Stop Swimming With The Sharks and Bask In The Blue Ocean of Keyword Research

In strategic management, one of the concepts we come across quite regularly is the difference between the Red and Blue Oceans. The Red Ocean is the place that we envisage most competition to take place, where conditions are tough:

  • the marketplace, and rules of the game are well known;
  • there is high competition for demand;
  • the trade-off is low margins;
  • differentiation is through price. 

(source: Blue Ocean Strategy web site)

The Blue Ocean, on the other hand, is the polar opposite of all of the above - as the authors of the Blue Ocean Strategy book (W. Chan Kim & Renee Mauborgne) put it: the aim is to "Create uncontested market space" in which to do business.

Most people in keyword research and SEO are swimming with the sharks in the Red Ocean.

It stands to reason: they're using the same techniques, the same data, and leveraging the same tools. And there's nothing intrinsically wrong with any of that, except that two people in the same niche, doing pretty much the same analysis are going to naturally put themselves in direct competition.

So, the first message is an easy one: develop your own unique way of deriving value from the data.

This is the point of an area of study known as Data Science. I recently read an excellent free eBook on the topic by Jerry Overton (a professional Data Scientist) -- Going Pro in Data Science -- in which the author explained how the key to success in data science was in picking signals out of the noise.

Looking for patterns, in other words.

Traditional SEO practitioners spend a lot of time telling is we need to look for patterns in order to chase the market. It makes sense on the face of it -- go to where the market is, and satisfy its needs -- but there's a slight problem.

Online marketing is getting so saturated that the low hanging fruit in your niche may well have already been picked. Or worse still, it's become a red ocean of marketers all competing for the same space.

Retailers suffer a similar consequence; they have to compete with each other, and online retailers. Even those in retail service -- restaurants, beauty salons and so forth -- will find that they need to adopt their own data science strategies to pick their market's minds, and develop strategies to exploit their competitive advantage.

In fact, strategic management also tells us that there are resources that contribute to our competitive advantage that must be valuable, rare, difficult to imitate and organised in such a way as to make exploitation easy (VRIO analysis).

Keyword research falls into such a category, but only if you develop your own data science to reveal the answers that you are looking for. After all, there's nothing rare or difficult to imitate about looking simply for the keyword phrase with the highest CTR, or the most search volume, or even with the least competition for space in the search engines indexes.

Everyone is looking for those keywords, so even if the space is uncontested now, it's unlikely to remain that way for long!

Luckily, most modern tools allow you to download your research data, so that different data points can be combined in a spreadsheet, and algorithms developed that let you organise, sort, and prioritise keywords according to your needs.

For example, you might download data from Google's Search Console (such as CTR and SERP data per query), and merge that in a spreadsheet with search volume data from the Keyword Planner, to enable you to perform analysis to reveal likely candidates for a new campaign centred around a keyword with certain distinct properties.

Consider the following chart, for example.
It shows something I call the 'outlier technique', where we look not for a pattern, but a signal from the noise of an existing pattern. In this case, the pattern is represented by a cluster of keyword phrases that fall into a clearly defined area, and a selection of keyword phrases that don't.

These outliers show phrases for which something out of the ordinary is happening.

The graph maps the SERP for each phrase against the CTR. The phrases in the bottom left, then, are those where competition is pretty stiff. This data is taken from the Search Console account for a client blog, so one of the first messages is that there are many instances where, despite appearing high in the SERPs, the CTR is low - not many people are choosing to click on the links, despite the entry appearing (on average) within the first three pages.

There are many reasons for this, but in some cases its that the page ranks for a keyword which is not represented by the content (heading & summary) to a sufficient extent that the searcher is convinced that a visit is worth their while.

At the other end of the spectrum, top-right of the graph, we have a phrase which, although it appears way down the SERPs, has a very high CTR.

Either the content is very good, or the market is very hungry. Both of these possibilities are worth exploring further: the next graph is a natural extension, and combines Keyword Planner data with the Search Console data, for the same set of keywords.

