SEO Keyword Research Guide

Learn the basics of keyword research to help customers find your site, blog, or online shop.

How To Conduct SEO Keyword Research Hero Illustration

Successful keyword research accomplishes 2 things. It helps the right people find you and improves the search engine ranking of your posts and pages. And if you do it correctly, you won’t have to spend money on pay-per-click (PPC) ads.

Poorly chosen keywords, on the other hand, leave your website in obscurity. Even worse, they can damage your rank if they don’t line up with the customer’s intent.

In this guide to keyword research, you’ll learn how to:

  • Systematically find the best keyword phrases for your content
  • Ensure your keywords align with user intent

What are keywords?

Keywords are the terms and phrases your potential customers use when looking for the products and services you sell. They reveal vital information, including the mindset of potential customers when they try to locate what you sell, and can impact the success of your business. Incorporated into your content, they are used for search engine optimization (SEO) and general marketing.

Why is keyword research important?

Keywords on your website let Google and other search engines know what your business is about and what you sell. This improves the probability that those search engines will display your website in the results when potential customers search for products or services that your company offers.

Using the right keywords in articles, blog posts, or product descriptions can help you rank in search engine results and can drive traffic and new leads to your website for months or sometimes years after you’ve published those pages. When you rank for a keyword that matches the content of your page, your organic traffic can outperform paid traffic or ads.

The number of people searching online for products and services keeps growing. Between 2019 and 2020, the traffic volume for the 1,000 most-visited pages increased by 22%.

Keyword research is essential because the higher you rank in search results, the more free clicks your website receives. For organic results, the top result receives about 28% of all the clicks. By the 6th-ranked result, that’s down to 5%.

What is keyword intent?

Keyword research identifies the words that best describe the content on your page or post and helps you rank well for the searches people conduct every day. However, there’s more to the strategy than simply matching words and phrases.

Because you know your business inside and out, you may not have the same mindset as potential customers. The terms and phrases you might use to locate your products or services on the web may not align with the keywords used by shoppers.

You may think your keywords will bring customers straight to your website, but people searching those terms might actually be looking for something else or be in a different stage of the buying process than your keywords suggest.

As you do your SEO keyword research, you want to consider the buyer’s intent behind particular phrases and whether your content matches it.

There are 4 primary types of search intent.

  • Informational (your prospects want to learn something)
  • Navigational (they are looking for a specific company or website)
  • Transactional (they are comparing specific products and are almost ready to purchase)
  • Commercial (they are prepared to buy now)

When your content matches the shopper’s intent, they stay on your page longer. This helps you rank with search engines and build relationships with consumers.

User intent trigger phrases

Each of the 4 main types of user intent listed above is associated with specific kinds of keyword searches. Choosing the right trigger phrases to include will help you target users who are searching for the type of content you are offering.


Prospects looking for information will be asking questions like who, what, when, where, why, and how. Informational searches could include phrases such as “signs of lactose intolerance,” “best recipe for baked chicken legs,” or “history of Dayton, Ohio.”


Navigational searches often include the name of the business or request key details about them. For example, “Bank of America login” or “LA Fitness hours.”


Transactional search trigger words include “reviews,” “compare,” “best,” “vs.,” and “top 10.” These shoppers are close to buying and are examining their options to decide which product or service is their best fit.


Commercial searches are used by prospects who are ready to buy. They include brand names, specific products (“Android phone,” “Ledger Nano key”), product categories (“floral dresses,” “cast iron pans”), and words such as:

  • Buy
  • Discount
  • Shipping
  • Coupon
  • Join
  • Subscribe

If you are selling a product, you’ll want to use transactional or commercial search trigger words. Include these keywords in the title, meta description, and on-page copy (like headers) of your webpage to help you rank for searches where people have more intent to buy.

Understanding keyword types and terms

To get the most from your keyword research, you should know a few basic terms.

Focus keyword

A focus keyword or phrase accurately describes the content of your blog post or page. It is the primary word or phrase you want the page to be found for in Google.

If your post is long, you may have several target keywords, but your focus keyword will be in the title, URL, meta description, and text.

Long-tail keywords

Long-tail keywords contain 3 or more words. They are specific phrases that shoppers are more likely to use when they’re further along in the buying cycle or when they’re using voice search.

A long-tail keyword strategy is particularly valuable when there’s a lot of competition in your market. Instead of competing to rank with short, popular phrases, you can set yourself apart by targeting long-tail keywords.

In general, long-tail keywords bring in more qualified traffic to your website. A user searching for “toaster” could be at any stage in the buying or research process or might simply need an image of a toaster. A shopper who types in “4 slice chrome toaster” has a specific idea of what they want and might be ready to buy.

If you have an online store, your product names are an ideal starting point for long-tail keyword ideas. Make sure you target wording that people would use to describe your products conversationally. For example, if you are selling cars, it’s best to use “cars” in place of “automobiles” in any long-tail keyword.

Search volume

Search volume is the average number of monthly searches for a keyword or phrase. You can look up the worldwide search volume for a keyword, or you can narrow it down to a specific city, county, state, or country.

A higher search volume means more potential traffic for you and your website.


An essential goal of keyword research is to rank in Google and other search engines for your target phrases. Competition tells you how difficult it is to do that.

Your ideal keyword has a high search volume in your target market but low competition. If you target keywords with too much competition, you’re setting yourself up for a difficult fight.

Suppose you’re in a highly competitive industry. In that case, it’s better to specialize in long-tail keywords with a lower search volume and less competition than to try to rank with highly competitive keyword phrases.

It’s crucial to note that paid competition and organic competition are separate. Google’s free Keyword Planner will tell you how competitive a keyword is for paid traffic. Sometimes, that correlates with organic traffic. However, to get that sort of insight, you’ll have to subscribe to a paid research tool like Ahrefs or Ubersuggest.

How to search for keywords

Now that you understand the purpose of keyword research, you’re ready to get started. Here is a process you can use to identify a list of key terms to target in your blog posts, web pages, and marketing materials.

1. Make a list of broad topics relevant to your business

In this first step, you want to create a spreadsheet with general categories or “buckets” for your keywords. These might correspond to product categories. If you already blog frequently, you may have some topics you already cover regularly.

Keep this list short and simple, with 5 to 10 topics at the most. It can be helpful to imagine you’re a buyer searching for your product or service.

General categories for a website that sells natural and environmentally friendly products might include:

  • Healthy environment
  • Natural health
  • Nontoxic home cleaning
  • Natural beauty
  • Healthy cooking
  • Natural pet health

2. Expand each topic with a list of phrases you think your customers use

Identify the terms or phrases your target customer might use to locate information, products, or services within each of your general categories.

If you already have data from website analytics software like Google Analytics or HubSpot’s Sources report, look through your organic search traffic bucket to identify keywords consumers already use to arrive at your website.

This is not meant to be a final list of keywords but an opportunity to brainstorm for data points to make your research more targeted and fruitful.

For the example of the environmentally friendly website above, under the category “Healthy environment,” you might list:

  • Compare air purifiers
  • Best water filters
  • Aroma diffuser
  • Essential oil diffuser
  • Nontoxic paint supplies
  • Hypoallergenic pillows
  • Natural ways to reduce allergies
  • How to improve indoor air
  • How to use sage

Create a list under each general category and add it to your spreadsheet. Feel free to ask your co-workers or employees for ideas, especially those who are customer-facing. They may have some great insights and ideas.

3. Find related search terms

There are creative ways to add to your keyword lists.

  • Search a keyword phrase in Google and scroll to the bottom of the page, where you’ll see a list of related search phrases in bold.
  • For a deeper dive, click on one of the related searches and check out the list Google suggests at the bottom of that second page.
  • The website AnswerThePublic allows up to 3 free searches a day. It delivers a chart of phrases people are searching for related to your topic.
  • You can also type your keyword phrase into Google’s Keyword Planner or one of the paid tools listed below and see what other relevant terms people use.

4. Analyze the strength of your keywords

The easiest way to accomplish this next step is with Keyword Planner or a paid keyword research or SEO tool. Ahrefs, Semrush, Wordtracker, and Ubersuggest are some of the most popular. Wordtracker and Ubersuggest both have free versions you can use to start.

Here’s what you’re looking for when you analyze your keywords.

  • What is the exact search term? Make sure your keyword phrase matches the precise search term people use.
  • How high is the search volume? If no one uses a keyword phrase, it won’t do you much good to structure a strategy around it. Look for the highest search volume available.
  • How steep is the competition? The paid tools differentiate between competition for paid ads versus for organic search. You want a higher search volume with lower organic search competition. That’s the sweet spot.
  • Check for related terms you may have missed that have high search volume and low organic search competition.

5. Determine how you rank in your industry

If you’re competing against big brand names that already take up the first page of Google for most of the terms you’ve identified, you’ll want to alter your strategy to identify less competitive long-tail keywords.

Check the search engine results page (SERP) for your most desired search terms. If it’s filled with solid brand names that have more influence and market share than your company does (at the moment), go back and refine your list with long-tail keywords.

The one exception to this strategy is if your competitors haven’t been publishing quality content. If you know you can outdo their content in length, quality, and layout, then you may be able to outrank them even if they spend more money marketing their brand.

6. Verify search intent

When a consumer enters a search query into Google, they are on a quest for something. Every question needs a matching answer.

Make sure you understand your customers’ intent by typing your keyword phrase into the search engine. What pages already rank for that phrase and what do they offer?

If a buyer is looking for information and you try to sell to them, you may get a click, but they’ll bounce quickly, which will hurt your ranking. If a shopper is ready to buy and you deliver a product page, they’ll be happy.

Make a note in your spreadsheet about the buyer intent for each keyword phrase, or establish a habit for you or your team to check keyword intent before creating content using that keyword or phrase.

Keyword research is the foundation of your SEO strategy

Keywords help search engines categorize your content, and they help shoppers find you. However, they are only one step in a successful SEO strategy.

For your blog posts and pages to rank successfully, you need to build high-quality content around your keyword phrases. Outdo your competition with each post. Deliver more value, a more complete answer, and make it more readable.

You also want to pay attention to the layout and on-page SEO of each article. Make your page easy to scan and mobile-friendly.

SEO is for search engines and humans. Keyword research is an important first step. Content that your users enjoy and find valuable makes them stay longer on your website, which in turn informs Google you are doing a good job.

Organic SEO is a long-term process. You may rank quickly for specific terms or phrases, but most businesses see a gradual climb up the SERPs. Be consistent, be patient, and enjoy your keyword research.

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