Link-Building FAQ: 4 Questions Answered About Building Inbound Links

Today, we’re going to talk about links. They’re still the currency of good Google rankings. Even though social media marketing should be a part of your overall strategy, and social signals are being used more aggressively in Google’s algorithm, links continue to define success.

That’s going to be the case for the foreseeable future.

To be sure, the types of links you build and the methods you use to build them matter. If you’re still relying on methods that were hot in 2008, you’re about to find yourself in a world of hurt. Google is devoting a substantial level of resources to closing loopholes that have made it easy to game their algorithm.

The easy stuff is going away.

With that in mind, I’m going to start a series on link-building that will give you the tools you need to grab high rankings and keep them. We’ll use a question-and-answer format so we can drill down into the nitty-gritty details. Don’t think of this series as a “how to” guide for building links. Think of it as an ongoing conversation.

In this installment, we’ll blow away a few myths and ill-conceived notions about what it takes to build links for better rankings.

#1. What is the secret to search engine optimization?

There is no secret sauce to effective SEO. There’s hard work with the good rankings that follow, and everything else. It doesn’t matter if you’re in an ultra-competitive niche like debt consolidation or a niche that is much easier to rank for, such as antique ukeleles or cat hairball sculptures.

This is worth addressing upfront because a lot of people keep falling for quick-fixes in the SEO space. They end up spinning their wheels with no lasting results to show for it. Each Google update kills their rankings and they’re forced to start over. As a result, years pass and they never seem to get off the ground.

Do things properly from the beginning. If you do, you’ll be less likely to be knocked around by random algo updates.

#2. What is the best method for building links?

The late, great movie critic Roger Ebert once said, “No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.”

That’s a great way to think about link-building for SEO. Any method that generates the right types of links is a method worth using. Any method that generates the wrong types of links is a method worth avoiding.

For example, I can show you ways to create tens of thousands of links within an hour. But those links won’t do anything for your rankings. (Actually, scratch that. They can hurt your rankings by getting your site penalized.)  By contrast, writing two or three guest blog posts each month for high-quality blogs in your niche can produce links that Google will love – now and later.

Forget about “best methods.” Pursuing them is a fool’s errand.

#3. Should I just hire someone to do my link-building for me?

That’s a tough question to answer. Here’s why:

There are two types of folks you can hire to do your link-building. The first type are the gunslingers. They come aboard for the one-time job, and then they’re off to find other clients. These are the people you’ll find for hire on Elance, GetAFreelancer, and various marketing forums.

The second type are the hired guns. Think of them as your security force. They’re on the payroll. These are the SEO agencies that are a monthly retainer. They continue building links to your site week after week, and file reports showing their progress.

Working with the first group – the gunslingers – is risky. They often focus on low-quality links because they’re easy to generate. When they improve your rankings, they do so temporarily. Unfortunately, you have very little recourse if things turn out badly for your site once they leave.

Working with the second group – the agencies – is better since they’re “on the payroll.” They’re there month after month, and thus can be held accountable for their work. But it is not without risk. Some agencies are better than others. Some are actually pretty shady, a fact that may not become clear until months down the road after your site tanks in Google.

So, should you hire someone to do your link-building? That depends on the types of links you’re building and the level of trust you have in the person or agency to build them.

#4. How important is link-building to my site’s rankings?

This seems like a simple question, but it’s actually complicated. Understanding why will help you to decide where to spend the majority of your time.

As long as Google hosts organic rankings – i.e. “natural” rankings as opposed to those you pay for – it needs a reliable way to order them. The trouble (for Google) is that links are both the most reliable method for ordering sites and the method that is easiest to game.

Google can’t simply stop using link data to rank sites. That would be cutting off its nose to spite its face. But it’s very difficult to completely lock out the folks who game the algorithm. So, Google has taken a different approach. It has begun to reduce the real estate it gives to its organic rankings. More real estate is being given to Adwords, site links, and even Google’s own affiliate links in specific niches (credit cards, travel, etc.).

Pretty savvy move!

For the business owner, this means ranking organically on the first page has become even harder than usual. There are fewer places to grab. The importance of building high-quality links to your site has never been greater. But realize that the value of having a front-page listing is slowly eroding as Google fills it with its own “stuff.”

