A few well-chosen and strategically placed keywords can mean the difference between achieving a page-one ranking on Google and bobbing helplessly in an ocean of rival webpages, unseen by your target audience. Since 2003, Mequoda Group, based in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, has helped publishers and other content providers thrive online. Recently, business writer Robert Lerose spoke with Kim Mateus, chief content officer, about best practices for search engine optimization. (The SEO Copywriting Handbook, Mequoda's 48-page resource, is available as a free download.) Some edited excerpts from the interview:
RL: What are keywords and why are they important?
KM: Keywords are basically what your audience needs information on. Just think very naturally about what your business can help searchers with. What kind of expertise do you have? What do you think the people who need your expertise are searching for? Keyword optimization and SEO are about tapping into those needs.
KM: A study from one of the big research firms found that if you're able to get your website to rank on page one, you can assume that 100 percent of the people who did that search at least saw your results. Only 32 percent of people made it to page two and 7 percent made it to page three. I do believe that search behavior probably has changed a lot since the study was done in the mid-2000s. It has to be a much smaller percentage of people who make it to page two. So being on page one is absolutely critical for exposure.
RL: What are the first steps a small business should take to optimize their website for SEO?
KM: Think about the purpose of the site. What are you trying to accomplish? Are you trying to make it a content destination where people use the site on a regular basis to stay informed on the topic that you cover? Or is the goal of the website to generate leads [by] maybe giving away a white paper [to] get an email address? Or is it a straight e-commerce play, where your goal is to sell a product? [It's about] defining the goals of the site and then thinking about the kind of content strategy you need to support those goals.
RL: What's next?
KM: A brainstorming exercise with your domain experts—the people in your business that know the most about your content and what you offer—[to figure out] what they think people are searching for. Luckily, Google makes free tools available that can verify these assumptions. We focus on the Google Keyword Tool, in particular, to confirm that yes, people are in fact searching for this [item], but—oh, wait—there's so many more people searching for it when it's said this [other] way.
RL: After the goal of the website has been defined, you said a content strategy that supported it was necessary. What did you mean?
KM: The harsh reality is that Google likes a lot of content. It likes to give rank to websites that have lots of depth in one particular area. For small business owners, going as niche as you can is always best. Think about three-word phrases, maybe even four-word phrases, that are very specific, that might have a better chance of getting ranked [high].
RL: As an example, suppose a plumbing supply business wants to find out how popular certain keyword phrases are. Would they use the Google Keyword Tool?
KM: Yes. They can select a broad match, an exact match, or a phrase match. I recommend selecting an exact match. If they put the word "plumbing" on an exact match, the Tool tells them exactly how many people search for the word "plumbing" on a global monthly basis. In this case, they would learn that 74,000 people enter the word "plumbing" into the Google Keyword Tool on a monthly basis.
RL: That seems like an overwhelming number for a small business to handle.
KM: So what the Tool then does is give you a list of related keyword phrases. It allows you to see what people are typing next to the word "plumbing." If this business is about "plumbing supply" in particular, I'd go back to the top, enter in "plumbing supply" and then I'll learn what all the variations are around "plumbing supply." You can see how many people are searching for that every month. Again, this tool allows you to get inside the minds of the searchers and get a really solid sense of how popular these keyword phrases are.
RL: Should you put your keywords in quotes?
KM: You can't just target a hugely competitive phrase and think you're going to rank on it. So the next step is to understand how organically competitive the keyword phrases are, which means how many other webpages are using this phrase in that exact order? The way to discover that is by going to the Google search engine and searching for the phrase in quotes because that represents your true competition.
RL: Just because a business has a page-one Google ranking doesn't mean anyone will click on it. Any tips for increasing the click-through rate?
KM: The title of the page, or the blue headline, is actually what's being displayed on the Google search results. It's key to keep the keyword phrase in the title as close to the front as possible so Google can sort of see it right away. The second element is what's called the meta description—those couple of lines that show up below the headline on the results page. [Even though] Google doesn't value keyword phrases in the meta description, they're extremely valuable for the click-through rate. That’s where good, solid, traditional, old-fashioned direct response copywriting has to come into play because that's what people are reading to understand whether they should click through. Taking the time to write effective meta descriptions is definitely a way to try to increase those click-through rates.
RL: Should you write copy around keywords or write the copy naturally and then insert them?
KM: We think it's easier to do the latter. Have your topic in mind. Look at the keyword list in advance. Know what or where you're sort of heading, but write the copy without worrying too much about the keywords. You'll produce the best read that way. Then go back and try to insert the keywords. Lists are a very seamless way to repeat a keyword phrase without being annoying.
RL: Can you overstuff copy with too many keywords?
KM: Yes, definitely. It's a huge no-no. There may not be a magic number, but we aim for around the 2.5-percent to 3-percent range. [So,] the phrase appears two to three times out of every hundred words.
RL: If a small business owner could do only one thing tomorrow to optimize their site, what should it be?
KM: Think about exactly what the goal of your website is and what you want to be found on. If there was one phrase that you could be optimized for, what would it be? Pick that one uber-phrase and then let everything kind of ground you back to that goal.
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