Why Keyword Research is a Waste of Time (And What You Should Be Doing Instead)

Stop me if you’ve heard this story before.

In an effort to get your website in front of as many eyeballs as possible, you turn to search engine optimization as your savior. Following the advice of the nearest SEO Guru, you enthusiastically approach your keyword research in order to find “the right” words to target. The ones with the most traffic and the least competition. With the precision and grace of a wrecking ball, you weave each of these phrases into your content and wait for the “blizzard” of traffic you were promised.

But that “blizzard” ends up being more of a dusting. And although your ranking and traffic seem to have increased slightly, the only measurement that really counts didn’t. Your phone still isn’t ringing.

What happened to that fairy tale ending you were promised?

Here’s What Really Happened…

Using the exact same keyword research tool as everyone else, you came up with the exact same list of highly competitive words as everyone else. Shocker. With the Internet nearing one billion websites, you would have a better chance of finding The Loch Ness Monster dancing the cha-cha with Sasquatch than you would finding a keyword phrase that gets loads of traffic without much competition.

Next, you took the keyword phrases that you found and wrote pages and pages of “SEO friendly content” which is just a fancy shmancy way of saying “sales text that is crammed full of keywords in an effort to make Google happy when all it really does is make you sound like English is your third language.

With me so far? Good.

Now, within a reasonable amount of time you may find yourself ranking well for some of these keywords resulting in a slight increase in traffic. And yet an increase in your bounce rate as well. In other words, the new visitors that are now able to find you don’t seem to like you. They don’t want to hire you. They don’t want to buy from you. And they aren’t telling their friends about you.

What’s the Problem?

It all started with your keyword research. Your entire strategy was developed around Google instead of actual human beings. You researched words that Google found to be popular. You wrote text that you felt Google would find valuable. But you never asked yourself who you were targeting and what they actually needed.

Those new visitors were nothing more than unqualified tick marks on your analytics chart. They aren’t connecting with you because your content was never really meant for them. It’s as if they walked in on someone else’s conversation. And that’s going to continue to happen regardless of how well you rank unless you change your strategy.

The year of the search engine is over. It is now the year of the visitor.

The year of the search engine is over. It is now the year of the visitor.Click To Tweet

Focus on them. Give them what they want. Teach them what they are here to learn. Answer their questions. Look them in the proverbial eye and speak directly to them.

In other words, give a shit about them. Focus all of your energy on solving their problems instead of solving your problems.

Pull the thorn out of their side and you will succeed on all levels. Including your search engine ranking.

This is What I Call People Research

People research is the act of discovering who your ideal clients are and how to attract them by learning how they search and what their expectations are once they land on your website.

This is what you do when you stop focusing on the quantity of your traffic and start focusing on the quality of your traffic.

It’s about getting to know them inside and out including:

  • Knowing what language they speak
  • Knowing what problems they need solved
  • Knowing how to meet their expectations
  • Knowing how to connect with them
  • Knowing what words they are searching

It’s knowing this information that is going to give you a leg up on your competition. Not a list of keywords.

People Research in Three Simple Steps

While keyword research is about targeting words, people research is about targeting people. Actual human beings. The same ones that are likely to hire you if they are able to connect with you.

This can be done in three simple steps.

Step 1
Let’s start by creating a list of our ideal clients. There could be several factors that might make someone an ideal client such as:

  • They are very profitable
  • They are easy to work with
  • They need the type of work you like doing most
  • They give a lot of referrals
  • They are big players in their industry
  • They share their experiences on social media
  • They offer a lot of repeat business

Here are some ways to help you start to find some of these ideal clients:

Existing Clients: Have you already been in business for a little while? Search through your existing client base and write down the names of your best clients. Not just the ones who make you the most money, but the ones who are easy to work with. The ones who come back to purchase often. The ones who give you a lot of referrals. The ones who make you think, “if I only had more of these…”

Competitor’s Clients: Take a long hard look at the website of one of your more successful competitors and jot down the names of some of their clients. Chances are if they are posting them on their site, it is a client they are proud of. Meaning it is likely one of their ideal clients. We’re not out to steal from them but that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from them!

Use Your Imagination: Grab a pen and paper and get away from the computer for a few minutes. Don’t worry, Facebook will still be there when you get back. Now, close your eyes and let your mind wander off thinking about your ideal workday. What is your favorite thing to do within the business? If you are a graphic designer, is it logo design? Website design? Catalogs? Think through the things you love to do and then start to paint a picture of the person who needs this service.

Step 2
Once you have your basic list of ideal clients, it’s time to get to know them a little better. Answer these questions as best you can for each. If you are able to interview actual ideal clients for these answers, even better!

