How to Do Keyword Research for SEOWhether you call them the “Five Ws”, the “Five Ws and one H”, or the “Six Ws”, these one-word questions can be very helpful in your SEO strategy. In kindergarten, we learned “who, what, where, when, why, and how”, but despite the simplicity of these questions, sometimes the best approach is… well, the simplest. And what a coincidence that Cicero, the same philosopher whose work is used as “Lorem Ipsum” dummy text for web design, has also been credited (though it doesn’t appear in his writings) for formulating this system of circumstances. Nonetheless, here is how you can use those 6 little interrogative words to help you organize the process of doing keyword research for search engine optimization.

WHAT is keyword research?

Any Internet marketing strategy starts with understanding how potential customers can find you. In the case of SEO, one of the most popular ways to promote yourself is through optimizing your site for specific, relevant keywords that pertain to the product or service that you promote on your website. The problem that many webmasters and DIY SEMers run into is trying to figure out WHAT keywords to target. There are different approaches to keyword targeting and SEOmoz provides a pretty helpful beginner’s guide to help you get started as well. Before you can decide what keywords to target, though, you need to know the “what for” behind them.

WHY do keyword research?

Given that you cannot hope to optimize your site for every keyword under the sun, let alone a specific category, it becomes a necessity to narrow down which keywords to go after. To do that, you’d best determine your motivation for taking the time and resources to strategize your keyword targets first. The first question you need to ask yourself is: how much is it worth for me to get more traffic to my website? If it’s worth more than a few hours of your time, then you have no reason NOT to be strategic about your site’s keyword optimization. If it’s something you find too difficult but definitely worth it, you can always hire an Internet marketing company to help you get started as well.

I must make an important note, however, that this is not a justification for deceptive keyword targeting, nor is it a condonation of practices that are used for spamming search engines. Keyword research is about making better efficiency for your Internet marketing budget whilst improving your relevance to your audience. It is a way of finding your most efficient routes to whatever your destination is, and your destination is the goal that only YOU can set for yourself. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, so be prepared to roll up those sleeves and get those hands a little dirty with data.

WHO is the keyword research for?

The purpose behind your Internet marketing strategy should always be for search engine USER optimization. Give value to your potential customers first and foremost. Otherwise, what’s the point, right? Unless you just want your site to be crawled by search engines, at some point, you’re going to need actual human visitors which requires a human approach. You want to get the “right” visitors to your site, which means you should definitely figure out what your goals are before you start listing any keywords.

For instance, are you trying to get more visits to your site for ad revenue? Then you might be willing to accept more visitors that are looking for more informative content. However, if you’re running an e-commerce site, then you might want to bring shoppers to your site, which means not trying to just get visits, but to actually SELL products. And if you’re neither, but you want to increase the number of people who visit your site and fill out a form, then that’s another thing to keep in mind with your keyword strategy. Think about all the many things that influence your potential visitors’ searches and how that parallels with your products and/or services. Language, geography, social channels, and even the type of devices that visitors use have an influence on how they find your site.

Your first step toward defining your goals is to determine what you consider a conversion. What are your goals on your site? If it’s simply measured in “time on site,” that can help you narrow down your demographic to people who are interested in reading your site’s content. If your goals are to have contact forms filled out, or purchases made, then you may want to be cognizant of the visits that are going to the “Thank You” pages for either your contact forms or receipt pages. Once you’ve determined what you consider a conversion you can better target the keywords that lead to those conversions, which is just one facet of conversion rate optimization.

Once you know what your goals are for your marketing efforts, you can start gathering your keywords and mapping them to the appropriate pages. But gathering the data can sometimes be a nightmare, especially if you don’t know where to find the tools to help you in this process. Thankfully, Promodo came out with a pretty interesting infographic about keyword research, which can help you break down the process more efficiently.

WHEN should keyword research be done?

Ideally, you want to do keyword research and mapping when you first build your site. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Even sites that have been around for years can benefit from improving their content and/or site architecture. Domain age alone isn’t going to boost your rankings, especially if the keywords you’re targeting aren’t relevant to the rest of the content on your page(s)/site. There’s never an expiration date on improvement, so don’t feel like you missed your opportunity to improve upon your current keyword targeting efforts. Just keep in mind that it is possible to have “too much of a good thing” so try not to overanalyze or get too caught up in the data.

