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By Christine Churchill

Conducting a good keyword analysis is the first step in an effective search engine marketing campaign. If you don't chose good keywords, all efforts to boost your ranking will be wasted.

And the very first step within your keyword analysis is brainstorming. Before you begin focusing on keyword popularity, you need to think outside the box and develop a good list of words.

The Rules of Brainstorming

Brainstorming is a process for generating the broadest possible list of keywords for your web site, without yet judging whether they are good words. The cardinal rule of brainstorming is not to pass judgment on the ideas as they come up. Doing so can shut off our thinking, and at this stage in the process you want to encourage as much lateral thinking as possible.

When we get to the detailed analysis phase we'll establish a detailed keyword ranking based on each word's search popularity and relevance. At this point we'll reject many of the words on our brainstorming list, but early on we want to be open to new ideas. Too early a focus on ranking keywords can block creative thought.

An Outside Perspective

I try to accomplish two things when I brainstorm keywords with clients. First, I'm trying to learn the language of their industry. Second, I'm trying to make sure they aren't trapped by their own industry jargon.

Let's talk about the second point first. It's the classic marketing conundrum: the purpose of your marketing group is to keep the company focused on its customers and understand how they think. Yet a group of people who work in the same office, day in and day out, inevitably develop their own jargon. It's easy for them to assume their customers speak the same language, when they may not.

A good example of this is a keyword review I recently performed on a site that sold CD-ROM devices. The list of keywords used included the terms "CD copier," "CD duplication," "CD replication." Yet this list missed the term I and most other consumers use: "CD burner," as in "Hey, Bob, could you burn a CD for me?"

Disconnects like this are more common they you might expect. Sometimes the causes are generational.

For example, ten years ago if you asked a 9 year old what a razor was they'd have told you it something dad uses to shave his face. Today there's a high probability you'll be told a razor is a scooter (Try it - I did with my 9-year-old and her friends and was told 100% of the time that a razor was a scooter!).

I once worked with a manager who insisted on referring to his product - which tracked web site uptime - as "accessibility" monitoring. The trouble is, "accessibility" is a well-established term in the web design world for ensuring your web site is readable by people with disabilities.

A good brainstorming process helps spot issues like this. As a client, it's important to be open to a fresh perspective from outside your company.

Learning Your Lingo

The other thing I try to accomplish during brainstorming is to learn my client's unique language. While there sometimes is a disconnect between the company's language and their customer's language, at other times this jargon is used by everyone in the industry - including the searchers you're trying to target.

This is especially true if your company offers professional services. In these cases your search terms may be highly specialized. For example, a CPA specializing in corporate tax preparation might use terms like "apportionment" or "franchise tax."

Understanding the appropriateness of these terms is important, because while these highly focused terms may not receive a huge volume of traffic, they are often your most relevant search terms. Highly relevant search terms are the ones that generate the most business.

When working with clients, the brainstorming process is an important education process for me where I learn the language of their profession.

Often times the jargon you and your customers use may need to be amended slightly to reflect the way those same customers use a search engine. This is most true when you're talking about acronyms.

Let's fact it, Americans are acronym crazy. Every industry has its unique set of acronyms. If you work on enough projects, sooner or later you'll see the same acronyms used to mean very different things.

Take one simple example: does "ADA" mean "Americans with Disabilities Act" or "American Dental Association," or perhaps the "American Diabetes Association?" Search for ADA in Google and you'll turn up hits on each of these definitions.

In my experience, people who search for acronyms get very unsatisfying results, and quick refine their search by adding additional words. So a searcher might change their query to "ADA compliance" to get more relevant results.

As an SEO, it's important for me to understand what additional words might be coupled with your industry's acronyms to create this type of refined search.

This understanding of how people use a search engine is one of the things a search engine marketing specialist brings to the table. During the brainstorming process, it's common for us to expand some of the search terms suggested by the client to reflect search behavior.

Sources of Brainstorming

All of this is good, but how do you get past writer's block when building your keyword list?

One of the best steps is to read your existing web site and your sales collaterals. A careful reading will often pick up alternate phrasing of common terms, and these should go into your list.

If this works for your web site and collaterals, it also works for your competitor's web sites. I'm not recommending that you lift another site's list of keywords intact, but seeing how other people in the industry phrase things can be useful in opening up your own thinking. Industry trade magazine and product reviews are also great sources to open up your thinking.

And don't forget the thesaurus. If you're stuck building a list of "real estate" words, a simple thesaurus will tell you to think of "property" and "realty" words. Programs like Keyword Discovery and WordTracker can also help uncover related terms that you may not have considered.

Finally, don't forget that your customers are a great source of keywords. This can be both a source of alternate terminology, and another check against the jargon trap. If you can't run a focus group or conduct customer interviews, then talk to the people who interact with your customers. That means talking to your sales force, your user support staff, or anyone who has regular customer contact.

Brainstorming is all about thinking outside the box. The more effort you make to interact with new people inside and outside of your industry, the better job you'll do breaking down the barriers to creative thinking, and the better set of keywords you'll have for your web site.

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