Keyword Research Introduction

Keyword research is the lifeblood of SEO and, when done properly, can help you answer important questions about your audience that’ll enable you to produce the high quality content that helps your site rank for desired terms. These questions include what people are searching for, how many of them are doing so and how they want that information presented to them. The first step in this process is having a clear understanding of your audience and what they want from your site; while this may seem obvious, there’s often a disconnect between what you are trying to rank for and what your audience actually wants and searches for. Take a critical look at how your website discusses the products, services and/or content that you are trying to rank for and use keyword research tools (such as the ones available in the SEMRush, Ahrefs and Brightedge platforms, among others) to look up related terms and ensure that your content is aligned with popular ones that are relevant to your users. We’ll get into the proper way to use these tools and understand the data they provide in the section below.

Keyword Research Tools

While different tools provide a variety of data points that will allow you to narrow down your potential keyword list to the most impactful terms, there are two metrics all keyword research tools should provide, namely average monthly search volume and keyword difficulty. Average monthly search volume is a broad metric that reflects the overall interest in a given term by showing you how many users search for a particular keyword per month (you may be able to view the volume for specific periods of time but generally when you see a search volume estimate next to a keyword it is an average of total searches over a twelve month period), while keyword difficulty gives you an idea of how many other sites are trying to rank for a term and thus provide you with the competitive environment you’ll enter when attempting to rank for it.

It’s important to understand that while high search volumes indicate that a term is popular that may not necessarily mean it’s the one you should try to rank for, as higher search volumes also tend to mean that there’s a high level of competition for that term. You may want to focus instead on long-tail keywords, which may have lower volume but tend to convert better due to the fact that they generally demonstrate more intent on the part of the user. For example, let’s say you own a new organic bakery site; while the high search volume for the term “cakes” may seem appealing, there are many other well-established companies and brands that rank for that term and breaking through that competitive environment will take lots of time and effort (and it should also be noted that you’ll inevitably use common terms like “cake” as a matter of course throughout your content anyway). It’s more effective then to focus your efforts on optimizing for long-tail, lower volume keywords like “organic cakes for sale”, as that term speaks directly to an audience that is both interested in your specific product and has already demonstrated that they have a high intent to both find and ultimately purchase your product. 

Understanding the competitive environment

Now that you have begun compiling a list of keywords and have a better understanding of the average monthly search volume and keyword difficulty metrics you can start honing in on your competitors and carefully select which keywords to target. Using the keyword difficulty metric in particular you may be able to uncover some valuable terms that your competitors are either failing to optimize entirely for or doing so ineffectively; optimizing your content with these terms can allow you to establish a foothold in the space from which you can start to build authority and rankings, which in turn will enable you to begin competing for other valuable terms.

Understanding seasonality

While not necessarily a concern for every site, many businesses are affected by seasonal trends and it’s important to be prepared for them ahead of time when performing keyword research. Going back to our organic bakery example, there probably isn’t a whole lot of interest in “vegan christmas cookies” around June, but understanding how that term spikes in search volume in November and December will help you prepare and optimize your content appropriately. While it may seem obvious to point out that terms like that spike towards the end of the year, the holidays are hardly the only seasonal trend worth keeping track of. If you operate a site for a restaurant you may want to refocus your efforts away from your awesome patio space during the winter months and instead highlight your cozy and inviting dining room; similarly, if you run a site that sells furniture you’ll want to focus on terms that support your outdoor furniture products as the weather begins to heat up.

Understanding Search intent

We briefly touched on intent in the keyword research tools section, and we’ll expand on it here. Searches generally fall into three broad categories: informational (the user is attempting to find specific information, such as the length of the Nile river or A$AP Rocky’s birthday), navigational (the user is trying to get to a specific location on the internet by typing the common name of a site in their search bar) and transactional (the user is searching in order to do something, such as purchase pants or watch a YouTube video). Understanding the intent behind specific search queries is crucial to building an effective keyword strategy. If you operate an e-commerce site you will obviously want to focus your efforts on optimizing for transactional queries, while if you are instead running a music blog you’ll want to optimize your content for informational queries.

Additional materials

While the information provided above should help you better understand the value of keyword research and even empower you to begin doing some of your own, it’s hardly comprehensive; keyword research has been a discipline within SEO from the start and many brilliant minds have contributed to our understanding of it over the years. If you’re interested in finding out more please feel free to check out other resources available from trusted sources within the SEO community, including AhrefsMozYoast and SEJournal.