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Why Keyword Research Is Useful for SEO & How To Rank

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Why Keyword Research Is Useful for SEO & How To Rank

Search engines have moved away from matching keywords in search queries to keywords on webpages, a process that accelerated in 2012 with the introduction of the Hummingbird update.

The impact on SEO has been a shift in keyword research toward a deeper understanding of what words mean in different contexts and especially as a part of an overall topic.

Keyword research is still important, but in a different way than has been practiced in the past.

The strategic choice of topics and word phrases continues to be important, and this guide will show you how to research keywords in a manner that is appropriate for the way search engines appear to rank webpages today.

Keyword Dimensions

The first step for keyword research is to define what kinds of keywords you want to target.

Most of us by now know about search intent and the different kinds of intent that keywords have, so I won’t bother with that.

I’ll only point out that the intent maps to a searcher’s reason for searching, to find information, to buy something, to research something, etc.

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If you need a refresher, read this article about user search intent.

However, it is worth pointing out that choosing keywords by their search volume is not always a good approach.

There are additional keyword dimensions to consider beyond user search intents.

Keyword Dimensions

  1. Keyword Search Volume.
  2. Keyword Intent.
  3. Keyword Meaning.
  4. Keyword Latent Meaning.

There are at least six issues to consider regarding high search volume keywords:

  1. High-traffic keywords can have multiple search intents (not all of them your chosen intent).
  2. The People Also Ask feature encourages search query reformulation.
  3. High-traffic keywords don’t always convert.
  4. High-traffic keywords aren’t always relevant to the website’s goals.
  5. Google diverts some high-traffic keywords to local SERPs.
  6. Google reformulates vague queries.

The takeaway about high search volume keywords is that it’s important to research why people are searching with those search phrases and make decisions based on whether those keywords align with your goals, whether that’s to sell more products, get affiliate clicks, or more advertising revenue.

We can’t really know all the different reasons why searchers use specific high-volume keyword phrases unless we study the search results.

And once the different reasons are understood, we can begin to understand the keyword dimension of the latent meaning.

We can understand the hidden reasons why people use vague search queries because the search engines provide clues.

Clues To High Search Volume Keyword Phrases

The best keywords are those that communicate a user need that aligns with the solution a website offers.

A keyword phrase like [what’s the best home router 2022] expresses a very clear need and is a useful phrase for an electronics-related site.

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A keyword phrase like [heart attack] is vague and does not express a precise need. Often, vague keyword phrases like [heart attack] express multiple needs.

Those multiple needs are what I call a latent meaning.

Latent means hidden or not immediately apparent.

Vague keyword phrases like [heart attack] contain latent meanings and express users’ needs that are hidden within the words used in search queries.

Let’s take a look at the search query, [heart attack], as an example.

Search engines provide clues as to what users mean when they use vague search queries.

So, if you want to rank for a high-volume search query, take a look at the clues that are hidden (in plain sight) within the search results.

Here’s a screenshot of the featured snippet for the keyword phrase, [heart attack]:

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Screenshot from search for [heart attack], Google, March 2022Featured Snippet for Keyword Phrase Heart Attack

Google ranks a page about Heart Attack Symptoms for the search phrase, [heart attack]. The title of the page shows that the page is about Heart Attack Symptoms.

And here’s a really cool observation about that page.

A search for Heart Attack Symptoms shows the exact same page from CDC.gov ranking #1 for that phrase.

SERPs for Heart Attack SymptomsScreenshot from search for [heart attack symptoms], Google, March 2022SERPs for Heart Attack Symptoms

It’s clear that Google is ranking a page about Heart Attack Symptoms for the phrase [heart attack] because Google is understanding that when people search for this phrase, what people really mean is Heart Attack Symptoms.

Understand The Latent Meaning Of Keyword Phrases

Earlier in this article, I wrote that every keyword phrase has a latent meaning, a meaning that is hidden.

The above search results are an illustration of my observation.

When someone searches for [heart attack], most people are really searching for [heart attack symptoms].

