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No search engine optimization strategy can be half as effective without first performing keyword research.Regardless of how much or how good your content is or how many backlinks your website has, you’re going to struggle to rank if nobody is searching for what you’re writing about.
That’s why I’ve put together a guide on how to carry out keyword research, along with a helpful checklist and template for you to follow.
Keyword Research Basics
Before showing you how to go about picking the most important and fruitful keyword ideas for your online business or site, let’s define what Keyword Research is and why it’s important for SEO.
What is Keyword Research?
Keyword Research for SEO is the process of finding and analyzing keywords that are most relevant to a particular niche and which can bring the most organic traffic to your site. This way, you can use those keywords to improve a website’s position in the SERPs.
However, it’s not only about finding terms that will drive the most traffic but also about finding the right search phrases that will help turn organic visits into conversions.
Why Is Keyword Research Important?
Before you create an SEO strategy, you should conduct Keyword Research first. Otherwise, you won’t know which search phrases present an opportunity to improve your website’s position in the SERPs.
There are several reasons why Keyword Research is essential to your website’s growth…
Keyword Research allows you to identify a list of keywords with decent search volume that are the most relevant and valuable to your business or website.
Even if you have an idea of what internet users are searching for, guessing can only get you so far. By including the most popular keywords, you’ll be able to increase your website’s organic traffic.
Thanks to Keyword Research, you’ll also understand which queries your competitors are ranking for and create a strategy to eliminate this keyword gap and overtake them in the SERPs.
You might find keywords relevant to your niche that your competitors aren’t ranking for, in which case reaching the top spots in the search results pages and driving more traffic becomes even easier.
Lastly, analyzing your keywords will help you answer some important questions like:
- What will it take for my website to rank for this particular keyword?
- How much traffic am I likely to get if I rank for this keyword?
- What kind of content will I need to write/add to my page to rank for this keyword?
- Is this keyword going to bring in more customers to my website?
Keyword Research Checklist
Without understanding what keywords your audience is searching for, your site won’t rank anywhere near its potential.
For those who want to know how to do keyword research, we’ve put together a checklist outlining the core steps you should follow when carrying out Keyword Research.
To complete this Keyword Research process, you will need:
- Ahrefs – This is one of the most popular and powerful SEO tools on the market.
- Basic spreadsheet skills
- Keyword Research Template
We’ll go through the template below using thesoundjunky.com as an example.
Get An Overview of Your Website’s Keyword Visibility
The first step in this Keyword Research process is all about getting an overview of your website’s current keyword visibility – i.e., identifying which keywords your website is already ranking for.
If you have a brand new website that isn’t ranking for any queries, you can either skip these steps or do them for your most important competitors to give you an idea of what keywords you should target.
Enter your domain into Ahrefs’ Site Explorer tool, click Organic Keywords in the left sidebar.
Ensure that you see the keywords for your target location (in this example, it’s the USA), click Export.
Then, click Full Export (if you’re ranking for more than 1000 keywords) > Start Export.
Once exported, remove all columns from the spreadsheet apart from those that I have kept in the Raw Data tab of the Keyword Research template.
Copy these keywords into the tab and sort the keywords by Volume.
You now have a full list of keywords that your website is currently ranking for based on search volume.
The next step is to create a keyword map to see which URLs are ranking for which terms.
Create a copy of your Raw Data tab.
This time, order the columns so that you have the following:
Now, sort the data by URL.
So that your sheet now looks something like this:
You’re now going to create a Pivot Table so that the keyword data looks more presentable.
Highlight all of the data by clicking on the blank cell in the top-left corner.
Click the Filter icon, Data > Pivot Table.
Select New sheet, click Create.
In the Pivot Editor, add in the rows in the same order listed above.
Be sure to deselect Show totals.
Call this Pivot Table, “Keyword Map” and hide your copy of the Raw Data tab by right-clicking on the tab and selecting Hide sheet.
You can stretch the URL column to show more text.
And that’s your Keyword Map complete – this is a more visually appealing and informative representation of the site’s keyword visibility.
