SEO is a field which is growing increasingly complex and often confusing. How best to achieve SEO is an area which has been talked and written about at astonishing length. Everyone seems to have a theory or strategy to offer. They all talk about different forms and aspects of search engine optimisation, as the head of an SaaS SEO agency here is what I have discovered
That can make it tough to remember that the whole process boils down to something very simple indeed. A searcher enters words or phrases into a search engine and is then offered some suggested pages. That makes SEO at its simplest level about ensuring that your page is amongst those suggested.
What searchers enter into their search engines is crucial. That in-turn makes keyword research absolutely fundamental to proper SEO. You’re far better able to serve your customer’s needs if you know what they’re looking for. It is also a key first step in building an effective content marketing strategy.
That means that keyword research should be at the forefront of your mind. You can’t afford to let it slip through the cracks in favour of more complicated or niche SEO strategies.
That’s why we’ve put together this ultimate guide. It will explain what keyword research is and how to complete it successfully. It will also reflect throughout, the importance of keyword research. That’s both in terms of implementing a content marketing strategy and better serving your customers.
Before we got to anything more complicated, we ought to explain what is meant by the word ‘keyword’. In SEO circles ‘keyword’ doesn’t always refer to just one word. It is a kind of catch-all to describe any word or phrase that may be typed into a search engine.
Keyword research is the study of those words and phrases. Websites and companies research which keywords their prospective customers are searching for. They also assess how often they’re searched for and what results are given. That gives them the information required to try to rank for the more popular keywords. It also lets them know how their competitors rank for them and how difficult improving their own rankings will be.
It’s a mistake to think that that’s all keyword research is about. The process is far more than just identifying keywords to rank for. It helps companies to recognise shifts in customer demands or intents. It allows them to react to changing market conditions. It also helps in the creating of content which is truly useful and beneficial to their customers.
Keyword research can help in all of those areas and more. It plays a key role in any content marketing strategy and helps businesses to better understand the demands of their customers. That’s why it’s so important to know how to do it properly.
Need help? our comprehensive guide shows you the cost of SEO.
Good keyword research delivers many positive results. It helps sites and pages to improve their SERP rankings for search terms their customers will actually use. It also gives companies a better understanding of their own users or customers. That results in a greater ability to provide content, products and services which meet the demands of those customers.
Many firms do not perform good keyword research in practice. What they do is a lazy and inefficient version of the process. They will often pluck potential keywords out of thin air. Then they’ll plug those into Google Keyword Planner or a similar keyword research tool.
From there, they will use their intuition to select a handful of keywords from those their chosen tool spits out. It is those keywords that the companies then base their whole content marketing strategy around. What that equates to is taking a guess and hoping for the best. It doesn’t even deserve to be referred to as research.
The above is not the way to go. Proper keyword research needs to begin with the searchers and not the searches. You need to make your research customer-centric and that begins with building a customer persona.
SEO is about helping searchers to find your site or pages. More importantly, it’s about making sure that people who may actually want or need your content, service or products find you. These people are your prospective customers. To understand what they will be searching for, you first need to understand them.
The best first step in better understanding your target customers is to build a customer persona. That is a picture of your typical customer. Things you need to think about include their gender, age and approximate income. You’ll also want to consider their hobbies and interests, what they need advice about and what their goals and desires are.
Depending on your particular business or field, you might need to build more than one customer persona. Different products and services may be pitched at different target customers.
Once you have your persona or personas, you are in a position to think about the subjects and topics which they’ll be interested in. Before we get to that, however, let’s take a moment to look at the customer buying process.
Where along the customer buying process your target audience sits is another important factor to consider. The customer buying process describes the journey of a customer towards actually buying a product or signing up to a service. There are five main stages of the process, as displayed on the above graphic.
Customers first encounter a problem or recognise a need for a product or service. That leads them to search out information about what’s available. They will then evaluate the different products or services which they have to choose from.
