When I was fishing around on Twitter for subjects to cover for these guides, my best friend, who is also an e-Commerce management nerd asked me, “What do you use to guide your SEO rich content? Like how do you source keywords to optimize?” And it’s a good question and one I think we need to go over a little earlier in the overall game.
If “SEO” is still kind of a foreign concept to you, that’s okay. It just means “search engine optimisation” and basically is the fancy word stand-in for “improve the odds your pages and products show up when people look for them.”
In the same vein, “keywords” is just “words or phrases folks use a lot when looking for things like your product.” Like, you sell bath bombs, but “fizzies” is going to be a keyword, because different people use different words and use search engines in different ways.
There are lots and lots of places talking about SEO and what tools to use and what their fancy methods are. I super suggest Moz as a good jumping off point for learning the basics.
This is going to be a long one, so strap in.
What SEO used to be
When I was first really introduced to SEO as a concept was when the site developer of the company I was at said we needed more “SEO keyword rich articles” on the site. We were given a list of keywords that someone who did SEO analysis for a living had decided were good choices for us and I wrote dozens of posts just jam-packed with the keywords and variations of the keywords.
Later, we learned the keyword density was too high and so I had to go back and strip out a lot of those words I’d been told to just pack in there. It felt very illogical at the time (the list of words to use wasn’t even that relevant) and like a long-form version of those Etsy product titles that are all like “ORGANIC BATH BOMB PINK BATH FIZZY RELAXING BATH SOAK”.
Basically, when all the search algorithms were little digital babies, you could trick them by stuffing keywords into every bit of copy and code. Sort of like how folks will lie about what’s in a food to get a picky kid to eat it. But, like those tricked kids, search algorithms have grown up and gotten smarter.
What SEO should be
What I eventually learned, as I started teaching myself some SEO basics, is that there’s a happy medium between making copy look tasty to a search algorithm without deception or excess, and making that copy also appealing to your human customers.
If you’re doing it right, you can drop in keywords that will bring your content up when customers are looking for something like it, while also truthfully and clearly conveying information and emotion about your product. And even if you don’t care a whit about SEO, or how high your pages rank, knowing what keywords are right for your product helps you better sell your product. It can also help you see what other variations of things similar to your product folks are looking for that you might not have thought of or considered as desired!
Knowing your keywords helps you write clearer copy, honestly. Eventually, this creates a really positive and fulfilling feedback loop; your customers are finding what they’re looking for, you’re getting the customers you’re looking for and you can make sure your customers are finding what they’re looking for, and so on, recursively.
First: what are your customers looking for?
As always, this is going to vary by what you’re selling and who you’re selling it to. There’s honestly no one “right” answer and that’s awful, I’m sorry, I know it can be overwhelming. So let’s use this imaginary, folktale and myth-themed bath and beauty company that I’ve apparently named Aesoap Bath to work out paths of approach.
What are you selling?
Oh, that’s easy. Aesoap Bath sells the following:
- Bath bombs
- Shimmer oil
Okay, good start. But! That’s just the categories of products. What else are we selling? I’m talking about common ingredients, themes, and yes—feelings. If we’re trying to be more comprehensive, then we need to add the following:
- Folktales, fairytales
- Myth, mythological creatures
- Handmade bath products, handmade beauty products
- Essential oils
- Relaxing soak
- Invigorating fragrance
- Moisturising, soothing, hydrating
And so on. For real, just make an embarrassing list of words. Sometimes what feels like the dumbest thing is actually a really powerful search term. Why? Human brains are eternal mysteries.
Who are you selling to?
This is sort of a Mary Poppins bag of a question, like, there’s a lot that can be inside it. There’s a term, “customer segments,” that can get pretty brutal and gross feeling because it splits your customer base up into things like age, income, and gender.
Personally, I think it’s a load of garbage on both emotional and business-logical levels. Business-logically: if you’re crunching numbers, previous customer behaviour better predicts future customer behaviour more than mutable divisions that don’t properly account for the actual spectrum of humanity. Also, hard segments mean you could be hiding products from potential customers who might be interested in those products personally, no matter where they’re segmented.
