Keyword research is the backbone of any successful SEO strategy, but how you conduct this important research and the results you get will vary based on numerous factors, including your industry, website, goals, and budget.
However, even though every company is unique, that doesn’t mean there aren’t best practices you can follow for keyword research, regardless of your industry. Keep reading to learn how you can conduct comprehensive keyword research that will help optimize your website and place you on the first page of search engine results for hundreds of search terms related to your law firm, healthcare organization, or other growing business.
Why Conduct Keyword Research?
First off, let’s establish a working definition of the topic at hand. Keyword research is the process of analyzing words or phrases that may relate to your business and its product or services to determine whether a search term ─ or some variation of it ─ has value for your digital marketing efforts. In other words, keyword research looks at a list of words and phrases and asks: Are people putting these terms into search engines to find the types of products, services, or information your business offers?
Once you have a firm grasp on which search terms and phrases potential customers might be using to find items related to your business model, you can use this information to create sensible and effective SEO strategies that attract the right types of traffic for your website. That is, you can observe and predict shifts in search queries, then tweak and even overhaul your digital marketing efforts based on what you know your potential customers are looking for.
The First Steps Toward Effective Keyword Research
Before you can understand how people are searching for products and services related to your business, you need to first make sure that you and your team understand your business in the first place. This might sound ridiculous, but you’d be surprised how often varying stakeholders or members of leadership have opposing views of what their company is, does, and wants to achieve.
So, the first thing you need to do is sit down with executive colleagues and make a master list of relevant topics that you all agree you want to achieve high positioning for in search engine results. Try to place yourself in the role of potential clients or customers (this is where those personas come in handy, guys and gals) and imagine why they might be looking for a business like yours.
For instance, the core topics a healthcare organization might want to rank for could include:
- Health insurance
- Insurance brokers
- Primary care physicians
- Urgent care centers
- Independent physician associations
- Health maintenance organizations (HMOs)
Once you have a master list of topics, you can start breaking them down into potential keywords. Again, these are the terms you think potential customers might end up using to reach your website. A sample list of keywords under the broader topic of health insurance could include:
- Health Insurance
- Health Plans
- Health Coverage
- Small Group Health Insurance
- Large Group Health Insurance
- Health Claim Reimbursement
- Affordable Health Rates
- Healthcare Eligibility
A list like this could potentially go on for several pages, but that’s not necessarily the point. Instead, just come up with as many as keywords you reasonably can for each master topic. Also, don’t just go off your gut instincts here — supplement your list of what you believe common keywords for your business and industry might be, with a list of what keyword people are already using to find you online.
There are several paid tools available online to help you find out the existing search terms people are using to find you, but your best bet is to have your webmaster set up Google Analytics on your website and then extract the list of keywords people have entered to visit your site(s). Classify those keywords by topic or category, then add them to the speculative list you created earlier.
Lastly, ask your sales and customer service teams if they have noticed any trends or patterns within your customer base, and also ask them about some of the more common questions they’ve been fielding. The phrasing of the questions they receive in person or over the phone is likely similar to the terminology your potential customers are currently using, so their answers might provide valuable keyword ideas.
Suggested Keywords and Distinguishing Between Seed and Long-Tail Keywords
Now that you have a solid starter list of relevant keywords, you can begin researching related terms to expand your list further. One effective way to do this is to simply type your keywords into the Google search engine (for best results, make sure you open a private window in “incognito” mode or your browser’s equivalent) and observe the related search terms that pop up at the bottom of each results page when you actually Google your keywords. Not all of these will be relevant, but they will at least inspire more brainstorming and more discussion among your team. From there, you can then type in these new keywords for even more suggested keywords, and so on.
This leads us to one of the potential pitfalls of keyword research: it could potentially go on forever, and sometimes it’s hard to know when to call it a day. While there’s no hard and fast answer as to when your keyword research project is done, use your discretion and knowledge of your business model to accumulate as many useful keywords as you reasonably can before you start to hit the point of diminishing returns. (If the new keywords you’re coming up with are just minor variations of ones you’ve already got, for example, you’re probably not getting much value out of the additional time you’re spending.)
Now that you finally have a full list of potential keywords, check to make sure that you are using both seed keywords and long-tail keywords. Seed keywords are short and generic, while long-tail keywords are longer and more specific; your final list of keywords should include a balanced mix of both.
Seed keywords are great in the short term because web users search for them more often, but most companies know this and compete over them intensely, which makes them difficult to rank for. Conversely, long-tail keywords can be more effective over the long term because, while they might not garner as many searches over a given period, their more specific and focused nature should result in more qualified site visitors and leads.
