How many keywords should you track? It’s a tough question. In fact, many digital marketers aren’t sure where to begin to answer it. For a subject as mission-critical as keyword strategy, that’s a problem. An even more critical decision is when to track keywords and when to rely on a keyword index.

After all, keywords are the fundamental units of SEO success. They’re what inspire our content, define our site optimizations, and land us those coveted top rankings.

So before the start of any SEO endeavor, you’ll need to decide which terms to surface in a keyword index (a giant directory of popular keywords and the URLs that rank for them) and which keywords to actively track.

It’s the difference between looking someone up in a phone book and hiring a private detective to tail their every move.

track keywords
Not this guy though. His hourly rate is bananas.

Both approaches have merit, but they’re not equivalent, and deciding when to apply which tactic is a crucial business decision for anyone looking to get serious about SEO.

What is keyword tracking?

Keyword tracking is the monitoring of a list of queries over time curated by an SEO or organization. A good keyword tracker will allow you to monitor thousands of keywords across multiple locations and devices. It should also give you insights about your competitors and their rankings across keywords that you are seeking to rank for. Monitoring keyword rankings helps you get a sense of whether your SEO efforts have come to fruition, what keywords you may need to refocus your effort on, and more. It’s hard to come up with the right keyword list to begin tracking though and that’s why many turn to a keyword index for initial tracking lists.

So what is a keyword index?

A keyword index is an ocean of keywords that marketers can tap into to research what domains and pages rank for a given keyword. Not all indexes are created equal. For instance, they vary widely in size — some are as small as 60 million keywords, while the largest, SEMRush, has between 2.4 and 2.8 billion worldwide at the time of this writing. Their refresh rates vary widely as well; when choosing which index you want to use, it’s important you have access to frequent refreshes, whereas some will give you data that’s 30 days stale.

When to avoid a keyword index

An easy mistake to make is relying too much on a keyword index for terms you ought to be tracking. Keyword indexes are best for researching what type of content ranks well for various terms — if you want to go shallow and wide, an index is the right tool. But they have limits.

For example, an index doesn’t know who you are; you’re buying the exact same data that your competitor is getting. And because an index doesn’t integrate with your analytics, reporting is all but impossible.

There’s also no option to group together content, which means you can’t see how your business performs in a single product category vs. your competitor’s offering. If you try to see how you perform in the TVs & electronics category against Amazon, you’ll end up seeing all the keywords Amazon ranks for. And as a result, indexes have a lot of noise covering up the signal. You’ve got to dig through a lot of data to get to the best insights.

But tracking keywords is an investment. So how do you know when that investment will pay off?

Track keywords if you’re ready to grow your brand

The point of SEO is to grow your business, and that often means growing your brand. But an index doesn’t care about your brand, no matter how well-crafted it may be. If you’re Nike, and you’re releasing 100 new shoes a year, none of them will show up in an index. If they do, it’ll be six months too late. Indexes are fundamentally blunt instruments; keeping on top of branded terms requires a finer tool.

track keywords
Pictured: a Keyword Index.

Track keywords if you want to be proactive

Whether you’re a scrappy startup following the maxim of “move fast and break things,” or an established Fortune 500 company with a sterling brand, you need a proactive strategy — to set your path in advance and handle obstacles along the way.

Indexes, by contrast, are fundamentally reactive tools, especially those that refresh monthly. If you want up-to-the-minute data on your digital performance, tracking is the way to go. It’s tracking keywords that enables features like Conductor’s Insight Stream, which surfaces opportunities before they’ve passed you by.

track keywords

Track keywords if you want to go mobile

With more than half of all Google searches now happening on a mobile device, tracking keywords on desktop alone isn’t enough. But the technical structure of mobile data is inextricably linked to location data — something indexes don’t have. As a result, the mobile data you get from an index will always be incomplete.

track keywords
It’s no use to you now.

Track keywords for reporting on dollar value

Content ROI. Who doesn’t love it? But it’s trickier to pin down than we’d like. Luckily, tracking keywords makes it easy to track the ranking of revenue of all your content, so you can concretely report on the dollar value of your efforts.

track keywords
Then you get to do this.

On Conductor’s side of things, we break this data down in Page Insights, a detailed dive into how rankings change over time, and all the revenue those pages bring in. This allows for a neat visualization of long-term progress that can be reported on across an org.

track keywords

Track keywords for global insight

For enterprise organizations with a global presence, detailed location data is crucial. If you have business units across the globe, you’ll likely want local data on each locale so you can see which areas are paying off and which need more attention.

track keywords
Low global visibility is bad for business.

An keyword index’s limited location capacity won’t cut it for a global enterprise-level business. To go wide, it’s time to track.

At Conductor, we approach keyword research by examining three key areas. What we call P.I.E. Protect, Improve, Expand. What do those areas mean?

  • Protect encompasses any keywords you already drive traffic for and want to keep ranking for.
  • Improve includes keywords you are almost on page one for, keywords that could potentially drive traffic and revenue for you.
  • Expand represents the topic areas you want to expand into with your existing and new content.

We recommend that our customers track keywords in all three areas, to measure where they are, where they’re almost, and where they want to be. When you add all those keywords up, the list can grow fast. This is one more reason a keyword index too often won’t fit the bill.

Tracking thousands of keywords can be daunting, but when done right, it can have major payoffs for your business. At the same time, a keyword index can be an invaluable research tool for ideating on content and getting a quick snapshot of the marketplace. The trick is to know when to use which tactic, and when to trade off; that way, you’ll be well on your way to a killer SEO strategy.

Keyword research doesn’t have to be costly or a pain. Check out these free SEO tools to help you take care of ongoing SEO needs.

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