So, let’s go into this thinking like people who like and respect the people they want to sell things to. Here are some things to consider:
- Do your customers use the internet a lot? (Are memes, trends and slang familiar to them?)
- Are your customers part of a group that has specific cultural or linguistic habits? (Are you going to need to code switch to reach a different base?)
- Is your customer base folks that aren’t often catered to? (Are there ways your customers can feel seen?)
- What price range do your customers mostly shop in? (What is going to be a splurge for them that you need to sell differently?)
All of this thinking can also feed into how you write your product descriptions and site content. Be honest about who you’re selling to and what you’re selling, not just to your customers, but to yourself.
Next: Hook up with a dream team of SEO resources
Thinking about what you’re selling and who you’re selling it to by making lists is a way to objectively look at your products. Like with writing product descriptions, you’ve got to be able to step back and try to see your products from the point of view of your customers (and potential customers). It’s a hard thing to do when you’re probably sick of looking at something, so that’s why we’re looking at these little tricks.
But now we’ve got our raw info to work with. Now, to use that info to do my favourite thing: RESEARCH!!! I’m excited.
Who else is selling it?
Listen, if you’re a small business, you do not have the resources, time or energy to pour into intense and dedicated SEO research. But you know who does? Bigger businesses. I’m not saying copy them. Why would you do that? Nobody is selling exactly what you’re selling to exactly who you’re selling it to. Trying to copy someone else is pointless and looks thirsty in a bad way.
What you want to do is look at bigger companies, or more successful companies, who are selling similar things to you and learn from them. Here are some things to make note of and ask yourself:
- What words are they emphasising? Look at their copy (including ads and banners!), what terms and phrases are used frequently?
- Are they using different terminology than you for similar products? If so, are they alternating it with more familiar wording?
- If they have reviews on their site, see what words their customers use to describe the products.
It may seem like a time suck, but treat this like skimming a boring canon book for a class. Don’t overthink it, just make note of what words are popping out. You’ll notice trends within brands or across brand types that you might not have thought of for your own products, or that you think are stupid and want to make note of avoiding. Honestly, learning what information you don’t want to convey is just as important.
Okay, with a list of keywords and phrases in hand, let’s go to Google Trends. We’re going to refine that list some and get a better idea of what is worth pursuing. With Google Trends we’re just going to dial in a couple phrases from the list for our imaginary bath and beauty company:
- Bath bombs, bath fizzies
- Handmade bath products, handmade beauty products
What I’ve found Google Trends is good at is letting me know what variables of keywords aren’t worth worrying about and how most folks spell or format a word or phrase. Two good examples are:
- I learned an acronym we were using was actually more common in trading card games, so we made the switch to writing the phrase out and using other variables.
- There was a compound descriptive word we used that most folks searched for as two separate words (though there were regional differences), so we integrated the version folks used more into things like page titles.
There’s a lot of functionality in Google Trends, as a tool, but we’re just looking at the straightforward plugging-in-of-words. For the first search, let’s drop in “bath bomb,” “bath bombs,” “bath fizzies,” and “bath fizzy.”
It’s nice because you can limit your search by area, time etc. For how I personally use Google Trends, I cast my net wide. And we can see here that variations of “fizzy” don’t really get searched for much. So, even though I scraped that term from a popular bath and body place, it’s not a term folks use a whole lot so I don’t need to integrate a (new and weird to me) phrase into my copy.
It also looks like the plural version of “bath bombs” gets searched more. From my experience, folks search for the pluralised version of things more than the singular. Except when they absolutely don’t. It’s weird! Language is amazing.
Searches also surge around the winter holidays but that’s an obvious thing. However nice to keep an eye on, because sometimes sales don’t accurately reflect when people want something.
Now to the next terms! We’re looking at “handmade bath,” “hand made bath,” and “hand-made bath.” I didn’t add “products” to the end of these terms because it doesn’t matter and leaves things open for “bath and” or “bath bombs.”
Wow, hyphens can just hang up their hat, huh? Well, now that we know the consensus on how to present “handmade,” let’s look at one more term: “handmade beauty.”
