Keyword research for SEO: the ultimate guide

What is keyword research?

Keyword research is part of SEO (search engine optimization). It’s the work someone does to come up with an extensive list of keywords they would like a website to rank for. To obtain such a list, website owners need to dig into their desired audience and search engines. What search terms do people type into Google when looking for their products, service, business or type of organization? And what do they expect to find? With this list, website owners can create content that will attract more, high-quality traffic to their site. Keyword research is never finished: repeating it regularly is essential to stay up-to-date!

Why is keyword research important?

Proper keyword research is important because it will make clear what search terms your audience uses. At Yoast, we frequently came across business owners who used one set of words when describing their products, while their target audience used a completely different set of words. As a result, potential customers couldn’t find those websites, because of a mismatch in word use.

For instance, sometimes, a marketing department decides to give a product a not-so-common name. This can be a smart marketing decision: People could remember your product more easily. If you rent out vacation cottages instead of vacation homes, you might stand out. But beware: Very few people search for [vacation cottages]. If you optimize your text for this term, you’ll probably rank well on this specific term. However, you won’t generate a lot of traffic with this term and you’ll miss a large part of your potential audience because they use other words.

You’ll probably understand that it doesn’t make any sense to optimize for words that people don’t use. Thorough keyword research makes sure that you use the same words as your target audience and this makes the whole effort of optimizing your website far more worthwhile. In addition, by looking at search intent, you find out what exactly your audience is looking for. Those queries should get an answer in the form of quality content.

How is keyword research done?

We believe there are 8 crucial steps while carrying out keyword research. Here, we’ll guide you through this process step-by-step and give you practical tips to start your own keyword research:

  1. Determine your missionBefore starting anything, think about your mission. Reflect on questions such as: What is the main goal of your business or organization? What makes it special? Who exactly are you trying to reach? And, what promises do you make on your website? Take your time and literally write down your mission. Once you’re able to answer these questions in detail, you’ll have taken the first and most important step in your keyword strategy.

    The market you’re in determines whether your mission will prove genius enough to rank high. Some markets are highly competitive, with large companies dominating the search results. These companies have huge budgets for marketing in general and SEO in particular. Competing in these markets is tough, so ranking in these markets is also going to be tough.

    Perhaps you sell cruises to Hawaii. You offer great facilities for children, making the cruises especially suitable for young or single parents. Offering the best cruises to Hawaii for young parents could very well be what makes your service unique. So, look for the thing that makes your product stand out from the competition. This should be your mission, your niche – and this is what you have to offer your audience.

    If you’re launching into a competitive market, your best bet is to start out small. Once you ‘own’ a small part of that niche and become a bigger name in the business of cruises to Hawaii, you could try to level up and sell your cruises to a larger (more general) audience. Your mission will then become more general as well.
  2. Make a list of keywordsThe second step is creating a list of your keywords, preferably in a spreadsheet, such as Google Sheets or Excel. With your mission in mind, try to get into the heads of your desired audience. What will these people be looking for? What kind of search terms could they be using while looking for your amazing service or product? Which of their “problems” does your product solve? Write down as many answers as possible. If your mission is clear, you will have a pretty clear image of your niche and unique selling points (the things that set your business apart from others). These are the search terms you want to be found for.
  3. Research your keywordsAfter you’ve created this first list, it’s time to dive a bit deeper into your keywords. Luckily, there are some tools that make your keyword research a bit easier.

    The first is Google itself. Google the keywords you already came up with and check the searches Google suggests while you are typing. Those are the questions people actually asked Google! You can also check out the “related searches” on Google’s results page. Also have a look at our related keyphrases tool in Yoast SEO or Answer the public.

    These tools will provide you with all kinds of variations of your keyphrases, synonyms and related keyphrases. Check them out and add all the relevant keyphrases to your list. In our post on keyword research tools you’ll find more details on how to use these and other tools.
  4. Don’t forget the long-tailWhen people start out with keyword research, they tend to focus on very popular “head” terms. Unfortunately, those head keywords are mostly taken by large businesses. Long-tail keywords, on the other hand, get less search traffic, but there’s less competition too. Therefore it’s easier for you to rank on those keywords. Moreover, long-tail keywords even have a higher conversion value, as they focus more on a specific product or topic: a niche!

