Keyword research and competitive analysis are two things you should tackle first when building a website or improving your web presence. After working with hundreds of businesses over the years, both in the B2B and B2C space, we've learned that search engine optimization (SEO), specifically keyword research, is the one thing business owners are most likely to screw up (or get screwed on, if they hire the wrong agency). If your keyword game isn't on point, you're missing out — on site traffic, on leads, and on money.
This blog post will walk you through the keyword research process, including an overview of the tools you'll need, how to find keywords for SEO, how to prioritize the keywords and how to implement them into an effective blogging strategy. And, in case you're a total newbie to this, there are screenshots that will help break down the process.
These tactics will work well, whether you're looking to overhaul your SEO keyword strategy or are just looking for some choice keywords to weave into a blog post you're working on. In fact, the method outlined in this post is the same one we've used for our site, and TCF currently ranks #1 for a variety of highly competitive, very lucrative keywords. If you follow the guide, there's no reason why you can't achieve the same results for your site.
First, let's review the tools that you'll use while finding keywords — and what they do:
Keyword Research Tools
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of SEO keyword research tools that you can use to collect information — and a lot of them do similar things. Some marketers prefer Moz (formerly SEOmoz) or SEMrush, others opt to do everything within Google's Keyword Planner. Using any of these tools is better than using none of them, and it's important not to let a plethora of tool choices get in the way of actually getting the job done. Essentially, they all take you to the same place, it's just that some take you via a different path and offer more information along the way.
In the interest of keeping things simple — because we recognize that this can be overwhelming — we'll only review the tools that TCF actually uses to find keywords for clients. But, if you learn SEMrush you'll have the knowledge base to move around to just about any of the other tools, should you find it necessary.
Free Keyword Research Tools:
SEOsiteCheckup – We've been singing the praises of SEOsiteCheckup.com for years, and for good reason. First, it's free. Second, in about a minute it can tell you everything that's wrong (or right) with the back end of your website's search optimization — and you don't need to know anything about SEO in order to understand it. Go ahead, try it out! It even explains how to fix what's wrong. This enables business owners who know nothing about website design to go back to their developer with a comprehensive list of technical items that need to be fixed.
Google Keyword Planner – This is promoted by Google as an AdWords tool, but it's also a great organic research tool. You'll need a Google account to access it, but if you have Gmail you're already set.
UberSuggest – This can help you identify keyword-related phrases that people are searching for, and give you additional ideas for keyword opportunities.
Paid Keyword Research Tools:
SEMrush – ($69.99/month). If you use one tool on this list, it should be SEMrush. This is the most valuable tool that we use to find keywords and analyze competition, and it's also where we like to start our research. This shows you which keywords your site currently ranks for, what position in the search engine results pages (SERPs) you're in, where you were last month, which page is ranking, etc.
WordTracker – ($27/month). Helps you to identify keywords and suggests alternate options. Should be used before UberSuggest to find additional keyword opportunities to capitalize on.
Moz – ($99/month). Moz is similar to SEMrush, although it does give you a few extra options to track SEO rankings (and potentially spot future opportunities). Some marketers have even found it worthwhile to use both SEMrush and Moz together.
Almost all of the paid keyword research tools available operate on a monthly billing structure, and we've yet to find one that doesn't offer a free trial, meaning you can find one that suits your needs before you're forced to open your wallet. Now that we've reviewed the keyword research tools, let's get into how to use them.
Step 1: Find Out if Your Website is Properly Optimized for SEO
Before you can get into keyword research and implementation, you need to make sure that the back end of your site is set up for success. If it's not, all the effort you've put in to find keywords and work them into your copy won't be nearly as effective as it would otherwise be.
At TCF, we like to say, "before you throw a party, you need to clean house." The same is true for on-site SEO: before you invite people to find you via search engines, you need to clean up any mess that may be hidden on the back end of your website. Fortunately, SEOsiteCheckup makes it straightforward and simple.
Go to SEOsiteCheckup, enter your website's URL and click the green "Checkup!" button to the right. This will take you to another page, which will create a report based on all of the important back-end SEO aspects of your site. The report takes about a minute or two to generate, and once it's finished you can download it as a PDF and then email it to your website designer with a "please fix all of these red X marks" note included.
The best part is, you don't need to understand much about SEO in order to implement the changes. The "explain this" and "how to fix" buttons on each section spells everything out for you. Here's a section of the report I ran for TCF, which alerted me to the fact that we've got a broken link on our site:
Although SEOsiteCheckup is fantastic for pointing out glaring issues with on-site SEO, and is always accurate when it comes to aspects like meta descriptions, keywords, broken links, etc., we've noticed is that it isn't always 100% accurate for the smaller things. An example here is the red flag that's being thrown up for Google Analytics — we definitely have those set up, and I review them every morning. For some reason SEOsiteCheckup doesn't recognize this, but in the grand scheme of things this isn't such a big deal.
