Keyword research plays a pivotal role in any SEO strategy. A technique that involves identifying and analysing search terms to enhance visibility and rankings in search engine results pages (SERPs), it’s one of the foundations on which SEO is built.
Using keywords effectively won’t only help you recognise how to rank higher on Google, but it will also enhance your ability to tailor content, drive targeted and qualified traffic, and refine your overall digital presence.
But if you’re completely new to keyword research, where do you even start?
Well, you’re in the right place: in this beginner’s guide to building a keyword strategy, we go back to basics with our SEO Director Annika Haataja, exploring best practices, top tips and hacks, and the best tools to use for keyword research.
Ready? Let’s dive in.
What is keyword research?
Keyword research is a critical part of SEO which involves identifying popular words and phrases users enter into search engines such as Google. The goal of keyword research is to determine which keywords are most relevant and valuable for a particular website or its content, based on factors like search volume, competition, and user intent.
This research helps website owners, content creators, and digital marketers understand what topics and terms their target audience is searching for to better align their online presence with their audience’s needs and interests. It ultimately enables them to anticipate demand, craft relevant content, and attract high-quality website traffic.
It’s likely you already know your target audience fairly well and at least have a good understanding of what they’re looking for; but do the keywords you’re using in your content — and the ones you’re currently ranking for — reflect that? If not, your keyword strategy might need a back-to-the-drawing-board overhaul.
Why is keyword research important?
Keyword research is a fundamental element of any successful digital marketing strategy. It illuminates user behaviour patterns, helping to predict trends, cater to audiences’ needs, and enhance a website’s competitiveness with SERPs. By identifying relevant and valuable keywords, brands can strategically position their content, drive organic traffic, and increase their potential for conversions and ROI.
Here are some of the key benefits of keyword research:
Enhancing visibility in search engines
Keywords are the building blocks of SEO. By optimising your content with relevant keywords, you can improve your website’s overall rankings in SERPs. This means it’s more likely to be discovered by users, increasing your visibility and potential for organic traffic.
Understanding search intent
A strong keyword strategy goes beyond identifying relevant words and phrases; it delves into understanding user intent. By comprehending what users are looking for when they enter specific keywords, you can tailor your content to meet their needs, making it more engaging and user-focused.
Driving targeted traffic
When it comes to online traffic, quality is just as important as quantity. Using keywords that align with your target audience’s needs is more likely to convert into qualified leads or customers, ultimately improving your overall conversion rates.
Keyword research allows you to identify gaps in the market and discover untapped opportunities. There are many ways of outranking your competitors (including paid search ads), but using keywords is arguably a more cost-effective way of competing for long-term success.
Aligning content strategy
Keyword research helps you create content that resonates with your audience and aligns with your brand’s objectives. But this doesn’t just apply to your website content; your keyword research can feed into your wider marketing strategies, too, informing elements such as your social media content.
Providing long-term sustainability
A well-researched keyword strategy offers long-term benefits. By consistently producing high-quality content based on thorough keyword research, you can establish a strong online presence that will continually improve your rankings over time when maintained. This not only improves your visibility but also solidifies your authority in your niche.
What is search intent?
Search (or user) intent is the reason behind a user’s online search query. Understanding the motivations and goals of users when they enter specific keywords into search engines is paramount when performing keyword research, since it helps ensure content aligns with users’ needs and expectations, improving relevance and enabling you to rank for a range of intents.
For example, some terms are searched purely to find information, whereas others are used with the intent of buying a specific product. Understanding these motivations means you can tailor your content to your users’ goals — such as using informational keywords throughout your guides and transactional keywords on product pages.
There are four primary types of search intent:
- Informational Intent: This is when a user has a question or is seeking information on a particular topic. For example, someone searching for “how to make a TikTok video” is likely looking for step-by-step instructions or articles that provide information.
- Navigational Intent: Users with navigational intent are looking for a specific website or web page. They may type the name of a brand, website, or platform into the search bar, such as “Facebook” or “OpenAI.”
- Transactional Intent: These users are ready to make a purchase or take a specific action, such as signing up for a newsletter, subscribing to a service, or buying a product. Keywords indicating transactional intent often include terms like “buy,” “order,” or “discount.”
