On the surface, the keyword research process seems fairly simple. After all, we’ve all typed a phrase into Google. We’ve all dabbled in the world of keywords. But any content marketer knows that it quickly gets more complicated. Google receives approximately 63,000 searches every second—which both means that a good keyword strategy can tap a lot of users and that there are a lot of possibilities to weed through.
So, prepare yourself for a lot of work—but I promise it’s all worthwhile. Keywords are the backbone of a good Search Engine Optimization (SEO) strategy. How else will search engines connect you with users who are looking for exactly the service or product you provide? Without the right keywords in place, content creation is just taking shots in the dark. If any hit the target, it will be through sheer luck.
That’s why you need a solid keyword research plan in place. Here’s how to approach SEO keywords so that you have a clear eye on the target.
SEO Keyword Tools
Before we dive into the actual process of conducting keyword research, it’s a good idea to have a tool or two at your disposal. Some are free and others require a paid subscription, but they all will help you move through the time-consuming keyword research process quicker and more efficiently.
Here are some of our favorite SEO keyword tools:
Google Keyword Planner
Keyword Planner is straightforward, but it gets the job done. You can input lists of keywords to see data such as volume, competition, and ad impression share. Keep in mind that with volume, Keyword Planner offers a range (i.e. 10-100) rather than a specific number, so you’ll get more of a ballpark sense of volume. Alternatively, you can get keyword ideas by either entering a keyword to start or your website’s URL. Best of all, Keyword Planner is free with a Google Ads account.
SEMRush is great for competitor research, allowing you to compare your domain with other ones in your field. This lets you pull a full keyword gap report that shows what keyword opportunities you might be missing—and gives you the power to potentially steal that top SERP from a competitor! You can also get information such as search volume and keyword difficulty and can enter a keyword to find a list of related terms. SEMRush does require a paid subscription to use these tools.
Moz’s Keyword Explorer tool shows you info such as volume, competition, and organic click-through-rate for any keyword you enter. You can also see what sites are ranking for the keyword and get suggestions for similar queries. You can use the free version of Moz for up to 10 keywords a month or upgrade to a paid plan to get 150 keywords a month.
Ahrefs’ provides a thorough overview of any keyword you enter, including difficulty, volume, clicks, and CPC. It will show you what currently has the number one spot for this keyword (aka the one you need to dethrone) and related terms. When analyzing keyword difficulty, Ahrefs will even give you an estimate of how backlinks you need to achieve a top ten position for that keyword. This keyword research tool requires a paid monthly subscription.
With Keyword Tool, simply enter a container keyword to get a list of related keywords and long-tail variations. You can choose the platform you are most interested in, too. For most SEO work, Google will be the top choice, but you could also perform research for YouTube, Twitter, Bing, Amazon, eBay, Play Store, or Instagram. Keyword Tool has both free and pro versions. For the free version, you can still get keyword ideas, but you will be limited in how many you can see without an upgrade.
Now, this one isn’t a tool in the same sense as the other ones on this list, but it is an important strategy not to overlook. When you start typing into Google, autofill will automatically suggest terms users are searching for. This gives you a quick, easy, and free way to gather a bunch of keyword ideas. Say your business focuses on “home remodeling.” You can type in “home remodeling,” space, then hit “a” to see what autofills. Grab any relevant keywords that appear, then continue the process to go through the whole alphabet. Autofill can also be helpful for finding keyword ideas that might not have crossed your mind yet.
How to Approach the Keyword Research Process
I know you’re chomping at the bit, but before you dive into keyword research, you need to make sure you fully understand the business and the goals. For digital marketers working with an outside company, this means talking to your client and getting all the information you need about the business. If this is your business, then you probably already have a good handle on the product or service, but you still want to make sure you and the rest of the team are aligned on the objective of this keyword research. For example, how will these keywords be used? Are you creating a blog? Landing pages? What audience are you targeting? Are there specific aspects of your business you want to push?
Now that you know what you’re trying to achieve, you can start to dig in. There are a couple different ways to approach initial keyword research, but the goal should be to compile a giant list of keyword ideas. You won’t use all of them, but more keywords is always better. Frontloading keyword research will give you plenty of fodder down the road and makes it easier to prioritize the most valuable SEO keywords.
You also need to make sure you are doing this in an organized fashion. Don’t just jot down keyword ideas on the back of a Panera napkin. Instead, take the time to set up a content calendar. Make a tab that is dedicated to keyword research, then start adding terms there. You will probably also want to include keyword data such as volume and competition and possibly some notes about specific terms.
