On the surface, researching keywords to use for your SEO may seem like a simple process. In reality, however, there is a variety of factors to keep in mind in order to get the best return on your work. It’s very important to make sure you don’t fixate on any one keyword before the entire process is finished. Doing so can really limit the success of your campaign. Twitter icon

The first thing you need to do is brainstorm a list of keywords you’d like to target. The more comprehensive your list is, the better your end results will be. After compiling a list, you need to consider your target audience. Who are you selling your products and services to? Which keywords on your list target those buyers?

Next, make sure that people actually search for that keyword you are wanting to target. Going after a term with lower search volume will not get you the ROI that you’re after. Lastly, you need to look at the competitiveness of this keyword. Are a lot of other businesses optimizing for that term? If so, then it may be smarter to start with a longer tail keyword that’s less competitive—and then slowly work your way to more competitive keywords.

Here’s a more detailed explanation of the process:

Step 1: Brainstorm

The first step in finding good keywords is to brainstorm all of your possible keyword ideas. When creating your list, don’t rush. If you don’t take the time to create a long, varied list, you might find yourself eliminating every option and starting all over again. Write down every idea that comes to your mind. Later on in the process, you can throw out all the bad ideas, but now is the time to get as many options as possible.

The brainstorming step is also a great time to start using Google Adwords Keyword Planner. This is a free tool from Google that will help give you keyword grouping ideas and recommendations. While it’s primary use is for SEM or PPC campaigns, you can easily utilize this tool to help maximize your research for your SEO campaign.

It’s important here to be aware of close synonyms. For example, Google views Wedding Rings and Engagement Rings as the same terms, and sites that are optimized for one are in the results of the other. When searching for “Wedding Rings,” you may find pieces entitled “Engagement Rings” without any mention of the word “wedding.” If you want to target a word with a close synonym like these, you need to make sure both words are wrapped into and supported by the content on your site. Understanding the synonyms of the terms you want to target is important in optimizing for those terms later. Once you’ve gotten all of your possible terms down, you’re ready to move to the next step.

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Step 2: Consider Your Target Audience

Once you have your all-encompassing list of potential keywords, you can start paring those down and picking specific words to target. The first step towards that is evaluating how each term will be received by your target buyers or viewers.

People search the internet for a variety of different reasons. Some people are looking for information to answer a question, while others may be looking for a product or service that they wish to purchase. It’s up to you to know what kind of traffic you want for your site. Do you want people to simply visit the site and read its content or do you want viewers to follow through and make purchases on your site?

Make sure not to select a keyword that blurs the line between these two. If you target a keyword that is primarily informative, like “cremation definition” or “spaghetti recipe,” it won’t lead viewers to buying a product. Readers will simply visit the site to find the information they want and leave once they’ve found it.

Informative keywords also tend to be more competitive. With a keyword like “cremation definition,” you’ll be fighting for first page space with other businesses, as well as sites like Wikipedia or WebMD. A simple Google search for “shingles installation” helps illustrate this point. The entire results page for that search shows guides on how to install shingles yourself. If you’re a roofing contractor looking to get more business installing shingles, you’ll be competing with dozens of D-I-Y articles for site traffic. A term like “local roofing contractor” is much more likely to catch potential clients.

Once you’ve eliminated the terms that don’t draw in the readers you’re looking for, you’re ready for the next step.

Step 3: Search Volume

For this step we head back to Google Adwords Keyword Planner and evaluate the average monthly searches for the terms we’ve narrowed our search down to. Generally, it’s wise to start at the national level to really get a general idea of what people are searching for. After you’ve eliminated some keywords based on that data, you can then look up the search volume in your local area to determine what your potential customers search for. This step often brings up surprising results, because some words you think people would be looking for might end up having lower search volume.

Step 4: Competitiveness

The next step is determining how competitive the keywords on your shrinking list are. Here we can utilize tools like Moz.com’s Keyword Difficulty and Analysis tool, which analyzes the SERPs and gives you an idea of how competitive a given term is. Tools like this are a great way to quickly check the competitiveness of a keyword, but you can also do this research yourself.

Type your term into the search engine and take a look at the results. Choose to see the search engine’s top 100 results for that keyword, instead of the top 10. Most keywords have more competition towards the top of the results list, so the top 10–20 results should be clearly optimized for the term. You should see the keyword in both the description and title of those top results.

As you move down the list, ideally you’ll start to see less relevant results somewhere in the 30s. If this is the case, the keyword will be usable for most businesses—with enough work on the site and natural link building. However, if you are getting into the 50s or 60s before finding irrelevant results, then that keyword might be a bit too competitive to go after, and looking at the longer tail version might be a better option.

If your competitiveness looks reasonable, then you’re just about done!

One Last Thing to Check:

Before you’re finished, you need to check your current results placement for the keyword you’ve selected. If it’s a keyword that your website is already appearing on the first page for, then there’s most likely no need to further optimize for it. There are a few situations where you may want to improve your first page placement. This is a totally reasonable goal to want to achieve, but you have to go into it with the correct exceptions. Climbing from the last result on the first page to the first can be just a difficult as getting from the 10th page of Google to the first. In general you are going to get a better return on your efforts if you work on something that isn’t already on the first page, as getting to the first page will gain you drastically more traffic.

The Long Tail Option

When there is a lot of competition for shorter keywords like “plumber,” focusing on a more specific version of the keyword is a great option. In general, all you need to do to decrease the competitiveness of your keyword is add additional words to it—something like using “plumber Rochester” vs. “cheap plumber near Rochester.” The general term “plumber” by itself is probably heavily competitive and narrowing your focus down to “cheap plumber” reduces your competition but still focuses on something potential clients are looking for.

In some situations, it might help to focus on keywords with higher purchase intent—or words targeting an audience that wants to buy a product rather than just gain information. For example, see our graphic below. Our initial focus was going to be on “shoes.” However, looking at the competition, there are hundreds of sites that sell shoes, so we can get more specific and focus on the longer keyword “womens shoes” or even the more specific “blue Nike womens running shoes.”

With each step towards the longer tail we lower our competition and the effort we’re going to have to put in to get the first page. While the search volume may be lower on our longer tail term, someone who is looking for that keyword is going to have a high intent to purchase that item.

long tail SEO graph


If you’ve made it through all the steps above, you have hopefully now found a usable keyword to start optimizing! With some focus on tweaking your website and obtaining some outside links relevant to that term, you should be climbing up the SERPs in no time.




  • Josh, May 19, 2015 @ 1:55 pm

    Thanks for the heads up on the MOZ tool. I haven’t used that one before.

  • Liliya, May 21, 2015 @ 11:32 am

    TJ, such a great article to help explain the keyword research!

  • TJ, May 21, 2015 @ 4:32 pm

    Thanks guys! SEO is all about picking the correct keyword first, if you don’t do it correctly you could find yourself with months wasted and nothing to show for it.

  • Edgar Raymond, May 26, 2015 @ 6:40 am

    Thanks TJ, During this time it’s very useful. Because of new mission would be start on upcoming 1st june.:-)

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