*Note – Keyword research is arguably both the most important and least important aspect of starting a new website, depending on how you plan to drive traffic. Since this Beginner’s Guide is focusing on SEO, I am proceeding under the assumption that it’s very important.
Imagine you want to open a new Italian restaurant on a busy corner in your small city that gets tons of foot traffic. Would you start by leasing out the space and buying a bunch of furniture, or would you do a little market research first?
You’d probably want to get an idea on how much the landlord wants to charge per square foot and how many tables you can comfortably fit inside. You would want to make sure the kitchen was laid out well and you would want to plan out a menu and see how much sourcing the ingredients would cost.
Basically, you want to draw up a solid business plan before you jump face first into setting up shop. That’s exactly what you are doing for your website by starting with some solid keyword research.
When doing initial keyword research you are looking for a few specific pieces of information. You can dig into each word as deep as you want after you compile some basic data.
In the days of yonder, it was possible to build and rank a page for each small iteration of root keyword.
For example, if you were building a website that focuses on tennis shoes, your root keyword might be tennis shoes. If I use a keyword tool and enter tennis shoes, I get something like this as a result.
As you can see, two very similar results jump out. There are searches for both tennis shoes for women and womens tennis shoes as well as mens tennis shoes and tennis shoes for men.
In the old days you would make a separate page or post for each of those terms. Now, it’s much better and much more natural to make one page for men and one page for women.
The page for men would use both mens tennis shoes and tennis shoes for men. The page for women would use both tennis shoes for women and womens tennis shoes.
Don’t worry too much about where and how often to use the variations for now, as that will be covered in the Headings and Content and Copy sections. Just remember to find as many variations of similar keyword phrasings as possible and sprinkle them throughout your content.
Continuing with the theme of tennis shoes, if we again reference the image, you might be asking, “Why target the two men’s keywords which only amount to 10,000 searches a month and not the root keyword itself which has four times as many searches?”
If so, that’s very fair question.
The reason many professional SEO’s like to target long tail keywords, or keyword phrases that consist of three or more words, is that they generally tend to be much easier to rank.
So, instead of only trying to go after some broad term keywords like tennis shoes or halloween costumes, do yourself a favor and dig deep while doing your keyword research.
You’ll be amazed at all of the long tails you can uncover.
Aside from just looking at the keywords themselves, taking a bit of thought about realistic traffic to your site from the keywords you’re targeting makes sense.
There isn’t really a right or wrong when it comes to volume, but you want to make sure your efforts are worth the time and money.
Spending weeks and hundreds of dollars trying to rank a term that only gets 800 searches a month, or about 26 searches a day, might be worth it if you make a decent amount of money for an average visitor based off that keyword.
However, if you only make a few cents per visitor, you can see why you might want to skip that particular search term.
Not all keywords are created equal. You might find something that had lots of volume and it seems super easy rank. But, why would someone type that into Google?
As much as Google is used for commercial purposes, it’s also used for research. A search term like Civil War generals might not be something that is easy to monetize whereas something like best electric razor would be.
If you are doing SEO for making money, either for you or for a client, some but not nearly all buying words that you can include around other root terms are:
There are literally hundreds of different angles to take with these, so spend a little time while looking into this part of planning out your site.
When you search for a term in Google, you get to see how many results are returned. They are often numbering in the millions.
Don’t worry too much about that number.
All you really want to focus on are the sites that are already ranking on the first page. Also, checking out the second page to see what is close but not quite there yet can give you a good idea about the level of competition you’re up against.
If you see a small site or two (“small” meaning not a major brand like Walmart or other industry related powerhouse) then you might have a reasonable chance at getting to the first page as well. You can also spend some time dissecting what it is they’re doing that’s helping them rank so highly.
Now that you know what you’re looking for in regards to good versus poor keywords, how do you find all of them?
Doing keyword research can be a bit of a time burden, but it can also make the difference between creating a successful website or a flop. There are now a lot of tools out there to help make the process a little easier.
It’s hard to really point out which are the best keyword research tools, as everyone has their own preference, but here are some of the more popular ones:
KWFinder is one of my favorite keyword research tools to use when I want to get a quick idea about a word’s search volume. It’s a hosted application, so there’s nothing to download. You can start with a free account then upgrade when you start to really dig deep.
