Keyword Selection Strategies in Search Engine Optimization: How Relevant Is Relevance?

Mayank Nagpal and J. Andrew Petersen, Pennsylvania State University , 2019, 19-113-03

Marketers seek to increase website traffic through search engine optimization (SEO), where organic link rankings on search engine results pages are determined by criteria such as website authority, quality of incoming links, and relevance of webpage content to the keyword searched.

Keyword research is one of the primary methods used by SEO marketers to increase content relevance and enhance search traffic. When writing new website content, managers seek to select keywords that will be most effective in earning the highest potential for organic ranking. Currently, most managers use simple heuristics to identify appropriate keywords, i.e., high search volume and low competition.

How can firms make better keyword selection decisions for web content creation? In this study, Mayank Nagpal and J. Andrew Petersen propose a modeling framework to study how three keyword characteristics (popularity, competition, and specificity) and two website characteristics (content relevance and online authority) affect the number of organic clicks a website receives for a keyword.

Using data from 2,685 search queries across three firms from three industries (online retailer, culinary school, and urgent health care provider), they find that while content relevance is an important criterion in the consumer’s organic click decision, improving relevance may not always be effective in getting organic clicks for all keywords. 

Specifically, keyword specificity and online authority moderate the effectiveness of writing relevant content. When the online authority of a website is more (less) than the average online authority of its competitors, creating relevant content for broader (more specific) keywords is more effective in improving organic rank and organic clicks.

This finding provides evidence to help solve the common tradeoff firms face between selecting market strategies which focus on trying to get higher market share from smaller markets (specific keywords) or a smaller market share from larger markets (broad keywords).

A website with higher online authority would be better off targeting broader keywords to increase their expected organic clicks. A website having with lower online authority would be better off targeting more specific keywords to increase their expected organic clicks.

Mayank Nagpal is a doctoral student in marketing and J. Andrew Petersen is Associate Professor of Marketing, both at Smeal College of Business, Pennsylvania State University.

We would like to thank a digital media advertising firm for providing the data used in this study. We would also like to thank Arvind Rangaswamy, Gary Lilien, and participants of the 2018 Marketing Science Conference for providing feedback on an earlier version of this paper. Finally, we would like to thank the Marketing Science Institute (MSI) and its Young Scholars program for providing financial support for this research (MSI Grant #4-1921). This research is part of the first author’s dissertation.



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