A Beginner’s Guide: How to Do Keyword Research

A Beginner’s Guide: How to Do Keyword Research

If you want your website to rank well on Google and drive organic traffic, keyword research is an essential skill. Keyword research is the process of identifying the words and phrases that your target audience is searching for, and then optimizing your site’s content to rank for those related search terms. When done effectively, keyword research provides a foundation for your entire SEO strategy. In this guide, we’ll walk through a step-by-step approach to keyword research. You’ll learn how to understand your audience, brainstorm keyword ideas, evaluate their difficulty and search volume, map them to your content, and track your rankings over time. By the end, you’ll have a solid framework for finding high-value keywords that can elevate your site’s visibility and attract more qualified leads. Let’s dive in!

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What is Keyword Research?

At its core, keyword research is about getting inside the minds of your target customers. It involves analyzing the specific words and phrases they type into Google and other search engines when looking for information, products, or services related to your business. By understanding exactly what your audience is searching for, you can craft content that directly addresses their needs and interests.

Keyword research is important for SEO because it ensures you target terms with actual search demand. Rather than creating content around topics that no one is looking for, you can focus on search queries that have the potential to drive traffic and generate leads. Additionally, by analyzing metrics like keyword difficulty and click-through rates, you can prioritize the terms that are most likely to rank well and deliver strong ROI.

Understanding Your Target Audience

Before you start brainstorming keywords, you must have a clear picture of your target audience. Who are your ideal customers? What are their demographics, interests, and pain points? What type of language do they use when discussing your industry?

Creating buyer personas is a helpful exercise for getting into the mindset of your target customers. Buyer personas are semi-fictional representations of your ideal customers based on data and research. They typically include demographic info like age, gender, and income level, as well as psychographic details like goals, challenges, and preferred content formats.

To create effective buyer personas, start by analyzing your existing customer base. Look for common characteristics and patterns. You can also conduct surveys or interviews to gather direct insights from your target audience. Social listening tools are another useful way to see how your audience discusses topics related to your brand and industry.

In addition to understanding your audience’s demographics and interests, it’s important to consider the intent behind their search queries. Search intent refers to the underlying reason why someone conducts a particular search. Are they looking for general information, comparing product options, or ready to make a purchase?

The four main categories of search intent are:

  • Informational: Searches conducted to find information, such as answers to questions or how to complete a task.
  • Navigational: Searches conducted to find a specific website or page.
  • Commercial Investigation: Searches conducted by people considering a purchase and comparing different options.
  • Transactional: Searches conducted by people ready to buy a product or service.

Understanding the intent behind a keyword helps you craft content that aligns with what users are actually looking for. For example, a keyword with informational intent like “what is SEO” should be targeted with educational, top-of-funnel content rather than a hard sales pitch.

Brainstorming Initial Keyword Ideas

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With a clear understanding of your audience in mind, start brainstorming potential keywords. A good place to begin is by listing out the main products, services, and topic areas you want your site to rank for. These will be your “seed keywords” that you can expand upon.

For example, let’s say you run an e-commerce store that sells outdoor gear. Your initial seed keywords might include terms like:

  • Hiking backpacks
  • Camping tents
  • Sleeping bags
  • Hiking boots
  • Outdoor cooking equipment

From here, you can use keyword research tools to generate related ideas and expand your list. Some popular options include:

  • Google Keyword Planner: A free tool that provides keyword suggestions and search volume data based on a seed keyword.
  • SEMrush: A paid tool that offers keyword research, competitive analysis, and site audit features.
  • Ahrefs Keywords Explorer: Another paid tool that’s known for its large keyword database and ability to analyze backlink profiles.

Plug your seed keywords into these tools and look at the suggested terms they generate. Pay attention to the search volume and difficulty scores to understand how popular and competitive each search query is (more on this later).

Another useful tactic is to analyze the keywords your competitors are targeting. By looking at the related search terms that other sites in your industry optimize, you can identify opportunities to compete for the same audiences.

Some ways to do competitive keyword analysis include:

  • Search for your target keyword on Google and review the sites that currently rank on page one. What keywords do they include in their page titles, meta descriptions, headings, and body copy?
  • Using tools like Google Keyword Planner, SEMrush, or Ahrefs to view the keywords a specific URL ranks for.
  • Leveraging the autocomplete feature in Google search to see common search queries containing your keyword.

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Expanding Your Keyword List

At this point, you should have a substantial list of potential keywords to target. However, many of these terms may be very broad and competitive. To expand your list and find less saturated opportunities, distinguish between short-tail and long-tail keywords.

Short-tail keywords are brief and generic, usually one to three words long. Examples might be “hiking boots” or “camping gear”. These terms tend to have high search volume but are also very competitive since many sites will try to rank for them.

Long-tail keywords, on the other hand, are more specific keyword phrases and usually contain four or more words. Examples might be “best lightweight hiking boots for women” or “how to choose a camping tent”. These terms typically have lower search volume but are also less competitive. They’re also more likely to convert since they catch people further along in the buyer’s journey.

To find long-tail keyword ideas, try entering your short-tail terms into Google and looking at the related search terms that appear. You can also use tools like Answer the Public, which provides question-based keyword suggestions (e.g. “how to choose hiking boots” or “what to look for in a camping tent”).

As you expand your keyword list, it’s important to keep your research organized and easily accessible. Using a keyword research template can help you keep track of your seed keywords, related terms, and long-tail variations in one centralized location. This makes it easier to analyze your keywords and make data-driven decisions about which terms to prioritize.

Evaluating Keyword Difficulty

Once you’ve built out a sizable list of keyword ideas, the next step is to evaluate their difficulty. Keyword difficulty (KD) is a metric that estimates how hard it would be to rank for a particular term based on the current competition.

Most keyword research tools will provide some form of KD score, typically on a scale of 0-100 (with higher values indicating greater difficulty). However, it’s important to note that each tool calculates KD slightly differently.

To get a rough idea of KD, look at the sites currently ranking on page one for your target keyword. Are they mostly well-established, authoritative domains? Do they have a high quantity of quality backlinks? If so, the term is likely quite competitive.

You can also perform a manual Google search for your keyword and assess the following:

  • Page titles and meta descriptions: Are they well-optimized to include the target keyword?
  • Page content: Is it in-depth, high-quality, and relevant to the keyword?
  • Domain authority (DA): This metric from 0-100 predicts how likely a site is to rank in search results based on its backlink profile. You can check DA using MozBar or other SEO tools.

In general, you want to target keywords that strike a balance between high search volumes and reasonable competition levels. As a newer site, you may need to focus on lower-difficulty keywords at first and gradually target more competitive terms as you build up your authority.

Assessing Keyword Search Volume

In addition to assessing difficulty, evaluate the search volume for your target keywords. Search volume refers to the average number of times a particular term is searched per month. This metric helps gauge the demand and traffic potential for a keyword.

Most keyword research tools will provide search volume data alongside the keyword suggestions. Take these numbers with a grain of salt, as they are often rough estimates.

When assessing search volume, look for keywords that have a substantial number of monthly searches (at least a few hundred for most industries). But be wary of terms with extremely high search volume, as they may be too competitive to realistically rank for.

It’s also important to consider the trend of search volume over time. Some keywords may be highly seasonal (e.g. “Christmas gift ideas”), while others may be steadily increasing or decreasing in popularity. Look at the search volume trend over the past 12-24 months to get a better idea of a keyword’s staying power.

Analyzing Keyword Click-Through Rates (CTR)

Another important factor to consider when selecting keywords is the expected click-through rate (CTR) from search results. CTR refers to the percentage of people who click on a result after searching for a particular term.

Even if a keyword has high search volume, it may not drive significant traffic if the CTR is low. This can happen for a few reasons:

  • The search intent behind the keyword is unclear or ambiguous.
  • The SERP features (e.g. featured snippets, People Also Ask boxes) are capturing most of the clicks.
  • The top ranking results are not compelling enough to earn clicks.

To estimate the expected CTR for a keyword, you can use Google Search Console data (if you already rank for the term) or tools like Ahrefs and SEMrush (which provide average CTR benchmarks by position). In general, aim for keywords with a higher expected CTR, as they are more likely to drive actual search traffic to your site.

Mapping Keywords to Content

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Once you’ve identified a list of target keywords, the next step is to map them to specific pages or pieces of content on your site. This keyword research process helps ensure that each page is optimized around a central keyword theme and that your site architecture is clean and logical.

Start by categorizing your keywords based on their search intent. Group together keywords that imply similar intent (e.g. informational keywords vs. transactional keywords). These keyword groups will form the basis for your content silos or topic clusters.

A content silo is a way of organizing your site’s content into clear, hierarchical categories. A topic cluster involves creating one authoritative pillar page around a broad keyword, and then linking to several supporting blog posts about more specific subtopics.

For example, let’s say one of your target keywords is “best hiking boots”. You might create a pillar page optimized for this term, and then write supporting blog posts optimized for related long-tail keywords like:

  • “best lightweight hiking boots for summer”
  • “best budget hiking boots under $100”
  • “best hiking boots for wide feet”
  • “how to break in new hiking boots”

By linking these more specific posts back to the main pillar page, you create a clear content hierarchy and signal to Google that your pillar page is an authoritative resource on the topic.

As you map keywords to content, consider the stage of the buyer’s journey each term represents. Keywords with informational intent should be mapped to top-of-funnel content like blog posts and guides, while keywords with transactional intent are best suited for bottom-of-funnel pages like product pages or landing pages.

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Prioritizing Your Keyword Targets

With your keyword list mapped out, it’s time to prioritize which terms to focus on first. Not all keywords are created equal, and some will likely have a higher potential impact on your business than others.

To prioritize your keyword targets, consider the following factors:

  • Relevance: How closely does the keyword align with your products, services, or business goals?
  • Search Volume: How many people are actually searching for this term each month?
  • Keyword Difficulty: How competitive is the keyword, and how likely are you to rank for it based on your site’s current authority?
  • Business Value: If you ranked for this keyword, how valuable would the resulting traffic be in terms of potential leads or revenue?

Based on these criteria, assign each keyword a priority score (e.g. Low, Medium, High). This will help you determine which terms to focus on first in your content creation and optimization efforts. In general, aim for a balance of short-tail and long-tail keywords, as well as a mix of low, medium, and high competition terms. This will help you drive short-term gains while also setting yourself up for long-term success.

On-Page Keyword Optimization

Once you’ve selected your target keywords and mapped them to specific pages, optimize those pages around the chosen terms. This process is known as on-page SEO.

Some key places to include your target keywords include:

  • Page title: This is the main title that appears in search results. Aim to include your primary keyword near the beginning of the title.
  • Meta description: This is the brief snippet that appears below the page title in search results. While it doesn’t directly impact rankings, it can influence click-through rates.
  • Headings: Use H1, H2, and H3 tags to structure your content and include variations of your target keyword.
  • Body copy: Incorporate your keyword naturally throughout the page’s content, aiming for a keyword density of around 1-2%.
  • Image alt text: Include your keyword in the alt text of any relevant images on the page.
  • URL: If possible, include your keyword in the page’s URL structure (e.g. www.example.com/best-hiking-boots).

However, it’s important not to overdo it with keyword placement. Aim for a natural, readable flow rather than awkwardly forcing keywords into every possible spot. Use variations and synonyms to avoid keyword stuffing, which can actually hurt your SEO.

Additionally, make sure to optimize for related keywords and subtopics that help reinforce the page’s main keyword theme. By covering a topic comprehensively and naturally including related search terms, you can improve your chances of ranking for a wider range of long-tail keyword phrases.

Tracking Keyword Rankings

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After publishing and optimizing your content, track how well it’s performing in search results. Monitoring your keyword rankings over time can help you understand which optimization tactics are working and where there’s room for improvement.

To track keyword rankings, you can use tools like Google Search Console, SEMrush, or Ahrefs. These tools will show you the average position your site ranks for specific keywords, as well as the change in position over time.

Pay attention to any major shifts in rankings, especially sudden drops. This could indicate an issue with your site’s SEO, such as a penalty or algorithm update. On the flip side, steady increases in rankings can show that your optimization efforts are paying off.

In addition to tracking your own rankings, monitor your competitors’ rankings for the same keywords. This can help you identify areas where you’re falling behind and need to step up your game.

Based on your ranking data, adjust your keyword targets and optimization approach as needed. If you’re struggling to rank for a particular term, you may need to reevaluate its difficulty and search volume. If you’re seeing strong rankings for certain keywords, look for opportunities to capitalize on that success (e.g. by creating additional content around those topics).

Advanced Keyword Research Tips

As you become more comfortable with the basics of keyword research, here are a few advanced tips to take your skills to the next level:

  • Capture “People Also Ask” keywords: Google’s People Also Ask (PAA) feature is a goldmine for long-tail keyword ideas. These are the questions that appear in a box on the SERP, often containing terms closely related to your main keyword. You can use tools like AlsoAsked or Ahrefs to scrape and analyze PAA questions at scale.
  • Optimize for local keywords: If your business has a local component, make sure to target keywords that include location-based terms (e.g. “hiking boots Seattle”). You can also optimize your Google My Business listing and build local citations to improve your chances of ranking for searches and boost your local SEO.
  • Don’t neglect YouTube and Amazon: Google is not the only search engine worth targeting. If you create video content, optimizing for YouTube keywords can be a powerful way to drive views and engagement. And if you sell physical products, ranking well in Amazon search results can directly impact your bottom line.

Keyword research is a fundamental skill for any SEO professional or content marketer. By understanding what your target audience is searching for and optimizing your content accordingly, you can drive more qualified traffic to your site and achieve your business goals. While the process may seem complex at first, it becomes easier with practice. The most important thing is to approach keyword research with a curious and analytical mindset. Constantly put yourself in the shoes of your target customer and think about the language they would use to find your products or services.

Additionally, remember that keyword research is an ongoing process. As your business grows and evolves, so will the keywords you need to target. Make keyword research a regular part of your SEO and content marketing workflow, and continually look for new opportunities to expand your organic presence.

With dedication and practice, you’ll be able to identify high-value keywords that drive real results for your business. So roll up your sleeves, fire up your favorite keyword research tool, and start optimizing!

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Frequently Asked Questions

How many keywords should I target per page?

As a general rule, it’s best to optimize each page for one primary keyword and a handful of secondary or related search terms. Trying to target too many search terms on a single page can lead to content that feels unfocused or unnatural.

That said, the exact number of keywords will depend on the length and depth of your content. A short blog post may only target one or two keywords, while a long pillar page could target several related keywords.

The key is to make sure all of your target keywords are closely related and fit naturally within the context of the page. Avoid keyword stuffing at all costs, as this can actually hurt your SEO.

How long does it take to rank for a keyword?

The amount of time it takes to rank for a keyword can vary widely depending on factors like:

  • The keyword’s difficulty and competitiveness
  • The quality and relevance of your content
  • Your site’s authority and backlink profile
  • The age of your site and the specific page

In general, newer sites and pages will take longer to rank than established ones. And highly competitive keywords may take several months or even years to crack the top positions.

As a rough benchmark, you can expect it to take at least a few weeks to a few months to start seeing meaningful rankings for a new keyword. But keep in mind that SEO is a long-term game. Consistency and patience are key to achieving lasting results.

How often should I perform keyword research?

Keyword research should be an ongoing process, not a one-time event. At a minimum, aim to revisit your keyword strategy every few months to identify new opportunities and adjust your targeting based on performance.

However, the exact frequency will depend on your industry and the rate at which new keywords and topics emerge. In fast-moving industries like technology or fashion, you may need to perform keyword research more often to stay on top of emerging trends.

A good rule of thumb is to make keyword research a regular part of your content planning process. Before creating a new piece of content, always do some keyword research to identify the best terms to target and optimize around.

Katie Nichols
Katie Nichols
Katie Nichols is a Content Writer at Helium SEO. She has experience in professional and creative writing, video production, and legal codification. Outside of work, Katie enjoys reading, spending time with her cat, and adding entries to her bucket list.

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