What you need to get started:
- An Excel or Google Sheets sheet
- Access to your sites Google Analytics account
- Access to your sites Google Search Console account
- Access to some key 3rd party tools, which we’ll get into in a little later
- A full cup of coffee. We’re gonna be here a while.
Part 1 – Gather Your Keyword Prospects
The first part of the keyword research process is to gather a big list of potential keyword targets.
Anything goes at this stage, and you can think of this as our “best case scenario” list of keywords.
In the next steps, we’ll work through actually qualifying these target keywords and refining our list, but for now we’re just focused on generating a big list of ideas of what keywords would make sense for our site to rank on.
Start with your seed keywords
Start by making a list of the keywords that you would type in to find your business.
These will be our “seed keywords” or starting points.
Think broad and general at this stage.
If you’re a car mechanic for example, your seed keyword might be things like: “car servicing”, “MOT”, “car repair”, “mechanic”, “motorbike repair” etc.
Keep your seed keywords broad, and try to group them together where it makes sense to do so.
You’ll likely end up with 5 – 10 buckets of broad keyword ideas by the time you’re finished.
Start to create your topical map
This is where things start to get interesting.
We started quite broad with our seed keywords, and now we need to drill down deeper and deeper, getting more granular and specific as we go.
Grab yourself a pen and paper.
We’re going to create a mind map, where we can start to spider out related keywords and subtopics, starting with our core seed keywords at the center.
Obviously this step could go on forever, so as a general rule of thumb, you should aim to go 3 or 4 steps out from your seed keywords.
Any further than that and you’re probably starting to stray off topic or just get too specific.
Once you’ve exhausted all the ideas you can think of, switch over to a tool like Ahrefs and start digging in there too.
Let’s stick with the above example and use “kitchen contractor” as one of our seed keywords.. Here, I can use the “terms match” and “also rank for” sections to give me thousands more potentially related keyword targets.
Again, you want to group these into buckets of highly similar keywords, as you spider out.
Other tools that might also be helpful for generating ideas could be…
- Answer The Public
Mine the SERPs for related search terms
We’re not done digging yet!
The search results pages themselves can also be a gold mine of ideas when it comes to keyword research.
There are loads of SERP enhancements and features now that can help you identify other related and relevant terms.
The “People also ask” box is a fantastic way to research those longer tail, question type keywords. You can also go as deep as you like here, since every time you click on one, more related questions appear.
In some SERPs you’ll also see features like the “related searches” box with other related topics and the search suggestions right at the bottom before the pagination.
Go down the rabbit holes. Note down the ideas that make sense for your website and add them to your map.
Research your competitors and mine their target keywords
Ever wonder what your competitors are doing that you’re not?
In SEO, we’ve got some tools for that!
So grab a list of your competitors URLs and head over to SEMRush.
Fire up the Keyword Gap tool and load in your own domain and a few of your biggest competitors.
Let’s say for example that we’re working with Walker General Contractors (full disclosure: we’re not).
We could do a quick google search for one of our main keywords, grab the top 4 competitors and load them into the tool.
Straight away we can see that we rank for 119 different keywords in Google Canada. Awesome!
But we can also see that our top 3 competitors have a combined 805 different keywords that at least one of them ranks for, but we don’t.
If our competitors are ranking for them, there’s a pretty good chance we’ll want to rank there too.
Scroll down a little further and we can start to see exactly what those missing keywords are.
The “missing” tab lists all the keywords that all of your competitors rank for, but you don’t.
These are high priority keywords. You very likely would want to be ranking for most or all of these keywords too.
The next one to look at is “untapped”.
These are all the keywords where at least one of your competitors is ranking, but you aren’t.
These will need a bit more sifting through, but you’ll likely find some great additional target keywords in there, so take the time to go through the list.
Check your current rankings
The final thing to check when it comes to keyword ideas is to take stock of what you already have.
Sites that have been around a while – especially those that have done good SEO in the past – will naturally be ranking for a certain amount of keywords already.
Sometimes you’d be surprised exactly what keywords your site is actually ranking for and how people are finding your site.
There’s a couple of great sources for this data, but our favourites are…
Google Search Console
GSC is the best source of data on your site’s current and recent performance in search, as it’s data that comes direct from Google.
Go to Search Results – Queries and see a sample of up to 1000 keywords that you actually appeared for on organic search.
One of the other things we use Ahrefs for a lot, is checking to see what keywords a given site is currently ranking for, as well as things they might have ranked for in the past but now don’t.
The last part of that can be particularly useful.
If your site has lost traffic recently, and you suspect that you might have lost rankings, a tool like Ahrefs can help to show you any keywords where your ranking positions have changed.
Load your site into the site explorer section and go to Organic Keywords to check out your current rankings.
Again, any that are important – add them to your map.
Finally, you can change the compare data and filter on position “lost” to view all the keywords that you’ve lost all rankings for:
If you want to get any of these keywords back, add them to your map too.
Part 2 – Qualify Your Target Keywords
Alright, so now we’ve got a big list of potential target keywords.
But how are we going to decide where to focus our efforts?
At this point you might well have a list of hundreds or even thousands of potential keyword targets.
Not all of them are going to be keywords that you’ll actually want to focus your time and effort on ranking for, for a few different reasons.
Here are some common reasons why you might end up wanting to disqualify a target keyword:
- Google thinks that a user who searches for this keyword is looking for something different or has a different intention, than the page you want to rank for it (we call this search intent and we’ll get more into it later).
