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What are keywords for SEO?

What are keywords for SEO? They’re absolutely fundamental for understanding SEO, but I think many people overcomplicate them. Here’s an explanation for the rest of us.

Keywords are phrases that people type into search engines. Search engines use them to figure out what a web page is about, and then try to match readers with web pages.

Using keywords or keyphrases for SEO

what are keywords for SEO

Keywords or keyphrases are essential for SEO. If you don’t get your keywords right, your SEO will never perform to its full potential.

Knowing what keywords are is fundamental for writing modern web content. Keywords help search engines to figure out what a web page is all about. For example, if I mention the keyword “Commodore 64” in passing here, but only in passing, search engines figure out really fast that this isn’t a blog post about vintage computers. This blog post isn’t going to rank well on that keyword, though other blog posts I’ve written about it will.

This blog post is about keywords and SEO. Because they see that I’m using various keywords related to those two topics, and using them quite a bit, this page will (hopefully) rank fairly well on those keywords.

In the old days, people would try to fool search engines by overusing keywords, sometimes using keywords that weren’t even related to the content. Search engines know that trick now. When you pair up too many things that don’t go together naturally, they’ll penalize you.

Having a good SEO plugin like Yoast and knowing how to use its keywords features are absolutely essential for successful blogging. Otherwise you’ll never have enough traffic. About 85% of my traffic comes from search engines. At some points in this blog’s existence, that figure has been over 90%. This may mean I’m slowly developing a bit of a following, but those followers found me through search engines in the first place.

What is and isn’t a keyword

A keyword or keyphrase can be any word or group of words that has significance to search engines. There was a time when exact matches were critical, but search engines are getting smarter. Their algorithms have figured out plurals and other word forms and proximity. I used to write some rather tortured phrases that would make my former writing instructors cringe, just to get a keyword match. Anymore that’s no longer necessary and probably harmful. If the words are in the same sentence, they still count as a match.

Advertisers buy keywords too. So when everything’s working right, a reader visits your page looking for advice on something. Your content gives them the advice they’re looking for. And in a perfect world, an advertiser offering what they need bought an ad and ended up on your page next to your content. The reader clicks the ad, you get paid, everyone’s happy, and you got a few dollars’ reward for writing blog posts instead of watching TV.

Where to find keywords for SEO

The easiest place to find keywords or keyphrases for SEO is the search engines themselves. When you start typing something into the search engine, watch what pops up in autocomplete. Those are keywords that people are actually using. I actually prefer to use autocomplete than to word a search in my own words, because I know if I use the keywords the search engine already knows, my chances of getting an answer are better.

When I’m writing, I usually don’t stop there. Google and Bing will tell me what people are typing in, but they don’t tell me how many people are typing that. And their first suggestions aren’t necessarily the most popular. It’s more likely they’re the closest match to what they think I’m typing in.

This is where a keyword tool comes in. Using a keyword tool, I can search on a partial keyword, and it will give me similar keywords, rather than web pages. Crucially, it also gives an estimate of how many people are searching on that keyword or keyphrase. It’s not at all unusual for the keyword I came up with to not be the most popular one. By using a more popular phrasing, I can increase the traffic I can expect to get. For example, my blog post on null modem cables got zero traffic when I titled it “Null Modem Pinout.” Changing it to target keywords that people actually use turned it into something that gets a couple of hits per day. Not great, but much better than zero.

What keywords to target

When I first installed Yoast, I didn’t have a lot of blog posts that were getting 10 hits per day, so I was perfectly happy chasing keywords that got 320 searches per month. I didn’t have much success out of the gate chasing big keywords that got thousands of searches every month. Write some blog posts chasing keywords that get 90-320 searches per month and get some wins, then try to go after some bigger keywords in the same category.

Remember, even though blog posts that only get 90 searches a month won’t bring more than 2-3 hits per day from search engines, if you link to them from your other related posts, they’re still getting traffic from those. And if all of those posts link each other, they’re not just sending traffic to each other, they’re also boosting your SEO a bit.

Some keyword tools tell you what advertisers pay for the keyword. I don’t pay too much attention to that, except to know when it’s zero, I’m probably not going to get much relevant advertising on that post. When it’s really high, that may be an indicator the keyphrase is too competitive.

Keywords and images and SEO

What do keywords have to do with images? A lot, actually. On a blog like this one, keywords have more weight behind them if I attach a relevant image to them. It also makes the page perform much better on social media. I can tell you red and yellow make purple, put an image on it, and someone will click on it. Post a sure-fire formula for making a million dollars and post it on social media with no image, and guess what? No clicks.

Search engines will group similar images together in search results, which is great for photo blogs, but it’s more effective if you accompany the image with some text about the image. Find a relevant keyword, put that keyword in the image’s alt text, and then do your very best to write 300 words about that image, making sure to include that keyword 2-3 times in the text. Why 300 words? That’s about the minimum that search engines will consider. So yes, even a photo blog needs some text and keywords to perform its best.

If your blog isn’t a photo blog, images still give you an extra way to get readers. Not only does content with images perform better on social media, but when someone searches for similar images, perhaps to identify something they don’t know much about, they have a chance of stumbling on your blog.

In conclusion: A word about social media

Let’s go off topic and talk about social media for a minute before we go. I’ve seen a lot of bloggers put tons of effort into promoting their blogs on Facebook and Twitter. I get some traffic from them, but I think most of it comes from other people posting links to my stuff. My best social network by far, and it’s not even close, is Pinterest. It took me 15 minutes to set up my Pinterest feed, and with no further effort, I get 5-10 times more traffic from Pinterest than from all other social networks combined.

My situation doesn’t seem to be unique. Other guys blogging about guy stuff seem to do well there too. So take the 15 minutes it takes to get on Pinterest. It’s worth it.

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1 thought on “What are keywords for SEO?”

  1. Just to dent your statistics a tiny bit, I’ve been following you since a link from Jerry Pournelle or another one of the Daynotes Gang, back when you were still single and working with audio-visual at a church on weekends. I only see Twitter or Pinterest posts when someone links to one on Facebook. Have enjoyed most of your posts and learned a several useful things over the years, including local barbecue locations that we took advantage of on the way through Kansas City.

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