Keyword research is one of the most important, valuable, and profitable activities in the field of search engine marketing. Through the detective work of analyzing the demand for keywords in your market, you will learn not only which terms and phrases you should target with SEO, but also more about your customers as a whole.
Keyword research can help you predict shifts in demand, respond to changing market conditions, and produce the products, services, and content that web searchers are already actively looking for. In the history of marketing, there has never been such a low barrier to entry to understanding consumer motivations in virtually any niche.
Every search term entered into a search engine is recorded in one way or another, and keyword research tools like the ones we discuss in this chapter allow you to retrieve that information. However, these tools cannot (directly) show you how valuable or important it might be to rank for and get traffic from these search queries.
This article goes through the details of keyword research for SEO.
Table of Contents
What is a Keyword?
A keyword is any phrase you would like your site to rank for in Google’s search results. A keyword can be a single word, or a keyword can also be a combination of words. If you are trying to target a single word, look out! You will have your work cut out for you. Single word keywords are extremely competitive, and difficult to rank highly for in the search results.
Here’s some different kinds of keywords:
- Head-term keywords: keywords with one to two words, i.e. classic movies.
- Long-tail keywords: keywords with three or more phrases, i.e. classic Akira Kurosawa movies.
- Navigational keywords: keywords used to locate a brand or website. Examples would be Facebook, YouTube or Gmail.
- Informational keywords: keywords used to find information about a particular topic. This includes keywords beginning with “how to…” or “what are the best…”
- Transactional keywords: keywords entered into Google by customers wanting to complete a commercial action, i.e. buy jackets online.
In most cases, targeting head-term or navigational keywords for other brands is competitive and not worth the time or effort. Despite their high traffic numbers, they will generally not lead to any sales.
On the other hand, long-tail, informational and transactional keywords are good keywords for most SEO projects. They will lead to more customers.
Why Is Keyword Research Important?
Keyword research is the most important step of every SEO project for two reasons:
- To discover keywords with traffic. Otherwise, you could waste lots of time and effort trying to rank for keywords that don’t generate any traffic.
- To find keywords easy to rank in the search results. If you don’t investigate keyword competitiveness, you can waste lots of time and effort into a keyword, only to find it is far too difficult to rank on the first page.
These two goals are the ultimate decider on how successful an SEO project is.
Elements of Keyword Research
There are three main elements to pay attention to when conducting keyword research.
Relevance is a key factor in ranking content on Google. The concept of search intent plays a key role here. If your content meets the needs of the searchers, it will rank for that keyword. Additionally, your content must be the best one available for the query. If your content has less value than other content on the web, then why would Google rank it higher?
Sources it deems authoritative will be given more weight by Google. Having helpful, informational content on your site and promoting that content to earn social signals and backlinks will position you as an authoritative source. The chance of ranking is less likely unless your content is exceptional if you’re not seen as an authority in the space, or if the SERPs for a keyword are heavy with sources you can’t compete with (like Forbes or The Mayo Clinic).
Even if you rank highest for a keyword, if nobody searches for it, you won’t get traffic. This is the equivalent of setting up business in a ghost town.
The monthly search volume (MSV) measures the number of times a keyword is searched per month across all audiences.
How to Do Keyword Research for SEO
Keyword research gives you insight into the queries that your target audience is actually searching for on Google. These actual search terms can give you valuable insights into your content strategy as well as your larger marketing strategy.
When conducting research online, people use keywords to find solutions. Your content will gain more traffic if it is successful in getting in front of our audience when they conduct searches. You should therefore target these terms.
Below are some tips to help you do keyword research for SEO.
Step 1. Understand keyword search intent
Search intent is the user’s or audience’s reason for conducting a particular online search. Because keywords can have multiple meanings (e.g., “race” as in “marathon race” vs. “ethnicity”), search engines use search intent to understand and deliver the results they believe the audience is looking for.
In September 2013, to coincide with its 15th birthday, Google announced a major change to its search algorithm, called Hummingbird. Hummingbird is a major change to the way Google interprets searches and how searches relate to one another.
