Updated April 3, 2023
For small businesses, the best approach to identifying target keywords requires diligent research and the proper mindset.
If you’re a small business owner with aspirations of getting your website to the first page of Google search results, there’s a hard truth you should know: The deck is stacked against you.
As search engine optimization (SEO) for small business has become more important, it’s also become more competitive. To attract organic search traffic, website presence, page rankings, link authority, and content creation require more time and resources than ever.
This shift definitely favors big business and explains, in part, why large companies are taking over a disproportionate share of the internet, while mom-and-pop shops are steadily pushed to the margins.
Being found in the search result ranking pages is an attainable goal for small businesses. However, in order to achieve desired search rankings, small businesses have to be savvier than the competition and understand small business SEO.
This article outlines a four-step plan to help small businesses identify and target the best keyword strategy to effectively compete against larger competitors.
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Step 1: Brainstorm and Select Keywords
If you decide to do SEO on your own rather than bring on a small-business SEO service, the first thing to do is to select the keywords you want to rank for.
Brainstorming keywords is the easy part of an SEO strategy, especially if you’ve been working in your industry for a while. One good way to identify keywords is to think of the phrases or the questions that potential customers ask when they’re considering purchasing your product.
Some established processes for finding the best keywords for your business include:
- Brainstorming: Think of questions your target customers may ask and the answers to those questions.
- Keyword segmentation: Create topic groups for your keyword targets
- Keyword research: Find keywords that fit within your topics and apply to your business and target customers.
Step 2: Use A Keyword Research Tool
Keyword research tools can help companies find and vet potential keywords. While brainstorming potential keywords or search terms can help companies get a general idea of what they’re looking for, there are some limitations. Keyword research tools can help identify related topics, suggest potential keywords based on your industry and what your competitors rank for, and more.
Additionally, many of these tools provide data like search volume and keyword difficulty, which measures how difficult it is to rank on search engine results pages (SERPs).
Use these free keyword research tools to find the right keywords to target for your business.
9 SEO Tools To Identify Target Keywords
- Google’s Keyword Planner: Google’s Keyword planner helps businesses find relevant keywords by suggesting terms, allowing SEOs to view monthly searches, and organize their keyword list by related categories.
- Ahrefs: Ahrefs allows companies to search for SEO keywords, find related words, track what keywords are ranking on certain webpages, monitor backlinks, and more.
- Moz keyword explorer: Moz allows used to start keyword research, check your site’s rankings, identify keyword cannibalizations, track metrics, and create keyword lists.
- ChatGPT: ChatGPT can generate lists of long-tail keywords based on your audience and industry.
- Google Search Console: Companies that use Google Analytics to track digital marketing metrics can navigate to GSC to identify the search queries that brought users to their site. They can also pull a keyword rankings report to see how their webpages rank for certain keywords.
- Answer The Public: Answer The Public helps users visualize common search questions through autocomplete searches. Often, this helps SEOs identify new keywords based on search trends.
- Google Trends: Google Trends measures the popularity of a potential keyword instead of search volume. This helps users target audiences, find current trending topics, and identify seasonal trends.
- Semrush: Semrush is a content marketing SaaS platform. Its Keyword Magic Tool allows users to enter a keyword in order to get top related keywords.
Step 3: Narrow Down Your List of Keywords
When you use the Keyword Planner tool — or any other keyword research tool — it’s important to maintain the right mindset. The right mindset with the Keyword Planner tool is to think like a small business—trim and fit! Focus on getting value out of your dollar: What’s the least you can spend to get the biggest return?
The wrong mindset to use with the Keyword Planner tool is to think like a large business. Large businesses focus on flash and what gets their website the most traffic exposure.
Lots of small business owners make the mistake of getting into Keyword Planner and selecting keywords with the highest search volumes on Google. This is a death sentence for small business SEO. Do not do it.
High-volume keywords are very competitive. They take lots of time and money to rank for, and even then, there’s no guarantee you ever will. I can’t tell you how many small businesses I’ve seen sink many months and thousands of dollars trying to rank for terms they have no chance with. It sets their SEO back and hurts their companies.
Step 4: Seek Out Lower-Volume, Long-Tail Keywords
One critical small business SEO practice is to keep an eye on search volume—the number of people looking for a keyword. Instead of going for high-volume keywords that lots of people are searching, seek out keywords with achievable (lower) search volumes.
Here’s what that looks like:
This is a screenshot of Google’s Keyword Planner. I’ve circled a highly competitive keyword in red. Related keywords with far less competition are circled in blue. (There’s also a red “X” over the “competition” column. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s ignore that column.)
