For businesses in the Internet age, getting found online is critical to success. But with over 1.9 billion websites competing for attention, simply creating a website is no longer enough. The key to growing visibility and traffic is targeted search engine optimisation (SEO).
Unlike social media, SEO is focused on fulfilling existing needs - reaching people already searching for your products, services, or information. The foundation of an effective SEO strategy is comprehensive keyword research. By identifying the specific terms and phrases your target customers are searching for, you can create content tailored to their intent and needs. As a result, your website will rank higher in search results for valuable, relevant search queries.
However, many businesses struggle with where to begin with keyword research. Which tools should you use? What data should you analyse? How do you turn keywords into ranking content? Proper keyword research requires a thoughtful, strategic approach.
In this complete guide, I'll walk you through a process grounded in best practices for SEO keyword research from start to finish.
You'll learn how to:
- Set concrete goals to focus your research efforts
- Leverage the best keyword research tools available
- Extract and analyse meaningful data on keyword difficulty, volume, competitiveness and more
- Perform critical competitor analysis to find new opportunities
- Identify keyword gaps between your existing content and target terms
- Map keywords to new and updated website content
- Continuously track and monitor keyword performance
With the right framework, keyword research doesn't have to be intimidating or frustrating. On the contrary, it can be exciting and energising to find golden SEO opportunities hidden within the data.
Let's dive into mastering keyword research and propelling your SEO success by fulfilling search intent!
Developing a keyword research plan
Creating a structured keyword research plan is crucial for maximising your SEO efforts and achieving your goals. Here are some tips for developing an effective plan:
Set clear goals
Before starting keyword research, clearly define your goals and key performance indicators (KPIs). What do you want to accomplish with your SEO and content strategy? Common goals include increasing organic traffic, boosting conversions, improving keyword rankings, etc. Setting numerical targets for KPIs like monthly organic users, conversion rate, and number of ranking keywords provides direction.
Not all keywords are created equal. Identify keyword opportunities that align with your most important goals and provide the best potential ROI. Assess keywords based on three factors:
- Search volume
Focus on keywords with decent search volume and winnable difficulty scores in your niche. Avoid over-competitive keywords and generic terms unrelated to your content.
Develop a research schedule
Schedule your keyword research activities to align with your content publishing cadence. For example, if you aim to publish 2 articles monthly, schedule keyword research sessions every 2 weeks. Ongoing research ensures you have a continuous pipeline of fresh keywords to target. Block your calendar for research and be consistent.
Basic template for a Keyword Research Plan
Here is a sample keyword research plan template you can adapt:
Keyword research goals
- Increase organic traffic by 25% within 6 months
- Rank for 10 new keywords with 500+ monthly searches
- Increase click-through-rate from search engine results pages (SERPs) by 15%
Tools to use
- Google Keyword Planner
- Google Trends
- Answer the Public
Monthly Research Cadence
- 2x 2-hour research sessions to identify 25 new keywords
- Occur every 2nd Tuesday at 10am
Keyword targeting tiers
- Tier 1 - High search volume keywords (500-1k)
- Tier 2 - Medium search volume keywords (100-500)
- Tier 3 - Low search volume long tail keywords (<100)
Target 10-15 Tier 1 keywords, 20-25 Tier 2 keywords, and 30-40 Tier 3 long tail keywords each month.
Quarterly performance reviews
Pull latest ranking reports from SEMrush, Ahrefs, Search Console
Analyse ranking improvements and drops for target keywords
- Identify high-performing pages and keywords to optimise further
- Note underperforming pages to refresh content or links
Review traffic metrics for ranking keywords
- Assess search traffic driven by keywords
- Check click-through-rates from rankings
Compare search performance to previous quarters
- Chart increases/decreases in rankings
- Graph changes in organic traffic
Identify new keyword opportunities
- Research related keywords around top performers
- Discover emerging keywords in a chosen niche
Prune outdated, underperforming keywords
- Remove keywords that are no longer relevant
- Stop tracking terms that continually drop in rankings
Present findings with your team and other stakeholders
- Share key metrics, graphs, and recommendations
- Align next keyword targets to business goals
Compile relevant data
Leverage keyword research tools to gather important data like search volume, competitiveness, suggested keywords, seasonal fluctuations, etc. Analyse the data to find profitable, low-hanging fruit keyword opportunities. Look beyond just search volume – evaluate the competitiveness and searcher intent as well.