Hummingbird is intended to get at the heart of what users want, not just the exact keywords they search for. In large part, this is related to Google getting more prepared for mobile search. In mobile searches, users are less apt to type traditionally formatted queries, and in many cases, actually do voice searches.
When users use voice search, their queries may also be much more conversational in format, such as please find me the closest gas station. In addition, with Hummingbird, Google will use many other factors to determine the user’s intent, such as considering previous related searches by that user.
The Hummingbird algorithm attempts to determine the true meaning behind what a user is searching for, rather than simply returning results for the exact query she uses.
Indeed, in many cases, Google may simply relate the terms and consider them synonyms for the purposes of returning search results. Let’s look at this hypothetical, yet fully functional, an example of a series of queries that a mobile user might ask Google:
- Where is the Empire State Building?
- Who built it?
- How tall is it?
- Italian restaurants
- Show me the second one
Google’s answer to the question “Where is the Empire State Building?” is no longer simply the web page most likely to be optimized for that search query.
Google uses its knowledge of entities – including notable buildings and monuments and their attributes and locations, nearby restaurants, average ratings of those restaurants (some from semantic markup), etc. – to provide meaningful answers to these search queries, including actual recommendations for Italian restaurants near the Empire State Building, not just a match to the keywords searched.
What this means from an SEO perspective is that the exact query a user may be searching for is less important than the intent behind it. While keyword research is still crucial, creating pages highly optimized to a specific keyword is less important than creating extremely high-quality, unique content that answers the need or question behind the keyword query.
When doing your keyword research, be flexible and open to using tools that show you queries related to those at which you’re specifically looking. Also watch for informational queries, where it is apparent that the user is attempting to solve a problem.
Much of your keyword research should be centered on the true meaning behind a query and why a user searches on those specific terms. To get your content to rank for the queries you uncover through your keyword research, focus on creating the best site and the best content while still incorporating keywords into your content where it is natural to do so.
Step 2. Make a list of relevant terms and phrases
Start by generating a list of terms and phrases that are relevant to your (or your client’s) industry and what your site or business offers. The brainstorming phase should ideally result in a list of several dozen to several hundred or more keyword searches that will bring relevant, qualified visitors to your site.
It can be a great idea to get sales, customer services, or whichever branch works most directly with clients to participate in the brainstorm, as they may have input into keywords or phrases the customer uses or expresses interest in that aren’t currently targeted.
One easy way to begin this process is to gather your team in a conference room and then follow these steps:
- Produce a list of key one- to three-word phrases that describe your products/services.
- Spend some time coming up with synonyms that your potential customers might use for those products and services. Use a thesaurus to help you with this process.
- Create a taxonomy of all the areas of focus in your industry. It can be helpful to imagine creating a directory for all the people, projects, ideas, and companies connected to your site. You can also look at sites that are leaders in the industry and study their site hierarchy as a way to start your thinking about taxonomy.
- Broaden your list by thinking of higher-level terms and topics of which your products or services are a subset.
- Review your existing site and extract what appear to be key phrases from your site.
- Review industry associations and/or media sites to see what phrases they use to discuss your topic area.
- List all of your various brand terms.
- List all of your products. If your site has a massive number of products, consider stepping back a level (or two) and listing the categories and subcategories.
- Have your team imagine that they are potential customers, and ask them what they would type into a search engine if they were looking for something similar to your product or service.
- Supplement this by asking some people outside your business what they would search for, preferably people who are not directly associated with the company. Consider also the value of performing actual market research with a test group of consumers in your demographic, and ask them the same question.
- Use various tools (such as Google Search Console) to see what terms people are already using to come to your site, or what terms they are using within your site search tool if you have one.
Step 3. Steal keywords from competitors
Your competitors face the same problem, and unless you are very lucky, they are also probably resourceful and creative. You can likely count on their having invested in learning how their customers think and the best ways to appeal to them. So, add these steps to the process:
- Review your competitors’ websites and see what keywords and phrases they use for their products and services that compete with yours. Look also for unique var- iations and synonyms they incorporate into their language, and see if these indi- cate shifting trends in vernacular in your industry.
- Record what nonbrand terms they use for their business.
- Read any articles they have written that are published on sites other than their own.
