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17 June 2006
Let me ask you a few questions. What is your keyword targeting strategy? Do you go for the more general and competitive terms or for the more specific, longer and less competitive ones? Do you prefer shorter or longer articles? Are you targeting Google or Yahoo and MSN?

Before I lay down my general keyword strategy, let me explain what is the “keyword ladder” and then I will elaborate on why I believe in climbing it (a bottom-up approach).

Imagine a ladder where you put the most general and competitive keyphrases on the top rung and the least competitive keyphrases on the bottom rung.

As an example, let us consider the SEO industry. On the top rung we would have general queries like: “search engine optimization”, “search engine marketing”, “seo” etc. Somewhere below we will have less competitive and more specific keyphrases like: “google search engine optimization”, “yahoo search engine optimization”, “search engine optimization services” etc. Going down the ladder we might come down to queries of the type: “affordable seo specialist in New York”, “where can I learn seo for free” etc.

What are the general characteristics of the ladder? The top keyphrases are the most competitive, they have the highest traffic potential per keyphrase, they are fewer in numbers and they convert worst (there are too general).

Going down the ladder we come to keyphrases that are less competitive, easier to rank for, have lower search volume, but are higher in numbers and usually convert much better (because they are very specific).

The problem with very specific long queries is that it is hard to keyword research them. Depending on who you ask, about 20% to 50% of all daily queries are unique never-searched-before ones. Add to these the loads of queries from the bottom of the ladder that are searched for once in a while and we come to the fact that most of the queries from the bottom of the ladder don’t show in keyword research tools. That of course, can’t stop us from targeting them.

I try to target the bottom half of the ladder for at least these reasons:
1. It is easier to rank higher for less competitive keyphrases

2. The traffic you can get from thousands of lower profile keyphrases is more diverse and stable since you don’t put your eggs in too few baskets (keywords)

3. The bottom half of the ladder can provide more total traffic, since the number of low profile keyphrases is higher (it is like getting 100 visitors from one general keyphrase vs getting 10 visitors from each of 10 less competitive queries)

4. Searchers are starting to use longer and more descriptive queries, which bumps up the traffic potential of the bottom half of the keyword ladder

5. The bottom half of the ladder converts better (more revenue for you)

6. Targeting many low competitive keywords at the same time is not that difficult on Google. If you still haven’t noticed, Google has introduced ranking scores which push up the overall rankings of pages and sites that rank well for a variety of keyphrases. In other words, when you have a lot of content, you rank well for a variety of less competitive queries, which pushes up your rankings on the more competitive queries from the top half of the ladder, which in turn pushes the rankings of the even more competitive ones etc. Or to restate it in other words, with Google it is much easier to rank for the general high search volume queries (top half of the ladder), when you have already conquered the bottom half of the ladder. That is what I call ‘climbing’ the keyword ladder. All you have to do is have loads of content.

Let me get back to the last point above: you must climb the keyword ladder by starting from less competitive queries and gradually increasing your rankings for more and more competitive keywords.

Here’s a snippet from Google’s patent “Information Retrieval Based On Historical Data”:

“Thus, the quantity or rate that a document moves in rankings over a period of time might be used to influence future scores assigned to that document. In one implementation, for each set of search results, a document may be weighted according to its position in the top N search results.”

Every time you rank a page in the top N results, you may get a little general ranking boost (for other queries). The more times you can rank pages in the top N search results, the greater ranking boost you get. You can rank a great number of keyphrases in the top N when you have a lot of content and when these keyphrases are from the less competitive bottom-half of the ladder.

Google keeps statistics of which queries you rank for and which are selected by users within the SERPs. You can see the top stats, if you use Google Sitemaps.

The above “content is king” ranking factors are very different from how Yahoo and MSN operate. Let me give you a real world example.

You are writing an article that discusses how to optimize AdWords campaigns. You wrote a very comprehensive and long article that covers the ins and outs of AdWords. Now you are coming to the point where you need to optimize the article for search engine traffic. You do some keyword research and it turns out there are let’s say 20 good keyphrases to target. How do you target all of these?

Since Yahoo and MSN (and also Google not so long time ago) rely mostly on the anchor text of incoming links, link popularity and page titles, you need incoming links with the anchor text targeting these 20 keyphrases. You also need to place as many of these keywords in the page title. That seems like an impossible task.

Some webmasters may try to partition the content into multiple pages trying to target each of these 20 keyphrases. But how do you get links to all these parts of the article. There will always be someone to outrank that approach by targeting a single page with a specific keyword from these 20.

What most webmasters do at this time, is they just pick one or two of these 20 keywords to target. That is not bad but it is unnatural. It is like webmasters who offers generally the same AdWords content, share the traffic between them by everyone emphasizing a certain keyphrase.

Google is clearly trying to stop this traffic partitioning. Google will try to infer which is the best AdWords page and will try to send as much relevant traffic (including these 20 keywords) to the top few authorative pages.

