Keyword Research 101: A Step-by-Step Guide
Solid keyword research is the backbone of your website's SEO. And just like a crooked spine pulls muscles and joints out of whack, a poor keyword strategy has far-reaching implications for the entire digital marketing funnel. Think of diligent keyword research as your website's chiropractor.
Here are the basic steps:
A word on searcher intent
Before we dive in, remember that Google results are all about the intent of the searcher. These days, Google is smart enough to know which keywords and topics are semantically related to each other. Compared to some other search engines, which still rely on exact keyword matches, Google uses forms of artificial intelligence to discern the intent behind what the searcher has typed into the engine.
Here's an example of this intelligence in action. In the below search, I typed in "new orleans bmv." Google is smart enough to know that in different US states, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, Department of Motor Vehicles, Office of Motor Vehicles, etc., use different names, but the concept is the same. More importantly, my intent as a searcher is the same. Notice in the top results, the Louisiana Office of Motor Vehicles offices page on the left as well as the location panel on the right, the actual term "bmv" is nowhere to be found. Google used the intent of my search more so than an exact keyword match to return the most relevant information.
This is why validating the searcher intent of your target keywords is so paramount. It can be a bit tedious, but it's worth doing.
Now, onto the keyword research process.
1. Identify your "seed list" of target topics
This step seeks to answer the question, what do I want my site to rank for? Here are some sources for potential topics:
Problems the business solves: What pain points do you solve, and who do you solve them for?
Areas of expertise for the brand: Where do you want to build thought leadership and become an authoritative voice? (In SEO, we think of this as your "right to win" space.)
Trends within the business or market: Do you have a new product launching? Original research you're about to publish? A hot topic that keeps bubbling up?
Competitors' rankings: Where are your competitors ranking where your brand also deserves to be heard/seen? (A level deeper: where are competitors ranking with content that's not especially good?)
Ideas from customers: What are the top questions or areas of concern for your customers? This information could come from surveys, customer groups or forums, conversations with those in customer-facing roles, etc.
Site search data: What do visitors search for on your site? (You could also use similar data from a customer-facing knowledgebase, if you have one.)
We are intentionally starting with topics, but if you pick up a few actual keywords along the way, that's alright. Just be sure to group them into topics. Remember that Google is smart enough to understand that certain clusters of keywords are related, so the topic and intent are more important than exact matches.
Keep in mind: One topic should correspond to one page (to avoid cannibalizing yourself), so make sure your topics are specific enough. If you like, you could even approach this as topics and sub-topics. For example, "Customer Experience" is a broad topic, and "Mobile Customer Experience Trends" would be a sub-topic underneath it.
Okay, you have some topics you want to go after. Now what?
2. Get organized
Put those topics into a spreadsheet with the following columns:
Topic (and Sub-Topic, if you like)
Average Monthly Searches
Average Cost per Click
The last bullet refers to the recommendation you'll make about how to take action on that keyword. After all, what's the point of all this research if you're not going to act on it?
3. Generate a target keyword list
Brainstorming time! Start broad, as the data will narrow the list down.
Here are some ways to generate keywords from those topics:
A mind map
Ask yourself, what are all the different ways people might approach finding information about this topic? Jot down your ideas in a spreadsheet, document, or even a piece of paper.
Google Ads Keyword Planner
Enter one of your target topics into the "Discover new keywords" tool to generate related keywords. Export keyword data as you go to save yourself a step later on.
SEMrush, Moz, Ahrefs, or other SEO tool
If you're not using one of these tools today, consider starting. Not only are they powerful for keyword research, they help with a host of other SEO functions, like position tracking, technical audits, dashboards, etc. Many offer free or inexpensive monthly plans.
Here's an example from SEMrush's Keyword Magic tool, my preferred tool for keyword research:
"LSI" stands for latent semantic indexing, a technology that allows search engines to understand which keywords are related to each other. Visit lsigraph.com and enter a seed topic keyword to get suggestions for related keywords.
Note: their free tool gives you a limited amount of daily searches, so I tend to use this tool somewhat sparingly.
