Good keywords are hard to find. For every keyword that works, there are hundreds that don't. And if you make the wrong choice, you are stuck creating content that'll never show up in search. Which is why we've put together this guide. Use it to navigate the treacherous path of keyword research and focus your efforts on those keywords that really count.
This guide describes a step-by-step process for generating keyword ideas and selecting those that have the highest ranking potential. If you follow the steps, you'll end up with a list of profitable terms mapped to your pages and an understanding of the traffic these keywords will bring. But let's master the basics first.
What is keyword research?
The keyword research process involves finding high-volume queries that people enter in search engines. It aims to grasp what people need and helps adapt websites' content to their expectations. When chosen and implemented correctly, the right keywords have the ability to deliver a measurable increase in website traffic. So, without exaggeration, we may say that keyword research is the cornerstone of search engine optimization.
How to do keyword research?
Keyword research has to be aligned with your SEO strategy and objectives. Before launching your keyword research, review your website's profile to assess its strengths and weaknesses.
Depending on your websites' authority, content quality, and competitive landscape of your industry, it will take a different amount of effort to optimize your pages. Keep your target audience in mind: you should focus on what value your website brings to users and how to satisfy their search intent.
When you get right down to it, keyword research is basically a three-part process. First, you generate as many keyword ideas as possible. Second, you filter the researched terms to remove those that are too crazy, too irrelevant, or too difficult to implement. And finally, you prioritize the remaining keywords to see which of them should be implemented first. To make this process a little easier to follow, we've broken each part into smaller steps, but the core message is still the same — generate, filter, prioritize.
Step 1: Create a list of seed keywords
Seed keywords are the simplest terms that broadly define your business. These are words that you are already supposed to rank for. They are used to kickstart the process of developing more keyword ideas. As soon as you come up with a few seed keywords, you will be able to use SEO software to generate thousands more.
The simplest tip on how to find seed keywords is to jot down a few phrases that best describe your products and services. Break your business down into general topics and pick a couple of valuable keywords for each topic. As a result, you will come up with a number of the most relevant keywords that will be the starting point for wider SEO keywords research.
An arguably better starting point could be to go through your website's navigation and look for keyword terms in the catalog:
The example above is a catalog of an outdoor gear retailer, and almost every item in this catalog is a great seed keyword idea. Just match some words together and you've got men's clothing, women's footwear, snowboard jackets — dozens upon dozens of terms. And you can get many more by exploring subcategories, product filters, and company descriptions, like in the sample below.
Step 2: Choose SEO tools to use
How do I do keyword research for free, you might be asking. There is a huge range of SEO tools on the market, both free and paid, simple and sophisticated. But, for this article, we will limit ourselves to a handful of the most popular and most reliable keyword research tools. Four of those tools are provided by search engines themselves — each with a slightly different focus, and the fifth is really a collection of tools that unites not one, but nine different keyword research methods.
Google Ads Keyword Planner
Google Keyword Planner is probably the first place to do keyword research. The way Keyword Planner works is you add a few of your seed keywords, and it generates a huge list of similar words and phrases. You can evaluate your data using such metrics as search volume, competition, and bid ranges, and you can clean your data by removing adult results, brands, or negative keywords. In the end, you are likely to be left with a shortlist of keywords very similar to your seed keywords, but it's still a good place to start.
One thing to keep in mind is that Google Ads is aimed at advertising forecasts, thus only relative judgments are possible. For example, if keyword A has 3,500 queries per month and keyword B has 1,500 queries per month, we can't be sure about the accuracy of these numbers, but we can presume that the first keyword is likely to bring more traffic than the second one. Google Ads displays the total number of Google forecasts for that keyword across the web while Search Console shows only those queries that returned your pages in Google search results.
While Google Ads is a powerful Google-built keyword research tool with search statistics directly from the source, it provides very basic stats — you'd definitely need to supplement it with other SEO tools if you want your research to be comprehensive.
