Back To Basics : #2 Keyword Research
Updated: Jan 16
In the second of our ‘Back to Basics' series, we’re going to tackle a subject that should be an integral part of any SEO strategy, and that’s keyword research. It should be part of it, but all too often isn’t.
In many cases, it’s completely overlooked, so let’s change that by breaking it down to its bare essentials to make it as simple as possible for you.
This will hopefully give you a better understanding of what it is and how you can use it to your advantage if you’re not already.
Incidentally, if you missed the first Back To Basics post on Search Engine Optimisation (or SEO) then you can read that first by clicking here (don’t forget to come back) ;-)
WHAT IS KEYWORD RESEARCH?
Keyword research is, or should be, the first step on your copywriting journey. If you’ve got a website structure, sooner or later, you’re going to need to add some copy to those pages to attract visitors. That copy will cover the web pages themselves but also include blog posts.
Whatever form they come in they’ll all contain words, lots and lots of words. These magical idioms will spread over an ever-growing number of pages and posts, but not all of those words are created equally in the eyes of the all-conquering search engines.
When a visitor goes to their search engine of choice (probably Google) and types in a search term, if it’s relevant to your business, you want them to find your website.
Sounds simple, but whatever sector or industry you’re in, we doubt you’re the only one supplying or offering that thing they want or searched for.
If you are, then you’re onto a winner already but, for the most part, you will be one of a number of results offered by Google, Bing or any other search engine, but here’s the thing; THEIR search terms and YOUR keywords need to become very well acquainted, but how do you know what those magic keywords are? Well, you put your thinking cap on and do some research on those all-important keywords. Let’s call it something like, oh I don’t know, let’s go with Keyword Research!
When building a website (preferably before it’s launched), one of the questions to ask yourself (or your web developer) is “what words do you want the site to rank for?” In other words, what words would someone type into Google (or any other search engine) that would mean your website should be one that is listed in the results? There won’t be just one or two, there will be hundreds of them.
If, for example, you have a florist, then examples of keywords would include obvious things like “florist”, “flower shops”, “flower delivery” but also phrases like “florists near me”, “buy flowers online”, “same day bouquet delivery”, “order funeral wreaths” - you get the idea. There will / should be LOADS of them covering all possible scenarios. Think of as many combinations and variations as you can.
Also, think about your audience and what you think they’ll be looking for and list them too. By all means ask family, friends and colleagues for their ideas too. The more keywords you have, the better.
These magic terms will be classed as ‘keywords’. These important indicators, virtual road signs if you will, tell search engines about your site, your products or services and, more importantly, that ‘thing’ they’re looking for, those all-important search terms, are located on your site!
Keyword research might sound easy (and relatively speaking it is to start with) but it’s also a task that should never end. That’s not to say you have to do it 24/7, but the more you learn about your customer’s habits, your business, your competitors and the sector you operate in, the more keywords will come to mind.
You can then constantly update your site to meet those changes to attract more traffic. Part of your ongoing analytics will be to see what people are searching for, both on external search engines to bring them to you, and on your site itself (assuming it has a search function - which it should!).
WHY IS KEYWORD RESEARCH IMPORTANT?
Why? Well keyword research is going to help you understand what your potential customers are searching for, not least so they come to your site instead of your competitors
It will also help you to know what they’re actually searching for, rather than what you think they’re searching for.
History is littered with websites that assume customers search for one term and build their products around it, but in reality, they actually are searching using completely different terms.
It’s also important that you use the same terms on your site as those used by potential customers. How will you know what they are if you don’t do some research?
There’s no point optimising for words on your site that no one uses when searching. Too many businesses only use limited terms when describing their product or service and leave a multitude of other perfectly viable options on the table, or miss the most used search terms because they haven’t researched them thoroughly or there’s a mismatch.
The other important factor is something we looked at in the ‘Back to Basics’ post on SEO, which is search intent.
