Conducting keyword research is a little like trying to read the minds of your target audience.
Keywords are an incredibly important part of SEO (search engine optimization) as they’re the terms and phrases that internet users plug into a search engine in order to find information about a subject.
This guide is going to walk you through the basics of researching keywords. Hopefully, you’ll come out the other end understanding how to get the most out of this process, how to unearth the words and phrases that matter, and just as how you should use them to plan your SEO strategy.
Let’s dive into it!
Keyword research is the practice of identifying what words and phrases people type into search engines like Google or Bing and then using those to define your SEO goals and help you map out your master plan.
Essentially, it’s about finding out what people are asking for in order to make sure that your website is the answer they get.
Why is it important?
When people are ready to make a purchase, 64% of them immediately turn to a search engine to point them in the right direction. Showing up on the first SERP (search engine results page) is particularly critical for smaller location-based business, with 88% of those who make local searches on their smartphones visiting local stores that same week.
By knowing what people are searching online, which is possible if know how to conduct keyword research, you’re already a few steps ahead of your competition.
Keyword research is literally the foundation of any SEO campaign.
Search engine algorithms use keywords (and other factors) on your website to determine whether your website is relevant to any given search or not.
If you want to be found, you have to know what keywords to use for matching your site with what people may type in search when looking for a solution that you can offer.
From there, you’re able to define your SEO goals and set up a plan for that:
- What keywords you want to target
- What keywords, phrases, topics can help you create engaging content to attract your target audience.
- What to avoid when you don’t have enough resources to compete with your big competitors.
- What keywords that convert that you should put more effort into.
Keywords can be categorized depending on their length, the searcher’s intent behind them, and whether or not they’re branded.
These are one or two words that fall into broad categories, like “vegan shampoo” or “peanut butter”. They’re usually very competitive and incredibly hard to rank for.
These phrases or sentences should have at least four words long and hyper-specific. They aren’t nearly as commonly searched as shorter phrases.
They range from relatively straightforward things like, “where to buy gluten-free shampoo”, “best tools for keyword research”. Most of the time, it’s much easier to rank for long-tail keywords.
Generally, people rely on full phrases for the purpose of research and information gathering. Think “what are organic shampoos ingredients” or “guide to repairing a bicycle”.
These are generally long-tail by nature and may include modifiers like “guide”, “review”, “how to”, etc. They’re much like long-tail keywords.
Transactional (or Buyer) keywords
These are what people search when they’ve made the decision to buy something. Usually, they’ll include vendor terms or locational phrases, like “company”, “services”, “in Gatlinburg, TN”. And some may be modified with the word “buy” or “price”.
Often, transactional keywords are short- or medium-tail.
Navigational (or Branded) keywords
These are easy to overlook but incredibly important. Navigational or branded keywords literally include the name of your company or product.
If people specifically search for your company name, your website better be the first result! Also, beware that competitors may bid on your branded keywords in an attempt to redirect traffic to their site through paid ads.
The process of finding keywords might be a little mystifying for someone new to the world of web optimization. This is truly where the mind-reading aspect of SEO comes into play.
There’re a whole lot of tools and tricks helping us find what a customer or reader may search for based on a core keyword. Let’s find out what they are.
Start off with Core Keywords
Your first step is to think of a few seed keywords. This is easy enough to do on your own.
Let’s say your product is gluten-free shampoo. Your seed is probably going to be “gluten-free shampoo”, “gluten-free shampoo reviews”, or “shampoo without gluten”.
Once you have your seeds, you’ll be able to search for related words and phrases. Let’s talk about how else to find keywords.
A lot of other research guides will overlook this step. However, it’s always useful to take a second and use your own noggin first.
- Can you think of any words or phrases your audience might be interested in?
- The next time you communicate with a client, can you briefly ask them what they Googled to find you?
- If you were looking for your own type of service or blog, what would you search if you were a layperson?
It’s okay if you can only come up with a couple of ideas (or none at all). Maybe you’ll even find that some of these ideas aren’t worth trying after doing more research.
