In our previous post, Getting Started With SEO, we gave a high level overview of SEO. In this post, we will talk about the first step to great SEO, keyword research.

Keyword research refers to creating a list of relevant phrases with the right mix of search volumes and competitiveness. Having a list of key phrases does not mean you should exclusively cater your content to them. Instead, focus your energy on creating compelling, valuable, and share-worthy content first, and do keyword optimization after.

Follow these three simple steps to get started with keyword research:

Step 1: make a list of important topics for your business

List 5-10 topics specific to your business. For example, topics for an online shoes store might include “affordable men’s boots” and “comfortable heels”. Keep topics focused since creating content for many disparate topics can be difficult.

Step 2: populate the topics with keywords

Do a brain dump of all the phrases your customers may use to search for your business. The best starting point is Google AdWords’s Keyword Planner. Read here for a detailed guide to the Keyword Planner. It gives you robust suggestions for both keywords and topics (ad groups), along with average monthly searches and competitiveness.

Keyword Planner screenshot

You want to have a healthy mix of short-tail and long-tail terms. Short-tail terms often have more volume and are more competitive. Long-tail terms, on the other hand, usually have smaller volume but easy to rank for. To get the most out of long-tail terms, you will need to have a lot of them. An example of a short-tail term is “vietnamese food”, while a long-tail term would be “vegan friendly vietnamese food in Houston.”

If you have trouble coming up with enough keywords, don’t forget to use synonyms. Google is very good about showing relevant content, regardless of the actual words used.

Step 3: filter your keywords

This step is often the most difficult. Fortunately, you can use tools from Google to gain qualitative and quantitative insights into your keywords. Carefully analyze the data Keyword Planner gives you, such as monthly search volumes, competitiveness, traffic estimates, and suggested bids. The key metrics for SEO are the average monthly searches and competition. Be mindful to only use search volumes as a guidepost as opposed to definite numbers. Avoid terms with extremely low or high search volumes. These terms are either nearly impossible or not impactful to rank for.

Additionally, use the search volumes as a way to compare two keywords. For example, keyword X is searched 100 times a month, keyword Y is searched 200 a month. As opposed to using the numbers to figure out how many clicks you might get, the conclusion should be that keyword Y gets about twice the volume compared to keyword X.

Lastly, use Google Trends to help you figure out if any keywords you want to focus on are on the downward trend and if any low volume terms are trending up. Up or downward-trending keywords may represent a shift in consumer interest or terminology usage patterns. Having such information is key to helping you choose the right terms to focus on.

Google Trends screenshot

One more thing: searcher intent

Searcher intent is the intention behind the query a user types into the browser. In other words, what is this person really looking for? This is important because the user expects specific types of pages based on their intent. Catering your content to the searcher intent will yield significantly better SEO results.

There are three categories of intent:

  • Navigational: using the search engine to visit a page you already know exists. It’s helpful when you forget or feel too lazy to type in the URL. These queries are not super valuable. Examples: “Youtube login”, “facebook”, “gmail.”
  • Informational: the user is doing research on something she wants to buy/do soon. She is arriving at the top of the conversion funnel. Aggregation and informational sites rank highly for these queries, such as Yelp and TripAdvisor. Examples: “fun things to do in Paris”, “best Vietnamese restaurant in Oakland.”
  • Commercial Research: the user wants to fulfill a need and is looking for the service to help her do so. These queries are both valuable and competitive. They capture attention at the point of intent to buy, reserve, or subscribe. For this reason, it’s the majority of AdWords’ revenue. Examples: “car rental in San Francisco” for ZipCar, “send money online” for paypal, “last minute hotel booking in Atlanta” for HotelTonight.

When planning your keyword strategy, it’s important to have a clear understanding of the type of business you run and where it falls in the searcher intent category. The keywords you research should fall in either informational or commercial research.

Other tools for keyword research

Besides Keyword Planner and Google Trends, there are many third party tools you can use to plan your keyword strategy:

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