SEO Best Practices Part 1: Keywords for SEO


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SEO is important. Why? Because organic search is the main way people find a site. Most sites get upward of 60% of their traffic from organic search. And most people searching for a site don’t go past the first page of results. Below you can see that about 70% of searchers click a link on the first page, with most of that coming from the first and second result.

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So let’s just make our site get to the first position on Google. Easy!

Well, the problem is that Google doesn’t make their ranking algorithm public. They give us clues, and people conduct experiments, but there is no definitive, public formula. And to make it more complex, Google updates their search engine logic fairly regularly, and they also customize results based on a user’s location and browsing history. And then there’s Yahoo and Bing, who have their own algorithms*.

The good news is that the guidelines Google makes public are enough to get your page ranked highly without any SEO “tricks.” 

  1. Create quality content. 
  2. Follow technical best practices. 
  3. Get other people to acknowledge your content is good.

It’s really as easy as that. If you have a quality page with quality content, it will weather any Google search algorithm updates. And it will likely do better as the algorithm becomes more refined.

When we build websites at Sanborn, we set up our sites according to SEO best practices. This allows our clients to just focus on making great content. We also do content creation and consulting. so that clients can ensure they’re doing everything possible to get their website ranking highly.

*A note on search engines. Google accounts for 85% of organic search traffic in the US. While there are certainly nuances between Google, Yahoo, and Bing, optimizing for Google generally does the trick for all of the search engines. So we’ll just focus on Google in this article.

Keywords for SEO

Before you start creating your super-awesome content, it helps to know what keywords you are going to target. Keywords are simply the terms that users will use to find your site. The basic idea is that you should incorporate these keywords into your content to rank highly for them on search engines.

You probably have an idea of what keywords people are using to find your content, but some research will help confirm and refine your proposed keywords, and will expose you to new and related keywords. 

Here’s the process for SEO optimization.

  1. Identify the exact keyword(s) that people use to find content like yours
  2. Identify any related keyword(s) that you haven’t considered
  3. Of those keywords, identify the ones that have high traffic and low competition
  4. Optimize your content for those keywords
  5. Track your position on those keywords and refine your content

Long Tail Keywords

When you’re coming up with keywords, it’s important to know that the more general the keyword, the less useful for a user it will be, and the more competition it will have.

For example, if I just search for “hiking,” I get about 274,000,000 results. They are all very general and cover thousands of topics. The only people who would just search for “hiking” are probably looking for a broad overview. It’s more likely that people will use keywords that are more specific, and will be looking for a specific piece of content. For example, “hiking in LA” or “best hiking boots.” In general, there will be less traffic for “hiking in LA,” but it’s specific enough to get people to the information they want in a more targeted way.

Three and four word keyword combinations are called long-tail keywords and are important to an SEO strategy. You want to focus on these more targeted phrases to get people to your content. Long-tail keywords generally have low competition and give you a chance at getting on that first page of Google Search results.


You can focus on one long-tail keyword, or multiple ones. A common scenario is for a website to cover a broad topic (like hiking) and then have pages that target specific long-tail keywords (like “hiking in LA”). In this case, most of the traffic arrives on landing pages targeting long-tail keywords.

Finding the Right Keywords

As a first step, start a list of long-tail keywords for your site and content. A spreadsheet is a good place to list them (and you’ll need the columns later to sort and filter).

For all of your keywords, brainstorm the variations on that keyword. I like to use Google Trends to get a general idea of which long-tail keywords and their variants are worth digging deeper on.

In the screenshot below, you can see I’ve searched for variations on “los angeles hiking.” It’s clear that some variations are more popular than others. Google Trends is nice because keywords with very low traffic will just report “no results” so you can save your time and discard them immediately.

google trends keyword research

If you have a Google account, you can sign up for a free AdWords account, which gives you access to their Keyword Planner.  Simply type in your keyword and then go to the “keyword ideas” tab for related long-tail keywords. 

In the example below, “los angeles hiking” revealed the related keyword “runyon canyon hike,” which is related in terms of content but doesn’t have the same keywords. It’s a long-tail keyword that I wouldn’t have found otherwise.

adwords keyword research

Here are some other tools you can use to find related keywords.

Using Competitors to Find Keywords

Another nifty trick is to find the first search result on Google, and then see which keywords it ranks highly for using a tool like SEMRush. In this case, I took the first result for “la hiking” on Google, put it in SEMRush, and then found the top organic search terms.

semrush keyword research

Targeting the Best Keywords

Once you have a list of keywords in your spreadsheet, the rest of the process is straightforward. Use the AdWords Keyword Planner to find each keyword’s competition level and average monthly searches. Find the keywords that have the lowest competition and highest search volume. These are the keywords you should use in your content.

The Keyword Planner results below show you competition and search volume. There’s some debate about the accuracy of this information, but it’s okay to use it as a general guide.

adwords keyword research

Digging Deeper on Competition

To get a practical idea of where you can expect to rank against the SERP (Search Engine Results Page) competition, do a quick search and take a look at the results. If the top results are from well established sites, you’re unlikely to rank above them. Established sites include those with lots of traffic, and also official domains with .edu, .gov, etc. Moz has a handy metric called domain authority that can help you investigate and quantify how strong a site is.

In the search below, I’m checking out the keyword “how to fix hiking boots.” The first few results are from Backpacker magazine. Because that site is an established entity with thousands of highly ranked hiking pages, I have little chance of ranking above them.

seo competitor research

The good news is that the fourth result is a forum post. A forum page from IH8MUD isn’t specifically targeted at my keyword, so I have a good chance at outranking it. Targeted keyword web pages typically outrank YouTube results too, so that’s another good sign.

There’s not an exact science to this, but a quick glance can tell you who you’re up against.

What’s Next?

In our next post, we explain how to apply your super-duper keywords to your content so that you can rank higher on Google.

And if you have any questions on how to apply SEO best practices to your website and content, feel free to contact us any time.