That ultimately leads to a decision to buy a particular product. After purchase, customers will then either be content or disappointed with their purchase. They might choose to recommend the product or to leave a bad review, as a result.
Phases two, three and four of the customer buying process are most important for SEO. It is during these phases that customers will most often use search engines. It’s important to identify in which phase your target customer is most likely to sit. Customers at different stages of the process want and need different things from you.
Those performing an early information search need how-to guides or other educational content. A customer evaluating alternatives wants detailed product pages. They must include your product’s main features and advantages. Someone at the point of purchase decision must be taken to where they can buy your product or sign up to your service.
Where a searcher is along the customer buying process is useful information. It can helpfully inform your content marketing strategy. It is worth taking the time to assess this, alongside building your customer personas.
Type a word or phrase summing up your business’s main focus into a keyword research tool and you’ll get loads of related keywords. That’s the point of the tool. Those keywords won’t necessarily be that helpful. They tend to be different ways to express your original phrase. Alternatively, they might add an extra word to that original phrase.
Ask a real person what they think of when they hear about your business, and the answers will be different. They will come up with loads of subjects and topics that relate to your business, but which keyword tools would never generate. These niche topic areas are where you need to get your keywords from.
The customer persona you’ve built is a great help with identifying these niche topics. Knowing the make-up of your target audience makes it easier to work out what they will be interested in. There are also other ways to generate these initial topic areas.
Visiting forums related to your niche is a good place to start. A quick glance down a forum or discussion board will reveal what real people are talking about. Visiting Reddit can be similarly illuminating. Threads related to your particular field on the popular site are can be a gold mine for potential topics.
Once you’ve generated these niche topics, you have the beginnings of a content marketing strategy. The topics are the areas that your content needs to address and cover. That way, the content will meet the needs and desires of your target customers.
You now know in broad strokes what subjects and topic areas your content should focus on. Those are the niche topics which your actual target customers are demonstrably interested in. That means you now have a factual base from which to develop a list of possible keywords.
As we stated earlier, ‘keyword’ does not necessarily mean a single word. In fact, keywords generally fall into three categories based on their length. Those categories are head keywords, body keywords and long tail keywords. The different categories can be seen on the search demand curve included above.
That curve plots the number of different keywords and their conversion rate on the x-axis. The search volume per month and competition when it comes to ranking for the keywords is plotted on the y-axis.
Head keywords are found at the top left of the curve. That means they are keywords which are searched for lots of times in any given month. Because of that, there is also a lot of competition to rank for those keywords.
They are often a single word, very general searches. That means they are the kinds of searches performed by customers in the early, information gathering stage of the customer buying process. There is a long way from there to an ultimate purchase. That explains the low conversion rate of head keywords.
As the curve also shows, whilst each head keyword has high search volume, there aren’t that many head keyword searches performed per month. Less than 20% of all searches performed are head keyword searches.
At the bottom left of the search demand curve are what are known as body keywords. These keywords have a lower general search volume than head keywords. There is also, as a result, less competition to rank for these keywords.
Body keywords tend to be longer than one word but are still comparatively short. Two to three words are as long as body keywords get. That still makes them quite broad, generic searches. They’re most often performed toward the beginning of the customer buying process. Unlike head keywords, these searches probably fall within the evaluation phase.
The conversion rate of body keywords is not much better than that of head keywords. There are also even fewer such searches performed on a monthly basis. Only around 10-15% of total searches are for body keywords.
Long tail keywords comprise much of the lowest part of the search demand curve. They are lengthy, very specific keywords that are often in the form of a question or a long, complete sentence. As such, each individual keyword has a very low search volume.
These keywords will be used by searchers with a definitive idea of what they are looking for. They will be searchers who are much further along the customer buying process. Generally speaking, they will have reached the purchase decision phase of that process.
A major advantage of long tail keywords is their high conversion rate. Searchers using these keywords are already well on their way toward a purchase decision. Long tail keywords also make up the vast majority of all searches. Approximately 70% of the searches performed are of this type.
From your customer specific topics, you’re best served to generate a list of head and long tail keywords. It will take you longer to rank for the head keywords and they will have a lower conversion rate. Once you do climb the rankings for those keywords, though, you will benefit from their high search volume.
Long tail keywords do not have the same search volume. They are also far less competitive and therefore easier to rank for. Their conversion rates are also much higher, meaning that ranking well for a long tail keyword can deliver very swift results.
A combination of those two main types of keyword is a good basis for a content marketing strategy. All that’s left before you start producing top-class content that’s useful to your customers, is to decide which keywords to focus on.
After step three, you’ve got your list of head and long tail keywords. All of those keywords will relate to topics and subjects that you know your customers are interested in. Now you need to decide which of those keywords to focus on. Once you’ve done that, you can build content around those keywords and start looking to rank for them.
To make your decision you need to look at a number of different factors related to the potential keywords. Those include search volume and traffic estimates, competition for the keywords and possible keyword value.
Search volume and traffic estimates for different keywords are easy to get. Keyword research tools like Google Keyword Planner and Moz’s Keyword Explorer can be signed up to for free. Those tools provide all the traffic or search volume analytics you could want. That makes it easy to disregard any of your possible keywords which have no or nearly no estimated traffic.
Google Trends is another keyword research tool that’s worth employing at this point. It shows how a keyword’s search volume has been changing over time. That can help you assess whether a keyword which currently has low estimated volume might be trending upward. It will also reveal keywords which have a seasonal variation in search volume.
Competition to rank for each possible keyword is also important to consider. This information isn’t quite as easy to come by. There are, however, a number of different avenues you can take. The first is to simply type your keyword into Google and look at the first SERP which appears.
You’re first looking to see if that first page of results displays sites belonging to huge, multi-national companies. If it does, competing for that keyword will be tough. You’re not likely to have the workforce or the budget to match or better their SEO efforts. If the nature of the pages displayed doesn’t immediately put you off, you can then look at the results a little more closely.
Running a page authority check on each result is worthwhile. So is taking the time to actually read the content provided on each page. If page authorities aren’t too high and the content is of a quality you can better, you will have a good chance of ranking for the keyword.
You’ll also want to work out the potential value of ranking for any keyword. A smart way to do this is by once again heading to the Google Keyword Planner. That tool is primarily designed for pay per click (PPC) advertising and this can work to your advantage.
When you enter a keyword into the planner one of the pieces of information provided is a ‘suggested bid’. This used to be known as a cost per click. It is how much you would pay per click if you did start a PPC campaign for the keyword.
The higher the suggested bid, the more valuable Google deem the traffic from that keyword to be. A keyword with a high suggested bid is likely to have a high conversion rate and to deliver excellent value.
That analysis can whittle down your list of possible keywords to a smaller selection. The keywords that are left should be absolute dynamite. They are guaranteed to be relevant to your customers. They will be both head and long tail keywords and they will have the right mixture of competitiveness and potential value.
The keyword research process is all but complete. By following our simple steps you’ve got yourself a customer persona. You’ve then used it to find the niche topics your customers are interested in. From those topics, you’ve generated a list of potential keywords. Data and analysis has then provided an understanding of which will work best.
That’s everything you need for a superb overall content marketing strategy. The research will ensure that you not only rank for the right keywords but also serve your customers as effectively as possible. You have a road map for creating content that answers customer’s needs and desires as well as helping your own SEO.
The exact shape the content should take and tactics for producing that content are best discussed elsewhere. In short, lengthier content is better, as long as it stays relevant and useful to a reader’s intent. That should be a breeze given that your keyword research has revealed that intent to you.
Nick Brown is the founder & CEO of accelerate agency, a SaaS SEO agency. Nick has launched several successful online businesses, writes for Forbes, published a book and has grown accelerate from a UK agency to a company that now operates across US, APAC and EMEA and employs 160 people. He was also once charged at by a mountain gorilla