How to do organic keyword research | SEO Tutorials
Keyword research is the first (and most time-intensive) step you’ll take when you begin your SEO campaign. If you haven’t created your content yet, you’ll start here. If you’re optimizing it, you’ll still start here.
We start here because search engines use keywords to rank websites.
Define Your Goals
Most people looking to buy SEO services or manage their own SEO campaign begin by defining their goal as ‘increase sales,’ ‘increase click-through rate (CTR), or ‘increase my online presence’. But those goals are reached by optimizing your content with the best keywords.
So, MY first goal is to identify the best keywords. And this requires me knowing which product or service I’ll be dedicating my time to first.
This entire process is much easier if you stick to one service or product at a time. Even if you’re a multi-service / multi-product website, you’ll need to narrow down your research to one service or product for now.
I hate cautionary notes in tutorials because I want to avoid dissuading people. But when it comes to keyword research, it’s necessary.
CAUTION: Focus on one product or service at a time because time slips away very quickly when you’re doing this. What’s this? Identifying, filtering, selecting, writing, implementing, etc. There are a number of tasks to do. So, set some time aside, take it slow, and you’ll find that the process is pretty smooth once you’re in the zone.
Oh, I’m also assuming you’re using tools like SEMrush, Ahrefs, Google Trends, Google Search Console, etc. to research potential keywords.
On to it!
You’ll want to identify the most valuable keyword(s) for your website’s product(s) or service(s).
What’s valuable? Easy. They’re keywords that are:
- directly related to your products and services;
- have a high ‘search volume’;
- are (probably) keywords your highest-ranking competitors are using.
Keywords Related to your Product or Service
This might seem like a strange thing to point out, after all, you’re obviously going to choose keywords related to what you’re selling. But it’s a little more detailed than that. You see, people in general don’t all type the same thing into Google to find something. They each use their own variation or language. I’ll use this topic, ‘keyword research,’ as an example.
I looked up the phrase ‘keyword research’ about a month ago. I got back 3,280 keyword variations, and 2,656 related keyword variations back.
That’s a total of 6,476 results I have to sift through to find what will rank me best.
In other words, there’s a lot of different ways people phrase what seems like an intuitively simple search query like ‘keyword research.’
So, how do I know which keywords to focus on?
Well, one good starting point is to look at the ones with the highest search volume.
I have 6,476 results in front of me. But it’s also easy to see that many of them don’t have high volume associated to them. So, I sort my data by volume and set aside a handful of the best ones (the ones with the highest volume) in a new Excel sheet or tab.
I then make sure that words set aside are relevant to the specific product/service I’m researching. To continue with the example above, one of the highest volume keywords returned is ‘free keyword research tool.’ It has a whopping 2,900ish volume. This is high volume, but if I’m not writing or targeting the term ‘free keyword research tools’ because I’m selling a paid service, I avoid it because it’s not relevant despite its high volume.
Side note: Why shouldn’t I select a somewhat relevant term? If someone lands on my website because they looked for a ‘free keyword research tool,’ they’d leave as soon as they figured out I’m not selling one. In other words, it’s a bait and switch. People don’t respond well to that. More-so, when they leave, my Google Analytics will show a high click-through-rate alongside a high exit-rate. It’ll be difficult to identify whether people left because of the bait and switch or if they left because my content needs to be further optimized.
When I perform these tasks I take what I think I know or assume about a product or service and ignore it because what we think we know might not be backed up by the data. You see, the data we get from keyword tools return the keywords people ACTUALLY use to find things, and how they phrase their search changes what we need to focus on.
Example: some plumbing repair websites are using the short tail keyword ‘water repair services’ instead of ‘water restoration services.’ If they did their research, they’d see that ‘water restoration services’ returns a monthly search volume of 320 vs. ‘water repair services’ returning 10. Yes. 10. That’s a big difference in potential leads and traffic.
Your competitors keywords
After I’ve identified what’s out there, I begin looking at direct competitors. I’m interested in knowing the following:
- where are they currently successful;
- what should they be successful for;
- how much effort I will need to put in to rank higher or at least close to them (you can’t outrank everyone).
The tools I mentioned above (SEMrush, Ahrefs, etc.) do a pretty good job of helping me with that, but it’s always a good idea to load up Google to do some manual searching (typing the keywords directly into search) and comparing those top spots to your keywords at hand, making sure the tools got it right.
There are many factors that go into ranking, and Google sure as hell doesn’t give us a clear and precise formula. But with my keyword list in hand and some competitors websites open in my browser, I begin evaluating their entire website (on-page SEO, off-page SEO, technical SEO factors, etc.). I’m looking to discover how much effort they’ve put into their online presence and get a better grasp of how much effort I’ll need to put in to begin ranking higher than or at minimum close to them.
I look for gaps when I’m on their website. Look for gaps means if there are a few keywords they’re not ranking for but should be (and the volume is worth the effort), I flag them and build content around that first because it’s an easy win.
With enough practice you’ll quickly learn that high volume keywords in most industries are extremely competitive, i.e., many people are trying to rank high for the same set of keywords. But not everyone writes well, not everybody invests into SEO (or even does it well), and not everyone creates or updates their content consistently. So, while the gains to your organic position may be slow for some keywords (and we’re talking months for high value, high competition words), a solid content strategy will benefit you.
Some tools to identify keywords
SEO experts tend to use paid tools to discover keywords. These tools include subscription-based services, like SEMrush, MOZ, or Ahrefs. But never overlook or underestimate the free tools Google provides. Again, there’s basic Google Searching. You also get insight from Google Trends and Google Ad-words.