What that means is that if you want to rank for the high traffic search phrase [heart attack], then what you should really optimize for is [heart attack symptoms] because according to what Google is ranking, that’s what most people mean when they search for [heart attack].

Now, let’s take a look at the rest of the SERPs and see what they tell us.

The next three top-ranked webpages (positions 2, 3, and 4) are about heart attack symptoms.

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Screenshot of SERPs for Heart AttackScreenshot from search for [heart attack], Google, March 2022Screenshot of SERPs for Heart Attack

But if you look at the page ranked in position #5, it looks like the latent keyword phrase is [what is a heart attack].

Screenshot of a Search ResultScreenshot from search for [heart attack], Google, March 2022Screenshot of a Search Result
  • Q: What is a heart attack?
    A: Myocardial Infarction
  • Q: What is a heart attack?
    A: A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart suddenly becomes blocked.

Google Ranked Positions 6, 7, 8, and 9 For [Heart Attack] Keyword

If we examine the next positions, six to nine (there is no position 10), we see something really interesting.

The next four positions have a meaning that corresponds to:

  • Symptoms of a Heart Attack.
  • What is a Heart Attack?
Google SERPs for keyword phrase, Heart AttackScreenshot from search for [heart attack], Google, March 2022Google SERPs for keyword phrase, Heart Attack

Keyword Research Should Include The Latent Meaning Research

Creating a list of keywords ranked from high volume to low volume is just a start.

High-volume keywords should be lumped together with their latent meanings, and those latent meanings should be ranked according to whether those latent meanings are top-ranked by Google or lower-ranked by Google.

For the example of the keyword phrase, [heart attack], the real keyword to chase is [heart attack symptoms] if you want to rank #1, because that’s what most people mean when they search for [heart attack], according to Google’s search results.

And the cool thing about this is that you can confirm this observation with Google Trends.

In the following screenshot, what’s notable is that the keyword phrase [heart attack symptoms] has significantly more search volume than the keyword phrase, [what is a heart attack] and also [what is heart attack].

Screenshot of Google TrendsScreenshot from Google Trends, March 2022Screenshot of Google Trends

What’s cool about the Google Trends for those two keywords is that the above trends match perfectly with what we saw in the search results for the keyword phrase, [heart attack].

The top result for the [heart attack] keyword phrase related to Heart Attack Symptoms clearly has more search volume than the secondary latent meaning, What is a Heart Attack.

Takeaways:

  • Understand all four keyword dimensions before making a decision on which keywords to create content for.
  • Search volume is just one dimension out of four for understanding the relative importance of keyword phrases for your project.
  • Traffic should not be the leading reason for choosing a keyword phrase target.

Awareness Building Phrases

There are several obvious kinds of keyword phrases that are defined by goals.

You can create lists and order those keywords by their goals.

Examples Of Typical Keyword Goals:

  • Sales (aka the money phrases).
  • Sales funnel segments.
  • Awareness building.

That last one, awareness building, can be fairly important.

It could help a site rank for competitive keywords and major keyword phrases in addition to driving direct sales. (More on this strategy a little later. Keep reading!)

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Once you match keywords to keyword goals, you can then develop content topics to address those goals that can become the building blocks of a content strategy.

The first two categories are directly sales and potential customers related; they solve a business problem directly.

The last category can be seen as grooming searchers to become customers and building recognition as a trusted site for solving problems with products, reviews, and other forms of content.

Money Phrases

The sales category focuses on what some in the SEO industry call “money phrases.”

Money phrases are so-called because they tend to convert at a higher rate.

These are keyword phrases with a commercial intent that are associated with a high level of sales (e.g., “cheap widgets” and “where to buy widgets”).

Money phrases are important (and competitive!) because they almost always result in a sale.

They are also important to ad-supported sites because the site visitor, being predisposed to making a purchase, is also more likely to click an advertisement and earn revenue for the web publisher.

