The first article in this series outlined my process for how to write a blog post. The second one gave you a framework for success with some planning.
In this article, I’m going to cover an essential concept for bloggers: on-page search engine optimization (SEO). I include it in the Research step of my process, but this is an important topic and worth a separate post.
Why Should You Care About SEO?
Chasing SEO rankings can be frustrating, especially if you’re a one-person shop or small business. You may not think you have a chance of ending up on the first page of search results, but SEO is essential if you want to:
- Boost your reputation for credibility and authority
- Attract new customers and retain existing ones
- Build your brand
- Increase traffic to your website
- Stay ahead of your competition
There are two broad categories of SEO: technical and on-page. Your webmaster can help you with the intricacies of technical SEO; that’s above my pay grade. As a blogger, however, you can take some simple steps to improve your blog’s on-page SEO.
What Is On-Page SEO?
On-page SEO is just Google’s term for good writing. It includes all the things a writer should be doing to produce great content, plus one more to make search engines happy. Good on-page SEO:
- Answers readers’ questions
- Employs clear, concise, well-formatted copy
- Provides information for search engines so they can find and display your content
Keyword Questions You Were Afraid to Ask
On-page SEO starts with keywords, so let’s dive in.
What Is a Keyword?
A keyword is a word that a user enters into a search engine when looking for information. For example, I typed “backpack” into Google’s search bar. Here’s the search engine results page.
In about a second, Google served up 740,000,000 (!!!) results: images, maps, snippets of information, and links to other sites. It even helpfully organized all of this data into separate tabs to help me find what I want. Even so, it’s overwhelming.
What is a Long Tail Keyword?
A long-tail keyword is a phrase that more accurately describes what someone is seeking. Searchers use phrases to help narrow down the list of results and make them more relevant. For example, when I entered the long-tailed keyword “waterproof backpacks on sale near me,” Google presented the following information.
Google knows my location, so it shows nearby stores selling waterproof backpacks on a map. It also lists many more places where I can buy waterproof backpacks. The search results page has about two-thirds as many listings (448,000,000 is still a huge number). But the information presented is much more useful.
When you’re a small business, it can pay to use long-tail keywords. They’re more likely to answer a specific user question, and therefore more likely to put you closer to the top of the search results page.
Note: from now on, I’m going to use “keyword” and “long-tail keyword” interchangeably.
What Are Paid Search Results?
Paid search results are advertisements. Many businesses pay to advertise on Google and, while they have to match the keyword you entered to show up in your results, some paid advertisements get ranked at the top of the page. They’re also marked to show they’re ads.
There are two ways to identify a paid ad:
- Look for the word “Sponsored” near the top of the page, as shown in the screenshots above.
- Depending on what you’re searching for, you may also see “Ad” in a small box in the search results listing.
What Are Organic Search Results?
Organic search results appear below ads on the search results listing. Google ranks items based on how well it thinks the content matches a searcher’s intent. (It’s not that simple, but this is a good enough explanation for our purposes.)
Do I Have to Buy an Ad To Show Up on Search Results Pages?
No, you don’t have to buy an ad on Google. Paid advertising can get expensive, especially for popular keywords. Besides, most users have learned to ignore paid ads and skip to the organic search results.
Can I Have More Than One Keyword?
Absolutely. For the best results, you should plan to use a combination of keywords and long-tail keywords in your blog.
However, you need to select one as your target keyword. You’ll incorporate your target keyword into the blog title, at least one header, and the body of your text.
The rest of the keywords are called related keywords. Google recognizes related keywords, so it’s worth working them into your content. (We’ll talk about using keywords in the next couple of articles in this series.)
So how do you research keywords?
Step 1: Know Thy Customer
If you haven’t done any planning for your blog, stop now. Go back to the second post in this series, “How To Write a Blog, Part 2: Plan for Strong Results. One of the topics talked about understanding your customer well enough to know what problems you can solve for them. If you need to, review that before you go any further with keywords. When you understand your customer and her challenges, figuring out your keywords becomes much easier. (And that’s one of the reasons why the planning step is so important.)
Step 2: Build a Keyword List
Put yourself in your readers’ shoes. Ask yourself how you might search for the topic you want to address. Write down every idea that comes to mind; you can prune later. If you get stuck (I do), ask a customer, colleague, or friend how they might go about the search.
Once you have a list, key the words and phrases into Google’s search bar and note the suggestions that it displays. For instance, when I keyed “backpacks on sale” in the examples above, Google presented the following results.
Right there, I have more ideas for search terms (keywords) others are using. You may want to do this several times to get ideas for more keywords.
You can also use the Google Keywords Planner to get more detailed results. Here’s an example of what I saw when I searched for “backpack,” “waterproof backpack,” “tote,” and “backpack near me.”
The Keywords Planner gives you a lot of good information.
- Broaden Your Search lists suggestions for other keywords
- Refine Keywords helps you target a specific audience using several criteria
- Avg. Monthly Searches tells you the popularity of the keyword with searchers
- Competition indicates how many other people are using the same keyword
The rest of the information applies to paid ads. The data will show just how popular a term is by showing how much advertisers will pay to use it. You may not care about paid advertising, but this is useful information for gauging how popular your keywords are.
You can download this list if you want, though it can be a long one. I prefer to add the keywords I’m interested in, the average monthly search data, and the competition ranking to my own spreadsheet.
Step 3: Review the List
Once you’re satisfied you’ve identified the relevant keywords, review the list. If you have a long list, score each keyword (high/medium/low, or 1, 2,3) to help you focus on the best choices. Sort the list by score and see what pops out.
If it seems like the keyword list is steering you to different topics than the one you planned on using, you have two options:
- Look for different keywords
- Reconsider your topic or the angle you planned to take
Step 4: Choose One To Be Your Target Keyword
Once you have a final list of keywords, pick one to be the target keyword/phrase for the blog. There are two philosophies about how to do this:
- Popularity. Higher competition for a keyword means more advertisers are bidding for that term. If you want to tackle a popular topic, this might be the right keyword to use. But it will also be tough to get a high search ranking–if that’s important to you.
- Lack of popularity. The opposite approach may identify a niche. The fewer advertisers there are bidding for a term, the easier it’s going to be for you to rank highly in search results.
There’s no right answer here, and sometimes it comes down to a coin toss.
Good for you! Your keyword research is done. Next up in this series on how to write a blog post, I’ll talk about writing eye-catching titles and calls to action. Titles are the first place where you put your keyword list to use. They signal to the reader (and to search engines) what problem you’ll be solving for them and they’re key to getting a reader to pay attention to you.
Tools You Can Use
Moz offers a Keyword Explorer tool that’s free for up to 10 keyword searches a month. This option is perfect if you’re a blogger and don’t need anything else.
SEMRush and Ahrefs are also excellent sources for keyword research and much, much more. But like Moz’s full-service offering, subscriptions can be expensive. They may not be worth the investment unless SEO is your thing.
If you use WordPress for your blog, I highly recommend adding the Yoast plug-in. Even the free version will help you improve your SEO with actionable suggestions. If you want to learn more about using keywords, Yoast has an excellent blog on the topic.
Tips for Success
Google offers a great series of workshops in the Google Analytics Academy. I recommend watching Analytics for Beginners to develop a basic understanding of this topic.
Don’t overthink your keywords. About a third of the effort you spend on your blog should go to planning and research together.
Need Help With On-Page SEO For Your Blog?
Are you stuck? Want to brainstorm? Don’t know where to start? Schedule some time to talk with me. I may be able to help you get unstuck and give you ideas on how to find and use keywords successfully.