For example, you can perform useful calculations to see:
- The total search volume of all keywords that are ranking for each web page
- The total estimated traffic of all keywords that are ranking for each web page
Low Hanging Keywords
More often than not, you’ll have lots of keywords ranking just outside of the first page (i.e. positions 11 – 30 in the search results).
These are potential quick wins that you can target as a priority.
To find your Low Hanging Keywords, go back to Ahrefs and this time, filter the your keywords by Position,
- From: 11
- To: 20
After clicking Apply, you can export, copy and paste the terms into the Low Hanging Keywords tab.
Alternatively, you can create a copy of your Raw Data tab again and filter the terms by Position using the Filter icon.
You now have a list of search terms that you can optimize to climb into the first page of the search engines.
Long Tail Keywords
The next step is to identify long-tail search terms.
These keywords often have a lower SEO difficulty and present traffic with good conversion potential.
Long-tail keywords might have lower search volume than general keywords, but they usually have low competition and are more likely to interest the target audience and generate conversions.
Essentially, you want to look for terms that contain words like:
To do this, head over to the Ahrefs keyword analysis tool and type in the above phrases (separated by commas) into the Include text box.
In the Exclude text box, click Any target, deselect URLs and click Apply.
This will now show you the keywords that contain the above words/phrases.
Export, copy and paste these terms into the Long Tail Keywords tab.
Sort by Keyword from A to Z.
You now have a filtered list of long-tail terms that your website is currently ranking for. These are great for answering questions that your target audience may have about your niche, business, or site.
Potential Keyword Cannibalization
A common problem websites face is when multiple URLs with similar or the same content compete for the same keyword – this is known as keyword cannibalization.
Keyword cannibalization can really hurt a site’s SEO performance, so it’s important to ensure that there isn’t any internal competition between your landing pages.
Here’s a quick way to spot potential keyword cannibalization using Ahrefs.
Create another copy of your Raw Data tab and call it Potential Keyword Cannibalization.
This time, you want your columns to be ordered with:
Sort your keywords from A to Z – this is a super important step!
In the Cannibalized column, add the following Excel formula:
This formula is checking whether there are multiple instances of the same keyword in the spreadsheet.
Copy this formula across all of the rows in your spreadsheet so that it looks like this:
Next, filter out the keywords that aren’t cannibalized.
Click the Filter icon, click the icon under the Cannibalized? column, deselect Yes, then click OK.
This will show you all keywords that aren’t cannibalized.
Highlight them all and delete the rows by right clicking, Delete selected rows to leave you with just the terms that are cannibalized.
Hopefully, your sheet will be empty at this stage (as you don’t want any cannibalization), but if not, it’ll look something like this…
Remove the Cannibalized? Column and sort by Volume to identify the most important keywords that have been cannibalized.
You now have a list of cannibalized keywords. To learn more about analyzing and fixing keyword cannibalization, check out this article.
Finding New Keyword Suggestions & Ideas
Up until this stage of this SEO Keyword Research process, we’ve only focused on the keywords that your website is already ranking for in Google’s SERP.
In this chapter, I’ll show you how to find new keyword ideas to target by using the same keyword research tool (Ahrefs) and other methods.
Identify Seed Keywords by Topic
A great way to build a foundation of new keyword ideas is to brainstorm the key topics that define your website’s niche with seed keywords.
Seed keywords tend to be broad search terms with high search volume.
For example, if you have a website that sells audio equipment, a seed keyword may be “turntable”, “record player” or “bluetooth speakers”.
You essentially want to ask yourself: what topics will people be searching for that are related to my business or website?
Once you’ve got a list of seed keywords, you can start to dig a bit deeper so that you can find the right new keywords you need to target… by looking at your competitors.
Reverse Engineer Your Competitors’ Keywords
The simplest and quickest way to reverse engineer your competitor’s keywords is to use Ahrefs’ Content Gap too.
This keyword research tool tells you which keywords your competitors are ranking for, but your website is not.
How to Find Your Competitors
There are two ways to find your top-ranking competitors. You can either:
- Search one of your seed keywords in Google and grab the top 5 results that appear in the SERP.
Note that in some cases, the top results for your seed keywords may not be quite the same as your own i.e. they may serve a different purpose.