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Advertisements that are associated with money phrases usually have a higher cost per click, resulting in higher advertising earnings.

That’s why these keywords are called money phrases!

The Problem With Money Phrases

Money phrases are highly competitive and difficult to rank for. That’s a given.

A more important consideration that many are unaware of is that pay-per-click (PPC) ads will siphon off traffic from the organic search results, with the rest of the traffic distributed to the organic results.

Let’s examine how to deal with this issue.

Anatomy Of Money Phrases

Aside from the obvious phrases containing words like “buy” in them, there are an additional set of (long-tail) keyword phrases that indicate a user’s intent to make an immediate purchase.

I have categorized long-tail money phrases into five categories.

Each category represents a multiplicity of keyword phrases and their variants (singular and product name variants).

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5 Money Phrase Keyword Categories

  1. Competitor comparison.
  2. Discount price searches.
  3. Product reviews and ratings.
  4. Coupon code searches.
  5. Searches for sales.

Money Phrase Keywords & Site Architecture

It’s possible to build a site around different money phrases, and to use them as the basis of creating different sections of a site.

But that’s kind of one-sided and might not build lasting repeat traffic, yet that’s an option, just not one that I am comfortable with.

For some merchants, it’s important to create content that discusses the different qualities of a product and to help a consumer choose the most suitable product.

But for now, it’s worth considering that many top-ranked sites, even ecommerce sites, are not built with a site architecture that revolves exclusively around money phrases.

Google Trends For A Comprehensive Set Of Keywords

Google Trends: Seasonal Fluctuations

A site that is comprehensive can generally weather the ups and downs of search-related cycles.

Google Trends is a good keyword research tool for identifying seasonal cycles for keywords.

It’s useful to research keywords on Google Trends to identify regular dips and rises in order to maintain steady traffic throughout the year.

Google Trends can also identify keywords that are losing appeal.

Google Trends: Regional And Changing Trends

Understanding changing trends, as well as regional patterns, will better help you to know when to roll out certain kinds of content, whether to abandon a keyword phrase and even to help identify the best regions to focus your link building on.

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This is an important insight!

Google Trends comparison Taxi vs Uber vs. Yellow cabScreenshot from Google TrendsGoogle Trends comparison Taxi vs Uber vs. Yellow cab

In the example above, it is clear that the search phrase [Uber] is wildly popular compared to the generic phrase [taxi].

The trend line also shows that the phrase taxi is trending downward.

Comparing keywords with brand names is highly useful to confirm suspicions of why a keyword phrase may change, trending up or down.

For example, the keyword trends for [digital cameras] trended downward with the introduction of the iPhone.

Another example is a comparison of the trends between the phrases [radio station] and the brand name “Spotify.”

The phrase [radio station] is trending downward while the brand name “Spotify” is trending upward.

There is no direct correlation between the two trends; the trend does not mean that Spotify is eating into the demand for radio.

But it does point to a change in how people are consuming music.

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Insight: When you see a traffic decline even though your rankings are unchanged, it can sometimes mean there is a change in consumer behavior tied to the introduction of a new product or service.

Google Trends: Compare Known Keywords

Google Trends only shows relative traffic levels. It does not show the exact number of queries.

However, if you have an idea of keyword volume for one keyword phrase, then you can compare that keyword phrase to a target phrase in order to get a close estimate of what the actual search volume is.

Google publishes a daily list of trending searches that contain a rounded-up search volume.

It’s possible to use that list with actual search volume attached to search queries to compare with keywords that you’re researching and get a pretty close estimate of what the search volume is.

Google Trends: Related Queries

Google Trends has a feature called Related Queries that can be useful for teasing out possible latent meanings within vague keywords.

As can be seen in the screenshot below, the related query for the keyword phrase [heart attack] is the keywords [heart attack keywords].

Related QueriesScreenshot from Google Trends, March 2022Related Queries

That’s pretty interesting how the top “related query” ([heart attack symptoms]) exactly matches the latent meaning for the keyword [heart attack], which is what we saw in Google’s search results.