How will Google do that? By boosting the rankings of the sites that have real content (having rankings for the bottom-half of the ladder). Not so long ago, I was into the “links are king” camp. Now I am at an equal distance between the “content is king” vs. “links are king” camps (maybe closer to the “content is king” camp, when I think long-term).

I don’t want to be misinterpreted here. Sites with almost no content can outrank sites with a lot of great content. Fact is, everything else being equal, a site with no content (haven’t conquered the bottom half of the keyword ladder) will need more and higher quality links to outrank a site with great content. To reframe it another way: having a lot of content decreases the amount and quality of links you need.

Naturally, you should be able to get higher quality links long term with a great content site. Your competitors will need to buy many links in order to compensate for their low-quality websites. And sites with no content will have a hard time overpowering your bottom-of-the-ladder traffic. They can only steal your general keyphrases traffic.

Let me take out my crystal ball and see into the future of search engines…Hmm, I see Yahoo and MSN copying Google… I see Yahoo and MSN becoming more Google-like…

Got the point? Sooner or later, Yahoo and MSN will find a way to give ranking boosts to genuine sites with loads of content and little over-optimization. We will start to see Google doing this better and better. In a way, it supports the notion of “the rich becoming richer” – or having the SERPs dominated by a handful of the most authorative websites.

Now let my lay out my keyword targeting strategy

Write Long Pages

When you write longer pages, you use more unique and repeated words per page. The repeated words increase the rankings of the queries they participate in. The unique words open the possibility of ranking for more keyphrases. Any way you look at it, the more words on a page, the more keyword phrases you target. It is that simple.

When your pages are longer, you are basically going for more keywords from the bottom of the ladder. You get these and Google boosts your rankings for the more competitive ones.

Longer pages will always outperform shorter ones.

Write naturally

Don’t overrepeat one or two phrases. Write naturally. Good content is written naturally. While search engines cannot understand the quality of content by way of interpreting its meaning, they can detect and devalue unnatural overrepeated and stuffed content. When you write naturally, you usually use synonyms, related words and that ups the number of potential phrases you target.

But wouldn’t that dilute your keyword density? Forget the nonsense of keyword density. Keyword density has never-ever been used by Google or any other decent search engine (because it does not improve relevancy). That is one of the SEO myths trotted by the SEO “experts”.

Optimize your page titles

When you do keyword research, remember, that you cannot research the bottom of the keyword ladder. You research the top of the ladder – the competitive high-traffic, most common search terms. Place the most general ones in the title of your home page and the titles of the major sections. Your content can target one or two general keyphrases in the page titles.

Research and use the common keyword subphrases Have you noticed that if you make a long list of queries related to your pages, you start to see common subphrases.

Let’s say you sell a weight loss ebook. You can target keyphrases like: weight loss book, weight loss ebook, weight loss program… but you can also target keyphrases like: diet book, diet ebook, diet program …

Here we see that a lot of keyphrases that are common to queries relevant to your page include subphrases like “weight loss”, “diet”, “diets”, “dieting”, “calories” etc.

It makes sense to think that most of the queries from the keyword ladder (top + bottom parts) will include the above subphrases as parts of the queries. These common subphrases are usually some of the more general queries (top of the keyword ladder).

When you have identified the common subphrases you need to do 4 things to greatly increase your chances of ranking for a lot of queries.

1. Use all these common subphrases generously in your long articles. Don’t focus on one subphrase. Use all of them + their stemmed variants. These are the ones that should be repeated more often. All the other text (non-common subphrases) should be written naturally. To use as many of them, you need to write longer articles.

2. When using the common subphrases within content, write them as parts of the longer queries. If you focus on “weight loss”, use it as “weight loss book”, next time as “weight loss program” or “weight loss failure” etc.

3. Place a few of these subphrases in the page title

4. If you have control over the anchor text of the incoming links (as with home pages), try to inject as many subphrases as possible. Anchor text is still very important. Let’s say that the subphrase “weight loss” is a subphrase in 8000 potential queries you may target on your page. You need to inject it into as many incoming links and then all the other words on the page will combine nicely with “weight loss” to form longer queries and increase your rankings for a great variety of phrases. If you submit to directories, rotate the anchor text subphrases. In our case rotate among “weight loss”, “diet”, “calories” etc.

There are obviously a lot of other factors to consider. Pages are going up and down the ladder constantly. Have you noticed that after each update your traffic and rankings increase or decrease across most of your pages? In a way, all ranking factors together either made you climb the ladder (rank for more queries) or made you go down the ladder (rank for less queries).

That is why I believe the most powerful factors for ranking on Google are domain based – they act upon all pages on the domain. One of these domain based factors is the “how many queries do you rank for in the top N results”. Google’s patent on “Information Retrieval Based On Historical Data” clearly states that a “document” may mean a page, a site, a part of a site (a subfolder).