Depending on what you've already done to optimize your site for search engines, you may have focus keywords selected for your site already. But that doesn't necessarily mean you're all set, especially if you haven't chosen the right keywords to focus on. In Step 3 we'll cover that, but before you start finding new keywords you should check to see what existing keywords your site is already ranking for.
Step 2: Find Keywords Your Site is Already Ranking For
In our experience, it's a lot easier to bump your site up from 15 to 5 on the SERPs than it is to go from unranked to 15. Because of this, it's important to know which keywords your site is already ranking for, so that you can focus on the low-hanging fruit and achieve some quick wins as you work toward long-term keyword goals. The keyword research tool you want to use for this is Moz or SEMrush. We've used both, and find that SEMrush is a little easier for novice keyword researchers to dig into.
When you go to SEMrush and type in your website, this is the dashboard that comes up (and you don't need a the paid version of SEMrush to access it). Here, I entered The Content Factory's website:
This gives you at-a-glance information about which keywords you're ranking for, your SERP position (with last month's position in parentheses, indicating forward or backward movement), monthly search volume and the ad value equivalent (cost per click, or CPC) for both individual keywords and every search term that you're ranking for. It also gives you a graphic representation of your paid and organic search traffic over time. TCF doesn't run ads, so the orange Ad Traffic line is flat at the bottom.
I ran this report for TCF, and it shows that our site generates $21,663 worth of search traffic per month. This means that if we were to run a Google AdWords campaign targeting the keywords that we're ranking for (for free via SEO!), we'd have to spend $259,956 per year to generate similar results. This is where the ROI is for SEO — why pay to run expensive AdWords campaigns when you can rank organically and get the same results? The SEO work we've done means that we don't need to rely on AdWords campaigns at all, and our site still attracts over 25,000 visitors per month via organic search traffic.
Diving into the keywords in SEMrush by clicking on "full report" in the Organic Keywords section gives you even more information. Here, you can see that TCF's site is ranking for 412 keywords. If you click on the "Pos" button at the top, it will sort your keywords according to what you're ranking highest for.
Note: if you're new to this, you may not rank for any keywords, or for very few of them. This is okay! Everyone's got to start somewhere, and at one point TCF was in the same boat. Don't get discouraged — get determined, and follow this action plan to achieve the SEO results you want.
The Results column tells you how many total results Google pulls for that particular keyword, and it's a good indication of how much content there is on the subject floating around the Internet. These are all keywords that we're ranking #1 for, as well as the individual pages on our website that are ranking for these keywords. Note: the vast majority of the content we've gotten to rank has been on our blog, not our home page. This is normal, and why it's so important to have a consistent blogging strategy.
Ranking #1 is great, but the real opportunities are in the SEO keywords that you're increasing or decreasing in the SERPs for:
We wrote a blog post about the cost of web content writing a while ago (we update it regularly to keep the info fresh), and it's now ranking #1 for a few phrases — although it appears to be slipping on a few others.
Considering that those look like strong keywords, it's worth potentially targetting them with our next content push. That means we need to produce more content targeting those keywords, or improve our content marketing for the existing pages of content that we have. Either option can get us where we need to go, but going back to the "it's easier to bump an existing page of content up the ladder than get it on the ladder in the first place" point, it would probably be more efficient to edit or add to existing content, or market it more, than to create a new page of content and start from scratch.
Once you have this report for your site, create a spreadsheet with all of the keywords that you're currently ranking for, your position, the monthly search volume and the cost per click ad value. You don't need to create this yourself — SEMrush will export it as a spreadsheet for you, and then you can delete the columns that have less relevant data. This will be your base spreadsheet, which you'll add to in the next steps.
If you're just starting out, you might not be ranking for any keywords. That's okay, it just means that you've got a wide open playing field and can go in any direction you'd like. If this is the case, set up a spreadsheet with all of the info listed above and plug in the keywords and corresponding data in steps 3 and 4.
Step 3: Find Keywords for SEO
Not ranking for any keywords? Like we said above, everyone's got to start somewhere. Starting out with a blank slate can be exciting, as it means you have complete control over which direction you'd like your content to go in. With that said, there are a few questions you should ask yourself before you start researching keywords:
- What is your target? Do you have a specific market or demographic? Are you marketing to businesses or consumers? Don't just think about what you sell, think about what your customer is coming to you for. If you have a security consulting company, for example, your customers might come to you for penetration testing, or for network management.