Yes, it has a free option, which gets you three free searches a day. The paid version has multiple price points depending on how much you need to use the tool. For most single users the lowest option is probably fine.
If you find you or your team doing a crazy amount of keyword research, there is an agency option as well.
It has its own version of a keyword difficulty analyzer, and the interface is very user friendly.
It’s quick, easy to use, and gives you all the keyword info you need to get started planning out your new site or content strategy.
SEMrush is a true work of art. While you can use it for SEO purposes as it does pretty much everything all of the other options do, it’s also a serious tool for those who plan to run paid search campaigns.
That doesn’t mean you need to run paid search ads to take advantage of all the great data SEMrush gives you access to.
Sometimes it’s nice to see what keywords your competition is running paid ads for. If they are paying for them, they most likely are profitable and are worth targeting for SEO as well.
One other awesome function are the SEO reports. SEMrush allows you to run reports on any website (that gets at least some traffic) showing you what keywords it ranks for in the top 30 positions of Google.
This is a great way to see what long tail keywords your competition is hitting.
SEMrush does let you test out their core software for free, but to really take advantage of all the platform has to offer you’ll need to pay. The basic plan starts at $69.95 a month and the business plan can run as much as $549.95 a month.
TB Tip: If you have the cash, opt for an annual plan and save yourself some money over the longterm.
Moz, formerly SEO Moz, has tons of information on SEO and website best practices, but it also has a whole suite of software tools.
I’ve personally only used the free version of their back links checker Open Site Explorer, but they do offer tools to help track your keyword rankings and grade your on-page SEO.
Like a lot of the other tools listed, they offer a free trial, but standard packages start at $99 a month and run up to $599 a month.
In the past you could access it without having to sign up for an Adwords account, but now you’ll need to. It is still free to use though.
One nice thing about using this tool is that it can help you dig through the way that Google groups various keywords and ideas.
Probably the easiest and cheapest way to get an idea of some important keywords you might want to spend a little time researching in more detail is to use the information Google gives you while doing a basic search.
Have you noticed Google likes to give suggestions when you start typing something into their search bar?
Going back to tennis shoes as a base term, when I type that into Google’s search bar I see:
That took about 15 seconds for me to open a browser, type in tennis shoes, and come up with an initial plan to make a home page that focuses on that root keyword, and then have three main categories, tennis shoes for women, tennis shoes for men, and tennis shoes for kids.
Now take a look at the bottom of the page:
I see a buying keyword, best, and I see some popular brands that I could consider targeting.
Just because it’s free information doesn’t mean it’s not useful. That is about the quickest and cheapest way to get some ideas on a niche before you go too deep into researching it.
Long Tail Pro is a native piece of software designed by well-known Internet marketer Spencer Haws. Although you must download it, it’s built on Adobe Air so it’s OK for both Windows and Apple users. It runs standard at $97 with an add-on of $17 a month for extra features like its own unique keyword competitiveness checker. When I first got into SEO, I purchased the full version of this tool. It does what it says, so no complaint there. However, I personally didn’t feel that the competition level aspect was incredibly useful as the results were almost always predictable based on the search volume. It’s been awhile since I used it though, so maybe Spencer has updated the algorithm it uses. The other problem I had was very slow queries. I contacted support, which was always fast in regards to responding, but they basically always gave me the same answer about clearing my cache. I am notoriously terrible at keeping my work computer running optimally, and I’m not always working with a super speedy Internet connection, so it very well could have been a problem on my end. I don’t want to point fingers, but it was definitely something that caused me some frustration. I did like how you could save keywords you wanted to investigate further though, and the rank query tool is nice too. Overall, it’s a pretty nice tool, and since Spencer was cool enough to update all legacy versions to the new 3.0 version, it’s still something I use very frequently. *I actually no longer recommend using LTP as I personally don't feel it delivers enough value for the money it costs. This is just my personal opinion though, so feel free to try it out.
As you can see, you can get some very basic information about keywords in a matter of minutes and for free, or you can really deep dive and invest more time and money by using some very well designed tools and keyword generators.
If you’re just starting out and on a very limited budget, don’t let the high cost of some of the software suites turn you away. You can get a lot of quality info from leveraging all the free trials.
Before you set up your site, spend some time plotting out all your root words and long tails, and you’ll be setting yourself up for success rather than trying to chase it down later on.