How To Do Keyword Research for SEO

When someone brings up the topic of keyword research, the first thing that comes to mind is user intent. Keyword research and specifically user intent is the foundation of SEO strategy. What specifically are users searching for? When are they looking for product and service online? Once you answer these questions, you can craft and optimize SEO strategy. In this post, I will discuss how to identify user intent and why it is important for your SEO success.

This post covers the following:

  • Describe the importance of identifying user intent when performing keyword research
  • List some basic methods for performing keyword research
  • Explain the differences between long-tail and short-tail queries
  • Perform basic competitive analysis on search queries related to your product or service

1. User Intent

User intent is paramount with query research. It is what drives all of search queries on the Internet. Therefore, user intent is what should drive most of your SEO efforts. Here is a general idea. People may search for something like “who” and they could mean many things by this. That could mean the World Health Organization, the band, or the part of speech; it depends on what context exists and when they search it, how they have capitalized, and all these things. What’s important here is the intent behind it, not necessarily the search query that they typed into search engine. This makes all the difference.

user intent, who

Example 1:

Let’s take this to a more realistic example. This is something I have taken from my clients because this happens all the time. In some parts of the United States, people exclusively use the word “lawyer” when talking about someone who practices law. In other parts of the United States, they exclusively use the word “attorney” when talking about it.

The difference in this is very minimal except for when you are focusing on user intent specifically with SEO. What’s going to happen is that if you target the wrong version of this word in the wrong part of the country, you are going to get no search traffic and you are not going to be able make money from this. This is what I spend a great deal of my time to figure out what do human beings put into search engines to find any given product or more specifically, my product or my clients’ product.

user intent, attorney vs lawyer

Example 2:

One of the most important versions of this is the “buy versus free”. You will see this keyword a lot in PPC. They will work based on the user intent. But, you need to start optimizing for phrases that are going to lead to your ultimate goal, which usually means conversions or sales. What does this look like? Well, you want to rank for phrases like “buy cars”, “buy coats”, or “buy umbrellas”. What you don’t care about in most cases is ranking for free umbrellas, free cars, or free advice. right? These are not things that are going to be helpful for you and actually affect your bottom line.

The intent is paramount. The intent is what you should spend all of your time focusing on.  Once you have figured out what actual keywords people are using to get to the point where they want to buy your product or service, then you can start doing all the other things that I will talk about with off-site SEO in a future post. As a result, the first step in optimizing SEO and more specifically keyword research is understanding user intent.

2. Not Provided

Now that I have talked about the importance of keyword research, let’s talk about a topic that is extremely important and very closely related. It’s called “not provided”; you may have actually heard of this before.

Historically, search engines would give us all kinds of data. One of the important pieces of this was the search volume and the search keywords that people used when they came to your website. So, this looks like two things.

First of all, when we had a phrase like “attorney” or “lawyer”, we could see how many people were using it globally or within a specific region. This was extremely important for optimizing our keywords. We also had the data that people used when they came to our website. For instance, if they came to our website by the keyword “attorney” or “lawyer”, we’d be able to see that in our analytics.

Unfortunately, this has changed. It first started with Google and then moved on to the rest of the search engines. So, today when we look at our analytics, we see the phrase “not provided” because that data is no longer available.  This is quite unfortunate because we are no longer able to make all this data-driven decisions that we once were able to.

google analytics, not provided, data not available

3. Performing Keyword Research

Now that I have addressed “not provided”, let’s talk about the fun stuff, performing keyword research. There are lots of different ways to do this but I generally go into four big categories: industry keywordsPPC keywords, internal search, and competitor keywords.

3.1. How To Do Keyword Research By Using Industry Keywords

The first off is industry keywords. So, look at what phrases human beings, actual people on the street, and actual people who are within the industry are using when they are describing your products or services. This can be as easy as just walking around your office and talking to people.  This is usually a good practice if you talk to people and see what keywords they do. Sometimes, you have access to this data online (e.g., Adwords) and sometimes you d the not. Therefore, great places to find our industry keywords are classified into two categories: talking to people themselves and using online data. These are great places to look at what phrases and keywords are people using within your industry to describe what it is that you are trying to sell.

3.2. How To Do Keyword Research By Using PPC Keywords

The next one is PPC. I just alluded to this. You can find a lot of keyword information with PPC. You can talk to your Adwords team, or you can talk to anyone who is doing paid search for your company. They are have access to lots of search queries and phrases that may or may not be converting for you. So, they will be able, hopefully, to provide you with just a list of the things that you might want to optimize for.

3.3. How To Do Keyword Research By Using Internal Search

The next one is a little less common but certainly very valuable if you have it, it’s internal search. Most websites, at least in theory, should have internal search set up already. The idea here is that you are looking at your actual customer base, or your actual visitors and see what keyword phrases they use to try to find information around your website. This is ideal because it’s as customized and as personalized to your website as it could be possibly be. So, if you can use that keyword research data which usually shows up in your analytics after you set it up, then you can use that to influence all of your SEO research which is tremendously valuable.