- What does your content budget look like? How much do you have to spend on content, or how many of pieces of content can you write in house? Do you have the resources for an all-out assault on multiple keywords, or will you only be able to produce one or two blog posts every month or so? What's your content marketing plan, and how much money do you need to throw into Facebook/LinkedIn/whatever ads?
- What are your goals? Similar to the above question, you should set a realistic goal when you're doing keyword research. If you're a small company and you're writing all your content in house, you shouldn't focus on the biggest, juiciest keywords, but instead keywords that other businesses might be ignoring that bring in comparable, useful traffic.
Once you've answered those questions, it's time to begin to do some keyword research. A good place to begin your keyword research when you're starting from scratch is the Google AdWords Keyword Planner. The keyword planner will do its best to redirect your search query (under "product or service") toward a list of keywords that are somewhat similar. For example, here's a search for penetration testing:
Here, we can see a list of keywords that Google has suggested to us. Just like with SEMrush, you can download these keywords into a spreadsheet for analysis later. Compile all of the keywords you've found into a single spreadsheet so you can review, sort and prioritize them all in one space. You should do this for a number of ideas you've come up with. While your keywords should be specific, it's always good to have a bigger pool to comb through when you're trying to plan your keyword strategy.
Before we get into the analysis, it's worth pointing out that you can do something similar to this with SEMrush, just by typing in individual keywords instead of website URLs. The downside, however, is that SEMrush will only provide you with keywords that include that string (so, if you search for "penetration testing," it won't show you "security policy," whereas Google will recognize that as a related term).
Now that you've got your keywords, it's time to figure out which are worth focusing on.
Step 4: Don't Just Find Keywords, Find The Right Keywords
Now that you have a list of the keywords that you're already ranking for, it's time to start sorting and prioritizing them. But before you can do that, you need to establish what makes a "good" keyword vs. a "bad" keyword. You want to find keywords that are likely to convert, that you also have a shot at ranking for (in either the short or long term), and ignore all the rest.
When looking at keywords, here's what you need to focus on:
The "Search Intent" of The Keyword – Moz has a great rundown of search intent, which breaks search queries down into four primary types:
- Navigational queries. These are queries for a specific site — they search Expedia instead of typing Expedia.com into the URL bar. They've got a destination in mind, and they're going right to it. These types of queries do not make good keyword targets.
- Informational queries. These are queries based on a specific question, like "How many feet are in a mile?" or "What actor played Anthony in Designing Women?" Not good keyword targets. TCF's "Twitter Autoresponder" blog post falls into this category, which is why that page doesn't convert nearly as well as our How Much Does Professional Web Content Cost? post (which is a page targeting transactional queries). We're ranking #1 for several Twitter auto responder-based searches, but it's an informational query so it's not making us any money.
- Commercial investigation. These queries walk the line of between research and commercial intent. These searches may include "best DSLR camera", or other searches related to sourcing products or services. These types of keywords are not as likely to convert as transactional queries, but they're much more likely to convert than informational queries or navigational queries (unless the person is searching for your website, specifically).
- Transactional queries. These queries are dripping with commercial intent, but they don't necessarily involve an on-site transaction. For instance, "create a Google+ page" (for Google+) and "best margaritas in Pittsburgh, PA" (for MadMex) are both transactional queries, as is "best DSLR camera under $500". These types of keywords are where the money is at, and what you should focus on ranking for.
The number of people searching for the keyword – This is a good indication of how big the pie is — the bigger the pie, the bigger your potential piece. But there is such a thing as "too big", and if 20,000 people are searching for a term monthly it's probably because it's a vague, short-tail phrase. If you're an attorney who only deals with wineries, "wine lawyer" is a good keyword for you to target, even if it only gets 20 monthly searches. If just one of those searches converts per quarter, you've more than made up the cost of targeting highly relevant keyword, even if it's not searched for often.
The AdWords equivalent of the keyword – A good indication of whether or not a keyword is worth targeting is the AdWords value of the term. Generally speaking, the higher the CPC value the better the keyword (if others think it's valuable enough to spend a lot for each click, maybe there's a good reason). For instance, keywords related to "mesothelioma attorney" have some of the most expensive CPCs of all keywords. This makes sense, considering the average value of a winning mesothelioma case is around $6 million. In this case, the $382.89 AdWords CPC doesn't seem so high.