The important part is that you’re stepping into the mind of your audience to see things from their point of view. Practice a little empathy here! And keep that perspective in mind throughout this whole process.
Plain and simple, put the core keywords from the previous step into keyword generators and let them do the job.
There are tons and tons of free sites out there that will suggest keywords. That being said, paid sites tend to offer more option and data.
Let’s go over some of the most commonly used tools:
Keyword Planner (Free/Paid)
Keywords Everywhere (Free)
There’re also premium keyword explorer tools from Ahrefs, Moz, SEMrush. These are the industry-leading companies so it’s understandable that you may find them a bit pricey. But one thing for sure they offer really great data and features. Normally, just sticking with only one of those will be enough.
Plug in your seed keyword, industry type, blog subject, product, or whatever you like, and these tools will suggest related keywords. Chances are that you’ll get dozens, if not hundreds or even thousands of words and phrases. Many of them will be closely related or virtually identical save for a few changes in wording.
Export everything you’ve found. Put them all together in a spreadsheet. And remove duplicates.
The best way to figure out what you should be doing is by tracking what terms your competitors are ranking for. Fortunately, there are a number of nifty tools out there to evaluate the competition.
One of the most popular tools that I recommend is Ahrefs Site Explorer.
- Go to Google, search for the main keyphrase of your industry or a topic that you’d like to target.
- Copy the top 3 (or 5) URLs/links of the search result.
- For each of those links: Paste them into Ahrefs Site Explorer and run the tool.
- Navigate to Organic Keywords section to see what keywords their site ranks for.
This way, you will find tons of keyword & topic ideas that can keep you busy for a whole year.
Note: You don’t need to pick every sing keyword they are ranked for, because chances are, there will be many keywords that are irrelevant and completely off-topic.
Just try to pick out the most common ones, particularly if multiple competitors are ranking for them. If you’re a location-locked business (like a local service or shop), try to home in on local competitors the best you can.
Alright, so you’ve got a growing list of hot topics and all the phrases your competitors are fighting over. The bar is set – now it’s time to see how you already measure against it.
Google Search Console (Google Webmaster) actually offers a way to measure your current performance, so you can get hear how you’re doing straight from the horse’s mouth. It has the option to evaluate your own every keyword’s position that your site’s ranking for, according to Google’s own rules.
Follow these steps to find all your low-ranking keywords:
Search Console → Performance → Queries → Position (adjust the date if needed)
In addition, you can apply the exact method above using Ahrefs to find all the keywords your site’s ranking. Instead of using competitors’ links, put directly your domain in there.
Wikipedia, Quora, and Niche Forums
Look at the things people mention in reviews, read the questions people ask, and see what’s on the Wikipedia page for your industry.
The beauty of our present-day internet is that there’s a forum for every conceivable subject.
Honestly, forums and Quora are one of the most underutilized tools for marketing research, particularly if you’re working with a niche market category.
What common themes do you see mentioned? What are the related topics?
Are they using any lingo or specific jargon? Are there any common questions being asked? (Hint: you can also use these keyphrases and lingo for content ideas)
Google and YouTube Suggest Answer The Public
When you type in a search query or at the bottom of a search result page, have you noticed how Google and YouTube will suggest related phrases and words? Better write those down!
Already feel frustrated doing this kind of manual work?
You’re in luck. There’s a tool called AnswerThePublic that helps us collect all the auto suggest results from search engines, and “People also ask” questions in Google.
To me, this is no different than a goldmine. Not only saves us lots of time from manual tasks, but also provides a tremendous amount of longtail keywords and insights into user search behavior behind a particular topic.
Especially helpful when you’re seeking out ideas to write a detailed and informative article.
Use Google Trend to find related queries and topics
Google Trend is a pretty underrated tool when it comes to keyword research.
As you can see, it doesn’t provide much keyword data like other tools.
But that’s also the key. It lets me understand how Google is looking at a topic, what the related parent topics are, and related queries that I could possibly include in any piece of content.
As in this article, for example, I’m not really a big fan of the tool Keywords Everywhere. However, the way Google seeing this as strongly related queries to “keyword research” makes me think… maybe I should mention or talk about this tool for a bit.
