If your goal is to make money on the internet, there are few skills more valuable than keyword research. Virtually everything that's done online involves search engines in some capacity. Sure, Google is a search engine and that's obvious – but look a bit closer and you'll find that search engines are everywhere. Alexa and Suri are search engines. Amazon is a search engine. YouTube is a search engine. Pinterest, too.
There's a lot of content on the internet, and we get to most of it through searches.
If you don't know how to effectively position your content to be found by searchers, you're going to have an uphill battle when it comes to getting eyeballs, followers, and customers.
In terms of value for time invested, the only other major internet marketing skill I can think of that's equally valuable would be copywriting – and copywriting is much harder to master. If you can combine even mediocre copywriting with good keyword research, you'll do very well for yourself.
What is a Keyword?
A keyword is a word or phrase that’s related to your content – something people might search when they want to find the sort of thing you've written. Easy enough, right?
Why Do We Care About Keyword Research?
There are basically two reasons we care about keywords and keyword research.
Keywords Tell Us What People Care About
As an example, one of the sites David and I run is a British TV website. When we're trying to decide about which topics to cover, we want to make sure there's enough search volume to make it worthwhile. As much as we'd love to have endless content on all British television shows, we're also trying to maximize the return we get from writing posts or hiring them out. Every now and then, we take a look at relative search volume of different British television shows:
Based on volume, we can see that a post on Rosemary & Thyme just isn't going to give us the same kind of return on investment we might get with some of the other shows.
That said, volume isn't the only consideration. We also like to think about competition and audience fit. Downton Abbey is obviously a really competitive topic, and people don't have to go far to read more than they ever wanted to about the series.
Peaky Blinders is a little less competitive, but we've actually found that it's not a big hit with our audience – at least not compared to many other shows. Though we don't avoid the topic, we might steer away from it in favor of something else if we're choosing between a few subjects.
To the greatest extent possible, we want our posts to do double-duty – bringing in search traffic AND going over well with our readers on social media and the email list. That allows us to make more money with less content.
Every project has its own considerations like this, and you'll learn them as you get to know your market. Keyword research is the beginning of that process, giving you some hard data to start from.
I should also mention that in this situation, we're not looking to optimize for the phrase “Downton Abbey” or “Call the Midwife”. When people search just a show name, they're going to get things like the IMDb page or the Wikipedia page for that show. That's as it should be, because that's almost definitely what they're looking for with a search like that.
When it comes time to think about making actual posts, we'll be looking for more specific searches – but this gives us a sense of the broader topics that interest people.
Keywords Help People Locate Information
The internet is a really big place. Much of the time, finding the things we want to see will require a search – whether that’s on Google, Amazon, Pinterest, YouTube, or some other site that happens to have a big search box at the top.
Search engines look at content and do their best to figure out the most relevant, high-quality results to deliver for any given search. One of the most powerful ways to figure out if something’s relevant is to look at the words on the page.
For people to find your content, you need to structure it in a way that fits what people are searching. Some people start off blogging and they write cutesy posts and titles. If they make a post about a chocolate cake, they’ll call their post, “So Long Diet, It Was Nice While It Lasted”. Instead of thinking about searches and keywords, the blogger just talks about how it's really yummy, they need more gym time, and oh yeah, here's the recipe.
Meanwhile, another blogger has called their post “My Diet-Killing, Sinfully Moist Chocolate Cake Recipe”. In this post, they talk about chocolate cake recipes, how this one is more moist that other chocolate cake recipes they've tried, and how quick and easy it is to make.
Guess which of those approaches is more likely to put you on the first page for “moist chocolate cake recipe” or “easy chocolate cake recipe”?
THAT is why we care about keywords.
But This is 2020 – Aren't Search Engines Better Than That?
Yes and no. While it's true that search engines – especially Google – have evolved to better understand content and search intent, keywords aren't going anywhere anytime soon. It still helps to be aware of them while you're writing, but it's not like it was back in, say, 2005.