Why use multiple tools to find and validate keywords? Different databases uncover different terms or variations of terms, helping you create a holistic strategy.
Your mind map and these research tools can both help you think about a key part of the behavior of today's searchers: performing "chains" of searches. We tend to begin with a broad term (often called a "head" term), and then dive into more specific, or "long-tail," queries. For example, let's say you're searching for a new pair of jeans. Your search chain might look like this:
women's jeans boot cut
women's jeans boot cut dark wash
top rated women's boot cut jeans
...and so on until you find the most promising results.
With a long list of potential target keywords now in-hand, we move onto the next step of the process.
4. Validate searcher intent
Now the all-important intent validation begins. I haven’t found a good way to automate this process. Bots aren’t smart enough yet, in my opinion, so this step can get a bit tedious.
Here's what you do: Google each keyword and scan the first page of results.
Why? You know your business, and you will easily be able to judge whether the current results on the page align with your brand’s approach to the topic and the kind of prospects you want to draw to your site. It’s a Sesame Street "one of these things is not like the others" moment.
As you browse the top results, ask yourself, are these truly the results that would make sense for a desired prospect to see? Would my content fit here?
(Of course, we know results won’t be identical for every person, but this approach gives you a general sense of intent and helps you understand what keywords do not make sense to target.)
For example, here’s a keyword I knocked off my list after validating the searcher intent was misaligned. The terms "social care" and "social customer care" only differ by one word, but they return results with very different intents:
The keyword "social care" shows results more closely aligned with social work...
...whereas "social customer care" shows results aligned with customer service and customer engagement.
I'll say it again: This is why intent validation matters.
As you work through your list, I recommend adding notes to the spreadsheet about why the intent was mismatched or any other observations from reviewing the SERP for later reference.
5. Fill in the data points
Once you’ve validated intent, add the rest of the data points for your keywords, including volume, competition, CPC, and so on. The simplest way I've found is to filter your spreadsheet so only the keywords with correct intent are shown, then paste that list into Google Ads Keyword Planner under "Get search volume and forecasts." Then export this data. (Note: Keyword Planner's results will often omit keywords that are extremely similar to each other, including plural forms, so be careful when pasting the data back into your master spreadsheet.)
If you happen to uncover new keyword ideas in this process, awesome! Just make sure to validate their intent as well. Keyword research is an iterative process.
6. Plan your editorial calendar
You're now the proud owner of an intent-validated, highly relevant list of target keywords. Where do you go from here?
Prioritize which keywords you'll address first by...
Sorting by volume high to low: This is a simplistic way to prioritize, but keep in mind that even lower-volume searches can still be valuable, especially for niche topics. And remember, the keyword volume numbers are averages, not holy edicts.
Filling existing content gaps: Are there topics your site deserves to win, but about which you don't have any content?
Choosing timely topics: Is there an upcoming product launch, webinar, report, etc., that aligns well wit this topic?
Identifying topics you could write about in your sleep: This is a "low-hanging fruit" moment. Sometimes picking something easy can help get the process moving more quickly vs. getting stuck in analysis paralysis.
Keeping a good mix of topics: Over the course of a month or quarter, keep in mind the mix of topics to ensure your key areas of expertise are getting equal coverage.
Finding topics and keywords that are closely tied to conversion: Bottom of funnel keywords, or keywords that demonstrate an "I am ready to buy/convert," deserve special treatment in your editorial planning.
I typically lay out keyword targets a month or a quarter at a time, refreshing the research as needed. I also consider the following in my planning:
Are we already ranking for this keyword on page 2, 3, or lower, and could that page make it page 1 with some additional TLC?
Do we have an existing page that could be expanded to include this topic as well?
Should the new page be a blog post, a product page, or some other content type?
Are there even organic results above the fold for this query? (If not, it may make sense to go the paid search route instead – good thing we already downloaded all that cost-per-click data!)
And with that, you're off to the races!
In my next post, I'll share some on-page optimization tips for publishing your content.