- Commercial Intent: Users with this intent are in the research phase of the buying process. They are looking for information to help them decide on a purchase but are not necessarily ready to buy immediately. Keywords for commercial intent include phrases like “best laptop 2023” or “reviews of smartphones.”
How to build a keyword strategy
1. Check what you’re already ranking for
Before diving into keyword research, it’s essential to know your current standing. You can get a good idea of what you currently rank for by using free tools like Google Search Console as a starting point. This step will help you understand your site’s strengths and weaknesses in terms of keywords.
“Analysing your initial keyword rankings can be very eye-opening. It shows you which topics Google thinks you’re authoritative in — some of which could be irrelevant to your business — but knowing where you’re at will help you move in the right direction. If you’re already ranking for keywords that are relevant to your business, prioritising them in your initial strategy can lead to quick wins and provide an easy path to increasing your website traffic.”
— Annika Haataja
2. List relevant topics related to your business or niche
Create a list of broad topics that are directly related to your business or niche. These topics should be the foundation upon which your keyword strategy will be built. Think of your keyword research as a mind map.
For example, if you run an online gardening shop, the broadest term you’ll probably think of would be ‘gardening’, but it’s important to break this down into subtopics, long-tail keywords, and frequently-asked questions.
One of your subtopics could be “container gardening”, for instance, and from here you could do further research into keywords relating to relevant products such as “metal garden containers”, and questions around the subject like “how to grow a herb garden in containers”.
3. Use a keyword research tool to start listing your keywords
Using keyword research tools like Ahrefs provides valuable insights into search volume, competition, and related keywords, so you’re not relying on guesswork when it comes to understanding which terms are worth pursuing.
Start with your broad topics and gradually drill down into more specific, long-tail keywords relevant to your content. As a beginner, interpreting all the different metrics can be a little overwhelming, but the importance of each metric will change as your website grows — so don’t get too caught up in this.
Let’s break down the meanings of four core keyword metrics:
- Keyword volume: This refers to the average number of times a specific keyword is searched for, typically on a monthly basis. High-volume keywords indicate a significant level of interest or demand. Targeting such keywords can drive substantial traffic to your website. Low-volume keywords are less commonly searched for; while they may have less competition, they may not deliver as much traffic.
- Keyword difficulty: This measures how challenging it is to rank for a particular keyword, taking into account competition from other websites targeting the same term. Keywords with high difficulty scores make it more challenging to secure a top ranking in search engine results, whereas keywords with low difficulty scores are less competitive and may present an opportunity to achieve better rankings with relatively less effort — and often with fewer referring domains/backlinks.
- Cost per click (CPC): Cost per click (CPC) is a metric originating from Google Ads that indicates how much advertisers pay on average for a click on their ad for a particular keyword. Although usually associated with paid campaigns, CPC can help identify potentially profitable keywords – higher CPCs tend to signal higher commercial intent. However, high CPC keywords also tend to have more competition, so newer sites may prefer focusing on other metrics.
- Traffic potential: Traffic potential is a useful keyword research metric, calculating the total estimated organic traffic generated by the top-ranking page for your target keyword across all associated keywords. Leveraging the long-tail effect, it combines search volume and CTR data. While not universally available in all keyword research tools, it can be approximated by studying the highest-ranking page and its estimated traffic. It’s a valuable addition to your SEO arsenal, complementing other essential metrics.
These metrics apply differently depending on the current position of your site and your goals. For example, if you have a new site, then focusing on lower difficulty keywords can be an effective way of ranking, whereas sites connected to already strong brands may have a better chance at ranking for slightly more high-difficulty keywords.
4. Create a keyword strategy for each product or service
Organise your keywords into separate lists for each product, service, or content category you offer. These lists should outline the primary keyword for that category while including a list of related secondary keywords, providing you with a clear plan for each of your core pages.
5. Implement your keywords across your site
Now it’s time to put your research into action! Integrate your selected keywords strategically into your web pages, blog posts, product descriptions, and meta tags. Don’t forget about optimisations, too. Often, optimising existing content with up-to-date keywords can be a great way of securing quick wins.
6. Track your progress
Regularly monitor the performance of each category page by tracking keyword rankings, organic traffic, and conversion rates. This allows you to evaluate the effectiveness of your keyword strategy and make necessary adjustments over time. For instance, if a certain category isn’t performing as expected, you can refine your keyword choices or optimise your content further.