WHERE should keyword research be done?

Though this is actually just the first step of the “HOW,” I have to note the importance of this step. In a perfect world, it would be simple and easy to do keyword research for your entire site. However, it’s not uncommon for sites to be hundreds of pages wide. When time=money, who can afford to go through hundreds of pages of keyword research when you already have a business to run? In the real world, you may only be able to do keyword research for a fraction of your total site.

Identify Your Target

As the infographic pointed out, you need to first identify your targets, in this case, your landing pages. Make a prioritized list of your site’s pages starting with your home page first, of course, and continuing down until you’ve reached your maximum number of pages you can handle (there is no “set number” of pages as this can differ from site to site, but the important thing is to list as many as you can to prevent overlap, also known as keyword cannibalization). This also means determining what type of visitors you anticipate drawing to these pages. If you have a brick-and-mortar store, you may need to consider adding geographic modifiers to your keywords (e.g. “San Diego SEO” instead of just “SEO”). If you are selling specific brands of products, that might be an important thing to consider for your keyword data gathering as well.

HOW to do keyword research?

Don’t just shoot from the hip when doing your keyword research, mapping, and targeting. There are tools available (many of which are free) that can help you improve your keyword targeting aim, but first, you have to be willing to tune your site accordingly (pardon the pun).

Fire a Test Round

The easiest and perhaps simplest way to prepare for this is to treat each of your pages as “themes.” Build each page based on a theme so you can start working on listing other keywords in that same theme (that doesn’t overlap into a different theme, of course). This will require you to delve into some semantics, but that’s good! Just as the Semantic Web aims to “understand” human requests, so too should your keyword research. Gather some keywords that make sense to you and/or your colleagues to determine what sorts of keywords you would use in a search engine query to get to each page on your list. For instance, if one of your pages is about kitten calendars, you could use keywords like:

  • Kitten calendars
  • Kitten calendar
  • Cat calendars
  • Cat calendar
  • Calendars with kittens
  • Calendars with cats
  • Kitty calendars

Notice how the singular and plural versions are being listed. Also, there is more than one way to describe Felis catus: cat, kitten, kitty. Though “kitten” refers to a young cat, if you don’t have specifically adult cat calendars and kitten calendars, it might be worth including the “cat” keywords with the “kitten” keywords. This is just one of many examples in which your keyword gathering can go in so many directions depending on your industry and your site.

Check Your Target

Kitten Calendars AdWords Keyword Tool ScreenshotThere are several tools that you can use for determining what makes a “good” keyword. The first, and perhaps the most relied-upon, is Google’s AdWord Keyword Tool. Though this tool is made available for paid advertising, it is also used as a source of data that is relevant to searches conducted in Google overall. The tool provides an estimate for search volume for given keywords, but make sure you specify “Exact Match Type” and be aware that the Competition values are in reference to the amount of AdWords advertisers who are bidding for that keyword as well (that may not seem relevant to your organic SEO, but it can indicate relative demand). The data is not always “exact” but it gives you a good estimate that you can use to make adjustments to your keyword lists. You might also want to consider using these tools to give you some data about your keywords as well:

Search Engine Results Pages – Look at the results popping up for your keyword queries. Can you find some other potential keywords based on your competition?

Google Related Searches Tool – Taking it a step further, you can use the Related Searches Tool in Google to find other semantically related keywords as well.

Google Insights – This can help you see the search volume of keywords chronologically. Have a seasonal service or product? Then use Google Insights for keyword gathering! Here’s an example of a query for “halloween costume”–take a lucky guess as to when searches peak. Not only can you see WHEN they peak, but you can also find some other related search terms toward the bottom of the page as well.