With this iteration, we have more signals. This time, we have captured the available traffic, a simple multiplication of the volume by our CTR. It's a simple metric, but already we see that there are three phrases that show important characteristics that make them worthy of engagement for future products, publications or traffic attracting content.

So, create your own metrics, and chase your own set of outliers, and you will be well on your way to making keyword research part of your own competitive advantage.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Strategic Management of Keyword Research for Competitive Advantage

I'll apologise at the outset for the slightly highfalutin title of this post; but expressing these concepts any other way would have required a great deal more text than a blog title may have.

That, after all, is the point of these labels that we attach to larger concepts: they're shorthand.

They are, in fact, keywords.

One of the points I try to get across when coaching people about the use of keyword research in business is that all they really are is a two-way communication tool. The market tells us what it wants, and we tell the market what we've got, and why they should get it from us.

If you don't believe me, get a copy of one of Ted Nicholas' excellent books -- I recommend Magic Words that Bring You Riches or Billion Dollar Marketing Secrets -- and take a look at the tests that he has done using specific trigger words in online and offline advertising.

However, dipping into these secret pools of words and pulling some out is only half of the story: no amount of magic sauce is going to help if the basic keyword research is not aligned with your ongoing strategy.

That's where the examination of competitive advantage, and the strategic management of keyword research comes in.

The Quest for Competitive Advantage

Your competitive advantage is based on what makes your business unique, and there are competing and interesting theories on how it is best expressed. My own view tallies somewhat with what is known as the resource based view: that is, your advantage is made up of the resources at your disposal.

These resources can be tangible -- machinery, buildings and so on -- or they can be intangible -- intellectual property, processes, etc. -- but in order to contribute to your competitive advantage, they must also be valuable, not easy to replace, or imitate, and rare (the so called VRIO and VRIN frameworks).

So, for keyword research to contribute to competitive advantage, it must fulfil the VRIO/VRIN criteria by being tightly coupled to your business, forming part of the intellectual property and processes that give you an edge over the competition.

This is both time-consuming and intellectually challenging, but luckily we have a framework that can help both manage the ongoing evolution of keyword research as a competitive advantage, and stcuture the keyword research process itself: strategic management.

Strategic Management

The goal of strategic management in this context is to identify, create, and leverage a competitive advantage, in this case keyword research.

In the 1980s, Michael Porter presented a wealth of research into the emerging fields of sustainable competitive advantage and strategic management. If you want to dig a little deeper, Porter’s own YouTube channel presents his ideas much more eloquently than I have space for here.

There are, however, some basic steps in the process that are useful to examine:

  • Examination of internal and external business environments (SWOT);
  • Long and short range strategy formulation (mission);
  • Strategy implementation (including budget control);
  • Performance evaluation (measure, test, compare);
  • Action through feedback (Plan-Do-Check-Act).

(Adapted from Kuratko & Audretsch, 2009)

This framework gives the business owner an excellent general-purpose tool for guiding their business through good and bad times, but also, crucially, can be aligned with the processes of keyword research and subsequent use of keywords identified as being in line with the stated strategy.

Strategic Management of Keyword Research

Here's a step-by-step process based on the above:

  1. First, look at the specific keywords that define your products, as well as those being used by your competitors;
  2. Decide what the strategy is to deliver as a mission statement -- more traffic, higher conversion rates, higher customer lifetime value, and so forth;
  3. Use keyword research and analysis to measure the effectiveness of keyword phrases being used by the target market, and calculate the cost of traffic acquisition (online or offline, via flyers for example);
  4. Set up appropriate means to measure performance;
  5. Establish a regular feedback loop to take corrective action where necessary.
These five core steps are the basis of establishing keyword research as part of your competitive advantage, and, when tailored to your specific business, make it a valuable, rare, and hard to imitate resource that cannot be easily substituted to achieve the same effect in another organisation.


