They key to search engine ranking dominance in the Dark Ages of the Internet (you know, a decade or so ago) was to lard your site with keywords.

Of course, those keywords didn’t need to be relevant to deliver visitors, they just needed to be the right keywords to divert/trick search traffic to your site. 

If you recall searching the Web a decade or more ago versus now and the increased chance that what you’re looking for you’ll actually find today, you’ll recall how bad this was.

It even had a name “black hat SEO.” Companies made a mint selling these shitty services that helped no one except the SEO company itself make a mint. I suppose marketing execs could also justify their existence by pointing to these traffic metrics (who cares if any of those clicks – each one an actual person – ever became a customer, right?). 

Fast forward to today. 

Thankfully, the Google algorithms have (mostly) caught up with this tactic and will nuke your site into oblivion if you try it today.

With the BERT algorithm announcement from a few months ago, Google continues to get better at figuring out intent in our searches. “Intent” being the fancy word that means “figure out what people want to find when they type into the search box.” For instance, depending on context, “drawer” could be a storage unit you slide out of a chest or side table or, for those of us from the south, “drawers” could mean underwear. The search engines are getting good at determining if you’re looking for new unmentionables or a place to store them. 

These drawers go in your drawer. Photo by Patrick Kool on Unsplash

For marketers, this means a need to look at keyword phrases (long-tail keywords) and not just one or two words. I suspect that over time, we’ll be able to ask sentence-long questions and usually get what we’re looking for (try it now, the longer your question, the more precise of a result you might get). 

This loops us back around to a critical piece of advice I think and believe in: write for people, then tweak it for the search engines. 

If that’s the case, who cares about keywords then? 

If only it were that simple. 

Keywords Remain the Key to Being Found Online

Unless you have a built-in audience when you launch a blog, website, or some other online presence; you rely on search engines (generally the Google Monster), to direct traffic to your site (when they’re not answering the question for themselves on the search engine results page, good for Google, less good for companies trying to attract people to themselves).

Before going further, I want to reiterate that this isn’t intended to be a “how to do keywords” type post. I’ve linked to some of those below. Rather my goal is to have you think differently about keywords — they are every business’ frenemy, IMO. And, please, don’t confuse having an SEO/keyword strategy with having a content marketing strategy. 

SEO is a piece of your overall marketing strategy, not a strategy in and of itself (though I suppose pay per click, which is keyword-centric, “could” be both strategy and tactic). . 

Keywords are the tactic to support your overall goals, driving traffic (attracting people) is a means to an end, not the end itself. 

Keywords – How to Find Them

The best place to start is asking customers what they’re interested in, checking your Web pages for traffic stats, and talking to customer-facing staff (help desk to sales) to see what topics are attracting customer attention.

From there, it’s time for some educated guesswork (er, keyword research). I’m sure actual SEO experts may differ in this opinion, but deciding on which keywords to structure content around is a witch’s brew of intuition, research search volume and keywords/phrases, your strategic goals, knowledge of your customer, and an eye of newt (optional). 

Actual photo of an SEO expert at work. Photo by Paige Cody on Unsplash

You make your list. Choose your targeted topics. Start creating useful, informative content for your people. 

Here are a few of free keyword analysis tools. 

  1. Answer The Public. This one is brand new to me, but I think I’m in love. Pulling from search engines, you type in a word or phrase and it spits out a wheel of related search terms people have used (and parses the info in other useful ways too). You need to align these ideas with volume search you find in other tools, but I’m looking forward to experimenting with this. There is a Pro version as well. 
  2. QuestionDB. A database of 48 million questions asked by Reddit users, which often aren’t duplicated on Google. A great chance to take advantage of specific questions that you can own and be THE authority on. After all, this blog is never going to catch up to HubSpot or Content Marketing Institute for basic keywords. I need to go deeper (before they do). The free plan caps off at 40 results. The Pro plan is $10/month. 
  3. The Google Quintuplets:
    1.  Google Keyword Planner. Type in a word or phrase and see relative volume and variations. 
    2. Google Trends. Popularity over time, climb on board a trending trend and cement authority before others can. You can use this to target peaks of interest. For example, “flip flops” starts trending in April each of the last five years. If you sell flip flops in the Outer Banks, perhaps you start writing a series of “the best flip flops” or “summer flip flop etiquette” around then. OK, maybe not the best example since anyone who’s been to the OBX knows that either Sound Feet or Wings are pretty much it for flip flops from Corolla to Nags Head, but you get the idea (and it’s cold and rainy as I write this and the beach sounds nice just now).
    3. Google Search Console — For shoring up keywords you rank for on your site.
    4. Google Adwords — You don’t need to buy ads to use the tool. 
    5. The Google Search Box — Not an keyword tool per say, but when stuck for an article title or angle, type variations of the phrase to see what people of searched for. It doesn’t always provide inspiration for a title, angle, or focal point in a blog post; but it often does. 
An Answer the Public visualization of a search phrase and related ideas.

