Excellent keyword research uncovers the terms, phrases, questions, and answers that are important to your users and customers. Your keywords should also support business goals like getting more pageviews, capturing leads, or selling products and services.
To drive more truly qualified leads to your site, you’ll need to know how to do organic and paid keyword research. Read on to learn more about how it works, why it’s important, and how it can help you craft content.
What Is Keyword Research?
Keyword research is the process of finding all possible search queries that may be relevant to your business and your customers. Keyword research includes finding, sorting, and prioritizing keywords, which can then inform your keyword strategy.
Why Keyword Research Is (Still) Important to SEO
Understanding Keyword Themes
Some marketers may refer to groups of related keywords as topics or themes. These are often groups of individual keywords that signal a similar need or intent by a searcher.
Because a searcher might have several intents when researching (and searching) a specific topic, you should never boil down keyword research to just compiling a list of keywords.
Instead, you should use keyword research to build an intricate group of keywords that fall under a similar search intent.
A single topic or theme might lead to a piece of content that can answer all of the needs within that topic, and thus a single page is “optimized” for the entire group of keywords.
Or, the search topic may be broad enough to signal that you should have an entire section of your website with many pieces of content devoted to answering the user’s intent.
For example, if you’re writing a post about “how to fry an egg,” one single article might satisfy intent for all keywords around that “theme,” such as:
- How to fry an egg
- How to cook a sunny side up egg
- How to cook an egg over medium
- How to fry an egg for a sandwich
- How to fry an egg in the microwave
- How to fry an egg over easy
- How to fry an egg over hard
- How to fry an egg over medium
- How to fry an egg sunny side up
- How to fry an egg with oil
- How to fry an egg without oil
If your keywords group covers a more complex topic like “what caused the decline and fall of the Roman Empire,” all possible search intent around that theme won’t be satisfied by a single piece of content. They would probably require a much larger content body to fully meet the user’s questions.
Some SEO experts may argue that individual “head” keywords won’t matter as much in the future due to voice search. Voice search allows users to create long, natural language search queries.
But, that doesn’t mean that shorter “head” keywords can’t form the start or foundation of your keyword research. A simple head term can produce many long-tail keywords prospects, as there isn’t a separate database for voice search results.
Google, for example, returns essentially the same results for a voice query as it would a typed-out query. For many of these long long-tail queries, Google will parse out essential terms and return the results.
As an example, let’s search for “Hey Google, what are the best running shoes for a person who has flat feet?” Looking at Google search results, it is easy to see that Google returns nearly the same result set for that query as it does for “best running shoes flat feet.”
So, even if someone uses the longer, more natural language query it's still important to know that people are searching for queries like “best running shoes flat feet.”
Note: This doesn’t mean you are going to highly optimize a webpage for the exact phrase “best running shoes flat feet.” The phrase “best running shoes flat feet” gets significant search volume. To capture search traffic for search terms with the same intent, create a helpful resource that tells people what the best running shoes are for runners with flat feet.
How to Do Keyword Research
Keyword research for search engine optimization (SEO) consists of gathering all possible variants of keywords that might be relevant to your current site, content, products, services, and ideal customers.
After you build your list of keywords, trim it down to terms that are truly relevant for your site and users. Finally, sort, group, and prioritize each term.
Note that we are focusing on organic keyword research instead of keyword research for PPC (pay-per-click) advertising. While the two have some similarities, they differ heavily when regarding competitiveness.
If you have a small or new site and your competition on a particular search term are sites like Wikipedia and Amazon, ranking for that term might be a long-term goal or lower priority. At the same time, work on other more attainable keywords in the short term.
Whereas for PPC, you have to decide whether you can afford to bid competitively on the term.
Brainstorm Your Keywords
Getting team members, clients, your content team, and others involved in the keyword brainstorming process can generate even more relevant keywords.
In other words: the more brainpower, the better.
Involving these parties in the process will also increase stakeholder approval of the keyword research process. Hold short brainstorming sessions with stakeholders to determine what they think might be useful based on their understanding of their website.
Step one of your SEO keyword research is simply amassing your initial list. There are numerous sources for possible lists of keywords. For this example, we’ll use our Keyword Overview tool to take a look at “Best televisions.”
