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SEO 14 min read

The Definitive Guide to SEO Keyword Research

Dallin Porter photo

Written by Dallin Porter

Marketing Director @ Galactic Fed

Dallin Porter photo

Expert reviewed by Dallin Porter

Marketing Director @ Galactic Fed

Published 21 Aug 2020

Keyword Research is an essential part of any SEO strategy, take it from the experts - we would know. Keyword research is defined as the process of analyzing and finding a list of valuable keywords for the purpose of SEO copywriting. The keywords, or search terms, often become a guide for the direction of your content and marketing strategy, and have an impact that reaches far and wide when it comes to connected potential consumers with your brand.

By this time, you should have an idea on the importance of keywords and why keyword research is vital in SEO. In this guide, we will walk you through the step by step process to effectively conduct keyword research.

What are SEO Keywords?

SEO keywords range from single words to complex phrases and are used to inform website content to increase relevant, organic search traffic. Users utilize them when searching something related to your brand. When effectively researched and optimized, keywords act as a conduit to connect your target audience with your website.

What is Keyword Research?

Keyword research is the process of finding and analyzing actual search terms that people enter into search engines. The insight you can get into these actual search terms can help inform content strategy, as well as your larger marketing strategy.

The goal of keyword research is to identify search terms that your site can and should rank for in Google Search, in order to inform your content strategy. The best keywords to target have both high search volume and low competition. It’s also important to note that a “keyword” is not necessarily just one word, despite the name; an entire sentence can be a keyword.

Capturing a keyword involves building a page with that keyword in its body content, and building up that page’s authority through backlinks and traffic until it becomes (ideally) the first result in Google search for that keyword.

Why is Keyword Research important?

Finding high-volume search terms itself is not enough in and of itself. You need to ensure that the SEO keywords used in your content matches with your brand, product, or service to the keywords that your customer uses. And this is where keyword research happens.

Once you have performed adequate and thorough research, only then will you be able to craft a viable SEO strategy. With a good strategy, you can then create a detailed plan of action to achieve your goals.

Metrics and Qualities to Evaluate Keywords

There are a number of metrics which can be used to evaluate which keywords to use. Here, we will briefly go over 5 metrics we incorporate into our keyword research strategy.:

Metric No. 1: Search Volume

Keyword search volume refers to the volume (or number) of searches for a particular keyword in a given timeframe. Keyword search volume is typically averaged over a set timeframe to provide marketers with a general idea of a search term’s competitiveness and overall volume.

Search volume matters because search engines are one of the key ways that sites attract new visitors and traffic. It’s crucial to target keywords in your content that actually have real search volume – if no one is searching for the keywords you’re targeting, no one will find your content. However, if you’re only targeting keywords with extremely high search volume, it will be difficult to compete with bigger sites and get your content ranking.

Metric No. 2: Keyword Difficulty

Although there is no true source of this - we recommend using this as an estimate by various third parties as to how difficult it is to rank for a given keyword. A tool such as Ahrefs Keyword Difficulty score can provide insight. Keyword Difficulty evaluates the chances of getting into top 10 of search results (not top 3 or top 1). Apart from backlink profiles and content relevancy, many additional ranking factors come into play among the results of the first page of any search.

Metric No. 3: Short/Long-tail Keywords

These terms are often used just to refer to the number of words in a search query. Specifically, “Long-tail” is standard nomenclature for long, very specific/targeted, low-search-volume keywords. While, “Short-head” is often used interchangeably with “short-tail”.

Usually, we prefer long-tail keywords because they can drive a ton of high-converting traffic to your website and dramatically increase revenue for your business as compared to short-tail keywords. Based on previous research, four and five-word phrases have significantly more search volume than the two-word phrases. This high search volume means there are more people using long-tail keywords.

Metric No. 4: Intent

Keyword intent is one of the most crucial aspects of organic and paid search. By leveraging keyword intent for intent-driven marketing, advertisers can not only increase traffic to their sites, but also attract more qualified prospects, driving more sales and generating more leads.

Main types of intent are:

Informational: searches are performed to answer questions or learn something

Transactional: searches are performed to buy something

Navigational: searches performed to locate a specific website

Metric No. 5: Relevance

Keyword relevance is about using all the relevant related terms and topics in your content. You want to signal to Google that you’re not just publishing surface-level content. You’re getting into the nitty-gritty with your posts because you’re an expert and your content reflects that. Google rewards websites for answering searchers questions.

Basic Steps of Keyword Research

Here, we summarize the basic steps of keyword research:

  1. Seek to understand your brand, niche, and space. You need to have a good grasp of what your site offers to users, and what they might search for to reach it. Most fields have some degree of jargon, so learn what jargon is particular to your space (if you haven’t already,) because people will be searching for it.
  2. Look at your competitors. Plug their sites into Ahrefs Site Explorer or other keyword research tools. Here, we will just cover Ahrefs:

