While Google keeps us up to date with all of the algorithm updates they keep rolling out, one thing has remained pretty consistent for inbound marketers looking to optimize their sites for search: keyword research.
Well, the need to do keyword research has stayed the same. How you actually do it doesn’t have to be.
What is Keyword Research?
Keyword research is the process of finding and analyzing search terms entered into search engines with the aim of using that data for a specific purpose, often search engine optimization (SEO) or general marketing. Keyword research can reveal targeted queries, the popularity of these queries, their level of difficulty in ranking and much more.
Why is Keyword Research Important?
Keyword research provides valuable insights into the search queries that your target audience is actually looking for on Google. The insight you get into those actual search terms can help inform the content strategy as well as your broader marketing strategy. However, keywords themselves may not be as important to SEO as you might think.
We hear more and more about how much SEO has evolved over the past 10 years and how unimportant keywords themselves have become to our ability to rank well for the searches people do every day.
And to a certain extent this is true; Using keywords that exactly match someone’s search is no longer the most important ranking factor in the eyes of an SEO professional. Rather, it’s the intent behind this keyword and whether or not some of the content resolves that intent (we’ll talk more about the intent in just a minute).
However, this doesn’t mean that keyword research is an outdated process. Let me explain:
Keyword research shows you what topics people are interested in and how popular those topics are with your target audience, provided you use the right SEO tool. The operational term here is subjects – By searching for keywords that are searched frequently each month, you can identify your content and sort it by topics for which you want to create content. You can then use these topics to determine what keywords to search for and what goals to target.
By searching for keywords based on popularity, search volume, and general intent, you can answer the questions most of the people in your audience want answers to.
How to research keywords for your SEO strategy
I’m going to create a keyword research process that you can follow to make a list of the terms that you should be targeting. That way, you can set and execute a strong keyword strategy that will help you find the search terms that really interest you.
Step 1: Make a list of important, relevant topics based on your knowledge of your company.
To start this process, think about the topics that you want to rank in terms of generic buckets. You will create around 5-10 subject areas that you think are important to your business and use those subject areas to find specific keywords later in the process.
If you’re a regular blogger, these are probably the topics you blog about the most. Or maybe they are the topics that come up the most in sales pitches. Put yourself in the shoes of your buyer personalities – what topics would your target group be looking for for which your company should be found? For example, if you’ve been a company like HubSpot selling marketing software (which happens to have some great SEO tools … but I digress), you may have general subject areas like:
- “Inbound Marketing” (21K)
- “Blogging” (19K)
- “Email Marketing” (30K)
- “Lead Generation” (17K)
- “SEO” (214K)
- “Social Media Marketing” (71K)
- “Marketing Analytics” (6.2 KB)
- “Marketing Automation” (8.5 KB)
Do you see those numbers in parentheses to the right of each keyword? This is hers monthly search volume. This data can be used to gauge how important these topics are to your audience, and how many different subtopics you might need to create in order to be successful with that keyword. To learn more about these subtopics, let’s move on to step 2 …
Step 2: Fill in these subject areas with keywords.
Now that you have a few subject areas that you want to focus on, it is time to identify some keywords that fall into those areas. These are keyword phrases that you think need to be ranked as important in the SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages) as your target customer is likely to be looking for these specific terms.
For example, if I were to take the final topic for an inbound marketing software company – Marketing Automation – I would come up with some keyword phrases that I think people would type in relation to that topic . These could include:
- Marketing automation tools
- Use of marketing automation software
- What is Marketing Automation?
- How do I know if I need marketing automation software?
- Maintain lead
- Email Marketing Automation
- Top automation tools
And so on. This step is not about making a definitive list of keyword phrases. You just want to get a brain dump of phrases that potential customers might use to find content related to that particular topic. We’ll narrow down the lists later in the process so you don’t have anything too unwieldy.
