Keyword Research: What Do I Do with It Now?!

Zac Heinrichs Jun 18 2018

Picture this.

You’ve just hired an SEO agency, and to kick things off they’ve just delivered a massive Excel file titled “Keyword Research”. They’re clearly excited about all of the insights that lay within, and how fundamental this is to their work with you. But you’re relatively new to SEO, and when you open the file yourself it looks like a bottomless morass of terms, a bunch of tabs with weird, seemingly similar titles, and a ton of color coding.

Meanwhile your agency (or in-house SEO) likely just spent thirty, forty, maybe even more hours, learning everything they could about the keywords, phrases, and questions people are asking about your business in search engines. They’ve filtered through thousands upon thousands of spreadsheet rows until eyes bled, and the memory of a non-pivot-table-based universe started to fade slowly away…

My hope for this article is to breathe some life, extra utility, and maybe even a little excitement into what can otherwise be a pretty dense and technical report. Sure, this baby gets referenced in lots of subsequent work where individual insights and easily-shared narrative are the norm, but there’s so much good here that it’s absolutely worth taking the time to understand the big kahuna.

And if you’re in a rush and just looking for what the heck to do next without the primer, I’d suggest skipping to the oh-so-conveniently identified Action Items under each section.

What is the point of keyword research?

Starting simple: keyword research is a process that uses a combination of tools to understand what words, phrases, questions, and topics people are searching for, around a product or service, and its related topics. This research allows us to better understand how we’ll improve organic rankings and identify opportunities for new content.

As one of the original SEO tactics, keyword research has been spammed, abused, and just about buzz-worded to death. It’s even been threatened more recently by machine learning and AI, but as an audience and marketing alignment tool it’s here to stay.

In the era of semantic search, RankBrain, and dynamic SERPs, this research can be the key to a truly successful SEO + content program or campaign.

Example: selling digital marketing agency services?? Write about “keyword research” and “SEO” if you find that people are looking for that topic with any consistency or volume. Eureka!

Any keyword research analysis worth its salt will clearly identify opportunities to optimize current pages within the site to improve search visibility. Quick wins!

After pointing out those existing opportunities, the research should uncover new keywords, topics, and questions for which your site does not currently rank. You can’t afford stop with just your own analytics data. These findings represent gaps that you can fill with evergreen pages, blog posts, or other pieces of owned content.

What is the keyword research process?

At Portent, the keyword research process to identify high-volume or high-value niche keywords for our Content and SEO strategies breaks down into four phases:

  1. Find keyword opportunities by identifying current ranking phrases and pages for related terms. (“Where do you show up, and which page is getting the job done?”)
  2. Research new, high-volume or high-value phrases for which the site is not currently ranking. (“Where do we have important gaps in our content?”).
  3. Find questions people ask around the central terms and key ideas of your site, so you can answer the right search queries. (“What topics could we directly address with our site to increase visibility?”)
  4. Find core entities, or topics, to tie opportunity phrases and new keywords into content and build authority. (“How do we make sure search engines and humans see our answers as actually relevant to the question?”)

Again, at Portent we use a handful of tools like SEMrush, Moz Keyword Explorer, and Answer the Public to generate loads of data and throw all of it into a spreadsheet. Then, through the black-magic of pivots, vlookup, conditional formulas, and formatting, we end with something that’s easier to look at, and more importantly, easier to act on by product marketing managers, web copywriters, social media teams, and so on.

Bottom line: keyword research ideally needs to be understood by everyone who’s communicating with your current and prospective customers, so that you can marshal resources for content, promote, and generally talk about your products the same way that your future customers are searching for them.

To that end, let’s move on to the specific sections of a Keyword Research Report from Portent, and what you can pull from each section in both insight and action items.

Part 1 – Keyword Opportunities

When an SEO reviews your site, they’ll invariably find search queries or phrases for which you’re already ranking. And that’s great, but what do we do with that insight?

We use this part of the analysis to find and highlight phrases for which your site could fairly easily make it to the first page of search results. Or better yet, make a jump above the fold on page one. Think of this as phrases within striking distance, which is exactly how we describe this to clients.

While a lot of the research process is defined by the digital marketing agency you choose, for my money using SEMrush to find the raw keyword opportunities, and marrying that with some good ol’ Google Analytics data for page performance is what it’s all about. (No sense in sending people to a page where visitors never take the next step. Amiright?)

The main things that we look for to identify or evaluate a potential keyword opportunity are:

  • The site currently ranks between #2 and #20* for the keyword or phrase
  • There are 1000 or more searches/month* for the keyword

*Note: These qualifications can and should be expanded to show a wider selection of phrases and pages if the site you’re working with doesn’t necessarily generate a lot of search volume yet.

After the broad strokes analysis, you’ll want to go through the data and make exceptions to add other phrases if:

  • The site is already moving up for the keyword (capitalizing on momentum)
  • Overall search volume is high enough to warrant extra effort for a term that’s below page two
  • The target page has extra potential because you could link to it from other related site pages and/or can otherwise easily optimize it. More on content or topic hubs in another post.

Action items: On-page Optimization Around Keyword Opportunities

Title: Do you have a fully descriptive Title that passes the Blank Sheet of Paper Test? It should be about 65 characters long, and prominently feature the targeted keyword.

Meta Description: Do you have an enticing description of the page’s content that incorporates the targeted keyword phrase, encourages click-through, and is 300 characters or less? With all the recent changes to Google’s new SERP snippet and Meta Description length this may be an area you’ll want to brush up.

Heading Tags: The H1 heading should also include the targeted keyword, or highly relative phrase, and should act as the bridge between the Title and the page’s content.

Body Copy: Use the targeted keyword and related phrases where it makes sense. As always, don’t force it.