Perform competitor research
See what keywords your competitors rank for. This reveals valuable queries to target and blindspots to fill first. Use tools like SEMrush, Ahrefs, and SpyFu for competitor keyword research. Study their strategies and opportunities they may be missing out on.
Conduct ongoing research
Keyword research is a continuous process, not a one-off project. Search trends and user intent change over time. Dedicate time every month to find fresh keyword opportunities. Replace outdated or underperforming keywords that slip in rankings. Adapt your research plan based on your evolving business goals.
Organise keywords by theme
Group keywords around specific themes, categories, or content silos. This makes content creation more manageable. Build clusters of keywords that make sense to target together in groups. Organise them within spreadsheets or keyword-tracking software.
A structured keyword research plan is essential for guiding your SEO and content marketing efforts. Follow these tips and refer to the sample template to develop an effective plan tailored to your business goals. Stay disciplined in following your plan, and be agile in adapting it based on performance data. With the right keyword research framework, you can scale your organic growth and own more of the first page!
Choosing the right keyword research tools
When researching SEO keywords, having the right tools at your disposal is crucial. There are many keyword research tools available, each with its own unique features and pricing. Here’s an overview of some of the most popular options:
Google keyword planner
- Free to use
- Provides keyword search volume data
- Limited keyword suggestions
- Integrates with Google Ads
- No cost makes this tool accessible to everyone
- Real search volume data from Google
- Requires Google Ads account
- Limited keyword data compared to paid tools
Best for: Beginners on a budget looking for basic volume data
- 14-day free trial, then paid subscription plans
- Large keyword database with detailed metrics
- Competitor analysis features
- Site audit and backlink tracking
- Robust keyword database with many metrics
- Competitor tracking features
- Can be complex for beginners
- Expensive paid plans
Best for: SEO agencies and professionals wanting in-depth data
- 7-day free trial, then paid subscription
- "Keyword Explorer" tool for keyword research
- Site explorer to analyse competitors' backlinks
- Rank tracking and content gap analysis
- Helpful tools for competitor analysis
- Options for tracking rankings over time
- Steep learning curve
- Very expensive paid plans
Best for: Advanced SEO experts with bigger budgets
Tips for using keyword research tools
- Start with Google Keyword Planner to get a baseline of search volume data
- Compare paid tools like SEMrush and Ahrefs via free trials to evaluate features
- Focus on 1 or 2 paid tools rather than trying to master them all
- Sort keyword lists by difficulty, CPC, and search volume to prioritise targets
- Use tracking in paid tools to monitor rankings over time
The "right" keyword research tool ultimately depends on your budget, skills, and research needs. Try out free trials of paid tools first, and don't overbuy on features you won't use. With the right keyword research process, free and paid tools can uncover profitable, low-competition keywords to boost your SEO success.
Keyword data to analyse
When researching keywords, you need to dig into the data to find terms that align with your goals. Here are some of the key metrics to analyse for each keyword:
Search volume: This indicates how often a keyword is searched each month. High-volume keywords get a lot of traffic but also tend to be more competitive. You may want to target some high-volume terms along with mid to long-tail keywords.
CPC - Cost Per Click: The amount advertisers are willing to pay for clicks on a keyword in PPC campaigns. Higher CPC indicates more commercial intent and value per click.
Competition: Figure out roughly how many other pages are trying to rank for a given term. Metrics like keyword difficulty help estimate competition. Avoid terms that are too competitive unless you have strong backlinks and authority.
Relevancy: Consider how closely a keyword matches your content and offering. Target terms that align with your niche even if they have lower volume.
For example, the term 'best SEO tips' has high search volume at 73,000 monthly searches and a moderate CPC of $1.20. However, it has high competition with over 2 million competing pages. A better target may be 'local SEO audit checklist' which gets 1,100 monthly searches and only 50,000 competing pages.
Once you compile a list of potential keywords, you can filter and prioritise them based on factors like:
- Volume - Focus on terms with sufficient search volume for business goals
- Difficulty - Eliminate keywords that are too competitive to rank for realistically
- Commercial intent - Prioritise 'transactional' keywords that indicate users who are ready to purchase
- Relevancy - Pick terms that closely match your products, services and existing content
In general, you want to focus on a mix of short-tail main keywords for volume and mid to long-tail keywords for lower competition. Long tail versions of a term like 'nikon camera reviews' are easier to rank for than just 'nikon cameras'. Use keyword research to build a list tailored to your niche and business objectives.
Performing Competitor Keyword Research
One of the most important aspects of keyword research is analyzing your competitors' top keywords. You can identify new opportunities and "low-hanging fruit" keywords to target by seeing which terms they are optimising and ranking for. Here are some tips for researching competitors' keywords:
Use keyword research tools
Keyword research tools like Ahrefs, SEMrush, and Moz allow you to see the top keywords your competitors are ranking for. Simply input a competitor's domain to see metrics like their ranking keywords, search volume, CPC data, and more. Focus on the terms that are driving significant traffic for them.
Benchmark against competitors
Compile a list of your top 3-5 competitors and enter them into a keyword research tool. Look at their top keyword lists side-by-side to identify common themes and gaps. See which keywords appear for multiple competitors - these are likely high-value keywords in your industry. Also, look for instances where you rank for a competitor's top term, but they don't rank for yours - this is a major opportunity.
Analyse individual pages
Do a deeper dive into your competitors' sites by looking at the keywords ranking for specific landing pages. For example, enter their "contact us" or "about us" page into a tool like SEOquake to see the page-level keywords. Identify whether there are any relevant keywords they are ranking for that your similar pages aren't optimised for.
Steal their best keywords
If competitors are ranking for their target keywords but you aren't, it's time to start optimising for those terms! Of course, you won't go after all their keywords, but you should cherry pick the ones that are most relevant to your business. Try to swipe at least a few of their top 10 keywords by creating content around those terms.
Find gaps in their keyword targeting
While analyzing competitors' keywords, also look for gaps where they may be missing opportunities. For example, if you see a competitor ranking for " widgets" but not "widgets for sale", that's a prime keyword to target. Make a list of potential long-tail keywords that add intent modifiers or other terms to their high-traffic keywords.
By using competitor keyword data as leverage, you can discover the terms driving traffic for others in your space and build an expansion strategy around them. Just be sure not to completely copy a competitor's keywords - you want to develop your own unique keyword set to stand out in SERPs. Perform ongoing competitor research to identify new keyword opportunities over time.
Keyword Gap Analysis
Keyword gap analysis is the process of comparing your current keyword targets against your top competitors to identify new opportunities and optimise your keyword strategy. Here is an overview of how to conduct an effective keyword gap analysis:
Create a competitor keyword list
First, make a list of your top 3-5 competitors. For each competitor, use keyword research tools like Ahrefs, SEMrush, or Moz to find the top keywords they are ranking for. Export these into a spreadsheet.
Compile your current keywords
Next, put together a list of your current target keywords. These should be keywords you are actively optimising for and tracking performance on.
Compare the lists
Now comes the gap analysis part. Look at your list side-by-side with your competitors' lists. Are there any keywords your competitors rank for that you don't target yet? Highlight keywords you don't have.
Identify new opportunities
Analyse the new keyword opportunities and prioritise ones that make sense for your business. Consider criteria like search volume, competitiveness, relevance, intent, and commercial value.
Create an action plan
For the best new keywords, make an action plan on how you will optimise for them. This may involve creating new content, adjusting on-page optimisation, earning backlinks, and monitoring rankings.
Here is an example template you can use to conduct a basic keyword gap analysis:
|Keyword||Your Rank||Competitor 1 Rank||Competitor 2 Rank||Volume||Opportunity?||Notes|
|best pizza recipes||#5||#1||#3||10000||Yes||Weak recipe content - expand varieties and optimise|
|how to bake bread||Does not rank||#2||#7||8000||Yes||Counter programming opportunity - add basic recipes|
|keto desserts||#15||#6||#10||5000||Yes||Useful for our health-focused audience - optimise further|
|air fryer chicken recipes||#9||#1||#4||9000||Yes||Competitor content is thin - chance to own keyword|
|intermittent fasting guide||Does not rank||#1||Does not rank||12000||Yes||FAQ page needed to own this term|
This allows you to easily visualise where your rankings stand compared to competitors. The opportunity column lets you mark keywords for further optimisation. The notes section can inform your action plan.
Regular keyword gap analysis assessments will help uncover new opportunities you may be missing out on. It also shows how you stack up to the competition, informing areas where you can improve. Adding new profitable keywords to your strategy helps attract more search traffic and customers over time.
Keyword Mapping for Content Creation
Once you have conducted thorough keyword research and analysis, the next important step is to map those keywords to new and existing content on your website. Effective keyword mapping helps organise your site content around related keyword themes and topics. Here are some tips for keyword mapping your content:
Use a spreadsheet to map keywords to pages: Create a spreadsheet with columns for keywords, existing pages where they appear, and potential new pages they could go on. This gives you a bird's-eye view of which pages are optimised for which terms.
Build content silos: Organise your content around specific topics and themes. For example, a computer retailer could have silos for laptops, desktops, gaming PCs, monitors, and more. Identify logical silos based on your keywords.
Create topic clusters: Within each silo, you can have clusters of closely related topics. For the laptop silo, clusters could be budget laptops, high-end laptops, 2-in-1 laptops, student laptops, etc. Map keywords to these granular clusters.
Match keywords to existing pages: Look at pages that already rank for your target keywords. Enhance those pages by adding related keywords in a natural way. Don't over-optimise!
Identify gaps: Find keywords with no matching content. Brainstorm new pages, videos, and other content to fill those gaps.
Consider nesting pages: You can nest related content under core topic pages.
Tracking and Monitoring Keyword Performance
Once you have launched content optimised for your target keywords, the next crucial step is to track those keywords' performance over time. Consistent monitoring provides insight into how your keywords are trending and whether your SEO efforts are succeeding.
Here are some best practices for tracking keyword rankings and performance:
- Use automated tools for regular tracking: Services like SEMrush, Ahrefs, and Search Console allow you to easily monitor your keyword rankings across search engines. Set up tracking for your core keywords so you can view their search volume, ranking changes, and click-through rates over time.
- Track rankings manually: In addition to automation, perform sporadic manual checks of your keyword rankings. Search for your target terms yourself and note their ranking positions. This helps validate automated data and surface any discrepancies.
- Monitor ranking changes: Look for trends of keywords moving up or down in rankings. Rising rankings indicate your content is resonating. Dropping rankings suggest technical issues or greater competition. Identify what's working and what needs improvement.
- Track keyword impressions: Rather than just rankings, view search volume and impression trends. Are your rankings increasing but impressions decreasing? That likely means the keyword is getting more competitive.
- Analyse click-through rates: The click-through rate (CTR) for a keyword indicates how enticing your content is. Monitor CTR closely to optimise your title and content for higher engagement and conversions.
- Check performance across search platforms: Track keyword performance separately for Google, Bing, YouTube, Amazon, etc. Cater optimisation efforts to each platform. Content that ranks well on Google may not resonate as much on YouTube.
- Compare metrics over different date ranges: Look at daily, weekly, and monthly trends. Day-to-day fluctuations are normal, but longer periods show meaningful performance changes.
- Segment data by landing page: View keyword metrics for individual pages rather than aggregate. This reveals which pages resonate for which terms so underperforming pages can be improved.
- Optimise based on findings: Use keyword tracking data to guide your optimisation efforts. Improve pages that fall in rankings. Enhance content that gets low CTR. Add keywords that are gaining volume. Continually refine on-page elements like titles, headers, meta descriptions, and content.
Consistent keyword tracking provides the insights needed to keep content highly visible and engaging. Monitor your core SEO keywords across search platforms to always understand their performance and quickly respond to changes. With the right tracking strategy, your content will maintain strong rankings over the long haul.
Keyword research is the foundation of any successful SEO strategy. By taking the time to research and analyse keywords, you gain invaluable insights into your target audience, top ranking competitors, and optimisation opportunities. While keyword research may seem tedious at first, the payoff in terms of increased organic traffic, conversions, and revenue is immense.
Here are some key tips to remember when researching keywords:
- Create a keyword research plan and timeline. Know your goals, targets, and metrics for success. Track keyword performance over time.
- Use multiple keyword research tools to get a complete picture. Look at search volume, competitiveness metrics, semantic variations, and more.
- Analyse competitor content and keywords. See what's working for others in your space. Identify optimisation gaps.
- Perform keyword gap analysis between your existing content and target keywords. Prioritise keywords to target.
- Map top keywords to new content such as blog posts, guides, and videos. Create content around searcher intent.
- Monitor keyword rankings and traffic over time. Refine targets and pivot as needed.
Ongoing keyword research, expansion, and optimisation is crucial for long-term SEO success. You simply can't "set and forget" your keywords. Google's algorithm and searcher behavior is constantly changing. Your competitors are optimising and expanding their keywords. You'll maintain your edge by staying on top of the latest keyword trends and opportunities in your niche.
Keyword research takes time but gives you an ROI that's hard to beat! With the right tools, data, and process, you can appear in everyone's search results for the keywords you care about most!