Using the Google Trends tool like this could be helpful for understanding which keywords to choose in order to rank for high search volume keyword phrases, or to help you decide to devote your time to better keywords (because traffic is not everything).

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The Related Queries feature offers two settings within the drop-down menu:

Select Top to see what queries are related, including what appears to be latent meanings within vague keyword phrases.

Google Trends Related Queries Dropdown MenuScreenshot from Google Trends, March 2022Google Trends Related Queries Dropdown Menu

Lastly, select the most relevant category of the topic from the top dropdown menu.

Google Trends Default CategoryScreenshot from Google Trends, March 2022Google Trends Default Category

Because we’re searching for medical information, choose the Health Category:

Google Trends Search CategoriesScreenshot from Google Trends, March 2022Google Trends Search Categories

Should You Worry About Latent Semantic Indexing Or LSI Keywords?

In a word, no.

Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI) is a very old technology, developed nearly 20 years ago.

While LSI may be in use in some form, perhaps to identify stop words in a document, it’s a super old technology, and we are in the age of Natural Language Processing and AI in search.

Background reading about Latent Semantic Indexing:

Google’s John Mueller is on record saying that LSI is not something that any competent SEO should be thinking about.

According to John Mueller:

“First of all, we have no concept of LSI keywords. So that’s something you can completely ignore.

I think it’s interesting to look at LSI when you’re thinking about understanding information retrieval as a theoretical or computer science topic.

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But as an SEO you probably don’t need to worry about that.”

Should You Use Keyword Synonyms?

With the advent of the Hummingbird update, Google started using strategies like keyword expansion in order to select the best answer to a search query from a broader selection of webpages.

Query expansion can use synonyms to expand the original search query.

The goal for query expansion is to identify more webpages that are relevant.

The goal is not to rank webpages that contain the keyword phrase and synonyms. That’s not how it works.

So, the answer really is no, adding synonyms is not a way to rank better and this can be verified by looking at the search results.

Third-Party Keyword Tools

All third-party keyword tools use a proprietary source of keyword data that is used to calculate an estimate of actual keyword search inventory.

So, it’s not an exact count of keyword inventory, it’s an estimate.

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Nevertheless, the tools provide excellent opportunities for speeding up the keyword research process and that is a significant value to investigate to see how it fits into your process.

Keyword Research Is More Than Search Volume

In the old days, researching keywords used to be an easy process of identifying the phrases with the highest search volume. That’s no longer the case.

Today, it’s important to cross-check the search results, and go deep into understanding what a keyword phrase means for a user and what they’re trying to accomplish.

It’s also important to think in terms of topics.

In 2018, Google added what it calls a Topic Layer in order to understand topics and subtopics from all the content on the internet and identify content that is evergreen (relevant year after year).

These are the kinds of challenges the modern SEO faces today, to expand the research process beyond search volume in order to keep up with how search engines rank content today.

More Resources:


Featured Image: Paulo Bobita/Search Engine Journal

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All in-post images created by author, March 2022

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How We Used a Video Course to Promote Ahrefs (And Got 500K+ Views)

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How We Used a Video Course to Promote Ahrefs (And Got 500K+ Views)

Creating and selling educational courses can be a lucrative business. But if you already have a product to sell, you can actually use courses as a marketing tool.

Back in 2017, about two years after joining Ahrefs, I decided to create a course on content marketing.

I had a very clear understanding of how an educational course would help me promote Ahrefs.

  • People like courses – Folks like Brian Dean and Glen Allsopp were selling theirs for $500 to $2,000 a pop (and rather successfully). So a free course of comparable quality was sure to get attention.
  • Courses allow for a deeper connection – You would basically be spending a few hours one on one with your students. And if you managed to win their trust, you’d get an opportunity to promote your product to them.

That was my raw thought process going into this venture.

And I absolutely didn’t expect that the lifespan of my course would be as interesting and nuanced as it turned out to be.

