If you’re aware of digital marketing, you’ll be aware of keyword research. It’s the bread and butter of any SEO strategy. Conducting a solid keyword research exercise is essential to finding out what is going well for a business, what is going less well and any potential opportunities that haven’t been exploited yet.
This guide is aimed at anyone new to the digital marketing industry and will provide an overview of the main things to consider after being given a keyword research task. While there are many reputable search engines to choose from, I’ll be using Google as an example for the sake of simplicity. We’ll discuss what keyword research means and how to do it, covering seed keywords, keyword categorisation and how to track keyword targeting performance.
What is keyword research?
Keyword research is the process through which you can find the search queries people are using in search engines that relate to your business. These search queries, or keywords, reflect what people are searching for on the internet and it’s the search engine’s job to find pages in its index that match the user intent. Google, for example, receives almost 40,000 search queries every second and its algorithm has become very good at finding the most authoritative, relevant and trustworthy pages for each keyword.
Every search engine’s algorithm is very much a secret, with even high-ranking employees at Google not aware of all of the factors that help decide which pages should rank on the Search Engine Results Page (SERP). Google has, however, revealed some of the factors that play a part in its algorithm (although their overall weighting is constantly changed). One of these factors is the use of terms on the page that users are searching for in the search engines.
“So if I want to rank number 1 in Google, all I have to do is use lots of these keywords, right?”
When Google was still in its infancy, people were able to abuse the system and engage in what is known as ‘keyword stuffing’ – filling a page with the vocabulary that people were searching with in the hope that Google would see this as proof of its relevance. This initially worked and sites with thin content were able to rank very highly simply because they had stuffed their copy with certain keywords.
However, in 2011 Google introduced its Panda Update, which stopped sites with poor quality, keyword-stuffed content from ranking highly. Websites caught in the act were hit with search penalties and 12% of all searches were affected by the update. Since it was initially rolled out, the Panda update has become incredibly sophisticated and it is no longer good enough to fill a page with relevant keywords in the hope of being rewarded by the search engine. A common saying in SEO is that ‘content is king’, which means that if a piece of content is not engaging for a human being it will not rank well, regardless of how well optimised it is for relevant keywords. My colleague Ben Garry wrote a fantastic blog post all about this recently, which you can read here.
So why bother with keyword research?
Despite it no longer being a fail-safe way to rank highly in Google, keyword research is still an extremely valuable exercise. Knowledge of the search terms people use can help inform a business’ content strategy, giving it inspiration for future service pages or blog posts. Equally, if the content is good, using relevant keywords will help search engines better understand what your site is about and rank it more highly. None of this would be possible without keyword research.
How to do keyword research
1. Find the business’ seed keywords
The first step of a keyword research exercise should always be Identifying the core topics that a business wants to show up for in the SERPs. Invite the client in for a meeting or organise a call and create a list of seed keywords – the keywords that they would most identify with their business. For instance, a cybersecurity company might associate their business with ‘data breach prevention’ and ‘penetration testing’, as these are general services that they offer. Likewise, a local Nottingham coffee shop might want to rank for ‘barista training’ or ‘coffee shop’’. Getting feedback directly from the client about what they feel their seed keywords are is certainly a great place to start because they will have the best insight into their industry.
At the same time, keyword research needs to be data driven and there are an an array of tools out there that let people know what keywords a site are ranking most for. For example, SEMrush, Google Keywords Planner (GKP) and Ahrefs are SEO softwares that provide intelligent data on everything from website traffic, backlinks and keyword volumes. These tools are fantastic for seeing an overview of a website’s performance and what keywords are driving the most traffic. Take the top 10 unique keywords for that business and these are likely to be seed keywords.
2. Expand on each seed keyword
The next step to keyword research is to branch out from the seed keywords and create groups of potential keywords to target that are related to the core search queries.
While there are many ways of categorising keywords, the main way is by dividing them between the following three groups:
- Fat head – very competitive keywords with a ton of search volume
- Chunky Middle – competitive keywords with fairly high amounts of search volume
- Long tail – low-competition keywords with smaller search volume
While the ‘fat head’ keywords offer the highest volume, we recommend steering clear of them for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it is extremely difficult to rank on the first SERP for ‘fat head’ keywords since hundreds, if not thousands, of other sites will be trying to do the same. Ranking well for these terms will require extremely relevant content, a very high number of backlinks to the page and possibly for the site as a whole to have a high Domain Ranking (DR).
