Keyword research and analysis form the foundations of your on-page SEO work. These processes are all about investigating search demand: before you create content on your site, it’s important to understand which terms users are searching for online and what they’re actually looking to find when they enter them into a search engine like Google.
Designed for newcomers to SEO, this guide explains the fundamentals of keyword research and offers some practical tips. Along the way, we’ll explore what keyword research is, important definitions and metrics to look out for, the tools that make it all possible, the process of identifying the right keywords for your content, and some more advanced keyword research approaches.
What is keyword research?
Keyword research is the process of finding keywords that your target audience is using on search engines. The aim, in essence, is to identify queries that lots of users are searching for and which align with the pages you’re going to produce for your site.
The output of keyword research is a list of target keywords. You can then target these terms by using them in the content you create, which will hopefully rank in the search engine results pages (SERPs) and attract users to click through to the site.
Important keyword metrics and definitions
Before we go any further, it will be useful to provide you with some important definitions and keyword metrics that you’ll come across in your reading and when you start to carry out your own keyword research.
A target keyword is a word or phrase that you are optimising a particular page on your site to rank for. The goal of keyword research is to make decisions about a page’s target keywords, determining which terms will be emphasised in the copy in the hope that it will rank for them.
For example, the target keywords for this blog post include ‘what is keyword research’ and ‘keyword metrics’.
Search intent is the reason why a user would search for a keyword. It reflects the goal that a searcher is trying to achieve. When a search engine provides someone with a list of results, it is attempting to satisfy the search intent behind their query.
Broadly speaking, keywords can be informational (looking for an answer to a question); navigational (trying to reach a particular site); commercial investigation (researching a product or service), and transactional (wanting to buy something).
Search volume is the average number of times that users search for a keyword each month. When looking for this data, it’s helpful to know how many monthly searches there are in a particular country – with this information, we can target keywords that will attract as many users as possible from our chosen market.
You can discover the volume behind a query by using keyword research tools (more on this below).
Clicks refers to the average number of times users click through to sites from the SERPs for a keyword each month. Some search terms will attract multiple clicks per user whilst others tend to see limited numbers of people clicking through.
Keyword Difficulty (KD) refers to how competitive the SERPs for a particular keyword are and how difficult it will be to rank for it. Certain keywords have lots of established, authoritative sites ranking for them, making it a real challenge to gain a position on page one; other search terms are much less competitive.
Many of the keyword research tools explored below offer KD or competition metrics that can help to inform your keyword targeting.
A head term or keyword is a highly popular and competitive query that has plenty of search volume behind it. ‘Keyword research’ is an example of a head keyword with 7,100 monthly searches in the UK. The process of keyword research begins with a short head term or seed keyword like this, after which you’ll discover lots of other related terms.
Long-tail keywords are terms with low search volumes – they tend to be longer, more specific, and less competitive than other keywords. ‘How to conduct keyword research (10 monthly UK searches) is an example of a long-tail keyword.
Using keyword research tools
Now that you understand the terminology, let’s dig a little deeper into the tools that you can use for keyword research. There are plenty of free and paid-for options to choose from, all of which offer the ability to search for keywords and find estimates of their volumes as a minimum. Some premium keyword research tools offer more advanced features which we’ll explore below.
Free tools for keyword analysis
If your budget is tight or you’ve only just started to explore the idea of keyword research and analysis, then free tools might be your best bet to begin with. Although their features may be limited, there are several platforms out there that will allow you to start discovering keywords straight away.
Google Ads Keyword Planner
Keyword Planner is designed to help users with paid Google ad campaigns, not SEO. That said, this simple keyword research tool still allows you to find terms and their search volumes, as well as providing a graph to show seasonality (how search volume changes throughout the year). The data comes from Google itself, so it’s more reliable than third-party tools.
To begin your search, simply enter a head term in the search bar to generate a list of related keywords:
Bear in mind that the ‘competition’ column refers to the competitiveness of Google ad placements, so should not be used as part of your keyword research process.