You also need to ask yourself, “Are my rankings bringing the right kind of results?”. You might have improved your position in the SERPs, but is this aligning with the goal you’ve set; whether that’s an increase in conversions or an improved click-through rate (CTR)?
Getting your site ready for Christmas? Read our guide on How to Create a Christmas SEO Strategy!
How often should you refresh your keyword strategy?
A good benchmark is to review and refresh your keyword research strategy at least a couple of times a year. If you’re in a competitive market you might want to do so more often, but it’s also important to consider that you’re not going to rank in a top 10 position overnight — give your strategy some time to develop a good relationship with Google before targeting new keywords.
“User search behaviour is always changing. Around 15% of Google searches are unique, so the number of keywords that have never been typed before is huge! Social listening, keeping an eye on industry trends, and monitoring how you’re moving up or down the rankings are all important steps in keeping your site well optimised.”
— Annika Haataja
Keyword research is a long-term strategy, and reviewing the performance of your previous efforts is really important in understanding what’s working well for you and where you can make improvements. Consider the following questions when reviewing and refreshing your keyword research strategy:
- Is my target audience the same?
- Are my business objectives and marketing goals the same, or have they changed?
- Are my keywords still relevant?
- Are there seasonal opportunities to exploit?
- Do I need to adapt to recent algorithm updates?
- Does my keyword strategy still meet my goals?
How to conduct local SEO keyword research
If you offer an in-person service, you have a bricks-and-mortar store, or you’re trying to attract a particular geographical audience, then local SEO should be a consideration within your keyword research strategy. The process of performing local keyword research will be similar to your regular keyword research, but there are a few additional factors to consider.
Need help with local SEO? Read our guide on the Benefits Of Working With A Local SEO Company.
1. List your primary services and products
Identify the primary services or products your business provides. These are the key offerings you want to promote through local SEO. For example, if you run a bakery, your primary services might include custom cakes, fresh bread, and pastries.
2. Consider the locations you want to target
Think about the locations you serve or want to target. Local keywords will often start with a city, but can split off into smaller neighbourhoods or areas. For instance, if your bakery is in Bristol, location keywords might include “Bristol bakery”, “wedding cakes in Bristol”, or more area-specific terms such as “Fishponds bakery”.
3. Optimise for long-tail keywords
Long-tail keywords are longer, more specific keyword phrases. They are often less competitive and more likely to attract local customers with specific needs. For example, “gluten-free wedding cakes in Bristol” is a long-tail keyword that may yield better results for a niche bakery.
4. Create location-specific landing pages
If your business serves multiple locations, consider creating location-specific landing pages on your website. Each page can be optimised for local keywords related to that specific area, which is particularly useful for businesses with multiple branches or service areas.
5. Create a Google Business Profile listing
All local businesses should have a Google Business Profile page (previously Google My Business). When potential customers search for businesses or specific services near them, your GBP listing can appear in the local pack (a group of businesses shown prominently on search results) and on Google Maps.
A Business Profile also encourages customers to leave reviews that naturally contain relevant keywords, so even if you don’t utilise local keywords on your site, you’ll still be gaining local visibility.
Above is a glimpse of an example Google Business Profile. It features vital details about the business, including a map, operating hours, and customer reviews. Whether someone is actively searching for a local business at that moment or conducting research for future choices, having a Business Profile is a fundamental step in establishing your local business presence.
Which tools are best for keyword research?
As a beginner to keyword research, there are many free and paid SEO tools you can use. But using Google itself — as well as conducting social monitoring — can help you understand industry trends, which can guide your keyword research.
You’ll also want to use the same tools consistently. This is because the data and metrics can differ slightly between tools. You can combine multiple keyword research tools, of course, but you won’t want to keep swapping.
Ahrefs is a comprehensive SEO tool that provides robust keyword research capabilities. It offers features like keyword analysis, search volume data, keyword difficulty scores, and competitor analysis. With Ahrefs, you can delve deep into your niche, identify valuable keyword opportunities, and track your keyword rankings.
Google Keyword Planner
Google Keyword Planner is a free tool provided by Google Ads. It can be a good beginner tool for keyword research. It’s particularly useful for businesses looking to create ad campaigns, but it can also aid in identifying which keywords or topics to target.
