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Keyword Research: Everything You Need to Know to Rank First

June 16, 2020
Mike McLeod
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You know keyword research is important. Keywords equal traffic, right? But how do you know when you have the right keywords?

The juicy SEO keywords that are going to reel in big fat leads and convert them to paying customers? The keywords that will put you smack dab on Page 1 of Google? The keywords that are actually profitable for your business?

Indeed, keywords are powerful. The shocking truth, however, is only 64% of marketers are actively optimizing their SEO, according to HubSpot. 

What? That's bananas. That number should be 100%. But take heart: If that’s the case, then there's even more opportunity for you to come out on top.

We’ll cover the exact keyword research process you need to:

  1. Find out what your ideal customers are already searching for
  2. Create top-performing content your audience wants to know
  3. Increase your organic search traffic instantly

Don't forget: Content marketing is a science. Just like any good scientific process, it starts with research. And, just like science, a correct process delivers the correct results.

How to Do SEO Keyword Research (The Easy Way!)

Step 1: Know Your Audience

You shouldn’t just open Google Keyword Planner and start typing in keyword ideas all willy-nilly. (Well, you can, but don't expect A+ results with this approach.)

Hear me out.

Before you can even get to keywords, you need to know who you want to target. Because here's the real secret to keyword research: It's uncovering what your target customer is searching for.

You need to know your target customer and get in their head to figure out what they spend their time typing into the old Google search bar. So take a few minutes and think about your customer: What do they want? Do they have questions about your type of product? What are the features they care about?

Let's pretend you're a business-to-business (B2B) cloud storage company.

People probably aren't eagerly sitting at their computers Googling "B2B cloud storage," right?

But they could be searching for:

  • Enterprise cloud storage
  • Business virtual storage
  • Business cloud backup
  • Dropbox alternatives for business

You get the idea.

So you may think you want to rank No. 1 for "b2b cloud storage," which is fine and dandy, but if your target customers aren't searching for that, you're wasting your time.

To get started, brainstorm a list of ideas like the one above. Anything and everything you think your customer may be searching for.

Then, check out these free tools to get even more ideas:

Search for your industry ("cloud storage") on those sites and see what kinds of questions people are asking. It can give you great keyword ideas. Like this list of questions from Quora:

Search for your industry ("cloud storage") on those sites and see what kinds of questions people are asking.

Based on this, "secure cloud storage" is an example of a keyword your target customers are probably Googling.

Write down everything you can think of, even if you aren’t sure it's worth it. We'll validate all these keyword ideas in the next few steps.

Remember that keyword research isn't just about ranking high on Google: This process also will tell you what your audience is looking for and therefore, what kind of content they want to see.

Create that content, optimize it for keywords people are looking for, and you'll attract them. It's honestly that simple.

Step 2: Check Google Search Console

One more step before we figure out which keywords are the right ones for you.

Open up Google Search Console and go to Performance and scroll down to the Queries section.

(Psst: If you haven't set it up yet, you're missing out on need-to-know info. And it's free. Get to it.)

Those are all search terms people typed into Google that your site appeared in. It also tells you how many clicks out of those impressions you got, namely your click-through rate (CTR).

Copy all these to your keyword research list and get pumped, because here comes the actual research part.

Step 3: Validate Your Ideas in Keyword Planner

There are lots of keyword research tools out there, such as SEMrush, Ahrefs and many more, but honestly, the best is still good old-fashioned Google Keyword Planner.


  1. It's free.
  2. It comes straight from the source of SEO: Google.

Using Keyword Planner is free, but you need a Google Ads account to access it. I won't go into all the steps to set it up because there are several resources online for that already, but go create a Google Ads account.

When logged into Google Ads, you can find Keyword Planner at the top, under Tools & Settings -> Planning.

Click on the option to "Get search volume and forecasts." Now, copy in all the keyword ideas we generated in the first 2 steps. Just paste them in, one per line.

A couple key things before we dive into the keywords. You want to ensure your settings are accurate.

At the top, click on Locations. Add all regions or countries you want to target here.

Next, click on Historical Metrics and click the average monthly searches column to sort it from highest to lowest.