This installment of our link-building series lays the foundation for what is coming down the pipe. We’ll get into the details of building good links next time.

Your Turn!

What link-building methods have proven to be the most effective for you this year? Are you building links on your own or have you hired the work out? Share your experiences with us in the comments section!

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SEO Basics: Does The Color Of Your Hat Really Matter?

There has been a raging debate among SEO experts over the past 15 years about the color of their professional hats. The “bad guys” – the folks who are considered to be unethical – have been assigned black hats to signify their evil ways. The “good guys” – the shining lights of the industry – wear white hats. And as you can tell, people tend to oversimplify things.

If you’ve been using search engine optimization for awhile, you’re probably familiar with the “black versus white” paradigm. You may even be avoiding some questionable SEO tactics for fear of dipping your toes into unknown waters. And that may be hurting your site’s rankings.

Today, I’m going to turn this debate on its head and explain why the color of a search marketing expert’s hat is irrelevant and silly. I’ll then explain what you should be focusing on to get your site to the top of your niche’s listings in Google, and keep it there.

SEO Tactics Used By Black Hats And White Hats

It’s worth reviewing some of the SEO strategies used by black hats and white hats in the past to rank their sites. Let’s start with the black hat stuff.

Black hat SEO has traditionally been made up of aggressive tactics designed to trick the search engines’ algorithms. The vintage stuff in this category includes hidden text, keyword stuffing, and cloaking. These methods were eventually joined by blog spam, link rings (or farms), and doorway pages. A lot of “black hatters” also purchased links, a big no-no in Google’s eyes.

White hat SEO (the “ethical” stuff) includes tactics designed to stick closely to Google’s guidelines. In this category, you’ll find link bait content, on-site SEO, guest blogging, and creating top-notch content. The idea is that by sticking to what Google recommends, you’re more likely to enjoy better rankings that last longer.

Here’s why the entire debate between black and white tactics is foolish…

Why The Debate Is Foolish And Silly

As a marketer, you’re a business person. It doesn’t matter whether you run affiliate sites, are a product creator, or the author of a growing empire of books on Amazon. Your job is to generate sales. That means getting targeted traffic. Search continues to be a fantastic way to get that traffic.

When it comes a particular SEO tactic, the only things that matter are the following:

1. Is it effective?

2. How long will it give me a ranking boost?

3. How much work is involved in executing the tactic?

4. What happens when an algorithm change makes it useless?

5. Are there any long-term repercussions to using it?

Notice there are no ethical points to consider. There’s no “black” or “white.” There are no laws being broken. There is only a matter of how a particular method will affect your business in the short run and long run. That’s a good foundation for thinking about search engine optimization in the context of risk versus reward.

Risk Versus Reward: The New SEO Paradigm

One of the most sobering lessons over the last several years of watching Google’s updates is that you can’t trust Google’s guidelines. Not entirely anyway. Recommended items published years ago by the search engine have since been removed. And sites following those removed tactics have since suffered business-shattering consequences. The Penguin update was a major wake-up call in that regard.

Given the above, SEO has become strictly a matter of risk versus reward.

In the old days, you could afford to take big risks with your search optimization efforts. First, you could get away with it for several months, ranking high and generating a ton of profit in the process. Second, penalties were relatively small. Google would either disregard the problem pages or allow you to get back into their good graces by fixing the problem. You could be up and running again within a few days.

It’s a lot different these days. If you cross the line – and note that not all of the lines are clearly marked – you could see your site blown out of Google’s index.

Forever.

It doesn’t matter if you spent years building your site. Google has become implacable.

So, here’s what we know. There are enormous risks to using aggressive SEO tactics designed to game the algorithm. There are also huge risks to using what are considered to be “white hat” tactics, even those previously endorsed by Google. (Just ask Tim Carter of AskTheBuilder.com.). Given that, how should you move forward?

What Google Wants Versus What Google Gets

Don’t let anyone tell you the “right way” to approach search engine optimization. When it comes to your business, they have no skin in the game, and therefore their risks are not the same as your own. Besides, more than one “guru” promoting white hat techniques has watched his rankings crumble with the most recent Google updates.