When I am building the initial list, attempt to capture the following information for each keyword:
- The exact keyword
- Monthly search volume
- Keyword difficulty
- Top 10+ ranking results for this keyword
- Search intent
So, let’s take a look at what the Keyword Overview tool had to say:
Note: The Keyword Overview tool also shows you related keywords, questions searchers are forming around your selected keyword and other insights that will likely be useful down the road.
The first step in beginning any new keyword research project should be to understand what the business/stakeholder offers. This step is critical if you are an outside consultant or agency because you will likely never understand the business or its customers like those who deal with them daily.
Suppose you are an in-house SEO doing keyword research for a new business or division you haven’t worked with before. In that case, you must understand the products or services offered and, more importantly, the needs and pain points of current stakeholders, both users/customers and internal stakeholders.
Without this understanding, you might not be able to generate a comprehensive list of keywords nor evaluate whether those keywords are relevant and essential.
Here are some ideas for initial keyword discovery:
- Spend at least a couple of hours exploring and using the website and make notes of keywords that may be important.
- Send an initial “SEO keyword discovery questionnaire” to the client or main stakeholder asking for information like:
- List of business objectives.
- Is there any seasonality to your business or traffic? Do product/service offerings, or does the site content change seasonally?
- List what you believe are your most important keywords for your business goals.
- Are you launching or discontinuing new categories of products, services, or content soon?
- List your target audiences.
- List your main competitors.
- What geo-locations do you operate in?
- Consider interviewing marketing managers, salespeople, product specialists, or even potential customers to understand how people refer to a product or service and what problems customers are trying to solve by visiting the site.
At this point, you may not have user personas built already. That’s okay! There are plenty of tools out there that help you create these profiles. Let’s take a look at our free Personas tool as an example.
With this tool, you can build custom persona profiles for all of your possible prospective customers/clients.
Our Persona tool asks questions that prompt you to consider what type of person you are looking to target with your keyword research. You can fill out as many or as few of the informational columns in the profile you create as you like.
However, the more information you have (especially around customer pain points and factors influencing buyer decisions), the more likely you are to eager future customers with your research.
You can save and share these profiles with your team to ensure that everyone understands your clientele and their needs.
To learn more about building the right kind of personas, read our article on creating buyer personas.
Current Keyword Lists
Once you’ve brainstormed a list of keywords you’ll want to keep them in an organized and easily accessible place. Using our Keyword Manager tool as an example, here is how you would go about keeping track of your keywords.
1. Open the Keyword Manager tool and name your keyword list
2. Once your keyword list is named and appears under “All keyword lists,” click on it.
3. You’ll be prompted to select how you would like to import keywords to this list. There are lots of options. As an example, let’s say you chose the option to manually input your keywords. Once you have them all in you’ll hit “Add keywords.”
4. Your list might take a few moments to generate. Once it does, you’ll be taken to the overview of your list in the Keyword Manager tool.
Using a tool, Excel sheet, or other tracking system is an essential part of keyword research. Grouping keywords together and keeping track of their volumn and difficulty can make the work of building content clusters that much easier down the road.
If you already have keyword lists compiled for pay-per-click campaigns, that is another excellent place to start. As previously mentioned, not all of these keywords may be ideal in terms of competitiveness for your organic keyword list. Some obvious terms to include, and ones that should be a high priority in your list, are currently generating conversions.
If you are paying to get traffic on those terms and the traffic converts, you need to be trying to rank on those terms organically and get that traffic for “free.”
You can get Google Ads PPC data from your Google Analytics account if your Google Analytics and Ads accounts are connected.
Open Google Analytics and navigate to “Acquisition → Google Ads → Search Queries” to export the data for the time period you wish to analyze.
The timeframe you’ll use will vary based on the amount of traffic and conversions the site gets, seasonality, etc. Usually, the higher the traffic, the shorter the time period you can use.
Export the data to your spreadsheet medium of choice: Excel (XLSX), CSV, or Google Sheets.
You will want to exclude branded terms as you likely are already optimizing for them naturally. Look for phrases that show positive metrics like low bounce rate and have good conversion, transaction, and/or revenue numbers.
You may want to look at terms with poor conversion rates to see if they are relevant to the business. If they are, there may be other business or site usability reasons they are not converting. You should still include the terms in your list.
In the graphic below, the branded terms are in orange. They have good traffic, engagement, and conversion numbers.