Now we can get down to business.

For a simplistic overview at first, you can clearly see which keywords are highly searched and what the competition for those keywords is.

"Competition" means: How difficult would it be to rank highly (e.g. page 1) for this keyword? This is based on the amount of great content already out there for that keyword, the domain authority of the sites with that content and many other factors.

Don't let a reading of "High" scare you away, though. There's a lot more to it.

Let's go over how to determine if a keyword is "good" for you or not in the next step.

Step 4: What You Need to Know for Each Keyword

One person's trash keyword is another's treasure keyword.

Or something.

The point is, you can't tell if a keyword is right for you based on only search volume or competition. Consider creating a spreadsheet with your keywords in column A and all the following items as subsequent columns to help track your research.

1. Search Volume

Search volume is obviously an important thing to know. You could think a keyword like "business file storage" would be good, right? But it actually gets 10-100 searches per month. Not worth your time.

Search volume stats are a good "first cull" to get rid of keywords that won't serve you.

2. Competitor Ranking

Want to optimize your content for a keyword you know (or suspect) a competitor is already ranking for?

Check it with Ahrefs' free SERP Rank tool.

It will show you the top-ranking sites for any keyword. For example, here are the results for "secure cloud storage." At a glance, this will tell you which of your competitors is dominating that keyword.

Check it with Ahrefs' free SERP Rank tool. It will show you the top-ranking sites for any keyword.

You can find out some other good info from this tool as well, including the "People also ask" section, which could provide ideas for new keywords.

3. Region

Always make sure you're checking the right country or countries for your research in Keyword Planner or other tools.

You may sell worldwide, but chances are the same keywords aren't going to work for every single corner of the world. Keep in mind regional spelling (e.g., American vs. British English).

4. Competition

A competition ranking of "High" doesn't mean you shouldn't try to rank for it at all. It just means you need a really good long-term strategy to be successful.

That means one or more strong pieces of content that your audience finds more useful than any of your competitors' content. It needs to be the absolute best content ever made about that keyword. It also means link building, maybe some paid ads if that's within your budget. And definitely don't expect results for at least a few months.

A good keyword strategy is one that includes a mix of low-, medium- and high-competition keywords throughout your website.

Go only low and you won't scratch the surface of top SEO rankings. But use only high competition keywords and it'll take you forever to see results. Mix it up.

5. CTR

This can be found under the Forecasts tab in Keyword Planner. Basically, it's Google telling you what it thinks your keywords could generate in traffic for the time period you select (by default the next 30 days).

It's conjecture, so take it with a grain of salt, but it's also from Google and based on years of ad and search data, so, you know, it's worth a look.

For example, here's what Google thinks of our "cloud storage" related keywords so far:

Based on our keywords, Google is saying the strongest contender so far is "dropbox for business" with a predicted 9.9% CTR (meaning, about 10% of people who saw an ad or search result with this keyword would click it).

Now, that's a bit misleading. Because that uses an actual company name, the predicted CTR may be high because people are expecting to see the Dropbox website, not yours. Therefore, they would be disappointed when they got to yours because you're not Dropbox.

Don't take these numbers at face value and start optimizing for whatever the highest CTR keyword is. You still need to think critically about if that keyword is a good fit for your content and brand.

6. CPC

Cost per click (CPC) is the next column over after CTR, and basically means how much each click would cost you if you were running an ad with that keyword. Now, we're not doing ads here, but the same logic applies for regular keywords, too.

Here's the secret formula:

(Low Competition) + (High CPC) = Profitable Keyword

What those variables tell you is that for low competition keywords, not a lot of people are currently optimizing for it. Meaning: you've got a decent shot to hit Page 1.

And, a high CPC implies it is a valuable keyword, meaning it results in conversions by attracting users likely to make a buying decision, leading to the ultimate business goal: making money.

So, a highly profitable keyword that not a lot of people are currently ranking for? Dream Level 5000.

Of course, SEO life rarely works out this way. And, it's never that simple.

For example, the term "cloud storage" has a lower CTR than "dropbox for business," meaning fewer people would click it.

