What Are Primary Keywords in SEO?

I’ll explain how to use primary keywords alongside secondary keywords, walk you through my process of identifying primary keywords, and show you how to optimize your webpage for them.

April 4, 2024
Written by
Nate Matherson
Reviewed by
Charles Purdy

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Each and every blog post on our blog has a clear primary keyword in view. In SEO terms, a primary keyword is the main search term, or search query, that you’re targeting with a webpage.

That primary keyword is typically the main topic of your piece of content, and it’s the keyword that you’ll clearly optimize for within the page — for example, by including it in your H1 (more on that later).

Identifying your primary keyword before you start writing your piece of content is mission-critical. In our content creation process, we clearly highlight the primary keyword in our content outlines and editorial calendar.

Of course, your webpage or piece of content should rank for many other keywords, too, such as long-tail keywords that are closely related to your primary keyword. And you can optimize for those as well.

In this post, I’ll explain how to use primary keywords alongside secondary keywords, walk you through my process of identifying primary keywords, and show you how to optimize your webpage for them.

Primary Keywords vs. Secondary Keywords

Of course, as SEOs, we want our pages to rank for more than just a single keyword. When planning an SEO strategy, you’ll often have both primary and secondary keywords.

Primary Keyword: The phrase with the highest search volume in a grouping of keywords.
Secondary Keywords:
Other closely related terms or phrases that should be served on the same page.

When I’m planning our editorial calendar, I’ll typically have only one primary keyword per blog post, but it’s OK if you’ve got two or three close variations of the primary keyword.

However, depending on the page’s topic, I might have many more secondary keywords or variations of the primary keyword. In SEO, you’ll hear a lot about long-tail keywords. Long-tail keywords are simply more specific keyword phrases. There are two types of long-tail keywords: supporting and topical.

Supporting long-tail keywords are keywords that should be grouped with your primary keyword. These are secondary keywords.

On the other hand, a topical long-tail keyword is unique enough that it merits its own specific page. Topical long-tail keywords are, in fact, their own primary keywords.

If you’re ever confused about which keywords should be secondary and which should be primary, you’ll want to go through a process called keyword clustering, or keyword grouping.

You want to avoid having multiple pages on your website targeting the same primary keyword because that can confuse Google as to which page should ultimately rank. (This is known as keyword cannibalization.)

Group Keywords with Similar SERP Results

There are a few different approaches to keyword clustering or grouping. I recommend an approach that’s based on SERPs (search engine results pages). Here is how it works.

For example, say you’ve got two closely related keywords — “best SEO tools” and “best SEO tools 2024” — and you’re unsure whether these keywords should be grouped (that is, targeted with the same piece of content) or split into two different pages.

You’ll want to Google each keyword, and if the search results on the first page of Google’s search results are substantially the same for both, that’d indicate that the two terms should be grouped.

In this example, that seems to be the answer: these two keywords have substantially similar search results.

And using Positional’s  Keyword Research toolset, I see that “best SEO tools” gets 100 times as many monthly searches as “best SEO tools 2024.” So in this case, “best SEO tools” would be the primary keyword, and “best SEO tools 2024” would be grouped as a secondary keyword.
However, “best SEO tools” is a broad concept. There are many types of SEO tools, including internal linking tools. With the keyword “best internal linking tools,” the search results are substantially unique. As a result, this more specific keyword would be its own primary keyword or a topical long-tail keyword.

During the keyword research process, you’ll want to cluster or group your keywords. In a keyword group, the keyword with the highest search volume would be considered the primary keyword. There are several tools for keyword clustering. We’ve got a Keyword Clustering tool at Positional, too.

How to Find Primary Keywords

There are a few different approaches to finding primary keywords. But first, you’ll want to know a few basics when it comes to prospecting for keywords.

Analyze Metrics Like Monthly Search Volume and Competition, and Identify Search Intent

During your keyword research, you’ll often see metrics like monthly search volume, competition or keyword difficulty, and search intent (we’ve already touched on a couple of these). You will want to pick primary keywords that are getting substantial search volume, are attainable from a competition standpoint, and align with the search intent you’re looking to serve. You’ll also want to pick keywords that are relevant to your business and the customers you’re trying to acquire.

Monthly Search Volume

Search volume is the estimated number of searches for a given keyword. Search volume is typically expressed as a monthly total.

Competition or Keyword Difficulty

Competition or keyword difficulty is a score that indicates how difficult or competitive a keyword is to rank for in organic search. Competition is typically expressed on a numerical basis from 0 to 100, with a higher score indicating higher competition. The competition scores are typically calculated based on the domain authority or PageRank of the websites currently ranking for the desired term.