No matter what your favorite SEO plugin tells you (our favorite is Rank Math), you no longer need to write articles like:
TITLE: Yada Yada EXACT FOCUS KEYWORD RIGHT HERE Blah Blablah
BODY: I am going to tell you about EXACT FOCUS KEYWORD yada yada. Blah blah blah blah here is some more text.
HERE IS A HEADING WITH MY EXACT FOCUS KEYWORD
And here's some more talk about EXACT FOCUS KEYWORD so I can really hammer home that I'm talking about EXACT FOCUS KEYWORD in this article.
In summary, here is my EXACT FOCUS KEYWORD again because if I don't use it at least 4 times in my post, the Googles will never love me.
These days, search engines are much better at understanding that if a person is looking for “moist chocolate cake recipe”, the best results might not actually contain the exact phrase “moist chocolate cake recipe” in the title and headings, and they may not use that exact phrase over and over throughout the entire post.
If it DOES have a title like “Sinfully Moist Chocolate Cake Recipe”, that certainly doesn't hurt – but that's not all they're looking for. They might also serve up a result with a title like “Super Simple, Award-Winning 30-Minute Chocolate Cake Recipe” that also includes sentences like:
- Not only is this cake super simple to make, but it's also really rich and moist.
- Unlike the recipe I recommend for tiered cakes, this sheet cake has a really high moisture content.
At the time I'm writing this, the results for “moist chocolate cake recipe” back this up. Results #1 and #5 actually do use the words “Moist Chocolate Cake Recipe” in the titles. Most of them don't, though – and some NEVER use the exact phrase in the post. Take a look at these two results from the first page:
One of those two pages uses the exact keyword ONCE (in their tags), and the other one never uses it – but Google knows enough to understand that the pages are delivering what the searcher was looking for. You can see in the bolded descriptions that they DO use the word “moist”, just not in the exact combination we searched for.
Of course, not all search engines are as advanced as Google – and they all work a little differently because they're all using different types of data to determine the way they serve results to people. Amazon factors in things like “also-boughts”, while Pinterest is frighteningly good at serving up relevant images based on how people have described and categorized similar images.
Over time, we can expect search engines to get better and better at “understanding” content – but keywords will always matter. What changes is how we optimize for them.
You Mentioned “Search Intent” – What is That?
Search intent just means “what you were actually trying to find when you did your search”.
If you go to Google and type in “Amazon”, they know you're almost definitely looking for Amazon.com rather than information on the Amazon River or the Amazon rainforest or Amazon women. That's search intent.
Google's most recent search quality raters guidelines talks about this. You can also read about it in their Think With Google post on How intent is redefining the marketing funnel. Needless to say, this is important to Google which means it should be important for you too.
We could get a lot more technical about this, but at its heart, it's kind of a common sense topic. If you're going to optimize for a keyword or keyword group, you need to make sure that your content aligns with what the searchers are most likely looking for. Otherwise, you run into two problems:
- People who arrive on your site aren't getting the answers or products they're looking for, so your effort was largely wasted.
- The increasingly smart search engines KNOW you don't deliver on what people are seeking, so they de-prioritize your page in the rankings.
It doesn't happen nearly as often now, but I can think of loads of examples of mis-matched search intent and results in the past. Back in 2006 or so, I was working as the Director of Marketing at an e-commerce company that sold aquarium DVDs, among other things. You put it on the DVD player and it would play several hours of nonstop footage of a single aquarium – giving you the look of a fish tank without the work and expense.
My goal was to rank for “aquarium DVD” and a bunch of related terms, but there was one result that was always a thorn in my side. One of the major aquariums had an educational DVD and the page for it was titled, “–Facility Name– Aquarium DVD”. Now, I can be pretty sure it's not what most people were looking for when they did a simple “aquarium DVD” search – but every time I turned around, they were jumping ahead of us in the search results. Given the amount of links they attracted naturally, it was tough to stay ahead of them.