Although more and more keywords are being encrypted by Google every day, another smart way to come up with keyword ideas is to find out which keywords your website is already being found for. To do this, you need website analysis software such as Google Analytics or the HubSpot source report, which is available in the Traffic Analytics tool. Search your website’s traffic sources and search your organic search traffic bucket to identify the keywords that are bringing people to your website.
Repeat this exercise for as many subject areas as possible. And remember, if you’re having trouble finding relevant search terms, you can always reach out to your customer-facing colleagues – those who work in sales or service – and ask them what types of terms their potential customers use or frequently asked questions they have. These are often good starting points for keyword research.
Step 3: Understand how intent affects keyword research and analyze accordingly.
As I said in the previous section, User intent is now one of the most important factors in your ability to rank well on search engines like Google. Nowadays, it is more important that your website deals with the problem that a searcher is trying to solve than just carrying the keyword that the searcher used. How does this affect your keyword research?
It’s easy to use keywords for face value, and unfortunately, under the surface keywords can have many different meanings. Since the intent behind a search is so important to your ranking potential, you need to be extra careful with how you interpret the keywords you are targeting.
For example, suppose you are looking for the keyword “how to start a blog” for an article that you want to create. “Blog” can mean a blog post or the blog website itself. What intentions a searcher has behind this keyword influences the direction of your article. Does the searcher want to learn how to start a single blog post? Or do you want to know how to actually start a website domain for blogging purposes? If your content strategy is only targeting people who are interested in the latter, you need to ensure the intent of the keyword before committing to it.
To check what intent a user has on a keyword, just type that keyword into a search engine yourself and see what kinds of results they get. Make sure the type of content Google is creating for the keyword is closely related to what you are trying to create.
Step 4: Do some research on search terms.
This is a creative step that you may have already thought of while doing your keyword research. If not, it’s a great way to fill out these lists.
If you’re struggling to think of more keywords that might be searched on a particular topic, take a look at the related search terms that come up when you type a keyword into Google. As you type in your phrase and scroll to the bottom of the Google results, you will notice some suggestions for search queries related to your original input. These keywords can trigger ideas for other keywords that you might want to consider.
Do you want a bonus? Enter some of these related search terms and see the related search terms.
Step 5: use keyword research tools to your advantage.
With the help of keyword research and SEO tools like Ahrefs, SEMrush, and Ubersuggest, you can develop more keyword ideas based on exact match keywords and phrase match keywords based on the ideas you have generated up to this point . This exercise may offer you alternatives that you may not have considered.
How to find and choose keywords for your website
Once you have an idea of the keywords you want to rank for, now is the time to refine your list based on the best ones for your strategy. Here’s how:
Step 1. Understand the three main factors for choosing good keywords.
Before you choose keywords and expect your content to rank for them, there are three things you need to curate keywords for:
Google rates content based on relevance. This is where the concept of search intent comes into play. Your content will only be rated for a keyword if it meets the searcher’s requirements. In addition, your content must be the best resource to query. Why should Google rate your content higher when it offers less value than other content on the web?
Google will give more weight to sources it deems authoritative. This means that to become an authoritative source, you must do everything you can by adding helpful informational content to your website and promoting this content to get social signals and backlinks. If you’re not considered authoritative in the field, or if a keyword’s SERPs are loaded with extensive sources that you can’t compete with (like Forbes or The Mayo Clinic), you have less chance of ranking unless yours Content is exceptional.
You may be ranking on a particular keyword on the first page. However, if no one ever searches for it, it won’t drive traffic to your website. Kind of like a shop in a ghost town.
Volume is measured using MSV (monthly search volume). This means how often the keyword is searched per month for all target groups.
Step 2: Look for a mixture of head and long-tail keywords in each bucket.
If you don’t know the difference between head terms and long tail keywords, let me explain. Heading words are keyword phrases that are generally shorter and more general – they’re usually only one to three words long, depending on who you’re talking to. Long-tail keywords, on the other hand, are longer keyword phrases that usually contain three or more words.
