Search engines have been part of everyday life for most of us for the better part of two decades and as a result, so have keywords.
Keywords are the terms people search for and that lead them to one website or another. When someone types something like, ‘accountants Casterbridge’ into Google, the keywords are, obviously, accountants and Casterbridge.
You might also call this a ‘keyphrase’, if you were being precise about it, which is actually a pretty good example of how keywords work: it’s less about what’s technically correct than what your target market is actually searching.
In fact, there was even a trend a few years ago for using misspellings deliberately, to capture all those people typing ‘accountents’ or ‘acountants’. Thankfully, Google essentially made this tactic pointless by introducing it’s ‘Did you mean…?’ function, and eventually – by improving understanding of the meaning behind a search query – serving up results for what it believed you meant to type in pole position.
That obsolete tactic is a marginal example of what is known as ‘black hat SEO’ – that is, exploiting bugs or quirks of the way search engines work to game the system. In the early days of Google, keywords were tortured in various ways:
- Keyword stuffing – cramming copy with the same keyword a ridiculous number of times, regardless of how illegible it made the text.
- Hidden keywords – concealed text, in the same colour as the page background, or coded to display off-screen.
- Link manipulation – buying or exchanging keyword-rich links from other websites, often dodgy ones.
In its never-ending game of whack-a-mole with SEO manipulators, Google has made most of these approaches not only obsolete but also counter-productive, applying penalties to sites that use them so that they rank lower than if they’d done nothing at all.
Ethical keyword optimisation
There are, however, ways to optimise your use of keywords that genuinely help searchers find what they’re looking for without being sneaky. For example, if you know that a number of people are looking for ‘chartered accountants Casterbridge’ you might make a point of using that phrase somewhere in your copy.
But, and I can’t emphasise this enough, only if it seems natural to do so. An awareness of keywords should never dictate what you write and how you write it, only steer it gently here and there, where appropriate.
If using an exact match of a search term such as ‘chartered accountants Casterbridge’ does not read well, you could consider a partial match, using separate references to ‘chartered accountants’ and ‘Casterbridge’. But again, only if it seems natural.
The most important step in devising a keyword strategy is research. There are various tools around, from free to premium, that can help you work out which words and phrases people are really searching for, and where there are opportunities to meet unfulfilled needs.
Sometimes, those findings are a revelation.
I was surprised to learn, for example, that though the accounting industry prefers the phrase ‘cloud accounting’ a greater number of searches are for ‘online accounting’.
It’s a small difference but made me stop and evaluate: ‘the cloud’ is jargon, isn’t it? It just doesn’t feel that way to those of us who’ve been used to reading and talking about it every day for the past decade.
Specific and local wins
Competition to rank for the top tier keywords for accountants is fierce. The chances of beating Xero or Sage in a race to come out on top for the search ‘online accounting’ are slim. There are still plenty of opportunities, however, especially when you start focusing on one or more of
Searches for ‘accountants for tree surgeons’ might be a small pond but it gives you the chance to be the biggest fish with very little effort – one decent, genuinely informative blog post might do the job. Remember, keywords occur naturally in good quality, relevant content – they don’t need to be levered in.
A general bit of advice, and something I find myself doing without even thinking about it these days, is to use synonyms or variations as often as possible. Use ‘Accountants in Casterbridge’ in your headline, for example, but then drop the line ‘accountancy in Casterbridge’ into your body copy. Mention ‘tax returns’ there, and ‘VAT returns’ there.
The great thing is, this can also improve your writing, naturally leading you into what my colleagues on the PracticeWeb content team call ‘elegant variation’.
- Don’t try to game the system – produce frequent, good quality, relevant content, and you’ll get most of the way there without breaking a sweat.
- Do your research – time spent on keyword analysis is never wasted.
- Be realistic – work out which keywords you can compete on, then go all in.