How to Do SEO Keyword Research (The Easy Way)
Welcome back to Smash Digital’s weekly content series, where we give you actionable SEO strategies and tips that you can implement today and start seeing results.
I’ve been talking a lot about the best ways to get backlinks and improve your rankings.
But after speaking to some of you and digging deeper into your sites, it seems like a lot of people still struggle with figuring out what they should be trying to rank for in the first place.
Keyword research is one of the most important aspects of SEO and can make or break your campaigns.
You could be doing everything right with on-page and technical stuff and killing it with link building, but if you’re targeting keywords no one is searching for (or keywords that you’ll never rank for) – you won’t see any traffic or business impact from it.
Keyword research gives you the data and insights you need to improve your bottom line and do so in the most efficient way possible.
Today I’m going to show you how I do keyword research for our businesses. You’ll see the ins and outs of each process and understand why we do it that way.
Time to learn: 20 minutes
Impact (1-10): 10
Tools required: Ahrefs
Tools suggested: UberSuggest
Now, let’s get to it…
Our 4-Step Keyword Research Process
The most difficult parts of keyword research are evaluating the competitiveness, assessing the search intent, and actually choosing your target words and phrases for each page.
Before we get to the theory behind that, we need to first come up with a massive list of keywords to choose from with all the appropriate data.
Here’s how we do it.
Step 1. Brainstorming Seed Keywords
The most efficient way to do keyword research is using dedicated software tools for it, which we’re going to cover in a second.
The way these work is that you’re required to enter a few “seed keywords” as a starting point and the tool will generate similar ideas and variations of it.
For example, I could type in “earphones” and it’d spit out:
- Bose headphones
- Wireless headphones
- Bluetooth headphones
- Noise cancelling headphones
- Best wireless headphones
- Bone conduction headphones
- And a million other results
Along with these millions of variations, topic ideas, and questions you’ll also be able to get a ton of relevant SEO data to help you decide whether these keywords are worth targeting. More on that later.
So how do you come up with these seed keywords?
There’s a myriad of little tricks and hacks you can use to find these, ranging from looking at the table of contents of the Wikipedia page of your topic to looking at niche forums and their sub-sections.
In my opinion, these are gimmicks developed by SEOs to create more content.
If you’re doing SEO for your business or a client, you should have enough knowledge of the business to brainstorm this initial list on your own and use that as a starting point.
For example, if I were to do this for SEO, I might start with:
- On-page SEO
- Off-page SEO
- Technical SEO
- Ranking on Google
- Google optimization
- Get first on Google
- Content optimization
- Keyword research
- Link building
Make a list of topics within your business you’ve got a lot of knowledge about, different services and products you offer, frequently asked questions or concerns by customers and try to think what they might search for when looking for your business.
How many should you have? There really isn’t a right answer because it’s going to depend so much on how big your industry and business are.
In general, the more seed keywords you start with, the more you’re going to get out of the process.
This means higher chances of finding the most profitable keywords.
Step 2. Expanding Your Keyword List
Now that you’ve got a solid list of ideas to start with, we’re going to use tools to expand this.
The best tool for this is Ahrefs’ Keyword Explorer, especially considering you need the tool anyway if you’re going to take SEO seriously.
It works exactly like we’d explained earlier – you type in your list of seed keywords and then it’ll give you millions of additional ideas that you can sort and filter in various ways.
Let’s see it in action using the seed keywords I’d listed earlier.
Now, there’s a lot going on in this screenshot.
Let’s break it down a bit.
Ahrefs has already done all of the leg work for us and found hundreds of thousands of keywords opportunities for us.
Obviously, this would take a lifetime for us to go through and filter so we have some additional filtering options to simplify things.
Types of Keyword Searches
In the left sidebar, we have the following options:
All keyword ideas – this is every single keyword Ahrefs has found in their database that may be relevant to your seed keywords.
This is useful if you’re starting with a very specific seed keyword or are in a very small market with not a lot of variations.
In our case, this would show 413,308 results so we’re going to skip this one.
Phrase match – you’ll see keywords that contain your entire seed keyword in that specific order but it may have anything before or after it as well.
So if you were to enter “SEO agency”, it might show you “best SEO agency” or “Smash Digital SEO agency” but it would not show you “SEO for agency business”.
