How to Research Keywords: Tips, Competition and Squirrels
That web page isn’t going to rank itself! Search engine traffic is the outcome of a set of deliberate steps. It’s not as complicated or mysterious as you’d think. There are three key ingredients behind every listing in every search results page:
- The keyword (keyphrase research)
- The content on the page (on-page SEO)
- The trustworthiness of the website (link popularity / domain authority)
In order to rank, a page must indicate its relevance to search engines, and the website itself must be credible in the eyes of search engines. It also must focus on a phrase. If you do everything else right but get this wrong, you’ll be hearing crickets.
It all begins with the keyword. And keywords begin with research, which is fun. Keyword research is like reading the minds of millions of people. It’s truly amazing the things you can learn within minutes:
- What do people really call your product or service? So you can avoid using jargon and start using top-of-mind phrases.
- For which related services and products are people looking? So you can consider expanding your offerings, or at least your content.
As a content marketer, the two primary uses for keyword research are to find phrases to include in your content and to get ideas for new content. Now you can create content that is more friendly for search engines and more relevant to your audience.
The Perfect Target Keyword
The goal of keyword research is to find a phrase that meets these criteria: many people are searching for it (high search volume), and you have a realistic chance of ranking relative to other sites (low competition).
- Search Volume This is the popularity of the keyword. How many people are searching for the phrase? There is no point in targeting a phrase if no one is searching for it.
- Competition There is also no point in targeting a phrase if you have no chance of ranking for it. How likely is your page to rank for the phrase? How many websites are relevant for this phrase? Are they powerful sites?
Now let’s see how to research keywords with these in mind. Here are the tips and tools you’ll need:
Check Search Volume (Popularity)
Although there are many tools that show how popular various keyphrases are, I recommend the Google tools because they have the most data. The two tools we’ll use here are Google AdWords Keyword Planner and Google Trends. They’re very different, but they complement each other. Let’s compare.
- Google AdWords Keyword Planner Suggests many phrases and shows estimated numbers for monthly search volume (how many people are searching for the phrase) in the U.S. and around the world.
- Google Trends Shows trending for specific phrases over time. Allows comparison of phrases and also suggests a few phrases.
Tip: The Keyword Planner is your bread and butter for research, but Google Trends is a useful way to validate phrases.
- Is the phrase becoming more or less popular? Is it seasonal?
- Is the phrase popular in my region?
Use the Google Keyword Planner to narrow down the universe of possible phrases to the one or two on which you’ll eventually focus. The goal is to disqualify the phrases with too few searches (the invisible) or too much competition (the impossible).
Tip: This tool is known to leave out some data in the suggested keyphrases, so if you have a good feeling about a phrase, enter it manually if you don’t see it suggested.
Step 1: Start Broad
Enter several possible phrases into the box at the top of the page and click “Get Ideas”. Here’s an example of the results for the phrase “squirrel hunting.”
At the top of the list, you’ll see the specific phrase you entered, along with the average number of monthly searches over the last year. This is the “search volume.”
The staircase looking graph to the left of monthly searches is Google Trends. Click on the graph to find out if this keyword phrase is trending up or down.
Warning: The “competition” column on this list is not competition within the organic Google search results, but rather competition within Google AdWords. That’s because this tool is really intended to be a tool for AdWords advertisers. In many cases, keyphrases listed as “Low” may have little competition in AdWords Pay-Per-Click advertising, but are actually highly competitive and would be difficult to rank for in organic SEO.
As you review the wide range of related phrases, you’re looking for two things: phrases that more specifically relate to your topic and completely new phrases that have a similar meaning, especially those with high search volume. Add these to your original list.
Step 2: Find Keywords From Other Sources
If you need ideas for topics and keywords, consider these tools and sources:
- Google Analytics: Find phrases and topics that are already driving traffic by looking in Traffic Sources > Search Engine Optimization > Queries. Keywords related to these will be easier for ranking.
- Google Suggest: Just begin entering relevant keywords into Google and see what phrases Google suggests. Try first entering question words like “how to” and “what” along with your topic for more suggestions. You might get new ideas for phrases with good search volume.
- Ubersuggest: Here’s a way to see all kinds of Google suggestions. Ubersuggest scrapes Google for every possible suggestion that starts with the word or phrase you provided. Brilliant.
- Talk to your team: People within your organization are a great source for keyword ideas. Ask around to find out what topics they’ve been talking about. Align a topic with a phrase, and ask if they wouldn’t mind writing the article!
- Create personas around your target audience. This will help you find out what customers search for when they’re not looking for your product or services. For example, if you sell bug spray, your customers probably search for things like “camping tips” and “best hiking trails in New York”. Personas will help you identify these keywords.
- Find communities where your target audience tends to hang out, whether it’s a fan forum, Facebook group, Google+ Community, or on a specific Subreddit. Keep an eye out for any problems or questions that tend to crop up again and again. These are excellent “seed” keywords to put into the Google Keyword Planner.
Brian Dean has listed a number of keyword brainstorming strategies here.
Enter your new keyword ideas into the Keyword Planner to check the search volume.
Step 3. Narrow In
As you try more phrases and find some you like, try checking the box labeled “Only show ideas closely related to my search terms” at the left of the page, then click Search again. This narrows the results to help you focus on more specific phrases.