    • You can see what keywords are bringing the most traffic to the competitor site by clicking on “Organic Keywords” in the left sidebar.
    • You can also use the “Content Gap” tool to see where multiple competitors’ keywords overlap - this can really help to determine common themes and find where the client is lacking compared to the rest of the industry.
    • Be sure to uncheck “1 target” under the intersections drop-down, as this will help remove one-off branded keywords that are only targeted to a single site.
  3. Brainstorm a list of seed keywords. By now, after analyzing your current site and its competitors, you should have a good idea of some topics to start exploring. If your company sells mortgage loans, you might try starting with keywords like “mortgages”, “home loans”, “buy house”, and so on.
  4. Feed your keywords into Ahrefs Keyword Explorer. You’ll be able to see the important metrics like Keyword Difficulty (KD) and Search Volume (Volume).
  5. Click on the keywords to view details about them. The most important thing is to look at the additional suggested keywords under “Having same terms”, “Also rank for”, and “Search suggestions”. This will help you explore the keyword space and add on to your list of keywords. Use this as a source of inspiration as well to think of new keywords to feed into Ahrefs.
  6. Try some of these tricks by putting your seed keywords into Ahrefs Keyword Explorer (1 to 10 at a time, as 10 is the limit to use advanced search features):

    • Use the “Having Same Terms” and/or “Phrase Match” tool to find all other keywords that contain your seed keyword(s)
    • Use the “Include” filter to isolate keywords that contain other words you specify. You can use an asterisk as a wildcard, so if you use “buy*” in the Include filter, you’ll get back all keywords that match your seed keywords AND contain “buy”, “buys”, “buyer”, “buyers”, and “buying”.
    • You can easily find long-tail informational keywords by using question words in the Include filter, like: how, what, when, where, why, which, can, do, does, is
    • Use the Exclude filter to remove brand names or other irrelevant topics that keep popping up and cluttering the list.
    • Select desired keywords using the checkboxes, click the Copy button, and paste the keywords into a notepad to save them for later.
  7. While Keyword Difficulty is a nice metric, what does it really mean? If you click on a keyword in the keywords explorer, you can see in the Keyword Difficulty panel something like: “You’ll need backlinks from ~X websites to rank in top 10 for this keyword”. This gives us a more concrete idea of how much work it will take to rank for that keyword. Ahrefs unfortunately doesn’t display this in its table, so consult this doc to quickly get the # of backlinks needed based on Keyword Difficulty:
  8. Create a spreadsheet including each keyword along with the following metrics: # backlinks needed, keyword difficulty, search volume, clicks, and CPC (Cost per click).
  9. (Optional) Divide your keywords into “Informational” (people searching for knowledge, how-to, etc.) and “Transactional” (people searching for a product or service) groups. Further divide your keywords into additional categories appropriate to your space.
  10. Critically review your top keywords and develop a content strategy. Is there a family of keywords that you could take advantage of, but aren’t? Is there a keyword that stands out as a blog post topic? How relevant are your keywords, and how likely do you think that someone searching for them would be interested in your site?
  11. Summarize your conclusions and recommend a content strategy based on your findings.
  12. (Optional) Analyze your keywords in Google Trends, and see if they have a noticeable upward or downward trajectory.

Some things to keep in mind while completing the above steps:

  1. The # backlinks needed metric tells you roughly how many *different* sites it would need backlinks from to rank in the top 10. This is an estimate, and not a guarantee. Furthermore, the number of backlinks needed to rank in the top 3 positions (where you would be getting significant traffic) could be magnitudes more.
  2. Keywords that are high-efficiency, but still difficult to rank for, may not be worth pursuing. Any keyword where you’re not ranking in the top 10, you might as well not rank for at all. You need to be able to pour in serious resources to directly target keywords above a difficulty of 20 (and forget about anything above 70).
  3. Likewise, don’t toss out low-efficiency keywords if they are long tail, have OK search volume, and are natural to include in your content. These keywords often have many variations that can add up to have high impact.
  4. Don’t engage in “keyword stuffing”. SEO tactics should always take a backseat to quality content. Include your target keywords in your content in a way that is natural and doesn’t sacrifice the readability of the piece.
  5. Assess whether your top keywords are really relevant. For example, say you have a high-efficiency short tail keyword that could mean several different things, like “STT”. Maybe this is short for “Speech-To-Text”, or “St. Thomas”, or “Surface Tension Transfer”, or the stock market symbol for “State Street Corporation”. Even though this keyword might have a lot of search volume, how many of those searches would actually be interested in your site? And how likely would you really be to rank for such a broad keyword?
  6. Long-tail keywords are great for informing what needs to address and what questions to answer on web pages. While targeting a short, high volume keyword like “fixed rate mortgage”, you can drill down into the most common related topics and questions like “fixed rate vs adjustable rate mortgage” and “can my fixed rate mortgage change”. An article on fixed rate mortgages can answer these and other questions, targeting all of these keywords (and all their synonyms) in the same piece.
  7. Beware of long-tail keywords that are suspiciously long, low difficulty, and high search volume. Many times, these are copy-pasted quiz questions. Continuing with the fixed rate mortgage example, you might run into a keyword like “what impact might an economic downturn have on a borrower’s fixed-rate mortgage?” While it’s tempting with its 250 search volume and 0 difficulty, if you actually targeted this keyword you would be wasting your time.

Being SEO Specialists, we’ve spent countless hours researching, analyzing, and perfecting our approach to keyword research. Keyword research is exactly that - research. It takes time and commitment, but when you apply the information from this guide and see results, it’s worth it. We’ve helped companies of all sizes increase their visibility, rank higher, and ultimately achieve faster and bigger growth.

You can also check out our Essential SEO Guide for Beginnings and The Galactic Fed Introduction to Link Building for more resources.

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Dallin Porter photo

Dallin Porter

Marketing Director @ Galactic Fed