This helps you to find out EXACTLY what they’re searching for and why which will help you create quality content that answers the burning questions they have.
THE 3 KEY CONCEPTS OF KEYWORD RESEARCH
Before we dive head-first into the world of keyword research, we think it’s important to outline some key concepts behind it to keep you on track. These will be especially important if it’s a new topic for you.
We’ve talked a lot about keywords, but it’s also important to remember it’s not just about individual words. There are key phrases too and it’s this simple concept that makes all the difference to your website.
When people search, they usually don’t just type an individual word; more and more of them type complete sentences. If they’re looking for a bunch of flowers to send their loved one on Valentine’s Day, for example, it’s unlikely they’ll just type in ‘flowers’.
We mean, they might, but the results they get back probably won’t help them. It’s too broad. More likely it will be something like “Valentine's Day flowers delivered from florists near me” (or similar).
Whilst individual words, known as ‘head’ keywords absolutely should be part of your keyword research, don’t forget to include key phrases too.
These are known as ‘long-tail’ keywords. We’re going to be referring to these terms a lot going forward, so make sure you know the difference.
Because it’s so broad, being ranked highly for head keywords, like ‘flowers’, is going to be much more difficult than for ‘long-tail’ keywords, which are obviously longer, but also more specific and often niche. This means that there will be less competition for more detailed phrases, allowing you to rank higher.
It is true that there will be fewer people using long-tail keywords, the flip side of that is it’s much more likely they’ll be in ‘buying’ mode; whether that’s actually purchasing your product or service, signing-up to a newsletter or whatever call-to-action you have in mind. Again, this is where search intent comes into play.
Another key concept when doing your research is thinking carefully about what the person who’s searching actually wants, or needs, at that time.
The keywords are important, but another key concept to success will be to understand what the searcher’s goals are. What do they want to know? What do they want to do? What do they want to buy? They have a problem and it’s your website’s job to solve that problem for them.
Last, but by no means least, is the concept of a ‘strategy’ when researching keywords. We’ve said it before but SEO and all its intricacies is a long-game, which is good because so should your keyword research.
The first few steps along the journey will also help you make decisions about the content you produce online.
What are the most pressing questions they ask? Are you going to focus on head or long-tail keywords first? How and where will you publish your content? Will it manifest as a new blog, new product, service, training course, tutorial or even infographic? You’ll never know until you do your research, but those decisions will be key.
OK, you’re sold, and that’s good, but if you’re now asking where do you start and how is it even done? then stick around, we’ve got just the section for you coming next.
WHERE DO YOU START AND HOW IS KEYWORD RESEARCH EVEN DONE?
Great question! For all its intricacies and nuances that can come with SEO, let’s remember this is a ‘Back to Basics’ post on keyword research, so we’ve tried to break it down into 7 simple steps, all of them vital to your success, so it’s best to do them in order!
1. YOUR MISSION STATEMENT
We touched on it in an earlier section, but before you even sit down and do anything related to keywords, think about where you are in the process and what you’re trying to achieve. This is especially key if you’re a new business, but important for everyone to some degree.
Asking yourself some questions will help you define your mission statement; What is your main goal? What is going to make it special? Who are you trying to reach? What separates you from the competition?
These kinds of questions, and more, will collectively begin to form a mission statement of sorts, but will also, once you see them all written down, help to solidify what you’re trying to achieve and what your goals are moving forward.
With that done, it’s time to be honest with yourself about the sector in which you operate. Obviously, we don’t know that, but hopefully, you do.
It’s worth remembering that some markets are incredibly competitive, which means that it’s easy for smaller companies to get lost in the swell of the enormous marketing, SEO and advertising budgets of multi-national conglomerates, but don’t despair.
If you are in a competitive market, start small. You’re wasting your time trying to compete with the likes of Amazon or [insert the name of another huge corporation here]. Focus on one small niche aspect of the sector and set to owning that little bit.
Do that as well as you can, get known for it and as your audience and customer base starts to grow, expand out a little at a time becoming less niche and more mainstream as you do.
