While Google keeps us on our toes with all the algorithm updates they keep rollin' out, one thing has stayed pretty consistent for inbound marketers looking to optimize their websites for search: keyword research.
Well, the need to do keyword research has stayed the same. How you actually do it hasn't.
What is keyword research?
Keyword research is the process of finding and analyzing actual search terms that people enter into search engines. The insight you can get into these actual search terms can help inform content strategy, as well as your larger marketing strategy.
Why is keyword research important?
More and more, we hear how much SEO has evolved over just the last 10 years, and how unimportant keywords themselves have become to our ability to rank well for the searches people make every day.
And to some extent, this is true; using keywords that exactly match a person's search is no longer the most important ranking factor in the eyes of an SEO professional. Rather, it's the intent behind that keyword, and whether or not a piece of content solves for that intent (we'll talk more about intent in just a minute).
But that doesn't mean keyword research is an outdated process. Let me explain:
Keyword research tells you what topics people care about and, assuming you use the right SEO tool, how popular those topics actually are among your audience. The operative term here is topics — by researching keywords that are getting a high volume of searches per month, you can identify and sort your content into topics that you want to create content on. Then, you can use these topics to dictate which keywords you look for and target.
By researching keywords for their popularity, search volume, and general intent, you can tackle the questions that the most people in your audience want answers to.
When to do keyword research?
Keyword research is usually the first step of search engine optimization of any website.
Most often, it is needed when you’re:
looking for a new niche
looking for new content ideas
optimizing your existing content
Who should do keyword research?
Any website owner, blogger, online marketer or SEO specialist.
How does intent affect keyword research?
Like I said in the previous section, user intent is now one of the most pivotal factors in your ability to rank well on search engines like Google. Today, it's more important that your webpage addresses the problem a searcher intended to solve than simply carries the keyword the searcher used. So, how does this affect the keyword research you do?
It's easy to take keywords for face value, and unfortunately, keywords can have many different meanings beneath the surface. Because the intent behind a search is so important to your ranking potential, you need to be extra-careful how you interpret the keywords you target.
Let's say, for example, you're researching the keyword “how to start a blog” for an article you want to create. “Blog” can mean a blog post or the blog website itself, and what a searcher's intent is behind that keyword will influence the direction of your article. Does the searcher want to learn how to start an individual blog post? Or do they want to know how to actually launch a website domain for the purposes of blogging? If your content strategy is only targeting people interested in the latter, you'll need to make sure of the keyword's intent before committing to it.
To verify what a user's intent is in a keyword, it's a good idea to simply enter this keyword into a search engine yourself, and see what types of results come up.
I'm going to lay out a keyword research process you can follow to help you come up with and narrow down a list of terms you should be targeting. That way, you'll be able to establish and execute a strong keyword strategy that helps you get found for the search terms you actually care about.
A very brief history of keyword research
The way people do 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.
What is a keyword?
Keyword is any word or phrase that a user types into the search engine to find certain information on the internet.
As many misused it, Google responded with several 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.
The most important algorithm updates that influenced the way we do keyword research:
Google Panda – has penalized thin, low-quality content and duplicate text
Google Penguin – has penalized unnatural usage of keywords
Google Hummingbird – has improved semantic search and focus on search intent
Today, keyword research is much more than finding the “right” keywords and putting them into “right” places.
Google is becoming better and better at understanding what people look for. Its main goal is to offer the content that satisfies their needs the best.
RankBrain is a component of Google’s algorithm based on artificial intelligence.
It had been around for a couple of years, but it took some time until it was fully implemented. In 2015, Google announced that RankBrain is the third most important ranking signal.
Thanks to RankBrain, Google understands 2 things:
How users interact with the organic search results
What is the search intent behind the query
In other words, keyword research is becoming more and more topical. It is no longer about finding one ideal keyword. It is about understanding the audience and covering the topic in a complex way.
To put it simply – if the topic is well-covered, you can rank for keywords you did not even use in the text!
This doesn’t mean that keyword research is no longer important – quite the contrary. It just looks a little different than in the past.
Stages of keyword research in 2020
For the purpose of this guide, I have divided the whole process into 3 main steps:
Finding the keywords
Analyzing the keywords
Using the keywords
Let’s dive into the details of each step.
