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Finding the Right Topic

Claude objected to my characterizations. "You make it sound like I'm only in it for the money," he said, "and that Stef just wants to be famous. And she's not even here to defend herself! Anita's the only one who looks good."

"Don't be offended," I said, "because I'm not here to judge you. Money's a motivator for all three of you, otherwise you wouldn't be talking to me about making money with Google. But it's not always the primary motivator, and I think it's important to understand that so you can choose the right topic and have realistic expectations."

"I think I know what my topic is already," said Anita. "It's something that really concerns me: obesity in children and young adults. It's a problem due mostly to poor eating habits and a lack of exercise. I've been clipping out newspaper and magazine articles about it for a while now and talking to other mothers about it. It would be nice to share it with others, too."

"That's a great idea, Anita," I said. "What about you, Claude?

Any ideas?"

He nodded. "Something to do with technology, I think. Maybe making phone calls with your Internet connection?"

"You mean 'voice-over-IP' technology?" I asked.

"Yeah," Claude said. "I've been using it myself at home as a second phone line and it works quite well."

"Sounds pretty good," I said, and then looked at both of them. "So how do you know if the topics you've chosen are any good? What if several different topics appeal—which topic should you choose? Or what if neither of you had a topic in mind—how do you find one?"

"I'm not sure," Claude answered, "but I bet you're going to show us."

"You're right," I said, smiling. "There are no hard-and-fast rules, but I can give you some tips and show you a few things you can do with your computer to find the topic that's right for you."

Fill a Need

An obvious way to find a topic is to fill a need. Have you ever searched the Web for something and not found it? The Web is an incredible repository of information, but there are still many gaps in what's available, so there's always room for more content.

Anytime you find yourself thinking "I wish there was a good site about such-and-such," you've found a potential topic. This is how Claude and Anita basically came up with their topics. For more ideas, ask friends and acquaintances about the kinds of things they've been unable to find. And if you participate in online forums or groups, keep an eye out for questions from other members. Any topic that fills a need is a possible subject for your site.

Mine the Search Engines

Another source of ideas is search-term lists generated by various search engines. Google, for example, publishes weekly lists of the top ten gaining and declining queries it sees, as well as monthly and yearly summaries of search activities. It refers to these lists as the Google Zeitgeist, a German term meaning "the spirit of an era" (see

Some search engines also let you see what other people are searching for right now. The SearchSpy service from Dogpile ( or Metaspy from MetaCrawler ( are tools you can use as additional idea sources.

Check Keyword Values

Can't choose between two topics? Wondering if the topic you've chosen is interesting to advertisers? Pretend you're an advertiser and see what you'd be paying to link your ads to specific keywords. (Claude was so interested in this technique that he kept crowding out Anita by leaning too closely to my laptop.)

Start by making a short list of keywords for each topic. Then visit different advertising services to figure out how valuable the keywords are to the advertisers using those services. How this is done depends on the advertising service. Services worth exploring are Yahoo! Search Marketing (formerly known as Overture) and Google AdWords.

Yahoo! Search Marketing

Yahoo! Search Marketing directly competes with Google in the pay-per-click advertising arena. One of the services it offers to advertisers is its View Bids tool. This tool is available to anyone who visits the Yahoo! Search MarketingAdvertiser Center, not just Yahoo! customers. (Note that the tools in the Advertiser Center may still refer to Overture, not Yahoo! Search Marketing, but they're the same thing.)

The View Bids tool ( lets you enter keywords and see how much current Yahoo! advertisers are bidding for those terms ( Figure 3.1). The tool is very simple to use: just enter the keyword and the security code. (The security code is embedded in an image that you can easily decode but that most software cannot.) The results of a typical keyword query are shown in Figure 3.2 . At Claude's request, I used the keyword voip for my query, because it's the standard acronym for "voice-over-IP technology."


Figure 3.1 Yahoo!'s Search Marketing has a simple keyword bidding tool available to anyone who visits the site.