Whilst there’s little most people can do as the ‘big boys’ might dominate the search rankings, there’s a place for you if you’re smart.
This starts with finding the ‘thing’ that makes your business stand out from the rest; whether it’s customer care, quality of ingredients, eco-packing, craftsmanship, or whatever it is, make THAT thing your niche and put it at the heart of your mission and what you do. It’s that piece of the puzzle which your audience will gravitate towards.
2. MAKE A LIST. CHECK IT TWICE. FIND OUT WHO’S NAUGHTY OR NICE
OK, actually just the first bit. Now you’ve got your mission, you’re now ready to do some actual keyword research! This is best done in a spreadsheet like Microsoft Excel, Google Sheets or Apple Numbers, so get comfortable with that software.
Create a new document and add a separate column for headings and multiple columns for longer-tail terms. Also, add one column called ‘Intent’ and a final one for ‘Research Notes’ (these will become apparent later on).
If you’re wondering how many search terms you need, sadly there really isn’t an exact answer we can give you. It will vary, but if you’ve only got 3, that definitely won’t be enough and if there are tens of thousands of them, that’s probably too many to be practical and you should probably get out more.
Initially, a small business will be looking at around a couple of hundred of words / phrases, but the list will grow as your business does. You’ll be amazed at how quickly they’ll mount up once you hit your groove.
SIDE NOTE - When the list is complete, hang on to it as it will also help you create a site map later on if you’re still in the process of building your website.
With your own list done, it’s now time to get into the heads of your customers, or rather those thousands of potential customers and start to make a list of those all-important keywords and phrases.
What will THEY be typing into Google? What are THEY looking for? What search terms will THEY be using? How will THEY be phrasing or wording the same terms? What are the words that will show them that your website is going to answer their questions? What problems do you solve for them? Ask lots of questions and write down as many answers as you can. Ask family and friends for their contributions too.
If you’ve done your mission statement well, being able to answer many of these questions will be much easier as you’ll know what your USP is and understand your market, or at least the niche part of it you’re tackling first.
This list of keywords and phrases will be like gold dust going forward and are going to form the backbone of how you are going to be found online.
Once you have the list, at least your initial list, it’s time to prioritise them. Take a look at the list and think about what search terms you want to rank for now.
Depending on the competition in the marketplace, you might want to focus on the long-tail keywords ones first, or if it's less crowded, then you might want to tackle the ‘head’ words. Either way, decide which ones are important for your initial rollout. This will help you to understand your priorities and help you to plan your content strategy in the short term.
3. RESEARCH THOSE KEYWORDS
Once you’ve made your first keyword list, it’s time to delve deeper into it and do a little more research.
You’ve got YOUR list from Step #2 of what you THINK they’re searching for, but that’s not always going to be the same as the ones they ACTUALLY search on, so let’s find out.
There are a number of tools on the market that can help like Moz, Semrush, Screaming Frog or Answer The Public, but they’re often very expensive (although Answer The Public has some free features), but you don’t have to spend a lot on your research. Google lets you do it for free!
If you weren’t aware, when you go to Google and start to type in a search term, the search engine tries to auto-complete the phrase it thinks you’re looking for to save you time based on what other people have typed previously.
This historic knowledge means you have free access to some of the search terms related to those words. These are the phrases that other people, your potential customers, are asking Google.
Start working your way down your list, not least to find out if your phrases are listed by Google. If they are there, great - give it a tick, if not, chances are fewer people aren’t using those terms to search so are less relevant.
Once you’re done, pick a phrase (any one will do for this exercise but we've used 'flower shops near me') and hit 'Enter'. Google will then run a search on that term.
Nothing ground-breaking about that, but the SERP (Search Engine Results Page) produced does display a couple of other helpful hints. If you scroll down the page (about halfway), it will show something like this:
This shows you some other keywords or phrases that people search for in connection to the one you used. We’ve continued our florist analogy here, so obviously they will be different and related to the search term you’ve used when you do it. Some of these additional key phrases (or long-tail keywords) might be on your list already, but if not, then it will give you a few more for the list and even take you on another useful tangent or give you some ideas for content.