Having same terms – same as the previous except it’ll show you keywords that contain your seed keyword in any order. So entering “SEO agency” would also display keywords like “agency SEO vs affiliate SEO”.
Also rank for – a list of keywords that the top pages ranking for your seed keyword also rank for. So if you search for “SEO agency” and the top results are also optimized for “SEO company” or “Marketing agency” – you’ll also see these.
This is super helpful and probably one of my favorite reports here.
Search suggestions – I’m sure you’re familiar with Google trying to finish your sentences when you’re searching for things.
This is a great way of finding additional keyword ideas and this report automatically gathers all of these variations for you for the seed keywords entered.
Newly discovered – a list of keywords that have recently been added to the Ahrefs’ database. This could help you find keywords based on a new trend or newfound demand for something.
To be honest, I’ve never found anything useful because of this so don’t ponder on it too much.
Questions – this shows keywords that are phrased as a question:
- How to start an SEO agency
- How to choose an SEO agency
- Why use an SEO agency
Not only is this a great way to come up with great keywords that are often easy to rank for, it’s an amazing way to understand your target audience better and see what concerns them.
Which one should I use?
While each of these is useful for different purposes and scenarios, I’ll be honest and say that I don’t have a magical process for this bit.
I start with my seed keywords and then click through each of the reports to see which one is displaying the most relevant results for the keywords I’m looking for.
Generally this will be the “Having same terms” or “Also rank for” reports.
Keywords, Metrics, and Filtering Options
Let’s look at the actual keywords section of the report, there’s a lot going on.
Let’s start with the various columns.
Keyword – I think this one should be self-explanatory at this point.
KD – This stands for keyword difficulty and is Ahrefs’ own metric to try and give you an idea of what it would take to rank for this term.
It’s a logarithmic score that goes from zero to 100 based on the number of referring domains to the top 10 pages ranking for this keyword.
Now, you already know that there’s a bit more to SEO than just the number of links to a page so take this metric with a grain of salt and use it as a general guideline.
We’ll talk more about how to actually evaluate keyword competitiveness later on.
Volume – this is the average number of people searching for this keyword, per month.
One of the more common complaints or concerns I hear from small business owners are how “low” these search volumes can be in some cases.
What they don’t realize is that a page never ranks for one single keyword. It’ll likely rank for hundreds of variations that all have search volume that adds up.
Not only that, 16-20% of daily queries have never been searched for before. This is more data that you won’t be able to account for when assessing traffic potential.
Clicks – search volume is a great way to assess potential but Ahrefs takes it a step further by estimating the amount of actual clicks per month.
See, not every search results in a click on the Google results.
For example, when you search for “the CEO of Apple”, Google will present the answer within the SERPs immediately. This means that even if you’re ranking #1, you’re unlikely to get much traffic from this keyword.
Since this is an estimate based on external data, I don’t expect this to be super accurate. I’ll glance over it while doing research and if there’s a lot less clicks than searches, I’ll take a look at the search results and see if there’s an obvious reason (like the knowledge panel example above).
CPC – this is how much it would cost you for each click if you were to buy ads for this keyword using Google Ads. For SEO this is largely irrelevant, although a higher CPC price may indicate that it’s a profitable/valuable keyword.
CPS – or clicks per search. The ratio between search volume and the clicks estimate. Again, I don’t really use this metric much.
RR – or return rate. This estimates how often the same people will be searching for the keyword. It’s a relative value which means if the score is 26, it doesn’t necessarily mean people search for it 26 times a month – you’ll have to compare the RR number to other keywords.
Here’s an example of “SEO speed test” having super high search volume but a ridiculously high return rate compared to other keywords. This means the search volume is largely inflated.
SF – this indicates how many unique serp features there are for this keyword, meaning things like the knowledge panel above, a featured snippet, YouTube carousel, or something similar.
Parent topic – this is the keyword that brings the most traffic to the top ranking pages for your keyword. This can be useful for categorizing keywords into target pages.
For example, the keyword “London seo expert” has the parent topic as “seo consultant london”.
This means that you won’t need to make a dedicated page targeting the “expert” keyword – you’ll be able to rank for it with your normal “consultant” page.
SERP – I think this is the most useful feature out of all of them. One click and it’ll show you the top ten ranking pages for the keyword along with all of the necessary SEO metrics.