Instead, do some competitive analysis for your niche. Who is ranking high on Google? Were they ranking high prior to the Penguin update? If so, what are they doing to make those rankings happen? Copying their tactics is no guarantee that you’ll sidestep disaster, but it could reduce your risk.

Also, start insulating your site by diversifying your link strategies. Get listed in a few relevant directories. Ask a couple friends to add you to their blog rolls. Write two or three guest blog posts each month.

If you’re going to build low-value links, point them at 2nd tier sites like Hubpages rather than directly to your main site. Then, point the Hubpage links to your site as well as to other authorities (for example, wikipedia). That puts a buffer between your site and the low-value links.

Above all, realize that search engine optimization is no longer about black and white hats, if it ever was. It’s about identifying the risks that accompany each tactic and deciding whether the rewards justify taking them for your business.

Your Turn!

What steps have you taken to protect yourself from disaster in the search engines? Have you changed your SEO tactics over the last couple of years? If so, let us know how they’ve been working out by sharing your thoughts in the comments!

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6 Lessons Google Has Taught Us About Search Engine Optimization

To some of us, Google is the world’s best teacher. Google doesn’t mince words, and it delivers its lessons mercilessly, forcing you to adapt quickly in order to thrive. Some consider it harsh; others think of it as tough love. Folks who are willing to study the nuances of search engine optimization and adjust their approach to roll with algorithm changes tend to rise to the top.

It’s worth taking a moment to recall some of the interesting lessons Google has taught us about SEO over the past few years. That’s the best way to make sure we’re learning from them and incorporating them into our marketing efforts. Read on for 6 critical lessons that will move you to the head of the class.

#1. Links Are Not Created Equal

Link popularity used to refer to the number of links pointing to a site. It didn’t take long for Google to figure out that crafty webmasters had started to buy hundreds of thousands of links to rank their own sites. In response, the search engine made a few changes.

Today, the source of the link matters. If it comes from a source that is well-known and well-liked, it carries more value. For example, a link from CNN.com is going to be worth more than a link from an unknown blog.

Ranking well in Google is a bit like nurturing your social status in junior high school. Having 10 friends was good. But being friends with the 5 most popular kids in the school was better.

#2. Not Every Link Is A Good Link

Technically, there are no bad links. Every link counts, and can potentially be used to pass ranking value to the site it points to. But some links can be used in a way that creates a negative effect.

We’ve mentioned negative SEO in the past. This is a strategy where tons of low-value, unrelated links are pointed at a site to cause its search rankings to fall. It is a nasty exploitation of Google’s algo, which seeks to identify and punish sites that are using a massive inflow of poor-quality links to rank.

#3. The Social Space Is A Big Part Of Search

If you’re not using Twitter and Facebook to influence your search rankings, now’s the time to start. One thing Google has made clear is that it is incorporating social signals into its index. That means the links you tweet to friends and the pages you share on Facebook are having an effect. Moreover, that effect is likely to grow with time.

As the social channel becomes a bigger part of our lives, Google is likely to increasingly use those signals to identify trust, likeability, and popularity. The writing is on the wall. Get ready to adapt.

#4.Local Search Should Be A Priority

Google has considered local search to be a priority for years, though they’ve been careful in how they integrate local listings into their main index. You might remember in 2009 when the search company tried to buy Yelp. According to TechCrunch, they offered $500 million, a deal the CEO of Yelp walked away from at the end of 2009. Also, consider Google Maps and Google Places. Both are geared toward helping the end user find what they’re looking for nearby.

If your business caters to local customers and you haven’t been using local SEO to its full potential, it’s a good time to start. Google’s focus on local search is going to grow just like its focus on social signals.

#5. What Was Once White Hat Can Become Black Hat

“White hat” SEOs have traditionally used methods to rank their sites that they considered to be legitimate. One example is writing an article and posting it to an article directory to generate a link. “Black hat” SEOs have taken a different approach. They use tactics often considered improper and even unethical.

These roles have blurred over the years.

The color of your hat when you write SEO copy or launch an SEO campaign is irrelevant these days. Google has taught us a tough lesson here. It has penalized sites that were once hailed as perfect examples of white hat SEO (ezinearticles.com, askthebuilder.com, etc.). And it has rewarded sites that have used questionable methods to rank.

The bottom line? Forget about “white hat,” “black hat,” or “gray hat” search engine optimization. The labels can change, and you might find yourself on the wrong side of the line at any given moment.

