In 2006 Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson famously described the availability of niche products online as the “long tail.” Search optimizers adopted the term, calling niche queries “long-tail keywords.”
Yet the impact of keywords on organic search rankings has changed. We no longer create separate pages targeting every keyword, nor do we use keyword density.
Nonetheless, keyword research remains essential for search engine optimization.
- Inform how would-be customers investigate products and services.
- Signal demand, as higher search volume implies more interest in an item or topic.
- Suggest a site structure. Popular keywords are likely categories; modifiers are potential subcategories.
- Identify content ideas to attract prospects.
- Reveal gaps in products or categories.
Anatomy of a Keyword
A seed term plus modifiers
Any keyword consists of a seed term and one or more modifiers. For example, “shoes” is a keyword, and potential modifiers are:
- “for women,”
- “near me,”
Combining the keyword and modifiers — “red shoes for women,” “on sale near me” — produces narrow queries describing searchers’ needs, such as gender, color, location, and price.
Modifiers reflect the searcher’s intent and stage in a buying journey, from exploration to purchase. Thus keyword research is the process of extending a core term with modifiers to optimize a site for buying journeys.
The more modifiers, the more specific the intent and, typically, the lesser the volume and clicks. Conversely, more modifiers improve the likelihood of conversions provided the content of the landing page follows closely from that phrase. A query of “red shoes for women” should link to a page with women wearing red shoes.
Types of keyword modifiers
A core term can have many modifiers, such as:
- Description (“red”),
- Price (typically from searchers eager to buy),
- Age and gender,
- Questions (“how to clean shoes”).
Grouping keywords by modifier type can reveal your audience’s search patterns. Keyword research tools such as Semrush and others can filter lists by modifiers to reveal the most popular.
Keyword Dos and Don’ts
Search engines no longer match queries to exact word strings on web pages, focusing instead on the searcher’s intent or meaning. Thus a query for “red shoes for women” could produce an organic listing for “maroon slippers for busy moms.”
Today’s keyword optimization reflects this evolution.
- Avoid stuffing a page with keywords. Instead, enrich content with synonyms and related phrases.
- Don’t create a page with variations of a single keyword. Group pages by modifiers and optimize for the whole group.
- When possible, put the main keyword in the page title and the H1 heading. Google could use either of those to create the search snippet title, the most prominent (and clickable) part.
- Use keywords in the anchor text of internal links.
- Assign products to one category. Don’t confuse Google by creating multiple categories for the same item to target different keywords.
- Search Google for your target query and study the results. Are there other opportunities, such as images and videos?
- Don’t force an exact match keyword if it’s awkward or grammatically incorrect. Ask yourself, “How would I search for this item?” In other words, write for people, not search engines.