This is a huge time saver when it comes to assessing competition, search intent, and ultimately deciding whether a keyword is worth pursuing or not.
Updated – last but not least, the updated column shows you when Ahrefs last updated the SERPs for this keyword. Next to it you also have a refresh button to get the latest results.
Now… I know that was a lot but hopefully it was simple enough.
Based on what these metrics mean and the keywords Ahrefs has presented you with, you should already start to see some opportunities and be able to jot down keywords to target in the future.
If not, don’t sweat it – I’ll be talking a lot more about the keyword selection process, assessing competitiveness, and more.
But first, let’s look at ways to make this list even bigger and more comprehensive.
Step 3. Look at Competing Pages’ Rankings
This is my absolute favorite step of the process and the highlight of every SEO campaign.
You’re going to get dozens of hours worth of work done in a dozen minutes and feel like an absolute genius.
Let’s pretend I really liked a keyword and decided it was worth targeting – SEO services, for example.
I’m going to use the SERPs feature to look at the top ten results already ranking for this term and then click on the keyword column for each result.
Clicking on that will show us every single keyword these competing pages rank for and as you can see, each of them ranks for hundreds.
So with just a few clicks, we have hundreds of unique keywords to target that are highly relevant to SEO services.
Step 4. Check Other Top Pages
Yeah, yeah… Cool, but not that impressive.
Well, Ahrefs can take it up another notch.
Not only do we have all of the keywords these guys spent hours researching and optimizing their pages with…
I’m going to take each of the top 10 results of my target keyword and put their domains in the Ahrefs Site Explorer and use the “Top Pages” report.
Why? Well, if these guys are ranking well for keywords you want to rank for, that didn’t happen by accident.
There’s a good chance these guys have done their keyword research already and are also pumping out optimized pages for other great keywords.
The “Top Pages” report shows us all of these additional topic ideas that our competitors are using to get clients. And of course, we can again click on the “Organic Keywords” button to see exactly which keywords are bringing in the traffic.
P.S. The SEO industry isn’t the best example as there aren’t a lot of unique keywords for people who want to hire an agency. However, this is by far the most effective keyword research strategy out there (and it’s stupid easy!)
Additional Keyword Research Tools
Ahrefs is by far the best SEO tool out there and that includes keyword research.
But I know a lot of you aren’t willing to spend that much money on it, so here are a few alternatives that at least kind of help you do the same for free.
However… I strongly encourage you to invest in Ahrefs if you’re going to take SEO seriously. If you’re on a tight budget, plan all your activities that require Ahrefs ahead of time, sign up for a month, and get it all done.
It’ll be way more effective than trying to do the same with free tools.
UberSuggest seems to be the best free keyword research tool out there and I’ve used it a fair bit myself.
You’ll be able to find keyword ideas, get insights into search volume, and they even have a keyword difficulty score, although I can’t tell you whether it’s accurate or not.
As far as my knowledge goes, you’ll be limited to basic keyword research using seed keywords.
This means you’re going to miss out on the best strategy of reverse engineering your competitors keywords and top pages…
Another alternative you’ll see touted a lot is the official Google Keyword Planner.
This used to be a decent way to do keyword research but it was originally developed for people looking to buy Google Ads. In recent years they’ve made it even more focused on that and it has really lost its place.
The user experience is poor, the data is inaccurate and highly limited, and anything you’d want it to do, Ahrefs and UberSuggest can do better.
Searches related to are the search suggestions below the actual results, as we saw earlier. This is another great way to come up with additional keywords.
But there’s no need to go through these manually, not only does Ahrefs cover them, there’s also…
AnswerThePublic – this handy tool goes through the entire alphabet collecting search suggestions for you as well as various questions related to your keyword.
Now, there’s a myriad of other keyword research tools out there, both free and paid. These will be enough to get the job done efficiently, but if you don’t like any of them for some reason, feel free to Google around more.
How to Choose Your Keywords
Finding a massive list of keywords is a critical step of the process but it’s by far the easiest.
Where most people get stuck is actually making sense of all the numbers involved and deciding which keywords to pursue.
That’s what you’re going to learn next.
Can I Actually Rank for This Keyword?
Before we take on a new client, we generally ask them what keywords they’re trying to rank for.
