Keywords are the foundation of SEO (Search Engine Optimization). If no one is searching for what you’re writing about, you won’t get traffic from Google (no matter how hard you try). This guide is intended to teach you how to do in-depth and meaningful SEO keyword research. Good keyword research allows you to discover the terms, phrases, questions, and answers that are important to your users or customers AND important to achieving your goals.
Keyword research is a crucial component of your SEO strategy. A properly executed SEO strategy can lead to more pageviews, more leads, and selling more of your products or services.
Before we dive into keyword research and how to find the best keywords for your business, let’s make sure we understand the basics.
Brief History On Keyword Research
Keyword research has evolved over time. In the 2000s, keyword research was often reduced to visiting Google Keyword Planner, finding keywords with the highest search volume and stuffing them into the website text.
As this was misused to rank with low-quality content, Google responded with many algorithm updates over the years. The goal of these updates was to understand what the users want and serve them with the best possible results.
Here are the most important algorithm updates that have influenced the way we conduct keyword research:
- Google Panda – penalized thin, low-quality content and duplicate text
- Google Penguin – penalized unnatural usage of keywords
- Google Hummingbird – improved semantic search and focused on search intent
Today, keyword research is much more than finding the “right” keywords and putting them into the “right” places.
What Is Keyword Research?
Keyword research is the process of understanding the language your target customers use when searching for your products, services, and content. It then involves analyzing, comparing, and prioritizing the best keyword opportunities for your website.
When Should You Do Keyword Research?
Keyword research is usually the first step of search engine optimization for any website.
You’ll definitely need to do keyword research when you’re:
- looking for a new niche
- looking for new content ideas
- optimizing your existing content
Even as search trends change, if people are looking for an answer to “something”, keywords will continue to matter.
How Do You Find Keyword Ideas?
Keyword research starts with thinking about how potential customers might be searching for your business or website. You can then use keyword research tools to expand on those ideas and find even more keywords.
It’s a simple process, but to achieve success in your keyword research these two things are critical:
- You must have good knowledge of your industry.
- You need to understand how keyword research tools work and how to get the most out of them.
Now we will run through some actionable ways to discover potentially winning keywords for your website.
Key Steps to Approach Keyword Research
1. Brainstorm ‘seed’ Keywords
Seed keywords are the foundation of the keyword research process. They define your niche and help you identify your competitors. Every keyword research tool asks for a seed keyword which it then uses to generate a huge list of keyword ideas (more on that shortly).
If you already have a product or business that you want to promote online, coming up with seed keywords is easy. Just think about what people type into Google to find what you offer.
For example, if you sell coffee machines and equipment, then seed keywords might be:
- French press
Note that seed keywords themselves won’t necessarily be worth targeting with pages on your website. As the name suggests, you’ll use them as ‘seeds’ for the next steps in this process. Don’t obsess too much over your seed keywords. It should only take a few minutes to find them. As soon as you have a handful of broad ideas related to your website’s topic, move on to the next step.
2. See What Keywords Your Competitors Rank For
Looking at which keywords already send traffic to your competitors is usually the best way to start keyword research. But first you need to identify those competitors. That’s where your brainstormed list of keywords comes in handy. Just search Google for one of your seed keywords and see who ranks on the first page.
If none of the top-ranking websites for your seed keywords are like your site try searching for relevant ‘autosuggest’ queries instead.
Google’s ‘autosuggest’ queries pop up as you type your query.
For example, if you sell coffee equipment, you might find more actual competitors in the search results for “cappuccino maker” than “cappuccino.” That’s because it’s mostly ecommerce stores like yours ranking for the former and blogs ranking for the latter.
- how to use a French press
- Turkish coffee
- moka pot
- how to make coffee
- Neapolitan coffee maker
As you can see, even if you’re quite familiar with your industry, you can still find plenty of unique keyword ideas by studying your competitors that you probably wouldn’t have found from brainstorming alone.
You can repeat the process above over and over for a multitude of keyword ideas.
3. Analyze Current Keywords
This is where you should begin if you already have a set of keywords you’ve been trying to rank for. If you’re taking over an existing site or have been working on a site for a while, you probably have some list of keywords in mind that you’ve been trying to rank for.
The first thing you should do is list those keywords and run an analysis to see how they’ve been performing. To analyze larger keyword lists, you’ll probably want to use a paid tool.
But for a more basic site there are many free rank tracking tools available.
If your list of keywords is relatively small, you could of course search for them on Google to see where they are currently ranking (although that won’t give you any ranking history).
Use the metrics you’ve gathered on your existing keywords to separate good performing keywords from poorly performing ones.
4. Formulate Your Goals
You might think you’re ready to start real keyword research now. However, without some carefully crafted goals, it will be a futile effort. By goals we mean the specific business and brand needs you want to earn organic traffic for.
Why does this matter?