The lessons of my course have generated over 500K+ in total views, brought in mid-five-figures in revenue (without even trying), and turned out to be a very helpful resource for our various marketing purposes.

So here goes the story of my “Blogging for Business” course.

1. The creation

I won’t give you any tips on how to create a successful course (well, maybe just one). There are plenty of resources (courses?) on that topic already.

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All I want to say is that my own experience was quite grueling.

The 10 lessons of my course span some 40K words. I have never attempted the feat of writing a book, but I imagine creating such a lengthy course is as close as it gets.

Scripts of the course in Google Docs.

I spent a tremendous amount of time polishing each lesson. The course was going to be free, so it was critical that my content was riveting. If not, people would just bounce from it.

Paid courses are quite different in that sense. You pay money to watch them. So even if the content is boring at times, you’ll persevere anyway to ensure a return on your investment.

When I showed the draft version of the course to my friend, Ali Mese, he gave me a simple yet invaluable tip: “Break your lessons into smaller ones. Make each just three to four minutes long.”

How did I not think of this myself? 

Short, “snackable” lessons provide a better sense of completion and progress. You’re also more likely to finish a short lesson without getting distracted by something. 

I’m pretty sure that it is because of this simple tip that my course landed this Netflix comparison (i.e., best compliment ever):

2. The strategy

With the prices of similar courses ranging from $500 to $2,000, it was really tempting to make some profit with ours.

I think we had around 15,000 paying customers at Ahrefs at that time (and many more on the free plan). So if just 1% of them bought that course for $1K, that would be an easy $150K to pocket. And then we could keep upselling it to our future customers.

Alternatively, we thought about giving access to the course to our paying customers only. 

This might have boosted our sales, since the course was a cool addition to the Ahrefs subscription. 

And it could also improve user retention. The course was a great training resource for new employees, which our customers would lose access to if they canceled their Ahrefs subscription.

And yet, releasing it for free as a lead acquisition and lead nurturing play seemed to make a lot more sense than the other two options. So we stuck to that.

3. The waitlist

Teasing something to people before you let them get it seems like one of the fundamental rules of marketing.

  • Apple announces new products way before they’re available in stores. 
  • Movie studios publish trailers of upcoming movies months (sometimes years) before they hit the theaters. 
  • When you have a surprise for your significant other (or your kids), you can’t help but give them some hints before the reveal.

There’s something about “the wait” and the anticipation that we humans just love to experience.

So while I was toiling away and putting lessons of my course together, we launched a landing page to announce it and collect people’s emails.

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The landing page of the course.

In case someone hesitated to leave their email, we had two cool bonuses to nudge them:

  1. Access to the private Slack community
  2. Free two-week trial of Ahrefs

The latter appealed to freebie lovers so much that it soon “leaked” to Reddit and BlackHatWorld. In hindsight, this leak was actually a nice (unplanned) promo for the course.

4. The promotion

I don’t remember our exact promotion strategy. But I’m pretty sure it went something like this:

I also added a little “sharing loop” to the welcome email. I asked people to tell their friends about the course, justifying it with the fact that taking the course with others was more fun than doing it alone.

Welcome email with a "sharing loop."

I have no idea how effective that “growth hack” was, but there was no reason not to encourage sharing.

In total, we managed to get some 16,000 people on our waitlist by the day of the course launch.

5. The launch

On a set date, the following email went out to our waitlist:

Course launch email.

Did you notice the “note” saying that the videos were only available for free for 30 days? We did that to nudge people to watch them as soon as possible and not save them to the “Watch later” folder.

In retrospect, I wish we had used this angle from the very beginning: “FREE for 30 days. Then $799.”

This would’ve killed two birds with one stone: 

  1. Added an urgency to complete the course as soon as possible
  2. Made the course more desirable by assigning a specific (and rather high) monetary value to it

(If only we could be as smart about predicting the future as we are about reflecting on the past.) 

Once it was live, the course started to promote itself. I was seeing many super flattering tweets:

We then took the most prominent of those tweets and featured them on the course landing page for some social proof. (They’re still there, by the way.)