Consider these two search queries for legal services, the first one a seed keyword and the second one a long-tail keyword:
- Injury lawyer
- Trusted personal injury attorney in Cleveland, Ohio
In this instance, you can bet that the seed keyword, “injury lawyer,” will get lots of searches, so it’s important for law firms to use this word whenever appropriate on your website and other web properties. On the other hand, “trusted personal injury attorneys in Cleveland, Ohio,” is a highly specific search term, so it’s not necessary to permeate your site with this phrase (since that would lead to some incredibly clunky copy), but if you want to rank for it over time, you should use it (or some close variation of it) wherever it makes sense to do so. For instance, you might judiciously deploy this keyword several times on a particular page of your site that’s dedicated to establishing why you’re one of the most trusted personal injury attorneys in Cleveland, Ohio.
Competitor Keyword Research
Understanding which keywords your competitors are using as well as how and why they are using them can make your own keyword research efforts much smarter and more effective. By utilizing a competitor analysis tool like SpyFu or SEMRush, you can gain valuable insight into your competitors’ strategies. Using these tools, you can review their keyword lists, gauge which of their chosen terms and phrases are garnering success, and then incorporate them into your own campaigns.
Again, though, be sure to use your discretion. Just because a competitor is succeeding with a keyword doesn’t mean that targeting the same keyword makes sense for your business model. At the end of the day, you and your stakeholders know the most about your company; use that knowledge to discern which keywords to borrow and compete for.
Another way competitor research can help with your keyword list is by allowing you to cross-reference your keywords and check for items that are on both lists. If some of the terms you think are relevant to your business model are also generating good results for your competitors, you may have just validated those parts of your research.
Conversely, if there are items on your list that aren’t on your competitors’ list, don’t worry! It’s possible (or even likely) that you know something they don’t, and you might be able to capitalize on these terms in a big way. This can be especially true when you’re examining long-tail keywords, so don’t be afraid to get creative. And if you’re not sure whether SpyFu, SEMRush, or any other keyword research tool is worth the cost for your business, you can always manually search for the keywords on your list to see if and where your competitors are ranking for these terms. (Again, be sure to use a private web browsing window with your browser in “incognito” mode or the equivalent for best results.)
Narrow Your Keyword List
At this point, your keyword list is probably looking a bit bloated, so it’s time to start trimming. There’s nothing wrong with having an expansive and robust list, but you don’t want to have unnecessary or irrelevant keywords that could negatively impact your search rankings or result in high bounce rates because the keywords aren’t relevant to your actual site content.
The best way to begin sharpening your list is to use a mix of Google AdWords’ Keyword Planner and Google Trends. For AdWords, you’ll need to create an account, but doing so is free, and you’re under no obligation to spend a single dollar or create a single ad. Google Trends, meanwhile, is free to use and requires no login.
Keyword Planner allows you to view search volume and traffic estimates for any seed or long-tail keyword, although more obscure or specific keywords might not have enough history to generate any data. If you cut out the terms that are too competitive and the ones that aren’t showing up at all, you’ll be left with great keywords that are popular but also specific (and therefore conversion-friendly).
From there, you can start plugging those phrases into Google Trends to see whether your remaining keywords are trending up or down. Getting in early on a low-volume keyword that is trending in the right direction could allow you to dominate search results for that keyword for years. Likewise, steering clear of high-volume keywords that are on the downturn will help you avoid a costly and time-consuming SEO overhaul in the months and years ahead.
Putting Your Results to Work
That’s it! You’ve now conducted your first keyword research project and created a great list of organic keywords to inform your overall SEO strategy as well as your content marketing campaigns.
Unfortunately, your work isn’t done (and it never will be). You’ll need to revisit your keyword list and conduct additional research on a consistent basis ─ once each quarter is optimal, but you should be doing so at least twice every year. As your lists get more efficient, your content marketing campaigns will show better results, and you will continue to gain authority in major search engines ─ which is great! But with great power comes great responsibility (sorry — had to do it), and as your web properties begin to enjoy increased success, you’ll need to continually cut and add keywords to your list, especially if your business model begins to diversify as a result of your success.
So, what does this all mean? Well, among other things, it could mean a lot of work. But just because a job is difficult or immense, doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. In fact, it’s often quite the opposite.
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Fishkin, R. (2017). The Beginner’s Guide to SEO. Chapter 5: Keyword Research. Moz. Retrieved from https://moz.com/beginners-guide-to-seo/keyword-research
Leist, R. (2017, October 17). How to Do Keyword Research for SEO: A Beginner’s Guide. HubSpot. Retrieved from https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/how-to-do-keyword-research-ht
Soulo, T. (2017, April 4). How to Do Keyword Research in 2017 ─ Ahrefs’ Guide. Ahrefs. Retrieved from https://ahrefs.com/blog/keyword-research/