It’s important to double-check that you have a mix of head and long-tail terms as this will give you a keyword strategy that aligns with long-term goals and short-term profits. This is because head terms are generally searched for more frequently, which often (not always, but often) makes them much more competitive and harder to evaluate than long-tail terms. Think about it: which of the following terms do you think you would use without looking up search volume or difficulty? Heavier for to rank?
- how to write a great blog post
- to blog
If you answered # 2, you are absolutely right. But don’t be discouraged. While headers generally have the highest search volume (which means more potential for sending traffic), the traffic you get from “How do I write a great blog post?” Obtained, as a rule, more desirable.
Because someone looking for something specific is likely to be a much more skilled searcher for your product or service (assuming you’re in the blogging section) than someone looking for something really general. And since long-tail keywords tend to be more specific, it’s usually easier to see what people searching for those keywords are really looking for. Someone searching for the main term “blogging” might search for it for a variety of reasons unrelated to your business.
So, be sure to check your keyword lists to make sure you have a healthy mix of head and long-tail keywords. You definitely want to make some quick profits that long-tail keywords give you, but you should also try to make more difficult head terms in the long run.
Step 3: see how competitors rank for these keywords
Just because your competitor is doing something doesn’t mean you have to do it. The same goes for keywords. Just because a keyword is important to your competitor doesn’t mean it is important to you. However, if you know what keywords your competitors are looking to rank for, you can give your keyword list another rating.
If your competitor is also ranking for certain keywords that are also on your list, it definitely makes sense to work on improving your ranking for them. However, don’t ignore those who don’t seem to care about your competitors. This could be a great opportunity for you To own market shares on important terms.
Understanding the balance of terms that may be a little more difficult due to competition versus the terms that are a little more realistic can help maintain a similar balance that allows the mix of long tail and head terms. Remember, the goal is to come up with a list of keywords that will make some quick gains, but will also help you make progress toward bigger, more challenging SEO goals.
How do you find out which keywords your competitors are ranking for? In addition to manually searching for keywords in an incognito browser and seeing your competitors’ positions, Ahrefs allows you to generate a number of free reports that list the top keywords for the domain you entered. This is a quick way to get an idea of the terms that your competitors are ranking for.
Step 4: Use Google’s Keyword Planner to Reduce Your Keyword List.
Now that you have the right mix of keywords, it’s time to narrow down your lists with some more quantitative data. You have a ton of tools available to do this, but let me share my favorite method.
I like to use a mix of Google’s Keyword Planner (you’ll need to set up an ad account to do this, but you can turn off your sample ad before paying) and Google Trends.
Keyword Planner gives you search volume and traffic estimates for the keywords you are considering. Then, take the information you got from the Keyword Planner and use Google Trends to fill in some of the blanks.
Use the Keyword Planner to flag terms on your list that have way too little (or way too big) search volume, and don’t help maintain a healthy mix as described above. Before you delete anything, however, check the trend history and projections in Google Trends. You can see if, for example, some low volume terms are actually something you should invest in now – and take advantage of them for later.
Or maybe you’re just looking at a list of terms that are way too unwieldy and needing to narrow them down somehow … Google Trends can help you determine which terms are up and therefore deserving more attention.
Best Keywords for SEO
Understand that there are no “best” keywords, only those that your target audience will search for frequently. With that in mind, it’s up to you to develop a strategy that will allow you to rate pages and increase traffic.
The best keywords for your SEO strategy take into account relevance, authority, and volume. You want to find highly searched keywords that you can reasonably compete for based on:
- The level of competition you face.
- Your ability to produce content with a quality higher than the current ranking.
And you are done!
Congratulations! You now have a list of keywords that will help you focus on the right topics for your business and generate short term and long term profits.
Make sure to re-evaluate these keywords every few months – quarterly is a good benchmark, but some companies like to do this more often. As you gain even more authority in the SERPs, you will find that you can add more and more keywords to your lists to maintain your current presence and grow into new areas as well.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in May 2019 and has been updated for completeness.