Instead, keep things simple. Focus on good SEO copy, proper keyword research, high-value links, and positive social signals.

#6. Google Show Its Cards Every Day

Would you like to see what Google considers to be a high-quality site for “golf tips?” It’s simple. Do a search for “golf tips,” and look at the top five results. It’s the same with any niche, including your own.

The fact is, Google discloses its hand (to use a poker analogy) each day for everyone to see. Once you’ve identified the top sites, you can reverse-engineer a lot of the factors contributing to their rankings. You can find the sites linking to them; you can uncover their anchor text; you can dig up their link distribution across various domains; you can even track down some of their social signals.

The process of mirroring what these top-ranking sites have done is harder, but you can at least dig up the ingredients in their “secret sauce.” And that’s a huge advantage when trying to improve your site’s ranking!

Your Turn!

The six lessons above are only scraping the surface. There are dozens more, some of which you have probably learned yourself. Please share with the class! What interesting things have you noticed in your own rankings that reveal Google’s focus going forward? Have you done things in the past to rank well that are not as effective today? Share the details in the comments!

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How To Outrank Your Competition By Looking Natural To Google

“Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.”

How many times have we heard that sage advice? Our parents and our investment advisers gave it to us, and now as marketers trying to rank sites in the search engines, we heed it on a regular basis. As it turns out, Google has been hinting at that advice for years, though they’ve done so in their characteristically cryptic way. In fact, that’s what the Penguin update was all about. Google finally got fed up with folks ignoring its advice and rolled out the update to deal with them.

And the updates haven’t stopped. The Panda update – otherwise known as the Farmer update – has been appended 25 times over the past year as Google has been trying to increase the strength of natural signals in its algorithm. And that brings us to today.

As we’ve been warning for the last year, it’s time to “get natural” or risk losing your rankings in Google and the other search engines (if it hasn’t happened already). So, how do you “get natural”? It won’t surprise you that the secret sauce includes diversification blended with a healthy helping of social signals.

What Items Should You Diversify In Your SEO Campaign?

Simply put: everything. Appearing natural to Google is your goal if you’re after high search engine rankings. It’s time get creative and learn how to create value — and look for ways to leave a footprint (i.e. a link or mention) in the process.

Think of the things you’ve done to improve your site’s rankings. For example, you’ve probably submitted articles to article directories, you’ve published press releases, and you’ve participated in blogs and forums. With each tactic, you’ve included links back to your site with your most important keywords in the anchor text. That’s basic off-site SEO.

Now, consider what the Penguin update was about. Google made clear it was to punish over-optimization. If your site is about healthy cooking, using the phrase “healthy cooking” in 90 percent of your links was bound to make you a target. It looks unnatural. When real people link to your site as a resource, they don’t always do so in your pre-determined, well-researched keywords.

So, anchor text is definitely an area that needs to be diversified. How much? Think of it this way: if people were linking to your site naturally, what anchor text might they use in the links? Use that as a model. Think about how and why someone would be linking to your site in relation to a piece of content and use link naturally.

Take a look at these examples of anchor text that I randomly pulled from various blogs. In many cases, authors don’t tend to link resources or citations in perfectly formed anchor text phrases. Google knows this.

natural-anchor-text

It’s also important to spread out the places from which you’re getting links. If all links pointing to your site come from the same domains, this doesn’t have quite as much weight as if the links are from a variety of places. Start seeking links from sites that are outside your normal hunting ground. Go beyond your usual blogs, forums, and article directories. Look for authority sites, .edu sites, and news sites. The more diverse your link profile, the more natural you’ll appear.

Think of things you can do to start getting people talking about you — naturally.

Some ways to do this are by creating and publicizing ORIGINAL authority of content that people want to link to. This might include:

• Infographics
• Round up lists (100 best xyz resources)
• Survey results
• Widgets/downloads
• Other forms of “linkbait

A quick side note: not only should you diversify your anchor text and link profile, but you should also look for traffic outside Google. Yes, Google currently dominates search. Yes, it can send an immense amount of traffic to your site if you rank well for the right keywords. But it is also a fickle beast and has no loyalty to your business. If an algorithm update keeps you up at night, it’s time make some changes.

