old school’ SEO keyword research technique would be to simply divide the volume of searches for the keyword by the amount of websites ‘competing’ for the search query, and find the keyword with the most favourable popularity/competition ratio. Whilst volume and competition should of course form part of the keyword research process,  this approach can be a little too simplistic.

As such, we typically consider the following factors when selecting keywords for our clients:

Relevance (and what converts!)

Before we even start looking at search volumes and competing websites we need to fully understand what kind of keywords would be relevant to our client – typically this involves looking at all the products/services offered and working out what a searcher might use to find the service/product in question.

The temptation here is to go too broad with keywords,  if you sell golf lessons, you’re probably likely to find that your best converting traffic comes from keywords like ‘golf lessons’, or ‘golf lessons in <location>’. You might *want* to rank for ‘golf’  but unless you’ve a huge budget and have little or no concerns about seeing ROI from your activity, this probably isn’t the best choice of keyword.

If you’ve run PPC campaigns before, you should already have a goldmine of information to give you a good idea of which phrases are most relevant, and convert. If you’ve no such data, and poor rankings currently, it may be worth running a PPC campaign to test which keywords/phrases convert.

Commercial Value

This ultimately relies on having a clear understanding of the client’s business model – many businesses  either sell multiple products, or have multiple propositions for various  customer subsets e.g. for a site selling blue widgets – the keyword ‘luxury blue widgets’ might bring in higher margin business whereas ‘cheap blue widgets’ will deliver volume.


Once you’ve got an idea of what keywords might be feasible to target, the next thing you’ll want to consider is how many people are searching on the different variations – obviously more searches mean the potential for traffic is higher. Different variations can have surprisingly different search volumes even when the meaning is the same. For example, if you compare “caravan insurance” to “insurance for caravan” – 2 phrases which broadly mean the same thing – the search volumes are radically different.


Don’t overlook trends either – Google Trends is the most obvious source for information here, it’s not necessarily about only targeting keywords which are increasing in popularity but targeting a keyword in the descendance might not be the best use of time and resource.


Perhaps one of the most important considerations  – we basically consider this from 2 points of view:

  1. What can be achieved for the budget available
  2. What niches are being under-served

The budget , if known, will determine the absolute ceiling, while the keywords with low competition (yet reasonable volume and relevance) may represent easy wins. Assessing keyword competition can be tricky rather than relying on a purely arithmetic approach here we tend to look at several factors:

  1. Strength of top sites (mozrank & domain mozrank of top websites)
  2. What type of pages are ranking (homepage, powerful subpages or weak subpages)
  3. Competing pages (allintitle search for the phrase in question)
  4. Strength of sites at bottom of page one

There are more things that can be done (especially if the decision might require a high investment with a long payback), such as looking at whether the websites ranking have optimised anchor text or not, but it’s not always feasible to do this for every keyword.

Putting it all together

Good keyword research isn’t easy, it requires detailed thought and attention to get right, and when you have hundreds of potential keywords and many factors to consider it’s advisable to get the data into a format where you can make sense of it. There are many approaches but a balanced scorecard is probably the most obvious. An example might be as follows:

Your weightings will obviously depend on your clients priorities, and the data here is purely fictional, but hopefully it should give you an idea; in this case ‘Luxury Blue Widgets’ and ‘Dark Blue Widgets’ both look attractive, but given the competition differences it may be a wise strategy to target both ‘Blue Widgets’ and ‘Luxury Blue Widgets’ on the same page.

Even after you’ve done all of this work, it’s often just the start – combining primary keywords for pages (and secondary keywords you are able to pickup) will often follow this stage, as well as working out how to pickup mid/long tail variations of the keyword.

The one thing for sure though, is that if you spend the time to get this right from the start, you will be far more likely to see your efforts pay off….