But because "cloud storage" is likely to be seen by many more people, it's actually a much more profitable keyword. More impressions mean more clicks, even at a lower CTR. And, as a bonus, it has a lower CPC as well, so each click would cost you less than "dropbox for business."

And, "cloud storage" is easier to work into your copy in a natural-sounding way, rather than repetitively name-dropping your competitor all the time.

Spend some time with this data and you'll see some keyword diamonds in the rough.

Step 5: Find Long-Tail Keywords

By now you should have at least a few solid keywords to optimize for. But, let's expand on those.

Long-tail keywords are some of the highest converting (up to 2.5 times higher!) because they're usually super specific to what a user is looking for. Meaning, if you can deliver on that search, the user is likely primed and ready to buy.

A long-tail keyword is 3 or more words. Here's an example:

"Shoes" could be considered an SEO keyword.

OK, you sell shoes. But what did the user want to know by searching for shoes? Are they looking for women's flip flops, children's tap dance shoes, men's work boots or what? There are way too many possibilities.

But, if a user types in "women's high heel shoes" and that's something you sell, then bam. When they get to your site and see those exact type of shoes, they're much more likely to buy them because that's what they were trying to find.

So even if less traffic is coming in from such specific terms, it's much higher quality traffic.

How to Find Long-Tail Keywords

Some you can brainstorm about and then validate them with the same method we used above. For example, think about our main keyword so far, "cloud storage."

Some potential long-tail keywords could be:

  • Automatic backup cloud storage
  • Cloud storage for business
  • U.S. server cloud storage
  • Cloud storage for software
  • Cloud storage for law office
  • HIPAA-compliant cloud storage
  • Best cloud storage for video

A simple and free way to find more long-tail keywords is to see what Google suggests for you as you type in your main keyword. That's it.

Also, try asking a question like "Is cloud storage..." and see what Google says.

Try asking a question like "Is cloud storage..." and see what Google says.

Step 6: More Tools for Keyword Research

Keyword research is a huge topic and there are tons of other tools out there, free and paid, to make the process more automated.

Here are a few to try out now that you know the basics...

You've Done the Research. Now What?

So you've got a huge list of keywords. Great. What are you supposed to do with that now?

1. Narrow it down to 5-10 main keywords you want to focus on and rank for.

These should be the creme de la creme: good search volume and a mix of lower and higher competitions.

You can add many more to your keyword research strategy over time, but if you're just starting out, keep it small and stay focused.

2. Choose 5-10 long-tail keywords, too.

Make a content plan and optimize your website pages and blog content around these keywords for the next 3-6 months.

Long-tail keywords are especially powerful in blog posts or landing pages with a call-to-action, as usually when people are searching for something so specific, they're ready to buy.

Start there and evaluate your ranking, traffic and conversion goals monthly to see how you're growing and find new areas of opportunity. (Psst: Google Search Console is a perfect place to track all this.)

Most importantly? Optimize your content naturally without sounding like you're stuffing the keyword in every chance you get. People can tell and it gives off way too many sleazy vibes.

Sure, keyword ratio is important and all that. But the most important thing for converting real, live humans is writing for real, live humans, not an algorithm.

Wrap Up

Keyword research can seem daunting at first, but it doesn’t need to be complicated. Sure, there are plenty of advanced keyword research tools and methods that go beyond what I’ve outlined here.

Follow these strategies and you will see increased traffic:

  • Keyword research before you write a single word of your blog post, page, etc., every time
  • Use a mix of short- and long-tail keywords
  • Focus each page or blog post on your site on 1-3 keywords only (Your whole website will end up with hundreds over time)
  • Write naturally: for humans first, not robots

Are you trying the do-it-yourself thing on the SEO keyword research front? You know, we can help with that. Hit the “X” on that hot-mess spreadsheet of yours and let us do the heavy lifting instead.


Mike McLeod

Mike's strengths lie in adapting SEO to fit the challenges and opportunities unique to each client. Combining his expertise in optimizing content and his uncanny ability to empathize with varied audiences, he's able to deliver compelling messaging every time. When he's not performing site audits or keyword research, he's on a quest to find the perfect burger.

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