How likely you are to actually rank for the keyword – Think you've found a good SEO keyword? Do a quick Google search and take note of the content that ranks in the Top 3 positions on Page 1. How big and well respected are the websites that currently take the top spots? Can you write better web copy than that, and/or market your content better? If so, you've got a shot at ranking. If you find a Dictionary.com or Wikipedia page takes the top spot, know that you're probably not going to be able to overcome them. If that's the case, you should go for a longer tail version of the keyword instead, because you'll have better results.
Pro tip: when you run Google searches for keywords, make sure you're doing so in an Incognito window if you use the Chrome browser. This way, your social media, email and browsing history won't skew the results. Otherwise, your research won't be accurate.
The long(er) tail – Long tail keywords account for around 70% of all search queries, and you've got a better shot at ranking for them. Stay away from one-word keywords, because they're going to be borderline impossible to rank for and are so generic, any traffic that would be sent your way likely wouldn't convert. This is why "mesothelioma" as a keyword only costs $115.22 per click, while "mesothelioma attorney" costs $382.89 – the latter is much more likely to convert, and to be targeted traffic.
Step 5: Getting Competitive with Keyword Research
Marketing — and keyword research — doesn't happen in a vacuum. Chances are, when you stumble on keywords you want to rank for, you're not going to be the only person with that goal in mind. While that might seem obvious, it's something you can't forget when you're choosing keywords to focus on. Not only is it a good idea to know what to expect from your competition, but by analyzing your competitors, you might be able to find some holes in their SEO strategy that you can take advantage of. Are all of their pages up to par? Are they actively trying to hold on to specific keywords? These are all worthwhile questions to ask.
Before you start planning out how you're going to topple your competition's rankings, you need to figure out what they rank for. For this example, say that you're a network security firm that does consulting for other small businesses. Your first step should be to run one of your competitors through SEMrush, to see which keywords they rank for:
In this screenshot, we're looking at site (fishnetsecurity.com) that ranks for 362 keywords — a fairly sizeable number. It's safe to assume that we can ignore all of the keywords involving their company's name, as their prevalance would make it near impossible for you to gain a foothold on any of them. With those out of the way, a few others immediately should grab your eye. For this guide, we'll focus on two in particular: spear phishing and dlp security. Why those two? Let's break them down:
- spear phishing: This keyword is bringing in a ton of traffic to their website — 2.3% of their total traffic is due to this keyword. Additionally, while it is competitive, it isn't hyper-competitive. Best of all? It has a CPC value of 16.05, which while not jaw-dropping, is fairly high considering the competition level of this keyword and the target market.
- dlp security: While this keyword is more competitive than the first one we've picked out, it also has a higher CPC. While its volume isn't phenomenal, that CPC value is worth looking at.
Now, it's important to keep in mind that these aren't the only good keywords — they're just the ones we're using as an example here.
Our next step is to see what page is ranking for those specific keywords. In this case, it appears that both keywords are referring to blog posts. At this phase in your analysis, you should take a peek at the blogs that are ranking for those specific keywords. Try to be objective as you can when you are looking at these sites. Are they well constructed? Does it appear to be a well-written post? Do a quick search for the keyword. Can you find instances of it on the page? How many?
As you are reading through their content, make sure you're asking the most important question of all: can you do better? If you spot a page that doesn't have the keyword in it, or you spot a page that is poorly constructed (perhaps it doesn't look authoritative, or maybe the layout is ages old), then you've found a perfect keyword for your company to target.
After you've posted, shared, and marketed your content, your next step is to monitor it closely. Pay attention to your own analytics in addition to SEMrush. How is your page ranking? Are you encroaching on enemy territory, or is your page languishing on the seventh page of some obscure Google search? In the same way that you took a critical eye to your competitor's content, you should scan your own for flaws. How many times are you using the keyword? Is it in the headers? Provided you've done your due diligence, your page should be climbing.
Don't be afraid to edit a page that isn't doing well — or, on the flip side, one that is doing very well. Sometimes, an extra 500 words is all a page needs to push it over the top. Just be careful, as you obviously don't want to throw knives at copy that's doing a good job as it is. Be surgical when you edit, and make sure you're not overwriting copy that's bringing you value.
Even after you start monitoring your SEO, you shouldn't stop doing keyword research. While you should monitor your progress on a consistent basis, every few months you should do another analysis of your competitors (and your own site). What rankings are changing? What can you do better? Finding keywords and doing research isn't just about the initial push — it's also about how you can hold on to and maintain your own rankings. Likewise, you never know when an opportunity might arise for you to take advantage of an area where one of your competitors is slipping.
Did you find this guide on how to find keywords useful? Share it with business owners you know — and make sure to let us know on Twitter (@ContentFac)!
Still have a few questions about keyword research? Shoot us a line, or leave a comment here and we'll see what we can do to help you out.