3.4. How To Do Keyword Research By Using Competitor Keywords

The last one is competitor keywords. In an ideal world, you could just ask your competitors, hey, what are you ranking for or what’s useful. But, in the real world, nobody is going to tell you. So, you have to go around about way of doing this. What I have ended up doing is looking at PPC tools. These tools will show you what keywords your competitors are bidding on. This can help you figure out Okay this looks like it’s being more successful or this doesn’t look like it’s being more successful and you go through them and use that keyword list to start influencing your SEO.

4. Two Types of Queries

When you are looking at your organic search queries it’s easiest if you divide all of your search queries up into two broad categories. These categories are what we call short-tail and what we call long-tail. What does this mean? The first one is short tail. Short-tail is going to be short, frequently searched for, broad keywords. More often than not this is branded keywords, the name of your company or your key products. These again are very short keywords; they are usually only one or two words. People search for them all the time. In fact, short-tail keywords are being used frequently, are very broad and are not descriptive at all. short tail keyword, buy socks

A short tail keyword: Only one or two words

The next one is long-tail. Long-tail is the opposite and here is the important part of the long-tail. It’s going to make up the majority of your traffic. In fact, it’s probably going to make up the vast majority of your traffic. The reason behind this is that while some people are going to search for very broad terms, most people are going to be very descriptive when they are searching for something on the search engines. For instance, people use different color attributes, product number, or any kind if information to find a specific product or service.

Long-tail and short-tail keywords are relatively hard to define from a quantitative perspective. However, generally speaking, when you have more than three words, it’s going to be long tail, and if you have less than that, it’s going to be short-tail.

long-tail keyword, buy breathable running socks
A four-word long-tail keyword

4.1. Short-Tail: Pros and Cons 

Let’s dive a little bit into short-tail. Let’s discover the pros and cons. The biggest pros of short-tail is that if it’s a branded term, you are probably going to rank for it. There are lots of reasons to go into this but if it’s your domain name, you are very likely to get number one in the ranking, this is nice.

There is also a very difficult part of short-tail keywords that are going to be difficult to rank for. These are what I call the big-budget short-tail terms. These are generally the category of your industry. For instance, if you are an attorney it would be just the word attorneys trying to rank number one for the phrase attorneys. As you can imagine, it’s very difficult because there’s a whole lot of competition.

So, short-tails can go both ways. They can be both easy to rank for and what it comes to the categories or the industries, it’s very very difficult. What I normally do with these is I’m always aiming to rank for the short term and I would like to rank number one for attorneys. I see these with a bigger time frame. These are things that I’m working up towards when I’m doing SEO work. I know this will not happen on day one, so I focus long-term on these.

The other part of this is that it’s aggressive, you need to be really aggressive to rank really well for some of these industry terms. So, you have to put a lot of money into this like I said and you have to know it’s going to take a long time.

4.2. Long-Tail: Pros and Cos

Now that I have talked about the short-tail, let me explain why we are so lucky that we have the long-tail. Keyword phrases are more descriptive and they are more targeted which is great because it means that if someone comes in on one of those phrases, they are much more likely to convert. These are really wonderful phrases when you are just starting out. It’s much easier to be the only person in the entire world who is trying to rank for a specific phrase if it’s long, descriptive, and targeted than it is if you are trying to rank for short term tail that is the whole world competing for it.

So, when you are just starting out with SEO, if you want to have realistic expectations, you should be focusing initially on the long-tail.

And the other part of this is the results. With the long-tail when there is much less competition, it’s much much easier to rank for these kind of phrases. So, it’s best to expect most of your quick wins and fast paced ROI on your long-tail and then eventually build up so that you can get those longer-term wins with the short-tail.

5. Competitive Analysis Overview

competitive analysis is one of the earliest and easiest thing that you can do in the entire SEO journey. Competitor analysis, as you can imagine, is performing analysis on your competition. So, you are through when you look at 1) what are they already ranking for, 2) what are they not able to rank for, and 3) most importantly, what content is ranking for the terms that you eventually want to rank for. This gives you all kinds of information that you can use to your advantage so that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every single time you get into a new market. Whenever I am performing competitor analysis, there are four things that I look for: competitiondifficultycontent types/formats, and user experience.

5.1. Competition

The first one is that who is my competition. A lot of times, it will not be the ones you expect. It will be large websites like Wikipedia, it will be different types of directory sites, it will be all kinds of things. But, from an SEO perspective, you need to know who you are up against. This is going to tell you how challenging things are going to be and how much resources you are going to need to rank for some competitor terms.

5.2. Difficulty

The next one is that how hard is it going to be to rank for any given term based off of that competition. If your competition is a gigantic corporation which has the word you are trying to rank for and it’s domain name, you are probably not going to rank for it anytime in the next 5 years at least. So, that might not be the best rout for you to go. This is going to have a big impact on all of your marketing efforts because if you know that idea or that keyword is essentially owned by a different organization, your efforts will be better spent elsewhere. Accordingly, you start to realistically look at it; if it’s a gigantic name with lots of resources that already have, you will stay with your keyword, then you are probably better off than not just going in that direction.