Although a premium option is available, Wordtracker provides you with a limited number of free searches per month to give you some initial insight into the tool. This platform allows you to search for your seed keyword, then filter the related keywords by volume and competition:
Here, the competition metric focuses on the difficulty of ranking for the term in organic search, which can help to inform your decision about which keywords to target.
Keyword Surfer is a free Chrome extension keyword research tool that provides estimations of search volume within Google SERPs. Every time you load the results for a keyword, search volume data for your target market will appear to the right of the term in the search bar:
You won’t want to use this as your main platform for keyword analysis, but it’s a handy add-on to have alongside other tools – we have access to more sophisticated, paid software at Impression and many of us still use Keyword Surfer for a quick snapshot of search volume on the fly.
Paid keyword research tools
Once you know that you’re serious about SEO and content creation, it’s worthwhile investing in some more advanced software to support your keyword research. These platforms come with useful investigative features that enable you to expand your search and discover new high-opportunity keywords.
No blog section on keyword research tools could go without mentioning Ahrefs. The Keywords Explorer is just part of what this SEO and backlink analysis platform has to offer, but it does provide some highly useful tools to make keyword research easier and more effective.
When you search for a head term, you’ll initially see an overview page with search volume by region, KD, clicks, seasonal search trends, and a whole raft of other information:
From here, you can explore more potential target keywords using the features down the lefthand side. ‘Phrase match’, for example, produces a list of other keywords that contain your seed keyword – as its name suggests, ‘questions’ highlights all of the available question keywords based on your term.
Semrush is another example of a paid SEO platform that offers much more than just a keyword research tool. Within the main Keyword Overview tab, you’ll find similar data on your seed keyword as in the equivalent Ahrefs page:
You can explore potential target keywords related to this initial term by clicking into the Keyword Magic Tool, which includes options such as ‘exact match’ and ‘related’ keywords.
Like the other two premium tools we’ve looked at here, the keyword research element of Moz is just one of the ways it can help you with SEO. It functions in much the same way as other keyword analysis tools, with an Overview page for your seed keyword and the option to dig deeper using Keyword Suggestions:
When searching for target keywords, Moz provides the standard functionality to filter by questions and closely or broadly related terms, plus another useful setting: ‘exclude your query term to get broader ideas’.
The keyword research process: how to do keyword analysis
As you’ll know by now, the keyword research process begins with a head or seed keyword. If you were writing a blog on dog breeds, your seed keyword would simply be ‘dog breeds’; similarly, for a headphones category page on an ecommerce site, you’d start with ‘headphones’.
Through keyword research, we’ll take this head term and expand on it to establish a list of target keywords for a particular page. When we repeat this process across an entire site or site area, we create a keyword targeting map (more on this below).
Armed with your seed keyword, you’re ready to discover new target keywords. Start by searching for synonyms of the initial term and checking to see if they have search volume behind them. Search engines are your friends here – searching for ‘[seed keyword] + synonym’ is a good place to start.
When you’ve narrowed down all of the possible synonyms, look for related terms and consider a broader range of keywords within your topic. Returning to our example of the blog about dog breeds, you might come across relevant terms such as:
- ‘Popular dog breeds’
- ‘Rare dog breeds’
- ‘French bulldog’
- ‘Golden retriever’
- ‘Cocker spaniel’
You can search for your seed keyword and scour the SERPs for other terms, as well as exploring forums and sites like Reddit to inspire you. If you’re lucky enough to have the support of a paid keyword research tool, you can call upon keyword discovery features such as phrase match and related terms to assist with this.
For informational content such as blog content, FAQs, or buying guides, you should look to include questions that users are searching for. Tools like AnswerThePublic and AlsoAsked enable you to do this for free in a limited capacity (you just need to copy the suggested questions and paste them into your keyword research tool to find their search volumes).
Throughout the keyword discovery process, note down any terms you find that could be relevant to the piece of content you’re going to create, then look up the data on search volumes, clicks, KDs etc. We’ll come back to checking that the search intent of each keyword aligns with its intended page in just a moment.
Expanding your keyword list through competitor keyword analysis
Once you’ve exhausted all of the synonyms and keyword discovery features at your disposal, it’s time to expand on your keyword list through other means. The aim here is to ensure that nothing slips through the gaps of your keyword research. You want to gain a complete picture of all of the possible keywords that your page could target.