This is really cool! See, even “English” varies a whole heck of a lot across regions. There is one phrase for a product where I used to work that is what’s standard in UK English but is absolutely a different thing in US English. Language! You can click on those dots and lines on the right and see what the breakdown is by region if you want, too.
We’ve got what we needed from Google Trends though, clarification of best terms to use. Now, on to what I consider one of the pillars of serving good SEO.
Google Analytics & Google Search Console
Full disclosure, the awesome web and design manager at my last employer just sent me raw spreadsheets of our external search term results every month and then I plugged them into a workbook I’d built that would compare keywords and terms between previous months and pull out low performing terms. That is, well, probably a lot more involved than what you’re probably wanting to deal with.
Even so, you should be using Google Analytics and Google Search Console, they’re super useful tools. This walkthrough on Backlinko takes you through setting up GSC and hooking it to your Analytics.
Once you’re set up, what you’ll want to do is go to the Performance Report of that walkthrough and check out the section on finding terms with low CTR (click through ratio). You can do this to see what’s working well too!
Some webmaster tools also show you your incoming search terms, they’re not as flexible or robust as Google’s tools, but if all the Search Console and Analytics stuff is overwhelming, it’s okay to not dive in right away.
However you’re getting the info, what you’re doing is looking for terms that:
- You know you should be getting more traffic from.
- You didn’t realise were bringing folks to your site.
- Could be improved using what you’ve learned from your earlier research.
Please also enjoy the weird stuff that people have typed to find you. There will be some mind bogglers, I assure you.
Now, since this is an imaginary company we’re doing all these comparisons with, I can’t show you screenshots or give real examples pulled from the dash of external search terms that brought people to Aesoap Bath’s site. So let’s pretend one of the terms not getting good click-through is “shimmer oil.”
With some of my earlier research, I’ve learned that “shimmer body oil” is a term used more widely and also allows me to use the keyword “body oil” which outperforms every “shimmer” variant by an embarrassing amount. Sweet! That’s a smart and simple fix that could make a big difference.
Other good resources
The other key pillar of serving good SEO is, in my opinion, internal search terms. If you have any access to how people search within your site, look at that info. Even if your site tools shows how many results come up for a term, type that in yourself and look at what comes up. If someone searches “hydra” and gets the twenty products that say “hydrating” in them, with your Hydra-themed face mask all the way on page two, then you want to put a pin in that to deal with later. It’s good to step back once in a while and see what your customers are seeing.
If possible, what you want to do is sort terms from most to least frequently searched, then limit that by what has the least search results. You know your products so ignore the things that you know only have one or two relevant products anyway and notice what should be brought up far more results than it is. Or is bringing up none at all!
For our imaginary example, let’s say that folks are searching within the site for “crow” a lot and only getting one of three possible products in their results. After a look, turns out I was using “corvid” instead, like a pretentious dummy. Easy to correct.
On the face of it, internal search terms may seem more like a general site optimisation task, rather than a general SEO thing. But, if you’re trying to create a holistic copy and content experience—one that serves what people are looking for when they’re looking for products like yours—then you need to be aware of what both potential customers and folks already actively browsing are searching for.
Implementing all this
Remember, all this is was just research gathering. You were using tools to refine your list of keywords and to expand it to include things you wouldn’t have thought of. Now you have a better idea of what folks are looking for and how to help them find it.
Now, don’t go wild with power! Unless you’ve learned you’ve obviously been going down the wrong road (like with that acronym issue I personally encountered), implement your new keywords and phrases on the pages or products that need it first and give it two weeks to see how it shakes out.
It’s a weird and organic process because you’re trying to improve the odds that folks will find you while also making your product and site copy more enjoyable. I think it’s worth the effort to create an enjoyable experience for the customer even if (especially if!) they’re just looking to get in, buy something and leave. Make it easy, make it clear, make it fun.
Next, we’re going to look at how product information is laid out on a page and learn some more cool terminology for things you may not need to be worrying about.
This post was originally published on my Patreon. Patrons get early access to posts and their support keeps me going on a lot of levels. Thanks, y’all!
Also published on Medium.