Chapter 2: How to find keywords
In order to write compelling content that covers the needs of people interested in your niche, you need to know what they are looking for.
My first keyword research advice would be: Know your niche!
Keyword research allows you to have a deeper understanding of the sub-topics and recurring themes in your niche.
In this article, I’ll cover the following tools and platforms where you can find keywords:
Google offers many keyword suggestions directly in the search to help people find the most relevant results.
Let’s take a look at the 3 features you can leverage to find new keyword ideas:
You probably noticed that Google tries to suggest related search queries directly in the search form. As these are based on real searches by people, they can be a nice inspiration for interesting keywords.
Start by typing your seed keyword into Google search and add letters (or numbers) to see the suggestions.
We can try various combinations:
Email marketing a, b, c…
Email marketing ab, ac, ad…
Email marketing 0, 1, 2…
Best email marketing…
People also ask
One of the features you can find in Google search results is the so-called “people also ask” snippet. It appears mostly for question queries and suggests other related questions.
These can serve as an inspiration for long-tail question-type keywords.
Pro tip: If you click on one of the questions, more related questions will appear. This way, you can load the “infinite” number of questions.
Searches related to…
This feature is very similar to autocomplete, but the suggestions are at the bottom of the results page.
Even easier way to extract the autocomplete suggestions is to do it automatically. One of the tools that do it for free is AnswerThePublic.
Just enter your seed keyword and it generates the autocomplete suggestions from Google and Bing for each letter in the alphabet.
The feature I like the most is generating keyword suggestions based on:
Question words (when, how, where, what, can, will…)
Prepositions (for, without, to, with,…)
Comparison words (like, versus, and, or,…)
Pro tip: If you are not a big fan of the default circle visualizations, you can download the keywords as a list too.
YouTube is the second largest search engine in the world.
Although keyword research for this platform has its own specifics, it can be useful for Google keyword research too.
There are thousands of searches behind the most popular topics. There is a high chance that popular keywords from YouTube will have high search volumes in Google too.
Let’s take an example.
If we search for “water filter” on YouTube, we’ll find an obvious keyword idea in the title of one of the video results – “diy water filter”.
A quick check of the search volume tells us that the phrase is really popular in Google search too.
Another way is to use YouTube Autocomplete feature. When looking for videos on YouTube, people usually use search queries that are more “practically” oriented.
If you compare Google and YouTube autocomplete suggestions, you can see they are different.
There are some useful tools such as YouTube Keyword Tool that scrapes the autocomplete results automatically.
Pro tip: You can import the YouTube keywords to a keyword tool to see the search volumes and keyword difficulty values.
Google Search Console
A great way to find highly relevant keywords is to check what you already rank for in Google Search Console.
If the article already ranks for some keywords, there is a high chance you’ll find other long-tail phrases it ranks for too.
Let’s take a look at 2 ways to find keywords with the best potential:
1. Check keywords with high impressions but low number of clicks
Keywords with a high number of impressions and very low number of clicks may indicate that there is a big traffic potential but you are not ranking high enough (or you were ranking for a short period of time and not anymore).
Note: This applies to keywords you rank for on a 2nd or lower SERP. If you rank on the 1st SERP, but the clicks are very low, it is an issue with low click-through rate.
Go to your Search Console and select Search results in the Performance section.
You can check all the keywords you rank for with the domain (default Queries setting).
Or you can go to Pages, select a specific URL and then click back to Queries to see keywords you rank for with that specific URL.
Next, sort the results by the number of impressions. You should look for keywords that could be relevant for your content but have low number of clicks.
They are all relevant but the post clearly doesn’t rank well for them – they have a high number of impressions but a low number of clicks.
If they do, we can improve the optimization of the article for these keywords.
2. Check what you rank for on the 2nd or 3rd SERP
By checking the average position for the queries, you can find that you rank on the 2nd or 3rd SERP for keywords that were not the main focus of the article and yet, bring you impressions and clicks.
All you need to do is to select the Average position in the Performance section (it is not displayed by default). Then sort the queries by this dimension.
Although it is by no means the most accurate way to see your rankings, it will help you find low-hanging fruit among the keywords you already rank for.