  • What is their age range?
  • What gender are they? Does it matter?
  • What is their education level?
  • Where are they located? (city, state and/or country)
  • Do they have a specific occupation or position within a company? If so, what is it?
  • What types of questions or challenges do they have?
  • What is important to them? (e.g.. price, quality, timeframe, etc.)
  • What do they struggle with most?

Do this for each type of client that you want to do business with. Not just that you can do business with.

Step 3
Once you are able to answer these questions for each of your ideal clients, the next step is to tell their story. I know this sounds a little loopy, but do it anyway. Give them a name. Write their bio. Make them human. Because out there, they are.

Here’s an example taken from the book Search Engine Humanization:

Meet Pete Peterson. He’s a small business owner located in northern New Jersey. He has a small budget but respects and understands the value of a good website. Because of that he is not interested in a do-it-yourself or template solution, nor does he want to go with a large agency that is going to charge him five figures. He has a basic understanding of how things work but is looking for a vendor whom he can trust to grab the ball and run with it. He has too much on his plate already to have to hold someone else’s hand. He is an avid researcher, which makes him an educated client. He is a nice guy who appreciates small talk and not just all business. Once Pete finds the right vendor, he will be with him or her forever.

This bio tells us a lot about Pete. We have a good idea of his budget (he’s not looking for the cheapest solution, nor the most expensive). We know quality is important (he’s not interested in a template or a do-it-yourself solution). We know what he is looking for when he gets to your website (he’s an avid researcher, so he likely found his way to your website while looking for answers and would like to see more). We know he is looking for a relationship, not just a vendor (he appreciates small talk and will stay with the same company forever). And much more.

Knowing all this information about Pete will no doubt affect the language you use throughout the pages of your site. It will affect what you write about, the questions you answer and most importantly, the words you use…the same words Pete searches. It will help you attract more clients like Pete, from the minute they begin their search until they hire you. And because Pete is an ideal client, having more just like him is exactly what your business needs.

Keyword Research Versus People Research

Suppose you were doing your traditional keyword research when you stumbled upon the term Website Design Firm that appears to get a significant amount of traffic without being too competitive. You in turn write several pages of content relevant to that term with the thought of ranking well for it.

The problem is Pete. If you remember, he was on a pretty tight budget. Enough so that we specified that he was not looking for a big agency. Because of that, we can determine it’s fairly unlikely that he will search terms like Website Design Firm or Website Design Agency because the words “firm” and “agency” tend to cater to larger organizations.

He is much more likely to search Website Design Company or even get local and search New Jersey Website Design Company knowing a local shop is more in line with what he is looking for.

If your goal was to attract Pete as a new client, traditional keyword research would not have gotten it done. It required extensive people research and having a clear vision of your ideal clients to have attracted Pete and other visitors just like him. In other words, ideal clients.

At the end of the day, unless you are selling page impressions, it really doesn’t matter how much traffic you get if it’s the wrong traffic. Targeting people instead of words will help you get closer to your goal of meeting those that want to do business with you. But better than that, people that you want to do business with as well.

Are You Up For A Challenge?

Now it’s your turn. That’s right, it’s time for some homework. Come up with a bio for one of your ideal clients and add it to the comments below with a link to your website. Not only will it help you by building a legitimate link to your website (something we’ll talk about later) but more importantly, it will get you started with this exercise.

I promise to dig through every ideal client profile posted here give you my feedback and recommendations. Perhaps the others within the community will as well! That’s a hint people within the community!

But Wait! There's More...
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  • Amy Paternite

    Hi Marc, here’s “my” Pete story. I look forward to your feedback/suggestions!
    Amy Paternite

    Meet Holly & Howard Homebuyer. They live in one bedroom fourth floor walkup apartment in Brooklyn that they’ve been renting for the past 5 years. They are in their early 30’s and just got married last year and are expecting their first child. Holly is a journalist and Howard is an ad exec. They are nervous about moving out of Brooklyn because they don’t want to give up the walkability, shops, restaurants, commute, and convenience of their location, however, they want a better quality of life for their new and expanding family and value a good school district. They’ve saved up enough money for a downpayment and they want to work with a realtor who is savvy and knows the market, perhaps an agent who even made the move from Brooklyn to New Jersey herself. Once Holly & Howard find an agent they can connect with, who has a proven track record but also sensitive to their first time home buyers qualms, they will be a loyal client and recommend their friends also move out from Brooklyn to New Jersey using the same agent they did.

    • http://www.marcensign.com/blog Marc Ensign

      Hi Amy! Thanks for doing your homework!!! Here are my thought…

      Obviously this is just one of many buyer personas you should write being in the real estate business. This is a perfect example of keywords not being the answer. Even if you were to rank for something related to moving from Brooklyn to New Jersey, if you are just sending them to yet another real estate agent website, it’s not likely that they will connect with you which means no call.

