A Guide to Keyword Research

A Guide to Keyword Research

Written by SEMrush Academy SEMrush Academy 9.6K Reads

Keyword research is arguably one of the most important elements of SEO.

Without it, your entire SEO effort will have no direction — effectively, you’ll be stumbling around in the dark.

So, what is it exactly?

Keyword research is the process of discovering the key terms and phrases related to your business that users type into search engines.

In other words, it’s figuring out how people will find you online.

Starting Your Keyword Research

Keyword research is a process that starts by getting to know your client’s (or your own) business.

You need to understand:

  • What makes the business tick.
  • Who the customers are.
  • What those customers care about.
  • How to align everything with the business’ goals.

This is where most in-house marketers fail – and honestly, a fair number of agencies as well.

Yep, we know: keyword research is boring.

You probably don’t want to do it. You already know your business, why waste time on boring stuff?

Why not go straight for content creation or link building, you know, cause it’s fun, and has a more obvious tie to ROI?

But that short cut can kill your entire SEO strategy.

A Guide to Keyword Research

It’s quite common for businesses to think they need to rank for certain concepts, when in fact their audience couldn’t care less about those concepts, and is in fact searching for something completely different. That’s why keyword research is so important.

Now’s the time to start digging and discovering:

  • Ask questions about the business. What does it sell, how does it operate, what makes it tick?
  • Ask about the business goals. Not their goals for results from SEO, but their main goals that drive day-to-day business.
  • Ask about customers or the audience. How do people search for them? Do they have audience personas already created that can help you form your strategies? Are there any seasonal trends in audience behavior?
  • Try to figure out the “why.” Sure, they might sell colored widgets and their customers buy colored widgets. But why do their customers buy colored widgets?

Putting together a questionnaire can help you and your clients successfully navigate this discovery process.

Understanding ‘Query Intent’

Now that you’ve asked your questions, you’re probably itching to start building your keyword list. But before you dive in, you need to understand why search intent is so important.

Search results are based on what Google interprets to be the searcher’s intent. It’s not as much about the actual keywords being searched as it is about the meaning behind the search.

A Guide to Keyword Research

Google’s Quality Rater Guidelines define the four major intents that searchers have as:

  • To “know”
  • To “do”
  • Finding a “website”
  • “Visit in person”

These roughly translate to the following search queries:

  • An informational query when the user is looking for a specific piece of information.
  • A navigational query when the user is looking for a particular destination on the web.
  • A transactional query when the user is looking for something to buy or sign up for.
  • A local query when the user is looking for something in their local area.

By testing potential keywords and phrases by looking at the search results page, you can figure out what Google has decided the intent of that phrase is.

For example, if you search for “sneakers,” you’ll see mixed intent.

Google displays a shopping carousel of ads at the top of the page, then a local pack in case the user intends to buy the shoes from a location nearby.

It’s definitely a transactional intent, but Google’s not sure if the user wants to buy online or at a local store.

By understanding how users might search for a business, it’s possible to infer their search intent.

You can test those queries to assess whether Google understands the same intent, and using that knowledge, create better content that more accurately addresses what the searcher is looking for.

Building Your Keyword List

Now you’re ready to build your list of keywords.

Using the knowledge gained from your discovery questions, make a list of the important topics relevant to the business.

This list should include both what’s important to the business and what’s important to the customers.

Next, separate the topics into buckets, putting similar concepts and ideas together. Use your knowledge about the business to prioritize the buckets.

A Guide to Keyword Research

Once you’ve got your concept buckets figured out, you can start filling them with keywords using your new knowledge about customers’ wants and needs.

Think of this as the brain dump phase. Make a note of anything and everything you can think of, as you can refine the list later.

Don’t forget to check the phrases that the business already ranks for.

Check Google Analytics, Search Console, and any rank tracking that might be set up for the business – or your own rank tracking tools if you’ve got them in place.

Also include phrases that competitors rank for – chances are, if they’re ranking for a concept, it’s something that matters for your business as well.

Now you’ll want to get creative and come up with variations.

Check the People Also Ask widget in Google. Look at the related search terms that appear at the bottom of the SERP.

Use keyword research tools to help come up with related terms and variations of your phrases. SEMrush has some killer options here, which we’ll be looking at later.

Refining Your Keyword List

Once you’ve got your list of keywords, it’s time to refine and prioritize.

For those of you who are new to the SEO game, it’s important to understand the difference between “head” terms and “long-tail” terms.

  • Head terms have a higher search volume, but are usually extremely competitive and therefore expensive to target.
  • Long-tail terms have much less search volume, which makes them less competitive and therefore the cheaper option.

It’s important to be strategic about which keywords you target.

With most businesses targeting the head terms that have the most traffic, you might find that you’re able to score smaller wins by targeting long tail phrases, and these can seriously add up to larger search volumes overall.

Before finalizing your keyword list, you need to consider the keyword difficulty score for each of your chosen terms.

A keyword difficulty score basically tells you how difficult it will be to rank for that term. We’ll look at this in the next section.

For now, you just need to make sure you consider the business’ goals and decide if it’s worth targeting a more difficult term.

Tip: A two-pronged approach generally works best. This involves targeting terms that offer to boost your bottom line the most over the long term, while also targeting a selection of long-tail phrases with low competition and quicker results.

So, make sure your final keyword list contains a mix of both head and long-tail terms.

Using Keyword Research Tools

Knowing how to do things yourself, even if tools can do the heavy lifting for you, can help you better understand the process.

That said, there are some awesome ways to use tools such as SEMrush to make the keyword research process significantly easier – and faster.