So far, you’ve been reviewing the search volume for the “broad” use of each phrase. This includes related keyphrases due to synonyms and related grammatical forms.
If you are researching many phrases or collaborating with others, it may help to download the possible phrases from the Keyword Planner into a spreadsheet. But for most blog posts and articles, this research can be done quickly.
How many searches are enough?
For most businesses, it’s ideal if the main keyphrase for your site has thousands of searches per month. The home page should be optimized for this phrase.
Interior pages, such as product and service pages, should be optimized for more specific phrases. Those phrases may have hundreds of searches per month. Search volume for a blog post’s target keyphrase may be even lower, with fewer than 100 searches per month.
What about long keyphrases?
For businesses where the value of a potential transaction is high, such as a B2B service company, it may be useful to target very specific phrases with very few searches. If only 30 people search for a phrase each month, that’s still a potential visitor every day. Long, very specific search phrases, such as entire questions, are referred to as “long tail” keyphrases.
Long phrases often have little, if any, competition. If you target a long tail phrase with six or seven words, it’s possible that you’ll have the only page on the Internet with that combination of those words together in that order. You may rank high within days of posting the content, and the visitors may be highly targeted. A few hours of content marketing today may lead to a steady trickle of traffic and a handful of qualified leads for years to come.
Can I target more than one phrase? What about secondary keyphrases?
It’s unlikely that a single page will rank high for many phrases, especially interior pages and blog posts. So it’s best to target one keyphrase.
You may have success targeting more than one phrase, if the phrases have words in common. This is easier if the phrases share the first word or two, rather than the last. If the primary and secondary keyphrases are completely dissimilar, the page is less likely to rank for both.
How do I check the competition?
Now that you have a few phrases you think you like, let’s see how competitive they are.
Step 4. Search For The Phrase
The only way to really gauge the competition for a given phrase is to search for it. As you do this, keep in mind that search results are personalized for you and may not be similar to what someone else sees. Here are three tips get a better sense for what “typical” search results might be for a given phrase when you’re checking competition in Google:
- Make sure you’re logged out of Google+ and other Google products.
- Set the location to the location for your target audience. Leave it set for your city if your audience is local. Set it to “United States” for a national audience.
- If you’re really skepical of the search results you’re seeing, visit www.google.com/adpreview to search Google with fewer of the signals that are specific to you and your computer.
Caution: Universal Search Results The last few years have brought much more diversity in the types of content in search results, so there’s a good chance you’re seeing images, news, video, products, local listings and, of course, ads. All of these are in addition to the usual organic listings. They are called “blended” or “universal” search results and they change how we approach keyword research and SEO.
Searching for some phrases will return local search results. If there’s a map in the top right corner and the search results page is dominated by a group of local listings (usually in a group of seven or three), the usual search engine optimization efforts aren’t going to be enough. You’ll need to do Local SEO, which is not based on content marketing.
Step 5. Estimate the Competition
In my opinion, this is one of the more difficult web marketing skills. It’s tricky. There are many tools that try to make it easier. Some tools show a score called “Keyword Effectiveness Index,” which combines search volume and competition. Moz estimates competition with a “Keyword Difficulty” score. But I find it best to check competition manually, without tools.
Take a look at the search engine results page (or “SERP” as the SEOs like to say) for the phrase. Here are some keyword research tips for determining competition. The phrase is likely competitive if…
- There are 10 pay-per-click ads on the page, three at the top and seven down the right side. This means others have already determined the keyphrase is valuable.
- There are tens of millions of results. This means there are many pages on the web that are relevant for this phrase.
- The top ranking sites have the target keyphrase at the beginning of the link. This means those sites have the keyphrases at the beginning of their page titles, which indicates the owners of these sites know a bit of SEO.
- The top ranking sites are popular, well-known sites. Unless you invent a time machine, you’re not going to outrank Wikipedia. If the top three or five sites are trusted, reputable websites, they’ll have loads of link popularity and therefore powerful domains. You’re not likely to compete without focusing serious time and resources.
Tip: Still unsure if you have a chance of ranking? Try this: check the “domain authority” of the top-ranking and bottom-ranking sites on page one in Google. Enter both sites into Open Site Explorer. If the domain authority of your site is in that range, you should have a chance of ranking. Keep in mind, unless you’re an Moz subscriber, you can only use this tool three times per day.
Here’s how to research keywords fast. You can estimate your odds of ranking based on your Domain Authority and the keyword search volume. This is a shorthand way to quickly research keywords for which you can reasonably expect to rank.
Step 6: Use The Keyword On The Page
The keywords should appear in several places on the page. Here’s a quick list of places the phrase should appear in order of priority:
- The beginning of the title tag
- In the header <h1> tag
- Four to six times in the body text
- Within links to this page on other pages of your website
Don’t overdo it. Remember, you want search engine robots to see that you’re relevant, but in the end, you’re writing for people. If you sacrifice content quality for search-friendliness, no amount of SEO will help you. See the On-Page SEO Checklist for a complete list of SEO best practices.
Now that you’re an expert at keyword research, you’re ready to read the minds of your audience, find phrases that competitors missed, use them properly and rank like a champion. Any questions?