Keyword research is relatively simple (and we’ll get to it shortly).
But online keyword competition can be fierce.
Consider the the total number of SERP results for “SEO”:
Is it any wonder why you might be having difficulty ranking for a particular keyword or key phrase?
The sheer volume of competitors in online search in nearly every conceivable niche makes those top 10 positions more coveted (and valuable) than ever.
So, if you want to be successful in SEO, you need to understand what people are searching for, how often they’re searching for it, and why they’re searching for it.
So how can you find this information? It all starts with a repeatable keyword research process of uncovering keyword phrase opportunities for your brand to rank higher in search engines.
Table of Contents
Step 1. Brainstorm your “seed” keywords
You’ll start your keyword research by selecting what I call “seed” keywords. Seed keywords are those that you either already know your target audience is using to search for your product or services, or that you would use if you were a member of your target audience. Also be sure to include SEO power words in your seed keywords list.
For example, since SEO.co is a content marketing agency, I can easily guess that my target audience might search for “content marketing agency,” or perhaps one or more of the following variations of that keyword:
- Content marketing services
- Link building services
- Digital marketing services
- Content writing
When it comes to your initial focus, especially if you are a startup doing digital marketing, you will want to focus on the long-tail, particularly long-tail keywords where you feel you have a competitive advantage for matching the search intent of your target audience.
Long-tail keywords are extended phrase search queries, such as “what is the best roofing company in Wyoming?” Compare that to a traditional “head” keyword or keyword phrase like “roofing company” or “roofing company Wyoming.” There’s no strict line to draw here, though generally, if a query is in sentence format, it can be considered as a long-tail phrase.
Long-tail keyword research can be more advantageous because when they tend to have a much lower competition than head keywords. The catch is that the long tail, by nature, have low monthly search volume. It’s great to use long-tail keywords to rank quickly for niche positions, but if you’re looking for some heavy-hitting rankings to build over the long-term, head keywords are better.
Step 2. Add seed keywords into your preferred keyword research tool
Now that you’ve got your seed keywords, it’s time to start gathering data on them. Start by plugging at least one from each group into various third party and even free keyword research tools.
Moz and Ahrefs are the industry standard, but don’t forget to use third party keyword tools in conjunction with Google Search Console (GSC), Google Analytics and Google Ads Keyword Planner. All three include quality data for finding quality keyword opportunities.
Below is a Moz screenshot of the search results for my keyword, “content marketing services.”
Source: Moz Keyword Explorer
Or the same result from Ahrefs:
If you want to generate an expanded keyword list of long-tail keywords, we like to use AnswerthePublic, which provides a fan-based UX for showing new keyword ideas, searches related to one another and other keyword variations you may not have considered.
AnswerthePublic fan graph related result for the phrase “content marketing”
Step 3. Conduct competitor research & content gap analysis
Next, you’ll want to take a closer look at the competition, and what types of strategies they’re using in their search campaigns and how you stack up.
Competitor content gap analysis helps you identify content opportunities by analyzing what your competitors are ranking for, but you are not. By understanding the gaps in their content strategy, you can develop and optimize your own content to capture those missed opportunities.
Ahrefs “Content Gap Analysis” tool to help you understand where and how your competition is ranking for various keywords in search engines and how you can create new pages and posts to find new content ideas for your next post or page:
You’ll get to see their names listed, as well as their relative competition “level,” and where they’re winning the keyword game. You can export the data and manipulate it to source keyword ideas for your next blog post.
Compare the pages that rank for your target keywords with your own website’s content. Look for gaps where your competitors have content that you don’t. These gaps may indicate opportunities to create new content or improve existing content to fill those voids.
SEMRush and Ahrefs are fantastic automatically listing some of your “main organic competitors” once you enter your website domain name:
(Image source: SEMRush)
Examine the content that your competitors have created for the keywords you’re targeting. Look at factors such as content length, format (blog post, video, infographic, etc.), depth of information, and engagement signals like comments and social shares. This analysis will help you understand why their content is performing well.
There are a few reasons you need to learn about your competitors:
- Inspiration. If you can understand how they’ve optimized their websites, where they currently rank, and how they’re getting more relevant customers to their sites, you can adopt some of these techniques for yourself.
- Understanding competition levels. When you analyze keywords, you’ll be able to gauge what level of competition you’re in for. Are your competitors all fighting viciously for web real estate, or is it an open field?
