How to Do Keyword Research: A Comprehensive Guide

This comprehensive guide will cover how to do keyword research to find powerful opportunities to help reach your target audience, grow your organic traffic, and improve your SEO ranks.

You’ll walk away knowing all the basics and best practices of effective keyword research. Plus, we’ll show you several keyword research tools that can help you at each point in the process.

What is a Keyword?

To understand keyword research, you first need to know what a keyword is and what it does.

A keyword is the phrase or word that people enter into search engines to find content.

keyword search using Google

The goal of SEO  is to get your content to show up in the top results on search engine results pages (SERPs) for keywords that are relevant to your business. Doing this successfully can increase your organic traffic and build brand awareness.

What is Keyword Research?

Keyword research is the process marketers use to identify what phrases are popular and frequently searched for by their target audience.

It also helps them prioritize their keyword strategy by understanding how difficult it will be for their site to rank for specific keywords.

Keyword research is an essential part of any paid or organic search marketing workflow.

But it also helps you really understand your audience–their interests, needs, and questions.

Steps for a Comprehensive Keyword Research Process

Here are the steps we recommend following for a comprehensive keyword research strategy.

  1. Brainstorm seed keyword topics
  2. Define your goals
  3. Prepare for your keyword analysis
    1. Know the different types of keywords
    2. Know your audience
    3. Know your Competitive Power
    4. Know the keywords you already get traffic and rank for
    5. Know your share of voice for top industry keywords
  4. Create a keyword research template
  5. How to do keyword research
    1. Finding SEO keywords: How to do keyword research for SEO
      1. Find competitor keywords
      2. Find keyword gaps
      3. Find buyer keywords
      4. Find long-tail keywords
      5. Find low competition keywords
      6. Find related keywords
    2. Finding SEM keywords: How to do keyword research for Adwords
  6. What to do with your keyword research
    1. Create an organic keyword strategy (SEO)
      1. Target the best organic keyword opportunities
      2. Create content aligned to search intent
      3. Optimize content for keywords
      4. Check for proper on-page SEO
      5. Check your overall site SEO
    2. Create a paid keyword strategy (SEM)
      1. Target the best paid keyword opportunities
      2. Optimize campaigns for quality scores
  7. Check for keyword issues
    1. Keyword stuffing
    2. Keyword cannibalization
    3. Not doing it: Skipping keyword research and optimization
  8. Start your keyword research

How to Start Keyword Research

Start your keyword research with the right mindset and keyword research tools. These three steps will help you set a good foundation for your keyword research process.

1. Brainstorm Seed Keyword Topics

Keyword research starts with identifying seed keyword topics. Seed keywords are very broad terms that describe topics that are relevant to your audience.

Use these three strategies as you brainstorm to narrow down the most accurate seed keyword topics.

Think of broad topics that are relevant to your audience and industry

Start by thinking about the most obvious topics related to your audience or business. These terms are typically one to two words. For example, Toggl, a time-tracking app, might brainstorm broad keywords like:

  • Tracker
  • App
  • Timer
  • Timesheet

When performing keyword research, avoid starting with keywords that are too niche, even if they make sense. It’s best to think broadly at the beginning and get more specific as your research progresses.

When performing keyword research, avoid starting with keywords that are too niche, even if they make sense. Click To Tweet

One keyword research tool you can use to find broad seed keyword topics is Alexa’s Keyword Clusters visualization in the Competitor Keyword Matrix.

Enter your site and up to nine competitors or industry leaders. Then select the Keyword Clusters tab to view a map of the keyword topics that are driving traffic to your site and/or competitors.

Think of subtopics within those broad topics that are relevant to your audience and industry

Once you have a list of broad topics, go deeper into those categories. Brainstorm keywords that would fit within the theme of your broad terms.

For help with finding subtopics, go back to Alexa’s Competitive Keyword Matrix. Click on a broad keyword to create another map of terms within that topic. 

