Even though the field of SEO is changing rapidly, keyword research is still an important part of optimizing your content for search engines. It's just that now, instead of targeting a single keyword or phrase, you'll be working with clusters of keywords around a topic. But the process is similar—finding the proper keywords requires you to step into your client’s shoes and figure out what they would search for to find your services.
Keeping that in mind, there are some steps you should follow and tools you should use in order to maximize your research before writing your next blog post. Using keywords should come naturally and once you’ve mastered it, you’ll be able to target more of your desired consumers more frequently with better results.
Know what keywords are, and how they’re used.
There's no master list of keywords—they are simply anything people are searching for. In fact, "keyword" is a bit of a misnomer, because they're usually phrases. "How to wash a honey badger" or "cheap used cars Knoxville" are both examples of what a user might type into the Google search bar to find information and services.
When many people are using specific keywords to search for a particular topic or service you want to rank for, you can create content around those terms or work them in to existing pages and posts. That's what people mean when they say "keyword-optimized" content.
But popularity isn't the only factor; when a keyword is too popular, you don't stand much chance of ranking well for it. Selecting another (or a more specific) keyword or phrase can give you an edge against the competition. Used wisely throughout your digital content, the right keywords can help to boost your page rankings in search results, so customers are more likely to click on your listing.
That said, you shouldn’t try to repeatedly force a single target keyword into your blog post. Keyword-stuffing is not only inelegant and painful for your customers to read, but also more likely to get your content penalized by Google, which discourages those types of tactics.
Instead, you should employ LSI keywords, which are words and phrases with a high degree of correlation to your topic and a strong relationship to each other. Google knows that certain words are common in content about your topic, and it's looking for them to evaluate how valuable your content is.
Learn the long and short of it.
Imagine searching for the word "hair" rather than the much more specific "how to get hair like Bon Jovi." One opens the floodgates for all kinds of non-related results while the other will actually help you find the resources you need to accomplish this noble and worthwhile goal.
Sure, "hair" gets a lot more traffic, but it's a lot more competitive, and searchers can mean anything from pictures of haircuts to hair bands. Come to think of it, even "hair bands" can refer to '80s music or elastic hair ties. So while "how to get hair like Bon Jovi" may have fewer searches, those people know what they're looking for and are likely further into the research process.
These longer, more specific search phrases are called "long tail keywords" (technically because of where they fall in a graph of search distribution, but you don't need to worry about that). When you target these long tail keywords, you’re more likely to rank for them in search results.
First, develop a keyword list.
Now that you have an idea of what types of search terms to target, you can develop a keyword list.
Whenever possible, it's a good idea to start with actual data about your website and content. Google Analytics can help you see some of the search terms that have already brought visitors to your website, and which pages and posts have been most popular.
However, most Google searches are private, so most of the search terms that brought visitors to your site will show up as "(not provided)". You can work around that by using aggregated public information about searches—anonymous and not specific to your website, but sorted for the location or period you're interested in—from tools like the ones at the bottom of this post.
When deciding what keywords to use for your SEO efforts, the trick is understanding who is searching and why. For that, you need to understand your buyer persona. Once you have a solid understanding of your client and what they're searching for, you can frame your blog post and select your keyword group based on their interests and wording.
Check search volume and difficulty.
As we touched on earlier, part of choosing keywords for your target keyword group is evaluating how competitive they are. There are solutions (both free and paid) that can help you determine this.
Google Keyword Planner, HubSpot, Moz, Raven Tools, and many others measure search volume and competition to assign each keyword a difficulty level. The higher the difficulty, the harder it will be to compete in search rankings.
To get the ball rolling, start with lower-difficulty keywords and those for which you're already ranking. As you gain more search traffic and better Google results, you'll have a greater chance at ranking for higher-difficulty keywords.
This isn't 1995; overusing the same keywords will piss off reader and search engines alike. Use your target keywords where they both sound natural and deliver the highest SEO value, like in the title, headings, and the first sentence or paragraph of content. Limit your use of individual or very similar terms to once every 2-3 paragraphs, and don't forget to incorporate related terms from your LSI keyword group to strengthen your authority with search engines.
Once you've placed your top-priority terms in the title, headings, and first sentence, look for alternate terms to use in other SEO-sensitive elements like link anchor text, image file names, and image alt-text.
Don't miss the big picture.
Finally, remember that keywords are just one facet of successful blogging. Keyword research is a handy tool for improving your SEO, but remember that at the end of the day, it’s about the value you’re providing to your customers.
Search engines take quality of content and a wide range of other factors into consideration when offering up search results. The single best way to succeed is to regularly publish high-quality content made specifically for your buyer persona. Google constantly tweaks its algorithm to deliver better, more helpful search results, so you should focus on constantly producing better, more helpful content.
Additional Keyword Research Tools
Google's Keyword Planner (free): This tool is intended for planning AdWords campaigns, but it is also a great resource for SEO work. You can hone in on your product or service, narrow down to a product category, and even target specific locations. Google provides historical statistics on what people have been searching, so the ad group ideas will give you insights on the terminology searchers use. You may be tempted to go for the high volume searches, but be cautious with this temptation. Competitive search terms are harder to rank for, and may not be phrased the way your target buyer would search.
Google Webmaster Tools (free): This tool is helpful for managing your website in many ways, including analyzing your current performance in search results. Reviewing what queries are currently finding your site may bring some "ah ha" moments to what terms searchers are using.
If you're running a PPC campaign on Google AdWords, Google will provide you with additional keyword data. These insights can be very helpful as you plan keywords to use in your organic SEO efforts.
SpyFu (paid): SpyFu has advanced tools for your PPC and SEO keyword research. You can monitor keywords you already rank for, as well as research ideas with advanced filters.
SEO Book Keyword List Generator (free): This tool allows you to enter keywords and modifiers to get a list of phrases.
Ahrefs Keywords Explorer (paid): This tool will help you out each time you can’t come up with fresh keyword ideas. Its database gives a diverse choice of 5.6 billion keywords for 200+ countries. Some metrics are unique to Ahrefs, e.g., “Clicks” and “Clicks Per Search.” With their help, you can estimate how much traffic each keyword may bring you.
HubSpot (paid): HubSpot has many SEO-related features, including a Content Strategy Tool that helps you think in terms of topics and topic clusters and tie pillar pages to supporting blog posts. As you set up your main topics you can review keyword volume on the topics you choose as well as suggested related topics. There's a lot to HubSpot, so let us know if you would like a free demo.
Ready to Ramp Up Your SEO strategy? Here's a free ebook!
Editor's note: The original version of this post was first published on 10/10/2013. It has been updated twice since the original publish date. It now includes content originally published as other blog posts along with new content. We redirected the URLs for those posts to this post, so if you came here from a link with a different post title, that's why.