It’s easy to go down the keyword rabbithole and lose hours out of your day (what? Why are people searching for rabbit birth control). STAY FOCUSED.

For most smaller businesses, it makes more sense to spend a few hours or a day diving into keywords and content planning and then ignoring keywords for at least a few months. Otherwise, you risk paralysis by analysis and the virtuous content marketing circle of doom

Create your list of topics and an editorial calendar. Write. When you near the end of your list; lather, rinse, repeat.

Tip of the cap to a Content Marketing Institute post for the first two items on this list. 

Bigger Isn’t Better

You might as well play a game of Tiddlywinks, a good alternative to beer pong or quarters, as waste time attempting to rank for common keywords. Image from Historic Richmondtown.

Ranking for heavily trafficked keywords is nearly impossible today. You probably aren’t going to pass IKEA for “drawer”. Look for opportunities with lower volume that match your expertise and products. 

Structure content around those questions. 

Getting a smaller number of people to your site, but people interested in what you do is better than being on page 6 of “drawer” search result. At that point, you may as well have played tiddlywinks as spent the time creating your content. 

Useful Keyword and SEO Tips From Actual SEO Experts

Here is a quick list of a few posts and resources I’ve found useful. There’s a fair bit of overlap, so if you’re pressed for time, pick one and follow the advice. 

The Beginner’s Guide to SEO by MOZ remains excellent and continues to be updated. 

10 Basic SEO Tips to Index + Rank New Content Faster – Whiteboard Friday.

How to Perform a Thorough SEO Audit in Less Than 3 Minutes. I go up and down with Neil Patel’s content, but this piece is good. 

On Page SEO Template. Nice cheat sheet from HubSpot.

Keyword Research Course with Greg Gifford from SEMrush is a good, free quick overview of keyword research. If you’re an auditory learner, it’s worth the small amount of time to listen. 

The Lazy Writer’s Guide to 30-Minute Keyword Research. The title spoke to me; as did the content. This one’s a little older, but still worthwhile. 

How to Do Keyword Research for SEO: A Beginner’s Guide. Good for anyone, but especially HubSpot users. 

Keywords Are the Pathfinders for Your Business

While it worked for Kevin Costner, if you build it, they won’t come. 

I’m a huge believer in the well-worn phrase: content is king. Excellent, useful content is the foundation for success with Google and, more importantly, with the people Google directs to your Web pages.


You can’t just throw some words together, sit back, and expect Google to come to you. You have to put in the SEO/keyword work so Google can find you.

Before you can do this, you have to put in the keyword research work. Attracting people to your website doesn’t just “happen.” Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

Keywords help Google provide context to your site so they deliver your answer (your blog post, web page, etc.) to a question asked by someone. Maybe content is king, but keywords are the pathfinders. 

You have to have content — the words, images, and videos you use to take your customers on a journey of discovery with you from “hello, stranger” to “lifelong friend (or at least customer)”.

But content is kinda just an inert object. 

The most useful thing ever is worthless if no one can find it. 

Hello, keywords.

You’ve heard this before, and I will say it again in future posts: write for people first. 

But, use keywords to get the people to come to you.

Need content marketing or writing help and support? I can help: or call/text 301-275-7496.

About the Cheeky A-Z Guide to Content Marketing.

There are groaning shelves of books and whitepapers you can read about content and inbound marketing. What’s missing from (some) of them is the stuff between the cracks. The dirty, nuts and bolts examples of things that can go wrong and the random things that can go wonderfully well. I decided to run down the alphabet a letter at a time and highlight personal lessons learned from creating content for 25 years and from applying those content creation lessons to content marketing over the past decade-ish. I hope you enjoy.


  1. I actually wrote most of that my head and then kept putting off putting it down. Wasn’t going to “cross the streams” with this though.

    Was hung up on this one. Hope to finish out this series in March and then move on to Marketing Lessons from Fantasy/Sci Fi films 🙂


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