    A long-tail keyword often is longer and more focused than a head term. If your head term is [puppy training], a long-tail keyword could be [positive puppy training for Labradoodles in Amsterdam]. Using the tools mentioned in step 3 will also help you find more long-tail variants of your keywords.

    Don’t forget to add the long-tail keywords to your spreadsheet too. Put the head terms in the first column and add (multiple) columns for long-tail keywords. This will also help you create a proper site structure later on. The more long-tail your search term is, the further down into your site structure its landing page belongs.
  5. Analyze the competitionWhether you should go after long-tail keywords largely depends on your competition. If the competition in your niche is high, you’ll have a hard time ranking on competitive head terms. If you have little competition, you’ll be able to rank for more of your head terms. So you’ll need to do some benchmarking for SEO.

    Google the keywords that came out of your keyword research. Start with your most ‘head’ term. Check out the search engine result page (SERP). These are the websites you’ll be competing against once you optimize your content for such a keyword. Take a closer look: Do you see professional websites? Company websites? Are you ‘equal’ to these companies? Does your website fit among these sites? Is your company of similar size and does it have as much influence in your niche?

    It’s harder to rank when you’re competing against sites with strong brand names. If brands are known from TV or radio commercials, your chances to rank high will become even smaller. But it won’t hurt to take a look at their content. Is the content well written and well optimized? If your competition has poor content, you might have a chance to outrank them!

    Also, take a look at ads in Google. Are there any? If you have a Google Ads account you can check the pay-per-click. Search terms that have a high pay-per-click are usually also harder to rank for in the organic results.

    Make sure to make notes in your spreadsheet about your findings for the keywords you’ve investigated!
  6. Take a closer look at search intentToday’s SEO strategies should, for the most part, revolve around answering the questions people have or providing the best solution for their “problem”. Whenever someone enters a search query into a search engine, they are on a quest for something. Every type of question needs a specific answer.

    Try to find out which intent your audience when they type a certain keyphrase into Google. Do they have an informational intent (try to find information on a specific topic), navigational intent (want to access a specific website), commercial intent (want to research something before buying) or transactional intent (looking to buy something right now)?

    You can learn more about the search intent of certain queries by looking closely at the type of pages that already rank for that query. Do you mostly see product pages? Or a lot of informational blog posts? Do you see videos? Or is it a mix? These are all hints to what Google assumes the search intent of a certain query is. This post explains how to use the search results to create great content that matches the right intent.

    Find out which kinds of intent apply to your keyphrases and, again, add your findings to your spreadsheet!
  7. Determine a keyword strategyBased on the data you’ve collected now, you can determine a keyword strategy. If you’ve followed the steps above, you should have a spreadsheet with a substantial amount of keyphrases, and information about the competition and the search intent of your audience for those keyphrases.

    Now think about this question: How does my website hold up compared to the websites in the SERPs? Are you of equal size and marketing budget: go ahead and focus on those head terms. If not: try more long-tail keywords first. Focusing on a whole bunch of long-tail keywords combined could very well attract a lot of traffic. Once you’ve managed to rank for those long-tail keywords, aiming for more head terms will become easier.

    When you’ve decided where to jump in, think about the type of content: What was the search intent for my keyphrases? What is my audience looking for? But also, which content can I create that isn’t there yet, and how can I stand out in terms of quality or providing solutions? This will help you decide on the type of content you’re going to create.
  8. Start constructing landing pagesIn theory, this step is out of the scope of keyword research itself. Nevertheless, creating awesome landing pages is essential if you want to get traffic to your website. So, you’ll need to build landing pages for your search terms, but you don’t have to create all these pages immediately – it can be a long-term effort. Your keyword strategy will help you prioritize. Build a good landing page and use the Yoast Duplicate Post plugin to copy these to quickly make new ones.

    For your most important keyphrases you’ll create cornerstone content articles; articles that provide the best possible content about that keyword – authoritative and all-encompassing. All your supporting, more long-tail articles will link to this cornerstone content.

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