Keyword Research for SEO – A Strategic Guide to Maximize Traffic

Jonas Sickler SEO Manager
Key Points
  • Keyword research is the process of learning the queries your target audience uses when searching for products, services, information and answers online.
  • The right keyword research strategy can boost SEO and organic traffic as well as drive brand affinity and conversions.
  • Search volume matters, yes. But make sure your chosen keywords also match search intent.
  • Determine which of your chosen keywords are most profitable to determine how your time and resources should be distributed.
  • Research your competitors and extract the voice of the customer (VoC). Use surveys, direct feedback, reviews and keyword research tools to fine tune your keyword research process even further.

Let’s say you’re the SEO manager for a retailer with a selection of unique wedding dresses. You do some basic keyword research to find the best keywords for your wedding dress category pages. But a competitive keyword like “wedding dresses” has a Google search volume in the U.S. of 291,000. If you want to rank for that monster then you’ll need to do some serious ecommerce category page SEO — not to mention linkbuilding.

“Wedding dress” is a little less competitive with 59,000. But “dresses for weddings” has only 8,500 with a far, far lower keyword difficulty.

Bingo! Low competition means it’s easier to rank. Just create awesome content, get some backlinks through off-page SEO and you’ll shoot your way up to page one in no time, right? You might even be thinking this SEO Jiu-Jitsu may lead to a Google page one ranking for “wedding dresses.”

A few months go by, then maybe a year, and you still don’t have any organic traffic to the newly optimized webpages.

Why?

It could be because your SEO keyword research and analysis was flawed. Do a quick Google search for “dresses for weddings.” See any wedding dresses? All the results are for wedding guests. No wonder you weren’t ranking well and your click-through rate was so low.

It’s crucial to research keywords if you want to rank well and capture the right traffic that drives conversions. Your strategy must go far beyond high search volume.

This advanced keyword research tutorial provides a high-level philosophy to guide your approach to finding the best search terms for your brand.

WHAT IS KEYWORD RESEARCH?

Keyword research is the process of uncovering the specific keywords your target audience searches to discover products, services or a useful piece of content. Keyword targeting is the foundation of an SEO-focused content strategy.

Using metrics like monthly search volume, relevancy, SERP competition and more, you can select high-opportunity, high-intent keywords and make them the foundation for your optimization strategy.

And not just for your website, either. A robust website keyword research strategy can help you increase visibility of your blog posts, news, bylines, microsites, infographics, video and any other piece of searchable content.

When multiple pieces of content show up for the same keywords, that’s when you can dominate the SERPs.

Keyword research is a multi-step process that requires a deep understanding of your audience, your competition and your own priorities. Without that understanding, developing an effective keyword research strategy – one that not only targets the correct audience, but also encourages conversions and brand affinity – is just a shot in the dark.

WHY IS KEYWORD RESEARCH IMPORTANT FOR SEO?

Google’s success as a business hinges on whether the search results meet users’ needs. So here’s what you should ask yourself when you optimize a page:

“How can we make this page the best possible answer to a user’s query?”

If you’re optimizing your site for queries that don’t match how your audience searches, that’s a problem. The wrong keyword can attract the wrong audience for your brand. Or it can lead searchers to an unintuitive page (based on the query) that results in a bad experience, or it simply fails to attract any audience at all.

But when you create content that gives the best answer to your audience’s queries, the benefits go beyond Google rankings and organic traffic. Amazing content results in an incredible experience for your audience and establishes your brand as the best solution to their problem.

From there, your digital marketing and website results will improve and you’ll see increased engagement (clicks, shares, downloads, time on page, etc.), brand affinity and word-of-mouth marketing. The end result? More potential customers.

In the next section, I’ll reveal eight keyword research tips to move the needle on your organic search traffic!

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HOW TO DO KEYWORD RESEARCH THAT IMPACTS TRAFFIC

Although there are many excellent tools for doing keyword research that make your strategy swift and scalable, they’re only as good as the strategy itself. And that strategy comes from you: from your audience insights, competitive research, online marketing integration, brand priorities and creativity.

Here are some basic keyword research principles to guide your strategy.

1. Focus on search intent

When people search a given query, what kind of resources are they looking for? Where are they in the buyer’s funnel? If they’re looking for tips and strategies, they’re not ready to hit an ecommerce product page. If they’re looking for a visual tutorial, a wordy blog post won’t cut it. Or if they’re looking for cheap furniture, they’re not interested in results from an expensive luxury furniture brand.

For more insights, check out our Advanced Guide to Ecommerce SEO.

focus on search intent

A business’s purchase funnel is comprised of three phases: awareness, consideration and decision. The people in the awareness phase are looking for information related to their interests or pain points. While those in the decision phase are much closer to making a purchase. 

Determine where your keyword is in the purchase funnel and consider what the search intent looks like for that audience. And then develop and align valuable, relevant content accordingly. 

For example: if they use a search term like “best [any product or service],” they are most likely in the awareness phase. Those individuals are probably looking for impartial reviews comparing different products and companies. An ecommerce category or product page, then, isn’t a good fit for that keyword.