The term in red gets lots of traffic and averages more pages per session than other terms, but isn’t converting. That is one that you want to look at more carefully to see if it is relevant.
The term in green may be one to explore, as it gets a higher conversion rate than most.
Some Google Ads and Analytics Tips
Once you have the list of PPC keywords relevant to your SEO plan, add them to a keyword tool like Google Ads or Semrush to see their search volume and other metrics.
You’ll want to make sure to run the “Search Queries” report in Google Analytics, which shows actual terms Google users typed in before clicking on an ad.
Avoid using the Keywords report, which is the terms the site is bidding on in Google Ads.
If you are wondering how to get search volume and forecasts in Google Ads, please see the section below. In Google Ads, match types like “Phrase Match” and “Broad Match” trigger an ad to show for many terms. Remember, you want the actual queries users are searching for.
Some of the terms that come out of your PPC keyword lists may be too competitive for you to rank organically. It may be that you can bid on them for only a small geographic region where it doesn’t make sense to try and rank for them nationally.
For example, it may make sense to bid on “lawyer” in your local town or city, but when you review the search engine results, you find that the top five sites are national or international sites.
So, a term that broad may not make sense to be a high priority in your organic keyword list as compared to something much more specific like “uber accident lawyer NYC.”
Generating Organic Keyword Ideas from Your Website(s)
In addition to the sources above, which can tell you the keywords that are already driving organic traffic to your site, there are additional tools that can recommend new keywords based on a website and content analysis. And others can show you the entire universe of keywords your site is currently ranking for, and whether or not they are driving traffic. Let’s look at a few.
9 Keyword Research Tools
1. Semrush — Keyword Overview: The Keyword Analytics Overview report offers plenty of data around a single keyword and indicates “keyword variations” and “related” keywords.
2. Semrush — Topic Research tool: The Topic Research tool returns a massive set of related topics and concepts in different formats based on a particular keyword.
3. Google Ads: Google Ads provides ample keyword information and variations of keywords that may be relevant for you. As previously stated, you aren’t going to get good data unless you’re using a Google Ads account that spends a reasonable amount of money.
4. People Also Ask — Google: Another method you can use to find related questions for a particular keyword is to search for that keyword in Google and look for the “People also ask” section. This section will give you popular keyword queries related to your keyword that people are also searching for.
5. Related Searches — Google: Believe it or not, scrolling to the bottom of the Google page can be helpful! You can find a list of “related searches” at the bottom of each SERP. You can also feed these keywords back into the other keyword tools to find more keyword variations.
6. Google Trends: Google Trends can be an excellent source for monitoring and tracking changes in search engine volume for keywords over time. It also gives you a set of related queries that you can then iterate on to get more ideas to build out your keyword list.
7. Answer the Public: Answer The Public generates questions and phrases asked around a particular root keyword.
8. Soovle: Soovle will generate a quick list of top terms for Wikipedia, Google, Amazon, answers.com, YouTube, Bing, and Yahoo!
9. Keywords Everywhere: Keywords Everywhere is a browser extension for Chrome or Firefox that pulls search volume, CPC, and competition data on the fly.
Geolocating Keyword Research (for Local or Regional Sites)
Most keyword research tools will return either global search volumes or search volumes for a particular country by default. If you are interested in multiple countries, you may merge various keyword data sets. If you are interested in data for a particular city, state, province, territory, etc., many keyword research tools cannot get down to that granular level.
Suppose your keyword research is for a business that can only operate in a particular state. You’ll want to get an accurate picture of the total search volume available. In that case, you really should be limiting that search volume geographically.
Google Ads can once again help here. For example, if you’re working with a law firm that only operates in San Francisco and targets “personal injury lawyer,” use Google Ads Planner location data to determine how much traffic your client could capture.
Conversely, suppose the search term is “personal injury lawyer in San Francisco.” Here, you can likely reference the term’s national search volume because the intent of anyone searching for that term “matches” your client.
Within Google Ads, it’s a relatively simple process to limit search volumes geographically. You can even restrict them at a very granular level.
