In today’s guide, I share a step-by-step guide to keyword research that covers not just how to find hundreds of great keywords, but also how to tell which ones can move the needle for your business and which aren’t worth your time. Let’s dive in!
Keyword Research Fundamentals
Before I talk about the exact steps to find keywords for your SEO campaign, let’s briefly cover what keyword research is and why you should care.
What Is Keyword Research?
Keyword research is the act of finding and vetting keywords to target in an SEO campaign.
This is done using a number of free and/or paid tools that show you what people are searching for on Google and other search engines.
The Role of Keyword Research in Digital Marketing
As you’ll learn in the next section, the quality of your keywords is the difference between a successful marketing campaign and a waste of time. The keywords you pick will determine your SEO marketing strategy from beginning to end.
Let’s see how.
How Important is Keyword Research? (Don’t Skip This!)
SEO can be complex, but it boils down to three fundamentals:
Of those three, keyword research is the most important.
Why? Because you can create the best content and build incredible links that score you #1 Google rankings and still get zero benefits in terms of business growth or revenue if you target the wrong keywords.
For example, let’s say you want to write some content on your site’s blog so you can show up on Google’s first page. You have an idea of a blog post and think you have a good keyword to target. You make amazing content, build links to it through guest posting and email outreach, and end up on the first page of Google. You’re getting hundreds of visits every month…
But your income from that article remains a big fat $0.
That’s because you didn’t properly research your keyword ahead of time. You may have found a keyword, but finding a keyword and doing keyword research are very different things.
Properly researching a keyword means understanding it’s income potential, how competitive it is, and even the exact kind of content you need to create to be able to rank for it. You’ll see what I mean by the end of this guide.
In a nutshell: Proper keyword research can be the difference between a wildly successful SEO campaign that makes your business tons of money and an utter waste of time and money.
Search Volume and Long Tail Keywords
The first concept to understand about keywords is search volume.
This is what most people look at when they first start researching keywords, and also one of the worst metrics to look at.
A high search volume is very deceiving for two reasons:
- The raw number of people searching for something has very little to do with how much you can actually earn from that traffic. For example, if you rank for a keyword that gets 10,000 searches per month, but if people are just looking for information and aren’t ready to buy (hint: you’d need to define the search intent. More below.), that does nothing for your bottom line.
- Just because 10,000 people search for a keyword doesn’t mean all 10,000 people actually click on a result. Take a look at the keyword “How old is Trump”, for example—it gets 30,000 searches per month, but only 13% of those people actually click on anything. That’s because people get the answer right on Google and don’t need to click through to find it.
On the other hand, a low search volume doesn’t mean a keyword is bad or that the number you see is the number of visitors you’ll get. Virtually all pages that rank on Google for one keyword also rank for dozens, hundreds, and sometimes thousands of other keywords.
These other keywords are usually synonyms and long-tail variants. There are also Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI) keywords, which I get to in a section below.
For example, take a look at this post that my wife, Kayla, wrote for The Wandering RV. She was targeting the keyword “best camping gear”, which gets around 2,700 searches per month according to Ahrefs. But as you can see in the screenshot below, it also ranks for 1,912 other keywords and even ranks on page one for “camping gear” at 32,000 searches per month!
The point of the story? While search volume is an important metric, you shouldn’t base your target keywords solely on how many people are searching for it every month (unless you’re only focused on brand awareness and/or advertising revenue on a per-impression basis).
Search intent is exactly what it sounds like—the intent of the person searching for a given keyword. It’s similar to the marketing concept “buyer intent”.
In other words: What is the user looking for?
Are they searching for an item they are ready to buy right now? Are they doing research before they make a purchase decision? Or are they just looking for information that has nothing to do with buying anything, but rather with a problem they may need a solution to?
Let’s look at an example of each.
High Buying Intent: A high buying intent keyword may be a product name, such as “RV rental las vegas”. If you type that into Google and look at the results, you see a bunch of ads for RV rentals and a map showing Las Vegas RV rental companies. Someone searching this is likely ready to buy, or very close.
Research Intent: These are keywords where people are still doing research on solutions, but will likely buy soon. “Best” and “Review” keywords often fall into this category, such as “best RV rental companies”.
Informational Intent: These keywords are for people strictly looking for information and aren’t ready or even thinking about buying anything. The “how old is Trump” example falls under this category. Another example that fits with RV rentals might be something like “how to travel the country with a pet”.
However, don’t think that you should only go after buying intent keywords. Informational keywords can help you build your email list and get people into your marketing funnel to eventually buy from you.
Search intent is also important to know because it affects what content ranks on Google. If you try to create a landing page to rank for an informational keyword when Google is ranking long-form blog content, you probably won’t rank even with perfect on-page SEO and plenty of backlinks because it’s simply not what the user is searching for.
For example, let’s say you want to rank for “small campers”. So you create a guide to owning small campers. However, when we look at Google, we can see that people aren’t looking for a guide, but rather, they’re looking for a list of small campers to buy.
That’s why even after you find good keyword ideas, you should always manually type them into Google and see what’s currently ranking to get an idea of what you need to create. Don’t write a massive guide when people just want a quick answer and don’t try to rank a blog post when people are looking to buy a product.