- Discover weaknesses and opportunities. Are there certain niches that your competitors haven’t been able to touch? Are there opportunities for development they’ve missed?
Based on your analysis, develop strategies to address the content gaps. This may involve creating new content targeting specific keywords or enhancing existing content to make it more comprehensive, valuable, or engaging. Consider the unique value propositions you can bring to the table.
After implementing your content improvement strategies, monitor the performance of your new or optimized content. Track keyword rankings, organic traffic, engagement metrics, and conversions. Adjust your strategy as necessary based on the results and continue to refine your content to stay competitive.
Step 4. Evaluate your keywords
You want to start targeting keywords that have the following characteristics:
- Relative low competition
- Relative high(er) search volumes
- High relevance to your brand, product or service
You should now be looking at a spreadsheet that contains a bunch of keywords and data on their respective search volumes.
Now, it’s time to pick which ones you’re going to use for your PPC/SEM or link building efforts campaign.
If you plug a keyword into Keyword Explorer, you’ll see a volume measurement for it and a number of other related terms:
Source: Keyword Explorer
It’s also good to juxtapose this to data from other sources like Ahrefs:
There’s variation because keyword searches fluctuate from month to month. For example, taking a look at the screenshot above, you can count on the keyword “content marketing” to earn between 11,500 and 30,300 searches each month.
There’s no rule for what search volume you should target; obviously, higher is better, but it usually comes with the tradeoff of higher competition and keyword difficulty, which means it’s going to be harder to rank.
If you’re looking for keyword ideas with at least a certain search volume, you can use Moz or Ahrefs to gauge the overall search volume, average cost per click (CPC) and overall difficulty to rank:
Keyword volume research data per Moz.com.
You could also use Google Ads Keyword Planner (GKP) to perform this search, but since Ahrefs’ and/or Moz’s Keyword Explorer pulls much of this data, you run the risk of redundancy. Also notice that Google’s tool offers much less specific ranges of monthly search volume:
(Image source: Google Keyword Planner)
SEMRush offers similar features, but strives for a volume count with pinpoint accuracy. This may be useful in the short term, but if you want better long-term projections, it’s better to rely on a range.
(Image source: SEMRush)
3. Competition. Finally, you’ll want to take a look at the competition rating for each keyword. Again, GKP will be able to tell you this, but unfortunately, this data is less objective (giving you only “Low”, “Medium” or “High”) and much less precise than search volume.
After you finish removing all the irrelevant keywords, you’ll be left with a list of keywords that are relevant and have some measurable amount of search volume and competition.
Step 5. Add keyword research data to a custom spreadsheet
Once you have sourced all relevant keywords in both your keyword research tool and through competitive analysis, you will want to export those to a spreadsheet. In the various keyword research tools, you will see a prompt that says “See all [X] keyword suggestions” or “Download Results to CSV”
Export the given long-tail keywords into a CSV which you can add to your growing spreadsheet list.
Your spreadsheet will be a derivation of the following (from Ahrefs):
Once in your spreadsheet, you can filter based on your strategy and run pivots on things like keyword difficulty, volume, total clicks and cost per click.
Step 6. Input your winners into rank tracking software
There are many important metrics to monitor in a full-fledged SEO campaign, including your organic traffic, social traffic, referral traffic, and conversion rates, but when it comes to evaluating your keyword progress specifically, there’s no better metric than your actual keyword rankings. Unfortunately, Google doesn’t explicitly publish this information, so your best bet is to use a tool to help you track your Google Rankings is what I personally use, but there are a ton of software options that do this, such as SEMrush, Ahrefs, Moz, AuthorityLabs, RankWatch, and more. We use both Moz and Ahrefs:
Ahrefs lets you view the value, search volume and difficulty of your desired terms.
Or, you can also track your rankings for a given term vis-a-vis the competition:
With Ahrefs, you can also easily track individual keyword performance, including rankings gains and rankings losses, for a given website:
Rank trackers will allow you to track your progress for specific terms and rankings over time.
Based on your keyword analysis, prioritize the keywords that are most relevant to your goals and have a balance of search volume and competition. Categorize them according to your website structure, content strategy, or target audience segments.