Let’s say you wrote an article about different types of coffee machines.
In Search Console, you find the keyword “4 cup coffee maker” with an average position around the 2nd or 3rd SERP.
Since the keyword is relevant and has a solid search volume, it could be a great source of traffic for your blog.
There are two things you can do:
You can improve the current article to put more emphasis on the keyword. (However, you probably don’t want to cover such a specific subtopic in a general article.)
You can write a new post focused on “best 4 cup coffee makers” and link it from the main article.
With a quality article dedicated to the topic, you have a high chance of ranking for the keyword on a better position than with the general post.
Reddit is one of the biggest online communities that cover almost any topic you can imagine. As such, it can be a great place to find people interested in your niche and discover the topics they discuss.
Let’s say your niche is aquascaping (I discovered this niche when writing this guide and I think I found my retirement hobby).
Firstly, search for subreddits related to your niche. As you can see, even a specific niche such as aquascaping has thousands of followers in various subreddits.
You can select a specific subreddit and look at the most popular posts. Alternatively, you can search for question-type posts within the subreddit.
The search terms you can use:
“how can I”
“how do you”
You’ll find various questions related to the niche. They can be an inspiration for your next piece of content based on what people discuss online.
In the screenshot above, you can see possible topic ideas for the aquascaping niche.
Quora is another popular platform focused on questions of any kind. As I mentioned before, every frequent question can be treated as a long-tail keyword.
Here’s how to find the most popular questions for a specific niche:
Let’s say your niche is email marketing. First, you need to find the topic page on Quora. Just type in your main keyword and select the appropriate result.
You’ll get to the topic page – over 750k followers, quite good. In the right panel, you’ll see a list of related topics, which might be useful to explore the niche further.
Although it’s not possible to rank the questions by popularity on Quora, you can click on three dots and select“All Questions”.
A list of all the questions within the topic will appear. Now you can browse through them and look for the ones with the highest number of followers/answers.
In the example below, we see that the question “What are the best practices for sending cold emails?” has 246 followers. You just found quite popular topic within your niche.
Of course, you don’t have to focus on the most followed questions only.
“What is marketing funnel?” is a great example of a query that serves as a question and a keyword at the same time.
There are hundreds of queries like this.
Just dive into Quora and start discovering them.
Although forums are not as popular as they were in the past, various forms of narrow-oriented niche forums have survived.
You can use these search queries to find forums related to your topic:
“keyword” + “forum”
“keyword” + “forums”
Here’s an example of an active forum in the board games niche:
Tip: Look at the number of posts/comments and the last post dates to identify whether the forum is active or not.
By diving into a specific category, you can find a lot of threads and possible keyword ideas based on the topics people actively discuss.
If you see a niche forum that looks like it came straight from the 90s, with thousands of threads and last post from an hour ago, you’ve found a gem.
Did you know that Amazon has its own search engine called A9?
Similarly to Google and YouTube, it collects data about popular search queries and offers automatic suggestions.
You can search for them manually or use one of many free tools that do that automatically.
The relevance of the suggestions is based on the product conversion rate and buying behavior.
These keywords may be especially useful for the content with transactional intent.
Are you an affiliate marketer? An e-commerce store owner?
Don’t forget about Amazon.
Wikipedia is a great source of keywords too. Thanks to its nested structure, you can go from a broader topic to narrow sub-topics. Browsing through tables of contents and sub-chapters is a great way to do it.
Here is an example of the search going from a broad keyword to a very specific topic:
I got from a wide topic such as exercise to a specific sub-topic/keyword like indoor rowing techniques within minutes.
For some big topics, you can find a comprehensive table of related subtopics at the bottom of their Wikipedia page. This can give you a great insight into the structure and depth of the topic.
Last but not least, you can use a free tool (like this one by Karooya) that will scrape the topic ideas and keywords from Wikipedia for you:
Quite a huge source of keyword ideas, right?
Another way to get a lot of topic ideas is to set up an RSS feed to get updates on new content from the best blogs from your industry.
The whole process won’t take you more than 5 minutes.
Just register a free account at Feedly, create a new feed and follow the industry leaders and competitors.
You can start by entering your topic and following the best blog within the niche:
Every day, you’ll see a digest of the new content published on the blogs you’ve been following.
