The anatomy of a keyword

By David Hing, 1st July 2020

Finding the right keywords to optimise your site for can make a massive difference to your digital strategy and chances of generating business.

Knowing what makes a good keyword is often not well understood and it is easy to fall into some common pitfalls when writing content for your site.

Instead of picking keywords based on intuition, we suggest considering these three things to see if it is worth focusing on:

  • Search volume – how often do search engines see this keyword being searched for?
  • Relevance – how appropriate is the keyword in relation to what you offer? Is there any ambiguity?
  • Intent – what does the keyword tell you about what the searcher is trying to achieve?

Once you have an idea of these three things, you can make a judgment as to how powerful a particular keyword is.

There isn’t any algorithmic scoring system or scientific method I could recommend for getting the perfect assessment on each keyword – this is one of those times where you will need to use your human override and make a decision based on what you feel, but it will be a decision based on three key factors.


Search volume

If you had to pick just one part of the keyword to look at in order to make a decision, search volume would likely be where you would look. In fact, it’s what a lot of more junior SEO professionals do.

This tells you how often a keyword is being searched. It is common to report on the average monthly search volume, but you could also do it by year.

The most reliable place to find these search volumes is the Google Ads Keyword Planner tool. This will give you historic metrics and an estimated monthly search volume. These volumes are not always accurate, but they are generally proportionate, so you can be confident that a keyword with a monthly search volume of 100 is going to be reliably more popular than one with a search volume of 10.

You can also get search volume data from the following places:

  • Moz: The Keyword Explorer tool has come a long way since its launch and can give you a minimum and maximum monthly search range. Its data is often far more limited than Google Ads, but it is a helpful counterpoint in some cases.
  • Google Search Console: This can give you impressions of search queries that your site has already been ranking for over the last three months. This obviously won’t be much use if you’re just starting out, but can be a useful tool if you’re trying to build on something that already exists.
  • PPC data: If you’re already running PPC campaigns then you will have a headstart on choosing keywords, but you can use PPC data to get a better impression of what people are searching for and get more precise search volumes. This is a bit of an expensive way to get these search volumes if you’re not already engaged with this activity and if you don’t know what you’re doing with PPC, but it is still an option.

However, the search volume of a keyword is not completely without nuance and you will want to consider the following elements:

  • International search volumes: You can get search volumes in Google Ads reported by country. There may be some instances where you want to get an impression of worldwide search volumes, but often you will only be operating in one or two markets so it’s important to get a better impression of precisely how big your market is and not over-inflate this.
  • Seasonality: A low average monthly search volume might be disguising a single month where search volumes spike. Hardly anyone will be searching for “buy christmas trees” in July, but December will be a different story and it’s easy to miss things like this. This will require you to apply a little external human logic and not get lost in a spreadsheet.
  • Good search volumes: The actual number of searches that constitutes a good monthly search volume is going to vary wildly per industry and service. This is going to be proportionate for the most part, but be aware that your industry may well be one of those where it is either 10 monthly searches or 0 monthly searches for most keywords. In these cases, your decisions on what to prioritise are going to be much more focused on the other two parts of a keyword’s anatomy.


Does the keyword describe what you do? Does it have anything to do with your business, your products or your services?

A friend I once worked with countered a particularly pushy sales manager who was demanding we chase after a specific set of high volume keywords that had a lot of search volume behind them with:
“There’s also a lot of search volume for iPhones, but we don’t sell iPhones.”

On the surface, this sounds like it’s a very easy principle to get behind. Don’t go after keywords that have nothing to do with your business. Simple. However, there are more nuanced cases where some keywords can catch you out.

As an example, if you look at the Plug & Play website, consider the following keywords:

  • Web design agency: Absolutely relevant. That’s what Plug & Play is. It is a web design agency, therefore this is a relevant keyword.
  • Free web design: Absolutely not. The web design part is accurate, but the ‘free’ part makes this not relevant as this is not a service Plug & Play provides.
  • Web design examples: Absolutely maybe. We do have examples of web design on our site in the form of case studies, so this is relevant, but is it a keyword we would want to chase after?

There is more going on with relevance than you might expect so it is worth carefully considering this when looking at keywords, even if you are confident that there are no issues with it.


Intent of a keyword is my favourite of the three elements as it shows a tiny little glimpse into the life of the person on the other end of the search engine.

Intent scales from broad to specific, depending on what is included in your keyword and this will almost always follow a consistent pattern with search volume.

Broader intent keywords will ordinarily have much higher monthly searches, whereas a keyword with a very specific intent will have a small number of monthly searches.

The thing about broader intent keywords is that they do still contain the searchers that have that narrow intent, they are just mixed in with a lot of other users that are never going to buy from you and might be looking for completely different reasons.

It would be a mistake to completely ignore broader keywords, but what is often a better strategy is to aim for one or two levels down from the broadest intent you discover. Not only will you get better traffic, you will have a better chance at ranking for that term as the more specific terms also tend to have much less competition for them.
Getting the best balance

The best keywords to optimise for are those that have a good balance of all of these elements. Exactly which balance you go for will depend on your industry, the options available to you and the competition you face.

In some instances, you may need to go for the broadest possible terms and aim to convert traffic once it lands on your site. In other cases you might want to go for the most specific keywords in order to catch the easier-to-convert audience. It’s never a good idea to optimise for outright irrelevant terms, but maybe you have a content marketing strategy that mops up the adjacent relevance and is able to filter some of that through to your product pages and close a few sales.

All of this will help you in defining your keyword strategy or making better decisions on the battles you pick in the search engine optimisation battlefield.


To speak to our digital marketing team about keyword selection, contact us by emailing [email protected] or calling 0203 993 8236.


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