keyword research

Keyword Research for SEO Managers: A High-Level Guide

Jonas Sickler, Digital Marketing Analyst

Key Points

  • Keyword research reveals how your audience searches for products, services, information and answers online.
  • Search volume matters, but search intent is even more important.
  • Consider conversions and profitability when doing keyword research.

It’s impossible to do SEO without an effective keyword research process. So, how do you build one?

Well, if you read ten articles about it, you’ll learn ten different methods. In fact, Google is filled with comprehensive guides like this one by Ahrefs that walk you through the entire process step-by-step.

So, my article isn’t going to tell you exactly how to find keywords for SEO. Instead, this keyword research guide is different. It’s built for directors and growth marketers who need to build a process.

This article offers a high-level philosophy to help you create your own strategy to find the best search terms for your brand or customers.

What is keyword research?


Keyword Research

Keyword research is the process of uncovering and organizing the specific keywords your target audience searches to discover products, services or a useful piece of content.

Keyword research is the foundation of an SEO-focused content strategy.

Using SEO metrics like monthly search volume, relevancy, SERP competition and more, you can identify high-opportunity, high-intent keywords that will fuel your search engine optimization strategy.

A robust website keyword research strategy can help you increase visibility of your blog posts, news, bylines, microsites, infographics, video and any other piece of searchable content. When multiple pieces of content show up for the same keywords, that’s when you can dominate the SERPs.

Keyword research is more than just a numbers game, though. It requires a deep understanding of your audience, your competition and your own priorities. Without that understanding, developing an effective keyword research strategy that targets the right audience and encourages conversions and brand affinity is just a shot in the dark.

Why keyword research is important

Keyword research goes way beyond identifying all the phrases with similar words and creating optimized content. If you take that approach, then your content strategy will become fragmented, redundant, and out of sync with users. Furthermore, you’ll end up with a bloated website that cannibalizes its own ranking potential.

When you research keywords for SEO, it’s vital to think beyond queries and volume. Search terms contain hidden metadata about your customers. To uncover it, ask yourself questions such as these:

  • Why would someone search this?
  • What are they trying to accomplish?
  • Where are they in the customer journey?
  • Which content format would best answer their search query?
  • How else might they phrase this search?

Asking those questions will help you create the best content for your audience which will improve their experience with your brand. As a result, you’ll see increased engagement, brand loyalty, conversions, and revenue. In other words, effective keyword research improves your digital marketing efforts as well as your business performance.

In the next section, I’ll reveal eight keyword research tips to move the needle on your organic search traffic!

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How to do keyword research for SEO

Keyword research predicts and directly impacts your organic traffic. Done thoroughly, you’ll know your potential market share and how much effort it will take to grow your slice of the pie. Done hastily, and you could overestimate your opportunity, or underestimate the difficulty.

So, there are many excellent tools for doing keyword research that make your strategy swift and scalable. But, they’re only as good as your strategy, including your audience insights, competitive research, online marketing integration, brand priorities and creativity.

Here are some basic keyword research principles to guide your strategy.

1. Focus on search intent

When people search a given query, what kind of resources are they looking for? Where are they in the buyer’s funnel — ToFu, MoFu or BoFu? If they want tips and strategies, they don’t want an ecommerce page or service page. Similarly, if they want a visual tutorial, a long-form blog post won’t cut it. Or, if they’re looking for cheap furniture, they’re not interested in results from an expensive luxury furniture brand.

A business’s purchase funnel is comprised of three phases: awareness, consideration and decision. The people in the awareness phase want information related to their interests or pain points. While those in the decision phase may be ready to make a purchase. 

Determine where your keyword is in the conversion funnel and consider what the search intent looks like for that audience. Then, develop and align valuable, relevant content accordingly. 

For example: if they use a search term like “best keyword research tools,” they probably want a list of options or impartial reviews. A product page, then, isn’t a good fit for that keyword — even if you know your products are the best.

Check the SERP

A keyword might seem like an amazing opportunity because thousands of people search it each month. However, if the Google search intent doesn’t match the context of your page, it won’t help you.

Google your keyword ideas to see what ranks on the first page of the SERP. If the top-ranking websites are vastly different in content and/or format from the page you want to optimize, it means your page most likely meets a different search intent.

For example, if a skincare-related search query yields results from Wikipedia, WebMD, Mayo Clinic, Healthline and other related sites, then the product page for your skincare cream isn’t (yet) what the user wants or needs.

Dig into your audience’s psychology and learn to search the way they do. Walk through different queries and ensure your target pages align with the intent. Keyword-to-page alignment makes for a winning keyword strategy, as it delivers the best user experience.