Each post title can serve as a separate source to find content ideas and keywords you can focus on with your own website.
Of course, there are many other places that can be a source of keyword inspiration. Just look for places people from your niche gather online. It could be:
Content curation platforms
Keyword ideas can be found everywhere. But not all keywords were created equal.
How to analyze them to find the ones worth targeting?
Let’s take a look at the third chapter.
Chapter 3: How to analyze keywords
Now that you have dozens of keyword ideas, your main task is to select the ones that will bring the most value to you. You don’t want to optimize for hundreds of keywords, right?
There are three key aspects to consider – popularity, difficulty and relevance of the keyword.
Why tripod? Because it stands steady only if all three legs have a good ground.
The same applies to any keyword:
If a keyword has a high search volume and low difficulty but isn’t relevant to your content, Google won’t show your page for the keyword.
If the difficulty is low and the keyword is relevant but there is no search volume, you’ll get no traffic.
If search volume and relevance are OK, but the difficulty is too high, it will be hard to outrank your competitors.
Let’s take a closer look at these 3 legs:
1. Popularity of the keyword
The popularity of the keyword usually means thesearch volume – how many people search for the given phrase. It is usually calculated as a monthly average based on the last 12 months.
There are two basic sources of search volume data used in keyword research tools:
Google data – search volume data from the Google Keyword Planner database
Clickstream data – search volume data based on the behavior of internet users (collected from browser extensions, plugins, etc.)
Various keyword tools use different sources and different ways of data post-processing. As a result, there may be differences in search volume values.
Note: Don’t forget that a well-written content will most probably rank for many other keywords and the total search volume will be higher. Don’t become a slave of search volumes, take them as a clue.
You should also look at the popularity of a keyword from a longer perspective by checking a long-terminterest trend of the keyword.
A great tool to help you with this is Google Trends. You simply enter a specific keyword or topic and the tool will show you the interest over time on a scale from 1 to 100.
Look at these four very different trend chart examples:
The keyword 3D television may have a solid monthly search volume (actually, it is around 2,400 searches per month globally). But if you look at the long-term trend, you’ll see that the interest is dropping in the last couple of years.
Look at the keyword garden pool in the screenshot above. There are natural spikes during the summer period and lower interest in the winter. You should consider this when creating the content plan.
Last but not least, you should take into account the click-through rate (CTR).
The CTR depends widely on the position of your website. There are other things that influence it, especially the rich snippets.
Many other snippets
Here is a graph representing the organic CTR in the result pages with and without Google ads. As you can see, if the ads are present, the CTR of organic results is much lower.
There are tools that calculate the impact of rich snippets on the organic results. You can take it into consideration when estimating the visits you can get from a keyword.
Let’s take a look at the second leg of our tripod.
Quite an important one.
2. Keyword difficulty
Keyword difficulty is a metric that estimates how hard it is to rank for a certain keyword. The higher is the keyword difficulty, the harder it will be to rank for the keyword with your website.
The difficulty metrics used in keyword tools take into consideration the authority of the websites ranking in the 1st SERP.
If there are many low-authority websites in the first SERP, there is a high chance of ranking for the keyword.
How is the website’s authority calculated? In most cases, the calculation takes into account on two things:
Number of backlinks – how many pages link to the given website
Quality of backlinks – depends on the authority and relevance of the linking pages
There are various well-established authority metrics. The most popular are Domain Authority and Page Authority by Moz and Citation Flow and Trust Flow by Majestic.
These metrics try to capture the authority of the page into one number on a scale from 1 to 100. If you consider the authority of all the websites ranking for a keyword in the 1st SERP, you can estimate how difficult it will be to rank for that keyword.
To work with the keyword difficulty metric correctly, it is important to remember a couple of things:
Don’t take the keyword difficulty as the only clue. The metric should serve only as a guideline, not an absolute value. If your content is better and more relevant, you can outrank websites with higher authority.
Don’t compare the numbers between different tools. Each keyword research tool uses different data to calculate their keyword difficulty so the values will differ. Instead, compare the difficulty metrics between the keywords.
