Whether you’re thinking about starting a company, revamping your current business, adding a new product line, or just making sure your current SEO approach is on the right track, keyword research is a fundamental part of the process.
The reason keyword research is so indispensable is that it’s one of the easiest ways to get insight into what your target audience cares about and what language they use to talk about it. Skipping this step means you risk wasting time writing and optimizing for things that are totally irrelevant to your audience. You could spend all the time and effort in the world writing amazing content for your site but if you don’t use the language your audience does, they’re never going to find you. Keyword research is a way to learn about your audience, what they care about, and how they think, so you can align it with the content on your site.
The purpose of this post is to take some of the ambiguity and mystery away from what keyword research is (and isn’t) about. After you’ve read this article you should be able to get started doing keyword research for your site and approach the process as a way to create an alignment between the way you talk about your business and the way your customers talk about it. I’m going to cover a lot of the basics of keyword research in this article, but if you want a really detailed, in depth refresher on the fundamentals, this article from Moz does a really good job of breaking down keyword research into its most basic components. When you’re ready for some heavier reading, check out this article from Portent alum Marianne Sweeney about the history of advanced keyword research.
The process I typically follow can be broken down into four components:
- Figure out where you’re at today; identify terms you are ranking well for already.
- Group your keywords by topic and pick a few head terms to prioritize.
- Decide which pages work best with the keywords you’ve chosen.
- Write to benefit your audience, always.
Figure out Which Terms You Rank for Already
Deciding which keywords to target for a page can be tricky since there are so many different factors to consider. The first step is figuring out what language your target audience is using to talk about your product. We’re not talking about English vs. Icelandic, but rather the vernacular or lexicon. It’s the shared terminology that your audience uses, rather than the marketing speak around products that we all have to guard against for SEM. Think: “jeans” vs. “denim,” “dresser” vs. “bureau,” or “software that does ___” vs. “disruptive SaaS platform.” There are a few basic tools I use that make this process pretty easy. The first is Search Console’s keyword data. Although you can no longer see which pages on the site are ranking for which terms, you can still get a general idea of which ones are performing the best. We’ll use Portent’s Search Console account as an example:
Usually the top few queries will be your brand name or variations of it. In our unique case, Portent has made some really cool tools that are getting us a lot of clicks, but again, usually the top few queries will be your brand name or variations of it. I like to look at Clicks, Click Through Rate, and Position as my metrics or criteria. From this example you can see that people searching for “idea generator” have clicked on our little blue link about 1,302 times in the past month. Meaning about 42% of all the people searching for idea generators in the past month thought our page would solve their problem more effectively than someone else’s, assuming they didn’t have to go back and search again. (By the way, this is a pretty awesome content ideation tool, which you should totally check out, after you finish this post–and your keyword research of course).
Of course, being in first place helps quite a bit, but CTR can still be useful as an indicator of how well your content matches up with that term and the user’s question. If your position is relatively low but CTR is still high, it’s an indication that people weren’t finding a better answer to their question further up on the page. With some tweaking, these queries could be an opportunity to improve rankings and visibility since you’re answering the question better than sites in positions ahead of you.
After I’ve downloaded my list of keywords from Search Console, I like to combine it with data from another keyword research tool called SEM Rush. This is a paid tool that will set you back about $70 a month, but it’s well worth it. The “top organic keywords” report is really valuable because it shows you exactly which pages on your site are ranking for which keywords. Combining this with click through rate from search console tells you exactly which pages are performing well for which terms.
Once you have this list, you can use AdWords keyword planner to flesh it out with related terms that you might not be ranking for (yet). You can start by using a page on your site about a topic or a competitor’s site, or even a Wikipedia page, and get suggestions for high volume search terms that you don’t yet target.
So now you have a huge list of key phrases you rank for, and another set that you’d like to work toward. The next step is to break down the keywords list by topic. From the list you’ve compiled there are usually a few distinct topics and subtopics that emerge.
Group Keywords by Topic and Choose a Few Key Terms to Target
To start, group these keywords by topic and then choose a few head terms that you want to prioritize for each topic. An example of a head term: think “running shoes” instead of the more long-tail “running shoes for people with high arches.” The number of keywords you should choose will depend on your resources, how large or authoritative your site is, etc. For example, if you have only one page to target a particular topic, then five terms is likely more than enough. If you have one category page and several subcategory pages to work with, broadening your focus to 10-15 terms would be just fine.
Next, choose a few closely-related head terms to target with each page. Choose one or two high volume, competitive terms that you already rank well for and would like to see improve. Combine these ideal head terms with some less competitive terms you can easily optimize for. Don’t overthink this; we’re not ignoring the other terms that fall under those topics. As you create content on your site specifically designed to provide valuable information to your audience on the broader topic, rankings and traffic for related and specific long-tail keywords will come naturally. Choosing a few specific terms just means we’re intentional about including them in on-page elements, titles, headings, and in the body copy. Again, we’ve chosen these terms because they’ve met some key criteria:
- From our research we know this is a term that currently drives traffic to this page (or we would like it to).
- This is the language our audience is using to talk about our product.
- The content on this page does a good job addressing this topic.
Decide Which Pages to Target for Which Topics
Now that you have the topics you want to cover, you need to figure out which of the pages on your site are best suited to address those topics. This is one of the trickiest parts about keyword research. Not only is it important to choose the right topics to hit, it’s also important to choose the right pages to cover those topics.
Stick to one or two closely related topics per page. Remember that can still mean you target multiple keywords per page that fall under one topic. It’s much easier to optimize a page for one topic than for three. If you do have a page on your site that’s dedicated to several topics, consider breaking it down into a few subpages, and using the current page as the hub or category page. You can read more on the benefits of hub pages in this article.
Maybe you find that there are a few pages that could potentially work well for a specific term. Some basic criteria to help you make this decision:
- How well is each page performing right now? How well are they ranking for the keywords you’ve chosen?
- How well does the page actually address the topic or answer the user’s question?
For the second bullet, different types of queries work best with different types of content. People using informational-type queries like “Where is the best ____,” “How much does ____ cost” are looking to find content that is specific, informational and helps them answer a question, whereas people using more general queries like “What is ___” are likely looking for longer content explaining a topic broadly. And then of course people searching for a specific product name may be looking to buy, or at least compare reviews and prices.
With that in mind, ask honestly: what is the current purpose of the page I’m planning to use? For instance, blog posts and category pages are great for answering those broad questions and providing information for users who are gathering information about your industry, type of product, etc. We’ll save the more promotional answers for evergreen educational pages, product comparison pages, and product pages themselves.
Write to Benefit Your Audience
I can’t stress this enough: do not get too fixated on a single high volume term or terms. Include both competitive and less competitive terms in your strategy knowing that the more competitive a term is, the more work you’re going to have to do to earn a spot on page one. Getting combined traffic from several less competitive terms can add up to the same amount of traffic and conversions or even more. Most importantly, it’s doable, with much less effort and stress on your part. On top of that, building authority around terms closely related to a hyper-competitive term will help improve position for that term itself.
Wrapping It Up
The most valuable takeaway from successful keyword research should be a better understanding of what your audience’s needs are and how your website does or doesn’t meet those needs. Your goal should always be to create content that’s interesting and helpful to your target audience. Keyword research makes this process more actionable, informed, and rooted in actual data.