These days, the results for that search term do a much better job of answering the question, “What is someone looking for when they search ‘aquarium dvd'?”
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What Makes a Good Keyword?
Good keywords are about three things: relevance, search volume, and competition (though the third is arguable).
For some searches, you may also need to consider credentials, and whether you have them. That mostly comes into play with important topics like healthcare or financial advice. Google understands the importance of not putting total fruit loops on page 1, and while it will probably never be perfect, they do a reasonably good job of keeping the essential oils crowd from outranking authorities like the CDC or the Mayo Clinic.
If you want to rank for topics where only qualified professionals should be offering advice, you need to have and display information about why you're an authority on that topic.
This one's pretty simple, and it goes back to the concept of search intent we were just discussing. You need to make sure that the keywords you zero in on and optimize for are keywords you can deliver on.
Put yourself in the position of the searcher. If you typed in that phrase, would your page or blog post be the sort of thing you'd want to see as your “answer”? If not, keep going and find different keywords.
Search volume refers to how many people search for a keyword each month – and most tools will offer data for at least the US and worldwide volume. The exact numbers you want to see here are really dependent upon your niche.
If you sell a super-specialized, high-end service that only 500 people search for every month, you may not care that it's only 500 people because (a) you only need 1 or 2 of them, and (b) it's your business, so you're not going to change it based on search volume anyway. I've worked with restaurant franchises that brought in millions of dollars in revenue using keywords with no more than a few thousand searches monthly.
On the other hand, if you're running a blog, your income is probably coming in the form of affiliate commissions and advertising revenue – so you need to scrape together a list of keywords with a lot more search volume. As a personal rule of thumb, I won't start a blog or niche site unless I can come up with a list of keywords that gets at least 500k-1 million related searches monthly (and not all of that from just 1 or 2 keywords).
Competition matters, but not as much as a lot of people think. Obviously, you're never going to rank number one for searches like “Wikipedia” or “Amazon” or even something like “Downton Abbey”. Unless you work for a huge electronics company or you're a local electronics store aiming for Google Local results, you're also not going to rank for outrageously competitive things like “buy television”.
For most things, though, you've got a chance. Not right away, of course, but eventually, your site will grow into its keywords. In the meantime, you're not completely out of luck, even on posts or pages that target highly competitive phrases. Why? Long tail keywords.
A long tail keyword is a 3+ word phrase that's extremely specific to a topic. In any given month, there will be millions of searches for keywords that have NEVER been searched, and which may never be searched again. You won't find them in keyword tools, but if you're talking about popular topics, plenty of those searchers will find their way to your site.
Doing Keyword Research Step by Step
Now that we're nearly 2500 words into this thing, we can get down to business. How do you actually find keywords and gather the data you need to make good decisions?
The easiest way is to invest in a good keyword research tool. If you're totally skint, you can get away with free tools, but it's not nearly as efficient. Personally, I like SpyFu's interface. David favors Ahrefs. They're both great tools, so it really comes down to budget and preference. Ahrefs is pricey, and has some extras you may not be willing to pay for at this stage in your career.
In terms of free tools, I'd recommend either the Keyword Surfer Chrome extension or Google's own data in your Google Ads account. You don't actually have to use your ads account to get the tools, you just have to open it and add a credit card (you won't be charged for this).
Step One: Gather Ideas
Most keyword tools work by generating ideas relevant to your inputs – and they’re not always great and finding other related ideas that aren’t extremely close to the original keyword.
Let’s say you’re building a site about modern décor. When you go to the Google Keyword Planner and enter in “modern décor” asking for keyword ideas, you’ll get tons of great ideas. It’s a great place to start – but the keywords it offers will be extremely closely related to your main keyword. Case in point:
You’ll get things like “modern farmhouse décor” or “modern apartment décor”, but you’re not going to get ideas like “glass subway tiles” or “DIY concrete countertop”. The “related keywords” features in Ahrefs or SpyFu can also help out, but it seems like they do better on some niches than others.
