There are a few things I’m known for in the Three Deep office:

  1. My signature braid
  2. My ability to identify obscure vegetables
  3. My passionate response when the words ‘keyword research’ are uttered.

While I’d love to take this space to talk about watermelon radishes, instead I’m hopping on my soapbox to talk a bit about keyword research.

Let’s start with how I got here. (Here being a content strategist at Three Deep.)

In pursuit of my marketing degree, I took a course on ‘consumer behavior & research’ and I LOVED it. I was fascinated by the idea that marketing is actually rooted in science and psychology. As a marketer you are able to manipulate influence customers to increase the chance they’ll purchase your product if you take the time to understand what makes them tick. But, with great power comes great responsibility.

Fast forward a few years, I land an entry level job in SEO. It was thrilling - learning all about how search engines work and how there are ways to make sure your website makes the search engines happy and that ultimately you are helping people, real people, find information that they are looking for! What a beautiful purpose. I was riding the SEO train. I transitioned from corporate SEO life to agency SEO life and was having a great time. Then one day, the train switched tracks and I landed in the wonderful world of content strategy. So here I am, a content strategist at an agency with agency and corporate SEO experience, all within a few short years.

I tell you this story to provide you with some context as to how and why my relationship with keyword research has evolved over the years. So, why am I so passionate about keyword research?

I Love Keyword Research

First, I must confess my love for keyword research. I love it. Remember that consumer behavior class I took? This is why I love keyword research. I think it is super interesting to take a look at what real human people are searching for as it pertains to a particular product or service. I also think it is super interesting that search engines try to understand the human intent behind different searches.

Search engines want to answer your queries. That’s why when you search ‘weather’ the current weather forecast for the area you are currently in pops up. If I too can make someone’s life easier by understanding what they’re searching for online and providing them with the content they’re seeking, I call that a win.

I love keyword research because it helps you do that by providing data that can support the way you prioritize your efforts online. So, yeah, I think it is a really cool tool for online marketers.

And now, the negative stuff.

I Hate Keyword Research

For as much as I love keyword research, I also HATE keyword research. Actually, that is not entirely true… I hate the way marketers have skewed the purpose of keyword research. (We marketers sure are good at taking something simple and pure and wonderful and holy (too far) and making it into a sales pitch.) When I was on the corporate side of things we would do extensive keyword research, but it was always with the idea that we wanted to rank for specific terms. We tracked terms like our lives depended on it and reported on our keyword rankings as an indication of success. This may have been a few years ago, but it still feels a little too close for comfort. On the agency side I started to feel less pressure to rank for specific terms, but the practice of keyword research as a deliverable remained. If I’m being honest, I do not think keyword research should be a deliverable. It should however, be a data point and input to a variety of deliverables. Transitioning into a content strategy role is what really got me thinking. I started to think about the purpose of keyword research.

Keyword research is not a promise for higher rankings, rather it is just what it says it is, research. It helps provide direction as to what people, real people are looking for online and the specific language they are using to look for it. It helps me say, ‘based on what people are searching for, let’s prioritize page A over page B (out of a list of pages that have been identified as important) or use word A vs word B’.

Hey Marketers, let’s stop treating search engines like they’re our customers. They’re not and, frankly, they don’t want to be! Instead, let’s provide valuable solutions to people. (The ones who might give you money.) Let’s stop the very outdated practice of tracking keyword rankings as a sign of success and look at conversions instead.

How to Research Keywords the Right Way

The role of keyword research is research.

While it can help you prioritize efforts and pick the words to use, it is not a formula in which you add a word to page and get a ranking. This is why I hesitate to share keyword research with clients. I’m concerned they’ll take those words as a promise that when they hop onto their search engine of choice and type them in, they will see their website appear… and might not be pleased when it doesn’t. Perhaps this sounds like a cop-out, but I would argue it’s not. I would argue that perhaps we’ve been viewing keyword research as something more than it is.

I think search engines want us to do a better job serving our customers. Remember when they took our website keyword data away? What if that was the search engines nudging us and saying ‘stop focusing on keyword rankings and focus on having a really great website that does a really great job of serving your customers.’ We just can’t help ourselves. The ego-boost of a #1 ranking is too sweet to ignore. But, let’s just…stop.

The next time you’re asked for keyword research as a deliverable - ask why. There should be a reason to do it and a specific thing for it to inform. Understanding why you’re doing keyword research will ultimately improve the quality of the research and likely save time. Let’s not lose sight of the reality that our audiences are made up of real, human people. As an online marketer, I find it super easy to forget that on the other side of that MSV (monthly search volume) is a person with a problem who is typing something into a machine to try to solve it. Let’s do that. Let’s solve their problems.