Because those goals will give you a sense of direction in your research.
Many times keyword research will turn up keywords that you could rank for. If they are not keywords that will attract visitors who can become clients they are not worth adding to your campaign.
Here are a few questions to ask when formulating your goals for keyword research:
- Who is our target audience? Who buys what we sell, and why?
- What do we sell and what is our unique value proposition in our marketplace?
- What are the chief needs and/or desires of people who become our customers?
- What are their secondary, related needs?
- What are the things our target consumers need to know to feel confident in who they choose to buy from?
Knowing the answers to these questions can help you focus on the keywords that will really matter to your business.
5. Assess the Competitive Landscape
One of the best sources to find keywords you should be ranking for but aren’t yet is your competitors. Gather your top competitors in your market or niche and see how their domain ranks on keywords you share.
Many SEO tools will show you the top-ranking keywords for a given domain but you may need to invest in one of the paid tools to delve into all the levels we discuss below.
Let’s look at some different ways of approaching competitive keyword research.
6. Use Google
We’ll start with the simplest free method of competitive keyword discovery: Google itself.
This method can uncover a lot of opportunities but since it is dependent on a certain amount of guesswork on your part, it isn’t going to give the full picture.
Nevertheless, it can be a good way to start if you don’t have other tools at your disposal. Google is most helpful in identifying who your top online competitors are. Keep in mind these may not be the same in every case as your “real world” competition (if you and others are selling your wares through brick-and-mortar stores, for example). Start by searching for the products or services you sell and see who comes up in the top few results consistently.
For example, let’s say one of your products is garage door openers:
Skipping past the paid ads, it’s evident that Home Depot and Lowes are your top organic search competition for this product. If you sell multiple products or services and these two shows up again and again in searches, add them to a list of top competitors.
Be sure to also search any alternative names searchers might use for your products or services. Next, do a Google site search for each product and its alternative names for each competitor domain. To do this, type into Google the search term and then “site:domainname.com” (using the domain of the competitor).
This search tells us the alternative keywords that the competitor ranks for on Google for this product.
In the example above, we see that Google might show Home Depot’s garage door opener products to people searching for belt-drive garage door openers, chain-drive garage door openers, and 4-garage door openers. Add all of these alternative terms to your keyword list.
7. Use Keyword Tools
For more sophisticated competitive research you’ll need a third-party tool.
Some of the free tools can provide you with limited access to this data and analytics, whereas almost all of the paid tools can show you a much more complete competitive picture. Many tools allow you to input a competitor’s domain to discover the keywords they rank highest for.
Add any relevant keywords and variations to your list.
With these tools, you usually can dig deeper and discover:
- Keywords both you and a competitor rank for (if you rank lower, what would it take to rank above them?).
- Keywords where they rank high but yours don’t (time to create or improve some pages!).
8. Expand Your Keyword Horizons
The previous steps have enabled you to build a list of keywords you can already have some confidence in. They will now be the base that will help you find the best keywords to target.
While keywords are still a solid foundation of good SEO, optimizing them alone will only get you so far.
There are a number of free tools designed specifically for suggesting related topics for any given keyword.
Some of the most popular free tools include:
- Answer the Public
- Keyword Explorer
- Keywords Everywhere
Most of these tools work by scraping Google SERPs (and sometimes the sites that rank highest) to discover the search terms and questions searchers use most frequently for a given topic or keyword. As always, some paid tools will give you more depth, including terms semantically-related to your keywords.
Look through your now-expanded keyword list to pick out the high-level topics, then group the remaining keywords under these according to relevance. You can use this organized list later to guide you in building out interlinked content that will give you broader topical relevancy with search engines.
9. Prioritize by Opportunities vs. Investment
This step is not really research per se, but it is a critical bridge to converting what you discovered in your research into actions that lead to results.
In this process your first priority should be the best opportunities. These always must be weighed against the cost of winning those opportunities.
In other words, a particular keyword may have a high traffic potential but you will have to spend too much time trying to win a good rank for it. It’s also possible you won’t be able to convert that traffic into new clients and thus not worth the cost.
10. Ongoing Keyword Research
As mentioned earlier, though you will probably spend the most time on keyword research at the beginning of your work on a site, it’s a process that should never end. Fluctuations in the marketplace, new competitors, changes to the Google algorithm, changes in your business, and more can necessitate further research and prioritization of keywords.
Ongoing keyword research is one of the best ways to never lose your competitive edge.
Building a comprehensive, relevant keyword list is one of the most important endeavors of SEO. Keyword research should be one of the first tasks you undertake when starting a new SEO project; it is the basis for your on-page content optimization and new content creation. Of course, the next step is putting that plan into action and creating the best of the best content to satisfy the search intent of each of your potential readers or customers. Don’t forget to update your plan regularly and monitor your progress climbing the ranks of the SERPs!
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