Step 7. Determine your goals and budget
Generally, if you’re looking for fast results, you’ll want to choose long-tail keywords with a low competition rating; these are going to be your fastest road to rankings, but keep in mind high rankings here won’t always send much traffic your way; it depends on search volume for each keyword.
Head keywords and higher-competition keywords are better for long-term search results, assuming you’re also picking higher-relevance keywords with a high search volume. A bigger marketing budget would allow you to theoretically invest more effort in either side of the equation, allowing you to cover more ground and rank faster for your target terms, especially if you’re able to effectively phrase match the search intent of your audience with high quality content.
For example, take a look at the major difference even a single variant can have on a target keyword, between “content marketing” and “content marketing for law firms”, dropping the competition score from 91 to 42, and the search volume to “no data” (though Google’s suggests it to be between 10-100):
It’s hard to estimate exactly how much time or money you’ll need to rank for a given keyword, but these metrics should help you understand your biggest opportunities, and estimate the relative degree of effort you’ll need to invest in each to see search results. In turn, this should guide the development of your SEO keyword research.
Step 8: Monitor, Refine & Tweak
Continuously monitor the performance of your targeted keywords, analyze the changes in search trends, and adapt your strategy accordingly. Refine your keyword list over time to ensure it remains effective and aligned with your evolving goals.
- Track keyword rankings: Use SEO tools like SEMrush, Ahrefs, or Moz to monitor the rankings of your targeted keywords. Regularly check how your website is performing for these keywords in search engine results pages (SERPs). Identify any fluctuations or changes in rankings and investigate the potential causes.
- Monitor organic traffic: Analyze your website’s organic traffic using tools like Google Analytics. Keep an eye on the traffic trends, paying attention to which keywords are driving the most traffic to your site. Look for opportunities to optimize and improve the performance of keywords that are underperforming.
- Analyze user engagement metrics: Beyond rankings and traffic, analyze user engagement metrics such as bounce rate, time on page, and conversion rates. These metrics can provide insights into the relevance and effectiveness of the keywords driving traffic to your site. Identify keywords that drive high-quality traffic and optimize your content to enhance user engagement.
- Stay updated with industry trends: Regularly stay informed about industry trends, keyword research software, changes in search algorithms, and shifts in consumer behavior. Follow authoritative SEO blogs, attend webinars, or join industry forums to keep up with the latest developments. This knowledge will help you adapt your keyword strategy and refine your targeting based on emerging trends.
- Leverage Google Search Console: Google Search Console provides valuable data on how your website appears in Google search results. It offers insights into the keywords that are driving impressions, clicks, and click-through rates (CTRs). Use this data to identify keywords with high impressions but low CTRs, as they may require optimization of title tags and meta descriptions to improve clickability.
- Conduct regular competitor analysis: Keep an eye on your competitors’ keyword strategies. Monitor their rankings, organic traffic, and the keywords they are targeting. Identify any gaps or opportunities where you can refine your keyword targeting. Additionally, observe their content and promotional strategies to gain insights into successful keyword usage.
- Test and refine your content: Continuously test and refine your content based on keyword performance. Experiment with different variations of titles, headings, and content structure. Monitor the impact of these changes on keyword rankings, traffic, and engagement metrics. Use A/B testing and analyze the results to identify effective optimization opportunities you may not have seen before.
- Revisit and update older content: Periodically revisit your existing content and identify opportunities to update it with fresh, relevant keywords. Conduct keyword research to find new related keywords that you can incorporate into your existing content. This can help improve the visibility of older pages and drive additional organic traffic.
- Seek feedback from users: Actively engage with your website visitors and customers to gather feedback on their search experiences. Encourage them to provide insights on the keywords or phrases they used to find your website, and if they encountered any difficulties or gaps in the keywords or content. This feedback can help you refine your keyword targeting and address user needs and search intent more effectively.
Search rankings are in a constant state of flux and change.
Monitoring and changing your content, internal linking and overall strategy will be necessary as competitors too refine their approach to link building and content development.
How to Use Keyword Research to Rank Better in Search Engines
It’s important to know how you’ll be using keywords if you want to choose them appropriately.
Title tags, header tags and meta descriptions
Because page titles are so powerful when it comes to evaluating relevance, and because each page is indexed separately in Google, it’s sometimes a good idea to create dedicated pages for each of your head keywords, bearing in mind that you do not want to cannibalize your link equity and compete for the same terms with different pages and posts.
