Keyword research is a lot like detective work. It involves piecing together what content is in demand within your market and which terms and phrases people are searching for to find it.
The process involves a lot of brainstorming (listing out every possible keyword that you can think of) and then eliminating irrelevant and highly competitive keywords to deduce which terms and phrases make sense for your website and content.
Properly executed keyword research, and following through with SEO best practices, helps you get to your business goals (online purchases, lead generation, newsletter subscriptions – whatever they may be) by attracting the right visitors to your website for the right reasons.
Since keyword research, and search engine optimization in general, can seem like a time-consuming and confusing project, let's start with how Google approaches search (Yes, there are other search engines out there, but a majority all search queries are entered into Google's search bar).
What Does Google Want?
Google views its search engine as a database of intentions, meaning that its users have a very specific purpose every time they search for a term or phrase. They're looking for something specific, and most of the time they're looking for an answer. This is reflected in how search queries are trending. Searches for "WHY" are increasing nearly twice as fast as searches for "WHAT," and searches for "HOW TO" have tripled within the last few years.
"The perfect search engine understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want," Larry Page, co-founder of Google, said. And, in the last five or so years, Google has been rolling out updates so users get what they intend to find via search.
Google's updates break down like this:
Caffeine Update (2010): Google began indexing content faster. For search engine optimizers, posting fresh new content and updating existing content became very important.
Panda Update (2011): Google began targeting and penalizing duplicate and thin content. The quality of content became important in regards to how Google ranks pages.
Penguin Update (2012): In an effort to penalize link-happy search engine optimizers, Google started to target link irregularities. Links remained, and still remain, an important factor in search engine optimization, but the quality of links are now really important.
Penguin 2.0 Update (2013): Google continued to target link irregularities. With this update, building quality and authoritative content became increasingly important for rankings.
Hummingbird Update (2013): This was a major core algorithm update to Google's semantic search and knowledge graph. In a post-hummingbird world, Google is all about conversational search.
What does all of this mean? It means that keywords as questions and long-tail keywords are your best bet for getting your content on the first page of Google. It also means that Google wants you to write content for the consumer – not the search engine.
Since Google's Hummingbird Update, keyword research means understanding all the various ways in which consumers are using search engines to look for answers and what their pain points are. Then you have to create content to answer those questions and address those pain points.
The Importance of Long Tail Keywords
There are nearly 75,000 monthly searches for the word "bikes" in the U.S. Seems like a great keyword to target, right? Not really.
Ranking for a general and vague term that has an impressive search volume seems like a good idea, but one-word popular search terms like "bikes" actually make up less than 30% of all searches performed online. The remaining majority of total searches are long tail keywords.
Conversion rates for long tail keywords are a lot higher than the one-word vague alternative. Long tail keywords tend to be searched by people in the buying/conversion stage of a sales cycle.
A person searching for "bikes" is most likely just browsing and still in the very early research stage, but a person searching for "buy Nukeproof Pulse DH Pro bike" has done all of their research. They're basically looking for a place to click "Add to Basket" and a form to fill out their shipping info.
Sometimes the best way to start brainstorming is to whip out a thesaurus, take pen to paper and scribble down relevant words, phrases and questions with every possible modification or combination that you can think of.
After that, there are literally hundreds of ways to help move the brainstorming process along online. The following tools and tips can help you discover new keywords, gauge popularity or check out the competition.
Online Keyword Tools
Google AdWords Keyword Planner: This is the most common tool out there for starting SEO research. You must create an AdWords account to access the Keyword Planner. It's free to create, and it's not necessary to have any campaigns running in order to use this tool. The Keyword Planner suggests terms and phrases based off of existing content on your site, keywords that you've already brainstormed, your industry and other variables. The tool also provides estimated search volumes and forecasts.
Google Trends: This is another Google tool that can give you visibility into what and how people are searching based on time and location.You can browse common search term categories, view daily "Hottest Searches" and view insights for a specific term and its related searches.
Other keyword tools include: Keyword Spy, SpyFu, Wordstream and Übersuggest.
Google's Related Searches
An easy way to find new keyword combos and modifications is to search Google for a term or phrase and then scroll down to the bottom of the results page to check out "Related Searches."
You can draw inspiration from social media by checking out hot topics and trending hashtags to what people are talking about.
Your Site's Search Bar
If your website has its own search bar and search functionality, it can be tapped for keyword inspiration. You can view the search queries that users are typing into your site's search bar by integrating with Google Analytics. These search queries provide invaluable insight into how users are searching for your existing content. It also shows you what content they expect to find or what they are hoping to find on your site.
Brainstorming Tip: Qualifiers that fit your target audience are really important. They make keywords more specific and they define intent. Examples of qualifiers include:
Location: Toronto, British Columbia, outdoors, online
Price and quality: Best, popular, cheap
Time and date: 2015, October, evening
Intent: Free, buy, find
Determining the Value of a Keyword
Tools like the Keyword Planner are valuable for gaining visibility into the popularity and traffic volumes of search terms and phrases, but they can't show you whether the traffic that each keyword would generate has potential to be valuable to your website or business.
Is it Relevant?
A good place to start is by determining whether a search term or phrase is relevant to your content. If someone clicks on your site having searched for a particular keyword, will they find what they are looking for? And will the potential traffic generated from a keyword have any benefit to you? The answer "Yes" to both of these questions indicates value.
Who's Your Competition?
Next, you should scope out the competition. Try searching the keyword(s) via Google to see which sites are already ranking organically and whether there are any paid search results (AdWords) running alongside that keyword. If there are a lot of ads on the results page, then that indicates a high value keyword that has big competition and good conversion rates.
Test a Campaign in AdWords
If you really want to test drive a keyword for its value, you can run a sample campaign in AdWords. You can preview the potential value of a keyword by buying traffic. By looking at a paid search result’s impressions, click-through-rate and conversions, you can get a sense of what that keyword could do for you organically.
What Comes Next?
After brainstorming keywords, determining their value and checking out the competition, you should have a long list of keywords. Now, you'll want to map out where keywords can be used and then start placing them in the right places. The easiest way to do this is to create an excel sheet. In one column, list out all your keywords. In the second column, list of which page or pages can be optimized for each keyword. If you find that you can't match up a keyword to an existing page or any content on your site, then you should create pages and content for that keyword. More content means more keywords!
It's also important to revisit your keyword list and research regularly to keep up with changing trends within your industry.