A Guide to Keyword Research

The two key SEMrush tools you’ll want to get familiar with are The Keyword Overview report and the Keyword Magic Tool.

The Keyword Overview Report has tons of features. You can filter by country, desktop or mobile, or even the date the data was captured.

You can use this tool to see organic search volumes, estimated cost per click, and even how volumes might change over the course of the year.

The Keyword Magic Tool has about 8 billion keywords in its database, and it kicks out some seriously awesome ideas to help with your keyword research.

It also helps you see real-world data about keywords that are semantically related, and even the common ways people misspell the keyword phrase.

More importantly, this tool gives you a keyword difficulty score.

The keyword difficulty score is super valuable in terms of determining which phrases you want to target. Realistic keywords will fall in the range of 60 to 80, anything higher will be difficult to rank.

You want to look for the sweet spot: relevant keywords that have higher search volume but a keyword difficulty score below 60%.

You can also try using the “questions” filter as this only shows search phrases that are formatted as questions Using Keyword Research Tools this will help future-proof your SEO efforts.


Because as voice search continues to grow in popularity, more searches are phrased as questions, and if you’re creating your content accordingly, you’ll be ready for the explosion of voice search.

When Keywords Are ‘Not Provided’

If you’re relying on Google Analytics, it’s frustrating to get “not provided” showing when you’re doing keyword research. Fortunately, there are a couple of ways around this.

You can solve it by manually looking at the organic traffic at a page level.

Click into your organic traffic and then see which pages are getting the most traffic — if you know which pages are getting the most organic visits, you know which concepts are showing up the most often.

Alternatively, SEMrush has a killer tool to help figure out which terms are bringing you the most traffic: The Organic Traffic Insights tool.

You’ll need access to the Google Analytics account for the site you’re analyzing, so, make sure you’ve got access before using the tool.

Basically, SEMrush does the same as the manual method above, but by playing around with the various filters, you can unearth some pretty useful insights.

Competitor Keyword Analysis

Researching competitors is incredibly helpful when you’re working with a new client – especially in a vertical you’re unfamiliar with.

It’s also a key tactic when you’re working with a local business in a new area.

You might be familiar with the vertical, but if you don’t know the local area, competitor research help gets you up to speed on what works best in that location.

A Guide to Keyword Research

Some of the activities that can be part of your competitor keyword research include:

Checking out Their URL

Use SEMrush to see which keywords their website is ranking for.

Really dig into the list – look at the keyword difficulty scores, potential traffic – anything you can use to assess the value of the keywords they’re showing up for.

Even If You’re Not Running Google Ads, Checking the Keywords Your Competitors Are Using for Their Campaigns

Pay attention to both the high cost and low-cost terms. If your competitor is paying for it, it must be worth targeting.

Checking out Their Ad Copy

Since they’ve got to compress a compelling message into just a few lines, you can see what they’ve decided is most important for each concept – and how they think customers will be enticed into clicking through.

Analyzing Your Competitors’ Link Profiles

Their backlinks tell you what content is important to their audience and customers.

Paying Attention to Link Overlap

If several competitors have links to pages about the same concept, then it’s even more apparent that it’s an important concept that you should be targeting on your own site.

Doing a Manual Review of Each Competitors’ Site

Take a look at all their high-level pages and analyze the content, check the raw code of the page (looking for schema markup, headings, and structure), and pay attention to the optimization elements (title tags, H1 headings, and their meta description).

Using Keyword Research to Create Content

Remember those concept buckets you created when you were building your keyword list?

Now that you’re writing content, you’ll be using those concept buckets.

Think of your website content structure as a pyramid.

At the highest level, you’ll need a page for every concept you want to rank for.

Your homepage sits at the very top and acts as a conduit down into your primary category pages, which lead to pages that have a bit more detail, which then lead to very specific pages with very specific content.

It’s OK to mix keywords on the page. You don’t have to use the same phrase over and over again.

In fact, since Google’s algorithm wants to see conversational content, using synonyms and related terms looks more natural.

Content doesn’t have to be written words. You can create graphics, shoot photos, film videos, or record a podcast.

If you’ve done your keyword research well, you’ll know not only which terms to target, but what your audience is looking for.

Your keyword research will also help you in your link building efforts, since you’ll often be creating content in order to attract links.

If you know a certain piece of content will help bring in links, it will obviously need to be optimized around a target concept as well.

Monitoring Keyword Performance

Once you’ve taken your initial swing at your content, you’ll need to monitor your site and see what is and isn’t working.

Make sure you carry out the following activities regularly to keep on top of your keyword performance:

Check Your Analytics

See what’s getting more attention from users, or what’s getting a higher-than-normal bounce rate.

Check Your Rank Tracking Tools

Remember, you’re creating the content to rank higher for certain keywords, so your site will be visible in more searches.

Tweak Your On-Site Optimization

You’ll be optimizing title tags, H1 headings, image alt text, URLs, and meta descriptions – all based on what you came up with when you did your keyword research.

Diagnose Issues With Poor Ranking Pages

Is the quality of the content lacking? Do you need better titles and H1s? Do you need to build a few links to the page?

Don’t Ignore Your Older Content

Check analytics and rank tracking tools and find old content that’s working well – then repurpose that content.

Rinse & Repeat Steps 1-5

Keyword research isn’t and shouldn’t be a one-off thing.

A Guide to Keyword Research

Hopefully, this guide has given you a solid grounding in how to do keyword research.

For more useful tips and advice, go watch the awesome course at SEMrush Academy.

There, you’ll find anything you need to know how to do sound keyword research!

Have more questions?

You can email Greg Gifford through the contact page at searchlabchicago.com.

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