Don’t forget about the subjective factors. No metric can tell you exactly how hard it will be FOR YOU to rank for a certain keyword. There are many subjective factors you need to consider, namely:
your SEO skills,
your website’s authority,
the relevance of your content.
Pro tip: Find competitors with similar website authority as yours (you can compare DA/PA or CF/TF for example). Then, look at the keywords they rank for and create better content to outrank them.
Alternative ways to estimate the keyword difficulty
Although difficulty metric is probably the most reliable way to estimate the competition, there are some other ways:
Domain age – you can focus on the age of the domains to find SERPs with relatively young ranking websites. For example, a keyword with a 6-months-old website in the first SERP could be easy to rank for.
Keyword Golden Ratio – this method allows you to find long-tail keywords you should be able to rank for immediately. Read more about it in our
Pro tip: Sometimes, if there is no relevant content, Google simply displays semi-relevant websites with high authority. If you check the difficulty metric, you would see a high number.
(Remember? The difficulty is calculated based on the authority of the websites in the SERP)
SERP analysis should be an integral part of every keyword research.
Firstly, you can better evaluate the keyword difficulty by looking at the authority of the ranking websites.
Secondly, it helps you to discover the search intent behind the keyword to see whether the keyword is relevant to your content.
There are 4 basic search intent categories:
Navigational – user is searching for a specific website/brand
Informational – user is searching for general information
Transactional – user wants to buy something online
Commercial – user wants to do the research before purchase
Here are some example keywords and content types for each search intent:
Let me give you an example:
Let’s say you own an online aquarium supplies store and you want to find a focus keyword for the product page of a new advanced aquarium filter AquaClear.
You find a keyword “best aquarium filter”. It has a solid search volume and it seems quite easy to rank for.
AquaClear – the best aquarium filter for your fish tank! Quite a catchy title, right?
However, a quick look at the SERP will show you that your chosen keyword is not suitable for your content.
Why? The search intent doesn’t match.
Google clearly understands “best aquarium filter” as a commercial keyword – all the results are reviews and buying guides.
You wouldn’t be able to rank with your product page, because it has a transactional character.
You have two options now:
Find a focus keyword with a suitable intent (e.g. “aquarium filter buy”, “aquaclear filter price”)
Create a new piece of content to match the search intent (e.g. a comparison of the best aquarium filters with links to your online store)
The main goal here is to match the intent behind the query with your content type.
Pro tip: Do not focus only on transactional and commercial keywords. Write informative blog posts and offer some value for free.
Some of your visitors may not want to buy immediately, but they’ll remember you as an authority in the field when they are ready to buy in the future.
We’ve covered the first two steps – finding and analyzing the keywords.
It’s time to move to the third step.
Chapter 4: How to use keywords
Now that you analyzed the keywords, you can start thinking about how to use them within your content.
Many keyword research guides end at this point. You’ve found the keyword. You picked the ones with the best metrics.
The question is: What to do next?
In this chapter, we’ll take a look at some useful principles and tips on how to use the keywords properly.
They’re closely connected to on-page optimization and content strategy, but very relevant to keyword research too.
Think of keywords as topics (topic cluster model)
Topic clusters represent the basic structure of your website content. Instead of organizing the articles into artificial categories or, even worse, having no structure at all, organize them by topics.
Here is a scheme of a typical topic cluster model:
There are two main types of content in the cluster model:
Pillar content – the main post or page broadly covering the topic – targeting broader keywords
Cluster content – supporting blog posts explaining the subtopics in detail – targeting more specific keywords
The pillar content and supporting cluster articles are interlinked in a way depicted in the scheme above.
The topic cluster model method strengthens the semantic relationship between the articles. As a result, it can help search engines to better evaluate the topical relevance of the posts.
You can use the model to organize your keywords into keyword lists where 1 list = 1 topic cluster.
That’s the theory, let’s take a look at a specific example:
If one of the topic clusters on your coffee blog focuses on the coffee types, the keywords and content titles may look like this:
Focus keyword and pillar article title:
coffee types (The Ultimate Guide to Different Types of Coffee)
Focus keywords and titles of possible cluster articles:
flat white latte (A newbie’s guide to flat white)
how to make espresso (How to make a perfect espresso)
difference between latte and mocha (What is the difference between latte and mocha?)
best coffee beans for espresso (Best espresso beans on the market (expert review))
If you take keywords as separate content topics, it makes you think about the natural relationships between them.