Another great way to get ideas is to upgrade your keyword research tactics and get familiar with your niche. Here are some of the ways I like to gather keyword ideas:
- Look at other sites in the niche. I like to look at the categories, and if they include it, the most popular posts section.
- Check Facebook groups in the niche. What do people ask about and talk about the most? Take notes.
- Do the same thing with Reddit, or any forums in your niche. See what people talk about most and what questions are asked most.
- Browse books or magazines in the niche. Not only will it give you great topic ideas, but it can cut out a lot of other research if you’re doing content creation on your own.
- Run the URLs of competitors through competitive intelligence tools. SpyFu and Ahrefs are handy for this. What I particularly like about this method is that you can focus on sites that are similar to what yours will ultimately be like – and the tools will let you know which keywords are driving the most traffic for the sites in question. That’s really useful because it lets you know (a) what’s attainable, and (b) what’s likely to be profitable. Continuing with the modern décor idea, we entered DigsDigs.com into SpyFu and Ahrefs. Instantly, you get some great ideas like “cool decks”, “hidden lighting”, “gabled roof”, and “floating nightstand”. You can also export them to CSV to make it easier to work with them later.
- Try Keyword Tool’s auto-complete search. While it’s similar to the other keyword tools, this one focuses exclusively on the ideas you get from auto-complete tools on sites like Google, YouTube, Amazon, eBay, and so on. It won’t give you the creative ideas you get from the other tools, but it can still be useful.
Step Two: Evaluate Your Keywords
Once you’ve built a good-sized list, it’s time to evaluate your keywords using the criteria we talked about earlier. I like to start by putting all my candidates in a spreadsheet (each one in their own row). It’s up to you how much data you keep about each keyword – I usually include a column for search volume and that’s about it.
To evaluate your keywords, just take each one and stick it in your tool of choice. If you’re on a tight budget, you can check volume for up to 10 keywords at a time using Google Keyword Planner.
If you have a budget you can spend on tools, though, it can definitely speed up this process. SpyFu, for example, can sort and add data to your keyword list – and you can then export it to edit as desired.
Let’s take a look at some keywords related to décor. First, we paste in the keywords we want to look at. For the purpose of this example, we’ll just use a handful of fairly random keywords.
With a single click, we get all our keywords back with search volume and estimated difficulty.
From there, you can export and either work with that spreadsheet or paste your data into another one.
Once I have the basic information about my keywords, I like to play around with them a bit in Excel. If I’m trying to avoid overly competitive phrases, I might just paste those into another page for later. I often sort by search volume or look for keywords that are easy to group together in a single post.
For example, let’s say you had the keywords “best reality shows” and “reality shows on Netflix” in your list. If you make a post called The Best Reality Shows on Netflix” and use that phrase throughout, you’ve knocked out two keywords in one post. A quick glance at Google confirms that Complex.com has taken this approach and they’re on the front page for both phrases.
If I'm not sure whether I could rank for something, I'll do a quick search in Google and see what kind of sites are already ranking. If it's nothing but university or government sites, I'll back off. On the other hand, if it's a mix of online news sites and blogs, that's a great sign.
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Your Methods May Vary, and That’s Okay
This is just one way to approach keyword research. You may decide to skip steps or add in others, and that’s fine. There’s no single way to do this that’s better than all the others because it’s a subjective process that's heavily influenced by your project and its goals. You have to decide which topics are right for your site, and which methods feel most comfortable for you. As you get more comfortable with the basic concepts, you’ll no doubt develop a personal routine all your own.
The important thing to remember is this – for the foreseeable future, the internet is largely driven by searches. By spending a bit of time upfront thinking about keyword research and letting it guide at least SOME of your content creation, you’ll be ahead of the game.