It never hurts to provide readers more useful information, right?
Not all keywords are equally as valuable, and it’s impractical to try to optimize for each and every one. But just because a keyword is at the top of the list doesn’t necessarily mean you should focus on it to the exclusion of less popular words.
It can be a bit of a balancing act, trying to determine which keywords are worth your time and which aren’t. That’s why it’s important to check a keyword’s metrics. In other words, you have to figure out the numbers and data behind a word or phrase and decide if it’s worth pursuing.
Let’s go over some common metrics, what they’ll tell you, and where they’re most useful.
This is the number of times a certain keyword is searched, averaged over a given timeframe (usually per month). Search volume is probably the most basic and unrefined search metric to track.
It’s useful for determining seasonality (are people only searching for gluten-free shampoo at Christmas?), as well as general popularity of certain words and phrases.
Most of the keyword suggest tools will show you this metric but they’re not all the same number. Each has a different method to provide a keyword’s search volume.
My advice is that don’t worry much about this discrepancy.
Even Google Keyword Planner is not really going to get you accurate data as everyone thinks it should, according to this article from Moz. It doesn’t always account for misspellings of the same word or phrase. It also uses large numerical buckets to round up higher-volume results, so it loses accuracy as popularity increases.
The real problem with this metric, however, is that it doesn’t provide sufficient detail to give you the whole picture. Search volume is not congruent with traffic!
For instance, on broad or popular topics, Google will often serve up SERP features, like graphs, rich snippets, information cards, and so on.
That means someone will search for “1980s movies” and get a carousel of some of the most popular films from the ’80s. Your movie review blog may appear on the first page, but it might not get many clicks because searchers will see a few titles in the carousel and leave.
And on top of that, have you had any idea that only 60.67% of all “search demand” is coming from short/generic keywords (with 1001+ search volume)?
Meaning if you just try to rank for high volume generic keywords, you may still be missing out around 40% potential traffic coming from long-tail searches, from people who are after the same result.
All in all, search volume is useful as a starting point, but it isn’t enough on its own.
Keyword difficulty (or keyword competition) is a one-number score made up of a combination of factors. It is meant to tell you how hard it is to rank for a keyword.
Again, depending on the platform you use, you may get a different difficulty ranking for the same keyword.
Primarily, it includes the relative strength of other websites competing for a given word or phrase as determined by a variety of competitor site ranking signals.
These signals usually don’t include on-page SEO factors but look more at page and domain authority as a whole. Usually, a keyword that high authority URLs standing as top positions will result in a high difficulty score.
In other words, keyword difficulty is also telling you how competitive and how strong the websites that you have to compete with for ranking a specific word or keyphrase.
Sometimes, a keyword isn’t worth investing in because of the sheer number of competitors you’re fighting against.
CPC (Cost Per Click)
If you’re running a paid search campaign, you must be familiar with CPC – how much you pay for each time user click on your search ads. It can range anywhere from fractions of pennies to hundreds of dollars per click.
Why does this matter to SEO?
Straightforwardly, it lets you know how hot the target keyword is and how much industry competitors bid for it.
Nothing much to say about a search query where no one’s bidding on it.
But how about a keyword that everyone’s willing to pay $50 per click or even more?
Imagine if you’re able to get the top rankings for that one. No matter what the difficulty is, this keyword is definitely worth after as long as you have the resources and ROI calculated.
Which Should You Rely on?
It depends on your unique circumstances and how much money you have to spend.
Ideally, you’ll make decisions using a combination of metrics, but sometimes you’ll get conflicting results depending on what you look at and who you use to gather data. This is where a good deal of critical thinking and – honestly – a lot of experience is most useful.
- Do you want to put in a lot of time and effort to snag a few difficult keywords, which could be a risky yet potentially profitable investment?
- Do you want to focus on a few specific, long-tail keywords that don’t have a lot of competition, but also don’t have a particularly high search volume?
The answers depend on your company’s size, budget, and goals.
Congrats! You’ve done the research, you’ve got a huge list of keywords related to your niche, your product or service.
