Search Engine Optimization: Keyword Research and Setting Expectations

SEO is a long term process that can easily become unprofitable in the short-term for small and mid-sized companies. Many of the most valuable keywords are absorbed by corporate giants with strong search authority and deep pockets. Now that I’ve rattled your confidence about SEO, I’d like to let you know that there is still hope. It takes some creativity, determination, and a strong sense of realism, but there is hope.

Be Realistic

It’s pretty easy to set yourself up for failure with SEO. For example, when you want to express the benefits of engaging in a comprehensive search engine optimization strategy to a current or prospective client, it’s as easy as pulling the search volumes of some key phrases from Google’s keyword tool and saying, “Look at all the visits you could be getting!”, right? Unfortunately, this is the number one SEO consulting mistake and the easiest way to disappoint yourself and a client six months down the road. To remedy this situation, let’s go over a few things you can do to ensure you set appropriate expectations. 1). Scope out your keywords For the sake of demonstration, let’s pretend that you’re an ecommerce consulting firm that is optimizing the site of a company that sells cat food within the USA. When I type “cat food” into the Google Keyword Tool, I get the following: Optimization Keywords Screenshot *Blogger’s note: Be sure to change your match type to [exact]. This is a common mistake when performing SEO keyword research. At a glance, things look pretty good. There are several broad keywords that drive a significant amount of traffic. But is it best to go after these terms if you’re just a small cat food selling company? I encourage you to check the SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages) to determine who you’re competing with first. Search Results Screenshot After searching the keyword “cat food”, these are the results listed by Google. There are some serious competitors in this list and Google is even nice enough to put them right up top under special “brand”, “stores”, and “types” listings for you. There are similar results for many of the other two to three word key phrases. So what’s a cat food website to do? 2). Explore the long tail (No pun intended) What most people don’t realize is that around 80% of all search visitors to your website will come from long tail variations on specific keywords. While “cat food” is searched 8,100 times per month on its own, it’s also extremely competitive and will show little to no ROI in the short term. But what about long tail variations of “cat food”: Optimized Search Terms Screenshot 2 The keywords above represent some long tail variations of “cat food” that are far less competitive than their broad parent term. It may take some digging and research, but by identifying and segmenting these long tail keywords into various categories that relate to your product or service, you’ll be able to optimize for many keywords that will collectively drive more traffic and sales in a shorter amount of time.

Pro Tip: Using Google’s search auto-fill can be a helpful way to start finding long tail keyword ideas. For example, the term “organic cat food” gets about 880 searches per month. While not as competitive as “cat food”, it is still competitive and will take some time to optimize. A good way to ensure you’re making progress in both the short and long term is to continually seek out relevant long tail phrases.

Google Search Results Screenshot

By simply searching for “organic cat food”, Google provides a list of relevant phrases that are commonly searched. Plug these new terms into the keyword tool and identify new targets.

3). Group Keywords by Competitiveness and Set Expectations Once you have your keywords identified, it’s time to segment which of them are proverbial low-hanging fruit and which are long term investments. Take the following into consideration as you break them down:
  • Total Search volumes
  • All in Title matches
    • All in Title searches can help you identify which specific keywords are more competitive than others
  • Competitiveness in SERPs
  • Authority of competitors in search (i.e., back links, brand power, age of site, etc.)
Once you have identified all of the metrics above, it’s time to make a handy spreadsheet that will show which terms are expected to demonstrate positive results in the short term (one to three months), the mid-term (four to six months) and the long term (more than six months). For our example above, it might end up looking something like this: Notice that my “green” keywords have low search volume, but lower competition as well. These are phrases that require additional investigation prior to being implemented on the website, but are potential targets. The “yellow” and “red” keywords signify mid-term and long-term strategies, respectively. Ultimately, I’ll include some of these keywords in my implementation, but will be sure to set the expectations for those terms appropriately.


This is not the end all be all of keyword research. I encourage you to explore other ways to validate your keywords selections before adding them to your strategy. The free tools provided by Google and other search engines are useful, but it takes more digging into the competitive landscape to determine the potential impact a keyword can have. Other things to consider:
  • Performance of past SEO efforts
  • PPC statistics and campaign history
  • Navigational tendencies of visitors from specific keyword types
There are hundreds of other variables that you can take into account, but following the steps above certainly gets the ball rolling. What else do you think helps when you’re selecting keyword targets?