Fortunately, there’s an amazing—and free—tool to decipher search intent: Google. Search your keyword ideas to see what ranks on the first page of the SERPs. If the top-ranking websites are vastly different in content and/or format from the page you want to optimize, it means your page most likely meets a different search intent.

For example, if a skincare-related search query yields results from Wikipedia, WebMD, Mayo Clinic, Healthline and other related sites, then the product page for your skincare cream isn’t (yet) what the user wants or needs.

Dig into your audience’s psychology and learn to search the way they do. Walk through different queries and ensure your target pages align with the intent. Keyword-to-page alignment makes for a winning keyword strategy, as it delivers the best user experience.

2. Pay attention to search volumes

Once you understand the search intent of your audience, you can turn your attention to the data. The keyword research process and criteria set varies by industry and even by strategist. But across the board, every set of criteria is driven by a strong emphasis on search volume.

search volume is critical for keyword research

Most paid SEO tools provide you with search suggestions and reliable approximations of a keyword’s monthly volume. Since this data is extrapolated, there can be some slight variations in metrics between tools. We recommend cross-checking at least a couple different tools such as SEMRush and Ahrefs against each other and adding both numbers to your spreadsheet. Use the same tools consistently so you can compare apples to apples across your keyword phrases.

For each page, aim for the keywords with the highest possible search volume based on the search intent and additional criteria for that page. “Good” search volumes are relative based on:

  • Whether your page targets head terms, body keywords or long-tail keywords
  • Whether your industry is popular (apparel) or niche (garage door parts)
  • The authority of your site compared to the competition 
  • Whether you’re targeting the awareness, consideration or decision phase of the purchase funnel

So if you’re building out your longtail keyword strategy, you’ll aim for the highest-volume words that meet your strategic goals, even if they only yield 200 searches a month. 

3. Include keyword variations

Your seed keyword list should include every keyword variation you can think of. Then, your chosen keyword research tool will expand your seed list into every variation you didn’t think of. 

A word of warning about relying on tools alone to find your keyword variations: they’re usually only able to generate a list of close semantic matches (often with long-tail differences), not expand into new topics. So the more you can develop the true variations on your own before you run your seed list through a tool, the better. 

Fortunately, these related keywords are easily discoverable. 

  • Google’s autocomplete and “people also ask” features alone can give you keyword ideas and help you better understand your audience’s search behavior. 
  • Tools like Answer The Public leverage Google’s autocomplete feature by adding more specificity to each keyword, using common queries like “why” and “how” to generate a master list of queries. 
  • Use BuzzSumo “Questions” to uncover related questions from millions of forum posts, Amazon, Quora and other websites. 
  • And tools like Ahrefs and SEMRush provide you with a list of keyword variations, either including the original search terms or including a broader set of options.

4. Factor in profitability

When you’ve narrowed down your list of keywords, you could create an equal amount of content for each keyword, evenly distributing your time and resources. But, if you’re a major retail brand and you’re ramping up for springtime, why spend your time and energy creating content for “infinity scarves” when everyone is preparing for summer? Instead, you could target “swimwear for women” – likely a much more profitable keyword.

Not every brand is so affected by seasons like retail, of course. But even so, profitability is still an important factor in developing your keyword research SEO strategy.

Think of Home Depot. They sell plenty of plants, so they could spend their resources targeting the keyword “buy plants,” or even a more long-tail keyword like “buy snake plant.” But when you Google either of these keywords, Home Depot is nowhere in sight.

Google “buy power tools,” however, and Home Depot shows up on page one.

Why? Because Home Depot knows power tools are far more profitable. This doesn’t mean they don’t create content for their Garden Center. In fact, they have a whole site dedicated to gardening and plant content. But in the SERPs, they’ve put more resources behind keywords with higher profitability.

5. Conduct a competitive analysis

Using Ahrefs or SpyFu, perform a competitive analysis so you can understand the keywords your competitors are targeting – and the ones they aren’t. Incorporating this information into your keyword strategy can help you take two different strategic approaches: 

  1. Target the keywords your competition currently ranks for. After you determine what these are, use the top-ranking content for those keywords as a guide and produce the content and outreach strategy that will beat the competition. 
  2. Target the competition’s missed opportunities. This less aggressive strategy often yields low-hanging fruit by taking advantage of competitive gaps in your industry. 

Enterprise companies should strongly consider taking advantage of both approaches. Filling in competitive gaps will build momentum and authority in a relatively short time period. And staying at the top of the SERPs for your competition’s high-priority keywords can drastically increase clicks and profitability in the long term. 

4X Organic Traffic GrowthTerakeet Increased Organic Traffic by 4X within One Year for an Identity Theft Protection Brand. See How

6. Tap into voice of the customer (VoC)

So far, you’ve been developing your search insights from data related to common queries, pain points and audience needs. Combine this information with your company’s unique internal insights into your audience and you’ll be well on your way to keyword nirvana. 

Your company’s VoC is comprised of all types of direct audience feedback: 

  • Emails
  • Customer interviews
  • Phone calls
  • Live chats
  • Onsite surveys
  • Reviews
  • Social media
  • Blog comments

It can also include customer and industry-wide polls and surveys that can help you identify why people love your brand or head straight to your competitor. And it can include indirect feedback like canceled email or software subscriptions. (Or direct – always give your customer the option of sharing why they canceled).

