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SEO Keyword Marketing with a "Keyword Ladder"

In brief: To be successful in search engine optimization, you must achieve a high degree of keyword clarity (mainly with incoming link text). This means choosing your primary target keyword carefully. So, should you take a long shot on a highly popular keyword? Or just settle for a more attainable 'long tail' keyword? The 'Keyword Ladder' method combines the best of both approaches into a simple, focused keyword strategy.

Keyword Strategy: Search Engines Need Clarity

When preparing your content to be "search friendly", you must make a clear keyword choice. Even Google advises webmasters to "Think about the words users would type to find your pages, and make sure that your site actually includes those words within it." (Google Webmaster Guidelines)

Let's explore some of the common mistakes that webmasters make when keyword optimizing:

Modern SEO - Climbing the Keyword Ladder

Ascent to Google

  1. Mistake - Keyword Soup: in the bad-old-days, SEO was all about stuffing pages with tons of keywords, kind of the "buckshot" approach of long-tail SEO. It just doesn't work anymore. In fact, the only way to "win" a keyword nowadays is through focus and consistency -- both on the page itself and in links to the page. By definition, it is impossible to focus on two things at once -- and this especially applies to your keyword-strategy! The best approach is to build links with a single consistently targeted keyword phrase per page. Sure, the keyword phrase can change over time -- but even in change, consistency should be the goal.
  2. Mistake - Keyword Greed: Sure, you'd love to come up on the first page for some popular keyword like "backup"... but it's just not going to happen -- at least for a long time. If that's your keyword target, you're going to get buried on page 30 of the search results -- meaning almost NO traffic at all! Your new page is just getting into the game and it can take years of ethical link building to compete with the top players. In the meantime, you'll get NO visitors for all your effort!
  3. Mistake - Keyword Cowardice. Ok, you lowered your expectations and chose to go after traffic from a non-competitive "long-tail" keyword. Well guess what? There's not much competition because that keyword is is simply unpopular. Sure you can win a number one position pretty quick -- and you'll get a tiny trickle of traffic -- but that's all you'll ever see from that keyword! Congratulations, you're now the king of an ant hill.

The "Keyword Ladder" Approach - a Simple but Effective Keyword Tactic

So how do you choose which keyword to promote? Choose one that's too popular and your site will be buried. Choose one that's too unpopular and your page will, at best, be king of an ant-hill.

In the early days, this was done by trying to calculate KEI - an index which tries to determine which keywords have relatively high reward (popularity) relative to risk (competitiveness). The problem with this approach is that ALL the top keywords are highly competitive by now. It's like trying to choose a good domain name when ALL the common-word domains have long since been taken. KEI analysis is a dead end -- it simply doesn't provide a pathway to winning over popular keywords.

But there is a way to win high-popularity keywords over time without sacrificing the immediate traffic benefits of long-tail keywords. I call it a "keyword ladder" and it very effectively tackles the keyword-choosing delemma. This tactic is neither black-hat nor even devious -- in fact, it's pretty obvious after you think about it.

Start by choosing an impossibly popular keyword -- this is your "ideal" keyword. Next, add additional keywords to the phrase, building out a list with each item increasing in specificity -- until your last item is a three or four word "long tail" phrase of very low search popularity (under 1000 in Overture.)

For example, instead of choosing the impossible to reach keyword "backup", build out a few additional rungs such as "backup software" and then "free backup software". Your "keyword ladder will now have three rungs:

  1. backup -- your "ideal" keyword phrase
  2. backup software -- your "goal" keyword
  3. free backup software -- your "initial-target" keyword

Your "initial-target" keyword phrase will be free backup software. Go ahead and target that entire phrase in your page, site optimization and link-building. You'll find that the three-word combination is much easier to conquer -- bringing you some degree of traffic-flow right away.

Now here's the important part: Just as soon as you get to the first page for one phrase, stop promoting that phrase! Instead, step up the keyword ladder and start promoting the next (shorter and broader) phrase.

Over time, you'll start achieving success from more competitive keywords up the ladder -- all the while enjoying traffic and still keyword relevant links from the "lower" rungs. This is critical because your initial link building efforts will both provide you with business traffic while providing a keyword relevancy to help you positioning for your "goal" and "ideal" keywords over time.

To easily build your own keyword ladder, just use overture's keyword inventory tool ( Type your "ideal" keyword and scan down the list to add successively lower rungs to your ladder. Your lowest rung should be a phrase with under 1000 popularity in order to achieve immediate results.

That's it! This technique really works -- and it works just as well for your site's home page. Please, don't link without a ladder!

note: in case it's not obvious, you must never rename your pages or change their URL in any way. Make sure you are comfortable with the concepts covered in our Ecommerce SEO Checklist.

What's Next? Researching your optimal keyword ladders

Keyword research is all about exploring questions people are asking of the search engines. Think of keywords as questions and then start mining rich veins of curiosity. Just remember to compile your keywords into ladders or trees so that your initial target keywords pay off in the mid and long term. My favorite tool for serious keyword research is Web CEO. If you're serious about keyword research, you should give this essential tool a try. Here, I dug up a Web CEO $50 discount coupon for you. (It's still free to try but if you use the coupon, purchasing the service later is discounted.

Web CEO $50 discount coupon >>

For everyone else, you can simplify the learning curve by using simple paid marketing programs like those at -- providing you with a complete bundle of internet marketing tools.