In the example below, the search location is limited to the San Francisco/Oakland/San Jose Nielsen DMA region. Google will also tell you how many people are within that region. In this case, 19.9 million:
Once the location has been set to target, select the ‘Historical Metrics’ tab. Here you can see the search volume for the keyword(s) in the chosen location. In this instance, “personal injury lawyer” in the San Francisco region has an average volume of 1,900 searches per month:
Evaluating Your Organic Keyword Research List
Once you have your initial list of keywords organized, the next step is to determine whether each keyword is relevant to a user and/or the site.
While some may use automated processes for this, we feel that you need to look at and think about every single keyword in order to be truly accurate. That can be a laborious process, but getting your keyword list right the first time around is worth the effort.
At this point, you are not setting a priority level for these keywords, but rather determining whether to attempt to rank for them at some point. There are several factors to consider as to whether a keyword is relevant.
You need to have a thorough understanding of a website, including its products, services, content, and business needs. Use your initial work in understanding users and interviewing stakeholders to produce valuable results. You need to be able to look at a term and determine whether or not it’s essential or irrelevant.
In the Keyword Manager tool, you can opt to delete keywords from your list that you deem irrelevant. See the image below.
Match Keywords to Personas
If you have created customer or searcher personas, review them before evaluating your keywords. Evaluate each keyword mentally to determine whether it solves a need or answers the questions of a potential user.
For more examples of how to create in-depth buyer personas, check out 5 Buyer Personas That Go Beyond the Basics.
Client/Stakeholder QA of Initial Keyword List
Once you have gone through and flagged keywords you believe irrelevant, now is the time to review the initial list with critical stakeholders, especially if you are acting as a consultant.
Keeping clients informed about any changes to the list helps maintain transparency around search data. When acting as a consultant, you can ask clients to review the list for any obvious omissions or keywords you have flagged as irrelevant that should remain on the list.
Getting approval of the list at this stage helps decrease questions or objections in the future. It can also help prevent unnecessary work from adding or eliminating terms later.
How Many Terms Should I Have in My Organic Keyword Research List?
The answer to how many terms you should have in your initial list is a typical SEO answer, “it depends.”
In part, it will depend on the resources you use to analyze the list.
It will also depend on the nature of the keywords themselves. You won’t always know how many keywords will be relevant for your site when starting your project. It could be 200 keywords or 20,000 keywords.
Just know that, in order of importance, the quality of the keywords far outweighs the volume of keywords.
Once you have an approved list of keywords, you need to start putting some sort of relative value against those keywords beyond just what their search query volume is.
Lower volume keywords might be keywords you create content for first — especially if the lower volume keyword is far more relevant or more likely to lead to a conversion.
Remember: not all relevant keywords are created equal.
It’s also good to remember that keyword optimization is changing. It is no longer necessary to only do one to two keywords per page. This is because there’s no such thing as separately writing “for Google” and “for the user” these days — they’re one and the same.
Categorize keywords into related themes and groups. Look for the largest and most significant opportunities and consider groups of related keywords for which one piece of content may be able to rank. These keywords can be optimized quickly and result in easy wins for you (and for your clients).
Prioritize Your Keywords
In the Keyword Manager tool, you can filter keywords in your list based on several factors.
For example, let’s say that you’re invested in targeting commercial or transactional keywords — that is, keywords that customers use when they’re ready to make their purchase. Fortunately, there is a filtering option to narrow your list down to just those keywords with the search intent metric.
Once you have your prioritized list, you can export the data to Excel. To get more prioritization tactics, check out our article on keyword strategy.
Competition (KW difficulty, SERP competition, SERP intent)
The level of competition and how likely your site will rank for a keyword are two metrics of success to consider while prioritizing your keywords. You can use quantitative metrics from keyword research tools for this, like keyword difficulty, competition, competitive density, etc.
Generally, the higher the number, the more difficult it will be to rank on that term. All other things being equal, keywords with lower competition may be higher priority than keywords that are difficult to rank for.
Tool Metrics vs. Competitors
You should also consider the level of competition in the actual search engine results pages and determine the intent which Google infers from the keywords.
For example, let’s say your site is tiny and new. If a keyword has a low competitiveness score, but the sites ranking for the word are huge, multinational sites with massive amounts of links, you’ll probably want to deprioritize that keyword.
Searcher intent, as Google understands it, is also critical. Take the search term “running shoes.” A quick look at Google search results shows local stores selling running shoes. 19 of the top 20 results are ecommerce sites.
