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Keyword research is a fundamental aspect of SEO. It provides guidance on targeting, allowing SEOs to understand the search landscape. Through data on monthly search volumes and assessing intent & competition, SEOs can then make data driven decisions on which keywords to target.
 
If you’re reading this but haven’t already looked at buyer personas or our earlier guides on SEO theory, we suggest hopping over there first. Here’s a list of articles that will be helpful before you start your keyword research:
 
 
Read and understood them? Great, let’s continue our journey through the basics of SEO with keyword research.

What are Keywords?

Keywords are search queries. Whenever you type (or say) a query into a search engine, that string of words is what is known as keywords. You may also hear keywords referred to as search terms, search queries, or simply searches.

Categorising Keywords by Intent

As SEOs we tend to categorise keywords, so that we can prioritise and target them. The first thing to look at is intent, using the following categories:
 
  • Navigational (a.k.a searching for a specific brand)
  • Informational (looking for information)
  • Transactional (wanting to make a purchase)

The names are self explanatory but are key to how we prioritise our keywords.

 
On the whole, SEOs are not so worried about branded search, although it is useful to monitor to understand brand visibility and market share. Transactional searches tend to be targeted by major landing pages, where users are able to complete their intent quickly. Informational keywords are then targeted through content, aligning with buyer personas sales funnels.
 
Those are broad strokes and there are instances where they might change. For example, a company may have the same brand name as a film or historical figure. In which case an SEO may be employed to ensure 1st position rankings for branded searches.
 
This is a beginner’s guide though so let’s stick to the broad strokes.

Categorising Keyword By Length

We can also categorise these keywords further into what are called short-tail and long-tail keywords. As you may be able to guess, this is a direct reference to the amount of individual words in a search query. In a convoluted and messy way, it refers to the amount of keywords that make up the target keywords.
 
Short-tail keywords tend to be those that are 3 words or less in length, with long-tail keywords being anything over 3 words. Whilst not a hard and fast rule, long-tail keywords have a propensity to be informational in intent. They also tend to be more specific in their nature. In contrast, short-tail keywords are usually more transactional and specific in their nature. Let’s look at three examples, we’ve placed them in order of a potential buying lifecycle:
 
Search: “Why do I have pain on the inside of my knee?”
 
This is an informational search and early on in a buyer’s journey. They have a problem but aren’t necessarily thinking of a specific product that could solve it.
 
Search: “Ways to fix runner’s knee”
 
Another informational search but now that the user has an indentified problem, they are now looking for a solution.
 
Search: “Best trainers for runner’s knee”
 
This is where informational starts to merge with transactional intent. They have a problem and have identified trainers as a potential solution.
 
Search: “Nike trainers sale”
 
This is a transactional search term, i.e the user is now looking to make a purchase.
 
As you can see, categorising our keywords allows us to understand how we can target our prospects as they transition through a sales funnel.

What are the objectives of keyword research?

Our job as SEOs is to generate highly targeted organic traffic and conversions for websites. In order to achieve this, we need direction. We need to know who we’re targeting and how we are going to target them.
 
We can see from the categorisation of keywords that having these searches clearly identified gives us guidance. Our research also provides us data points that enable us to make educated decisions on which keywords to target.

Monthly Search Volume

This is the primary statistic around which keyword research revolves. How many people per month, within a given geographical area, use this search term?
 
These search volumes allows us as SEOs to see how viable it would be to target a specific query. We can look at click through rates from search, alongside our own conversion rates and thereby understand the potential value.

Competitiveness

Through the identification of a group of keywords, we are then able to see what the associated competition is (and what they are doing). Of course, we should already have a good idea of our competition in the market, but this hones it in even further.
 
In addition, this competitive analysis then influences are decision making in terms of which keywords to target.

Tracking Success

All marketing campaigns need to be tracked and in order to track, we need baseline, or agreed metrics. The ability to track positions related to target keywords provides a key data point on which we can judge the success of our efforts. As we will see, the overall success is not solely reliant on rankings for specific keywords, but it is certainly a good place to start.

A Simple Process for SEO Keyword Research

The good news is that the SEO industry tends to conduct keyword research using a similar process. There are agencies that ‘tack on’ more items and you can do this in time. As this is a beginner’s guide to keyword research we’re going to be taking you through the essential steps first.
 
