How to Research Keywords: A Step-By-Step Guide

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Andy Crestodina
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That web page isn’t going to rank itself!

Search engine traffic doesn’t just happen. It’s 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:

  1. The keyword (keyphrase research)
  2. The content on the page (on-page SEO)
  3. The trustworthiness of the website (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.
  • What related products and services are people looking for?
    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.

How to choose a keyphrase:

The ideal keyphrase meets three criteria:

  1. People are searching for it (search volume).
  2. Your website has a realistic chance of ranking relative to other sites (competition).
  3. The phrase is relevant to your business offerings or aligns with your content mission statement.

Assuming we know what topics and keywords are relevant, let’s focus on the first two criteria:

  • Search volume:
    This is the popularity of the keyword. Are people searching for it? A lot or a little? Is it trending up or down? How many people are searching for the phrase? It’s useless to target a phrase if no one is searching for it.
  • Competition:
    How likely is your page to rank for the phrase? Are the other pages that rank for the phrase much more authoritative than yours? It’s useless to target a phrase if you have no chance of ranking for it.

The goal is to disqualify the phrases with few or no searches (the invisible) or too much competition (the impossible).

Step 1. Check search volume (popularity) and consider related phrases

There are a lot of tools that provide clues into the popularity of a given phrase. Some suggest other phrases, some estimate competition, others show trends over time. Our main goal is to confirm that there is demand for the topic and get a sense for how much.

Google itself is the primary source of keyword data. It offers two free tools: the Google AdWords Keyword Planner and Google Trends. First, we’ll compare these and then look deeper at other sources of keyword data.

  • Google AdWords Keyword Planner
    Suggests many phrases and shows estimated ranges 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.

Google AdWords Keyword Planner

For years, this was the most popular keyphrase research tool for SEOs. But it wasn’t really created to help with search optimization. As part of AdWords, it’s designed to help advertisers select phrases to bid on with their pay per click ads, not to help search optimizers target phrases for organic search results.

You’ll need to create an account to use it, but you don’t need to actually set up a campaign or begin advertising using AdWords. Once inside, start by entering your starting phrase into the box labeled “Your product or service.”

If you’re researching a transactional (dollar sign) phrase, you may actually enter a product or service name. But if you’re researching an informational (question mark) phrase, you’ll just enter the topic for your article. For our example, we’ll use the phrase “robot parts.”

Now you’ll find an estimated range for the average number of monthly searches over the last year for the phrase you entered. This is the “search volume.”

But keep in mind that there is always much more demand for the broader topic than that specific phrase. And a page that ranks for that phrase will likely rank for dozens or even hundreds of closely related phrases.

If you are successful, the page will attract many more visitors than this number suggests. Don’t be discouraged by low estimates here!

Below the search volume, you’ll find a huge list of other suggested phrases. Scan through and you may quickly find ideas for more specific, more targeted phrases.

Note! 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.

The Keyword Planner has a “competition” column, but this is not competition within the organic Google search results. It’s the competition among advertisers within Google AdWords.

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 search results.

To narrow your focus on a more specific set of keyphrases, click on “Keyword Options” in the left column and then select “Only show ideas closely related to my search terms.”

Now you’ll see a list of phrases that are less popular, but more specific and therefore more likely to attract a more targeted visitor. These more specific phrases tend to be less competitive and easier to rank for.

As you review the wide range of related phrases, you’re looking for two things:

  • Phrases that relate to your topic more specifically
  • Completely new phrases that have a similar meaning, especially those with relatively high search volume.

Add these to your original list.

How many searches are enough?

It’s ideal if the main keyphrase for your site has thousands of searches per month. The homepage is usually optimized for the most popular, most competitive phrase. That’s because your homepage is your strongest competitor with the most authority and the best chance of ranking.

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.

Zero Average Monthly Searches?

If you see a little dash instead of a number, that doesn’t necessarily mean that no one is searching for the phrase. Technically, it means that there are fewer than ten searches per month for that exact phrase on average over the last 12 months.

There may still be people looking for related topics or a small amount of demand for the exact phrase. There are other places to look for evidence that there is demand for the phrase.