In this case, use a more specific keyword that will yield more relevant competitors.
For example, suppose you have an affiliate site that reviews turntables. In that case, you’re likely going to find more suitable competitors in the SERP for “turntable reviews” as opposed to just “turntable”.
This is because websites ranking for the keyword “turntables” (as seen in the screenshot above) are mostly online stores selling turntables instead of affiliate review blogs.
- Use Ahrefs Site Explorer > Organic search > Top 10 competitors
When using this method, remember to select the correct country that you are targeting.
In addition, it’s worth remembering that Ahrefs calculates this competitor list by looking at which websites rank in the organic search results for the same keywords as your own site in the demographic with the largest share of organic search traffic.
Therefore, it’s worth analyzing this list to ensure that the listed domains are indeed your direct competitors.
Content Gap Analysis
Once you’ve got your list of competing domains, head over to Ahrefs and click Content gap on the left sidebar.
Paste in the domains of your competing domains and let the tool do the rest by clicking Show keywords.
Here’s what you’ll see…
Export, copy and paste the data into your Content Gap Analysis tab.
You now have a whole list of keyword ideas that you can target on your website.
Remember to filter out any that aren’t relevant to your website – this is why it’s important to analyze your competitor list to only include the most relevant competing domains.
Ahrefs Keyword Research Tool
Although Google Keyword Planner is still a great keyword research tool because the data comes straight from Google, we tend to use Ahrefs’ impressive Keywords Explorer tool.
All you have to do is enter your seed keyword into the search bar, and Ahrefs will return information about this search term such as:
- Search volume – How many times are people searching for this keyword? Where are the most searches coming from?
- Keyword difficulty – How difficult will it be to rank in the top 10 positions of Google for this keyword?
- Cost per click – Know how much are advertisers paying for each ad click in paid search results for this keyword?
On top of this, the report also outlines lots of new keyword suggestions that you may want to target.
Click Matching terms on the left sidebar to view a list of potential keyword opportunities to target.
Ahrefs found 144,328 keywords with a combined search volume of 606K based on this single seed term alone.
You can then export this list for each seed keyword (“topic”) and add them to your Keyword Research spreadsheet in a new tab.
Repeat this step for each of your seed keywords.
To go the extra mile, you can do the same for the other keyword ideas reports from the tool.
- Terms match – All keyword ideas that contain the target seed keyword or phrase.
- Questions – All keyword ideas that show you search queries that are phrased as a question. For example, they include question words like “who”, “what”, “when”, “how”, “why” etc.
- Also rank for – All keyword ideas that the top 10 pages for your seed keyword also rank for.
- Also talk about – Other keyword ideas, terms, and phrases that the top-ranking pages for your seed keyword mention frequently.
Analyzing Your Keywords
Up until this point, you’ve been collecting as much information about the keywords you may want to rank for as possible – it is called Keyword Research, after all.
Now, it’s time to analyze these keyword ideas so that you can pick the right ones to target on your website.
The search volume is usually defined by the monthly average number of searches for a keyword. Note that this doesn’t refer to the number of people who placed the search.
This means that a keyword receiving 120k searches in a year will have a search volume of 10k monthly searches.
This is the figure that most keyword research tools will display.
Knowing the monthly search volume of your keywords is important because it tells you how important that term is to your target audience.
If you have a website targeting various markets, knowing the search volumes can help you strategize which markets may be worth targeting over others.
For example, if you sell turntables and notice the keyword “turntable” is getting high search volumes in a market you don’t currently cater to, it may be worth pursuing.
As with all keyword metrics, the way that SEO keyword research tools calculate or even define search volume will vary from tool to tool. So if you’re using a different keyword tool to Ahrefs such as SEMRush, Majestic, or even Google Keyword Planner, bear in mind that search volumes may not always be the same.
Another important thing to consider during your keyword analysis is potential trends with keyword search volume.
Some terms may increase or decrease in popularity based on seasonal shifts in demand. As a result, looking at annual or monthly search volume may not be the most accurate indicator of traffic.
On Ahrefs’ keyword explorer tool, you can see the search volume trends of each keyword, as seen below.