5.3. Content Types/Formats

The next one I look at is what content is powering this SEO success for your competitors? Is it a blog post? iIs it a video? Are they ranking really well because they have lot of images? These are the kind of things I look at.

What content types and then how is it formatted? Those are the kind of things I look at so that I know when I started to do my own content creation, what has worked in the past.

5.4. User Experience

The last one is user experience. I go to the content and try to figure out why are people linking to this? What are the incentives? Why is this such great content that Google is deemed to this is what should rank for any given content for this specific keyword? I go through and try to look at the more human aspects of this.

I think lots of people lose this competitor analysis because they get overwhelmed with tools and stuff. But, if you go through these four steps, you are going to be already well on your way to starting SEO in exactly the direction you want be going.

6. Factors to Analyze

Competitive analysis can get highly technical. So, instead of going deep into that what I want to do is to express the general ideas and the overall metrics I look at when I’m doing this.

6.1. Domain Name of competitors

The first one is the domain name of my competitors. I’m looking at this from a few different angles but the ideas of what I’m looking for are how established with a brand? Is this both online and offline? And does it contain the keywords that I’m trying to rank for? If you are trying to rank for the term Wikipedia and you notice, hey, there’s this other website that happens to be called Wikipedia, there’s no way that you’re going to be able to compete with that. So, iI use that as a bearing to understand okay how competitive is this and how much your domain names can have an effect here.

6.2. Domain Authority

The next one is domain authority. This is slightly different because it’s an actual metric, it’s something that you can look up online for free. What this will tell you is what is the link profile of that domain look like. Does it have lots of links? Are those links coming from trusted sources? Are they coming from sources that are going to be hard to compete with? All of these things are important for evaluating how strong of a competitor is.

6.3. Number of index pages of competitors

The next one is the number of the index pages of the competitors. This will tell you how much the search engines care about this domain. If the search engines care a lot and the website has lots of pages, they will feel like they want to index many of them so you will be able to see that in this score. If it is a domain that you see likely has a lot of pages but the the search engine has not indexed most of them, you know the search engine doesn’t really care and this is not a competitor that you have to worry about from a strict SEO perspective.

6.4. PPC Terms

The last one is PPC terms. I will look at what ads are around the keyword when I search it in a search engine and this can tell you what companies care about that keyword, care enough to spend money on it which is an important metric to look at.

Looking at this, I’m saying “okay, I’ve searched for a generic term and I see that there are five companies that have paid money to buy ads on this; these competitors are going to add to my competitive list. I am going through the first four and see how much of a threat base they serve to me.”

I do want to make it clear that there are lots of different metrics that you can look at but these are the four ideas that I think are the most important to start out and then you can go down this, deep dive into many other metrics after you establish these four core areas of knowledge.

7. B2B vs B2C

One of the biggest benefits of SEO is that the foundation elements apply equally to many different potential markets. While the keywords that you target will change for your B2B and B2C, the high level strategies of SEO will remain exactly the same. For example, imagine a small business that focuses on selling bird feed to individual bird owners. Your best execution of SEO will require following best practices of keyword targeting and on-page optimization so that your URLs and products will show up in potential buyers when these search engines look for your product. In this case, that might be for the term “best bird feed” on well optimized pages that have clear call to action along with high quality inbound links.

Regardless of what your niche is, the SEO best practices will remain largely the same.Imagine you have a B2B oriented business and you have a sales force focusing on calling and meeting with prospective. Even though your goals and your sales cycles are very different than small B2C oriented businesses, your SEO best practices and strategies remain largely the same. You are still going to want to follow best practices for keyword targeting on-page optimization. In this case, that might be targeting a phrase like “best accounting software”. You are going to do this by producing a high-quality well optimized articles that also have a lot of relevant inbound links. This suits out very similar because the philosophy is exactly the same between B2C and B2B.

Remember that even with B2B, your goal, at least from an SEO perspective, is to rank highly when other businesses search for terms related to your products or services. This might be a decision maker who searches for your business after being off the sales call from your sales people or it might be a CTO who is searching online for reviews from other businesses that worked with your business in the past. Regardless of the nature or focus of your business, the high-level best practice SEO strategies will remain exactly the same.

8. Conclusion

From this post, one can conclude the following:

  • User intent is the driver of word choice and search demand; hence, it is the foundation of strong SEO strategy and more specifically keyword research.
  • Some basic methods for performing keyword research include analyzing industry keywords, PPC campaigns, internal site search, and competitor keywords.
  • Short-tail keywords are typically short (one or two words), have high search volume, and have broad intent.
  • Long-tail keywords are typically long (more than three words), have lower search volume, and have specific intent.

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