- The competition is too high and you don’t have a realistic chance of ranking high enough to get an ROI.
- The search volume is too low to make it worth your while.
Check the SERPS for insights into search intent and content type
For some keywords – particularly broader ones – searchers can be looking for slightly different types of results.
Let’s say I run a plant nursery and I want to sell more Monstera plants.
I might think a good target keyword would be “monstera plants”, right?
But look at the results on page one for that search right now:
The chances of me ranking my product or category page for that search term, are pretty much zero.
That’s because Google has determined that most people who search for “monstera plants” aren’t looking to buy one. They’re looking for information about it, guides to help them care for one, and tips to help them grow and propagate them.
If the top results on page one for a given keywords are returning pages that serve a different purpose to the one you’re trying to rank, you have 2 options:
- Change your target ranking page (this might mean creating a new page that more closely matches what you’re seeing in the top 10 for that term)
- Or abandon that target keyword and focus on something else.
Check keyword difficulty
If your target keyword has passed the search intent test, the next step is assessing the competition.
To properly assess this, it’s important to understand what your timeframe is for a return on investment for a given keyword.
If you need to identify keywords that you can rank for quickly, your window for acceptable levels of competition is narrower than it would be if your time horizon was longer term.
This is because SEO takes time. Efforts compound over time, and if you’re looking at SEO as a long term channel (which you absolutely should be) then you have longer for those wins to compound and to close the gap between where you are now and where you need to be to compete for the target keyword.
There are a few things that go into determining this.
But the biggest part of it is still the authority you have in your domain.
And that’s determined, for the most part, by links.
Our old friend Ahrefs can help us here.
Loading your keywords into the keyword explorer, and you’ll get a nice and simple overview of how competitive you should expect that keyword to be:
The handy Keyword Difficulty score ranges from 0-100 and gives you a simplified metric by which you can sort and prioritize your target keywords.
To help put these numbers into context and to give you an idea of what level of score is a good target for your particular site, there’s two other things you’ll need to look at:
1. Your current Domain Rating.
On the Site Explorer – Overview section, you can see some headline stats about your domain.
One of them, is Domain Rating (DR):
The higher your Domain Rating, the stronger your domain and the higher Keyword Difficulty scores you could potentially target.
2. The average Keyword Difficulty of your current ranking keywords
Staying within the Site Explorer, head over to the Organic Keywords section.
Here, you have a list of all the keywords your site is currently ranking for.
Take a look down the KD column, and it will start to give you a feel for the level of difficulty that your site is currently able to compete for.
Finally, you’ll want to do a sanity check on the current top 10 / page one results.
Going back to our previous example of the “kitchen countertop installation” keyword, a Keyword Difficulty score of 28 might seem like a reasonable possibility.
But if we check the current page one for that term, we might not feel the same level of optimism:
The top 10 is dominated by massive sites.
Home Depo, Lowes, Youtube…
There’s no way our local little DR12 site is competing with those results any time soon.
Check monthly search volumes
Now that you’ve narrowed your list down to the keywords you know you definitely want to target, it’s time to go and see just how many searches each keyword actually gets.
Load up your favorite keyword tool (we love ahrefs for this), and load in your list of keywords and target country.
You’ll instantly get a list of estimated monthly search volumes for all of your target keywords.
Export those to your Google Sheet or Excel doc and save them.
And remember… it’s not necessarily a case of “the bigger the search volume, the higher priority the keyword is”.
A low volume purchase intent keyword is a way higher priority target than a high volume informational intent keyword.
So don’t get too caught up on this data point.
It all depends on how valuable that keyword is to your business model. And also, the speed with which you think you can rank for it. Depending on your strategy, you might want to spread your focus across a mixture of short term and long term keyword targets.
Part 3 – What NOT to do when doing keyword research
Beware the zero volume trap
As amazing as keyword research tools are, we still need to do a bit of a sanity check on the results they spit out.
Abby Gleason did a great podcast with Ross over at Siege Media where she talked about the insane results she was able to drive by focusing on supposedly “zero volume” keywords.
This case study highlights that although keyword research tools are good, they’re not perfect.
They work by gathering and amalgamating real world search data, but there’s always a lag in updating search volumes.
That means that trends in keywords don’t filter through to the tools super quickly.
This is especially important if you’re in an industry where innovation and new technologies are making up your potential target keywords.
You’re the expert in your industry. So if you think the search volumes being reported by the tools for a given keyword aren’t accurate – and especially if they’re returning 0 or very low – there’s a good chance you’re right. So trust your gut and what people in your industry and circles are actually talking about, over the data available in the tools.
Another keyword research mistake we see quite frequently, is when clients just assume they know what keywords users will type in to find their products and services.
You’d be surprised how often that’s actually not the case.
If your product/service is in any way specialised, you’re at increased risk of falling for this common mistake.
Many business owners and even marketing pros can be so close to the product and have such deep industry knowledge that they think of it differently to how most of their customers would.
And that affects the way they would search for it too.
When a new client contacts us about SEO services, one of the first things we ask them is “what would you type into a search engine to find your business”.
Sometimes, those will end up being our core target keywords for the campaign. Great!
But other times, search volumes can end up being surprisingly low, and in those cases we need to dig further to find out exactly how users are really searching.
Matt is Marwick Marketing's Division Leader for SEO & Web Development and has over a decade of digital marketing experience in everything from local to national and international campaigns. He's led high impact strategies for major brands and currently oversees Marwick's global SEO and Web services.