I’d estimate at least 25% of the time we get responses along the lines of: credit cards, fitness, vitamin C, green tea
In case you don’t have a ton of SEO experience, you might want to Google these keywords and look at the websites that are ranking for these terms.
They’re all giants like Wikipedia, Amazon, HealthLine, and so on.
The average (or even, an exceptional) business owner will not stand a chance trying to rank for these keywords.
I’m confident in saying that this is one of the most common SEO mistakes we see people making – targeting keywords that are far too competitive.
What you need to keep in mind is that almost no one visits the second page of Google, let alone the seventh page.
In fact, close to 75% of the clicks are most likely going to the top three results. Ranking “okay” for a big keyword is unlikely to make any difference in your traffic or more importantly, revenue.
How to Assess Keyword Difficulty
Assessing keyword difficulty is super difficult.
I’ve been doing SEO for over a decade and there’s still plenty of times I underestimate the competition of a keyword or rank easily for something that seemed impossible. It’s not an exact science.
KD in Ahrefs
I briefly talked about the KD metric you’ll see for keyword difficulty within Ahrefs but let’s dig a little deeper.
It’s a logarithmic score from 0-100 that is calculated based on the number of referring domains to the top ranking pages for your keyword. If you dig deeper into a keyword within Ahrefs, they’ll even give you an estimate that “you’ll need approximately XX links to rank in the top 10 for this keyword.”
There’s two massive issues with using this as your primary way to assess keyword competitiveness.
First of all, it’s calculated based on what it’ll take to get on the first page, not the first position.
As we mentioned earlier, almost all of the traffic goes to the top three spots.
Not only that, in most search results, it’s much more difficult to move from #2 to #1 than it would be to go from #10 to #4.
Secondly, there’s a lot more that goes into ranking on Google than just links to the page.
If the competition has tons of links to the page, but they’re all low quality, the domain has little authority, and the content is crap… Well, it might not be that hard after all.
Next up, I’m going to talk about how I manually assess the search results to decide how competitive a keyword is.
This’ll also help you understand why Ahrefs’ KD may not be the best metric to base your decisions on.
Manual Keyword Difficulty Assessment
Here are the five primary factors I take into consideration when looking at a keyword. These are in no particular order and estimating each of their importance is, well… Damn near impossible.
1. Domain Authority – You VS Competitors
Google has denied that they use domain authority as a ranking factor, but it’s quite clear that they do use some sort of domain-level metrics to come up with the search results.
All you need to do is look at the search results to see this in effect.
It’s why you see 1,000 word articles by Forbes, that literally say nothing, outrank comprehensive guides created by industry experts.
If I show these two articles to 100 people and ask them, which page deserves to rank better, I’m quite confident that very few would respond with Forbes.
For the same reason, when you see the Amazons, Walmarts, and Targets in the search results for an eCommerce keyword, you’re unlikely to see a small or medium-sized online store on the first page.
So how do you actually look at domain authority and how does that play into competitiveness?
In my experience the DR (Domain Rating) metric that you see in Ahrefs paints the best picture when it comes to authority and the rankability of a site.
Yet again, it’s a logarithmic score from 0-100, with 0 being a brand new site and 100 being Facebook, currently the most authoritative site on the internet.
Logarithmic means that when the score is low, it takes a lot less effort to move up and vice versa. To go from a DR0 site to DR30 might be a matter of getting 100 high quality links. To go from DR45 to 50, that number might be closer to 300.
Take these numbers with a grain of salt but I generalize websites into the following categories in my head:
- DR 0-19 – Effectively brand new, very unlikely to get much organic traffic
- DR 20-29 – Developing site that is starting to get traction in search engines, some traffic.
- DR 30-44 – A decently established site that can rank for a good amount of keywords and likely gets good traffic.
- DR 45-59 – A proper site that is likely seeing success both in the search engines and elsewhere, a lot of traffic and a lot of ranking opportunities.
- DR 60-80 – In most industries there are very few keywords you won’t be able to rank for with focused effort.
- DR 80+ – You’re the giant, stop reading this.
So how does this play into assessing competitiveness?
You’ll want to look at the top ten results for the keyword you’re trying to rank for and compare your DR to the competitors.
As an example, if you exclusively see DR60+ sites on the first page but you’re sitting at DR35 – there’s a very slim chance you’re going to rank, even if you do everything right.
