Feb 12 2008

Do-It-Yourself Keyword Research

Strong keyword research skills form the bedrock of any search-engine marketing effort, whether it’s organic search-engine optimization or pay-per-click advertising. Potential search phrases that your customers might use are not hard to find, and many companies have compiled massive databases of keywords for their business. However, knowing how to select and optimize that set of keywords is the challenge that sets great marketers above the pack and yields the type of ROI that promotions are made of.

Merchant Warehouse, a Boston-based provider of online credit card processing solutions, is a small business that has learned how to get more mileage from a set of keywords. When Brian Waldman, vice president of marketing for Merchant Warehouse, joined the firm about two and a half years ago, the company was buying pay-per-click ads based on a universe of 10,000 terms. It was a thorough list but perhaps too inclusive. “A lot of times you throw a bunch of stuff against the wall to see what sticks, and you forget to go back and clean up,” Waldman explains.

The Merchant Warehouse team narrowed down the list of keywords by thousands to ensure that they were targeting searches that would bring in the right type of visitor. They whittled down their portfolio, removing broad “”terms, such as “payments,” that were not closely aligned with specific actions they wanted visitors to take on their Web site. Waldman describes the selection process: “Is this keyword going to result in the desired action? Are we going to have positive ROI? Most of the time you can look at a keyword and judge what a person will be looking for when they type this in.”

As a next step, the team took preferred phrases and expanded the keyword list by using misspellings and different word order. They added minute variations of terms; for example, if the phrase “new credit card machine” was bringing in low-cost traffic, they would add a variant of that phrase, such as “refurbished credit card ”machine.” With pay-per-click advertising, more-precise search-phrase targeting reduces the amount of competition, driving down costs and improving the effectiveness of the campaign. “As a result of these efforts, our traffic declined, but our ROI is up about 200 percent and our number of conversions was about 150 percent higher,” Waldman says.

These simple steps — winnowing down the universe of terms to the most relevant and adding several low-volume variants — are fundamental keyword-research techniques. Here are some other tips from marketing experts to help you get the most from your keyword database.

Go Long: An expensive mistake is targeting only short phrases. A two-word phrase is bound to have much more competition, both in terms of organic search results and pay-per-click bids. Smart marketers will target longer search phrases, perhaps reducing traffic but gaining a higher degree of precision at a much lower cost. “Going for a ranking in a single word today can be expensive and fruitless,” says Winton Churchill, a sales and marketing consultant and author of Email Marketing for Complex Sales Cycles. “Better to focus on longer phrases and ‘own’ the most relevant ones rather than driving a lot of poor prospects to your site.”

Know the issues: Many online marketing campaigns are designed by professionals with little expertise in a specific industry. This creates an opportunity for you to use your expertise to advantage. When the team at Canine Kindergarten, a dog day care business in New York, decided to launch a search marketing campaign, they used industry knowledge to reach their target audience. The team researched local dog enthusiast blogs and found that many people were concerned about traveling with their dog, or how their dog might behave while they were entertaining. They built an AdWords campaign around these issues and related keywords.

“This campaign received thousands of hits between November and January and drove a major increase in business,” says Suzanne Driscoll of Shameless Promotions, the Putnam Valley, N.Y.–based firm that helped design the campaign.
As an insider, you’ll also be aware of industry events, such as conferences and trade shows. Consider integrating these into your keyword strategy to coincide with the timing of the events and take advantage of a surge in traffic based on these terms.

Review competitors: A great place to start the keyword collection process is at your competitors’ Web sites. You can harvest keywords by looking in the Title, Description and Keywords areas used on the home page and other top-tier or product pages. You can see these fields by viewing the source code of the Web page in your browser (under View, Source).

“Researching the keywords that your competitors are using is easy and free,” says Scott Fox, author of Internet Riches. “Be sure to examine the results you get on Google or Yahoo when you type in your own proposed keywords.”

Think campaigns, not keywords: It’s tempting to generalize with search-marketing metrics — suggesting, for example, that $80 per lead is too much to spend. Waldman recommends focusing more broadly and reviewing the campaign as a whole. He has clear ROI targets, but they might apply to his entire Google AdWords campaign instead of to each search phrase within the campaign.

“We have very high cost-per-click on a substantial amount of our keywords, so if we were to look at those keywords in isolation, they would look like they had a fairly poor ROI,” he says. “But we offset those with long-tail [less-common] terms and look at it as a portfolio.”

Try misspelings: Are there certain words for which it seems no matter how many times you type them you always misspell them? There may be some perpetual spelling snafus within your industry that are ripe for the picking. By including misspellings in your keyword strategy, your highly relevant pay-per-click ad can appear in the search results, likely with few competitors.

Think local: If your business caters to regional markets, be sure to include those regional qualifiers in your keyword strategy.

Analyze logs: Your Web logs should show what types of search queries brought visitors to your site through both organic search results and pay-per-click listings. For a sophisticated marketer, this data is a gold mine. For example, if you are spending money to buy ads for a phrase like “vintage gold watch,” it will likely bring traffic from broader phrases such as “swiss vintage gold watch.” Comb through these variations and add new ones to your keyword database. Again, more precise targeting will almost always result in lower cost per conversion.

Test, test, test: No one gets it perfect on the first try, so refinement is the most important element for success. Proper follow-through involves careful tracking of keyword click-through rates, as well as exploring a keyword’s ability to drive conversions. Small-scale pilot programs are a good way to test the waters. Consider sampling keywords for a trial period and schedule a time to review their success further down the line. “This is one of the strengths of keyword buying,” Fox says. “You can get started very cheaply and test different offers, ad copy and keyword selection much less expensively than you could ever do in traditional media like print or broadcast.”

Dan Skeen is director of search-engine marketing for Quarry (www.quarry.com), a communications agency in Waterloo, Ontario.