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What Is Keyword Research, and How Do You Do It?

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A great website helps you hit your targets.
Keyword research helps you choose which targets to hit.

An estimated 93 percent of online experiences begin on a search engine. Whether your strategy is focused on SEO on PPC or both, keyword research is essential.

What Is Keyword Research?

Keyword research is the process of identifying keywords to target with website content or landing pages. It involves analyzing the popularity, value, intent, and competitiveness of keywords people type into search engines.

keyword research stats for ford dealerships
This screenshot from SEMrush shows stats for keywords a Ford dealership might want to target.


Here are some quick definitions to know:

Search volume

The number of people searching a particular keyword into search engines, measured monthly. According to Google Keyword Planner, the phrase “ford used cars” has a search volume of 5,400, meaning that roughly 5,400 people in the world search this phrase in a month.

Cost per click (CPC)

The cost of a single click to your website in a Google PPC campaign. The Google Ads tool provides a low range and high range. For “ford used cars,” it’s $1.37 and $5.73 respectively. These numbers are what PPC managers pay for ad placement, giving an indication of the buying intent when searching the keyword.

Keyword competition/difficulty

An estimation of how difficult it is to rank high for the keyword. A high difficulty can mean that many other websites have pages with good ranking ability for the keyword, that those sites are high authority. Google Ads provides general scores (low, medium, high). Other tools give a specific numeric score.

Most popular keyword research tools:

  • Google Ads Keyword Planner
  • Bing Keyword Research
  • Ahrefs Keywords Explorer
  • SEMrush
  • BrightEdge
  • Moz
  • Answer the Public


Discovering Keywords

Top down approach

What are the general topics, services, and products you’re featuring on your website? Enter them into a keyword research tool, which generates similar and related keywords. This helps tell you what keywords to target and what new pages to create.

For example, if you type in “wedding,” you might find keywords like “wedding cakes,” “wedding DJs,” and “wedding photographers.” 

Bottom up approach

What specific pages do you envision on your website? What is unique about your business? Enter specific phrases into keyword research tools and search engines, with the goal of identifying popular keywords that match up with your site’s focus. Tie your ideas to viable keyword opportunities.

Competitor research

Look at websites that are currently ranking for keywords you want to target. Use SEO tools to see a list of their keywords. Peruse their site to get ideas for other pages and keyword targets. Compare your pages to theirs. There’s no more fundamental SEO strategy than to create pages that are better than the competition.

Google suggestions and related searches

Using Google itself is an easy way to gather keyword ideas. When you start typing into Google’s search bar, you’ll likely see suggested queries as you type. And at the bottom of a search results page, Google usually shows a list of related queries. Pay attention to both of these; they might surface keywords you hadn’t found yet. 

Innovative approaches

Over time, digital marketers have come up with creative ways of discovering keywords. Peruse Wikipedia articles relating to your website’s topic to see how the article is sectioned off. Find questions people have asked on Quora, Reddit, forums, and social media. Automated tools help a lot, but human ingenuity is a powerful tool as well.

google keyword suggestions for air fryer
Google's auto-suggest function reveals common keywords. Are you hungry?


Choosing Keywords

As you discover keywords, you’ll likely notice that there are some questions to answer when choosing keywords.

  • What format do people use when searching?
  • What exactly are people searching for?
  • How specific should our keywords be?

Once you understand your goals and who your customers are, you can really use keyword research to your advantage.

It’s about finding what people actually want, instead of just what you want to rank for. When you combine keyword data with the focus on your audience, you can have more successful campaigns. 

Head Terms vs. Long-Tail Keywords

Head terms are shorter and more generic. They are normally searched more often, but they’re usually more competitive. 

Long-tail keywords are longer phrases, three or more words. They may get fewer searches, but they make it easier to tell what someone is looking for.

There could be numerous reasons why someone could look up the term “business,” but less for the term “start a passive income business today.” 

Depending on your website and business, you can decide what mix of short and long keywords to choose.

Conventional wisdom says you’ll want to target keywords that have low competition and a high search volume. When you choose less competitive keywords, it’s easier to rank. 


Long Tail vs. Even Longer Tail

If you have a travel website, you might be tempted to use the keyword “Paris.” While “Paris” will have a high search volume, it’s extremely competitive. You’ll want to narrow down your search.

Some long-tail keywords for your strategy might be:

  • what to do in Paris
  • hotels near Eiffel Tower
  • guide to museums in Paris

Some even longer-tail keywords would be:

  • what to do in Paris during summer for an American family
  • cheap hotels near Eiffel Tower with a parking lot
  • best museums in Paris for international contemporary art

“The Eye Test”

Google the keyword

Look at the pages ranking now

Be honest with yourself:
Can your site rank for this keyword?


Realistic Expectations!

We get it, you want to shoot for the moon. Keywords with extremely high search volume and CPC are tempting to go after.

In the PPC world, putting your site into the results for high-value keywords is a matter of price. You can do it if you’re willing to spend more than everyone else. It’s a simple, mathematical trade-off.

In the SEO world, it gets more complicated. Earning a high rank for a competitive keyword can be difficult, or impossible, for some sites. You may be competing with sites that have long-lasting reputations, high domain authority, tons of backlinks, amazing user behavior metrics, and the perfect content to satisfy the user’s query. That’s a tough battle to win.

We urge you to develop an SEO strategy that gives your website a realistic chance of success. Use the metrics available, and also use common sense and your knowledge of your industry.

Don’t always ask, “What keywords do we want to rank for?” Instead, ask, “What keywords should we rank for?”