How Many Keywords Should You Have?

Those that are new to the SEO game and those that don't do SEO for a living often want to know how many keywords they should have. This question is one that intuitively seems valid, but is also one that I believe indicates an SEO approach with the wrong emphasis. What's disappointing is when SEO professionals (agencies and consultants alike) don't step up to educate their clients and instead go along with whatever the client arbitrarily decides is right be it a desire to optimize for 10, 20, or 100 keywords.

The fact is there is no right number of keywords for every situation. This should be apparent just from looking at the number of pages a site has — a big site can have more keyword targets than a small site. In addition, focusing on a preset number of keywords and ignoring opportunities because something is not on a list is silly. SEO is about attracting traffic to a website and then doing something meaningful with that traffic. Obtaining good rankings for a particular keyword in and of itself is not much of an accomplishment.

A better approach to the whole keyword list creation effort is to develop a list that is representative of your website. By representative I mean that a good ranking for a particular keyword likely means that your site is strong in that area and has solid rankings with similar keywords. It's an assumption, but a fairly safe one if you know what you're doing. Strength in a particular area can then be built upon iteratively until you achieve significant increases in traffic.

For example, assume you have a site that lists 10,000 movie theaters across the US. You could create a list using different approaches including picking:

  1. The 10 most often searched for theater keywords.
  2. All 10,000 movie theater names.
  3. Selecting a list that includes both popular terms AND a representative sample of movie theater names.

The first option is the least useful because there's little intelligence to be gathered from such a small list. The second option certainly covers all of the bases, but the list is going to require a lot of maintenance. That leaves the last option which, not surprisingly, is my preferred approach. With a representative list you will be able to:

  • Keep reporting efforts from becoming too time consuming.
  • Generate reports that are meaningful and actionable e.g. if half of the movie theater rankings you once had decrease then it's likely that rankings for movie theater keywords you aren't tracking also dropped.
  • Avoid suffering from analysis paralysis by having too much data to wrap your head around. Don't laugh at this one. A pile of data is as likely to stun a client as it is to enlighten.

So why do SEO companies prefer the number of keywords route? Because it makes it easy to limit the scope of a contract when it spells out a certain number of keywords. After all, if a contract says 10 keywords then you can stop working after you've optimized for those 10 keywords regardless of whether those keywords translate in to increased revenue.

Building a representative list isn't easy though. And while I could walk you through my technique, it's be easier for everyone if I just pointed you to already created documentation by the good folks at Pole Position Marketing. There's also a section on keyword research in Dan Thie's SEO Fast Start eBook.

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