How to Do Keyword Research That Supports Your Search Strategy

Keyword research is at the very foundation of your search strategy and the first step to undertake when building a paid search campaign or starting an SEO project. Here’s how.

We may receive compensation from partners and advertisers whose products appear here. Compensation may impact where products are placed on our site, but editorial opinions, scores, and reviews are independent from, and never influenced by, any advertiser or partner.

Search engines revolutionized marketing. Full stop. Before search engines, marketing was about taking your product to the market, helping supply reach demand in macroeconomic jargon. With search engines, the market comes to the product by defining exactly what it wants. Marketing has turned it all around. It’s about optimizing your product to the needs of the audience: helping demand reach supply.

Marketing is dead, long live search marketing. Search marketing optimizes your product, your brand, your information to what users are looking for. And the first thing you do is listen. Listen to what users are explicitly asking for by studying and analyzing keyword queries in search engines.


Overview: What is keyword research?

Keyword research is the process of listening to your audience and figuring out what search strings they use to express needs that are relevant to your products, services, and communication. It’s a structured and time-consuming process involving brainstorming, exploration, data collection, and keyword analysis.


Why are keywords important for your SEO?

There are three pillars to success in SEO: architecture, content, and authority. In the content pillar, keywords are essential to define what content you create, and what keyword searches you target. Keyword research is one of the first steps you undertake for an SEO project.

It’s like market research. You must understand your audience and market before you start a communication campaign. You need to understand your keywords at the beginning of an SEO project.


How to perform keyword research

While researching keywords, search marketers must focus on their objectives and not get carried away by all the keyword research data and the glimmering tools. Real people are behind keyword search, and it’s our job to match them optimally with brands. Let’s look at the steps you’ll go through to reach that objective.

1. Audience, user journey, and positioning

Don’t start choosing keywords just yet. Instead, beam yourself into the head of your target audience. Who are they? How do they connect to the internet? What stages may they go through in the user journey to reach your offering? Oh, here they come: what keywords would they use to find the information necessary to choose you?

The best way to understand your audience is to create personas. These are simplified and visual representations of your key market segments. Put yourself in their skin before moving to the next step.

2. Explore topics and keywords

Maybe you’ve already spontaneously come up with a few keywords in step one. Perhaps these are the right seed keywords to start with. In this step, let’s start using tools to refine that view and better understand the way our target audience searches. If you don’t have a seed keyword, do a quick domain lookup with a tool such as Moz or Searchmetrics to see your main current keywords.

Now type the most important keyword into the Bing, Google, and YouTube search boxes. Inspiration pours straight at you, as each of the three tools provides suggestions for auto-completing your search query.

Screenshot of YouTube query suggestions when you type “amazon marketing.”

By using publicly available features from Bing, YouTube, and Google, you already create an initial expansion of your keyword research. Source: youtube.com.

While exploring and discovering how users search for topics in relation to your product or service, take notes: you can take screenshots, but for our purpose, it will be much better to open a text document and copy everything that inspires you.

A little hack for this is to use Ubersuggest or the Keyword Surfer Chrome extension to do the exact same thing and export the data to a CSV file. These are both free keyword research tools.

At the discovery stage, tools can be very helpful to find and explore the right topics. Two great tools for categorizing search terms are AnswerThePublic and AlsoAsked.com which we described in more detail in our review of free keyword tools.

When you enter a search term, the keyword finder will break the search results up into categories organized via qualifiers, words in the search phrases which indicate the intent behind the query.

Screenshot of a keyword lookup with AnswerThePublic.

AnswerThePublic is a great tool for keyword research as it helps you ask questions and categorize topics and keywords. Source: answerthepublic.com.

Another inspirational approach is to type your keyword into AlsoAsked.com to see ranges of questions users may ask in relation to the main keyword you entered.

If you finish step 2 with a good overview of the topics your keywords will fall into and a clear definition of the core keywords that will be the starting point for your keyword research, you have come a long way.

3. Analyze competitors

To analyze your competitors and identify the most important ones, you may already have a clear idea of who they are. If your site is already indexed and ranking, you can choose to find the data by heading over to one of the domain lookup tools we have reviewed, and type in your own domain name.

Once you have the URLs of your 3-5 most important competitors, check them out with SpyFu's competitive analysis tool or enter the URLs as domain lookups in one of the other analysis tools. If you have chosen a tool like Ahrefs or SEMrush for your competitive review, they provide great content and keyword discovery features which will also be useful in steps 4 and 5.

4. Define keyword categories

In step 4, you need to take a step back and look at what you’ve understood so far. What types of queries do you want to target? They will often fall into the following categories:

  • Brand keywords: Your brand name, company name, product names.
  • Category keywords: Short and generic keywords.
  • Intent-based keywords: Keywords that correspond to needs your product or service satisfies.
  • Longtail keywords: Very specific key phrases composed of various keywords and which typically each have low search volumes.

The better your categorization, the easier it will be to build the detailed keyword research in step 5.

5. Build detailed keyword lists

In this step, you will do the real work of finding all the individual keywords you want to target. For this, you need access to data sets that can be found either via some of the tools mentioned above or via the Keyword Planner, which is a free tool Google provides for preparing paid search campaigns.

It will provide most of the information you are interested in, but the format isn’t easy to use, and extracting it is long and tedious.

A tool like KWFinder will provide you with neat functionality to create lists and add keywords to individual lists while doing the research. A tool such as Ahrefs allows you to look up keywords from various sources, including Amazon, for product searches and Yandex, Baidu, and Naver for international campaigns.

Your goal is to have the following in your keyword lists:

  • Keyword category
  • Keyword composed of 1 or more words
  • Search volume per month
  • Estimated CPC
  • Keyword difficulty
  • Estimated traffic

6. Visualize the keyword strategy

I like to use bubble charts to illustrate data in three dimensions. By summing up the search volume and averaging the CPC and keyword difficulties per list from step 5, we can illustrate our keyword planning with a bubble chart.

An Excel bubble chart illustrating three keyword categories, their CPC, their difficulty, and the search volume.

In this bubble chart, the three keyword categories represent different strategic keyword opportunities, with brand keywords and longtail keywords easier to target than category keywords.

7. Define priorities for paid and organic search

Your keyword research is ready, and now it’s time for your keyword strategy. What keyword categories will you prioritize? Will you target them in the short or the long term? And will you take the long path to SEO positioning for long-term results or the short but expensive path using paid search results?


Keyword research is key for successful search marketing

Whether you prepare a paid search campaign or an SEO project, your first stop is keyword research: It’s key to your success in search marketing. Don’t get carried away with all the functionality the tools can provide, and keep your mind set on the end users and their needs. Then build your keyword strategy to win at search and create a foundation for your wider digital marketing activities.

The Ultimate Guide to Building Virtual Teams

Knowing how to build a strong virtual team is more important today than ever -- and there are six critical things you must do to succeed. That's why we've created this ultra-timely 19-page report on what you should be doing now to set your virtual team up to win.

Enter your email below to access our (no-strings-attached) free report, "The Ultimate SMB Guide to Building High-Performing Virtual Teams."

The Motley Fool has a Disclosure Policy. The Author and/or The Motley Fool may have an interest in companies mentioned.