Another way to do this is via Google Trends.
Just enter your keyword, choose your target location and timeframe, and hit Enter.
In the example above, you can see that the popularity for the keyword “turntable” sees a spike around Christmas time – people love to give turntables and record players as gifts!
Spotting and understanding trends is vital if you’re running an online business, as it means that you can ensure that your web pages are optimized for your target market in time for when search demand increases.
How difficult it would be to rank in the top positions for a particular search query varies from SEO and keyword research tools. Ahrefs uses links to predict keyword difficulty (KD).
To be more precise, the KD score is based on the number of unique websites linking to the pages ranking in the top 10 positions for that particular keyword.
Note that the score predicts how to get into the Top 10 positions of the search results and not to rank in position 1.
Keyword difficulty is important to consider during keyword research as it gives you an idea of what you’ll likely need to do to reach the first page.
This allows you to create a long-term SEO marketing strategy for keywords with a high KD and spot potential quick wins via terms with a low KD.
There’s no value in creating content to target a keyword if it ultimately isn’t going to bring any organic traffic towards your website.
This is especially important when looking at new keyword opportunities (i.e. ones you aren’t currently ranking for).
Although the individual traffic stats for keywords are useful, I suggest focusing on the total organic traffic that the top-ranking pages are receiving instead.
Why? Because your web pages will be ranking for more than just one keyword.
So, the best way to find this is by scrolling down to the bottom of your Ahrefs keyword report, where you’ll see the Top 10 ranking pages for the search term.
In the example above, the top-ranking page for “turntable” in the USA gets over 11k unique visitors a month and also ranks for over 400 other keywords within this topic.
This helps form a much clearer and robust representation of the amount of organic traffic that you’ll likely be able to generate for each of your core pages.
If the search volume is high, but no one actually clicks on the results, then there’s no point in selecting the term as a target keyword.
People may not click through to the organic results because Google may have already provided the answer to their query within the search results.
In these cases, the searcher doesn’t need to click on any of the organic search results.
Here are the stats for the keyword “turntables”:
It gets 55k searches from the US, but only 28% of the 30k clicks come from organic search results.
The number of clicks a keyword’s search results get is another key metric to analyze during keyword research.
Cost Per Click (CPC)
Cost per click (CPC) is a metric that doesn’t necessarily concern SEO as it’s more relevant for people who want to use paid advertising techniques like PPC (via Google AdWords). However, looking at cost per click does provide some insight into whether a keyword is worth pursuing.
Keyword research tools like Ahrefs display the CPC for keywords to allow SEOs to see roughly how much money is spent on certain phrases. I say roughly because apart from Google AdWords, which derives its data in real-time due to the volatile nature of this metric, most other SEO research tools’ CPC values aren’t as accurate.
The key takeaway from looking at PPC click data for search queries is that it gives you an insight into how valuable a potential keyword or search phrase might be.
Picking The Right Keywords to Target
While analyzing the keywords based on search volume, keyword difficulty, traffic potential, clicks, and perhaps CPC, you should also consider which terms you actually want to target on your website.
There are two main things to consider when doing this: search intent and keyword clusters.
Search Intent & User Journey
Search engines like Google are getting increasingly better at understanding the intent behind a user’s query and providing the most appropriate results in the SERP.
The search intent of the keyword is about looking at why the user made the search in the first place – ask yourself, what is the searcher looking for, and what are they trying to achieve?
The intent of the user varies depending on the user’s search journey.
- Informational – Awareness: the searcher is looking to learn about a topic. E.g., how tall is the Eiffel Tower
- Navigational – Interest: the searcher is curious about a particular topic or is looking for a specific brand/page. E.g., LinkedIn login
- Commercial Investigation – Desire: the searcher is looking to solve a problem. E.g., best in ear headphones
- Transactional – Action: the searcher performs an action to solve their problem, such as making a purchase or signing up to a newsletter etc. E.g., buy tulips
Identifying the searching intent will allow you to specify the stage at which the user is in the search funnel.
For example, suppose you have an eCommerce business that sells turntables. In that case, you’d want to create a blog post for informational keywords like “how to set up a turntable” as opposed to product or category pages, which would be better suited for high commercial intent terms like “audio technica turntables”.
