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 you do find 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, SEMrush or Ahrefs, 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 be reviewing a few tools in this post. But, if you learn SEMrush (click here for a free SEMrush trial!) you’ll have the knowledge base to move around to just about any of the other tools, should you find it necessary.
4 Free Keyword Research Tools:
1. SEO SiteCheckup: Audit Your Backend SEO
We’ve been singing the praises of SEO SiteCheckup.com for years, and for good reason. First, it’s free. Second, in about a minute it can tell you what’s wrong on the technical end of your website — 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.
2. Google Keyword Planner: Research Keywords
This is promoted by Google as an Ads tool, but it can also be used for keyword research. While not the best tool by any means, for business owners on a budget, it can act as an effective keyword research tool in a pinch.
3. UberSuggest: Find More Related Keywords
This can help you identify keyword-related phrases that people are searching for, and give you additional ideas for keyword opportunities.
4. A Keyword Spreadsheet (Really!)
Paid Keyword Research Tools:
1. SEMrush – ($99.95/month for the basic package).
If you use one tool on this list, it should be SEMrush. We’ve become an affiliate of SEMrush simply because it’s the most valuable tool that we use to find keywords and analyze competition, and 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. Click our affiliate link for a free week of SEMrush Pro!
2. WordTracker – ($27/month).
WordTracker helps you to identify keywords and suggests alternate options. Use WordTracker before using UberSuggest to find additional keyword opportunities to capitalize on.
3. Ahrefs – ($99/month for the basic package).
Ahrefs and SEMrush are very similar — both provide very similar functionality, and both are considered to be essential pieces of kit for any SEO agency worth their salt. With that said, for business owners on a budget, or even for freelancers who are just starting out, it’s not really necessary to have a license for both. Personally, we favor SEMrush slightly more for newbies, though we think more advanced users will likely get more bang for their buck out of Ahrefs.
4. Moz – ($99/month for the basic package).
Moz is similar to SEMrush and Ahrefs, although it does give you a few extra options to track SEO rankings (and potentially spot future opportunities). While some marketers have even found it worthwhile to use both SEMrush and Moz together, we personally feel that Moz is less a “must-have” and more a “nice-to-have.”
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. Not sold on any of the above? the folks over at Intent Marketer have a list as winners as well, including Screaming Frog and Majestic. Now that we’ve reviewed the keyword research tools, let’s get into how to use them.Almost all paid #SEO & keyword research tools offer a free month trial so you can find what best suits your needs Click To Tweet
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 your website isn’t sabotaging your SEO efforts. If something is configured wrong, you have wonky redirects, you aren’t using HTTPS, or another significant technical issues is present, all the effort you’ve put in to find keywords won’t matter.@SEOSiteCheckup helps flag the back end of your website for optimal #SEO quickly and easily. Click To Tweet
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 technical SEO issues that might be present. Fortunately, SEO SiteCheckup makes it straightforward and simple.
Go to SEO SiteCheckup, enter your website’s URL and click the orange “Checkup!” button to the right. This will take you to another page, which will create a report based on all of the important techncial 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 question marks next to the individual fields will explain to you what exatly they’re talking about. Below you can see a snipet of a report we generated for our site. As we’re sticklers when it comes to our site, we don’t return many errors — though you can see SEO SiteCheckup wants us to mask an email address on our main page. While this isn’t an SEO issue (and we aren’t concerned about spam in this case), it’s good to know.
Although SEO SiteCheckup 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.
If you’re hiring a SEO agency to do an audit of your site (especially if they’re looking for technical SEO errors) you should expect something a little deeper than an automatically generated report. They’ll be able to get a little more granular and they’ll find things an automated engine will miss. With that said, most small businesses can’t afford to keep an SEO agency on retainer, so a report like this is just fine.
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 one of our clients:
This gives you at-a-glance information about which keywords you’re ranking for, your SERP position (with SEMrush’s last update 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. Our client runs a few ads, but you can see that they get way more value out of organic traffic.
What these numbers also show is is that this particular site is generating $29,600 a month worth of search traffic. That means in order to get the same amount of traffic using Google Ads, our client would have to spend $355,200 per year to generate similar results!
This is where the ROI is for SEO — why pay to run expensive Google Ads campaigns when you can rank organically and get the same results? The SEO work we’ve done means that our client doesn’t need to reult on Ads to generate traffic.Why pay to run expensive AdWords campaigns when you can rank organically and get the same results? #SEO Click To Tweet
Diving into the keywords in SEMrush by clicking on “full report” in the Organic Keywords section gives you even more information.
If we do this for our own page, we can see that we’re currently ranking for 14,949 keywords. You can also see what those specific keywords are, along with a bunch of additional information.