If you have been following our guides, by now you should have a brand strategy and buyer personas. These are critical to keyword research and should be referred to throughout. Haven’t got these things yet? Press pause on keyword research and backtrack to brand strategy and buyer personas. Pay homage to the process.

Step One: Brainstorming

At Catchworks we’re always conscious of ‘anchoring’ our thought processes. What is anchoring? The easiest way to explain it is asking someone to describe a word, without using that word. It’s not impossible, but for a lot of people they struggle to remove that specific word from their thoughts.
 
That’s why we suggest brainstorming before you start to look at tools. Use your buyer personas, use your team, use friends. We’re trying to brainstorm potential keywords that would be relevant to you as a business, without being guided by tools.
 
A successful brainstorming session should create a lit of potential keywords. These can then be verified by the tools later in the process, along with being categorised as previously mentioned.
 
Think of all of the search terms that a prospect might use throughout their buying journey. Think of synonyms & different terminology.
 
Pro tip: note every single keyword down. Don’t be judgemental. They can be included and excluded as we progress and look up the associated data for these keywords.

Step Two: Find Relevant Keywords

Through brainstorming you should now have a base of keywords that you believe to be relevant to your prospect and your business. It’s now time to expand these where possible.
 
There are two major ways to expand your keyword list: through tools and through the search engines themselves.

Finding related keywords through tools

Most major SEO platforms provide a keyword research tool that also generates related search terms. For simplicity, we will focus on SEMrush but feel free to use another tool if it does the job.
 
For example, with SEMrush’s Keyword Magic Tool, we can generate broad match, phrase match, exact match and related keywords. Explore the options and add any (to your keyword list) that are relevant to you.
SEMrush Keyword Magic Tool
Don’t want to pay for SEMrush or Ahrefs? Google provide their own tool, called Keyword Planner. In fact, we recommend using both to double check.
Discover Keywords Keyword Planner
Google Keyword Planner

We can also look at more specific keyword research tools like Answer the Public which generates numerous options. You can then take it even further by using SparkToro to explore terminology used by your buyer personas. If you’re so inclined you can also dive into Buzzsumo to see the type of language used by the most socially shared content on a topic.

Finding Related Keywords through Search Engines

SEO specific tools are great. They’ve been specifically designed to provide information that will help us with our campaigns. We shouldn’t look past the search engines themselves though.
 
The search engine results pages (SERPs) are in a constant state of evolution. As our use of tech advances, the search engines are trying to make our search landscape a seamless experience. Google have already stated that they are progressing towards a queryless search environment.
 
We can use this evolution to our advantage for keyword research. There are three Google SERP features to help us: Google Autosuggest, People Also Ask and the handily named ‘Searches Related To’. This gives us direct insight into what Google believe to be the most appropriate related searches for the user.
Google Autosuggest Search Feature
This is not specific to the Big G. As we type our searches into a search bar, the search engine will provide popular searches. This is known as Autosuggest.
 
It’s slightly different to the People Also Ask accordion. It’s trying to help you fulfil your intent at that time, i.e complete your search. It’s still useful. It allows you to explore popular searches using an initial word (or partial word) as the genesis.
People Also Ask Accordions
This is a more recent addition to the SERPs that Autosuggest. It is a set of accordions that allow the user a sneak peak, or sometimes a summary of the featured content. Think of this as a mix between Autosuggest and featured snippets.
 
This is Google trying to give people a more comprehensive view of the topic, whilst staying on the same SERP. It’s incredibly useful for related searches (and information).
Google's "Searches Related To" SERP feature

The name of this feature would lead you to believe that it is the most useful during this exercise. However, you’ll notice that the listed ‘related searches’ are the same as the Autosuggest. Still useful, but more of a repeated feature.

Rinse & Repeat

By now you should have an extensive list of keywords. Whilst this process has been set out with brainstorming first for a reason, it quickly becomes a fluid process. You will find certain topic or keywords that open up new areas, at which point you may have to backtrack to cover it completely. Don’t be afraid of these rabbit holes, explore them.
 
The aim of this process if to gain a comprehensive understanding of the search landscape. That means exploring avenues if only to find that they are not relevant enough, or don’t have the required search volume. It’s not negative, it provides focus. You may have to go through this process multiple times, that’s fine.
 
Rinse and repeat.

Step Three: Categorise Your Keywords

We’ve already covered the different types of categorisation (intent & length) so this should be simple.
 