Secondly, ‘fat head’ keywords tend to have low conversion rates, as people using these search queries are usually at the ‘awareness’ stage of the conversion funnel – the stage at which people are simply looking for a solution to a problem rather than actively looking to purchase the solution. Therefore we recommend targeting ‘chunky middle’ and ‘long tail’ keywords for an SEO campaign, as time invested in these will be more likely to lead to conversions.
At this stage of keyword research, we recommend using multiple research methods to discover dozens, if not hundreds of keywords for each seed keyword group. SEMrush, Ahrefs and GSK will also suggest related keywords to the initial search query. For instance, by searching ‘barista training’ in Ahrefs, it suggests a list of keywords that use similar terms, along with search volume, keyword difficulty and even estimated number of clicks through to pages on the SERPs.
Another great tool in the SEO toolbox is AnswerThePublic.com. If you’ve ever typed anything into Google, you’ll know that the search engine’s autocomplete function predicts what you’re going to ask based on what other people have searched for. AnswerThePublic.com reverse-engineered this function and created a platform that suggests variations of whatever search query you put in, dividing the queries into question categories ranging between ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘how’ and more. Not only is the end product visually engaging, it also provides a huge insight into variations of keywords that other tools may not have picked up on.
Another top tip for finding potential keywords is to look at what keywords your competitors are targeting. If a competitor is ranking well for a set of keywords that your client’s business is not ranking for, it’s a strong indication that there’s a keyword gap ready to be exploited. Rather than exporting all of a client’s competitors and their keywords before using a complicated algorithm that isolates the ones not listed for your website, tools like Ahrefs do this for you. The Content Gap tool in Ahrefs will compare 3-5 competitor domains and find every keyword that at least 2 competitors rank for that your client’s domain does not. Export this data into an excel sheet and voila: a list of potential keywords filled with hidden gems for you to find.
3. Segment into more granular categories
Once you’ve created a list of seed keywords, as well as related ones, it’s time to segment these search queries into more granular categories. Whether you’re creating a website from scratch or updating a current one, you will need to optimise each page for a certain set of keywords. There will inevitably be some content overlap between the pages, but for the most part you should avoid using the same keywords across multiple pages.
When two or more pages from the same website rank for the same keyword in the SERP, this is known as keyword cannibalization. Contrary to what some people might believe, having multiple pages showing in the SERPs for the same keyword is not a good thing. For instance, if you put ‘coffee Nottingham’ in the title tag and copy of four different pages on your site, you will confuse Google and force it to decide which one it believes is the most relevant. Having a cannibalisation issue results in lower conversion rates, a dispersal of external links, lower content quality overall and consequently pages not ranking as high as they potentially could, so avoid doing this in advance. For those who already suffer from a cannibalisation issue, my colleague Darol recently wrote a fantastic article in which he touches on solutions.
Start with the seed keywords and their related keywords. For example, ‘football boots’, ‘football kit’ and ‘footballs’ could all be individual categories for a sports ecommerce website. Within each category, determine the intent of each keyword and segment depending on what stage of the conversion funnel a person using that search query might be.
There are main stages to the conversion funnel:
- Acquisition – acquiring interested users and building awareness
- Behaviours – engaged users who interact with a business
- Conversion – Users who become customers and transact with a business
For example, some searching ‘football boots’ will likely be in the ‘acquisition’ stage, as the keyword is broad. However, someone searching for ‘cheap mercurial football boots 2018’ is more likely to be in the conversion stage of the funnel, as they are filtering by price and looking for a specific model of football boot.
After segmenting by intent, you can begin to design the site hierarchy – the structure in which the pages appear on a site. Websites will typically start with a home page, from which web developers can build category pages and pages within the category pages, like products or blog posts. If a keyword is for acquisitional intent, it might be suitable to include it as the focus keyword for a category page. Likewise, a conversion keyword will be more suited to a product page. Create a plan of how to use every keyword and build content around it.
4. Keep track of your keywords
The final step to keyword research is to keep track of how each page is performing. Even the best plans will not always lead to success, so it’s important to regularly review your keyword targeting to see if certain pages could be better optimised. A tool we like to use at Impression is STAT, a rank tracking and SERP analytics platform that gives you up to date feedback on ranking trends for your target keywords.
Tools like these allow SEOs to track their keyword performance and make any necessary changes. For instance, if a page used to rank number 1 for ‘artificial grass installation’ but has been steadily dropping and is now in position 8, the SEO should analyse the page and its competitors to see what changes can be enacted to better service user intent. This could be expanding thin content, updating a guide to reflect recent trends or simply improving the page speed.
An effective keyword research strategy is still a priority for SEO in 2018. With a long list of relevant search queries to target, digital marketers can begin creating the content that both users and Google love to see.
If you want to read more beginner’s guides to SEO, check out our blog here.