Effective Keywords for Academic Content

When you’re researching a topic for a project or even just to broaden your knowledge, where do you go?

If you’re like most of us, you go online and search. Let’s say you’re working on an essay about cigarette smokers in 2018 versus 1998. You’d get online and start with broad search terms like “cigarette smoker studies.” The search volume will be enormous. My search returned over 48 million hits. So you’ll refine those parameters with the years. You’d probably refine the search even further based on your specific needs. Are you exploring the decline in smokers? The advances in cancer research? The ways tobacco companies operate today versus twenty years ago?

The Keyword Funnel

If you’ve ever spent more than 15 minutes talking with someone who works in marketing or advertising, you’ve probably heard of ‘The Funnel.’

The basic idea is that a buyer starts at the top of the funnel, the wide open area meant to catch a large amount of people. They move down the funnel, the content gets narrower until the people left in the funnel are the ones who are going to buy the product.

Think of searching in a similar fashion. You start broad with a mass of keyword ideas and as you see what’s out there, you add new terms and narrow the search until you’ve got a manageable number of articles, essays, or books to choose from. Then you start doing the real research.

So, how does this apply to your own content?

Discoverable Content

I’ve written about discoverability for authors in the past. While many of the principles remain the same, for academic content specifically, there are some details that need to be considered.

Building Your Keyword List

Disclaimer: We should begin with a quick note on what a ‘keyword’ is in this context. When I talk about keywords, I mean any single word or short phrase you believe a searcher may use when looking for your content. Remember that this searcher is not likely looking for the content you specifically have created. What you are aiming to achieve with your keywords is to guide someone looking for information and answers to your work.

Just like any keyword based work, the best place to start is with a list. You should aim for at least five and ideally around ten keywords. Rather than overthinking how you’ll develop this list, I recommend simply sitting down with a pen and paper and writing down the first ten words or phrases that come to mind when you consider your content.

You should try to include some ‘long tail keywords’–keywords that are fairly specific and narrow–along with general keywords that fit your content.

Now take that list and search each of those relevant keywords in both Google and Google Scholar. We’ll end this piece with a look at Google Scholar, but for now just know that Google Scholar is likely to be the main source of your search appearances.

Okay, so you’ve searched your five to ten keywords. Note the first three returns for each. Does the content you found seem similar to your own content? Do you see the answers your content contains represented in the existing content? Most importantly, do you see the space your content could fill in these results pages?

Here’s an example:

I did a search for “book discoverability” while I was working on a post. These are the top 3 results. Now, my content focused on the author more than the book itself, and I can see from this search result that the space is already crowded with some very specific content. So I know that ‘book discoverability’ is probably not a great keyword for my content.

Applying Your List

Once you have an established list of relevant keywords that you’re happy with, you need to think about how you’ll use them. To begin with, search your content for those keywords and phrases. They should all appear multiple times within the document. If they don’t, you’ve got a problem.

If someone searches for ‘contemporary American authors with disabilities’ and you’ve employed keywords like ‘American authors’ and ‘disabled authors’ there’s a good chance your content will show up for them. But if your book or article is entirely about how authors struggle with writer’s block, you’ll have misled that searcher and they’ll move on.

Likewise, you shouldn’t decide on keywords and stuff them into your content. If you discover that you’ve settled on a keyword and it’s not appearing with some regularity in your content, you should reconsider the keyword itself and find a better one.

With that exercise completed, it’s time to draft the two most important, keyword laden pieces of text for your content: the title and the abstract.

The Title – You want to use your most relevant and important keyword(s) in the title. Again, don’t force them in. Your title needs to be representative of your work first and foremost. The title is what a searcher will read before anything else. If they can read your title and decide they shouldn’t read further, that’s actually a good thing. You want to have your work land in front of people who actually need it and will get something relevant out of it.

The Abstract – If your title piqued their interest, the abstract is what will determine whether or not they think your content will be useful. If possible, you should include all of your keywords in the abstract. Again, don’t force them! Just look for ways to frame the content you’ve created in a shortened form that highlights what you explore and what questions you answer, using your keywords.

Back to the Beginning

You’ve developed a list. Your content contains all the keywords you’ve identified. You’ve created a title and you’ve written the abstract.

Now take a step back and review the original thesis statement or question you started from. Does your keyword content serve that question? I think most won’t get this far into developing a keyword strategy without already touching on this, but you still need to take the time to review before your can call anything final.

Remember the goal of your keywords is to capture researchers and students who are asking the same or similar questions that drove you to create the content in the first place. If all of your keywords serve to guide someone toward your content’s main purpose, you’ve created an effective keyword strategy.

A Word About Google Scholar

I assume most are familiar with Google and their incredibly powerful search engine. Google Scholar is a refined version of Google’s search that specifically targets academic books, papers, and essays.

The most important thing to consider with Google Scholar is the Advanced Search. Here’s what it looks like:

I’ve done a preliminary search for ‘Cancer Research’ and opened the advanced search window. This will allow me to add exact phrases (perhaps I’m studying ‘technology’ as it pertains to cancer research) and add with/without clauses for specific words. This too is helpful. I could exclude specific kinds of cancer or focus my search to specific research methods.

All of this serves to make your keyword development a little trickier. Unlike a normal Google searcher, the academic is likely to conduct a search query and refine their parameters. In doing so, you may lose some of the strength your keywords had if they narrow their search to include words or phrases you haven’t incorporated. Don’t let that frighten you though. Just be vigilant and conscious of the best practices laid out above and you’ll help people who really want and need your content finding it.


There is a lot of content out there. If you want yours to stand out and be found, you need to think like a keyword planner. Once you get into the right mindset, you can start to see the search from the other side (the searcher’s side) and you’ll be well positioned to help scholars and students find your work online.

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