In many ways, “more is better” is an ideology that dominates the SEO world. If you have more high-quality links pointing to your domain, you’ll have a higher authority. If you have more content on your site, you get more attention. In most cases, if you invest more time and money into a strategy, you’re going to see better results.
Applying this thinking to the realm of keywords, many businesses select a broad range of subjects and key phrases on which to focus their campaign. However, the “more is better” philosophy can actually be counterproductive when applied in this context; in the majority of cases, focusing on fewer topic keywords is going to yield the best results.
There are many factors responsible for this dynamic.
In the first several years of SEO’s development, keywords were the most important part of any strategy. Because Google produced results based on a one-to-one comparison of specific search phrases to the appearance of those phrases throughout the web, it became very easy to optimize and rank for those specific phrases. For example, if you wanted to rank for “cheap sleeping bags,” all you had to do was stuff your content and external links full of the phrase “cheap sleeping bags” more than your competition, and eventually, you’d rank higher.
Today, Google operates under an entirely different algorithm. It uses a process known as “semantic search,” which analyzes the intent behind a search query, then tries to find the most relevant answers for that query. Because of this, being relevant is no longer a matter of direct keyword frequency—for example, to rank for “cheap sleeping bags,” you no longer need to focus on “cheap sleeping bags” specifically. Instead, you must focus on topics for your content—for example, “sleeping bags” could be a broad topic keyword, and you could use that keyword to generate articles like “The best sleeping bags for camping” or “10 qualities every sleeping bag needs.” Your keyword choice doesn’t have to match on a one-to-one basis; instead you can focus on generalities.
These “topic keywords” are generally more extended phrases than traditional keywords. “Long-tail keywords,” which are search phrases consisting of several words, can be ranked for naturally because of the types of content titles you choose pertaining to those topic keywords.
If you’re still using traditional “keywords” as the basis for your SEO strategy, you need to stop immediately. If you are focusing on broader topic keywords, you’re on the right path—but if you’re using too many of them, you could be doing more harm than good.
SEO is a powerful, cost-efficient strategy. The problem is, almost every company in the world is starting to realize it. As a result, the SEO landscape is becoming more competitive, and fewer companies are able to rank in the top positions for general keywords.
When Google determines your level of authority, it considers your authority for specific topics and industries. For example, The Home Depot is a major authority in “home improvement,” and because they have become so prominent, it’s unlikely that any new company will be able to displace it without years and years of effort. However, more specifically targeted niches—like “DIY plumbing in Chicago,” are much narrower in scope and are therefore open to less competition. It’s far easier to become known as an authority in one of these segments than for a much broader topic.
Under this logic, the best approach might seem to be becoming known for as many of these niches as possible—however, this isn’t necessarily the case. Trying to become known as an expert in “DIY plumbing in Chicago,” “Garden care in Illinois,” and “Ice cream recipes for children” will be counterproductive because each separate niche draws away from your power in the first niche. This is an extreme example, since these niches are so drastically different, but the principle is the same. Think of it as trying to work at multiple jobs—you can probably manage two, maybe three if you push yourself, but any more than that and you’ll be pulling your hair out and getting confused.
It’s also worth considering that 58.4 percent of all clicks go to the first three results on Google. The average click-through rate for page one results are 8.9 percent, with the top spot getting 36.4 percent, while page two results average only 1.5 percent. Essentially, that means even if you work your way all the way up to rank 15, you still won’t start seeing an influx of traffic until you reach page one. Considering these metrics, 1 page-one rank is worth nearly 6 page-two positions, and 1 number-one rank is worth more than 24 page-two positions.
Apply this landscape to your topic keywords—you only have a finite amount of effort to spend across all your keywords. If you work on 10 keywords and get them all to page two, it still won’t amount to half the traffic you’d get by taking 1 keyword to a number-one rank.
Obviously, there is no “ideal” number of topic keywords to have, since there are several factors that must be considered:
For most startups and new companies, two to five topic keywords is plenty. For small- to medium-sized businesses, up to 10 can be comfortably managed, depending on the above factors. Only when you get to a large scale with an equally large budget do you have more flexibility to tackle a greater number. And as a general rule of thumb, if you’re in doubt, fewer is always better.