Now’s the time to narrow it down and plan your implementation strategy.
Think about Intent
Let’s briefly go over the consumer journey as it applies to modern consumers on the web.
First, people have a need – for a product, a service, a tutorial/guide. They do a little internet sleuthing and, if your name pops up, they gain the initial awareness of your brand.
From there, they do more research and evaluate their options, comparing you and your competitors. Then comes what Google famously calls the Zero Moment of Truth. This is the point where a consumer makes their decision based on all their acquired knowledge.
Remember those keyword types from earlier? Transactional and informational keywords were all about determining a searcher’s intent.
People who start off looking up informational keywords are likely in the beginning stages of the consumer journey. That means they’re doing their research and trying to get a feel for their options.
For transactional keywords, they know what they want. At this point, they’re trying to find the right deal.
When you’re creating content, consider at what point in the decision-making process someone will find it and where they’ll go after they see your stuff. Google will lead them to where their search input takes them. Now, you can lead to them the next step.
Plan the Architecture of Your Site
Once have in mind of what the customer journey looks like, let’s keep going down this path – get everything you researched in order.
Considering that the simplest approach to organizing things is to go broad to narrow and clearly, site structure is the highest level we can think of.
Here’s what to do next…
Take that gargantuan list of keywords you researched so far and sort them all into user’s search intent.
Try to fit your site into this template which is based on how a common website is usually made up of:
- Company pages: About | Contact | Policies | Testimonials
→ Optimize for Branded keywords
- Money pages: Service pages | Local pages | Product categories
→ Optimize for Transactional keywords
- Blog posts: Content creation
→ Optimize for Informational keywords
- Others: Depends on niches
Do you see where this is going? We group keywords and get the right pages optimized for them.
Plan on Content Creation
Keeping sets of informational keywords under different umbrellas helps you stay organized along the way, plan content campaigns more effectively, and to avoid keyword cannibalization.
You can be as arbitrary as you want in this step, as this sorting is mainly for your own benefit. Keep sorting by intent, or sort by broad topic – it’s up to you.
How to group by parent topic
First off, you need to list out all possible big topics. Most of the time they are short-tail keywords with decently high search volumes. Here are two methods:
- Pick up subtopics in Wikipedia Category (or in niche forums) as I explained from earlier.
- Manually select generic keywords to act as the “parent”. Ahrefs Keyword Explorer does have a feature showing which keywords are popular enough to act as parent topics and its related child keywords.
For each of these parent topics, gather all other closely related keywords (no matter long-tail or short-tail) that have the same common denominator.
E.g. Assuming that some of your keywords are about addressing “[product X] benefits”, “types of [product X]”, and “best [product X] brands”. It’s better to group them under “[product X]” and lump all that information into one comprehensive “Ultimate Guide to [product X]” article than have three separate pages for each.
This technique is quite similar to topic clusters, meaning you create a long-form, giant pillar page based on a parent topic that then links to other related subtopic articles.
Search engines have been evolving non-stop. Especially since Google Hummingbird Update in 2013 which was the first push towards valuing comprehensive, long-form content instead of a dozen little pages each devoted to small topics.
So not every keyword needs its own bespoke article or page and it’s totally possible to have a single page rank high on the SERPs for multiple related keyphrases.
Focus On What Matters
By no means are you required to include every last keyword you’ve unearthed and determined to be valuable. My guide to reading keyword metrics above will surely help you come up with the decision.
Eventually, every business, every niche is different, you have to use your own judgment to decide what’s worth pursuing and what isn’t. Get creative. Think about it critically.
Consider What Success Looks Like to You
It’s useful to set concrete numerical goals like “increase traffic by 400% in two months”, but that’s not to say that not meeting that goal means you’ve failed. Sometimes, having someone visit your website and having a good experience getting the information they need is a success.
It might sound counterintuitive when I say that a large part of your success… isn’t always that measurable.
As there isn’t always a direct one-to-one impact of any SEO tactic. Going up so many ranking spots for a certain keyword isn’t necessarily going to correlate to X more phone calls or Y more subscribers.