And that brings us to social media.

Adding In Social Signals To Gain A Ranking Boost

Building and improving your social media presence accomplishes two major goals at once. First, it gives Google an impression about your popularity. Suppose a lot of people are tweeting about you, sharing your content and liking you on Facebook, and most importantly, adding you to their Google+ circles. That sends a very strong signal to Google. That level of popularity is difficult to fake. Because it looks natural, any momentum you enjoy in the social sphere will be taken into account by Google when it ranks your site.

The second goal you’ll accomplish is that you’ll build traffic streams outside of Google. Imagine having thousands of Twitter followers, Facebook fans, and Google+ connections. Further imagine that for some reason, Google drops you in its index. Even if your search traffic plummets, you’ll have a lot of traffic coming to your site from your social space. Publish great content that people share with others, and you may  not even miss the search traffic you lost.

A quick recap

You need to spread out your anchor text and link sources. You also need to start expanding your social media presence and engaging with folks in the social space. Doing these things will help you to look as natural as possible to Google going forward. These tactics will be critical in the coming year if you want to rank well in your niche.

Your Turn!

Have you made any changes in your approach to search engine optimization in the last six months? Have you started getting involved more in social media? What tactics have you used to look natural to the search engines and has social media interaction been a part of your effort? Take a moment to let us know in the comments below!

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Why High-Quality Content Matters: Improve Your Search Visibility With Cornerstone Content

We usually discuss SEO article marketing in the context of publishing your content onto other sites. By writing guest blog posts, distributing your content to article directories, and re-purposing it for social media, you can build lots of links back to your site. Those links improve your rankings in Google and the other engines for your target keywords.

Today, we’re going to set all of that aside and approach content marketing from an entirely different direction. We’ll show you how creating “cornerstone” content – material that’s superior to everything else in your space – can help you dominate the top search positions. What we’re about to explain is powerful; you can see evidence of it working in countless niches (we’ll provide an example to drive the point home).

One quick point before we get started: the following strategy is not a replacement for your current SEO article marketing. Rather, it’s yet another tool you can use to attract more eyeballs and traffic, and generate more leads and sales.

How Top-Notch Content Improves Your Search Rankings

Think about Google’s mission (besides making a lot of money for their shareholders). They want their users to have the most positive search experience possible. In order to make that happen, they need to rank query-relevant pages higher and less-relevant pages lower. The purpose of their algorithm is to automate that process.

Google’s algorithm usually gets oversimplified. Most people think of it in term of using the right keywords and building lots of backlinks. But there’s much more to it under the surface, including a couple details that can help you trump your competition.

Years ago, two friends named Larry and Sergey wrote a paper while attending Stanford University. They gave it the yawn-inspiring title “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine.” It described the process by which online information could be organized and ranked. That paper became the blueprint for Google.

Larry and Sergey explained that their search engine would identify high-quality content by the links that point to it. Each link would vary in strength based on the links that pointed to the pages from which they originated (essentially, PageRank). For example, a link from CNN.com would be stronger than a link from an unknown blog.

Now, suppose you create “cornerstone” content for your site. This type of content goes much further than a 400-word article. It’s usually longer and more informative, and as a result, draws a greater number of high-quality (stronger) links over time. These links push your content to the top positions for your target keyword.

Here’s an example: Google “history of search engines.” At the time of writing, there are nearly half a billion entries in Google’s index. The first position is taken by searchenginehistory.com, a one-page site that has dominated that position for years. Not even Wikipedia can beat it. Notice how deep the information on that site goes. Again, it is nothing more than a single page of “cornerstone” content.

Quality Content Helps Your Rankings “Stick”

One of the challenges of “normal” SEO article marketing is that your rankings can slip, and even disappear, with each tweak of Google’s algorithm. They might come back several months down the road, or not return at all. This is the reason it’s a good idea to make content marketing an ongoing effort. If some of your past articles slip in the rankings, new ones will take their place.

“Cornerstone” content tends to stick. Searchenginehistory.com is a good example. Google seems to ignore the site with every algo change, leaving it cemented in the top position. In five years, it will probably still be there (driving the Wikipedia folks crazy).