Google Search Console
Google Search Console is a free tool that connects directly to your website. It provides insights into how your website is performing in Google’s search results, and while it may not generate keyword ideas, it does offer valuable data on the keywords that are currently driving traffic to your site.
Answer the Public
Answer the Public is an exceptional keyword research tool that not only generates keyword ideas but also uncovers additional insights related to the broader topic. It proves invaluable for discovering associated searches, enabling you to gain a deeper understanding of user interests and motivations.
Don’t underestimate the power of Google itself. Performing manual searches on Google can provide insights into which websites are ranking for specific keywords and other related searches that you should consider. You can also identify opportunities to rank for featured snippets and “People Also Ask” queries.
Here are some ways you can use Google for keyword research:
- Analyse search results: Try searching one of your keywords and looking at the top results. Which sites are performing well? If you were to rank here too, would your site fit well among these results?
- Review top-ranking pages: Analyse the content of pages that rank highly for your target keywords. This can help you understand the type of content that Google deems relevant and valuable for those keywords.
- Perform keyword gap analysis: Look at the keywords your competitors are ranking for that you’re not. By reviewing the SERPs for those terms, you can find gaps in your own content that, when filled, could bring in more traffic.
- Monitor autocomplete suggestions: Start by typing a keyword into Google search, and observe the autocomplete suggestions that appear. These suggestions are popular combinations based on your initial words, giving insight into what people are searching for.
- Review the “People Also Ask” section: Let’s go back to the garden business example. If “When to plant spring bulbs” is one of your keywords, put this into Google and look at the “People Also Ask” section to gain a deeper understanding of user intent and identify the types of related queries users may be searching for.
Each question can inspire new blog posts, articles, or FAQs that offer comprehensive answers. It allows you to stay in sync with the evolving needs of your audience and stay one step ahead of competitors who may not be as tuned in to user intent.
- Look at the related search section: When conducting keyword research, an often overlooked but highly-valuable resource is the ‘Related Search’ section, which appears at the bottom of search results. This can help identify long-tail keywords based on similar search queries.
In this example, it’s clear that people aren’t only interested in when to plant spring bulbs, but also when to plant bulbs in autumn and summer — this level of insight is very useful for developing your content strategy.
How to use social media for keyword research
Social media platforms have evolved into invaluable sources for keyword research, providing real-time insights into the topics and language that resonate with your target audience. You can monitor social media to find angles for social content, of course, but also gain a better understanding of which topics your target audience is interested in.
Here’s how you can utilise social media for keyword research:
How to use YouTube for keyword research
Video title and description: Examine popular video titles and descriptions in your niche on YouTube. This can give you an understanding of the keywords and phrases that content creators are using to attract viewers and appear in SERPs.
Comments and engagement: Dive into the comments section of relevant videos. This is where viewers often express their thoughts and questions, which you can analyse to identify recurring topics that pique their interest.
Trending videos: Keep an eye on trending videos within your industry. This not only provides insights into what’s currently popular but also suggests the topics that are driving engagement. Creating videos can be a valuable part of your wider content strategy.
How to use TikTok for keyword research
Hashtags: TikTok heavily relies on hashtags. Explore trending and popular hashtags in your niche by heading to the TikTok Creative Centre. Here you can find a goldmine of keyword ideas. Also, pay attention to what content creators are saying in their videos and descriptions.
User-generated content: TikTok is known for its viral user-generated content. Observe the keywords and phrases that appear in these viral videos. This can help you understand what’s capturing the attention of your target audience. Plus, if you’re optimising a product page you might want to launch your own UGC strategy!
Engagement metrics: Analyse the comments, likes, and shares of videos in your industry. This can reveal the keywords and content themes that are driving user engagement. While this might not be exactly reflected in Google search results, it’s another way of gaining new ideas and insight into your niche.
How to monitor trends in your industry
Staying updated with industry trends is vital for businesses looking to remain competitive. It helps identify emerging topics and consumer interests, allowing brands to promptly adapt their content, seize opportunities for increasing visibility, and maintain relevance in the ever-changing market landscape.
Here are two tools that can help you monitor trends effectively:
Peaks in trends: Using Google Trends enables you to pinpoint when specific search terms and topics become popular. This can help you decide when to target certain keywords to gain the most traffic.