Beginning with the list of keywords you’ve discovered already, start entering these terms into a search engine and exploring the top-ranking pieces of content. It’s likely that you’ll spot alternative queries to target whilst doing this. If you have access to a paid tool, you can investigate the keywords that these pages are ranking for to speed up the process (in Ahrefs, Site Explorer > Organic Keywords 2.0 allows you to do this).
Expanding your keyword list is an iterative process. Each time you discover a new keyword, check the content that’s ranking highly for it to see if there are any more terms that you could target. The more time you spend on this phase of the keyword research, the more comprehensive your content will be and the greater its chances of ranking for a wide cross-section of terms.
Checking for search intent
Now it’s time to check the search intent behind all of the potential target keywords you’ve identified. Manually check the SERPs for each term, evaluating whether the content aligns with what you’re planning to produce. If you’re looking to launch a new service page and the top-ranking pages for a keyword are informational rather than commercial investigation or transactional, then its search intent is off.
Think of this as the all-important filtering stage in your keyword research process. You’ll only retain the keywords that match up with your proposed content in terms of search intent, discounting all of the others. By the end of this phase, you’ll have a list of target keywords with the correct search intent: when you search for these terms, the high-ranking content in each case should be the same type as the page you’re going to create.
As you start to refine your list of target keywords, you’ll also learn more about the type and format of content that is ranking highly, which can help to inform your content creation. For example, you might find that listicles or long-form content tend to do well and base the structure of your blog post around that.
To learn more, check out our guide to using search intent to shape a content strategy.
Creating a keyword targeting map
When carrying out keyword research on a large scale – either for a section of a site or the entire domain – it’s useful to create a keyword targeting map. This is a spreadsheet containing the targeting for all of the pages in question. For each URL, you should include:
- The page name
- The URL
- The target keywords and search volumes
- The total search volume of these keywords
- The title tag
- The meta description
The content creation process is much simpler if you have a well-organised keyword targeting map to work from. If multiple writers are working on a project, it also helps to keep everyone on the same page whilst providing full visibility for those who are overseeing and proofreading the content.
More advanced keyword research tips
We’ve covered the fundamentals of keyword research, but this section offers some more advanced tips if you’re interested to learn more.
Finding trending topics with Google Trends
In the approach we’ve looked at so far, the focus has been solely on average search volumes. It’s possible to find out how a keyword’s search volume has changed over time using a free tool like Google Trends. By discovering keywords that are increasing in popularity, you can create content that ranks whilst the SERPs are less competitive and ride the wave as search volume rises.
To give you an example, UK Google searches for ‘vaccine’ have risen dramatically in recent times, particularly when seen in the context of the past five years:
The key is to find trending keywords when they’re still on the up and produce content as early as possible. Remember that the average search volume data may not look like much now, but these numbers could shoot up over time if you identify the right trend.
Optimising for keywords from Google Search Console
This keyword research tip is useful for optimising your existing content to maximise organic traffic. Open up Google Search Console and view the Performance report for a particular page, then sort the queries by impressions high to low as shown below:
Here, we’re looking for keywords with high numbers of impressions but relatively few clicks. In the example above, ‘bing serp’ fits this description perfectly.
The goal is to optimise the content to target this new keyword, perhaps by introducing a new section to the post. We know that Google already views the page as relevant, so your chances of improving its rank for the term with some optimisation are favourable.
Content gap analysis
This final keyword research technique is only possible if you have access to a paid tool like Ahrefs. Content gap analysis is a useful approach if you’re looking to create a new blogging strategy for a site or expand on the cross-section of keywords that its service pages rank for.
The underlying principle is to discover keywords that competitors are ranking for, but you aren’t. In Ahrefs, you start by providing the URL of your site and those of your competitors:
The tool will then produce a long list of search terms along with your competitors’ rankings for each of them. You can then explore these keywords to find those which are relevant to your offering, helping you to plug the gaps in your content strategy.
This guide has explored the fundamentals of keyword research, explaining key metrics and definitions, the free and paid tools on offer, the keyword research process, and some more advanced tips.