An SEO walks into a bar

Image Alt: ALT attributes describe an image to visiting browsers and assistive devices. The image alts are required for accessibility guidelines and are even a minor ranking factor. Take the opportunity to fully describe the images using your targeted keyword in ways that a human could understand. (Think stock photo descriptions.)

Part 2 – New phrases and content gaps

For context, in this portion of the research your SEO is looking for phrases that make sense for your business, for which your site doesn’t currently rank. And because there are effectively no constraints here (we could rank for anything!) this phase of research is often the most complex and potentially time-consuming. So many rabbit holes to explore and threads to pull!

Your SEO will build out and expand this litany of new opportunities through several tactics that can (and really should) include:

  • Thoroughly reading through your site and competing sites for context
  • Using third-party tools like the Moz Keyword Explorer to look at competitor keywords and rankings
  • Good old-fashioned brainstorming about what drives your customers

Action items: Content Creation

Armed with this list of brand new keywords, it’s time to figure out which parts of your site are best suited to address the topics and then get to writing.

Remember, this part of the report is about zeroing in on:

  • Moderate to high-relevance phrases with high search volume
  • Lots of phrases that are lexically similar to what you’re already doing (going back to the strategy of creating “topic hubs”)
  • Highly relevant long tail searches that you’ve not yet addressed

Use these phrases for ideation on blog posts with your content team, creating or organizing pages into content hubs around a central topic, or any other new content pieces for the site.

Part 3 – Find the questions

Answering specific, direct questions and by extension proving that your site is useful, are some of the best ways to earn and sustain higher rankings and better search visibility. Done right, this can even include the coveted Featured Snippet or voice search answer for a given question or search phrase.

Those Featured Snippets are designed to surface the best answer to a question above all other organic results and are taken directly from a web page, along with a link to the referring page, the original page title, and the URL. They are a monster for driving traffic and building trust and authority.

The “Questions” section of a good Keyword Research analysis contains questions that are being asked by users across the web and scraped together using tools like Answer the Public.

Action Items: Content Creation and On-page Optimization

Use the Questions surfaced in your Keyword Research report for ideation on blog posts or any other new content pieces on the site. Ideally these questions should align and complement the topics surfaced in “New Phrases” or “Keyword Opportunities”.

You can use the H1 to pose the question you’re answering on the page. Then, for example, use H2s for potential People Also Ask questions throughout the page. What better way to show your relevance for a query than to answer more related questions?

An extended example:
If you’re trying to rank for topics around bicycle repair and parts, you can see how this might play out.

If we currently have decent authority and relevance for the topic “bike tires” but not “bicycle tubes” we’ll likely want content and smart interlinking around the tubes themselves. Let’s get some content up on a new or relevant page that talks about “tubeless tires”, “airless alternatives to pneumatic tires”, etc.

And for questions, we’d certainly want to include “How to replace a bicycle tube?” Or perhaps looking for long-tail opportunities, “Do tubeless tires go flat?”

Part 4 – Entities and related topicality

Entities are proper nouns or things that have risen to the level of proper nouns. Entities matter in SEO because they’re understood pretty darn well by search engines, to the point that Google and others could easily spit out a list of highly related topics.

Want to rank for searches related to a particular entity? Time to provide content around those highly related topics. Again, think “bike tires” and “bike tubes.”

Entities relevant to Portent might be Portent, Google, AdWords, PPC, and SEO. And yes, although those last two aren’t really proper nouns, humans tend to treat them that way which is a good way to think about this if you’re on the fence.

For context some of the ways that you can build and add to an entity list:

  • Dust off your thinking cap again or gather some co-workers and brainstorm relevant terms that qualify as entities
  • Look at schema.org: this page has a dizzying list of stuff for which Google supports schema markup. If Google has a way to declare that “this is a particular thing” that thing is clearly understood as an entity.
  • Let’s get seriously nerdy: build or download your own word vector mapping tool and feed it scads of website copy from across the web to build your own entity library. Our founder Ian built his own word vector mapping tool, but this is not for the faint of heart.

Bottom line, as your SEO goes through all of the manual research and filtering and sorting in those earlier efforts, they should notice patterns and trends emerging, and be putting these into a list. Ultimately, this targeted list of entities will make up the core of your swing-for-the-fences initiatives and campaigns. Things like trying to rank highly for the incredibly broad or “head” terms that have a mountain of traffic every month.

Action Items: Schema Markup, Internal Linking, and Content Creation

Armed with this research and your clear list of entities, you can now spot opportunities to add schema markup to your site.

Schema markup provides the kind of structured data Google and Bing love and improves chances of getting nice stuff like answer boxes, which are reserved for the absolute clearest and best answers to specific queries. Additionally, clearly identified entities receive different treatment in search results, like knowledge graph panels and the like.

Content or topic hubs are another great way to build up relevance and authority for highly competitive entities. (Anyone seeing a theme here that topic hubs are a good idea?!) The strategy is to create wonderful and useful content that addresses long-tail and less competitive phrases and then link them all together so that they’re incredibly valuable to searchers.

A great rule of thumb here from some recent announcements by Google: Click-depth matters more for SEO than URL structure. Meaning providing a useful, obvious next answer to customers matters more than any fancy site directory setup.

Don’t let keyword research die!

Even if you don’t have the bandwidth to tackle every single opportunity in a keyword research report, or every suggested action item here, the absolute worst thing you can do is to let it sit idle.

Use it for quick wins and on-page optimizations. Use it for blog post brainstorms.

Use it for filling content gaps in your product descriptions. Use it to find opportunities to revive old and useful content.

Use it to spot opportunities and need for great topic or content hubs. Use it to build relevance and authority with smarter internal linking.

And if you have let that keyword research gather a little dust, it’s okay. Today’s a great day to pick it up and start afresh.