Halloween Costumes Google Trend GraphGoogle Trends – Much like Insights, Google Trends can provide you with a graphical representation of keyword trends. You can see search volume trends related to the keyword so you can see a broader picture of the trendiness of a given keyword. As you can see in this query for “skinny jeans”, you can get information regarding the regions with the most searches, the individual cities, and even the languages. Is that important? You betcha! If you’re building content around these keywords, you might want to know where people are searching from and what language they’re speaking.

Google Analytics – If you have the data, use it! Not only can you find what keywords are ALREADY working to get visitors to your site; you can also see what the corresponding landing pages are for those keywords. Additionally, you can develop specific reports to narrow down what keywords are your best converters and you can use the many built-in reports, like the Reverse Goal Path, to see the path that visitors take to get to your individual goals, or you can segment your site’s traffic so you can view specific data within those advanced segments.

Competitor Anchor Text – Why reinvent the wheel? If you know WHO your competitors are, you can find out what keywords are being used in anchor text for links that point to your competitor’s site. There are plenty of tools that you can use for competitor analysis, but here are just a few:

Use Kentucky Windage

Though you might be lucky and find the perfect keywords for each of your pages on the first try. If not, don’t be afraid to make adjustments accordingly. Kentucky windage is the adjustment that shooters make when aiming at a target to correct any movement from the targets or wind. Instead of adjusting your site to compensate, sometimes this means adjusting your aim. If you know that by shooting at what appears to be straight down the crosshairs to the bull’s-eye is actually landing below and to the right, what do you do for your next shot? You aim high left to compensate, right? Same applies with refining your keyword list. In the kitten calendar example, I found while doing a search for the keywords listed above that there were several other keywords that might be good targets, like:

  • Black cat calendar – If I have specific types of cats (breeds, colors, ages, etc.), I can build out separate category pages.
  • Cat calendars 2012 – Don’t forget chronological modifiers like the year!
  • Funny cat calendars – If I have enough of these, I can build out my own “funny” cat calendar category page.
  • Pet calendar – “Pet” might be a better keyword for my higher level “pet calendar” landing page.
  • Cat a day calendar or 365 cats calendar – This is a specific type of calendar, so if I have traditional 12-month calendars AND daily calendars with cats, I can use these as a separate sub-category.

Don’t forget, if you’re running an e-commerce site, you can also use keywords like “kitten calendars for sale” and “where to buy kitten calendars”. In the aforementioned Promodo infographic, they talk about ditching low-volume keywords, but that’s not always the best approach. Long-tail keywords often have lower search volume than their short-tail counterparts, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t bring you visitors who are ready to buy. Qualifying your site’s visitors sometimes means sacrificing the anticipated search volume, but that’s sometimes the nature of the beast. If you’re aiming for brand awareness, it makes sense to go for more “general” keywords, but if you sell specific, well-known brands, it makes sense to go after the longer-tail brand-specific keywords. It all depends upon your goals and what you’re willing to compromise.

Often times, it is this step that can open a can o’ worms. It’s pretty easy to get carried away into developing keyword permutations, so you’ll want to make sure to organize this data in a way that works best for you. Personally, I love Excel! It not only helps me store the data for this task, but I can also use Excel to help me narrow down which keywords are my best targets.

Take Another Shot

Now that you have your list of keywords, and you’ve made your adjustments with the data you acquired from the tools listed above, you can refine your list once more. The point is to make sure that your goals, and the searches of your potential customers, are aligned. This may mean having to adjust your keyword research slightly, and that’s okay, just don’t go nuts over it! Trust me, it’s easy to get caught up in the data and all of the possibilities, but don’t let that get in the way of efficiency or efficacy.

Here are some ways that I use Excel to help with this process:

  • Index/Match Formulas – Create a separate tab containing my keywords that pulls the associated competition and search volume data from another tab that contains all the data I exported from Google’s AdWord Keyword Tool. You can find some other Excel formulas to help you clean up the data a bit too.
  • Conditional Formatting – To highlight keywords containing specific text or to highlight keywords whose competition or search volume is at a specified level. There are a lot of applications for using Conditional Formatting for SEO data as well.
  • Counting Formulas – To count how many keywords or individual pages I’m working with. You can even use array formulas to count unique values in a group of cells.


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