It’s Not Mojo: How to Take the Guesswork Out of Keyword Selection

    December 9, 2008

Gut instinct and superficial analysis just can’t cut it anymore when choosing keywords, a hallmark of search engine optimization (SEO).

The stakes are high for sophisticated marketers who need to give an SEO program the best shot at success in a competitive marketplace. It can take months to secure premium organic rankings for some relevant words that can bring traffic to clients’ sites. If they pick the wrong keywords, they’re going to waste a lot of everyone’s time and cash.

Fathom SEO, facing today’s challenges, developed the Keyword Refinery, a proprietary keyword selection decision support tool. The algorithm weighs 15-plus attributes for each keyword or phrase.

To be as effective as possible, marketers must find ways to find and evaluate huge numbers of keywords. Skilled marketers tear into a business and learn the target markets inside and out.

It’s daunting enough to find keywords given the numerous internal and third party tools that can produce hundreds if not thousands of keywords. Selecting the right ones is essential if a marketer aspires to improve a company’s bottom line.

Amazingly, our industry has struggled to produce a solution that handles massive numbers of keywords at one time. Some solutions have made headway but fallen short, looking only at a handful of variables and providing results for only one keyword at a time.

Much has been discovered, shared and debated about keyword research sources, including Keyword Discovery, the Google Keyword Tool, SpyFu, social networks and competitors.

When you have all of that data in hand, then what? How do you choose?

Paid search is the easier path. You can quickly gather keywords and then carefully test them out against some ads and existing or custom landing pages. With paid search, you have the added advantage of managing keywords and phrases you didn’t even anticipate (given the countless possibilities encouraged by broad and phrase match).

It’s tougher for SEO keyword selection.

You can’t just enter a bid and be No. 1 or No. 2 in a flash. Website age, content, inbound links and other factors come into play. How viable is the website? How do you know whether a keyword will resonate with website’s given its standing among the search engines?

Could Google develop rankings for millions of sites across millions of keywords without the support of their algorithm?  Choosing keywords should be no different.

Subjectivity and anectodotal data don’t paint an honest or complete picture. Is there room for human intervention with a keyword selection tool? You bet. Scoring methods will never be dead on for every possible term, but they’re clearly reliable. We’ve found that it’s usually not the weights and measures that throw off an occasional score. It’s more a matter of how the tool is used, including a judgment on keyword relevancy.

Here’s a closer look at some of the factors – small and large – that we’ve baked into our method: 

We examine keyword criteria and group them by popularity, strength and quality. Based on the tool’s scores, we pick keywords with highest potential to yield relevant search traffic over a reasonable time period.


Unfortunately, it’s common for marketers to choose keywords based on the estimated search frequency (whether that’s over 30 days or a year). However, search volume should be only one factor.  Keyword selection emphasizing this approach is flawed because it misses other key components and subtle distinctions. For example, 1,000 searches can mean two different things in if you are evaluating a national B2C term vs. a local B2C phrase.

A marketer who understands the dynamics of a client’s marketplace can easily adjust out tool to properly interpret relative popularity of the hundreds of candidates being evaluated.

Let’s pretend you want to rank well for "airline tickets," which people search for 2.7 million times a month on average across Google and its search network. The website ranking #1 has 168,000 indexed pages and files. Not many websites can compete with that enterprise.


Automated tools can’t determine whether a keyword or phrase is relevant. The data sources simply provide actual searches people conducted. Seasoned marketers must make logical choices based on this question: what is the likelihood that the searcher will convert into a lead or a customer after reaching the website? Relevance often is tied to the specificity of a keyword phrase. The more closely a search term is aligned to a client’s business, the higher it will score. For example, if you rank for "sports uniforms" and only sell soccer apparel, you might turn off visitors. 

Strength is the X factor that most marketers in today’s search world don’t consider.  It’s hard enough to make a selection while looking at both Popularity and Relevance. Even then, marketers still make mistakes by going after the most popular and relevant phrases when their client doesn’t have a chance off competing for those terms. In other words, they overshoot and fail to pick search terms that could actually benefit a client’s company within a reasonable timeframe. Strength reflects the degree to which a business can compete for popular and relevant terms relative to their online competitors.

Here are some of the strength factors that come into play:

·    inbound links
·    keywords in a domain name
·    website analytics
·    website age
·    rankings (in view of competitors)
·    indexed pages/files

If a business website is older, has more inbound links, and has more page depth, it may be in a stronger position to compete for highly relevant and popular terms.

Your ability to settle on a sound set of keywords depends on how well you gather and interpret diverse data sets, including paid search market and conversion indicators. Algorithm-based scoring, ensuring that many variables get due attention, makes that job easier.

At the end of the day, you want to select the ideal keywords. As your SEO tactics kick in, you’ll know soon enough whether you’re making keyword ranking headway. If not, you may struggle to correct a bungled keyword selection effort that could have gone better.