I’d say you’re able to shoot 15-20 points above your own DR when you’re killing it with other ranking factors such as content and links.
This means a DR45 site may be able to compete with DR60s with effort (read as link building). But doing the same against DR 70-80s is going to be a longshot.
2. On-Page SEO
This one is elementary.
If the pages you’re competing against don’t have proper on-page SEO done, it’s most likely a great opportunity for you.
The most important things to check for would be:
- Keyword in title
- Keyword in URL
- Optimized meta description
- Use of headings (H1/H2/H3)
- Use of images and alt tags
- Internal links to the page
- Keyword density (is it overoptimized?)
- Page loading speed
Even authority sites need to have the basics covered, unless they’re keen on you stealing their rankings 🙂
3. Content Quality
Content quality is an interesting topic when it comes to ranking on Google.
Sometimes you’ll look at the search results and wonder if the ranking page even matters or is it just about links and authority?!
Other times you’ll see a DR5 website outranking 9 gigantic sites with a 8,000 word in-depth guide.
To summarize… Having amazing content doesn’t always work, but when it does, the results are quite exceptional.
Content quality is a super subjective topic and there’s no real way to measure it but a few things to consider are.
Content length – How long are the articles ranking in the top five? Are they long enough to cover the topic in depth? Would you be able to write a slightly longer piece without sacrificing quality or adding fluff?
Content value – Does the page actually solve the problem the reader was searching for? If you were looking for “the best standing desk” – could you confidently decide which one to go for when finishing reading the article?
Content depth – Are there additional topics that should be covered on this page? Are the frequently asked questions on this topic addressed in the content?
All of these questions can help you figure out whether you’d be able to create something better than the competition and potentially get an edge in ranking for this keyword (and tons of long-tail variations of it).
4. Search Intent
Search intent is a huge ranking factor nowadays.
See, Google already knows what users want for each query and they’re only going to show the most relevant results.
Let me give you an example…
Let’s pretend you’re trying to market a Shopify app that helps people do email marketing.
Naturally, the first keyword you’d love to rank for is “best email marketing app for shopify”.
But when you open up the search results for this keyword…
Every single article Google finds relevant for this keyword is a listicle covering several apps.
This means that if you were planning to rank your home or product page for this, you wouldn’t stand a chance.
So the question is… Do you want to have a round-up-style article on your site that also promotes your competitors? Or perhaps you’d want to target other keywords.
The same goes for other industries:
- Whey protein – only shows informational articles, not product pages or stores
- Link building – only shows tutorials, not services
- Outdoor fire pits – mostly shows ecommerce stores, not articles or round-ups
You get the point.
5. Number of Links
I’ve probably said this a few times already but… Backlinks are the number one ranking factor when it comes to SEO.
While backlinks to your site in general are super helpful – they help you increase your authority and thus, as discussed, your ability to rank – links to the specific page you’re trying to rank are even more important.
So if there’s a bunch of sites in the search results that are more authoritative than you, but don’t have any links to the page – that’s an opportunity.
On the flip side, if everyone is of equal authority or lower but have dozens or hundreds of high-quality links pointing to the ranking page, that’s going to be difficult to fight.
That’s pretty much all you need to figure out whether you can rank for a keyword and what it’d take to get there. It’s not an exact science but it’s the best we can do against the big G.
Now, back to assessing other factors…
Monthly Search Volume and Number of Keywords
I can’t tell you what a good monthly search volume to aim for is because it’s going to vary so much from business to business.
If you’re selling ten dollar iPhone accessories, fifty searches a month probably will not sound super appealing to you. But for someone who’s trying to land enterprise clients who might sign multi-million dollar contracts – that’s plenty.
So you’re going to have to decide on “worthy” search volumes based on your own business insights.
But I want to tell you to use this as a veeeeeery conservative compass of the potential of the topic.
Like I mentioned before, the average page ranks for hundreds if not thousands of keywords, not just the one word you’re trying to optimize it for.
Just look at Shopify’s podcasting guide that ranks for over 3,500 unique keywords.
How in the world would you guess all of these before actually creating the page and add up the search volume potential?
You could look at competitors but even then, you’re going to look at wild guesstimates.
Another aspect to consider here is that 16-20% of the daily search queries have never been searched for in the past.