Also, if you scroll to the bottom of the page, there will be a little more helpful information for you, like this.
These are called ‘related searches’ and appear at the bottom of every results page. Again, they offer you another insight into similar searches to the one you conducted, which might help you.
Both of these little tools will give you lots of variations on, not only the key phrase you used, but other synonyms or related phrases. Some you might have already, but if not, then they can take your thinking into new areas.
There’s also Google Trends which might be of use to you. It shows how frequently a given search term is entered into Google's search engine relative to the site's total search volume over a given period of time.
Also, when searching phrases and words, don’t forget to include your own site. Assuming it has a search feature (which it really should), take notice of what people who are already on your site are looking for and whether it includes what they want.
4. USE LONG-TAIL WORDS TOO
Many people, especially those new to keyword research or SEO in general, often focus exclusively on those shorter ‘head’ keywords, but almost all of them have been grabbed, at least in SEO terms, by the ‘big boys’, but that’s ok.
There’s still some real power in the long-tail search terms. It’s true they get less traffic, but that simply means there’s less competition fighting over them.
This gap in the market means you can jump in and grab them. As a consequence of that, it makes it easier for you to rank for them because long-tail keywords are more focused than simplified head keywords. Result!
Here’s another quick tip for you - long-tail words also have a higher conversion rate because they’re more specific. They tell you people know what they want and they’re ready to buy. Double result!
5. KNOW WHAT YOUR COMPETITION IS DOING
All of this so far has been concerned with getting keyword research optimised for your business, but you probably don’t exist in a vacuum.
Chances are you will have competition in your particular marketplace, so you can’t simply ignore what they’re doing. This step is really dependent on the amount of competition you have.
As we mentioned already, the ‘head’ keyword is often already well-catered for by the larger companies, which usually leaves smaller businesses going after the long-tail words, but this also depends on the amount of competition you have.
If it’s high, then you might also have a tricky time ranking for some of the most popular terms too (especially if you’re new). If not, then go after them all. It might sound like there’s nowhere to go, but don’t be despondent. It’s time to do some SEO benchmarking.
SEO benchmarking simply means you take your researched list of keywords and run each of them through a search engine. Time-consuming? Yes. Vital? ABSOLUTELY!
Start with head terms (just in case) and then take a look at the results that are generated from each of them. These are your virtual competitors or will be once you start optimising your content for each of those words or phrases.
Look at the results and what do you notice about them? Take note of things like:
Are they huge multi-national conglomerates with professional websites or smaller companies like yours?
Do you see any of your competitors listed there?
Are these new companies to you?
Where does your company fit against them?
Are you about the same size in terms of turnover, staff or product lines?
Do they operate in the same area(s)?
Are the same companies coming up again and again for multiple search terms?
It should be no secret to tell you that it’s going to be a battle to rank higher when competing with the likes of Amazon, John Lewis, Nike, Interflora, etc. or those well-known brand names that people know and love, but that’s not necessarily the point.
Focus on those companies within your reach. Follow the links and take a look objectively at their content. Is it any good? Is it well-written or just a slew of keywords tenuously connected? Is their content optimised? If the answer to those questions is “No”, then it’s game on for you.
When looking at results, also take a look at the top of the page for the paid content it throws up; those results marked ‘Ad’ that will have been paid for.
It can be easy to miss (so we've highlighted them above) and that's the point. They want you to think they're there because they're the most relevant results so you're more likely to click on them, but they have paid to be there.
How many do you see during your research? Are there any at all? If you haven’t got one already, it’s time to create a Google Ads account.
From there you can then check the Pay-Per-Click results. Search terms that are bought and paid for are usually (but not always) harder to rank for organically anyway (hence they get paid for), but it might be an outlet for you later on.