Your ongoing content is your best place for the ongoing support of your target keyword phrases. If you’re developing multiple new posts for your blog a week, you’ll have multiple opportunities to optimize for new keywords, new pages with new title tag and meta description opportunities, and of course, plenty of body copy.
You will likely have less control over anchor text coming from other sites, but when it comes to your own site, you should be using your desired head a long-tail keywords all day long for your internal link building.
Why is Keyword Research Important
With an understanding of the function of keywords in a modern SEO campaign, let’s take a look at some of the tangible benefits you can get by conducting keyword research:
Search volume analysis
First, you’ll gain insights into what keywords are more popular than others.
This can help you find more popular topics to optimize for, which will eventually lead you to higher search engine traffic and a higher ROI.
For example, take a look at the difference in search volume (the number of times a user has searched for a given query) between “how to bake a cake” and “how to build a particle accelerator.”
The clear winner is “how to bake a cake” (and let’s be thankful for that), making it far more favorable to optimize for.
(Image source: Google Trends)
Competitive research can help you determine which keywords and phrases your direct competitors are already ranking for in search engine results pages (SERPs).
From there, you can decide which ones are worth fighting for and which ones are worth leaving or putting on the back burner.
For the most part, you’ll want to shoot for target phrases that none of your competitors are currently ranking for, as they’ll be easier to rank.
Content ideas and SEO direction
Next, keyword research will give you keyword ideas for your content marketing campaign, and help you set the direction for your search engine optimization.
With a solid group of high quality “money” keywords in mind, you’ll be able to establish the meta data and body copy for the main pages of your site, and come up with an editorial calendar full of topics that are actually relevant to your audience.
Doing keyword research also helps you understand your key demographics better, giving you information you can use in other areas of your business, including other areas of your marketing campaign.
For example, you may find that search patterns for a specific product tend to escalate in winter, giving you a critical marketing opportunity to push that product more during winter months.
Personally, I’m a fan of using a diversity of Google ranking factors like overall organic search traffic and conversion rates to measure SEO campaign progress, but being able to definitively chart your rankings for a handful of target keywords also lends accuracy and thoroughness to your campaign.
Noteworthy Keyword Research Tools & Software
The following (some referenced, some not) are great SEO tools for conducting keyword research:
- Google Keyword Planner: Google’s own keyword research tool, which provides keyword ideas, search volume data, and competition levels. It’s free to use, but you need a Google Ads account to access it.
- SEMrush: A comprehensive SEO tool that offers keyword research, competitive analysis, backlink analysis, and more. It provides extensive keyword data, including search volume, keyword difficulty, and related keywords.
- Ahrefs: Another powerful SEO tool that provides keyword research, backlink analysis, rank tracking, and more. Ahrefs offers keyword data such as search volume, keyword difficulty, and traffic potential.
- Google Cloud NLP: Google’s Cloud Natural Language Processing tool can provide meaningful insight into potential deficiencies in the way your content is written compared to your competitors. The tool is free and is one of the more powerful means of content analysis.
- Moz Keyword Explorer: A keyword research tool by Moz that provides search volume, keyword difficulty, and opportunity metrics. It also offers features like SERP analysis, organic CTR data, and keyword lists.
- Ubersuggest: Ubersuggest is a free keyword research tool that provides keyword suggestions, search volume data, keyword difficulty, and content ideas. It also offers insights into domain and backlink analysis.
- AnswerThePublic: This keyword tool generates keyword ideas in a visual format, presenting questions, prepositions, comparisons, and related queries based on a specific keyword. It helps identify long-tail keyword opportunities and understand user search intent.
- KeywordTool.io: It generates keyword suggestions from various sources, including Google Autocomplete. It provides keyword ideas for multiple search engines like Google, YouTube, Bing, and Amazon.
- Serpstat: Serpstat is an all-in-one SEO platform that offers keyword research, competitor analysis, rank tracking, and site audit features. It provides keyword data, search volume, keyword difficulty, and related keywords.
- LongTailPro: Designed specifically for finding long-tail keywords, LongTailPro provides keyword suggestions, competition analysis, and keyword metrics like search volume and keyword difficulty.
- Keyword Explorer by WordStream: WordStream’s Keyword Explorer offers keyword research and management features, including search volume data, competitive metrics, and keyword grouping capabilities.
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