6. The paywall

Once the 30 days of free access ran out, we added a $799 paywall. And it didn’t take long for the first sale to arrive:

This early luck didn’t push us to focus on selling this course, though. We didn’t invest any effort into promoting it. It was just sitting passively in our Academy with a $799 price tag, and that was it.

And yet, despite the lack of promotion, that course was generating 8-10 sales every month—which were mostly coming from word of mouth.

A comment in TrafficThinkTank.
Eric Siu giving a shout-out about my course in TTT Slack.

Thanks to its hefty price, my course soon appeared on some popular websites with pirated courses. And we were actually glad that it did. Because that meant more people would learn about our content and product.

Then some people who were “late to the party” started asking me if I was ever going to reopen the course for free again. This actually seemed like a perfectly reasonable strategy at the time:

7. The giveaways

That $799 price tag also turned my free course into a pretty useful marketing tool. It was a perfect gift for all sorts of giveaways on Twitter, on podcasts, during live talks, and so on.

Giving away the course during a live talk.
Me giving away the course during a live talk.

And whenever we partnered with someone, they were super happy to get a few licenses of the course, which they could give out to their audience.

8. The relaunch

Despite my original plan to update and relaunch this course once a year, I got buried under other work and didn’t manage to find time for it.

And then the pandemic hit. 

That’s when we noticed a cool trend. Many companies were providing free access to their premium educational materials. This was done to support the “stay at home” narrative and help people learn new skills.

I think it was SQ who suggested that we should jump on that train with my “Blogging for Business” course. And so we did:

We couldn’t have hoped for a better timing for that relaunch. The buzz was absolutely insane. The announcement tweet alone has generated a staggering 278K+ impressions (not without some paid boosts, of course).

The statistics of the course announcement tweet.

We also went ahead and reposted that course on ProductHunt once again (because why not?).

All in all, that relaunch turned out to be even more successful than the original launch itself. 

In the course of their lifespan on Wistia, the 40 video lessons of my course generated a total of 372K plays.

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Play count from Wistia.

And this isn’t even the end of it.

9. The launch on YouTube

Because the course was now free, it no longer made sense to host it at Wistia. So we uploaded all lessons to YouTube and made them public.

To date, the 41 videos of my course have generated about 187K views on YouTube.

"Blogging for Business" course playlist.

It’s fair to mention that we had around 200,000 subscribers on our channel at the time of publishing my course there. A brand-new channel with no existing subscribers will likely generate fewer views.

10. The relaunch on YouTube [coming soon]

Here’s an interesting observation that both Sam and I made at around the same time. 

Many people were publishing their courses on YouTube as a single video spanning a few hours rather than cutting them into individual lessons like we did. And those long videos were generating millions of views!

Like these two, ranking at the top for “learn Python course,” which have 33M and 27M views, respectively:

"Learn python course" search on YouTube.

So we decided to run a test with Sam’s “SEO for Beginners” course. It was originally published on YouTube as 14 standalone video lessons and generated a total of 140K views.

Well, the “single video” version of that same course has blown it out of the water with over 1M views as of today.

I’m sure you can already tell where I’m going with this.

We’re soon going to republish my “Blogging for Business” course on YouTube as a single video. And hopefully, it will perform just as well.

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The end

So that’s the story of my “Blogging for Business” course. From the very beginning, it was planned as a promotional tool for Ahrefs. And judging by its performance, I guess it fulfilled its purpose rather successfully.

A screenshot of a Slack message.

Don’t get me wrong, though. 

The fact that my course was conceived as a promotional tool doesn’t mean that I didn’t pour my heart and soul into it. It was a perfectly genuine and honest attempt to create a super useful educational resource for content marketing newbies.

And I’m still hoping to work on the 2.0 version of it someday. In the past four years, I have accrued quite a bit more content marketing knowledge that I’m keen to share with everyone. So follow me on Twitter, and stay tuned.



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