How to Do Keyword Research for an Established Site

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I’ve published my thoughts on keyword research for new sites numerous times; but this is the first time that I’ve decided to share my way to do keyword analysis for a well established resource.

Why is it difficult?

It is hard to say whether it is more (or less) difficult: to analysis keywords for an established site or for a new one. It is just different. I am not talking of the case when you are developing the site from the very start in which case you are likely to be doing keyword research weekly when checking your analytics for new search referrals.

I am talking about the case when you are asked to optimize an established site and this is the first time you’ve seen it. In this case you don’t know how it’s been evolving and you can hardly tell what words have a good (missed) opportunity to drive highly targeted traffic.

Where to start?

Unlike with a new site where you usually start with the general niche research and then broaden it with keyword suggestion tools, keyword analysis for an established site should be started with its internal analytics, of course.

The first problem you are likely to face analyzing search referrals for a well-established, high-traffic site is the overwhelming volume of long tail which is almost impossible to figure. So the steps you might want to consider are (I am describing how to do that with Google Analytics but any advanced analytics tool can do that too):

  1. Look at the top referrals first. Don’t forget to set a longer period of time not to miss some good words the site used to receive traffic in the past.
  2. Try to sort top referrals into patterns. I mentioned how to do that in the last week’s post on discovering your most frequent modifiers. What you need is to determine your core terms and most frequent modifiers for each one. The best tool to do it is Excel as, among other options it provides us with, it also enables to visualize those patterns with different colors.
  3. Organize your keyword phrases and patterns by topics, levels and modifiers. Again, Excel is the best tool for that. The more time you spend on sorting your keyword list into tables, the better idea you will get on how to better manage your future keyword optimization strategy.
    • Organize your words by topic: general versus specific; informative, navigational, brand-specific – the topics depend on the site and your goals;
    • Organize your words by levels where basic levels are determined by your core term and frequent modifiers;
    • Organize your words by modifiers: this is basically meant to make sense of your patterns you determined in step 2.
  4. Research your current rankings: comparing your current keyword position to traffic numbers will give you an idea how promising each keyword is. For example, if your site gets 500+ uniques weekly for a word that ranks on page 2, you can safely assume it has a huge potential to send a lot of traffic when pushed to page 1. Rank checking in this case aims to answer two questions:
    • How much traffic a page is likely send (with some deeper research, by looking at bounce rate and visitor’s paths, you can also predict how much conversion potential the phrase has);
    • How easily it will be to achieve page 1 rankings for the given phrase (if your page has been on page 2 or 3 for the phrase for some period of time longer than one or two weeks, you stand very good chances to achieve page 1 rankings if you focus some effort on it).
  5. The above steps will make you remember the site keywords and patterns by heart. Now it’s time to do some third-party analysis (keyword suggestion tools and/or competitors research).

Note, that any of the above steps can be enhanced by testing keyword behavior with PPC.

SEO tools and articles to help you organize and manage your keyword lists:

Ann Smarty

Ann Smarty

Brand amd Community Manager at Internet Marketing Ninjas
Ann Smarty is the blogger and community manager at Internet Marketing Ninjas. Ann's expertise in blogging and tools serve as a base for her writing,... Read Full Bio
Ann Smarty
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  • Harsh Agrawal

    Hey ann, I love your article and I learned a lot from you.
    Thanks for another nice article.
    I will put up questions if I stuck newhere.

  • ShoppingSam

    Thank you for the great overview on keyword research. I can get lost in analysis within analytics studying keywords and organic traffic – definitely worth it when you discover new keywords to easily rank and increase profit with!

  • Kevin Sandridge

    Ann, appreciate you bringing some clarity to the keyword research picture for existing/decently ranking sites. I’ve just reached a PR 3 and a Sub 150,000 rating on Alexa for one of my blogs, and it’s been difficult seeing how I’m going to break through to that next level!

    This post will help!

  • Ken Lyons


    Couldn’t agree more with analyzing your own search logs for keyword discovery. You don’t get any more relevant to what works for your own site than the data from your own private log files.

    BTW, you mention that Excel is the best tool for organizing keywords. Here, I have to respectfully disagree.

    I work for WordStream and our new Keyword Management Tool has a fast and powerful keyword grouping component for organizing keywords semantically, by relevance. It does what Excel can do in a matter or seconds.

    BTW, I’d really like to invite you (and anyone else) to attend our Webinar this Thursday to demo the product and see what I’m talking about for yourself. This week’s topic is “Effective Keyword Research.”

    Here’s the sign up link:

    It would be great if you could attend one of the sessions.

    Ken Lyons

  • SFGreg

    Ann, when you say, “1. Look at the top referrals first,” are you talking about “Referring Sites” in Google Analytics, or are you talking about looking at your organic traffic and segmenting by keyword? Thanks!

  • adwords marekting

    simply watch the keywords that bring you traffic today and keep hammering away at those.

  • Ann Smarty

    @SFGreg, no I actually meant “Google search referrals”. This is accessed from traffic sources (click Google then).

  • Justin March

    Great article.

    Its more difficult with an existing site IMHO as there are other factors to consider including current rankings and stats.

  • Adam

    Thanks a million for posting. I guess I always assumed that people would do this. It makes no sense to try to steer an established site in a completely different direction. Even if you are not happy with it, you are going to try for new phrases that are “near by” based on the current traffic patterns. No?

  • Ann Smarty

    @Adam, of course, you will then broaden the scope. But first you need to squeeze the most of what you already have.

  • Ayush Kumar

    First of all thanks for the nice article.

    I also collect relevant keywords on a Excel Sheet which help me to get the most relevant keyword at a glance.

    Thanks again for good article on Keyword Research!!

  • up-11

    good site 🙂

  • jerkman

    Here’s another brand-new search engine;

    You can perform anything possible in other search engines such as yahoo or google, plus, you can control ‘popularity bar’ to access more easily to what you need.

  • David

    Actually testing a new keyword tool, still be interested to get a client with the project ROI that can include using as a research tool.