Google is changing into an increasingly intuitive and rich feature-led tool in 2018. Gone are the days of typing a phrase into the engine’s search box and simply clicking through to a high-ranked website. Today, whether it’s responding to a question in an answer box or prompting us to make a restaurant reservation after a local search on mobile, Google is increasingly trying to answer queries in the SERPs immediately, negating the need to click further.
These rich features are dominating the search landscape more and more. And they are forcing us to adapt how we maintain our visibility online and how we get users to click through.
My recent article 5 ways to make your website stand out in the SERPs went into some detail about producing content that makes the most of the opportunities Google’s increasingly rich feature-led results pages offer. But as Nicolay Stoyanov wrote in his 2016 guide to key phrase research ‘Keywords are the backbone of SEO’, I think this is still the case, even though the SERPs look very different now compared to just two years ago.
So how can we ensure our keyword research game is keeping up with Google’s evolution?
The same fundamentals
Understanding what keywords to use when optimizing your site and content is still central to improving and managing your visibility online. Search engine spiders are still crawling text and links across the internet in order to understand what content is relevant and authoritative to queries.
As they have always done, key phrases can vary in competitiveness.
Short-tail (one word) queries are likely to have a vast number of indexed pages already on Google and so it follows that the effort and budget to try and rank for them can be insurmountable. Think of terms like ‘insurance’
SEOs generally need to think in more niche terms than that.
Medium-tail phrases (two or three words) can narrow the competition down and still see high search volumes. Long-tail phrases (four or more words) can shrink the competition even more but see lower search volumes.
Of course, longer-tail key phrases can still be massively competitive and ranking for shorter-tails can be achievable. It all depends on the sector your website is part of and the type of content your site covers. It is also important to remember that certain key phrases might be better suited to delivering traffic more than conversions, and vice versa. Locations, languages, seasons, social-cultural trends etc. can further complicate things too.
This is where keyword research comes in. It is still important. It is still a practice of understanding the competition and finding the niche. And it is still more of an art than a science.
Keyword research tools
In 2018, I still accept keyword research is more of an art than a science, but there sure is a plethora of scientific tools to help you find those best phrases.
Google itself should be the first port of call. Fire up the search engine, type in a query, and first take a note of the auto suggestions. Scroll to the foot of the SERPs and you will also find related phrases.
Other Google tools are still frequently used for SEO key phrase research:
- Google Trends shows interest in phrases over time, interest by geography, as well as related topics and related queries
- Google Keyword Planner shows more in-depth volume numbers, gives an indication of competition, and alerts you to the value of key phrases in PPC terms (which can be helpful even if you are working on organic ranking rather than paid visibility)
- Google Correlate works by delivering results of what search phrases are most often searched for alongside (correlated with) the phrase you input.
There are a number of non-Google tools to assist you further. Some are free, some allow free trials and others are paid. Both Moz and SEMrush have tools you can try out for a limited time for free. Soovle and Keyword Shitter are quick, free, and quite self-explanatory. And Ubersuggest and Keywordtool.io both have their USPs too.
Adapting to the new landscape Point 1: long-tail phrases see higher value and visibility
Above we touched on the notion that contemporary keyword research is more often about seeking to discern worthwhile niche (longer) terms over short-tail (head) terms.
Not only does logic dictate that search volumes are growing for ever-longer key phrases – as more people come online, and more of us carry out searches – but the way Google displays its results is also increasingly favoring certain types of long-tail queries.
A key example are key phrases posed as a question. Tools such as Answer The Public are a great way to browse options for how a head term can be posed as a question.
Google is increasingly likely to try and answer such questions directly in the SERPs via info boxes, while it also strives to display related questions in its ‘People also ask…’ boxes.
Optimizing your content to answer a question key phrase is not only significant for users who are inputting long-tail questions. Google is also always improving its ability to intuitively display question-related search results for shorter queries – even single words.
See just how important and visible content optimized to answer questions is for the one-word query ‘doulas’:
Adapting to the new landscape Point 2: Consider local/hyperlocal/mobile queries
With the growing proliferation of mobile devices and on-the-go search engine use, more of us are inputting queries in relation to our immediate location, e.g. ‘Thai food near me’, as well as phrases that include words that are local (towns and regions) and hyperlocal (boroughs, neighborhoods, streets, landmarks).
Such key phrases are not significant for everybody. But if you have a bricks and mortar presence and want increased footfall, it’s vital. Embarking on keyword research for local and hyperlocal phrases is a good exercise in understanding how niche you can go, while still targeting valuable phrases.
Many key phrase research tools deal with volume, so you might find that your hyperlocal area is so niche that there simply isn’t enough data to receive suggestions. However, it is an art not a science.
Don’t be deterred from a hyperlocal term simply because the tools aren’t showing it. Search around on Google and its related auto-suggestions and try using the tools to research less-focused locations (e.g. your town rather than your neighborhood) to generate ideas but then substitute in the more niche location into your content.
SEO is not always about getting things exactly right first time. And there is something to be said for being the first of your competitors to target your niche.
Adapting to the new landscape Point 3: consider the fragmenting SERPs
With Google’s increasingly intuitive and rich feature-led SERPs, keyword research for SEO is more than finding the right phrases for your titles tags on your website and generating blog post ideas.
For instance, images are increasingly important to Google’s SERPs. Certain queries throw up image packs right at the top of the list, while info boxes often display images from different sites to those which are providing the text.
There are opportunities here to be visible for more competitive terms, even if it means you just have a well-optimized image in the SERPs, rather than text or a page in a notable ranking position.
But aside from images, video (YouTube) and social media posts (mainly Twitter) are also increasingly given significant real estate and high positions in the SERPs. Google trusts these domains, so it is worth thinking about the key phrases in the titles for such posts as a way to garner visibility, even if your own site might struggle against more authoritative well-funded competitors.
Grasp the opportunity
Google is always tweaking its algorithm. It is always trying to make its SERPs more useful and efficient for its users.
SEOs need to adapt. Even when fundamental techniques such as keyword research are still massively important, we need to be able to identify the opportunities within this more fragmented and intuitive landscape.
Search engine visibility has never been an exact science, though there are more accessible tools and access data than there has perhaps ever been. But if you embark on your keyword research with an understanding of the fundamentals and an open mind, visibility in 2018 is arguably more attainable than it has ever been.