This is because people searching for this query are looking for information instead of wanting to purchase a record player, and thus a blog post would be more suitable.
Identifying the search intent means you can craft your content to help lead the searcher down from the Awareness stage down to the Action stage.
It’s worth noting that, in general, keywords with a higher monthly search volume (short-tail keywords) have a broader intent than those with low search volume (long-tail keywords).
If you’re ever unsure what the search intent for a keyword is, just search the keyword in Google and look at what kind of pages are ranking in the top 10 positions of the SERP.
Alternatively, use Ahrefs’ keyword explorer tool not only to find what kind of pages are ranking in the top positions but also gain insights into:
- How many other keywords those pages rank for
- How much potential organic traffic those pages are getting
- How many referring pages those pages have
There are two ways to find this information.
- Enter your keyword into the Keyword Explorer tool and scroll down to the “SERP overview” section.
- If you’re on any of the other reports that provide a list of keywords, click on the “SERP” dropdown as highlighted below.
Once you’ve aligned keywords with search intent, you’ll be well on your way to creating the right kind of content that your audience/prospective customers are looking for and that search engines are looking to rank.
Keyword grouping (also referred to as keyword clustering) is where you put topically related terms together into a group.
This is where approaching keyword research through the lens of ‘topics’ comes in handy.
For example, if you have a core target keyword like “turntable setup”, then you’ll also likely want to rank for other variations like “record player setup” and “vinyl setup” too.
Why? Because you can see that the majority of the pages in the top positions for both keywords are the same.
“record player setup”
These keyword groups will help you form the basis for creating content that is optimized for a range of terms instead of just a single keyword. This way, you’re maximizing your content potential by trying to rank for as many related keywords as possible while giving the searcher what they’re looking for.
You’ve already seen how Ahrefs’ keyword tool is great for showing related keywords that you can target within the same topics by looking at what other queries competing pages are ranking for.
Keyword Prioritization Checklist
When it comes to deciding which keywords that you should target and track, ask yourself:
- How much traffic potential is there for this keyword? (Traffic Potential)
- How tough will it be to rank against my competitors for this keyword? (Keyword Difficulty)
- Are people interested in this keyword? (Clicks & Search Volume)
- What is the search intent of this keyword? (Search Intent)
- What stage of the user’s journey would this keyword fall under? (Search Journey)
- What other search terms would relate to this keyword? (Keyword Grouping)
Add the keywords that you have picked into your Tracked Keywords tab.
Keyword Research Tools
Although I’ve primarily used Ahrefs as the chosen keyword tool, there are many other great tools that you can use to perform your keyword research.
Unless specified otherwise, all of these are free!
- Google Keyword Planner – Great for keyword generation
- Google Trends – Great for keyword generation and planning content for seasonal search terms
- Ahrefs Keyword Explorer (Paid) – Great for Keyword Research all round
- Google Search Console (Performance Report) – Great for providing an insight into the search terms you’re already ranking for
- AnswerThePublic – Great for keyword generation
- SEMRush Keyword Research Toolkit (Free / Paid) – Another all-round tool for Keyword Research.
The Bottom Line
Regardless of whether you’re just starting an online business or have an established website that’s already ranking for many queries – there is no SEO without Keyword Research.
If you want to keep up with your customers and target audience, as well as Google, you’ll need to conduct keyword research regularly. This way, you’ll be able to ensure that you’re continuously creating content and ranking for as many terms as possible.
Hopefully, the steps outlined in the above checklist will help make this process a lot easier.
You’ll be able to:
- Get an overview of the website’s current keyword visibility
- Find new keyword opportunities by reverse engineering your competitors
- Analyze your keywords by looking at key metrics like the number of searches, traffic, and clicks a keyword gets
- Pick the right keywords to target by identifying search intent and grouping them by topic
Finally, with this keyword research template and checklist, you’ll be well equipped for the next stage in the process – creating a content strategy!
If you need a hand with Keyword Research, or would like to grow your site’s organic search performance, my team at The Search Initiative are here to help!