This research for Toggl could surface subtopics like:

  • Tracker
    • Time tracker
    • Tracker app
    • Work tracker
  • App
    • Timesheet app
    • To-do app
    • Pomodoro app
  • Timer
    • Online timer
    • Timer app
    • Desktop timer
  • Time sheet
    • Week timesheet
    • Printable time sheet
    • Timesheet app

Think of products and services that you want to focus on finding keywords for

Finish your list of seed keywords by thinking about the specific products and services you are promoting. Include terms associated with those offerings in your list. For example, Toggl may want to add the following seed keywords to their list.

  • Time tracking software
  • Time management software
  • Employee time tracking software

2. Define Your Goals

As you perform keyword research, you will come across hundreds of potential terms and phrases to use in your strategy. An important part of learning how to do keyword research is knowing which keywords to choose and which to ignore.

Different keywords will drive different results. For example, popular, broad keywords may have high search volumes and drive a lot of traffic. Alternatively, less popular, more niche keywords may drive less traffic but more conversions. Knowing your goals will help you determine which keywords to focus on.

A few examples of goals include:

  • Improving brand awareness
  • Driving more organic traffic
  • Attracting more leads or customers
  • Generating sales

3. Prepare  for Your Keyword Analysis

To help you identify the terms that will produce the best results, keep these keyword research tips in mind.

As previously mentioned, different types of keywords will drive different results based on the search intent of the user. The types of keywords you should focus on will depend on the goals you defined. For example, if your primary goal is to drive new customer acquisition and sales, you might focus on creating product or service pages that target buyer keywords. If your goal is to boost awareness among your audience, you might create a blogging strategy focused on long tail keywords  that show educational intent.

Learn about the different types of keywords and how they can help you meet different goals in this post: 18 Types of Keywords Every Marketer Should Know

To target the terms that your ideal customer uses and searches for, you must intimately know your audience
Click & Tweet!
.  When you know their needs, questions, and problems, you can target the terms that match the topics that matter most to them.

To help guide your keyword research, create a buyer persona that outlines the characteristics, interests, demographics, values, goals, challenges, influences, and buying habits of your ideal customer. Use these 10 buyer persona examples for inspiration.

Then create a buyer persona template you can use going forward, using this post as a guide: This Buyer Persona Template Will Help You Make Top-Quality Content

When performing keyword research, you want to target terms that you have the best chance of ranking for. Most keyword research tools include a competition score for search terms that shows how difficult it is to rank for them. You want to target terms that have a competition level you can compete at.  

Alexa’s Competitive Power metric shows what level of keyword competition you are most likely to rank for based on the past performance of your website in organic search. When a website has a high score, it will be more likely to rank for high competition keywords. Knowing your Competitive Power is useful because it will guide you toward terms you can rank for and away from terms that have too much competition. That way you spend time and resources creating content that will give you the highest return on investment. 

To find your Competitive Power, use Alexa’s Keyword Difficulty Tool. This keyword research tool assigns a Competitive Power score for your site based on its past performance, and indicates on the keyword results list if your site is authoritative enough to compete for the search term.

know your competitive power for keyword research

You don’t want to add keywords to your strategy if they are already working for you.  Research to find what terms you are already ranking for and which phrases are already driving traffic to your site to avoid keyword cannibalization.

To find out which keywords already drive traffic to your site, use Alexa’s SEO keyword research tool, Site Keywords. Enter your domain to see the SEO keywords that are sending the most traffic to your site.

research site keywords before keyword research

Another way to find what terms you already rank for (and how well you rank) is to use Google Search Console.

Once your site is set up on Google Search Console, go to the performance page and select to show average position for the the queries in the list. The report shows which search terms are driving traffic to your site (queries) and where your site ranks for each term (position) on Google search results pages.

research keyword search positions

Keyword share of voice is the share of traffic that your brand gets for a particular keyword. This can be useful when deciding whether to focus on improving performance for existing keywords.

research keyword share of voice

In the above screenshot of Alexa’s Keyword Share of Voice tool, you can see that has the highest share of voice for the keyword time tracking.

Knowing your aggregated share of voice compared to your competitors is a great starting point for uncovering new keyword ideas that will help you increase your overall share of voice in search.

To find this, use Alexa’s Competitor Keyword Matrix. Enter your site and up to nine competitors or industry leaders. This keyword research tool will produce a report that shows share of voice for paid and organic terms within that industry set, plus who controls the largest share of traffic.