Google Search Console
Unlike Keyword Planner, Google Search Console is used to search for those keywords that you already rank for. The point is to discover the keywords that are on the verge of achieving top SERP positions and give them a little boost. If you think about it, those keywords are actually a better ranking opportunity than new ones — you are already halfway there.
Go to Search Performance > Search Results, check Impressions. Search Console shows the average position for each of the keywords you rank for and how many impressions and clicks you get from them. You can see what your audience is searching for by pages, countries, and devices. The tool allows filtering up to 1000 keywords, but it makes sense to focus your effort more around those phrases that can potentially rank higher — check top 20 positions.
It requires a bit of research into the competitive environment to estimate what to consider a sufficient amount of traffic. For instance, in a vast area like touristic services, keywords may have 10K — 100K searches a month, while in some field-specific niche like parachuting gear, search volumes are by far lower.
Google Trends provides an overview of how a topic performs over a selected time period and thus lets you see which queries are seasonal. You can check out what is trending now, interest scores by locations and by different web search channels; you can inspect and compare terms, and analyze what related topics and queries have formed a certain trend.
Besides Google, other search engines are not to be overlooked. According to Global Statcount, Bing and Yahoo occupy 10 percent of the US search engine market. So, pay attention to Bing Webmaster which has its own strong features for analyzing search volumes.
Bing provides a search performance overview similar to Google's. For example, you can check how keywords perform on SERPs over a period of time or while the average position on the respective page is changing. Just like Google Ads, it suggests ideas by showing associated search keywords similar to your seed keywords. Keep in mind that Keyword Planner shows paid search, whereas Bing shows organic search.
Rank Tracker is truly a beast of a tool. Nine different SEO keyword research methods, over twenty keyword research tools, plenty of metrics, sorting and filtering options, and position tracking — all in one place. And it's got both Google Search Console and Keyword Planner integrations.
Depending on the keyword research method, you can use either seed keywords or competitor websites to generate new keyword ideas. Each researched entry is accompanied by a set of SEO metrics: search volume, competition, difficulty, and CPC information, among others. The workspace is customizable, you are free to add and remove the criteria for your convenience.
Step 3: Generate your keyword list
Now that you've got your seed keywords, let's explore some of the keyword research methods in more depth and see how to use Rank Tracker for this purpose:
Keyword Gap is an awesome method to check in what areas your competitors are outranking your website. Just add the competitor domain (or several domains), pick the parameter by which you wish to make the comparison, and you will see on which keywords your competitors perform better.
If your website is fairly new, there is the Competitor Research module where you can look for relevant topics and related keywords by domain and by topic. Spot how much you are intersecting with other competitors and find their high-volume keywords — you can surely integrate them into your content as well.
Try the Autocomplete tool based on search predictions from Google, Amazon, YouTube, etc. Use seed keywords to generate suggestions for keywords with respect to how people tend to formulate their queries. Together with the Related Search method, try to get into other people's way of thinking.
This keyword research method pulls related questions from the corresponding Google snippet. The whole thing with common questions is that they are strongly associated with voice search. Keywords generated this way are usually very long-tail keywords which have a conversational style; they can be great for creating Q&A pages and guides, and for optimizing your pages for voice search.
TF-IDF is a statistical method that evaluates how important a certain word is to a document. The importance increases proportionally to the number of times the word is mentioned. The tool analyses 10 of your top competitors and collects keywords that they have in common. This feature will help discover additionally appropriate context and to optimize your page with synonyms and related terms.
Word Combinations feature is basically a keyword randomizer. Throw in a couple of words, and it will mix them and match them until every possible combination is exhausted. The point is that you may not be forming queries the exact way other users do, so this way you may discover a couple of keyword variations that have better ranking chances.
Step 4: Filter your data
When you're done with the search, you'll probably have thousands of potential keywords in your Sandbox — that's where all of your researched keyword items are saved automatically. Not all of them are a good match for your website, so our next goal is to refine the raw keyword list and reduce the amount of manual work at later stages.