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 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:
As you can see, a few of our posts are climbing, while others are dropping. This is to be expected. On a fairly routine basis, you’ll see some of your content climb, while other pages will stagnate. As Google’s algorithm changes, competitors enter the space, you gain or lose backlinks or a million other factors, you’ll see your rankings change.
It’s important to keep an eye on them, though.
Considering that those look like strong keywords, it’s worth potentially targeting 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.It's easier to bump an existing page up the ladder than get it on the ladder in the first place. Click To Tweet
It’s also important to note that we selected keywords that are teetering on the edge of the first page. Ranking on the first page of the SERPs is crucial, which is why we magnified this particular area of keywords.
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:
- Who is your target audience? 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. If you run a brick-and-mortar business, you should also learn local SEO best practices.A good place to begin keyword research from scratch is the Google AdWords Keyword Planner. Click To Tweet
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:
1. 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.
Google marks specific keywords as having a specific intent so that it can deliver better results to those particular users. Medical queries, for example, will likely always return sites with some sort of medical cred. Likewise, local searches will return local results. Google can get extremely granular with this stuff: sometimes, it’ll decide that certain keywords should only point to ecommerce sites (or at least, only the top results will), while others will only ever resolve to blog posts.
This is why you should always search for the keywords you’re trying to rank for. Just looking at the SERPs can be enlightening.
2. 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.
3. 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 $360.00 AdWords CPC doesn’t seem so high.
(Fun fact — when we first wrote this guide, “mesothelioma lawyer” was worth less than “mesothelioma attorney,” but now that keyword is worth significantly more! Over time, patterns change. While that’s true for PPC advertising, it’s also true for SEO.)
4. 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.
(As a note: the above advice isn’t necessarily true anymore — Google says it doesn’t matter, at least. We still suggest doing it, though, as it can’t hurt.)
5. 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 $360.00 — 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.
See what keywords your competition ranks for
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.
When you’re looking at the results, you should be looking for two things:
- What keywords are generating a lot of traffic for them?
- What content is ranking for those keywords?
Be objective: are their pages good? Do they deliver value to their inteded audience? Do they have a nice design? Do they load quickly? Here, you might want to bring in a few other tools. With Aherfs of SEMrush, you can see how many other sites are linking to those pages (if the page has a lot of backlinks — a term that simply means links from other sites — it’ll be hard to topple, unless you can gain more than they can).
If you spot a page that’s not great and that doesn’t have many backlinks, there’s a good chance you just found yourself an ideal target. If you’re using a keyword spreadsheet, write that keyword down.
What SEO techniques is your competition using?
A talented SEO analyst will be able to figure out what strategy a site is using within minutes (if that) of a page loading — they’ll also be able to tell you pretty quickly how likely it is that you’d be able to beat that page.
Is the keyword visible? Is it spammed all over the page? Check out the meta title and description. Do you see it there? What about on the alt text of images? How is the page organized? Are there other pages on the same site linking to this particular page? What does this page link to?
If it looks like someone spammed the keyword all over the page, it’s likley you’re dealing with low-quality content. If there’s no meta title or description (or alt text), then it’s likely that whoever wrote the content doesn’t know SEO best practices. If the page is difficult to read, isn’t organized well, or doesn’t have an author listed (if relevant), then that’s a sign it wasn’t written by a professional.
If the page itself isn’t linking to any internal pages (that is to say, pages on the same domain), then that’s a sign that there isn’t really much of an SEO strategy at play.
If you start to think to yourself, “I’m not sure what they’re trying to do here,” then that’s a good sign you’ve found a juicy target.
Write and promote your 10x content
As you are reading through their content, make sure you’re asking the most important question of all: can you do 10x 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.
Measure your SEO progress
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. Are you using the keyword in your post (cleanly — you do NOT want to spam it)? Is it in the headers? Have you tried to promote it at all on social media? Have you managed to earn any backlinks for your post? 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, one that is doing very well. Click To Tweet
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.
SEO is a marathon, not a sprint
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.
Get expert keyword research & SEO training online
Bookmarking this guide is a great place to start in your SEO journey, but nothing beats training with the experts. That’s why The Content Factory offers a training package just for SEO and content writing. Whether you’re a novice who wants to learn the basics or a content marketer who wants to sharpen your skills, this course is for you. This virtual, hands-on training will make you a pro at using the same tools we use to rank high in the SERPs, and comes with live webinars and our own internal content marketing guides!
Check out our free webinar on 9 Expensive SEO Mistakes You’re Probably Making to see what it’s like inside the TCF classroom (hint: you can wear your pajamas and snack at your desk). If you prefer a self-paced, affordable training option, take a look at our pre-recorded SEO 101 syllabus and enroll today!
Are you a lady in SEO? We’ve got a killer Facebook group you’ll want to check out ASAP! You’ve got questions, we’ve got answers – with a lot of actionable advice and support from other women slaying it in the industry.