The Role of LSI and Synonyms
Earlier, I mentioned LSI keywords. This stands for Latent Semantic Indexing, and it’s a fancy way for Google to say “synonyms and related keywords”. They’re words that are commonly found together within a single topic and are semantically related to each other.
They’re important to tell the search engines what your content is about since there can be multiple meanings to the same keywords.
For example, let’s say you’re writing an article about cars. There are five different potential “cars” you could be talking about:
- Cars, the vehicles
- Cars, the animated Disney movie
- CARS, the Canadian Association for Rally Sports
- CARs, the Canadian Aviation Regulations
- (The) Cars, the American 1970s music band
How does Google know which version of “cars” you’re talking about? By LSI keywords! Take a look:
- Using the words “vehicle”, “used”, “new”, “buy”, “sell”, etc.
- Using the words “film”, “movie”, “Disney”, etc.
- Using the words “association”, “rally”, “sports”, etc.
- Using the words “aviation”, “regulation”, “administration”, etc.
While LSI keywords don’t necessarily matter during your keyword research, they are important when developing your actual content. You should include various LSI keywords naturally in your content without stuffing them, including in headings and image alt text.
You can find LSI keywords (and learn more about them) with a tool like LSI Graph.
How Do You Do Keyword Research? (Step-by-Step Guide)
Alright, now that you have a firm understanding of the important metrics behind keyword research, it’s time to actually find your very own keywords! There are three steps I follow when I’m doing keyword research for a new site, with an optional, more advanced fourth step:
- Find keyword ideas
- Check the TRUE keyword difficulty and search volume
- Determine their search intent
- (Optional) Find & utilize keyword silos
Let’s dive in!
Step 1: Find Keyword Ideas
Finding keyword ideas is the easy part. There are loads of tools that will spit out hundreds of ideas at the click of a button. It’s vetting them that takes effort, but we’ll get to that.
For now, go take a look at the “Best Keyword Research Tool” section below and pick your poison. I’ll be using Ahrefs in the examples because it’s my favorite tool and has all the bells and whistles, but the other tools can work as well.
My favorite way to find great keyword opportunities is spying on my competition. You can do this by plugging their site into any keyword tool and look at their keywords. Ahrefs has a nifty tool called the Content Gap Analysis.
Here’s how it works:
1. Plug your site into Ahrefs, then click the Content Gap link in the left-hand menu.
2. Plug in 1-10 competitors who are ranking on Google for keywords you want to rank for. You can find them by Googling those keywords and grabbing the URLs off of Google or by using Ahrefs’ Competing domains tool right above the Content gap link. Run the tool.
3. From here, you can export the list to an excel spreadsheet if you want. I like to comb through the list right in Ahrefs. If I see a keyword I might want to target, I open it in a new tab and add it to a keyword list using the + Add to button in the top right.
If you don’t have access to Ahrefs or another keyword tool that allows you to see competitor’s keywords, you can also use a tool like Keyword Shitter to give you a ton of ideas, then vet them using other free tools such as Uber Suggest.
Step 2: Check The TRUE Keyword Difficulty and Search Volume
Once you have a list of keyword ideas you’re comfortable working with (I aim for 50-100 at a time but you can do far more), it’s time to see which are even worth pursuing based on keyword difficulty (KD) and search volume.
There’s just one caveat… the search volume and KD you see in most keyword research tools are usually way off. KD in Ahrefs is solely based off the number of linking domains to the top results, which isn’t a 100% accurate depiction of the true difficulty to rank for a keyword.
This is because SEO is a complex beast, and things like domain rating (which I’ll cover shortly) and internal linking can have a massive impact on rankings. Backlinks are only part of the picture.
And the search volume? That’s not including LSI and long-tail keywords!
Remember that camping gear example I showed you at the beginning of this article that ranks for over 1,900 keywords? The main keyword only had 2,700 searches per month, yet the article gets over 5,000 visits per month. That’s because it’s ranking for other keywords besides the main keyword.
So if you see a keyword with 200 searches per month, chances are it’s really more like 500 or 1,000 if you include the related keywords that you’ll rank for.
To determine true search volume, grab the #1 result on Google for the keyword and plug it into Ahrefs or Uber Suggest to see how much traffic that page actually gets. That should give you a more accurate picture of the search volume for a given keyword.
Here’s the traffic for the #1 ranking page for “tiny campers”, a keyword that gets ~3,400 searches per month:
See how the page gets over 10k traffic, despite the main keyword getting a third of that? That’s true search volume potential.
The other metric, keyword difficulty, is also not 100% accurate. But figuring out true difficulty is usually as easy as looking at the top pages domain authority (DA), or domain rating (DR) if you’re using Ahrefs. Let me explain.
If a keyword has a difficulty score of 8, but the top ranking pages are all DR 80+, ranking your site for those keywords may be difficult if you have a low DR, despite the low difficulty score.
My advice is to aim for keywords with a 30 KD or lower if you’re under a 40 DR, then branch up as you build more links and gain a higher authority. As your DR climbs, your internal links are worth more “link juice” (or pass more “page authority” depending on what source you listen to).
But this isn’t an article on technical SEO, so I’ll leave it at that for now!
Step 3: Determine Search Intent
At this point, you should have a pretty decent list of keywords with a difficulty you’re comfortable tackling and a search volume potential you’d be happy to capture. Now it’s time to figure out what people actually want when they search for these terms and whether or not it fits in with your marketing and revenue goals.