Regional data: Google Trends offers region-specific data, which can be essential for businesses targeting local markets. You can see where a particular keyword is gaining traction.
Related queries: Google Trends also provides a list of related queries. This is an excellent resource for discovering new keyword opportunities or understanding user interests.
Emerging trends: Exploding Topics specialises in identifying emerging trends before they peak. It helps you stay ahead of the curve by revealing topics that are gaining momentum across the internet.
Detailed insights: The platform offers detailed insights into each trend, including related keywords, articles, and discussions. This information can guide your content and keyword strategies.
Custom alerts: You can set up custom alerts for trends relevant to your industry. This ensures you’re promptly informed about the latest developments.
Keyword research vs topic research
Around 5 years ago, marketers were beginning to drift away from “keyword” research and starting to focus on “topic” research and building topical authority. This is because focusing on one term and trying to rank for just one term is not necessarily sustainable. Instead, looking at the bigger picture by diversifying your keyword strategy and improving your branding can produce better long-term results.
Keyword research goes beyond just specific keywords, and the way you approach the process should vary depending on what you’re trying to achieve. Creating a specific keyword list can be helpful when creating a content brief, for example, but when thinking about your wider strategy, it must encompass a comprehensive view of your industry, how keywords evolve over time, your target audience, and the competitive landscape.
This holistic perspective allows you to create a content ecosystem that not only targets specific keywords but also nurtures the growth of your brand’s authority and relevance in your niche.
Keyword research FAQ
What’s the difference between primary keywords and secondary keywords?
Primary keywords directly capture the core theme of your content. Often, these keywords are highly competitive and carry significant search volumes. For example, in a gardening blog, the primary keyword might be “rose cultivation”. Primary keywords like this are crucial for establishing the central subject of your content and attracting a broad audience interested in gardening topics.
Secondary keywords offer additional context and specificity to complement your primary gardening keyword. They may have lower search volumes but they prove invaluable for reaching a more specialised and engaged audience. In the case of your rose care article, secondary keywords might include “best practices for pruning roses in spring” or “organic fertilisers for vibrant rose blooms”.
Where should primary keywords and secondary keywords be placed?
Primary keywords are ideally positioned in prominent locations, including the meta title and early sections of your content, and main headings. This ensures that search engines and readers quickly grasp the central topic. Secondary keywords, offering additional context should be integrated throughout the body text, subheadings, and wherever they naturally fit in the content.
Secondary keywords enrich the content, providing depth and catering to a variety of related search queries. Both primary and secondary keywords should be used contextually — without overloading the content — to create a well-structured, informative, and SEO-optimised piece that resonates with both search engine algorithms and human audiences.
What is keyword stuffing?
Keyword stuffing is a black hat SEO technique in which a webpage is overloaded with an excessive number of keywords or phrases in an attempt to manipulate search engine rankings. It’s considered an unethical and outdated SEO practice. Search engines like Google have sophisticated algorithms that can detect keyword stuffing and penalise websites for it.
The result of keyword stuffing is often a poor user experience and a potential drop in search engine rankings. Modern SEO strategies prioritise high-quality, relevant content and natural keyword usage that serves the interests of both search engines and website visitors.
Are long-tail keywords easier to rank for?
Long-tail keywords are generally easier to rank for than short, competitive primary keywords.
For example, ranking for a primary keyword like “smartphones” would be highly competitive and challenging due to its broad appeal, but targeting a long-tail keyword like “best budget Android smartphones under $200” is likely to have less competition and more specific user intent.
Long-tail keywords are particularly valuable for niche markets. However, it’s important to balance your keyword strategy by targeting a mix of primary and long-tail keywords, capturing both broad and highly-specific search intents.
How long does it take to rank for a keyword?
The time it takes to rank for a keyword varies and depends on several factors, including the keyword’s competitiveness, your website’s authority, and the quality of your content. It’s not uncommon for websites to start seeing improved rankings within a few months for less competitive keywords, but ranking for highly-competitive keywords may require a longer-term SEO strategy.
And there you have it! By following the steps outlined in this guide, you’ve empowered yourself with the knowledge and tools to craft a formidable keyword strategy that can elevate your SERP rankings. Whether you’re delving into the art of writing copy for SEO or strategically using keywords to boost your landing pages, it’s time to put what you’ve learned into action!