- Observe what the media may have had to say about them.
There are many tools out there created for this purpose. A simple and free tool is the Keyword Density Checker. If you enter a page into this tool, within seconds, it will scrape a list of the keywords your competitor has optimized into their page. You can then use this to bulk out your keyword list.
While the Keyword Density Checker is a great, simple tool for revealing the keywords your competitors have optimized into the page, a more powerful tool is Ahrefs’ Organic Keywords report.
This tool estimates the keywords that are sending the largest amount of traffic to competitors’ websites. The estimates are reasonably accurate and can be a valuable resource for bulking out your keyword lists.
Step 4: Research related search terms
When conducting keyword research, you may have already considered this creative step. You can fill out those lists if you don’t have them yet.
Think about the related search terms that appear when you type a keyword into Google when trying to come up with more keywords people might be searching about a specific topic.
The Google search results will display some suggestions for searches related to what you typed in. Scroll down to the bottom for these suggestions. Consider these keywords as a starting point for brainstorming additional keywords.
Step 5: Use keyword tools to reveal hidden trends
Researching Internet trends and getting insights behind Google’s search box isn’t a new idea, and fortunately, clever people have built powerful tools for making this job easy.
Add these tools to your keyword research arsenal. Not only will you save precious time researching, but you’ll also receive a ton of relevant suggestions you wouldn’t discover otherwise.
No SEO guide would be complete without mentioning Ubersuggest. This handy tool reveals autocomplete suggestions behind Google’s search box. It provides region-specific data for countries and languages all around the globe, and the best part—it’s free.
Answer The Public
Answer The Public crawls the Internet and generates automatic lists of customers burning questions related to your keyword. Answer The Public starts with phrases starting with common question-type words, such as “how”, “when”, “can”, and so on, followed by your keyword. It provides long lists of phrases containing prepositions, such as “can”, “is”, “with”, “without”, preceded by your keyword. And topping things off, it lists common questions users type in Google, from a-to-z, after your keyword (postpositions, if you want to talk fancy). In other words, it’s a giant database of questions customers are asking about your topic.
Sometimes, ideas become popular on the Internet before being typed in Google’s search box. You can get ahead of these trends with content discovery tools like Buzzsumo. Buzzsumo lists content going viral over the Internet right now. You can keep your finger on the pulse of what’s hot across the web even when other tools haven’t picked it up yet.
Use the above tools and you’ll have more than enough keywords, and you’ll be ready to start finding which keywords have solid amounts of traffic to send to your site.
How to Find and Choose Keywords for Your Website
Step 1. Use Google Keyword Planner to trim your keyword list
Google’s AdWords Keyword Planner provides related terms, search volume estimates, search trends, and ad cost estimates for any keyword or URL that you enter.
The Keyword Planner provides multiple ways to search: based on words/phrases, based on websites/landing pages, and based on categories. In the “Your product or ser- vice” box, you can enter keywords or phrases (one per line) and the Keyword Planner will return related keyword ideas (note that you have to click on the “Keyword ideas” tab; the “Ad group ideas” is what displays by default). The output of a search will show you:
- Keyword (by relevance): Shows the related keywords in a list, including the phrase or phrases you entered.
- Average monthly searches: Shows the search query volume for the keyword for the locations, languages, and Google properties you defined.
- Competition Displays the relative competitiveness of the keyword (in paid search).
Step 2: Prioritize low-hanging fruits
Prioritizing low-hanging fruit means focusing on keywords that have a chance of ranking because of your website’s authority.
Because these brands are already well-established, Google typically rewards them with authority over a wide variety of topics when they target high search volume keywords for their brands.
Consider low-competition keywords as well. Normally, the top ranking for keywords without competing articles can be yours by default — if no one else has claimed it yet.
The competition score included in the Google Ads Keyword Research tool is an indication of how many advertisers are competing for the particular keyword through paid advertising. Completely irrelevant for SEO.
You can also look at how many search engine results are coming up in Google for your keyword. The amount of results is listed just below the search box after you type in your keyword.
Step 3: Check the monthly search volume (MSV) for your chosen keywords
Checking the MSV can help you write content around what people want to read.