We can conclude that when someone searches for “running shoes,” Google thinks they are looking for a place to buy them. If you are a content-based site, this may mean that “running shoes” is less of a priority for you.
This means the keyword is likely a “transactional” keyword. There are other names for such keywords like “conversion” keywords (see the purchase/conversion funnel below).
You can generally group keywords into:
- Transactional keywords are tied to a searcher imminently making a transaction or conversion.
- Commercial keywords help find a specific brand or company.
- Navigational keywords can be used to find a particular page or site.
- Informational keywords direct users to general information on a topic.
The Semrush tool can help you determine search intent. To learn more, check out our guide to analyzing search intent instantly with Semrush.
Though used as a PPC metric, cost per click can help you determine the importance of your organic keywords (to an extent). The higher the average bid on a term, the more people believe it will lead to a conversion.
Or, it may have some other value, such as brand awareness or demand generation, to the company bidding on it. You can use just one signal to infer the relative “value” of the keyword.
Relevance is a metric based on judgment. Having a thorough understanding of the business or site, its users, its goals, etc., should give you some insight into how relevant a term is to the site. If you’ve been detailed about your keyword research so far, you should be in an excellent position to judge relevance.
Position in Keyword Research / Purchase Funnel
In addition to the “importance” of a keyword, you need to determine where they are in the purchase or conversion funnel. This information will be helpful when communicating with departments and stakeholders or when determining the strategy for ranking those keywords.
In a simple model of the keyword funnel, keywords could fall into the categories:
The first bucket is terms about getting general awareness about a product or service or answering questions for users that may be helpful for them. These terms will be directly related to your products, services, or content.
The second bucket, “consideration,” is where they start to refine product categories, compare products, etc.
The final bucket, “conversion,” is for users that already know they want your product or service and need further information in order to complete the sale.
Evaluating Organic Keyword Opportunities
You can look for and evaluate keyword opportunities through our Keyword Gap tool. This tool allows you to enter up to five competitors’ sites. It indicates which sites have overlapping keywords and possible opportunities for you to create keyword-optimized content your competitors haven’t created.
For example, let’s say you or your client run a major retailer site. You want to see how a keyword on your list, “Running shoes,” is used across your competitor’s sites. You also want to see if there are any other related keywords you can use to stand out from the competition.
With the Keyword Gap tool, you can do all of that. When you filter by keyword, you get a glimpse of the competitor’s search landscape for your chosen search term.
Generally speaking, good organic keywords have a solid mixture of high volume, relevance, and low keyword difficulty.
If our competitors use “running shoes” often and it’s highly relevant for their site, it might be best to find a related term with lower volume to include in our keyword list.
What is keyword research?
Keyword research is the process of finding all of the possible search engine queries which may be relevant to your business and your customers.
Why is keyword research still necessary?
Keyword research is still important not only for search engine rankings but for understanding the searcher’s intent behind a given query. As long as people turn to search engines to solve their problems, keyword research will have its place in content creation.
How do you do keyword research?
By following a detailed road map that could look something like this:
- Brainstorming keywords
- Holding a discovering meeting with stakeholders/clients
- Determining user intent profiles/personas
- Creating a list of keywords that are highly relevant to your business or client
What keyword research tools can I use?
- Google Ads
- People Also Ask — Google
- Related Questions — Google
- Google Trends
- Answer the People
- Keywords Everywhere
How do I evaluate my organic keywords?
Make sure your keywords are matching searcher intent, that they match the personas you’ve identified, that your client and/or stakeholders approve of the finalized list, and determine how many of these keywords you want to target.
How do I classify my keywords?
First, prioritize your identified keywords by importance level for your business (which you can deduce by looking at the KW difficulty, volume, and relevance).
Then, take a look at the actual SERPs to verify that the keyword data you’ve retrieved from your tools matches what’s going on in the real world of search.
Finally, look at CPC to see if people are bidding top dollar for your keywords. It might indicate that those keywords should be a higher priority for you.
How can I find and evaluate organic keyword opportunities?
The Semrush Keyword Gap tool allows you to look at what competitors are writing about and how you can make your content stand out from the crowd.
Final Thoughts + Key Takeaways
When done right, keyword research can help produce highly targeted content that engages readers and leads to more conversions.
For further reading on this topic, we suggest checking out these articles: