Whether you’re an SEO working for a client or you have your own business website and want to start applying SEO to get it to the next level in the search engine rankings, keyword research is one of the most important parts of the SEO process. After all, if you are not going after the right keywords from the start, you will just be swimming in the wrong direction.
Some people mistakenly think that this step is simple – all you have to do is come up with a list of keywords that YOU THINK people are searching for and optimize for them. But experienced SEOs know that you really need to do some research on the keywords before you start optimizing
If you’re new to the game (and even if you’re not), here are some tips on how you can do keyword research.
1. Figure out how many keywords you are trying to optimize for
This will depend on your business and the size of your website. If you’re selling just one product and/or have a very small website, perhaps 5-10 keywords is enough. Larger websites with more products/services can try to go after a larger amount of keywords. This number does not have to be set in stone, but it’s a good idea to get a ballpark before you start.
2. Come up with a list of initial keywords that you think are most obvious
Just think what you would search for when looking for your products/services, and try to get as many words as possible. This is where most people would stop with their keyword selection, but it should only be the first step. This is just the start of the list of your potential candidate words, out of which you will eventually select the final keywords to optimize for.
3. See what your site is currently ranking for
SEMRush is a great tool that lets you know which keywords your site is currently ranking for. There are other tools available as well. It’s often easier to get the keywords you already rank for to rank higher than to start from scratch. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start from scratch for new keywords, just that the keywords you’re ranking for should be considered with a higher priority in your final selection process down the line. You may also find some keywords here that you did not think were obvious at first, but would be worthwhile to include in your list of candidates.
4. See what your competitors are ranking for
Figure out who your competitors are (if you don’t know already), and see what they are ranking for. You can use the same SEMRush tool, or search for some keywords to see where they come up. This may give you some further keywords to add to the list of candidates. Try to see what they are and are not ranking for. Sometimes looking for what the competitors are NOT ranking for, can give you an advantage in that field.
5. Use keyword suggestion tools
Now that you have a pretty large list of candidates, it’s time to expand it even further. If you’re shooting for 20 keywords to optimize for, it is not uncommon for your list of POTENTIAL candidates to be upwards of 400 keywords before you pick the final 20.
Some of the most popular keyword suggestion tools are Wordtracker, Google Adwords Tool, SEMRush, SEObook Keyword Suggestion Tool, and the SEOmoz keyword difficulty tool (which is based on Wordtracker). You can try any of them to see which you like best.
Wordtracker seems to be the most popular, but I personally like the Google tool the most. It seems to have a higher search threshold than Wordtracker, meaning low volume searched keywords that show up as ‘Not found’ in Wordtracker may still show up with some search volume in Google Tool; thus, the Google tool will still give you suggestions for lower searched keywords.
By using the keyword suggestion tools, you can quickly expand the list of your potential candidates. You should put all the keywords in a spreadsheet for easier tracking.
6. Assign search volume to each keyword
Most of the keyword tools provide the search volume number next to each keyword, but they all use different scales. So you may use different keyword suggestion tools for the keywords, but you should stick to one scale when assigning search volume.
Once again, I personally prefer to use the Google tool. If you do use it, just make sure you use either the Global Monthly Search Volume (if your business is global) or Local Search Volume (if your business is local). But don’t use the Advertiser Competition scale, as that is for paid search.
By assigning search volume to each keyword, and then sorting the keywords by search volume, you can quickly see which keywords are most searched for.
7. Assign relevancy percentages to each keyword
You want to assign a percentage number (0 to 100) to each keyword depending on how relevant that keyword is to your website. Now, this may be a very tricky part and most people don’t do it correctly. Too many people are fooling themselves in assigning 100% to most general keyterms. When you do that, what you’re saying is that 100% of the people searching for this keyword will be interested in your website.
If you are a local body shop in Cleveland, there is no way you are 100% relevant for a general term ‘car repair’. You would only be 100% relevant to a more niche term, such as ‘Cleveland Auto Body Shop’. ‘Car Repair’ would probably get 10%, while ‘Cleveland Car Repair’ would get perhaps 30-50% (if your specialty is only doing body work).
So you really need to ask the question: “What percentage of people who are searching for this keyword are really interested in my website?” and be really honest with the answers. More general and high competitive terms are rarely 100% relevant, since a person searching for a general term is not specific enough, and can be looking for a number of possible uses for that keyword.