In a perfect world, you’d be able to do a few months of search engine optimization work (website optimization, link development, content creation, etc.) and rank for that competitive keyword circled in red. But the chances of that actually happening are incredibly low. Your time and money would be much better spent going after the keywords in blue because you might actually have a chance to rank well for them.
It’s important to note that the red-circled keyword phrases above consists of a single word: “SEO.” The blue circled keyword phrases consist of two words: “SEO marketing” and “SEO optimization.”
Long-Tail Keywords Are Attainable
If you want to start driving high-quality traffic to your website and find keywords with realistic search volumes, you need to seek out keywords with more search phrases, or “long-tail” keywords, over short ones.
A keyword like “small business SEO company” is exactly the kind of keyword a small business wants for multiple reasons:
- Attainable Volume: The more terms present in your keyword phrase, the lower your search volume will typically be. “Small business SEO company” illustrates this perfectly. The terms here are in the same keyword family as the previous examples (SEO, SEO marketing, SEO optimization), but because it contains four terms rather than one or two, it has a lower search volume. For that reason, it’s going to be much easier to rank for and to drive traffic immediately with.
- Higher-Quality Traffic: Longer keyword phrases also bring visitors to your website who are much more likely to take whatever action you want from them (making a purchase, setting an appointment, etc.) since searchers who use longer keywords usually have a very specific intent.
- More Targeted Content: Longer-tail keywords also tend to foster more specific, useful content because most searchers have a very specific question in mind when they enter a search query that likely requires very specific content to answer. If your company can create content designed to address those questions, it will be read by high-intent visitors, receive inbound links, and ultimately climb Google’s search engine ranking pages.
Impact of Intent on Keyword Targeting
A good way to understand this concept of “intent” is to compare short and long-tail keywords. lf you’re the owner of a small SEO agency, and you’re looking for more customers, which keyword is more likely to help you accomplish your goal?
Short-Tail Keyword: “SEO”
“SEO” is certainly a highly searched term, but people entering just “SEO” could be looking for lots of things. Their intent may be to get a definition of “SEO,” or maybe they’re searching for information on the subject. It’s hard to tell, and searchers with generalized and vague search intent like this offer little value to your business. Even if they were to click on your listing and enter your website, there’s a good chance that many of them would exit immediately.
Longer-tail Keywords: “SEO Marketing” and “SEO Optimization”
Searcher intent is easier to interpret here with “SEO marketing” and “SEO optimization”, but it’s still pretty vague. Are searchers after information? Are looking for a company to provide a service? Without more definition of their intent, many of these searchers could exit your site, if they ever make it there.
Long-tail Keyword: “Small Business SEO Services”
The intent here is very clear. “Small business SEO company” both shows us that the searcher wants to find an SEO service and that they’re looking specifically for someone who specializes in small business SEO. This is exactly the type of visitor a small SEO firm is looking for. Traffic from this keyword is going to convert very well.
The ultimate lesson here is that long-tail keywords with high searcher intent will not only cost less money and time because of low volume, but it will also bring you better traffic. It wins all around.
Step 5: Use a “Less Is More” Mindset to Target Quality Keywords
Small businesses tend to put a lot more into marketing than they get out of it.
Because time is the most valuable resource for small businesses, the best SEO strategy is to spend as little of it as you can to get to the first page of Google. Given the value of your time, “less is more” should define your entire mindset.
The basic premise of the “less is more” mindset is simple. If you optimized your website for 100 different keywords, no more than 10 of them would ever drive significant traffic to your site (and of those, two or three would drive the lion’s share of the traffic). The other 90 keywords would give you little drips of traffic here and there but nothing more.
With a “less is more” approach, you focus your energy on identifying that small handful of keywords that will get you results and cut out the rest. This means investing more time and effort in keyword research upfront to identify the best two or three keywords rather than trying to optimize for 10, 20, or more keywords.
This is a huge time saver and ends up netting you about the same amount of traffic that you’d get if you focused on lots of keywords at once.
Keyword Research Is the Basis of SEO Services
Whether you’re looking for a small business SEO service or want to go the DIY route, these keyword tactics will help your small business compete with larger companies through SEO. Remember, though, that this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are other efforts, such as content and link development, that are every bit as important to SEO.
About the Author
Kelly Shelton has over 20 years marketing, sales and customer service experience. He is a champion for small businesses and prides himself in helping them compete and thrive in a digital world. Kelly is currently the VP of Marketing for Boostability, a company dedicated to helping small businesses grow online. He manages a team that is responsible for demand generation, customer messaging and experience, branding, social media and all things marketing. His expertise includes search engine optimization, social media, content marketing, customer communication, lead generation and conversion optimization, to name a few.