It’s easy for your SEO strategist to slip into the habit of leaning entirely on search data as a matter of convenience: it can be a nightmare to coordinate information sharing across siloed departments. But that’s just one more reason why busting down silos is fundamental to your enterprise SEO success

Get high-level buy-in to build in the systems that make information sharing across departments as painless as possible. If you use a centralized customer support system like Zendesk, make sure feedback is logged and stored in a place your team can have access to. Make a list of all the different types of information you need. Then figure out how to systematize that sharing to the point where the process is automatic.

7. Make it natural

choose natural keywords

Search behavior has evolved significantly over time. Voice search has taken off. And even desktop users now trust Google to handle long, specific queries that use natural language or ask complete questions. So if you’re torn between two different high-opportunity keywords, then choose the one that sounds more natural.

Another benefit to using natural keywords? Natural content. Your high-opportunity keyword won’t do you any good if it’s not grammatically correct or if it feels forced and awkward. Google’s semantic indexing style does allow you to play with how you incorporate your keywords into your copy. So break them up or use plurals as needed. But you’ll still want to use each keyword in its “true” form, too. (In this case, that means the exact keyword that your data and research yielded.)

8. Use the right tools

It takes your own magic and know-how to set the strategy. But search engine optimization tools provide a hearty assist. The data they make accessible is mandatory. And the processes they systematize can make your strategy scalable and headache-free. Some of our favorites include: 

Ahrefs Keyword Explorer

This keyword tool provides you with search volume, keyword difficulty, CPC and keyword suggestions based on both phrase match and phrases that contain some of the same terms. A major strength of this keyword research tool is that it reveals the percentage of searches with no clicks, as well as the percentage of organic vs paid clicks. Those metrics help trim the fat from keyword phrases with inflated volume so you can focus on terms that actually drive organic search traffic.

Moz Keyword Explorer

This tool has much of the same functionality as the Ahrefs keyword research tool. And their information is equally reliable. The difference comes down to your preferences as a user, with Moz earning points for their slightly more user-friendly presentation. 

SEMRush

SEMRush has the same core features as Ahrefs and Moz, with a few differences. SEMRush’s UI is a little lacking in comparison to Ahrefs. But it does offer extra data around PPC. And their content gap analysis feature is more robust.

Google Trends

Enter any keyword into Google trends and enjoy detailed visualizations of that keyword’s trend over time. It’s leveraged best with topic ideas, not individual keywords. But you can still test out many of your short-tail keywords to glean valuable insight. If searches for a keyword or topic have been trending down for awhile, the keyword may not reflect how people are currently searching. If searches for a keyword or topic are quickly trending higher, then it might be a strong candidate to focus on regardless of historical search volumes.

Google Keyword Planner

This free keyword research tool helps you identify search phrases based on volume and CPC. However, it has fallen out of favor with some people in the SEO world. Largely because its generalized search volumes aren’t as useful as the information paid SEO tools can give you. But the other tools must extrapolate their search volume data. This one provides PPC data directly from Google. It’s also one of the best free tools to unearth more keyword ideas than you’ll know what to do with. However, you won’t be able to use it without a Google Adwords account. We recommend using this tool in tandem with some of the others to expand your seed list of keyword ideas.

KeywordTool.io

Google’s autosuggest isn’t the only game in town. This tool provides the keyword suggestions from a variety of well-loved platforms, including YouTube, Instagram and Amazon.

Google Search Console

In your pursuit of the perfect keyword, don’t forget to pop into Search Console and explore the ones that already bring search traffic to your site. These insights can lead to new keyword ideas and prevent the pitfall of removing a high-value keyword from your strategy. They can also help you tighten up the on-page optimization for a keyword that’s just on the edge of page one.

Clearscope.io

Clearscope’s power lies in its ability to analyze the top-performing content for your target keywords and give you a breakdown of the other relevant keywords in the content. Their unique approach lets you dig into search intent more than any of the other tools do. 

Soovle

Soovle is very similar to KeywordTool.io in its autocomplete features. But each tool includes  platforms the other tool is missing. We like that this one brings Wikipedia and Answers.com into the equation. 

Answer the Public

Looking for keyword or topic inspiration? This tool will match your target keyword with prepositions (who, what, when, where, why, how), comparisons (vs, like, and, or) and letters of the alphabet. Then it will let Google’s autocomplete go to town on the new list. You’ll end up with hundreds of highly-targeted queries for a single keyword. 

SpyFu

SpyFu is designed specifically for SEO and PPC competitive insights. It estimates the monetary value of ranking changes, which can be helpful for prioritization of your SEO efforts. 

BuzzSumo “Questions”

Want to find new content ideas or to achieve better voice search results? BuzzSumo Questions crawls millions of forum posts, Amazon, Quora and Q&A sites to pinpoint the questions people are actually asking. Combine this with other tools to see how competitors are answering those questions and how you can do the same – but better.

Now that you have some basic guidelines for how to conduct keyword research, you can weave more efficiency into your own process.

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