The list of keywords now needs to be organised.
 
Most SEO tools allow you to build out keyword lists, but it’s often best to create a spreadsheet (however boring that may sound). They’re easier to structure and also to share with other team members or clients.
 
The aim is to create a spreadsheet that allows us to filter with the following metrics at a minimum:
 
  • Intent
  • Length
  • Search Volume
  • Topic
  • Relevance
 
We tend to use tabs for topics and columns for the rest. The tabs should eventually represent pages on your site. The columns then allow us to separate transactional from informational – i.e landing page vs content. We can then filter these further by relevance and search volume.
 
The end result should be tabs that display the most transactional, highest relevance & search volume keywords at the top. As we scroll down this relevance, volume and intent will decrease. Once we hit informational searches, we’ll often transfer these over to a tab or separate spreadsheet to facilitate a content plan.

Step Four: Decide on Target Keywords

The highest search volume keywords are not automatically your target keywords.
 
Our job as SEOs is to increase levels of organic visibility, traffic and conversions. Therefore, at some point, search volumes will have to be taken into account. It’s pretty self-explanatory. We won’t be able to increase our traffic by x if we target keywords with total search volumes of less than x.
 
The problem lies in the fact that it’s too easy to get distracted by big numbers. Call it over optimism, call it unrealistic goals. Call it whatever you want, but we need to be honest with our goals and the market.
 
To clarify, we’re not telling you to avoid high volume keywords. We’re telling you to manage expectations. If you’re a new website in a highly competitive market, it’s prudent to look at keywords with less competition first.

Assess the Competition & Opportunity

There are lots of factors that come into play when deciding on target keywords, not least the aforementioned relevance to your business.
 
Ultimately though it comes does to how competitive each keyword is and the opportunity they represent. Go to Google and search each keyword (or use an SEO platform to automate this process). Research your competitors and understand where their priorities lie. Assess where your strengths lie in the market and the relevance of each keyword.
 
It may be that you have to target the same keywords as your competitors. In fact, it’s unlikely that there won’t be any overlap between your website and your competitor’s websites. However, this process may help you identify opportunities. Perhaps there are keywords that have less search volume but also less competition. These could offer quicker wins for your website/business, allowing you to build your foundations faster.
 
Make educated choices, and that means taking into account the market and your route to success.

Step Five: Take Your Rankings

Before you start working on your campaign you’ll want to take stock of where you are at the moment. It’s an easy thing to forget, especially if organic visibility is low.
 
Taking your rankings before you start work gives you a baseline of visibility, related to your target keywords. It acts as an index of your organic visibility. You can do this by adding your keywords to an SEO tool like an SEMrush, or take them manually and add them to your keywords spreadsheet. Remember though that results can be affected by your location, previous search behaviour and more.
 
You may even want to complete this as part of choosing your target keywords. Gaining a clear view of your current rankings and the work involved to increase visibility will help you choose.
 
Either way, just make sure you take your rankings so that you can see whether your campaign is moving in the right direction.

Target Keyword Rankings are Indicative

For a long time now, SEOs have been judged by their ability to gain rankings for target keywords. Times have changed, but that does not make target keyword rankings obsolete. For many industries the reality is that a specific set of keywords will be incredibly important. They’ll be highly transactional with good search volumes.
 
Bear in mind though that SEO has progressed over the years. With the release of Google’s Rankbrain update, it became clear that users search in a multitude of ways. In fact, up to 15% of all searches have never even been seen before, which puts pressure on the idea of target keywords being relevant.
 
Add to this the buying lifecycle and the multiple touchpoint that a brand can have with a prospect during their buying journey.
 
What we end up with is a complex search environment that requires more than just target keywords. We have informational searches that can provide initial touchpoint with prospects. We have variations of searches, interpreted for Google through LSI and RankBrain. We have location dependent searches, user considerations and more.
 
Therefore, we need our target keywords to form an index and guidance. They are indicative of success, but not the be all and end all. As we’ll explore throughout our guides, successful SEO looks to own the space around the buying lifecycle.
 
In the meantime, use this process to identify key transactional keywords. Use it to explore the market and help develop a content plan. Use it to identify the best opportunities for your website both in the short term and long term.
 
Be thorough, rinse and repeat until you are confident you have covered the search landscape comprehensively. If you need any further guidance, please visit our other SEO guides or give us a call!

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