Online keyword competition is 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 phrase?
The sheer volume of competitors in online search in nearly every conceivable niche makes those top 10 positions more coveted 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 keyword research, the process of uncovering keyword opportunities for your brand to rank higher in search engines.
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.
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:
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.
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 keywords are advantageous because they tend to have a much lower competition rating than head keywords; the catch is they also have much lower 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.
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 keyword explorer tools. Moz and Ahrefs are the industry standard. Below is a Moz screenshot of the results for my keyword, “content marketing services.”
Source: Moz Keyword Explorer
Or the same result from Ahrefs:
If you want to generate an expanded list of long-tail keywords, we like to use AnswerthePublic, which provides a fan-based UX for showing both keyword ideas and their inter-relatedness:
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.
Ahrefs “Content Gap Analysis” tool to help you understand where and how your competition is ranking for various keywords 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 ideas.
SEMRush and Ahrefs are fantastic automatically listing some of your “main organic competitors” once you enter your website domain name:
(Image source: SEMRush)
There are a few reasons you need to learn about your competitors:
You want to start targeting keywords that have the following characteristics:
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, which makes it more difficult to rank for.
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 and overall difficulty to rank:
You could also use Google’s Keyword Planner to perform this search, but since Moz’s Keyword Explorer pulls much of this data, you run the risk of redundancy. Also notice that Google’s Keyword Planner offers much less specific ranges of 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, Google’s Keyword Planner 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.
Once you have sourced all relevant keywords in both your keyword research tools and through competitive analysis, you will want to export those to a spreadsheet. In the various tools, you will see a prompt that says “See all [X] 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.
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:
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.
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 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.
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 Keyword Planner 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 results. In turn, this should guide the development of your keyword research.
It’s important to know how you’ll be using keywords if you want to choose them appropriately.
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:
(Image source: Google Trends)
The following (some referenced, some not) are great tools for conducting keyword research: