A Step By Step Guide to Keyword Research

Step by Step Approach to Keyword Research

SEO is not about getting traffic. It’s about getting the right traffic to your website, which increases sales and conversions.

Keyword research is the process of identifying the keywords and phrases your audience uses to search for products or services like those on your site. When you identify the right ones, you can connect with your audience at the right time and place in Google, Yahoo, and Bing.

Let’s take a step-by-step approach to completing the keyword research process.

Six Steps to Keyword Research

  1. Understand key concepts.
  2. Know your audience.
  3. Map your website.
  4. Brainstorm (also know as qualitative keyword research).
  5. Quantify.
  6. Evaluate and prioritize.

Step 1 — Key Concepts

We’ll start with an overview of key concepts that are going to come in handy as you get deeper into keyword research. This ensures you have a solid foundation to take action on in the steps that follow.

What are keywords?
Keywords are the words and phrases that users enter into search engines. They’re also known as “search queries." The search results for these queries are how people will find your brand, products, and services.

How do we evaluate keywords?
1. Search Intent — Why is someone searching in the first place?
2. Competition — Do I stand a chance in ranking for this keyword?
3. Relevancy — Is the keyword relevant to my website content and business offerings?
4. Search Volume — How many people type a keyword into Google each month?

Short Tail // Long Tail
Approximately 30% of the searches performed online are for short phrases.  Keywords like “headphones” or “headphones for sale.” This is called "the short tail of search" and the keywords search for are called "short tail keywords." These keywords tend to be high in volume and competition. These types of phrases are out of reach for many websites.

Good news, the remaining 70% of searches exist in what is referred to as "the long tail of search" and as a result are known as "long tail keywords." For example, “what are the best headphones for kids” or “wireless headphones for swimming laps.”

In the long tail, you often find keywords where you can compete. You also find high-value searchers who are closer to taking actions such as making a purchase or completing a lead generation form.

Pages Rank, Not Websites
SEO is a page-level game. Your website as a whole matters. But, when it comes to keywords, content, and on-site optimization, we work at the page level.

Local Intent Levels the Playing Field
If your business serves a local area, you can compete with large brands due to Google’s use of local intent.

We communicate local intent to Google via the use of keywords that include location + service or location + product. “Boulder restaurant” or “Boulder Italian restaurant” are two examples of keywords with local intent.

Keyword Clusters
Keyword clusters are groups of similar keywords that perform together as a unit. A page can perform well for a cluster of related keywords.

Focus and Secondary Keywords
Within each keyword cluster, one keyword will be selected as the focus keyword. This is the single best keyword match for the page. Additional high priority keywords will be deemed secondary keywords.

Step 2 — Know Your Audience (Really Well)

As we noted above, keyword research is the process of identifying the words and phrases that prospective customers use to search for your brand, products, and services.

We need to understand who those prospective customers are to figure out what kind of keywords they might use. Stop and ask a basic question — who is your customer?

Grab a notebook and describe your customers in a list of characteristics. Let’s say you are a fishing guide service in Aspen, Colorado. Your list might look like:

  • Visitors to Aspen.
  • Live all over the US and beyond.
  • 75% male, 25% female, and kids
  • Love fly fishing or the idea of fly fishing.
  • They don’t have their own fly fishing gear.
  • Most have fly fished at least once or twice before.

Note, that as part of the “who” we also want to define the “where.” For example, if you are a plumber, then you serve a geographic area such as a city, region, or state. The “where” is a list of locations you serve.

Now, ask yourself – what problems do my customers face that my business can solve? In the fly fishing example, your list may look like:

  • They don’t know where to go fishing in Aspen.
  • They don’t know how to fly fish.
  • They don’t have the right gear for fly fishing while on vacation.
  • Don’t want to go fishing alone.
  • Only have a short vacation and want to maximize the experience.

A solid understanding of your audience is the backbone of keyword research. This may seem basic and is likely an exercise you’ve already done many times in the past. We start here as we want your audience to be top of mind as we move into the next tasks.

You have completed this step when you have answers to the following questions:

  • Who are your customers?
  • Where are they located?
  • What problems does my audience have that my business can solve?

Step 3 — Map Your Website

As a friendly reminder, webpages rank, not websites. In this step, we will define a list of the important pages on your site you want to see rank in search results.

If you don’t have a website yet or don’t feel your current website represents your business well, you can still complete this step. Instead of writing down your important pages, note your key types of services or products. You’re trying to create categories to cluster keywords within in the steps below.

Keyword Research Template

Store your keyword research in a spreadsheet.

Pathfinder SEO - compass icon

Step 4 — Brainstorming

Let’s brainstorm keywords relevant to each important page on your website. We call this qualitative keyword research. You can use a pen and paper for this exercise.

First, jot down the words and phrases that your audience may enter into Google. Then, turn to these tools to grow the list.

Google Search Suggest
Go to www.google.com. Enter a phrase relevant to your homepage and see what other phrases people are searching for. Write down additional keywords or phrases highly relevant to your webpages.

Google Search Suggest Example

Answer The Public
Go to Answer the Public. Again, enter some of your top phrases and explore the matrix of suggested phrases. This is our favorite tool to brainstorm ideas for blog posts.

Answer the Public Example

Keyword Research Tools
Keyword research tools are a component of many SEO software. Here’s a list of our favorites. These tools help you brainstorm keywords for your website. For now, skip the quantitative data and continue to list on paper those keywords that stand out as being relevant to your business.

Google Search Console
If you have Google Search Console set up for your website, then the Performance data is a great place to help further brainstorm keywords. Login and check out the keywords that are currently driving traffic and exposure for your website.

Google Search Console Performance

This step is complete when you have a brainstormed list that looks something like this:

Brainstorming Example for an Aspen Fly Fishing Guide

My brand
My name

trout fishing in Aspen
guided fly fishing Aspen
fly fishing near Aspen Colorado
fly fishing in Aspen
fly fishing guide in Aspen
fly fishing Aspen Colorado
fishing in Aspen Colorado
Aspen guide service
Aspen fly fishing guide
Aspen fly fishing
Aspen fishing guide
Aspen fishing
Aspen Colorado fly fishing

fly fishing in Aspen
Aspen fly fishing
Aspen fishing
fishing in Aspen Colorado
fly fishing Aspen Colorado

Aspen float trips
fly fishing float trips
Aspen fishing float trips

wade fishing
Aspen wade fishing

Step 5 — Quantify

See how many people are searching for each brainstormed keyword on a monthly basis.

A spreadsheet is a great place to organize this work. In our Keyword Research Template (a Google Sheet), we have a list of our important pages.

Start to organize your brainstormed list of keywords under the most applicable page. Then, collect volume data. Here’s what the sheet will look like:

Quantifying Keyword Research

Use a keyword research tool to gather the data. Examples include:

Keyword Research Software

If you find new keywords along the way, add them to your list.

Step 6 — Evaluate & Prioritize

We are now ready to evaluate and prioritize all the keywords you brainstormed and collected volume estimates for. We are going to evaluate each based on four parameters we previously mentioned:

  • Intent – What does someone intend to find when they search a keyword?
  • Competition – Do I stand a chance in ranking for this keyword?
  • Relevancy – Is the keyword relevant to the content on the webpage it is paired with?
  • Search Volume – How many people type the phrase into Google each month?

1. Open your Keyword Research spreadsheet.

2. Reassess the keyword clusters associated with each page. Are they well organized into like keywords? Are all the keywords paired with the most appropriate page possible? Reorganize as needed.

3. For every page, review each keyword for search intent and relevancy. Remove any keywords from your list if they are:

  • Not relevant to that page they are paired with.
  • The search intent the keyword connotes does not match the page or your business offerings.
  • Remember, SEO is not about driving traffic to your website. It’s about growing your business and increasing sales and leads.

4. Prioritize your keywords based on volume and competition. Our goal is to select the focus keyword for each page and secondary keywords. We do this by highlighting a focus keyword in light green for each page. And then we select secondary keywords (typically 2-3 per page) by highlighting them in light yellow. Note that not all pages will have secondary keywords. Some pages are really about the brand and may just have a focus keyword. For example, your testimonials page may just focus on Brand + Reviews as a keyword. A few notes:

  • It isn’t always the keyword with the highest volume that is the best for your webpage. Remember, search intent matters. Often, we’d rather have 10 really qualified visitors to the website from a specific keyword than 10 less qualified visitors from a more general keyword.
  • You also need to consider how competitive the keyword rankings are. Some SEO tools have competition built-in. We like to take a more common-sense approach.

5. Search for the phrase in Google and see what other websites appear on page 1 of the Google search results. Does the page you paired with that keyword deserves to be in the mix? Is it providing more value than all the others?

You’ve completed this step when your spreadsheet has well-organized keywords with highlights to note the focus keyword and secondary keywords. It looks like this:

Defining Focus Keywords

You may want to take this one step further and create a keyword to page map. This is your keyword playbook for content and on-site SEO.

Keyword to Page Map

Great Job!

You’ve invested in keyword research and followed a process to ensure your SEO efforts will help you reach the right audience.

Wondering what is next? Now is a great time to starting thinking about your title tags and meta descriptions.

If you'd like to continue to follow our SEO process, consider taking a guided approach. Our platform includes a 12-step SEO process with step by step how-to information.

You’ve invested in keyword research and followed a process to ensure your SEO efforts will help you reach the right audience.

Wondering what is next? Now is a great time to starting thinking about your title tags and meta descriptions.

If you'd like to continue to follow our SEO process, consider taking a guided approach. Our platform includes a 12-step SEO process with step by step how-to information.

Lindsay Halsey

Lindsay Halsey

Lindsay Halsey is a co-founder of Pathfinder SEO. She has over 10 years of experience working in SEO with small to large businesses. Lindsay focuses on teaching business owners and freelancers how to get found in Google, Yahoo, and Bing via a guided approach to SEO. Stay in touch on Twitter - @linds_halsey.