Keywords have got a bad name for themselves by their association with spammy tactics such as keyword stuffing, cloaking or excessive use of anchor text. However, it is still critical to identify target keywords for an SEO campaign. They form the foundation of the campaign, i.e what will people type into a search engine to then find a product or service that my website offers? Keyword research has certainly evolved through the years as a result of changes in searcher behaviour, advancements in search engine algorithms and also the tools available to an SEO to identify keywords.
Note: they are not always referred to as keywords. They are also known as search terms, search queries, queries and search phrases.
Why has keyword research evolved?
Google’s Keyword Tool became the Keyword Planner.
Google’s Keyword Tool was an excellent piece of an SEOs arsenal and there was much uproar from the SEO community when they switched to the Keyword Planner. Certain functionality was lost or at least significantly hindered such as producing relevant related keyword ideas. Some SEOs do claim that the Keyword Planner is in fact better, but we would disagree. Exact match vs broad match keywords was merged into one, keyword ideas are not as good in this current iteration of the tool and the figures do not seem particularly accurate, especially when cross referenced against Google Analytics or Webmaster Tools (now Google’s Search Console) data. More on this below.
Changes in Searcher Behaviour
In the early days of what would now be considered primitive search engines, people treated the search bar with very little trust. They did not consider them to be complex tools capable of understanding the meaning behind a phrase. Instead you would enter your individual keywords in order to return results that also mention that keyword. It made life very easy for SEOs, all they then had to do was match those keywords. Nowadays it is slightly different, people now treat Google more like a human being asking questions and using longer tail search phrases because they trust that Google can match their intent visa vi the Hummingbird update. This in turn changes how we not only assign keywords but also how those keywords then dictate strategies such as content creation.
Search engines are constantly getting better at understanding what we are trying to get out of our searches. Latent Semantic Analysis is essentially Google’s giant thesaurus. Google will know that a pear is a fruit and that a ferrari is a car. As a result, often a page will not have to mention the exact keyword to then be returned as a result, as long as it is talking about the same subject. It is a bit of a weird concept to get your head around but something that certainly affects content creation and puts more emphasis on in depth content.
How do you conduct keyword research?
Everyone has their own style and process, but we have outlined a process below that is highly effective. Remember that this is a critical part of any SEO campaign so whilst it may seem like it is taking a long time it is certainly worth it.
1) Identify the products or services that you want to be found on Google.
This may seem very obvious but prioritisation is a critical aspect of SEO. Businesses will have preferred products or services due to other factors such as resources, stock, demand or profit margin. You will need to prioritise your services in regards to which ones you want to focus on during your SEO campaign. This will prevent you from spreading yourself too thin and may well be useful as a general analysis of your business!
2) Make a spreadsheet
Again, people include different fields in their spreadsheet but you want a document in which you are able to note down all potential keywords and the corresponding data. After reading this article you can decide on which fields are relevant to you, but for the sake of argument we include as column headers:
- Search Phrase
- Search Type (Navigational, Informational or Transactional)
- Search Volume (from Keyword Planner)
- If necessary any additional search.volume columns for different countries
- Competition (value assigned by Keyword Planner)
- Suggested PPC bid (supplied.by Keyword Planner)
- Current Ranking on Google for that given search term
- Discretionary value to the business
- For the top value search terms we also include columns which show the top 5 results for that keyword so that you can clearly identify who your main competitors are in the SERPs.
It is also useful to create multiple tabs within your spreadsheet which can help separate keywords into product or service categories, locations or individual products or services.
3) Brainstorm Keywords
Do not look at anything beforehand. Just try to put yourself in the shoes of your potential customer. What would you search to find that product or service? Make sure that you note all of the variables down in your spreadsheet.
The reason for doing this first is so that your brainstorm is not affected by any other keywords that you might see. It’s a bit like someone asking you to define a word without using that word! It is important to make sure that your thinking is not anchored to a search term that you might see on one of your competitor’s site or one that someone might have mentioned.