Finally, remember that extra column for ‘Research Notes’ we asked you to make in your spreadsheet back in Step #2? Well, we did, so now is the time to use it.
Against the relevant word or phrase, use it to make notes about how it ranks and your observations. You may well see patterns developing that you can draw upon when developing your own keyword strategy (which we’ll be coming too soon).
6. REMEMBER SEARCH INTENT
If you’re not too clear on what search intent is, it might be worth reading the previous Back To Basics post on SEO before continuing. If you ‘get it’, read on!
Search is an ever-evolving process; over the years the algorithms have become more sophisticated and the results get more accurate as the search terms become more descriptive.
Nowadays, search often revolves around answering questions from people or offering the best solution for a problem. Remember that when people type something into Google (or any search engine) they are looking to solve a problem they have or are on a mission to find something they need.
Every question needs an answer and we want those answers to be on your website. Obviously not ALL the answers to EVERYTHING, but the relevant ones for sure.
Part of your keyword research will need to be working out what ‘intent’ your particular audience has when they type your head or long-tail words into a search engine.
Are they looking for information on something? Maybe it’s a product or service to sell. Are they wanting to get to a specific website? Are they researching a product they’re looking to buy in the future or want to buy it there and then?
Each of these is a specific type of search intent;
When researching your list, it's important to think about the intent behind them the words and what type of pages already get ranked for those words or phrases. This will help you to understand what the search engine you’re using ‘thinks’ is the intent of the query.
Look to see whether the results are product pages, how-to videos, blog posts or a mix of them all. These clues will help you to understand what the algorithm assumes (rightly or wrongly) the intent of the query to be.
Going forward, you need to work on matching the content to the intent, so make a note in the ‘Intent’ column on your spreadsheet.
7. DEVELOP A KEYWORD STRATEGY
After all that research, clicking, analysing and note-taking, you’ll have a spreadsheet’s worth of invaluable data. You’ll know what words and phrases rank better than others, what your competition ranks for and will hopefully be beginning to understand the search intent that those potential customers are displaying.
It might look like a big jumble of words, but there will be some amazing insight within it that you can use to formulate a keyword and content strategy.
With all that information at your fingertips, you can answer some important questions about your own business.
After all your research, how do you think your business holds up against the competition? Are those companies that are currently ranking similar to you? Do they compare (more or less) with you in terms of size, turnover, and marketing efforts? Are head terms available for your market or do you need to focus initially on long-tail words instead?
Having a good list of long-tail words that you can combine into quality content can attract lots of traffic. Once you’ve tackled the long-tail terms, it will be easier to make a start on making ‘headway’ into those head words. All puns intended.
Whichever way you go, whether it’s head or long-tail first, it’s finally time to start thinking about the type of content you need to produce to fulfil those all-important questions.
What is your audience looking for? What’s the intent of the phrases they’re using? What content is missing in the marketplace? How can you make sure what you produce stands out in terms of answers or quality? Only you can answer those questions, when you know, you’ll be ready to make your mark.
SQUARING THE CIRCLE
Whilst this is the end of this post, it should only be the beginning of your SEO strategy. Don’t just file your spreadsheet away and forget about it. It should be an ever-evolving working document.
That’s not to say someone needs to update it all day every day, but as your business grows, you sell more products or offer more services, you learn more about yourself, your customers and your business, you’ll think of new phrases, words and your content will grow to encompass all of them. New products or services will mean more research. Add them all to the spreadsheet.
In many ways, the hard work in terms of SEO hasn’t even started yet. With a list of keywords and phrases at hand, you’ll now have to start creating some amazing content around it.
Write blog posts and website content around each and every one of them, not all in the same post obviously, but develop a content plan to incorporate all of them over the coming weeks, months and years.
Of course, you COULD get someone to do all that copywriting for you. I wonder who that could be? The answer is readily available by clicking here. SPOILER ALERT - It’s us! ;-)
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