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2. Pay attention to search volumes

Once you understand the search intent of your audience, you can turn your attention to the data. The keyword research process varies by industry and even by strategist. But across the board, every set of criteria is driven by a strong emphasis on search volume.

Most paid SEO tools provide you with search suggestions and reliable approximations of a keyword’s monthly volume. Since this data is extrapolated, there can be some slight variations in metrics between tools. We recommend cross-checking at least a couple different tools such as SEMRush and Ahrefs against each other and adding both numbers to your spreadsheet. Use the same tools consistently so you can compare apples to apples across your keyword phrases.

For each page, aim for the keywords with the highest possible search volume based on the search intent and additional criteria for that page. “Good” search volumes are relative based on:

  • Breadth of query: head terms or long-tail keywords
  • Industry popularity: apparel vs garage door parts
  • Authority of your site compared to the competition 
  • Stage of the purchase funnel

So, when creating your keyword strategy, aim for the highest-volume words that meet your strategic goals, even if they only yield 200 searches a month.

3. Include long-tail keyword variations

Your seed keyword list should include every search term you can think of. Then, use keyword research tools to identify long-tail variations of those terms. 

A word of warning about relying on tools alone to find your keyword variations: they’re usually only able to generate a list of close semantic matches (often with long-tail differences), not expand into new topics. So the more you can develop the true variations on your own before you run your seed list through a tool, the better. 

Fortunately, these related keywords are easily discoverable. 

  • Google’s autocomplete and “people also ask” features alone can give you keyword ideas and help you better understand your audience’s search behavior. 
  • Tools like Answer The Public leverage Google’s autocomplete feature by adding more specificity to each keyword, using common queries like “why” and “how” to generate a master list of queries. 
  • Use BuzzSumo “Questions” to uncover related questions from millions of forum posts, Amazon, Quora and other websites. 
  • And tools like Ahrefs and SEMRush provide you with a list of keyword variations, either including the original search terms or including a broader set of options.

4. Factor in profitability

When you’ve narrowed down your list of keywords, you could create an equal amount of content for each keyword, evenly distributing your time and resources. But, if you’re a major retail brand and you’re ramping up for springtime, why spend your time and energy creating content for “infinity scarves” when everyone is preparing for summer? Instead, you could target “swimwear for women” – likely a much more profitable keyword.

Not every brand is so affected by seasons like retail, of course. But even so, profitability is still an important factor in developing your keyword research SEO strategy.

Think of Home Depot. They sell plenty of plants, so they could spend their resources targeting the keyword “buy plants,” or even a more long-tail keyword like “buy snake plant.” But when you Google either of these keywords, Home Depot is nowhere in sight.

Google “buy power tools,” however, and Home Depot shows up on page one.

Why? Because Home Depot knows power tools are far more profitable. This doesn’t mean they don’t create content for their Garden Center. In fact, they have a whole site dedicated to gardening and plant content. But, in the SERPs, they’ve put their ecommerce SEO strategy behind keywords with higher profitability.

5. Conduct a competitive analysis

Using Ahrefs or SpyFu, perform a competitive analysis so you can understand the keywords your competitors are targeting – and the ones they aren’t. Incorporating this information into your keyword strategy can help you take two different strategic approaches: 

  1. Target the keywords your competition currently ranks for. After you determine what these are, use the top-ranking content for those keywords as a guide and produce the content and outreach strategy that will beat the competition. 
  2. Target the competition’s missed opportunities. This less aggressive strategy often yields low-hanging fruit by taking advantage of competitive gaps in your industry. 

Enterprise companies should strongly consider taking advantage of both approaches. Filling in competitive gaps will build momentum and authority in a relatively short time period. And staying at the top of the SERPs for your competition’s high-priority keywords can drastically increase clicks and profitability in the long term. 

6. Tap into voice of the customer (VoC)

So far, you’ve been developing your search insights from data related to common queries, pain points and audience needs. Combine this information with your company’s unique internal audience insights and you’ll be well on your way to keyword nirvana. 

Voice of the Customer (VoC) is comprised of all types of direct audience feedback: 

  • Emails
  • Customer interviews
  • Phone calls
  • Live chats
  • Onsite surveys
  • Reviews
  • Social media
  • Blog comments

It can also include customer and industry-wide polls and surveys that can help you identify why people love your brand or head straight to your competitor. And it can include indirect feedback like canceled email or software subscriptions. (Or direct – always give your customer the option of sharing why they canceled).

