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Researching the right keywords (search engine optimization)

Dec 23, 2013 • findability

Probably the most important decision in search engine optimizing your content is to target the right keywords. If a user searches for X, but your page is optimized for the keyword Y, your pages won't usually appear in the results.

Most SEO experts recommend that you research the most likely keywords your users will search for, and then optimize for those keywords on your page. You can use Google Adwords' keyword analysis tool to see popular keywords. Once you log into, go to Tools and Analysis > Keyword Planner.

For example, let's say I wanted to research popular keywords related to "technical writing" for an upcoming blog post. According to Google Adwords, here are 20 terms related to technical writing that have the greatest number of average monthly searches.

Keyword Avg. monthly searches Competition
courses in technical writing 49,500 0.94
technical writing workshops 40,500 0.94
technical writing training certification 22,200 0.87
technical writing consultant 18,100 0.95
technical writing agency 18,100 0.87
technical writing manuals 18,100 0.99
technical writing school 14,800 0.96
technical writing rates 14,800 0.58
technical business writing 14,800 0.86
contract technical writing 14,800 0.95
training for technical writing 14,800 0.95
software technical writing 14,800 0.87
technical writing editing 12,100 0.96
technical writing society 12,100 0.12
technical writing projects 12,100 0.65
learning technical writing 12,100 0.94
technical writing seattle 9,900 0.52
technical writing contract 9,900 0.82
twin technical writing 9,900 0.09
uta technical writing 9,900 0.21

The majority of searches focus on learning technical writing through courses, workshops, certifications, or other online training. Another large number of searches focus on finding jobs in technical writing, including contracts, projects, and area-specific searches.

The competition column indicates how competitive the keyword is based on the number of sites ranking for the keyword. I'd have much better luck optimizing for the term "seattle technical writing" than for "contract technical writing."

But unless I wanted to always write information about technical writer courses, jobs, degrees, or other beginner or career type material, I'm not going to find this keyword analysis tool very helpful.

What if instead I want to know which keywords to use in a post on "terminology selection with help documentation"? Well, the searches aren't popular enough to form a dominating trend, so the keyword analysis tool fails to recommend much (in this example, "term emulator" is the only result).

Keywords from your own search analytics

When Google's analytics fail to help you find the right keyword, the next place is to look is your own search analytics. What keywords are people using already in relation to your site? Here's a list of the top 25 keywords that bring people to my site during the past year (from November 22, 2012 to December 22, 2013).

keywords 264,131
% of Total: 71.83% (367,711)
% of Total: 71.83% (367,711)
(not provided) 174,470 66.05%
grasshopper 782 0.3%
i'd rather be writing 767 0.29%
technical writing jobs 576 0.22%
how to become a technical writer 485 0.18%
drawing thinking tool children 471 0.18%
technical writing skills 462 0.17%
idratherbewriting 425  0.16%
life of a technical writer 295 0.11%
quick reference guide template 288 0.11%
id rather be writing 269 0.1%
technical writer interview questions 269 0.1%
technical writing tools 255 0.1%
technical writing certificate programs 228 0.09%
technical writing careers 214 0.08%
quick reference guide 204 0.08%
“jeff coatsworth” 198 0.07%
how to create video tutorials 195 0.07%
madcap flare 191 0.07%
moving to california 178 0.07%
becoming a technical writer 149 0.06%
technical writer skills 145 0.05%
create video help files 138 0.05%
technical writing interview questions 134 0.05%
sharepoint customization 133 0.05%

What trends are there? Not surprisingly, a lot of people who find my site via search are looking for technical writer jobs, skills, and certification programs. They're looking for ways to become a technical writer and for a better understanding of a technical writer's life.

Beyond these beginner tips and career questions, there are a few keywords for "quick reference guides", "video tutorials," and "flare."

A few anomalies in the keywords exist. I'm obviously not hoping to draw searches for "grasshopper," "jeff coatsworth," or "moving to california," but those keywords also draw people to my site. (The grasshopper reference relates to a brief post containing a picture of a grasshopper I once took.)