Competition is often positively correlated with search volume, but that isn’t always the case.

Search Intent

Search intent is the reason that someone is searching. There are different types of search intent, such as transactional or navigational.

You’ll want to create webpages that align with your targeted keyword’s search intent. But you’ll also want to pick keywords with search intents that align with your goals for your channel.

Do Competitor Research

In SEO, your competitors are your best friends. And when I say competitors, I don’t just mean your direct business competitors. Your competitors are your direct competitors in search results.

At Positional, our competitors include other SEO tools, but in terms of search, we also compete with SEO-related industry websites and other, more general inbound marketing blogs.

Most SEO tools will offer competitor research features. At Positional, for example, you can do competitor research within our Keyword Tracking and Competitor Research toolsets.

Positional’s Competitor Research toolset, with Competition and Monthly Search Volume filters applied.

For example, using our Competitor Research toolset, you can plug in your website and plug in a competitor’s website. It will return a list of keywords your competitor is ranking or appearing for in search results that you are not ranking for. This process is also often referred to as a content gap analysis.

Your competitors can be a great source of information, and examining them early in the keyword research process is often helpful.

Iterate Within a Keyword Research Tool

I typically start by doing competitive research and then migrate to a plug-and-play keyword research toolset.

At Positional, our Keyword Research toolset allows you to manually search or iterate on keyword ideas.

Positional’s Keyword Research toolset.

After entering a keyword idea in Keyword Research, users are shown its monthly search volume, competition, and other data. Users are also provided with a large number of related keywords, in the Keyword Ideas, Autocomplete Keywords, and People Also Rank For tabs.

Users can quickly save keywords to a Keyword List and then take those keywords to Positional’s Keyword Clustering toolset to group them and identify the primary and secondary keywords.

How to Optimize for Primary Keywords

While Google has said that it’s very good at automatically determining which keywords your pages should rank for, including your primary keywords in critical elements of your page can help give Google a signal and accelerate the time it will take to start ranking.

You’ll want to use your primary keyword in a number of different places:

  • H1: Your H1 is your webpage's primary heading or title. You should use your primary keyword in your H1.
  • Title Tag: Your title tag is the title of your page that appears in search results. You should use your primary keyword in your title tag. Your title tag can be the same as your H1, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. By including your primary keyword in your title tag, you’ll increase the click-through rate to your webpage from search results, which will lead to more traffic. It will also have a positive impact on rankings, which will then lead to yet more traffic.
  • Permalink & Slug: You can quickly see all of the primary keywords we’re targeting on our blog at Positional by looking at our slugs. Keep your permalinks short and your slugs focused on the primary keyword you’re targeting.
  • Meta Description: These days, Google will often rewrite your meta description automatically, but you can still set one and include your primary keyword in it.
  • The Intro: You should use your primary keyword very quickly in the introduction section of your webpage. Searchers who click on your page are going to be much more likely to stick around and engage with your webpage if they see the primary keyword right away.

You can also use close variations of the primary keyword in these elements.

Does using your primary keyword in these locations guarantee that your page will rank? Of course not, but it can help Google in making that decision. You’ll also want to internally link to your pages using targeted anchor text related to your primary keyword.

If you’re still curious, check out a longer blog post about content optimization that I wrote — it details several additional optimizations to consider.

Final Thoughts

In case you haven’t realized it yet, I’ll say that the primary keyword for this blog post is, in fact, “primary keywords.”

Primary keywords play an important role in SEO. At a high level, in the research and planning phase, it’s a good idea to pick a primary keyword before you start writing. Your primary keyword, also known as the main keyword or focus keyword, is the main term you’ll optimize your webpage for.

In your keyword research process, you’ll want to group or cluster similar keywords and pick the keyword that’s getting the most search volume in a grouping as your primary keyword.

Optimizing your content for your primary keyword is pretty important, too. You’ll see “primary keywords” in our H1, our title tag, our slug, and throughout this content.

Of course, you can add secondary keywords to your webpages. Our Optimize toolset provides recommendations for which secondary keywords to include.
Remember, you should have only one page on your website targeting each primary keyword. If you have two (or more) pages targeting the same primary keyword, you might confuse Google as to which page should rank for the intended search query, and this could negatively impact rankings for both pages.

Nate Matherson
Co-founder & CEO of Positional

Nate Matherson is the Co-founder & CEO of Positional. An experienced entrepreneur and technologist, he has founded multiple venture-backed companies and is a two-time Y Combinator Alum. Throughout Nate's career, he has built and scaled content marketing channels to hundreds of thousands of visitors per month for companies in both B2C (ex financial products, insurance) as well as B2B SaaS. Nate is also an active angel investor with investments in 45+ companies.

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