A good place to start is with competitor research. If you haven’t already, compile a list of core competitors. Then, use one of the keyword tools listed above to see what these competitors are ranking for. Add any keywords you are not ranking for to your list. You can also identify key container keywords for your site (i.e. “antique furniture”) and then conduct keyword research to find long-tail keyword variations. As you’re going through keyword research, remember to keep an open mind and consider synonyms. Maybe “antique” is your preferred term, but don’t forget that people might also type in “vintage” or “retro.” Cast a wide net and get that big ol’ list of keywords. You’ll be able to narrow it down in the next step.
Vetting Your Keyword Research: A Checklist
If your site ranks for a keyword, even if you have not directly targeted it before, then you are likely better served focusing on keywords you do not rank for yet. The exception is if this is a valuable keyword and you are ranking but not as well as you want. In this case, you may want to either use on-page SEO to bolster the current content that contains that keyword or write new content that more directly targets the query.
How much volume is enough will depend on your business and the goals for this type of content. Generally speaking, high volume and low competition is the ideal combo. However, it isn’t always that cut and dry. If a keyword has high volume but a lot of these searchers are unlikely to convert (perhaps because they’re just doing research or satisfying a random musing), that keyword could actually be less valuable than a low volume keyword that targets users who are ready to buy.
To answer this question, consider the competition and keyword difficulty you found during the keyword research phase. It’s wise to look at what is currently ranking for this keyword. Can you compete? If the first page is filled with heavy-hitters like Wikipedia, Dictionary.com, WebMD, etc. it may not be a realistic keyword to target (at least until you have boosted your domain authority a bit). However, if the first page features blog articles from sites similar to yours, that’s a good sign that you have a fighting chance.
The correct audience could include demographics, search intent, B2B vs. B2C, etc. One way to check who is searching for this keyword is to simply see what is already ranking. If you see that “dentist tips” mostly brings up advice for patients from dentists, then you know this may not be the best keyword for an article advising dentists on best practices.
Say your business wants to be known as a “firm” rather than an “agency.” This is a good time to double-check those branding guidelines to make sure you haven’t included any keywords that mention “agency.” But also, if the keyword is otherwise strong, you may look for a way to spin it. For example, you could write a piece called, “Digital Marketing Agency vs. Firm.” This would allow you to rank for “digital marketing agency” while still distancing your business from the label of “agency.”
There are various types of search intent, but the two main ones are transactional and research. Transactional searchers are looking to spend their money on a product or service. Researchers want information but may not be ready to buy now (or ever). Most businesses will want more transactional searchers for obvious reasons, but there is also a place for content targeting researchers. If you provide good thought leadership content answering their questions, a researcher might see you as a valuable authority on the subject and decide to buy.
Some keywords are phrased awkwardly, making them difficult to include in content without writing in a jarring fashion. If the keyword is otherwise perfect, you can try to get creative with phrasing. But if it’s too oddly worded, don’t force it. You could deter readers with a clunky article that draws too much attention to the keyword.
This is where the knowledge of your business comes in. While it’s good to have some broader content on your site (“i.e. “What is Quinoa?”), you’ll want to have other content that is highly targeted to your audience—and that means getting specific. It’s a good idea to aim for mostly long-tail keywords, which generally contain 3-5 words. Long-tail keywords account for about 91.8% of all queries, but generally have lower volume than shorter keywords. That’s okay, though; these niche topics let you hone in on your audience so that your content is more likely to reach just those people who might convert.
After the keyword vetting process, you should be able to easily grab some approved keywords and use them to build out content recommendations. From there, it’s mostly rinse and repeat!
Building a Long-Term Keyword Strategy
Keyword research and topic creation will be an ongoing process. Because there are so many keyword variations to explore, you can spend as much time on keyword research as you have available. I suggest gathering a good amount of keywords early on in your content marketing journey and then continue conducting keyword research as time goes on. You will need to revisit your keyword strategy periodically, especially as you are able to analyze data and trends, which means the keywords you use will always be open to change. The key is to just keep chipping away at it while maintaining high standards for your site. Don’t just settle for any old keyword. Make sure every piece of content counts!
And while you can never say with certainty that targeting a keyword will allow you to rank, you can remove as much guesswork as possible by taking the time to think strategically about your keywords. Forget shots in the dark: turn on the lights, identify the target, and let ‘er rip.