  • Kuratko, D. & Audretsch, D. (2009) “Strategic Entrepreneurship: Exploring Different Perspectives of an Emerging Concept” Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, Jan 2009, Baylor University

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

How Keyword Research can Help High Street Retailers

I strongly believe that the death of the high street has been greatly exaggerated, and that online retail in many segments isn’t going to kill it just yet.

There are, of course exceptions.

Independent bookshops, for example, as well as larger well-known high street bookstores have felt the pinch and, in many cases, closed down. The recent demise of BHS can partially be attributed to a lack of online presence at a time when competition via the likes of Amazon, arguably a virtual departments store, is increasing daily.

On the other hand, there’s a social aspect to shopping in the high street that cannot easily be replicated online. There are novel combinations of online and offline -- which I call hybrid retailing -- that mix up the offering so that it feels modern, has the convenience of modern online retail, but benefits the high street.

Then there are those services that can not be delivered online -- beauty treatments, for example -- where the physical presence of the customer is a requirement.

However, at the same time, all retailers, be they online, high street, or hybrid, need to make keyword research part of their competitive advantage in order to succeed.

Here’s a nightmare scenario: a street with two or three salons, each offering similar treatments, within walking distance -- natural retail clustering -- being compared by a gaggle of young, image conscious, Instagramming ladies, all with smartphones.

Where just a few short years ago, the conversation might have included phrases such as “This place looks nice”, or “My friend got her nails done here”, these days it’s much more likely that the internet is used as the sole point of reference when deciding which salon to favour with their business.

Restaurants are in the same boat. As are fashion outlets. Or, in fact, any retailer in a price-sensitive market where online comparison is quick and easy. Just ask your local bookshop; except you can’t, because they have probably gone the way of the dodo.

I’m not going to say that all of the above can be avoided just by adding keyword research to your weekly task list; but it might just help you to stay ahead of the competition long enough to start to let it really help you develop a business that the market wants.

That’s the key to retail: delivering quality products to a hungry market.

Picking the market’s hive mind has never been easier. You no longer have to go out into the street with a clipboard to find out what’s hot; these days you can just go online.

There’s social media, there are blogs, and even forums where both customers and fellow retailers meet up to discuss the products and services that will shape tomorrow.

Platforms like Quora, Yahoo Answers, and even Amazon’s review and feedback system can all be used to fuel your money making machine. You just have to know how to mine that information, arrange it appropriately for analysis, and spot the outliers.

(If you sign up for my valuable mailing list, which delivers quality tutorials, recommendations, reviews and other stuff that I don’t share with just anyone, I’ll give you my eBook “The Keyword Research Blueprint Cheatsheet” for free, which will give you a head start!)

The key to unlocking the value that your market is sharing with each other -- and hence you -- on an hourly basis is ...wait for it... keyword research.

Humans are a communicative bunch. We’re also very fond of sharing -- usually marketing courses point out that we prefer to complain than praise, but the principle remains the same -- and because we like to share, we tend to already think in terms of keywords.

It’s natural: if you go to the library and ask for a book, you use specific words that convey what you want. The more accurate you are, the better the choices the librarian makes for you, and the more chance you have of getting a book that you will enjoy and find useful.

Keyword research also works across locations and languages. If you want to know the top three Chinese language searches in the UK related to restaurants; keyword research will tell you.

(By the way, they are “Michelin restaurant”, “working!!!” and “Shanghai Restaurant Week”, but in Chinese of course... If you’re in that business, there were 480 searches, 491K results almost none of the first page local to the UK, despite the searches having been conducted there. Let me know if you’re interested in a full report, when you sign up for your free eBook!)

Once you’ve saved your retail business, you can then use ongoing keyword research to grow it; participating in your market’s ongoing conversations using terms they’re already familiar with, and associating those terms with actions to improve conversion, and retention rates, as well as increasing average customer value.

All this is possible, and more, once you have an understanding of keyword research, and a blueprint to follow...