You’ll understand that keyword research is not only about search volumes and difficulties. First of all, it should help you understand the way people search and think on the internet.
This helps you to create content that covers the topic thoroughly and satisfies users’ needs.
Select the focus keyword
Select one focus keyword that represents the topic.
Don’t overuse the keyword. The best practice is to use the exact-match keyword in:
The title (both H1 and title tag)
One of the first paragraphs of the text
At least one subheading
A couple of times in the text (naturally)
Everyone knows that keyword stuffing is an outdated technique.
Tip: Some SEO plugins (such as Rank Math SEO) suggest the optimal keyword density. Take it as a clue, but never forget about the user experience.
If your focus keyword is “social media scheduling for agencies”, it would look unnatural to use it 5 times in a 1000-word article. Always consider the length of the keyword too.
Use various LSI keywords
Latent semantic indexing is a term that refers to a specific mathematical method. It is used by search engines to identify which keywords are semantically related.
LSI keywords are keywords that are closely related to your main keyword. They often appear together with your main keyword.
The main goal is not to rank for all of the LSI keywords you use, but to let Google know the extent to which you cover a certain topic. That will help to improve the topical relevance of the article.
According to this study by team JasaSEO.be, the average #1 ranking page will also rank for about 1000 other relevant keywords:
Again, be careful when adding the LSI keywords and use them only if it fits into the text naturally. Trying to optimize for every variation or synonym of a keyword can be harmful the same way as keyword stuffing.
Although exaggerated to make the point, it shows that artificial usage of LSI keywords is not the right path to follow. It can be easily identified and it hurts the readability.
Google algorithm is becoming better at understanding the content and knowing what the page is about. You don’t need to use every single keyword.
Write long-form content
Various researches have proven that on average, a long-form content (over 1500 words) ranks better than short articles.
The advantages of long-form content:
In a long text, LSI keywords are used naturally, which increases the topical relevance
Long-form content usually has higher engagement as it answers the user’s question (or solves the problem) in a comprehensive way
It naturally attracts more links than short, mediocre articles
It improves the image of your brand as an authority in the field
The question is: How to use the keywords in a long-form content?
As I mentioned in the previous point, you don’t have to use every single related keyword. You may actually rank for keywords you didn’t even use in the text.
Let’s take a look at this example:
If you look for a keyword “how to make strong coffee”, the first result is an ultimate guide by a coffee blog Enjoy Java.
A quick look at the article will reveal that it is a well-written, comprehensive post with a ton of useful information, tips and videos.
With the word count of 2780 words, it is a typical long-form article covering the topic from A to Z.
If we run the post through a keyword research tool, we’ll see that besides the original keyword we searched for (“how to make strong coffee”), it ranks in the first SERP for another 18 keywords in the US.
Now, let’s look for the appearance of these keywords in the article. I searched for the exact match of all these keywords in the article.
All in all, 14 out of 19 keywords the article ranks for in the first SERP are not even mentioned in the exact form in the whole text!
The author of the guide could write 3 separate articles with these focus keywords:
strong brewed coffee
which coffee is strongest
strong coffee beans
Instead, he wrote an ultimate guide that covers the whole topic of “strong coffee” and he ranks for all these keywords (and many more) naturally.
What does it mean?
If Google sees that your content is top-notch and relevant, you may rank for keywords you did not optimize for at all.
select one focus keyword that will represent the topic and follow the best practices of keyword placement
write long, in-depth articles that cover the whole topic thoroughly
use LSI keywords to increase topical relevance
don’t follow the pattern 1 long-tail keyword = 1 article
don’t overthink the number and placement of the keywords
don’t follow the keyword density recommendations
don’t stuff the keywords into the text unnaturally
Congratulations! You've now got a list of keywords that'll help you focus on the right topics for your business, and get you some short-term and long-term gains.
Be sure to re-evaluate these keywords every few months — once a quarter is a good benchmark, but some businesses like to do it even more often than that. As you gain even more authority in the SERPs, you'll find that you can add more and more keywords to your lists to tackle as you work on maintaining your current presence, and then growing in new areas on top of that.
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