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. Even if very few people search for a phrase each month, those potential visitors may be very targeted and be thrilled to have found your page. Long, very specific search phrases, such as entire questions, are called“long tail” keyphrases.

These phrases may have little, if any, competition. If you target a long tail phrase with six or seven words, such as a complete question, 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 page, attracting highly targeted visitors. A few hours of content marketing today may lead to a steady trickle of traffic (highly interested traffic) and a handful of qualified leads for years to come.

Google Trends

If you want to compare the relative popularity of several phrases, Google Trends is fast way to check. It shows trending over time, seasonality and geographic preferences.

Here’s an example: suppose you’re a web design company with a new plan to offer marketing services. You’re getting ready to launch the service and write a new, search optimized page for your own site. But should you call it web marketing, digital marketing or internet marketing?

Enter those three phrases into Google Trends and here’s what you’ll see:

  • Yellow line: “internet marketing”
  • Red line: “digital marketing”
  • Blue line: “web marketing”

The date range for this report goes back to 2004. You can see that sometime toward the end of 2012, “digital marketing” became a more popular phrase. Had you researched these phrases two years earlier just using the Google Keyword Planner, you may have concluded that it was the least popular of the three.

Tip! Watch for seasonal trends for various phrases. You’ll notice that most phrases have some seasonality and that with some phrases, there are huge spikes at certain times of the year. Plan ahead to target keyphrases that have strong seasonality.

Google Trends also shows geographic differences, which can be important if you’re targeting a local audience. You can drill down into country, region or even metro area.

It may not be practical or useful to check every phrase in Google Trends. Should you check the trending of every keyphrase for every blog post? Maybe not. But check the main keyphrases for your homepage, service pages or product pages? Absolutely.

Other ways to confirm demand for a phrase (spoiler alert: Google)

Just because a phrase didn’t appear in either of these tools doesn’t mean there is no demand for it. There are other ways to confirm that someone is interested in this topic. And for the blog posts and articles that target the informational keyphrases, we aren’t necessarily looking for huge demand. Any visibility in search can make a big difference in the performance of a post.

Google Search itself is great way to check. Just type the phrase your considering, then hold off hitting the return key. See the suggestions? If it’s suggested by Google, then people are searching for it. Some of these phrases won’t show up in the Keyword Tool or Trends, but that doesn’t mean there’s no demand.

Enter a letter of the alphabet to see more suggested keyphrases.

Getting ideas for phrases to target? Rather than type every letter of the alphabet, you can enter your phrase into this Keyword Tool to see hundreds of suggested phrases, as if you typed the next letter of the alphabet 26 times. You can also see the phrases suggested by YouTube, Bing, Amazon and eBay.

This is one of several tools that we use when we research topics for articles. A lot of the tools and tactics for finding topics are also great for picking target phrases.

Step 2. Search for the phrases you’re considering

This is the only way to evaluate the competitive landscape is to search for the phrase. You’ll likely quickly move back and forth between keyphrase research tools and the search engine, finding suggested phrases, searching for them, scanning through search results, researching other phrases.

Note: Not all searches are the same

Your results are always slightly personalized for you. Your target audience may not see exactly the same listings with the same rankings. Here are three tips for seeing more “typical” search results:

  1. Use a browser that isn’t logged into any Google products
  2. Use private browsing or incognito mode
  3. Use the Google Ad Preview tool, by searching from www.google.com/adpreview

In each of these cases, there will still be implicit search signals, specific to you and your computer that will affect your search results, so we don’t recommend spending a lot of time trying to see perfectly neutral results. I recommend these approaches only if you suspect that what you’re seeing is highly personalized.

As you browse through search results, you’re looking for clues, asking yourself questions.

  • Am I in the right neighborhood?
    If a member of your target audience who is looking for your topic landed on these same search results, what would they do? Would they immediately try again and search for something else? In other words, are the high ranking pages relevant to you, your brand and your content? If not, you’re in the wrong neighborhood. Go back and consider different phrases.

Every keyphrase indicates intent. Search results are a powerful clue into the intent and desires of those potential visitors.

  • Are there a lot of SERP features pushing down the organic rankings?
    Some search results pages are crowded with ads, images, answer boxes and other features. These push down the high ranking pages, reducing the likelihood that a searcher will click on your page even if you do rank.