      So, knowing where they are coming from, you need to connect with them on several issues:

      1) Lifestyle Differences: The pros and cons of moving from Brooklyn to New Jersey. Yes, talk about the cons too. You will build more trust by admitting that it’s not all sunshine, rainbows and lollipops. There will be things they will miss. It builds credibility. Write an article, blog post or short downloadable e-book called “10 Reasons Why You Should Move From Brooklyn to New Jersey (and 5 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t).” It givs them what they need and will likely be searching for.

      2) Finances: They have been renting for 5 years. Even with a deposit already saved, that to me is someone a little nervous about taking the plunge. Especially with the market the past few years. Everyone wants to know if we’ve hit bottom because no one wants to buy until we have. Yet, your ideal client in this case is not someone flipping houses so they will be holding onto the house for a while. It’s your job to set their fears at ease. The standard “I think we’re close to bottom” or “I’m seeing house prices going up” doesn’t cut it. You need to come from the place of “Why it Doesn’t Matter if the Housing Market Has Hit Bottom or Not.” Be brutally honest. Anyone real estate agent that tells you we’ve hit bottom and is not an economist is full of shit. We don’t know. But more importantly, it doesn’t matter. In 5-10 years will you have more equity in your house than you would if you rented for another 5-10 years? Yes.

      3) Your Story: The biggest credibility factor that you have is your story This is a great little niche and you can own it because you did it yourself. On your website have in detail your story. What was great, not so great, scary, etc. Be brutally honest. Show people that you know what they are going through first hand. Don’t sugarcoat it. But be clear it was the greatest thing you ever did.

      You could easily own this niche with the right content and approach. It’s just really important that you write it from the perspective of being human and not the typical “look at me I’m a real estate agent and I can talk without blinking and I never stop smiling.”

      Hope that helps a little bit. Feel free to respond to pick it apart further if you have more questions!

      • Amy Paternite

        Hey Marc, I made a top 10 list of pros and top 5 cons, and thought I posted it here for you to comment, but now I don’t see it. Did you see it? Thanks.

        • http://www.marcensign.com/blog Marc Ensign

          I did and responded privately a few weeks ago as you know. So, how’s everything going?

  • Simon Thompson

    Brilliant authoritative and refreshing.

    • http://www.marcensign.com/blog Marc Ensign

      Thanks Simon!! I really appreciate the positive feedback!

  • http://twitter.com/service4profit Thomas Pencek

    Well written. I am going to forward it to some folks. You make a lot of sense.

    • http://www.marcensign.com/blog Marc Ensign

      Thanks for the feedback and for passing it along Tom! As far as making sense, if there is any way you could pass that message along to my wife, I would really appreciate it!

  • http://thedsmgroup.com/ Jason Diller

    what about low hanging fruit once buyer personas are complete?

    i find gold in every industry, except insurance, lawyers, and a few others.

    • http://www.marcensign.com/blog Marc Ensign

      I don’t know if I would say “gold” in every industry. Maybe some silver. But there aren’t really any keywords out there that are heavily trafficked while remaining extremely low in competition.

      And if you did find some low hanging fruit, what do most people do with it? They start dropping it all over their homepage in an effort to rank for it, completely ignoring the visitor it was intended for and we’re back to trying to appease Google at the expense of the visitor.

      • http://thedsmgroup.com/ Jason Diller

        Marc, well said. My research is very different form my execution.

        You should check out http://www.thesaleslion.com

        We all think alike…be helpful and stop with the bullshit.

        • http://www.marcensign.com/blog Marc Ensign

          Thanks Jason! (Sorry for the delayed response). I’ve actually had the pleasure of meeting Marcus once or twice at a conference. A hell of a nice guy!

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  • Shakti Motani

    Hi Marc, it really makes a lot of sense to understand a human being if you want to do any business. Your example of Pete was very enlightening for a internet marketer who has been busy pleasing the Google’s algorithms all the time.

    Hey I think this is a basic of the marketing That you define your target to plan your strategy.

    Well Shot.

    Best of luck

    • http://www.marcensign.com/blog Marc Ensign

      You’d be surprised. Most marketing strategies that work are very basic. In an effort to take short cuts we actually complicate things long term!

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  • http://twitter.com/Really_Useful RUTD

    Hi Mark,

    This was a very interesting exercise. I am not even sure if this is my ideal customer but it is the type of customer that I am presently working with. I really learned a lot just from doing this. Thanks :)

    Margaret owns a small (restaurant, hairdresser, or store) business
    in Cork. The business has been operating for the last seven years and was
    profitable. Now with the economic down turn and the changes in customer demographics she finds that she is losing business. She may be in danger of being less relevant to her existing customers.
    She does not have a website or a social media presence, she has heard about Facebook etc or may even have created a page but it did not seem to work. She has a limited budget. She is interested in developing her business but is a little fearful of change and does not want to bring in a” consultant”.