Side note about Google Ad-words: This tool is mainly used by people looking to discover the best keywords for paid advertisements, however, if someone’s willing to pay for it, there’s a high chance someone’s trying to organically rank for it too.
Another word on Google Search: it’s a bit time-consuming to use this tool, but it’s necessary — it provides you with data straight from the horse’s mouth. Just remember, Google Search results don’t provide search volume, so you’ll still need a tool to get that.
The Search Visibility Metric
Disclosure: this isn’t my go-to metric, but it’s one you’ll find in many reports and many tools.
One way you can track your goals is by using the metric called ‘Search Visibility’. If you’re using tools (mentioned above) to track your SEO campaign, you’ll find it somewhere in their respective UI. It’s used to estimate how much traffic you should receive during a given period.
First, this is displayed as a percentage. The percentage is an average of your total currently tracked keywords, and your current organic rank for each keyword. Your current rank for each keyword influences the percentage up or down. It’s assumed that organic position number one in Google’s search results receives the lions share of traffic.
An example will help:
Let’s say I’m tracking five keywords and I’m ranking well in all of them. I should see a high ‘search visibility’ percentage (maybe 30%?). However, if I’m ranking well for only one of those keywords but not so well for the other four, I’ll see a much lower percentage (even as low as 1%).
More on the percentages
Someone out there did some math and figured out that the first position on any given organic search result should receive around 30% of the clicks (traffic). The second position should receive 15%. From there, the curve flattens: the third position is 13%, the fourth is 12’ish%, and so on.
So, all other variables aside, if you are tracking one keyword and you’re ranked number one for it, you should receive 30% of the traffic generated by that word.
It’s important you organize your keywords if you intend to rely on search visibility as a metric. While there are many ways to organize data, I recommend putting the most valuable keywords from a given group into their own little campaign. If not, you might always see low percentages and that data won’t be too useful because you’ll have to deep dive into the numbers anyway.
Organizing Your Keywords
I organize my keywords into groups to get a better grasp on where I’m doing well and where I need to improve.
I separate them into hierarchies. I tend to group things by services (or products), then volume, then locality. I’ll also separate national from local volume. This allows me to have an immediate sense of where I’m doing well and what I need to focus on next.
How YOU organize your keywords is up to you. As long as you can understand it, it’s good. The only caveat to this is when you’re creating reports for others. In this case, it’s best to create a report that’s easy for THEM to understand, and that often means creating a standardized report that other SEO experts (yup, your competition) can look at criticize. I know that might be controversial to some, but it’s best to be honest with your success or lack thereof.
Start by creating lists for your keywords
I mentioned above that I like to use hierarchies for keywords. To me, it’s simply more intuitive than a single Excel sheet or campaign view littered with a miss-mash of keywords.
Now, I have no idea what industry you’re creating lists for, but there are some general rules I follow.
If you’re a business that provides two services like repairs and installations, it’s best to separate your repair related keywords into a group titled ‘repair’ and your installation related keywords into ‘installation.’
If you’re a multi-service industry that provides repairs and installations for two or more different services entire (example: wall repairs/installations and floor repairs/installations), you’ll create one group with two inner groups for each.
- Group A -> “walls”;
- Group A Child 1 -> “repairs”;
- Group A Child 2 -> “installation”;
- Group B -> “floors”;
- Group B Child 1 -> “repairs”;
- Group B Child 2 -> “installation”.
This grouping provides you with an easy way to look at your success with repairs in general or repairs with respect to one group (e.g., only group A). If your business expands into new areas, it’s easy to add more groups without mucking up the previous ones (I learned that lesson the hard way!)
If you’re doing local SEO (SEO focus’ on a one or more districts), you need even more groups.
- Group A DISTRICT 1 -> “walls”;
- Group A DISTRICT 1 Child 1 -> “repairs”;
- Group A DISTRICT 1 Child 2 -> “installation”;
- Group B DISTRICT 1 -> “floors”;
- Group B DISTRICT 1 Child 1 -> “repairs”;
- Group B DISTRICT 1 Child 2 -> “installation”.
- Group A DISTRICT 2 -> “walls”;
- Group A DISTRICT 2 Child 1 -> “repairs”;
- Group A DISTRICT 2 Child 2 -> “installation”;
- Group B DISTRICT 2 -> “floors”;
- Group B DISTRICT 2 Child 1 -> “repairs”;
- Group B DISTRICT 2 Child 2 -> “installation”.
AND if you’re a company that needs SEO services across many local districts AND regions AND services AND products… well, yeah… it can be overwhelming if you’re not data hungry and very organized.
Where do I store keyword lists?
That depends. I prefer to gather all of my keyword data from different sources and save them offline in Excel files. I separate them into their respective groups (often in their own spreadsheets), and then use Excel or power bi to do a deep dive into my data when necessary. I’ll also have a text editor open to take scrap notes, and pen/paper at hand.
Other people are more comfortable working within their paid subscription tools. For example, SEMrush provides a tool that allows you to create lists of keywords that hold 1000 keywords at a time, but refreshing that list might cost you additional money if you hit your monthly quota.
My preference is to avoid storing my data in online tools. I’m comfortable in Excel and find the refresh time of online keyword management tools to slow. Also, I like to keep historical keyword data available in case I want to compare different periods to each other (yup, that’s a thing).
Your keyword list is going to be as complicated or as simple as it needs to be — you just have to decide what your needs are and how much keyword data you’ll be working with.
Call me if you’re in hiring a freelance SEO copywriter like myself or interested in working with a digital marketing agency!