In looking at the keywords that users searched for to reach my content, you can see that many of the keywords are pretty general. The keywords people are searching for aren't creative, catchy titles. They are "how to become a technical writer," or "technical writing careers."

When formulating titles, the plainest speech will probably connect with the most hits. Of course, linkbacks also factor into the findability algorithm, so a catchy title might indirectly gather a lot of hits if people link to it.

Overall, though, the keywords aren't that helpful because 66% of them are "not provided." A couple of years ago, to increase privacy for users, Google restricted the analytics available about the searches people make. For users logged into Google, their search results are not shown in analytics. (You can read more about the keywords "not provided" privacy policy here.)

Sources of traffic

One more fact to analyze is where the searchers are coming from. Although social has become a huge trend, it still accounts for a very little percentage of traffic. This chart shows where the 367,711 of my visitors came from during the past year.

Traffic sources 367,711 total visits
google / organic 251,964
(direct) / (none) 58,392
bing / organic 6,704
feedburner / feed 5,545 / referral 3,536
yahoo / organic 3,140
feedburner / email 2,916 / referral 2394 / referral 1,816 / twitter 852

Twitter (" / referral" and " / twitter") is the most popular social network, but it doesn't even contribute to 5,000 visits. This chart shows that Google still dominates as the #1 traffic source.

What do we do with all of this keyword information about technical writing if we're not trying to convert online searches into signups for an online technical writing course, a technical writing degree program, or a technical writing contract? What if we're writing about something much more specialized than keywords that would form a general Google trend?

It's hard to say. Certainly, if I were to specialize in writing about how to become a technical writer, including training and other preparation, and also post about technical writing jobs, it would make traffic to my blog soar.

But helping people break into technical writing isn't my passion, so it always remains on the periphery. I wrote a series about how to get a job in technical writing, and that's pretty much all I have to say about the topic.

Fortunately, SEO is about more than targeting a few specific keywords related to your industry. There's also a trend known as the long tail, where you try to maximize visibility by targeting diverse micro-keywords.

The Long Tail and SEO

The Long Tail refers to the overwhelming power of micro-keywords to outperform major keywords. For example, although lots of people arrived at my site through searches for "technical writing jobs," that 0.22% was overwhelmed by the thousands of non-trend-dominant keywords that also brought people to my site.

At a previous Search Engine Strategies (SES) conference, SEO expert Avinash Kaushik explained:

One of the key strategies to win at search, both organic and paid, is not playing the head game really well but playing the tail game really well.

He said the diversity of small key terms creates a long-tail effect for search engine results. As an example, he highlighted the "marvelous job" Mormons have done in optimizing for the word "church." If you google "church," is one of the top results.

Avinash says LDS Church has so much content online about such a diverse number of topics, the little hits on all those topics, though small, add up to a search engine visibility that trumps the search engine visibility that comes from the major brand words.

Avinash says understanding the long tail isn't possible when you just look at the top 10-20 rows of your keyword metrics. For example, if you log into Omniture or Google Analytics and examine your top 20 keywords, those keywords won't give you the full picture of what's bringing people to your site. You need to use other visualization techniques, such as keyword tag clouds (see, to see the long tail.

The biggest words in the tag cloud indicate the predominance of those terms on your site. Analyzing the search engine metrics, you might be inclined to evaluate a site's effectiveness in ranking for those major terms. But Avinash argues that it's more important to look at the microwords because collectively these small search words create more search engine visibility than the large keywords.

For my site, generating a list of keywords from yields the following tag cloud:

keywords from tagcrowd

As you can see, there's not a whole lot here that's useful. Overall, for the technical writer creating product documentation, there's probably not a tremendous amount of useful information to glean about keywords from keyword planners or analytics tools.

For the most part, people arrive at a site through a variety of keywords, and it would be a mistake to optimize only for a narrow keyword target. Perhaps the more diverse number of keywords on your site, the better.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.