Those features reduce click through rates for organic search rankings. If you see a lot of them, keep in mind that Google itself is your competitor and the size of the prize is smaller.

  • Does this look like a very competitive phrase?
    In a moment, we’ll go into the science of evaluating competition for a given phrase, but a quick glance at a search results page can often tell you if you have any chance of ranking.

Are all of the high ranking pages on famous websites? National brands or big media companies? If so, it may be difficult or impossible to rank for this phrase unless you are a famous brand yourself.

  • Are there other, more specific phrases suggested here?
    Google search results are another source of related phrases. Look at the “Searches related to…” links at the bottom of the page. Look for question and answer boxes. Getting any ideas?

See a map? A quick note about local SEO

If you a search for a phrase and see a map with a list of businesses below it (usually in a group of three), you may need to focus on “local SEO” to compete for this phrase. Local SEO is very different from organic SEO. Those aren’t websites that rank under the map, they are local listings.

Your local listing in Google is your “Google My Business” page. To improve the ranking of this listing in the local search results, make sure that your business information is up to date in Google My Business, within all of the Internet Yellow Pages websites (IYPs) and anywhere else where your business name, address and phone number (NAP) appears. An instance of your NAP is called a “citation.”

When a business has many citations with few inconsistencies, Google has more evidence that there is a relevant business is in that location. Therefore, Google is more likely to show that business listing when visitors in that area search for a related phrase. To quickly improve the number and consistency of your citations and improve your local SEO, consider using a service such as Yext, BrightLocal or Moz Local.

They are called “blended” or “universal” search results.

Note! Google often shows search results for general meanings, rather than specific words and phrases. When you search for a phrase in Google, you’ll see the keyword bolded in the search results. Look closely and you may find words you didn’t search for bolded in those same search results. For example, a search for “HVAC repair” returns search listings with phrases such as “heating” and “air conditioning.”

Google engineers call this “semantic indexing.” Google shows pages that include words that are semantically linked to the words in your search. Often, they’re actual synonyms. Keep this in mind as you measure competition. You can read more on semantic SEO here.

Step 3. Estimate the competition

In my experience, this is one of the more difficult web marketing skills. It’s a tricky inexact science. But it starts with common sense. Take a look at the search engine results page for the phrase you’re considering. The phrase is likely competitive if:

  • There are four pay-per-click ads at the top of the page and three at the bottom. This means others have already determined the keyphrase is valuable.
  • The top-ranking sites are popular, well-known sites. Unless you invent a time machine, you’re not going to outrank Wikipedia or Amazon. 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.
  • 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 about SEO. This means it will likely be more difficult, but not necessarily impossible.
  • There are tens of millions of results. This means there are many pages on the web that are relevant for this phrase.

Here is the anatomy of a highly competitive keyphrase

Now let’s go beyond the quick visual check and use tools to estimate competition more accurately.

We’ve discussed the mechanics of search and the importance of link popularity. We’ve explained that that a page is more likely to rank if it is part of an authoritative website and that a website is authoritative if it has many links to it from many other websites. Now it’s time to actually estimate authority of the websites that rank and therefore estimate the competition for a given phrase.

We need a metric to compare our specific level of authority (and likelihood of ranking) to other websites. Google’s own metric is called PageRank, named after Google founder Larry Page. Way back in the day, you could look up the PageRank for any website. It was shown on a scale of one-to-ten right there in a Google toolbar that many of us added to our browsers.

But it’s been years since Google updated PageRank data displayed in that toolbar, so there is no longer reliable data available from the primary source. Now SEOs use proxy metrics, created by software companies. These companies estimate Google PageRank using their own formulas. Here are some of the more popular tools:

  • Domain Authority, created by Moz
  • Domain Rating, created by Ahrefs
  • Domain Score, created by SEMrush

These tools are very similar and each costs about $100 per month. They all estimate authority and likelihood of ranking on a scale of 1-100. Since Moz offers a free view into its authority, we’ll use that for the rest of this post.

Note: SEO software companies offer lots of other useful features. Most will track your rankings over time, listen for mentions of your brand on other websites and make prioritized recommendations to specific pages.