If you have not done so already, this brainstorm should help you narrow down your buyer personas and the type of vocabulary that they will use. Essentially, you are looking to identify the search terms which potential customers would use to find your product or service.
4) Go to the Keyword Planner
You will need a Gmail account and register for Google Adwords before you can use it (another pet hate). Once you are in, start entering those keywords to check the average monthly search volume. You can download the results in csv format so that you can then add it to your pre-prepared spreadsheet. The search figures should be treated as indicative due to the fact that keywords that apparently have 0 monthly searches will appear on Google Analytics or the Search Console…but this is a discrepancy on Google’s part. Either way, the data from Keyword Planner should highlight which queries have more search volume than others.
5) Competitor Research
Make the most of the research already conducted by your competitors. If a competitor has engaged in SEO then analysing their site after the brainstorming and keyword planner session that you have completed can prove to be invaluable. These are some of the points that should be produced by effective competitor research:
- Confirms high value search terms
- Identify search terms which your competitors are not targeting that are of value
- Confirm industry terminology
Again, competitor research is a valuable process regardless of whether you are looking to engage with SEO. Competitor research provides valuable information on the market and may well have an effect on your prioritisation of products services in step one.
Competitor research should always be treated with a large amount of suspicion. Yes, in a best case scenario they will have done their own research properly, will have been constantly tweaking their campaign according to their analytics data and will have implemented their onsite optimisation perfectly. However, this is not an ideal world. Your competitors may have made mistakes during their research, may not have revisited the research or looked at their analytics for years and may have conducted their onsite poorly. As a result, whilst analysing your competitors is an essential step in your keyword research and can be incredibly insightful, we should be eternal pessimists and be suspicious of all work not done by yourself. Double check everything!
6) Customer Surveys
Customer data is sometimes hard to come by, but invaluable when acquired. Ideally you would attain customer data from both existing and potential customers via questionnaires, surveys (using tools such as survey monkey), form fields to fill out during payment processes or customer service interaction. You want to find out how your customers navigate to your website or find your product or service. In regards to this guide, the questions should be focussed on the phrases which they used to find your site via a search engine. This information should then validate your own brainstorming around your buyer personas, keyword planner activity and competitor research.
You can also utilise the acquisition section of Google Analytics (as long as it is linked up with your Search Console) to see which queries people have used to find your website. Please note though that both Google Analytics data and information from current customers is reactive and therefore slightly warped. For example, the search term will only appear on Google Analytics if the user has successfully navigated to your site using that search term. As a result, if you are not ranking for your primary search term then it will not show up on analytics!
7) Keywordtool.io and Buzzsumo
There are multiple tools out there that can help you with keyword ideas. Keywordtool.io allows you to not only enter in a keyword and it will return different variations but also copy and paste selected keywords into the keyword planner. Premium members do not even need to copy and paste as they can see average monthly search volumes on keywordtool.io.
Buzzsumo shows the most viral content associated with a keyword. Whilst this tool is potentially more useful for content creation and social media campaigns, it is still useful for keyword research because it can confirm the type of terminology that the industry is using. These pieces of content (and their comments) may give you an insight into certain sysnonyms that are being used by your target market.
8) Make a note of everything
This will save you a lot of time further down the line. The purpose of keeping a note of every keyword that you have investigated is so that in 12 months time when you review your research, you can see which keywords were included in your research rather than having to double check that you investigated it.
9) Make your choices
You should now have all the necessary information noted down and at hand for you to make an educated decision as to which keywords you will want to target for each product service or for your business as a whole. There are multiple variables involved so it is more of an art than a science. For example, one keyword may have more search volume than another yet your main competitor might be targeting that keyword heavily, Furthermore, your rankings for the lower search volume keyword are already better and as such in the mid term it would make more sense to target the keyword with slightly lower search volume. These are the types of judgement calls which you will have to make. However, this process will give you the information needed to make an educated judgement call and move forward with your SEO campaign in the knowledge that you have formed foundations on comprehensive data.