Performance Marketing

SEO Basics and Keyword Research

What is keyword research and analysis in SEO? Learn how to build dozens of keywords in a scalable strategy for SEO content with the MERGE team.

PUBLISHED: 10/30/2018


SEO Basics and Content Writing

At MERGE, we understand the drive for quality search engine optimization (SEO) and the often-daunting task of tackling issues across large-scale sites. Our team works with numerous sites in the healthcare industry, and our strategies are constantly evolving to meet the growing demand for an adaptive agency that can assess and fix unusual technical problems on the fly.


In our experience, implementing SEO at a large scale is a challenge that benefits from guidance and consideration. We believe our method is both intuitive and efficient at building and monitoring SEO research. Each sphere of SEO, ranging from technical implementation and content strategy to offsite authority building, benefits from a method to benchmark, develop and track progress. Each sphere presents unique challenges, so if you’re just starting out, it can be best to tackle them one at a time.


This is a first look at what most of the digital community sees as the heart of SEO: Content on the page. It’s the article we came to read, the video we want to watch or the images we want to see. We typed our inquiry into the magic of Google (or maybe Bing), and we want the results to be targeted to our needs. In fact, wouldn’t it be great if that first link anticipated our follow-up question too? There are a number of best practices that can help anyone develop and maintain a solid SEO content writing foundation that functions as both technically sound and user-friendly.


SEO Content Writing Best Practices

SEO can be broken down in a variety of different ways. We want to focus on content and keywords for this conversation, but keep in mind there are a number of technical and performance optimizations we can pursue down the road.


Content and keywords is only one sphere of an overall SEO plan, and each area breaks down into unique methods and processes.

Quality, user-friendly content isn’t new with the arrival of SEO a dozen years ago – or even with digital marketing in the 80s – but the field has changed with the increasing reliance on search engines to find and absorb content. Today, one of the main focal points of SEO is the research and use of keywords. Keywords play an integral role in headers, body copy and metadata. So what kinds of keywords are out there for us, and how do we find them?


Setting the Foundation for SEO Keyword Research

Let’s start by breaking down the SEO lingo around keywords. To start, a keyword could be a word or a condensed phrase, and we refer to this piece as a root keyword. Expanding on the root keyword to four or more words in the phrase is known as a long-tail keyword. The SEO community often encourages the use of long-tail phrases; they represent more targeted phrases which translates to more relevant and higher quality traffic.


So, when you hear about articles generating hundreds of keyword phrases, now you know, those phrases are likely utilizing dozens of long-tail versions of the same root keyword. Suddenly, having a keyword-rich piece of content seems substantially more obtainable! But how many root keywords should you aim for?


In general, we like to recommend an over-time approach: Start with five if you’re a small site and build quality content around these. Track your performance and, if these do well, start expanding the list. You may discover that you rank for additional keywords and variations you did not originally plan for, but whenever you add in more root keywords, consider creating new content to accommodate them.


Small sites can start with 3-5 root keywords and build quality content around these.

Understanding the anatomy of a keyword phrase is all well and good, but how do you select a starting place? What should be your first five or 10 or 25 root words? That’s when it’s time to take a deeper dive into developing a content strategy.


Building an SEO Content Strategy

Here at MERGE, we use a three-point model to guide our organic research, which is further defined through a number of requirements and questions that must be answered along the way. The method, at a high level, can be pictured as three overlapping areas that collectively represent historical performance, industry research, and the competitive landscape. We have utilized this method a number of times when establishing a rolling standard for keyword research across a variety of content needs. For sites with a focused specialty – like revenue cycle management – the method may work at a very high level initially. For those with numerous core services – like a healthcare system – it may be best to apply the method to several areas in parallel to each other.


The resulting data can be organized into a document known as a Keyword Content Map. If the site is very large, it may require a number of documents to adequately cover ground on the full breadth of business topics and objectives. The Keyword Content Map works in both directions. Not only can it help map keywords to content, but when used to its full potential, it can identify gaps in content based on business objectives or competitive research.


A Keyword Content Map helps you track content pillars and simultaneously informs content gaps

OK, so we covered some good research tips for SEO keyword research, but how does it help us identify the number of keywords? It’s all fine and good that the method can scale up, but how do we go about implementing these?


Where Technical SEO Meets Content Strategy

First, a disclaimer. It’s an onus carried by the SEO community to bold and underline the following point: Great SEO won’t make up for content that isn’t useful or relevant. That probably sounds obvious, but I think we have all been guilty of thinking we are communicating key messages to people around us, only to discover that the message was completely lost. Best practice is to buckle down on the messages you need, and create unique, long-form content with as many as 2,500 words.


We have seen as few as 600-800 words make a difference, but this won’t be enough to outrank a knowledgeable competitor. Long-form content will give you the real-estate you need to generate those numerous long-tail keyword iterations we mentioned earlier. Our advice? Don’t cut corners. Identify your key pieces of content and focus your energy on each one in turn.


Long-form content can generate dozens of long-tail keywords based on only a few root phrases.

If you have a number of unique topics to cover, you should also consider expanding your page structure so that core topics – also referred to as content pillars – are housed in unique spaces. For example, numerous health articles or informational sub-pages around cardiology would benefit from the ability to trace back to a single landing page. Keywords will add up for each pillar and be further supported by the internal linking system as you connect articles and sub-pages together within a core pillar. If you scatter your content and linking structure, you may risk coming across as unfocused to users and bots alike. If you have a lot to say about a particular sub-page, you can consider breaking it out into its own pillar with a unique set of keywords, but make sure you have enough content to support the move! For each page on your site, you can rely on the Keyword Content Mapping and keyword research completed in previous steps to generate optimal page titles and descriptions. Meta titles and descriptions are key elements of SEO. These appear on the search engine results page and represent the first touch a user has with your brand on a particular search query. Bots use the collective sum of metadata and on-page content to determine the focus of your message and use that to determine the relevancy of your topic compared to the numerous queries it sees coming in through the search engine. Metadata is only touching the tip of the iceberg when it comes to technical SEO, so let’s not stray too far outside the realm of content strategy. For now, be sure to write up a keyword-focused title tag and meta description that’s unique and in-line with your Keyword Content Map for every page.


Taking SEO Basics to the Next Level

It can be relatively simple to cover the basic tenants behind SEO Content Strategy – in theory format – but we understand that the full undertaking of the technical setup and adhering to numerous content best practices can feel overwhelming. That’s why MERGE always recommends approaching SEO in a stepped-out process. Whether or not you lean on our guidance, we believe successful SEO is an ongoing effort of evaluation and planning that works in lock-step with overall business goals and strategies.


Successful SEO is an ongoing effort of evaluation and planning that works in lock-step with overall business goals and strategies.