Keywords for SEO: What is a keyword and why do they matter?

Keywords are the cornerstone of search engine optimisation (SEO). If you want your website to appear higher in search results, keywords are the answer. That, in turn, means the success of your content marketing strategy hinges on good use of keywords.

But what is a keyword, exactly? If you’re completely new to the world of SEO, this is one of the first things you need to get your head around.

In this article we’ll go back to the very basics of keywords so you can head more confidently into the world of content marketing.

what is a keyword? it unlocks customers

Imagine your target customers are behind that door and only the right key(words) will give you access to them. Will you give me that terrible marketing analogy? Maybe I should just explain it properly…

What is a keyword?

A keyword is a word or phrase that tells search engines what a particular web page is all about. These are some of the most important phrases that appear in your content, since they can make or break your chances of being discovered by a potential customer.

Another way of looking at it is this:

Your keywords are the search terms for which your website, including your blog posts, will appear in search results.

(A search term, by the way, is the thing you type in the search bar when you want to find something out. Like this:

entering a search in google

Oh yes – also known as a search query.)

It’s your job to make sure that the content you produce is valuable to a person searching for the keywords you’re ranking for.

If I searched for ‘flight times from London to New York’, for example, I wouldn’t expect to see a page giving apple pie recipes in the search results. And there’s no reason why I would see that, because search engines are pretty good at what they do. You’d have to work very hard to get your cooking website to rank for a search about flight times, and it would only result in very confused visitors. Still, you get the point.

Your website content strategy should be planned around your target keywords from the very beginning. Otherwise the time and money you put into creating content won’t necessarily aid your SEO efforts.

What is a long-tail keyword?

A long-tail keyword is a type of keyword which usually contains three or more words and is specific to your industry, brand or customers. For example, ‘marketing’ is a very broad keyword whereas ‘content marketing services’ is far more specific. ‘Swimming pools’ is a general keyword while ‘cleaning indoor swimming pools’ is a specific long-tail keyword.

When writing content for SEO, you should focus mainly on long-tail keywords since they:

  • Help you reach exactly the right people
  • Apply specifically to your business
  • Tell search engines what your content is about
  • Have lower competition than general keywords

Of course, more specific keywords will have smaller search volumes, but that can be a good thing. Instead of reaching a large number of people who are maybe a bit interested in your content, long-tail keywords allow you to reach a smaller group of people who are searching specifically for what you have to offer (and are therefore more likely to convert into leads or customers).

It’s also a lot easier to rank for long-tail keywords, since there is less competition. So they enable you to get your business in front of people much more quickly.

General keywordsLong-tail keywords
1-2 words3 or more words (occasionally 2)
Apply to a broad category, industry or topicSpecific to your business, industry or customer
High search volumeLow search volume
Lots of competitionLittle competition
Hard to rank forEasier to rank for
Reach a wide but non-targeted audienceReach a small but targeted audience

This doesn’t mean you should ignore broad keywords completely, but you’ll probably find them popping up in your content without you even trying. They should be at the heart of what you’re writing about, after all. Many of your long-tail keywords will contain your general keywords as well.

How to select good keywords for your website content

When picking your keywords, you need to think like a customer. This can be harder than it sounds when you’re an expert in your field and know your own business inside-out.

Take a step back from what you know and imagine you are the person you’re trying to reach. What would they type in that search box if they wanted to find the content you’ve written?

A common mistake is to assume your potential customers know all the same industry lingo and abbreviations as you.

If you’re selling to other professionals in the same industry, they may well be familiar with the language you use. If, however, you’re trying to reach someone who knows very little about your line of work, you’ll have to adjust your language accordingly.

By the way, this is much easier to do after you’ve defined your target audience.

And what about your brand name?

If you’re launching a brand from scratch, nobody will be searching for your brand just yet (except maybe your mum).

Say I designed a cutting-edge tennis ball and I wanted to market it under the name ‘Smash’. While I would certainly include ‘Smash tennis balls’ as a keyword in my content, it wouldn’t be my main focus at first. Instead I’d target keywords like ‘high quality tennis balls’ or ‘best tennis balls’ to catch people who were looking for tennis balls with the qualities mine offered.

If you already have an established brand, you should certainly incorporate your brand name into your keywords.

Doing keyword research

Fortunately, Google doesn’t leave you to work all of this out by yourself. The Keyword Planner tool is great for researching keywords related to your business.

google keyword planner example
See? Nobody is searching for my brand of tennis balls yet. *sniff*

It also shows you how many searches that keyword is currently getting, and how much competition there is from other companies targeting that keyword with their paid ads. Although this is a different arena to organic search, it’s worth taking note of.

It shouldn’t take much work to identify some low-competition long-tail keywords you can use in your content marketing strategy to reach targeted customers.

How to use keywords in your content marketing strategy

If you’re under the impression that you need to fit your keywords into your content as many times as possible, forget it. This old-school strategy known as ‘keyword stuffing’ will only get you penalised these days. Google’s algorithms are much smarter than that.

The number one rule of content writing for SEO is to write for humans first and search engines second.

Search algorithms are coming closer and closer to thinking like humans, and they can spot badly-written articles with keywords that have been crowbarred in for the sake of it.

Having said that, you should still make an effort to fit your main keyword(s) for each piece of content into important fields like your URL, title, headings and meta description. Just make sure that whatever you write still sounds natural.

You can find more about keyword placement in our introduction to content marketing.

Keywords for paid ads

At Stuff With Words we’re all about organic content marketing – getting your website to rank well naturally by publishing great content.

But another way to drive traffic to your site is through paid ads. These appear either on other websites, or in search results for the keywords you select. There will be some crossover between the keywords you use for paid ads and your keywords for content marketing, but not all your organic SEO keywords should be used for paid ads.

For a start, the amount you pay when someone clicks on your ad will depend on how much competition there is for your chosen keyword. If you don’t take this into consideration, you can easily blow a whole month’s marketing budget in a couple of hours.

If you want to find out more about how to choose keywords for paid ads, Google explains it pretty well here.

I hope this article has helped you get past the “What is a keyword?” stage so you can now get stuck in to doing keyword research, creating a content marketing plan and, of course, creating targeted SEO content for your website.

If you’re doing everything yourself, you should find plenty more useful resources here to help you along the way. But we’re also here to help with things like keyword research, content writing and proofreadingjust shout if you need us.