The Definitive Guide to SEO Keyword Research

by Spencer Mitchell September 4th, 2012 

Keyword research may be the most undervalued facet of SEO. While most webmasters will happily dedicate hours to reading backlink strategies and on-page optimization tips, very few spend the time needed to learn proper keyword research methodology.

Thats a shame as your keywords largely determine:

  • Your Customers: If you rely on SEO for the bulk of your sites traffic, its an absolute must that you choose keywords that potential customers actually use.
  • Your Competition: Two very similar keywords in the same vertical can have a very different level of competition. Savvy SEO veterans know that finding low-competition, high-volume keywords with buyer intent is a shortcut to top search engine real estate.
  • Your Monetization: All traffic is not created equal. Finding keywords that people use while in a buyers mindset makes monetization a breeze.
  • Your SEO Budget: Gunning for a top spot for a set of tough-as-nails keywords is a great way to burn through an SEO budget. If you have a finite amount of money to spend on SEO, youre better off picking your battles and gunning for a set of long tail keywords.

Now that weve covered the why of keyword research its time to get into the nitty-gritty of the how.

Find Your Niche

Many SEO-minded webmasters, and especially microsite owners, do keyword research backwards. Instead of examining a market, they simply look for a single low-hanging fruit and put 100% of their SEO efforts towards ranking for that keyword.
While that model can certainty work, putting all of your eggs in one basket makes you vulnerable to the whim of Googles next animal-dubbed update.

A more viable model is to stick to tight niches with keywords that have the following characteristics:

Search Volume: Theres no worse feeling for a webmaster than working your tail off for a top Google rank only to find your homepage collecting dust. Although single-word keywords like insurance will likely be far beyond your budget, you do need to find a niche that has a critical mass of search volume.

Buyer-Intent: However, massive amounts of searches simply arent enough. Most how-to and free keywords boast massive search volume but bring in only a trickle of sales.

If you run a website about TVs, how do 3D TVs work may stress Googles servers but probably wont help you make a lofty Amazon commission.

Keywords that demonstrate a strong propensity for someone about to make a purchasing decision tend to convert exceptionally well and should form the foundation of your SEO campaign. In general, keywords that contain buy, reviews, best, service, company tell you that the searcher has their credit card in hand, ready to buy.

Instead of how do 3D TVs work, a keyword like best 3D tvs in 2012 would be a better choice.

Another way to gauge buyer intent is by the length and specificity of the keyword. As one moves through the stages of the buying cycle they learn more about the topic, which is reflected in the keywords they tend to use. Continuing our 3D-TV example, a keyword like 3Dtv Samsung un55c7000 price comparison tells you that this is a sophisticated consumer thats itching for a 3D TV.

Permanence: Although 3D TVs wont be around forever, they arent going to become obsolete next week. Ideally, you want to choose a niche that doesnt suffer from boom and bust cycles.

Product review keywords are a good example of the type of keywords you want to avoid.

On the surface, product review keywords have a lot going for them: a fair share of search volume, low competition and strong buyer intent. However, as soon as the company goes belly up or the product rebrands to another name you find yourself ranking for keywords that no one is searching for.

To profit over the long-term, target keywords in niches that people will be searching for long after you retire from SEO.
Examples of these evergreen niches include:

  • Dating
  • Fashion
  • Health
  • Electronics/Technology
  • Marketing
  • Gambling
  • Business
  • Investing

Evaluate Your Competition

Once youve identified a niche that has dozens of potentially lucrative keywords its time to cherry pick low-competition keywords. Surprisingly, even within a tiny niche there are chasms of competitiveness between keywords. You want to find a few dozen of these easy-to-rank keywords to build your sites content around.

For example, SurveySpencer.com targets a number of relatively easy long-tail keywords. For example, Ive found that online surveys for money is significantly easier to rank for than paid surveys and get paid to take surveys, even though they all have similar search volume and buyer intent.

Although we arent writing for the search engines per se, it is important to base your SEO strategy around keywords that people actually search for. Creating great content isnt enough.

Lets say that youve decided that you want to create a new website or a new category on your website about 3D TVs. Your research shows that that theres ample search volume, several strong buyer keywords and that this is a technology thats going to stick around.

Your next step is to enter a high volume keyword into Googles Keyword Tool. Youll see something like this:

Important: Always choose the [Exact] match type during keyword research. Broad and phrase match are wildly inaccurate.
From a cursory look, one keyword stands out as a potential winner: best 3D tv. It has just about everything we want: lots of searches, buyer intent and a keyword people will be using as long as 3D TVs are around.

Lets take a look at Googles first page to see what the competition looks like:
Heres how to systematically evaluate your top 10 competition.

On-Page: Many pages rank simply because theyre on authority sites, like NYTimes.com or Wikipedia. However, you can often usurp their position by making a laser-targeted piece of content around one specific keyword. Check to see if the exact match keyword appears in the title tag, description tag and within the article. In our example, you may notice that the #5 (CNet.com) and #7 result (Channel5.com) dont have the exact keyword best 3D tv in their title or description tags, which is a good sign.

PageRank: Although not a perfect indicator of competition, it holds true that keywords with higher competition tend to have pages with high PR on the first page. If you see one or two low PR pages on the first page, you may be able to nudge them off with a few high-power backlinks.

Internal Pages vs. Homepages: Another imperfect but helpful indicator of your competition is the number of homepages you have to compete with. In general, homepages tend to be a bit tougher to rank against simply because theyre usually older, boast more backlinks and have more social signals than internal pages.

Authority Sites: Within every niche there are a handful of authority sites. For example, in the SEO niche, SearchEnginePeople.com and SEOMoz.org are forces to be reckoned with. If you see the first page littered with aged, authority sites, it may be time to consider another keyword.

Keyword research tools, such as the popular Market Samurai and Micro Niche Finder, can help streamline this process. However, they use the same metrics Ive described above to measure keyword competition.

Keywords Are Your Business

In SEO youre only as good as your current rank. If you put the time and effort into keyword research youll find yourself getting more leads and customers with less effort.

The Definitive Guide to SEO Keyword Research

Spencer Mitchell

Spencer Mitchell is the SEO and coffee addicted founder of several niche websites, including his latest, the online surveys for money hub, SurveySpencer.com where he just posted a review of the paid survey panel CashCrate.com. When he's not locked in an SEO lab, he loves to travel in Asia and Europe.

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6 Responses to “The Definitive Guide to SEO Keyword Research”

  1. John says:

    Even with exact match option in adwords,i'm qiute skeptical about the numbers.
    I'm number 1 for one keyword that is supposed to have 1600 exact searches per month, but i get maybe 80 clicks per month for this keyword
    so be cautious of the numbers, which might be overestimated

  2. Great keyword information Spencer, and you've made it so easy to understand that I'm sharing it with my followers!

  3. Useful information. I have picked a keyword with low competition, that gets 100k searches per month, now comes the problem of getting it ranked by google. That's the hard part imo.