What is keyword research? Your getting started guide

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If you’ve spent time around an SEO or even have dabbled in content marketing yourself you’ve likely come across keyword research. But what is it?

Maybe you’ve been embarrassed to ask, or just assumed you knew what it is. After all, we’ve all heard the words ‘keyword’ and ‘research’ before – what’s so hard about smushing them together?

SEO can get complex, but it doesn’t have to be rocket science. If you’re scratching your head asking questions like ‘so what is keyword research?’, ‘how can a beginner get started?’ or ‘is it still worth it?’ then this post is for you. SEO has a reputation for being technical and complex but it doesn’t have to be. You’re on a mission to grow your business and increase traffic to your site, the last thing you need is an anthology of tips and things you ‘must do’ in order to reach your goals.

So let’s keep things simple. If you’re brand new to SEO check out our introduction to SEO and head back here because we’ll break down keyword research to explore the above questions and more.

So, what is keyword research?

Keyword research is more than simply knowing how many searches a keyword gets per month. It’s about understanding the topics your audience cares about, the searches they perform around those topics, and which of those searches is worth creating content around.

In a way, keyword research is the foundation of any good content strategy. It informs you what is worth writing about, and provides direction to your end goal: ranking on Google. There are a few elements to keyword research though, so let’s break them down.

Topic analysis

Before you dive into keywords you need to have a topic strategy in place. It sounds technical but don’t worry it’s quite simple: what topics do you want to be known for/seen as an expert on? Try not to go crazy here, just focus on 3-5 topics that are the bread and butter of your business. For us it’s SEO, content marketing, and blogging – what is it for you?

Knowing your buyer personas helps in refining your topics. If you have a clear understanding of who you are selling to and why they buy from you, you’ll be able to know the topics related to your business that they care about. If you’ve never created a buyer persona check out our writeup on how we use buyer personas to enhance our site’s growth.

‘Isn’t this getting a bit too narrow with your content strategy?’ you might wonder – but don’t worry it’s not. Surprisingly, the more niche your messaging is the better it will perform. There’s a temptation to be an expert on everything and market to everyone, but as the saying goes marketing to everyone is marketing to no one. When you have a complete understanding of your target market and who you are selling to, if you cater your messaging to those personas it will resonate much stronger than if you keep it general.

The bottom line: know your personas, don’t worry about getting too niche. Once you’ve got a list of topics it’s time to dig into keywords, so let’s get to it.

Finding keywords

You’ve got your topics and now it’s time to find keywords – nice job! Seriously, choosing your topics is the hardest part as it requires the most thought, finding keywords gets much simpler as it’s just a matter of using some well-known tools and comparing metrics. Sure, it’s a bit more technical but it’s also much more straightforward once you get the hang of it.

To get started, pick one topic that you want to find keywords for. Start typing that topic into Google and note the suggested searches that appear (for example this is what I see for ‘search engine optimization’:

As well as the related searches at the bottom of the Google search results (same thing, ‘search engine optimization’:

Depending on the topic, this should get you around 15 or so keywords right off the bat. When you choose your keywords it’s important not to be too broad – ‘SEO tools’ for example is extremely broad, however ‘best SEO tools for small businesses’ or ‘best SEO tools for financial services business’ is much easier to compete for. These are called ‘long tail keywords’, if that term makes you scratch your head you can learn more about longtail keywords here!

Anyway, back to Google.

Google suggests these keywords based on the millions upon millions of searches they have, there’s a lot of data that goes into these suggestions so they’re great as a head start.

15 keywords is a good jumping off point, but we can dig a bit further – for those keywords try to come up with synonyms or variants of each one. Googling each of the sub keywords can probably give you 15 more keywords per search term easily turning that list into 50+ or even 100+ keywords to work with.

Another strategy is to take a few minutes to think about searcher intent. Your personas (remember those?) are going to have something in the back of their minds when they hop into Google to run a search. This is called searcher intent, it’s about getting into the mindset of your persona to understand what they are searching for and what content you can provide to match that search. 

For a keyword like ‘seo software’ it’s pretty straightforward. But our personas might also be searching for ‘how to grow my traffic’ or ‘drop in organic traffic’. If you’re a pest control company (for example), your personas might be searching for ‘scratching in the walls’ or ‘how to know if I have bats in my home’. If you’re a financial advisor it might be ‘how to pay off student loans’ or ‘how to know if I have enough to buy a house’.

Once you have a good long list of keywords, it’s time to compare them and see which ones are worth going after. Not all keywords are treated equally, some might not be getting much search volume or searches are trending downward, for example. Google Trends, Adword’s Keyword Planner, and Answer the Public give you a good set of free tools to find keywords and get a sense of traction each one has, though I’d be remiss to not mention that our platform, Centori, can do this too.

Centori allows you to store lists of keywords and returns data like search volume, cost per click, competition, competitors and more.

Once you’ve whittled down your list of keywords a bit, it’s time to see which ones you can actually rank for. It used to be that writing content was all you had to do in order to rank, but now with websites being easier than ever to create there is a ton of competition when it comes to ranking.

Fear not, it just means you need to be strategic, and digging into SERPs is a great start.

SERP analysis

If you’re new to SERPs check out our full guide on what SERPs are and why they matter for your SEO strategy and head right back, if you’re a seasoned pro continue onward.

Supposing you’ve got your 50-100 or so keywords chosen for each of your topics, it’s now a matter of seeing which ones are worth going after.

We linked our full guide to SERPS above, though to recap a bit SERPs are Search Engine Results Pages which just means they are the results that are returned by Google for any given search. For each of your keywords there are already thousands, and sometimes millions, of search results already out there all vying for the top 10 results.

How realistic do you think it is for you to rank there? Well, it depends on what is currently ranking.

Aftrer giving the to 10 results a review, if you think that you can create a piece of content that is more in depth, adds something new, or is more valuable than what is already ranking then by all means go for it.

It’s important to be honest here, if you’re just starting out and chasing huge competitors then you’re not going to see the results you’re hoping for. If you don’t see a ranking opportunity for a given keyword though, it’s best to pass and move on to the next one.

This will narrow down your list quite a bit – but don’t worry that’s okay! This is where you refine your keywords down to the essentials and provide the fuel for your content strategy and blog topics. You may have refined things back down to 10 -20 keywords per topic, these will shape the blog posts that you create – depending on how often you blog this may last you a month, quarter, or even half the year. 

How often should I do keyword research?

There’s no set time that you should commit to keyword research, though bear in mind this is not a one-off process.

SEO takes a while to see results, sometimes it can even take up to two years to actually rank! That doesn’t mean keyword research is a once a year activity. Search volume ebbs and flows throughout the year, changes in your industry will pop up, and new competitors will join the market – this means that the keywords you target from month to month can and will change.

It’s good to keep an eye on things month to month, and try to commit to reviewing your keywords each quarter to ensure they are still the right ones to be focusing on for your content strategy (as well as see if you’re gaining any traction in rankings).

Continued learning

I hope this post has demystified keyword research a bit for you, and shown that it doesn’t have to be as scary as it gets cracked up to be.

If you get overwhelmed remember: keyword research is about finding the right topics, and questions around those topics that you can answer better than your competition. It may take a bit of work to get started but you’ll find that with practice you’ll be a pro in no time. 

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