If you are an SEO person working for a client, you may ask your client to assign these relevancy percentages to the keywords since they know their business best.
8. Multiply the search volume by the relevancy percentage to get the weighed amount
Now that you have two numbers next to each keyword (Search Volume and Relevancy Percentage), multiply the two numbers to get the third number, which would be the Weighed amount. You can then sort the keywords by that weighed amount to start your final selection process.
When doing the final keyword selection, you should use that Weighed amount only as one of the many factors. Don’t just blindly pick the top 20 keywords off the list.
9. Select the final keywords from the list
Selecting the final keywords may be tricky. What you want to do is keep an eye on the search volume and select a good range of high, mid and low searched keywords.
Here is the thing about High vs. Low searched keywords. Obviously if a keyword has a high search volume it will be much more competitive and harder to rank for. So these keywords are considered “low chance, high reward”: there is a low chance to rank for a highly competitive keyword, but if you do, the rewards are high, so it may still be worth it to include a few of them in your optimization.
Low searched keywords that are 100% relevant can still be very valuable. They are usually easier to rank for, so you can probably get to #1 (or at least top 5) for most of them and thus dominate that low searched niche market. By having many of these low searched keywords which have 100% relevancy at #1, you can still bring in highly targeted traffic to your site, which will convert to sales/revenue.
Depending on your website and industry/competition, your range of high-mid-low keywords may vary. For example, if you’re a new website starting out with not much search history and you’re going
for 20 keywords, your realistic spread may be 2 high searched keywords, 6 mid searched keywords, and 12 low searched keywords. For a new site, it would be very hard to get ranked for high searched keywords, so selecting about 2 keywords would be fine.
If you are a larger website with an older domain and are already ranking well for a few terms, your spread may be 5 high searched keywords, 9 mid searched keywords, and 6 low searched keywords. Putting more emphasis on some of the medium searched keywords may work well for you.
If you’re not sure about the history of the site you’re optimizing for, check out my post on 10 Simple Things to Check Before Optimizing an Existing Site.
When you make your final selection from the large list of candidates, here is a recap of the factors you need to keep in mind:
- Search Volume (realistic spread of high, mid and low searched keywords)
- Relevancy and Weighed Amount (all low searched keywords should be 100% relevant, while higher searched terms may not be 100% relevant, but are still important – thus the Weighed amount is a good scale to judge those. Sorting by Weighed amount and going from top to bottom, is a good place to start the selection process)
- Keywords that your site is already ranking for
- Keywords that your competitors are ranking for
Having all these factors in mind you can select the final list of keywords to optimize for.
10. Run those keywords through keyword suggestion tools again
You may think that you’re done, but you should really try to run those final keywords through the keyword suggestion tools again for a couple reasons:
- There may be some new keywords that weren’t on your candidates list which may make more sense.
- You may have made a mistake during the process and have missed some of the most obvious keywords.
Picking the final keywords is a combination of number crunching and common sense. Many non-SEO people will just go with all common sense, while some math-oriented SEOs will go with just numbers and may make a calculation error that will omit some of the most obvious keywords.
Calculating Search Volume, Relevancy and Weighed amount is good, but if a mistake is made (especially during relevancy assignment), it may cost you some of the most valuable keywords. Running the final list of the keywords again through the suggestion tools (as well as double-checking the original keyword candidate list) may bring back some of the most obvious keywords.
So after running the final list against the keyword suggestion tools, you may (or may not) want to revise the final keyword list. Then just look it over to make sure that you have not missed any obvious ones.
11. Keep an eye out on the progress and make keyword changes as necessary
After you start optimizing and have run the SEO campaign for a few months, you may want to revise a few of the keywords on the list depending on the results you’re seeing. You don’t want to make drastic changes (especially if it’s too early), but if you’re seeing that some keywords are not converting well to sales, you may want to substitute them with related keywords to those that are converting well, or experiment with some brand new terms.
Sometimes you may find yourself ranking high for lower-searched terms, but it is not bringing as much traffic or conversions as you hoped it would, so you may need start going after some higher searched volume keywords.
SEO is an ongoing and ever-evolving process, so changing things from time to time is necessary if you want to keep afloat.
The above were just some of the general tips to use during your keyword research. You can certainly develop your own strategies as you dive in to the process. Some unique websites may require more innovative techniques, and no SEO project is usually exactly the same, so use these tips but work in your own keyword selection methods where it makes sense.