It’s easy for your SEO strategist to slip into the habit of leaning entirely on search data as a matter of convenience: it can be a nightmare to coordinate information sharing across siloed departments. But that’s just one more reason why busting down silos is fundamental to your enterprise SEO success

Get high-level buy-in to build in the systems that make information sharing across departments as painless as possible. If you use a centralized customer support system like Zendesk, make sure feedback is logged and stored in a place your team can have access to. Make a list of all the different types of information you need. Then figure out how to systematize that sharing to the point where the process is automatic.

7. Make it natural

Search behavior has evolved significantly over time. Voice search has taken off. And even desktop users now trust Google to handle long, specific queries that use natural language or ask complete questions. So if you’re torn between two different high-opportunity keywords, then choose the one that sounds more natural.

Another benefit to using natural keywords? Natural content. Your high-opportunity keyword won’t do you any good if it’s not grammatically correct or if it feels forced and awkward. Google’s semantic indexing style does allow you to play with how you incorporate your keywords into your copy. So break them up or use plurals as needed. But you’ll still want to use each keyword in its “true” form, too. (In this case, that means the exact keyword that your data and research yielded.)

8. Leverage keyword research tools

It takes your own magic and know-how to set the strategy. But search engine optimization tools provide a hearty assist. The data they make accessible is mandatory. And the processes they systematize can make your strategy scalable and headache-free. Some of our favorites include: 

Ahrefs Keyword Explorer

This keyword tool provides you with search volume, keyword difficulty, CPC and keyword suggestions based on both phrase match and phrases that contain some of the same terms. A major strength of this keyword research tool is that it reveals the percentage of searches with no clicks, as well as the percentage of organic vs paid clicks. Those metrics help trim the fat from keyword phrases with inflated volume. As a result, you’ll be able to focus on terms that actually drive website traffic.

Moz Keyword Explorer

This tool has much of the same functionality as the Ahrefs keyword research tool. And their information is equally reliable. The difference comes down to your preferences as a user, with Moz earning points for their slightly more user-friendly presentation. 


SEMRush has the same core features as Ahrefs and Moz, with a few differences. SEMRush’s UI is a little lacking in comparison to Ahrefs. But it does offer extra data around PPC. And their content gap analysis feature is more robust.

Enter any keyword into Google trends and enjoy detailed visualizations of that keyword’s trend over time. It’s leveraged best with topic ideas, not individual keywords. But you can still test out many of your short-tail keywords to glean valuable insight. If searches for a keyword or topic have been trending down for awhile, the keyword may not reflect how people are currently searching. If searches for a keyword or topic are quickly trending higher, then it might be a strong candidate to focus on regardless of historical search volumes.

Google Keyword Planner

This free keyword research tool helps you identify search phrases based on volume and CPC. However, it has fallen out of favor with some people in the SEO world. Largely because its generalized search volumes aren’t as useful as the information paid SEO tools can give you. But the other tools must extrapolate their search volume data. This one provides PPC data directly from Google. It’s also one of the best free tools to unearth more keyword ideas than you’ll know what to do with. However, you won’t be able to use it without a Google Adwords account. We recommend using this tool in tandem with some of the others to expand your seed list of keyword ideas.

Google’s autosuggest isn’t the only game in town. This tool provides the keyword suggestions from a variety of well-loved platforms, including YouTube, Instagram and Amazon.

Google Search Console

In your pursuit of the perfect keyword, don’t forget to pop into Search Console and explore the ones that already bring search traffic to your site. These insights can lead to new keyword ideas and prevent the pitfall of removing a high-value keyword from your strategy. They can also help you tighten up the on-page optimization for a keyword that’s just on the edge of page one.

Clearscope’s power lies in its ability to analyze the top-performing content for your target keywords and give you a breakdown of the other relevant keywords in the content. Their unique approach lets you dig into search intent more than any of the other tools do. 


Soovle is very similar to in its autocomplete features. But each tool includes  platforms the other tool is missing. We like that this one brings Wikipedia and into the equation. 

Answer the Public

Looking for keyword or topic inspiration? This tool will match your target keyword with prepositions (who, what, when, where, why, how), comparisons (vs, like, and, or) and letters of the alphabet. Then it will let Google’s autocomplete go to town on the new list. You’ll end up with hundreds of highly-targeted queries for a single keyword. 


SpyFu is designed specifically for SEO and PPC competitive insights. It estimates the monetary value of ranking changes, which can be helpful for prioritization of your SEO efforts. 

BuzzSumo “Questions”

Want to find new content ideas or to achieve better voice search results? BuzzSumo Questions crawls millions of forum posts, Amazon, Quora and Q&A sites to pinpoint the questions people are actually asking. Combine this with other tools to see how competitors are answering those questions and how you can do the same – but better.

Now that you have some basic guidelines for how to conduct keyword research, you can weave more efficiency into your own process.

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