Define filtering parameters
There are many different ways to get your keyword list down to a manageable size, and the choice is largely dependent on your own preference. Here are some of the most common parameters used to filter keyword lists:
The shorter the keyword, the broader the term, the more traffic it will bring, however, the fewer conversions you will get. Likewise, the longer your keyword is, the less traffic it will bring, the higher the conversion rate. According to Ahref's latest study on long-tail keywords, 80% of all search queries are 1-4 words long. A typical SEO tip to a starting website would be: use long-tail keywords (3+) to rank up and then, while growing into a stronger website, go after both short-tail and long-tail keywords.
This is the demand for the keyword on search engines. Keywords with very low search volume don't bring any noticeable traffic and you may safely remove them from your research. Keywords with high search volumes are likely to bring more traffic, but the competition is likely to be more intense.
This metric shows how strong top-ranking pages are for any given keyword, and hence how difficult it's going to be for you to beat them. Rank Tracker calculates the difficulty score for each page ranking in the top 10 for the keyword. Then, the average difficulty score for the 10 competitors is calculated — and that's the overall Keyword Difficulty. The bigger the value is, the more effort you'll need to put into ranking for the keyword.
Another way to get rid of undesirable keywords is by applying filters for irrelevant words. You may exclude irrelevant locations, irrelevant brands, or any other words you consider to be indicative of low-quality keywords. By the way, the tool has an option to apply the negative filter before launching your keyword research — this works when you already know the terms you'd like to exclude.
Now that you are familiar with some of the most common filtering parameters, let's practice applying them in Rank Tracker:
- In Rank Tracker's Keyword Research module, click on the funnel icon in the top right corner of your workspace. A modal window with filtering options will pop up.
- Click Add filter and select # of Searches > more than > e.g. 250 (searches per month per keyword phrase).
- Click Add filter and select Keyword Difficulty > less than > 40 (feel free to go higher or lower for stronger or weaker websites).
- Click Add filter and select Length > more than 2 (two or shorter is considered useless, but feel free to select longer keywords).
- Add any number of filters excluding those words you consider irrelevant.
- Then click OK. Your workspace will be updated and show only those keyword phrases that are over two words long, have the search volume above 250 searches, difficulty below 40, and are devoid of irrelevant words.
- Press Ctrl + A to select all the keywords in your filtered view. Right-click the selection and hit Add tags to selected records and label them with a meaningful tag (like "High Search Volume").
By now, we've managed to spot important keywords that are likely to bring us traffic — and it only took a few minutes. You can apply other filters to tag or quickly remove keywords that match any specific criteria. Once ready, select the keywords that will become the semantic core of your website and click the Move to Target Keywords Module button in the top options pane.
Step 5: Prioritize your keywords
Segmentation is a good way to turn chaos into order. Let's segment and prioritize your final selection of keywords so that they are a little easier to manage and implement in your SEO strategy. Universal criteria for SEO segmentation are semantics, searcher intent, search volume, and competition.
Rank Tracker has automatically created semantic groups, or topic buckets for your target terms. You can rename them manually, create new ones, merge, regroup, and move as groups to your Target Keywords.
In the example above, Rank Tracker put all the keywords related to 'vegan clothing' into one topic bucket. At the top, we can see the aggregate number of searches, the competition level, expected visits for the entire keyword group. For example, if we add a page about vegan clothing and it ranks well, then we might get an additional 1.4K visits per month. And if we already have a page dedicated to vegan clothing, we can assign the whole group to this page. This initial semantic segmentation is a real time-saver.
Segmentation by intent
The idea of an efficient website is that it's visible on the web, targets the desired audience, and satisfies the users' general intent. One can distinguish three major types of searcher intent:
For instance, a searcher wants to find a 'wind jacket', the 'best waterproof wind jacket', and a 'wind jacket for kids buy online'. All these phrases are related to the common concept 'wind jacket', but they are obviously characterized by different intent. Such keywords are not likely to be a good fit for the same page.
Additionally, many guides distinguish navigational (when a user needs to navigate to a specific page) and branded queries (when the search phrase includes a brand name) as regards to user intent.
