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What Are Keywords in SEO, Anyway? A Simple Tutorial

What are keywords in SEO? Why are keywords important for online writing and why should you care about search engine optimization, anyway? Search terms … broad keywords … primary keywords and secondary keywords … long tail keywords …

To be honest, you may be confused with all the jargon. If you’re a bit like me, you want to say, “I just care about the writing. Please give me a pass on all that technical mumbo jumbo.

Confession: I’m by no means an SEO specialist. In fact, I’m technically challenged. But I’ve learned the basics about keywords and SEO. And as I continue to discover additional keywords for my content and work to use them in the best places, my online traffic grows.

Yours can, too. You don’t need to be a digital expert to understand how the SEO process works and begin to use keywords as you write. But to that point, I find great value in understanding the process before I start digging into the weeds. I’m all about making things simple. With that …

What are keywords in SEO, anyway? with Word Wise at Nonprofit Copywriter #WebContentWriting #WritingTips

Q. What are keywords in SEO?

Let’s start with the basics. What are keywords in SEO? Take apart the pieces of the phrase.

  • Keywords are terms and phrases that define a piece of content.
  • SEO is an acronym for “search engine optimization,” the process of writing and formatting online content for the right audience.

So put together … keywords in SEO are terms that you use in your content to target a specific audience. Keywords help you match your online content to the right readers.

Q. Why are keywords important in SEO?

We don’t need to get into how search engines calculate results. Their algorithms can make a Calculus III professor sweat. The skinny is this: keywords act as “flags” to search engines. The search engines recognize well-chosen and well-placed keywords and return your post or page favorably in search engine page results rankings.

You want more readers to get eyeballs on your content, right? When a user types a query into the search bar, you want your content to appear near the top of search results. Simply put, when you choose and use searched-for terms in your online content, your posts and pages “win.” They appear closer to the top of the search results. When your pages and posts are near the top of the search rankings, more users see them and click on them.

That means the keywords you choose can drive readers to your website, blog, or social media platform for free. Yay! Choose weak or no keywords, and your pages are buried in the search engine results abyss. (Boo.)

Which is why good SEO — choosing and using terms to target a specific audience, particularly those that are high-demand, low-supply — drives more organic traffic to your online content. Your blog post, Facebook ad, or web page returns strong results when readers search for the same keywords that you use on that post or page.

Which leads us to another question.

Q. What’s the difference between “search terms” and “keywords” in SEO?

The difference is in who is using them. A search term is a word or phrase that a user enters into a search box. You do it every day.

A keyword is a word or phrase that publishers and content creators include in online content to target the right audience. “Publisher/content creator.” That’s you.

But therein is a bit of a conundrum, wouldn’t you agree? You hear about the different kinds of keywords you’re supposed to use and your eyes begin to cross. Let’s talk about them.

Q. What are broad keywords in SEO?

Broad keyword terms are one to two words long. They’re big picture words or phrases, akin to a large topic. Think video games, colleges, or home repair. Broad keywords play an important part of your site concept. When you use broad keywords to define your content, you reach the broadest audience possible.

For instance, home repair is a keyword that covers a lot of territory. It can mean patching roof shingles or replacing a light fixture or adding insulation to an attic. If you are in the home repair business — no matter how specialized — then home repair is one of the broad keywords you use in your content.

Q. What are primary keywords in SEO?

A primary keyword is a term or phrase that most closely describes your business. While your broad keyword is home repair, your primary keyword might be home plumbing repairs. A primary keyword narrows the field.

Q. What are secondary keywords in SEO?

Secondary keywords are terms or phrases that are closely related to your primary keyword. Consider synonyms, subtopics, and long-tail keyword variations and you have a good idea of different secondary keywords you can use in SEO. (Your keyword search process helps you uncover secondary keywords, too.)

Carrying on with our example: if your primary keyword is home plumbing repairs, then secondary keywords may be home plumbing repairman or local home plumbing repairs.

Q. What are long tail keywords in SEO?

Long tail keywords are three to five words in length — or more. More words mean a long tail is more specific than a broad keyword. While long-tail keywords get less search volume than broad keywords, they’re also in higher demand because fewer people choose them for their online content.

Long tail keywords target specific search queries. In fact, long-tail keywords account for 70% of all searches, according to SEO tool provider A Hrefs. That means nearly three-quarters of users who are looking for information online do so with long tail keywords. You can optimize your search results by dedicating individual posts or content pages to long-tail keywords associated with your niche.

Using our example … different kinds of home plumbing repairs can get downright specific. Let’s say you discover the following long tail keywords are high demand but low supply. You decide to create individual posts for them:

  • Easy DIY home plumbing repairs
  • Best home plumbing tools
  • How to snake a bathroom sink
  • Best type of faucet for the kitchen
  • When to shut off the hot water heater

Where possible, you want to include your biz’s primary keyword and secondary keywords in your long-tail content, too. If you’re writing a piece of content about how to snake a bathroom sink, you want to include your primary keywords like home plumbing repairs and secondary keywords like local home plumbing repairs in the content, too.

Q. What are meta keywords?

Meta keyword special tags that are invisible to the user, hidden in the HTML, to give more information to search engines on what a page is about. They used to be important in search engine results rankings. These days, not so much. So says Google. You can use meta keywords as an internal tagging system.

Get started with keywords in SEO and build traffic

You need to know keyword basics if you write online. It’s part of the price we must pay to be successful web content writers. But here’s the good news: you can search easily for keywords to use in your content with a few free or nearly-free tools.


In the process, you will gather a good deal of information. It’s helpful to create a table or spreadsheet to record what you learn. As you sort through the details, you can determine what roles the different keywords play:

  • Broad keywords: big-picture topic terms or phrases for your content
  • Primary keywords: terms or phrases that most clearly describe your business
  • Secondary keywords: terms or phrases that are similar to or closely related to your primary keyword
  • Long tail keywords: additional terms that are related to your topic or business but that target specific content

With that list, you may not feel like you’re an expert. But you’ve mastered the “what are keywords in SEO” question. And if you start using keywords wisely, you will be well on your way to writing content that both search engines and users love.


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