3. Create a keyword research template

As you go through the keyword research process, use a keyword research template to organize your findings, plan your future content creation, and track performance. Document viable keywords, performance metrics, and content that’s created for each keyword to organize your work and results.

Here’s an example keyword research template we created using AirTable. It gives you a sample of the basic information we like to keep track of in our own keyword research and content planning.

Use your favorite tool to build your own keyword research template. Or, download this customizable keyword research spreadsheet here.

download free keyword research template

How to Do Keyword Research: Finding Keywords for SEO vs. SEM

Finding keywords for SEO is not exactly the same as finding keywords for SEM. The processes are slightly different and the intent and goals of the keywords are not the same. It’s important to know how to do keyword research effectively for both organic SEO and paid SEM campaigns.

Use these keyword research tools and tips to find valuable keywords for driving both organic and paid traffic.

Finding SEO Keywords: How to Do Keyword Research for SEO

Use these 6 ideas to find keywords for your organic SEO strategy.

Find competitor keywords

Competitor keywords are the search terms and phrases driving traffic to sites that compete with you, share the same audience as you, or publish content relevant to your industry and audience.

When you research competitor keywords, you can identify the terms that already attract your target audience and leverage them for wider reach.

Researching competitor keywords helps you find terms that already attract your target audience so you can expand your reach. Click To Tweet

To find competitor keywords, first identify industry leaders who are excelling in search and then research their sites to see what keywords are driving traffic to them.

Pro Tip: There is more to learn from the leaders in your space than from direct competitors. It’s important to first research who is successful in SEO, rather than assuming your business competitors are successful and worth emulating. Identifying leaders can help you understand what it takes to succeed in search.

To identify competitors who share your audience, use Alexa’s Audience Overlap Tool. Enter your site and up to nine of your known competitors. The report shows sites that might not be direct competitors, but share an audience with you. These sites (and their keywords) can help you find topics and keywords that attract your target audience.

You can also identify SEO competitors by searching for sites that have a high share of voice for topics you care about. To find topic leaders, use Alexa’s Keyword Share of Voice Tool. Enter a seed keyword to see what websites have the highest share of voice for keywords you and your audience care about.

find SEO competitors with Alexa Keyword Share of Voice

Once you know the SEO leaders in your industry, you can research their keywords in two ways:

  1. Find the keywords for a single site using Alexa’s Site Keyword tool
  2. Find and combine the keywords that 10 sites are getting traffic for in the Competitor Keyword Matrix

Research top keywords for a single competitor in the Site Keyword tool

To find a single competitor’s top keywords, enter the site’s URL into the Site Keyword Tool. You’ll get a website keyword analysis that shows what keywords are driving traffic to that site, plus other details such as their keyword share of voice, the percent of their search traffic that comes from each keyword, and more.

how to do keyword research for a single competitor

Research top keywords for a set of industry leaders in Competitor Keyword Matrix

To find top keywords shared by a set of industry leaders, enter up to 10 sites into the Competitor Keyword Matrix. You’ll get a report that shows the top keywords driving traffic to that group of sites.

find competitor keywords using Competitor Keyword Matrix

The set of results can be filtered by various metrics and Use Cases depending on your goals and the types of keywords you want to find.

Find keyword gaps

Keyword gaps are terms and phrases that drive traffic to your competitors but not to your site.

You can find keyword gaps using Alexa’s Competitor Keyword Matrix. Enter your site along with up to nine competitors or industry leaders. Use the filter to show organic or paid keyword gaps for your site. 

find keyword gaps with Competitor Keyword Matrix

Learn how you can identify keyword gaps for more organic traffic using Alexa’s keyword tools in this short tutorial video.

Find buyer keywords

Buyer keywords are the terms that customers search for when they are ready to make a purchase.

To find buyer keywords, use Alexa’s Competitor Keyword Matrix and apply the filter to “show potential buyer keywords.”

find buyer keywords with Competitor Keyword Matrix

To learn more about how buyer keywords can help boost your search performance and increase conversions, read our post: How to Use Buying Keywords to Improve Conversion Rates

Find long-tail keywords

Long-tail keywords are specific, targeted search phrases that have a low search volume, but a high conversion rate. The phrases, which are usually three or more words long, are typically keywords that searchers use to find answers to their questions or solutions to their problems.

To find long-tail keywords, use Alexa’s Competitor Keyword Matrix. Select the use case to “find long tail organic keywords.”

find long tail keywords with Competitor Keyword Matrix

For more information on long-tail keywords, read: How to Find Long Tail Keywords: A Complete Guide

Find low competition keywords

Low competition keywords that are within your Competitive Power are search phrases that you are likely to rank for. They are low-hanging fruit opportunities you can create content about to help generate organic traffic.

To find low competition keywords, use Alexa’s Competitor Keyword Matrix and the filter to “find low competition organic keywords.” 

find low competition keywords with Competitor Keyword Matrix

Related keywords are search terms and phrases that are closely related to your seed keywords. You can target these keywords in new posts or pages, or use them as LSI keywords in existing posts.

To find related keywords, use Alexa’s Keyword Difficulty Tool. Enter a seed keyword and sort the results by relevance to find terms closely associated with your target phrase.

find related keywords with Keyword Difficulty Tool

Look for the icon competitive power next to the competition score to quickly identify the keywords that are within your site’s Competitive Power.

Finding SEM Keywords: How to Do Keyword Research for Adwords

The following steps will help you find top keywords to use for driving paid traffic with pay per click marketing (PPC) campaigns.

Identify competitors

Knowing your competitors is as important for PPC keyword research as it is for organic keyword research. Go through the steps outlined above to identify the top sites that you will be competing with in your PPC campaigns.

Find paid keyword opportunities

To find the best keywords for Adwords campaigns, you can use Google’s free keyword tool as well as Alexa’s keyword research tools.

Use Google’s Keyword Planner to get bid estimates on keywords, and then get more in-depth keyword data using Alexa’s Competitor Keyword Matrix and Keyword Share of Voice Tool.

While using Alexa’s Competitor Keyword Matrix, toggle the reports to show only paid keyword data. This shows you the keywords your competitors are paying to rank for and how much visibility they have for those paid search terms. It also helps you find keyword opportunities, as you can see terms that are popular but not used in competitor paid search strategies.

how to do keyword research for SEM and adwords

As you find keyword opportunities in Competitor Keyword Matrix, you can run them in the Keyword Share of Voice tool to see the top sites getting the most paid visibility for a specific keyword.

paid competitor keyword research

What to Do With Your Keyword Research

Once you have a list of keywords, it’s time to put them to work. Create a strategy to use your keywords for SEO and/or SEM.

Not sure whether SEO or SEM campaigns are right for you? Use our post SEM vs. SEO: What’s the Difference and Which Is Right for My Brand? as a guide.

Create an Organic Keyword Strategy (SEO)

An organic keyword strategy includes creating SEO content (like a blog post or landing page) that is optimized to rank for a specific keyword.

To create a well-rounded organic keyword strategy, develop an annual content calendar to plan and organize the assets you create. Then use these content writing tips to create content for SEO.

1. Target the best organic keyword opportunities.

Find keywords that:

  • Are within your competitive power. Your site is authoritative enough to rank for the term, and you can create the content needed to rank above currently ranking content.
  • Are regularly searched for. The search term is popular with users and has the potential to drive traffic to your site.
  • Are relevant to your audience. Your ideal customer uses the search phrase.
  • Match your goals. The search intent of the traffic will help you reach your marketing goals.

2. Create content aligned to search intent.

Go through your keywords and create content for them based on the search intent of the term. Search intent is the motive that drives audiences to search. Search intent could be:

  • Informational: The user wants to find general information or an answer to a question.
  • Navigational: The user wants to find information about a specific product, service, or brand.
  • Transactional: The user is looking for a page to buy something (also known as buyer keywords).

Think about your marketing funnel and how your list of terms fit into the customer’s journey. Create topics that fit into the funnel, and position content ideas to match customer intent and need at each phase.

To learn more about creating content based on search intent, read: Making Content Work for Every Purchase Funnel Level

3. Optimize content for keywords

For each page of content that you create, assign one target keyword and optimize the content for that phrase or term. Ensure that you properly optimize every new page of content for on-page SEO to help give your content the best chance of ranking.

Here’s a helpful checklist to use in your writing: 36-Point Checklist for Writing Fully Optimized Content

4. Check for proper on-page SEO

Use an SEO checker to ensure that you properly optimized each page for the target keyword.

To check on-page SEO, use Alexa’s On-Page SEO Checker. Enter the page URL and your target keyword to produce a report on where you might have missed optimization opportunities.

check on-page SEO with Alexa

Use this cheat sheet to make sure your keyword shows up in all the right places: The Essential Keyword Optimization Cheat Sheet for Better SEO

5. Check your overall site SEO

When your entire site is optimized for SEO, you will be more likely to rank for targeted search terms.  In addition to on-page SEO, scan your whole site to identify any SEO problems or optimization opportunities related to off-page or technical SEO.

When your entire site is optimized for SEO, you will be more likely to rank for targeted search terms. Click To Tweet

Quickly check your entire site with Alexa’s SEO Audit Tool. The tool scans dozens of SEO best practices on your site and makes recommendations for how you can improve.

run a regular SEO Audit using Alexa

A paid keyword strategy includes setting up PPC (pay per click), or SEM (search engine marketing), campaigns. You select the best keywords and pay for placement on search engine results pages (SERPs). Use these tips for successful ppc lead generation.

Find keywords that:

  • Are within your budget. Consider the CPC of each term and the ROI you can expect to receive from the campaign.
  • Are high converting phrases and terms. Choose bottom-of-the-funnel terms that quickly lead to sales.
  • Are regularly searched for. Select terms you know your target audience frequently uses.

2. Optimize campaigns for quality scores

Once you choose PPC keywords, create ads and landing pages for your campaign and optimize them for quality score. Quality score is the rating that Google assigns to the quality and relevance of your keywords, ads, and landing pages. Ads with high-quality scores get higher ad rankings and lower cost per click (CPC).

To help boost your quality score, incorporate target keywords in both your ad copy and landing page. This sends consistent signals to Adwords that your ad and the destination URL are aligned to the searcher’s intent.

3 Keyword Issues to Avoid

Knowing how to do keyword research includes knowing what to do and also what not to do.  As you go through the keyword research and optimization process, avoid errors that could negate your work, or even worse, lead to search engine penalties.

Knowing how to do keyword research includes knowing what to do and also what not to do. Click To Tweet

1. Avoid keyword stuffing

Keyword stuffing is a black hat SEO tactic that attempts to “stuff” a page full of a target keyword to get search engines to rank the page. Not only is this practice unappealing to users (as users are forced to read repetitive, low-quality content), it’s also unattractive to search engines. Search engines could penalize your site for engaging in keyword stuffing.

To avoid search penalties, don’t stuff your content with keywords. Aim for a 2% keyword density in your copy.

Read more: Don’t Let Keyword Stuffing Kill Your SEO. Here’s How to Avoid It.

2. Keyword cannibalization

Keyword cannibalization happens when multiple pages on a website are optimized for the same keyword. While it may seem like optimizing multiple pages for the same keyword will help attract search engines to a site, it can have an adverse effect. When search engines scan a site and see multiple pages with the same keyword, they can’t determine which page is the top page, so they may not rank any page.

Avoid keyword cannibalization by targeting one keyword per page on your site. And be sure to fix any existing keyword issues on previously published content.

Read more: Fix Keyword Cannibalization To Prevent Hidden SEO Issues

3. Not doing it

Not doing keyword research or assuming that you know which keywords are best can result in a waste of time, resources, and opportunities
Click & Tweet!
.  You will miss valuable keyword opportunities, put effort into ranking for terms that are too competitive, and possibly focus on phrases that your target audience never searches for.

Recognize the value in keyword research, and start all of your SEO efforts with the keyword discovery strategies outlined in this post.

Start Your Keyword Research Today

Now that you know how to do keyword research, put these strategies to work. Sign up for a free trial of Alexa’s Advanced Plan to access the keyword research tools mentioned in this post and start setting up a strong keyword research strategy today.

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