Additional Benefits Of Creating First-Class Content

When your content controls the top positions for your main keywords, the rankings help your business grow in a number of ways. The obvious benefit is more traffic. The more people who see your listing in Google, the more visitors your site will receive. This in turn means more people will see your landing pages, read your blog, and join your email list. Some will follow you on Twitter while others will spread the word about your content on Facebook. If you have a YouTube channel, expect more people to view your videos, and encourage others to do the same.

These things increase the level of trust customers have in you. That trust plays a key role in their decision to buy your products and services.

To repeat, you should definitely be doing SEO article marketing to promote your business. It is a proven strategy for building links and increasing traffic to your site. But think about adding “cornerstone” content to your site, as well. It takes more time to create, but can help you lock down the top search positions with rankings that stick.

Your Turn!

Have you created information-dense content for your site? How did it work for you in Google? What nuggets of advice would you offer to those who are just getting started?

Finding Profitable Keywords Using Google’s Keyword Tool

Thorough, thoughtful keyword research is the foundation of getting your site to rank in Google or the other search engines. That probably sounds obvious, right? The whole point of search engine optimization and fine-tuning your SEO copy is to target specific keyword phrases that people are searching for. But ask yourself this:

How do you know which keywords people are searching for when they are ready to take action or enter your buying cycle?

I’m going to share a tactic for digging up the most profitable keywords for your business. Along the way, you’ll learn why some of the tools you may be using aren’t doing their jobs.

One quick note: what you’re about to learn requires an Adwords account. If you’re not currently doing PPC, bookmark this post. You’ll want to read it again when you start buying clicks (PPC is a fantastic complement to SEO).

Okay, enough small talk. Let’s get started.

The Problem Keyword Guessing

There are a lot of free keyword research tools out there that will return hundreds of keyword phrases related to any given keyword search query. Some of them, like Google’s Keyword Tool, do provide quite a bit of information, but are limited in the type of data they reveal. Moreover, they’re not always dead center in terms of accuracy.

Let’s take Google’s keyword tool as an example. It supposedly taps into their Adwords data. If you plug in “dog food,” the tool will show you the “global monthly searches” (searches around the world) and “local monthly searches,” (searches in your specified country and in your specified language.)

keyword-tool-2

But that doesn’t tell you what you need to know before dedicating hours trying to rank your site for “dog food.”

• Does the phrase convert?
• Is it profitable?
• How valuable are related keywords, such as “best dog food” or “dog food review” or “buy dog food online”?

The last thing you want to do is devote months to ranking for these terms only to find out the folks coming to your site via these terms don’t buy anything.

And that’s the problem your Adwords account will solve.

How To Use Your Adwords Account For SEO Keyword Research

When you buy search traffic, you’re given a lot of great information about the keywords you bid on. You’ll know how many people saw your ad after searching for a particular phrase. You’ll also know how many of them clicked on your ad to visit your site.

But you’re given a few other juicy details that reveal the value of specific keywords. For example, you’ll know your average cost per click. And assuming you have conversion tracking turned on in your Adwords account, you’ll be able to see the percentage of folks who converted after visiting your site.

Think about what this data tells you. Not only do you know the keywords folks are using, but you also know which of those terms are producing specific results, and which are wasting your time.

Can you see how this data might be used to streamline your SEO campaigns? You can now spend your time creating content, writing SEO copy, and building links to rank for keywords that actually drive conversions.

Another benefit is that you can see which ad titles and summaries drive more clicks. You can then craft your site’s title tags and meta descriptions to reflect the language that converted best.

Where To Focus Your Time And Effort

If you’re spending less than $100 a month in your Adwords account, cherry-picking the best phrases to target with your SEO copy will be easy. But things get a little dicey if you’re spending a lot more.

With a $1,000 per month adspend, you’ll probably see a long list of search queries that people are using to find your ads. If you’re able to see which terms are converting, just ignore the ones that are only bringing tire-kickers to your site. Focus your time and effort targeting the high-converting keywords in your SEO copy and off-site search optimization efforts.

Is it possible to optimize your site for the search engines without using PPC? Absolutely! But if you’re unsure whether you’re focusing on the right keyword phrases, the performance data in your Adwords account can be a major timesaver.

Your Turn!

How are you currently doing keyword research for your niche? Have you ever used PPC data to refine your focus? If so, how did it turn out for you?