I get this question quite often, so my answer is starting to sound a little canned, but it’s useful none the less.

Lets say you own a local shoe repair shop and you have a small website.  If you optimize a page for ‘leather and suede shoe repair’ will you rank for both ‘leather shoe repair’ and ‘suede shoe repair’?

You follow all the steps – the phrase is in your title, Meta tags, header tags, hyperlinks, primary navigation, and content. 

In theory, you should show some rank for both phrases, but it won’t get you nearly the results that an exact match will get you.  So what would I do?  I would have a category page for ‘Leather and Suede Shoe Repair’ where you discuss how the repair of these two materials is unique compared to others (I would imagine). 

Then I would add two sub-category pages off of this page.  One for ‘Leather Shoe Repair’ and another for ‘Suede Shoe Repair’.  Each page would, of course, have unique content that speaks ONLY about its topic (i.e. leather shoe content for the leather repair page… suede shoe content for the suede repair page).

This will do two things for you:

1) Search engines will LOVE the content organization… looks like a nice little hierarchy of content.  Engines will give some benefit to the category page for both search phrases, but they will give preferential treatment to each sub-category page for the exact match of the phrase.  I have documented my client success with this strategy for the past 5 years.  There’s no doubt – it works!

2) Usability studies show that people want exact information related to their search, and they want it immediately.  If John Jackson searches for “leather shoe repair”, he’ll be frustrated to get a general page that discusses many types of repair.  Conversely, Mr. Jackson will be elated if he is delivered to a page that discusses exactly what he was looking for…”leather shoe repair”.  In my own studies conducted throughout 2008, conversions (leads/sales) jumped more than 237%, simply by delivering the most exact content to match the visitors search query.

Yes, this might mean you have to grow your website out a bit.  But here’s another piece of advice I’ll discuss in a future post… the thicker your site, the more trust you build with your audience.  In almost every case study I have managed, a 50 page website will continually outperform a 5 page website in ranking, trust building, and conversions.