The monthly search volume is the number of times a search query or keyword is entered into a search engine each month. There are free tools you can use to find the most searched keywords over related keyword clusters, such as searchvolume.io or Google Trends.
Step 4: Consider SERP features when choosing keywords
Google will highlight several feature snippets in SERPs if used correctly. You can easily find out what they are by searching for the keywords you want and seeing what results come up. Here’s a quick overview of the different types of SERP featured snippets.
An image pack is a horizontal row of search results displayed in an organic position. You should submit an image-rich post if there is an image pack.
In Google search results, featured snippets or paragraph snippets provide answers to frequently asked questions in short text snippets. The best way to win the placement is to understand the searcher’s intent and provide succinct, concise answers.
The list snippet, or listicles, is a snippet that gives an overview of what to do from beginning to end, often for “How To” searches. The best way to win this placement is to write posts with direct instructions and clear formatting.
As opposed to text featured snippets, Google displays video snippets at the top of search query pages. It is possible to win this placement by posting videos on both YouTube and your website with the targeted keywords people are searching for.
Step 5: Identify a mix of head terms and long-tail keywords for each bucket
Typically, head terms are shorter, more generic keyword phrases that are one to three words long, depending on which marketer you talk to. In contrast, long-tail keywords usually contain three or more words.
Making sure you have a mix of long-tail and head terms will allow you to create a keyword strategy that’s well suited to long-term goals as well as short-term results. This is because head terms are frequently searched, making them much more competitive (not always, but often) and harder to rank for than long-tail terms. Consider this: If you had no idea about the search volume or how difficult it would be to rank for any of the following terms?
- how to write a high-quality blog post
You are absolutely correct if you answered #2. However, don’t give up. Generally, head terms have the highest volume of searches (meaning greater potential to send you traffic), but honestly, traffic from the term “how to write a great blog post” is usually more valuable to you.
People who are searching for something specific are probably much more qualified than those looking for something really generic to buy your product (assuming you are in the blogging space). Long-tail keywords are usually more specific, which makes it easier to determine what people are actually searching for. A person searching for the head term “blogging” could, on the other hand, be doing so for many reasons unrelated to your business.
Therefore, make sure your keyword lists contain a healthy mix of head terms and long-tail keywords. There is no doubt that long-tail keywords can deliver some quick wins, but you should also consider chipping away at more difficult head terms over time.
Step 6: Check how competitors rank for these keywords
It doesn’t mean you have to do what your competitor is doing just because they are doing it. Keywords are no different. You don’t have to be concerned about your competitor’s keywords just because you are. To help you further evaluate your list of keywords, you can look at what keywords your competitors are trying to rank for.
It definitely makes sense to improve your ranking for certain keywords that your competitor ranks for and that you are also targeting. Do not ignore, however, the ones your competitors seem not to care about. You may be able to capture market share on very important terms, as well.
You can maintain a similar balance between long-tail and head terms by understanding the balance between the terms that may be more difficult to rank for due to competition and those that will be more realistic. In the end, the goal is to create a list of keywords that can provide some short-term gains, but also help you reach bigger and more challenging SEO goals.
Are you wondering how to find out what keywords your competitors rank for? Arel=”noopener” target=”_blank” hrefs allows you to view a variety of free reports that provide information on the top keywords for the domain you enter, in addition to searching for keywords in an incognito browser and seeing your competitors’ rankings. You can use this method to find out what keywords your competitors rank for.
Best Keywords for SEO
There is no “best” keyword, just the ones that are highly searched by your audience. To generate traffic and rank your pages, you have to devise a strategy.
Your SEO strategy should consider relevance, authority, and volume when selecting keywords. Find high search volume keywords that you can compete for based on:
- The level of competition you face.
- Ability to create content of superior quality than what’s currently ranked.
Now you have a list of keywords that can be used to focus on the right topics for your niche. It is a good idea to re-evaluate these keywords every few months, or even more frequently if your business prefers. Once a quarter is a good benchmark.
You will find that as your authority grows in the SERPs, you can add more and more keywords to your lists to target while maintaining your current presence, and then expanding into new markets.