You’ll certainly see numbers increase, but they’ll most likely come about because of a robust SEO strategy combined with overall high-quality content and a user-friendly website.
The whole is worth more than the sum of its parts, isn’t it? So good keyword research and implementation have to be part of a larger strategy aimed at giving users a better experience.
A great way to broaden your view while keeping numbers in mind is to think about other different kinds of goals. You may think it’s all about conversion rate, traffic, rankings. Sometimes, it’s okay to have goals that are just plain and simple:
- Rank for High-bidding or Transactional keywords only and willing to drop all Informational terms (or vice versa)
- Produce content just for search engines to understand what your site is about
- Produce content just to prove you’re an expert in your niche or area
You see, setting goals like this clearly helps to narrow down the keyword list, and basically shows you the direction of what needed to do next.
Let’s say my goal is “Produce content just for search engines to understand what your site is about”. My plan is simply collecting informational keywords and categorize them into technical topics in my niche. While it’s not necessarily serving for human reading, I wouldn’t worry much about the quality of content.
Consider what you want to achieve long- & short-term, and tailor your strategy to make it happen.
Tips to Create Content that’s Good for SEO
Once you have the content creation plan down, you’ll be able to generate creative work that could potentially get your site ranking for a massive amount of long-tail keywords.
But guess what? Having a lot of content on your site doesn’t always pay off if you got it the wrong way around.
Don’t Try to Game the Algorithm
There are a lot of skeevy SEO tactics out there used by companies looking to inflate their rankings. Using computer-generated content, keyword stuffing, putting white text on a white background so web crawlers can see it but humans won’t notice, and so on.
Those old school tricks won’t work. Maybe you’ll jump in search rankings in the short-term, but the engineers at Google and Bing are pretty smart. They know how people try to trick the system and will actually drop all your rankings if their system finds out you’re doing something sketchy.
If in doubt, consult the official Google Webmaster Guidelines. Use your time to create well-written, meaningful content instead of trying to cheat like a kid on a high school exam.
Focus on Your Audience above All Else
As marketers in today’s digital age, we want to believe that hard data is king. Google’s algorithm is just a fancy math problem, and if you plug in the right numbers, you’re sure to come out on top, right?
But here’s the main issue with that…
Your true audience isn’t computers. Your audience doesn’t care how many keywords you stuff in, how perfectly optimized your page is. They just want to read good, relevant content that solves their problems.
If your visitors see a thousand words of bland keyword mumbo jumbo, they likely won’t be there for any longer than it takes for them to move their cursor to exit out.
That explains why many content-heavy websites still have a hard time converting visitors into customers.
Besides, Google has been making a lot of pushes in recent years to boost sites they can tell are legitimately capturing viewers’ attention. It’s not enough to just tick off a box and expect to be first – you have to work for it.
All that to say, don’t obsess over keywords, focus on user intent first.
That’s a whole lot of information, isn’t it? Don’t stress if you can’t take it all in at once. It’s okay to finetune your site over time and make tweaks as needed. It doesn’t need to be perfect from the jump.
To review, let’s go over some key points.
- Keywords are categorized according to length (short-, medium-, and long-tail) or searcher intent. The shorter and more general the term, the harder it will be to rank for it. Conversely, there tends to be less competition for long-tail terms.
- Pick out your seed keyword first. It’s easiest to just describe your company or product in a few words.
- Browse forums, platforms, and take advantage of the free and paid keyword suggest tools at your disposal to generate massive keyword ideas.
- Analyze and drop keywords that aren’t worth pursuing by checking 3 metrics: search volume, keyword difficulty, cost per click.
- Get your keywords list organized, struct your site, plan your content strategy based on what you researched and what success looks like to you.
- Focus on making good content that people want to read, not just something you think a search algorithm will like.
Keyword research may be a frustrating process. You’ll end up with a lot of data to sift through and find a lot of conflicting thoughts across your mind on deciding what to prioritize, how to apply this strategy into your own site.
Not to be glib, but try not to stress too hard over it. At the end of the day, it definitely pays off as you’ve done the most important part of a larger SEO strategy which will only lead you in the right direction.