There is a way to distinguish between informational, investigational, and transactional queries in terms of vocabulary. People construct queries using somewhat fixed patterns for each type. All we need to do is to distinguish these patterns in your data.
The table below sums up lexical indicators typical of each query type. Keep in mind that it's better to determine such indicators for your own niche on a case basis because there's jargon and specific set expressions in every industry.
best ways to
i need to
how do i
how do you
how to … with [product name]
how to build
how to get rid of
how to make
where can i buy
where to buy
where to shop for
with credit card
Now we are going to refine our keyword list back in Rank Tracker's Keyword Map submodule.
- Click on the funnel icon in the top right corner. The advanced filtering dialogue will pop up.
- Select to Show results matching any of the following conditions.
- Add the following filters for all your transactional 'indicators' (feel free to use the
table above for reference):
- Keyword > Contains > [transactional indicator 1]
- Keyword > Contains > [transactional indicator 2]
Et cetera. See the screenshot below.
- Rank Tracker will return the list of phrases containing any of the words that you have provided. Press Ctrl + A to select all the keywords and right-click the selection.
- Feel free to tag these terms with a meaningful tag like 'Transaction'. To make things even quicker and easier, you can color mark the type of keyword's intent by choosing Set color marker in the context menu.
- Loop back to Step 1 to filter and mark investigational and informational keywords in a similar manner.
The process is universal for literally any niche, but the criteria you may want to segment your keywords by are numerous. Other common keyword phrase clusters may include:
- Branded vs. non-branded keywords
- 'Low-hanging fruit' (or 'quick wins')
- Top converters
- Keywords split by geographic locations
Step 7. Build a keyword map
Keyword mapping is a process where you assign the researched phrases to specific pages on your site. What's the use of a keyword map? This is not merely a planning process.
Have you heard about keyword cannibalization? To put it short, if several pages of your website are relevant to the same search query, these pages will compete with each other in SERPs for rankings. As a result, the chances of these pages to get to the first search pages become lower.
On the one hand, a keyword map helps you avoid cannibalization and ensure that the keywords are used consistently, and all your pages rank for the right keywords. On the other hand, mapping also makes it easier to detect page-specific issues.
For building a keyword map, the difficulty of a keyword is ultra-important as it largely determines how likely each of your pages is to rank well in the SERPs. The trick is to use the indicator in combination with the page's SEO authority so that you can target more 'difficult' terms with more authoritative pages.
Scores under 33 are more likely to perform better for search. Those that vary from 34-66 are a bit tricky but still deserve being on the list. Those that are above 66 are definitely not our bros and go to trash with no regrets.
In the Keyword Map module, pick a keyword and switch to the difficulty tab. Click the Update button, and you will see your website's page which ranks for the given keyword in a certain search engine and underneath the list of your top 10 competitors.
Now, let's see an example of how to assign keywords to landing pages in the project and build a keyword map for a website.
- In the Keyword Map submodule, select the keywords or topic buckets that you'll be targeting with a single landing page.
- Right-click the selection. In the context menu, hit Assign Selected Keywords to Landing Page.
- In the modal window that pops us, type in the URL of the landing page. When in doubt, choose the page with more traffic and authority.
- Repeat the 3 steps above for each of your landing pages.
- When you are done, click on Landing Pages at the top of the list of your topic buckets. Here, you'll find your keyword map — the list of landing pages, and the terms you'll be targeting with each page.
Do not assign more competitive keywords to "stronger" pages, like your homepage, for instance. Keywords that you've marked as transactional will fit pages where your potential customers can make some valuable action (buy, subscribe, etc.). And, surely, only assign keywords to web pages that are semantically relevant.
Why do all this?
Keyword research is a fascinating exploration, and it has to become not only part of your search engine optimization but also a source of inspiration for your business. With an efficient keyword list, you will surely rank up and target the right audience, and this means you are on the way to a strong reputable website.
Do you have any tips for insightful keyword research reports? Please share them in the comments below.