Sure – a huge chunk of these are going to be new products, happenings in the world etc (especially in 2020 – sheesh…)
But there’s also going to be a solid amount of variations of YOUR keywords from people typing it in a weird way or being oddly specific.
Good luck adding these to your traffic estimation ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Let me put it this way… Even after more than a decade of doing SEO day in and day out, I almost always underestimate the amount of traffic I’m getting from hitting #1 for my targeted keywords.
Buyer Intent, Business Impact and Your Goals
Let’s pretend you have an auto shop.
You’ve been sending Smash Digital SO many referrals that they decide to grant your one SEO wish…
Would you prefer to rank #1 for “car tires” with 14,000 searches a month OR “best place to buy tires” with 8,100 monthly searches?
I’m guessing the answer is quite obvious but in case you’re hesitant… I’m confident in saying you’d make a lot more money by ranking for “best place to buy tires”.
We call this voodoo buyer intent keywords.
People could be Googling for car tires for a myriad of reasons.
Perhaps they want to show someone a photo to illustrate a point, communicate when they don’t speak the language, see the history of them, or learn about different types.
Whereas with “best place to buy tires” they’ve clearly made a decision that they are going to buy tires and are looking to give their money to someone.
Target buyer intent keywords and that could be your money…
So don’t just look at raw search volume when deciding which keywords to target or prioritize. Ask yourself what is more likely to have an impact on your business.
Here are just some variations of keywords that indicate buyer intent:
- Best X
- Best X for Y
- X Reviews
- Top X
- Top X for Y
- Buy X online
- Affordable X
- Best price X
- Cheapest X
- Compare X
Sometimes the intent isn’t 100% clear from the word itself, in which case you’ll want to Google your keywords and look at the type of pages that Google is ranking.
For example, if I wanted to buy a simple supplement, I’d probably Google something like “magnesium supplement”.
While there’s no buyer intent modifier, personally I’d be expecting at least some shopping results and a place to buy them.
Google doesn’t seem to agree with me and only shows articles by giant publications that explain what Magnesium is… Real helpful.
Traditional buyer intent isn’t everything.
This doesn’t mean that you should only try to rank for keywords that show a very clear intent to buy.
I think it’s more important to understand how you’re going to convert this potential traffic into actual sales once you rank.
With the aforementioned Magnesium supplement, I’d be more than happy to rank for “how to sleep better” which may not even seem related… But I know I could use copywriting to convince people to buy the supplement.
SERP Real Estate
WTF is SERP real estate?
Well, it’s anything that’s happening on the first page of Google and it’s expensive stuff.
Unfortunately, gone are the days where ranking #1 meant that you’re on top of Google.
That’s all that fits on my screen – a bunch of ads and some YouTube videos.
In fact, when I scroll down further I get a “People Also Ask” box with a bunch of questions and THEN we see the first organic result.
This can get way worse for some keywords and is an important thing to take into consideration, especially if it’s a more competitive keyword.
The more features they use, the less clicks you’re likely to get in the first position.
You might encounter:
- Google Ads
- Map results
- Knowledge panels
- Google Shopping results
- The Google News box
- An image pack
- Related questions
- A YouTube carousel
- And a few other things
Of course, you could wiggle into some of these yourself but that’s beyond the scope of this guide.
Now, you might’ve noticed we left out one SERP feature – the featured snippet.
That’s because this is a SERP feature I actually look forward to seeing in the search results.
Anyone who ranks on the first page may be selected for this and it’s displayed above the first result. This means that if you’re good at SEO, you only have to make it to the first page and then you may be able to steal the featured snippet from whoever currently has it.
I’ll teach you that in a future post 🙂
How Much Work Is It?
The last question you’re going to want to ask yourself is how much is it going to cost me to get all of this done? That includes money, time, and other resources.
While getting links from 15 different websites may not seem super difficult or expensive and you know you’re able to do it… If the keyword only has 300 searches a month and sells a cheap product, I’d bet there are better keywords to invest in and prioritize.
Whereas maybe for another post you’ll need a 8,000 word, highly technical article and at least 60 referring domains from super high quality sites… But if the potential returns are high enough, it just may be worth all that work.
That’ll be on you to assess.
That’s about all there is to know about keyword optimization.
Let me know if you have any questions about this and I’ll be back with you next week with another actionable SEO tip.
Let’s Smash it!