Before we jump into the tool, we need to better understand authority and competition.

The Domain Authority power curve

Websites with higher Domain Authority have exponentially more credibility in search. A site with a Domain Authority of 60 may have eight times as much link popularity as a site with an authority of 50. Authority is plotted on a curve, not a line. Typically, this is how it is distributed:

  • Only websites with active content marketing programs have authority of 60 or more.
  • Only the daily blogs have authority of 70 or more.
  • Only the media websites have authority of 80 or more.
  • Only very famous, global brands have authority of 90 or more.
  • Only a handful of digital giants have an authority of 100!

The key to ranking is to compete at or below your class. You can’t win the Tour de France on foot. But if you’re on a bike, you’re going to win every marathon you enter.

So of course, to evaluate the likelihood of a page on your website ranking for a specific phrase, you need to know your own Domain Authority. Here’s how to look it up.

Open Site Explorer: Checking your own authority

This tool is part of Moz and is invaluable for measuring link popularity and authority. In addition to showing the authority of any domain, it shows the authority of the specific page, spam score, social shares, the total number of incoming links and a list of every link to that domain.

Very useful. The free version can be used a few times per day from a given computer.

Tip! Increasing your Domain Authority is one of the most valuable outcomes of content marketing. Higher authority leads to a much greater chance of ranking, which leads to huge amounts of traffic and brand awareness.

Now you need to check the authority of the other high ranking pages. For that, you’ll use another tool.

MozBar: Checking the authority of high ranking pages

This is a Chrome extension and it’s free. Add it to Chrome and search for any phrase and you’ll see the Open Site Explorer data for each of the high ranking pages right below each search listing. MozBar shows the Page Authority (PA) of the specific page and the Domain Authority (DA) of the overall website.

Here are search results with MozBar turned on. DA is the Domain Authority, the credibility of the overall domain. PA is page authority, the credibility of the specific page.

While researching competition, you’ll quickly notice that it’s perfectly normal for pages with low authority to rank relatively high. Typically in these cases, the page has stronger relevance. That page (or that entire website) is totally focused on the topic.

Authority is important, but it’s not everything. There are many other search ranking factors.

Here is the general rule:

  • If the Domain Authority of your site is within the range of the domain authorities of the other, high-ranking websites, you should have a chance of ranking for the phrase. If not, go back and look for a longer, more specific, less popular but less competitive phrase.

Note: Page Authority, not Domain Authority is the real test. Ultimately, it’s the authority of our page versus the authority of their page.

But when we are making a new page targeting a new phrase, we don’t have a page authority to compare to! So use Domain Authority as a more general guide when creating new content and Page Authority when adjusting keyphrases and optimizing existing content.

Tip! If you’re writing an article that would target a very competitive phrase and your site’s domain isn’t powerful enough, consider submitting your content as a guest post to a blog with a more authoritative domain. Borrow someone’s airplane!

The Fast (but not free) way to check competition

The paid versions of the SEO tools will calculate the competition for any phrase, saving you the time of scanning through search results and wondering if there’s a chance.

These tools take the average of all of the high ranking pages for a phrase and show one difficulty score. They also show the search volume, so in one view, you have a lot of the necessary information to consider a phrase.

If your website’s authority is above the difficulty for the phrase, it should be within reach.

Shortcut!

Here’s a simple way to research keywords fast. You can estimate your odds of ranking based on your Domain Authority and the keyword search volume or just number of words in the phrase. This is oversimplified for sure, but it may help give you an idea for what general range you should be in.

Tip! No one searching for it? Or it’s too competitive for you to rank for? But you still really want to write it? Go for it!

Forget about search and write the article you want to write. Make it great piece of content and promote it through other channels. There is more to life than search.

Happy rankings!

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?

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Comments (4)
  • Extremely insightful. This probably took a long time to compose. Many, many thanks Andy!

  • Best Step-By-Step Guide on keyword research ever! Thanks Andy this was great. I enjoyed every word of it.
    Where you mentioned promote it via other channels! could you write one of these long form, ass kicking, jaw dropping bad boys on promotion as well?

    Many Thanks & Cheers

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