Figure 3.2 A typical keyword search result on Yahoo! Search Marketing.

Although Claude was quite excited by the tool's results, I had to caution him about two things. First, the View Bids tool shows you the maximum amount that advertisers are paying for ads. Like AdWords, Yahoo! Search Marketing uses an auction-based ad selection model referred to as "bid for placement." Advertisers may pay less than the maximum amount shown, sometimes much less.

Second, advertisers pay premium prices to Yahoo! to be shown on large sites like Yahoo! itself and CNN. As such, the values shown by this tool aren't necessarily reflective of what you'd get for displaying the same ads on your site.

Really, the tool is best used to judge the relative worth of different keywords. If you want more accurate estimates of pay-per-click values for AdSense ads, use AdWords.

Google AdWords

Seeing what AdWords charges an advertiser for a given keyword is more accurate because the ads displayed by the AdSense program come from the AdWords ad pool and the AdSense fees paid to publishers are a percentage (the exact amount isn't disclosed by Google) of the AdWords fees charged to advertisers. It takes more work to get the values, however, because the information is only available to those who sign up for an AdWords account.

To see what advertisers are currently paying for keywords, you'll need to apply for an AdWords account ( To sign up, you go through the process of building an ad campaign, which isn't a complicated process. The keyword values are available to you in the second step of the process, after which you simply abandon the application. (Since you're not advertising, there's no need to actually join the AdWords program—you're just looking for keyword values.)

The process is straightforward. First, create an ad group by choosing the languages and locations you want to target ( Figure 3.3 and Figure 3.4 ). For Claude and Anita, I chose the English language and all countries. Next, assign a name to your ad group and create a dummy advertisement ( Figure 3.5 ). Be sure to enter short phrases (watch your spelling) in the title and description boxes and valid URLs (use for simplicity) in the other two boxes. Next, assign keywords to the ad group ( Figure 3.6 ).


Figure 3.3 Creating a language ad group in AdWords.


Figure 3.4 Choosing countries in which to display your ad group in AdWords.


Figure 3.5 Creating a dummy AdWords advertisement.


Figure 3.6 Choosing keywords.

For my friends, I entered the following keywords:

  • voip
  • voice over ip
  • eating well
  • weight loss

This finally brings you to the AdWords Traffic Estimator page ( Figure 3.7 ), which lists the average cost per click for each keyword you've chosen. Adjust the maximum cost per click value to $100 (AdWords won't allow you to pay more) and click the Recalculate Estimates button to revise the averages and show what the highest-paying advertisers are being charged (on average) for those keywords.


Figure 3.7 The AdWords Traffic Estimator page.

Claude, Anita and I actually spent quite a bit of time playing with the traffic estimator. You can easily change keywords and the estimator will suggest alternative keywords for you if requested. It's actually a lot of fun to do, but take the results with a grain of salt:

Again, we're talking average pay-per-click values, most of which are coming from ads shown on Google's own results pages. And it doesn't matter how well-paying the ads are—if no one's visiting your site, you won't make any money.

Other Sources

Various outfits sell lists of top-paying keywords to Web site owners looking for profitable topics. "Buyer beware" is all I'll say—remember that you can determine keyword values for free using the techniques just described.

There are also free lists of keywords available. An often-mentioned list is the one maintained by the ( advertising service. This list is pretty much dominated by keywords related to loans and gambling, so it's not that useful. Use these lists as additional sources of information, but be sure to check the values they list with Yahoo! Search Marketing or AdWords.

Assess the Competition

Once you've found a potential topic for your site, assess the competition to see what you're up against. A few Google searches using topic keywords should give you a rough estimate of how many sites already exist. Visit the top-ranked sites and ask yourself these questions:

  • Does it make sense to build another site devoted to the same topic?
  • What's going to be new/fresh/unique about your site?
  • Will visitors find your site?
  • How will you promote your site?

If the competition is already intense for a given topic, you may want to reconsider your choice of topic. Or narrow your focus and be the big fish in a small pond.

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