    She needs two types of help:

    Creating an initial strategy and plan to align
    her SM processes to her actual business

    Then some light touch mentoring once she is
    comfortable with the business strategy.

    • http://www.marcensign.com/blog Marc Ensign

      That’s a really good example. I checked out your site and you do a pretty good job of putting that out there. If I were going to do anything different, I would write a blog post every now and then to those ideal clients. It doesn’t seem like there are many articles on your blog geared towards them. Nice job!!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/martha.schade Martha Schade

    Hi Marc,
    I Love this page! Finally a bit of intuition in all this google-focused world. I find your article full of sound advice and will also be furthering on to other website-smitten people.
    My imaginary customer is
    – adult, around the 40’s or 50’s, 60% female, 40% male, just learning that the days of long-term employment are limited. They need to gather a couple of skills to shine through at work – with the upside that these skills will improve their work and their own general feeling in the workplace.
    – they have limited time – and a smartphone or ipad.
    – probably commute
    – have some education but not necessarily college.
    – have the will to learn and try the ideas out – and hopefully quest for more knowledge.

    Well, so far that’s my focus at http://www.business-online-learning.com
    where I want to provide mobile learning on a wide variety of business topics such as:
    – Process mapping / management
    – Quality Assurance / Quality Management
    – Knowledge Management
    – Problem Solving Techniques
    – Management Skills
    – Concept Visualisation
    And the list goes on.
    I love what I do and I hope that shines through.
    Thanks for your article, it’s a great help!

    • http://www.marcensign.com/blog Marc Ensign

      Hi Martha! I’m struggling with this one a bit. It sounds like your ideal client is someone that is looking to increase their skill set in order to increase their value in their job. That to me is someone interested in growth. Moving up.

      The problem is that your text opens with more of a negative approach. For example:

      Are you struggling on the job?
      How employable are you?

      If I landed on your site, I would leave right away because I’m not struggling. I’m just looking to grow! Now, once you get deeper in the site, you change the tone, but that opening sentence says an awful lot!

  • http://twitter.com/stephaniebice Stephanie Bice

    I have to disagree slightly here. Keyword research for the sake of improving organic rankings is a waste of time, but keyword research can be HUGELY beneficial.

    For example, we have a client with a unique service offering. It’s somewhat obscure and can be searched for using a slew of different phrases, many of which don’t exactly describe the service well. In their case, it’s not about keyword research for SEO purposes, it’s about finding out what their visitors (or potential customers) are calling the specific service they are providing. THIS type of keyword research, IMO, is beneficial as it can help guide a business owner how to position themselves to be successful in promoting this particular type of service.

    • http://www.marcensign.com/blog Marc Ensign

      You didn’t think I was just going to let you get away with disagreeing with me, did you? In your attempt to prove me wrong, you have actually stood up what I am saying.

      “In their case, it’s not about keyword research for SEO purposes, it’s about finding out what their visitors (or potential customers) are calling the specific service they are providing.”

      This is what I call “People Research.” Understanding who your potential customers are and what they are searching and looking for. In this example, it’s less about understanding what words get the most traffic and more about what your ideal clients are searching for.

      And THAT my friend is Search Engine Humanization. In the immortal words of my 9 year old daughter, “BOOSH!” (I have no idea what it means, but it’s what I get whenever she thinks she’s got me!)

  • https://www.facebook.com/TheChairman8 Gen YC

    Well done, Marc. I’m looking forward to more great articles from your site.

    • http://www.marcensign.com/blog Marc Ensign

      Thanks Gen YC!

  • Stan Bush

    Hey Marc. Finally got a chance to ATTEMPT to read this last night, whilst waiting in the ER for the Doc to grace us with his presence for five minutes. It never loaded even though I laid it down for about 20 minutes so the aforementioned Doc could do his magical ball juggling act. (Personally, I think he was just trying to find out if there were any truths to the rumours. ) Anyawy, I could see the comments on the article, and I had an idea of what it was about. Partly because I know you’ve been stealing my secrets through some sort of mind meld technique, all the while claiming to be a mere mortal. I’ve noticed the correlation between your articles and when I run out of tin foil.
    I was reminded of the article today with a phone call from someone who wanted to ‘come up at the top of the searches whenever anybody searched for ‘pick a town’ and ‘pick a widget’. Gee, I sputtered.. “why didn’t I think of that?” So I headed over here to read it. Good stuff. I love you man.. in a non ‘Leonid the Magnficent’ kind of way (not that there’s anything wrong with that.’

  • kathryn barlow

    Amazing exercise. I’m definitely going to do this homework!

    Whenever I read your articles, I always think “YES! THIS is what I’m trying to tell my clients!” (although you’re a lot more eloquent than I am). More traffic doesn’t do you any good if your bounce rates skyrocket at the same time! Maybe I’ll start suggesting to my clients to read your blog as their homework…

    Looking forward to your next post.