Keyword research is the process of discovering words and phrases that people use in search engines, like Google, Bing and DuckDuckGo, in relation to your website in an attempt to figure out what to rank for.
Keyword research consists of:
- Discovery — finding as many keywords as possible relating to your website.
- ROI Analysis — finding the most valuable keywords for your website. The most generic keywords are the most widely searched, but also the most competitive, and sometimes bring mediocre conversion rates. Generally, phrases that most accurately describe specific qualities of a website yield the highest ROI.
- Competitive Analysis — analysing the strength of competitors for potential keywords. Competitive factors include how attentive websites are to optimization issues and the number of relevant backlinks they have received.
Keyword research includes not only finding these keywords but also sorting and prioritizing them into logical, related groups, which can then inform how you might change existing pages on your site or create new content.
While some SEOs may argue that keywords are no longer important or won’t be essential in the future, they are still crucial not only for search engine rankings but for understanding the search intent behind a given query.
Search or keyword intent is the reason why a user conducts a particular search. What and Why they are searching? Are they really trying to figure out the answer to a question or do they just want to reach a specific website?
Even as search trends change, if people are looking for an answer to a “query”, keywords will continue to matter.
The problem with old school keyword research practices is twofold:
- SEOs spend too much time thinking about the decision stage of the customer journey, without investing properly in the upper funnel, i.e. brand awareness.
- SEOs spend too much time thinking about keywords, rather than categories or topics.
Many conversions — lead generation, phone calls, newsletter sign ups, sales — depend on raising awareness for your brand. The advertising channels themselves often need that brand awareness component at the onset to fully learn and optimise to lower funnel activity.
Using groups of related keywords, and examining their relative popularity, can not only give you insights into opportunities to drive more organic traffic to your site but can also help you understand the overall intent of your potential users. This information can help you better satisfy those intents not only through optimizing your website but potentially optimizing your product selection, navigation, UI, etc.
In order to understand this further, let’s dive into what the customer journey actually is.
What Is The Customer Journey?
No matter what product or service is bought — whether offline or online — everyone goes through this journey. Depending on the product, person or the situation, the amount of time the journey takes will vary — but every buyer goes through it. But what is it, exactly? For the purpose of this post, we’ll focus on three stages: awareness, consideration, & decision
The awareness stage of the customer journey is similar to problem discovery, where a potential customer realizes that they have a problem (or an opportunity) but they may not have figured out exactly what that is yet.
Search terms at this stage are often question-based — users are researching around a particular area.
The consideration stage is where a potential consumer has defined what their problem or opportunity is and has begun to look for potential solutions to help solve the issue they face.
The decision stage is where most organizations focus their attention. Normally consumers are ready to buy at this stage and are often doing product or vendor comparisons, looking at reviews, and searching for pricing information.
To illustrate this process, let’s take the example of buying a holiday.
It can often take several weeks or months for a consumer to decide on what destination they want to visit, let alone a hotel or excursions. But how does this affect keyword research, and the content which we as marketers should provide?
At each stage, a buyer will have a different thought process. It’s key to note that not every buyer of the same product will have the same thought process but you can see how we can start to formulate a process.
The above graphic illustrates the sort of queries or terms that consumers might use at different stages of their journey. The problem is that most organizations focus all of their efforts on the decision end of the spectrum. This is entirely the right approach to take at the start because you’re targeting consumers who are interested in your product or service then and there. However, in an increasingly competitive online space you should try and find ways to diversify and bring people to your website at different stages.
I agree with the argument that creating content for people earlier in the journey will likely mean lower conversion rates from visitor to customer, but my counter to this would be that you’re also potentially missing out on people who will become customers. Further possibilities to at least get these people into your funnel include offering content downloads to capture user’s information, or remarketing activity via Facebook, Google Ads, or other retargeting platforms. You’re also missing out on opportunities to raise awareness for your brand.
From Keywords to Topics
Many in of the SEO community have signed up to the approach that topics are more important than keywords. There are quite a few resources on this listed online, but what forced it home for me was Cyrus Shepard’s Moz article in 2014. Much, if not all, of that post still holds true today.
When most of us first learned SEO, we learned to research one keyword at a time. We optimized our page for that keyword by placing it in the title tag, in the headline, a few times in the body, and maybe the alt text of a photo.
The difference today from years past is the shift from individual keywords to concepts. Concepts relate to search marketing in three primary ways:
1. What the user intends
Search engines try to better understand what the user asks by relating that question to concepts. If I search for “movie about tiger on boat” Google will likely understand that I am asking about the movie “Life of Pi”, not about pages optimized for those specific keywords.
2. What your content is about
Search engines read the keywords on your pages to try and figure out what those pages are conceptually about.
3. Relating concepts to one another
The Knowledge Graph shows us how Google relates concepts to each other. In the case of “Life of Pi”, this may be showing how the film relates to ratings, reviews, actors, writers, and the cast.
The basic idea is to focus our research around topics or ideas instead of keywords, and thus give us the potential to rank for 100s or 1000s of keywords at a time.
The basic premise is instead of having your site fragmented with lots of content across multiple sections, all hyperlinking to each other, you create one really in-depth content piece that covers a topic area broadly (and covers shorter-tail keywords with high search volume), and then supplement this page with content targeting the long-tail, such as blog posts, FAQs, or opinion pieces. This is known as “pillar” and “cluster” content respectively.
The process then involves taking these cluster pages and linking back to the pillar page using keyword-rich anchor text. There’s nothing particularly new about this approach aside from formalizing it a bit more. Instead of having your site’s content structured in such a way that it’s fragmented and interlinking between lots of different pages and topics, you keep the internal linking within its topic, or content cluster.
At iEntrepreneur, we’ve taken this approach and tried to evolve it a bit further, tying these topics into the stages of the customer journey while utilizing several data points to make sure our outputs are based off as much data as we can get our hands on. Furthermore, because pillar pages tend to target shorter-tail keywords with high search volume, they’re often either awareness or consideration stage content, and thus not applicable for decision stage. We term our key decision pages “target pages,” as this should be a primary focus of any activity we conduct.
A pillar page covers all aspects of a topic on a single page, with room for more in-depth reporting in more detailed cluster blog posts that hyperlink back to the pillar page. A keyword tagged with pillar page will be the primary topic and the focus of a page on the website. Pillar pages should be awareness- or consideration-stage content.
A cluster topic page for the pillar focuses on providing more detail for a specific long-tail keyword related to the main topic. This type of page is normally associated with a blog post but could be another type of content, like an FAQ page.
Normally a keyword or phrase linked to a product or service page, e.g. nike trainers or seo services. Target pages are decision-stage content pieces.
Putting it into practice
I’m a firm believer in giving an example of how this would work in practice, so I’m going to walk through one with screenshots.
- Harvesting keywords
The first step in the process is similar, if not identical, to every other keyword research project. You start off with a batch of keywords from the client that the site wants to rank for. The industry calls this a seed keyword list. This keyword list is normally a minimum of 15 – 20 keywords, but can often be more if you are dealing with and ecommerce website with multiple product lines.
This list is often based on nothing more than opinion: “what do we think our potential customers will search for?” It’s a good starting point, but you need the rest of the process to make sure you’re optimizing based off data, not opinion.
- Expanding the list.
Once you’ve got the list of seed keywords, it’s time to start utilizing some of the tools you have at your disposal. There are lots of course! We tend to use a combination of Answer the Public, Keywords everywhere, ubersuggest, Google Search Console, Google Analytics, and Google Keyword Planner.
The idea is to start thinking about keywords that the organization might not have considered before. Your expanded list will include obvious synonyms from your seed list. You should also consider colloquial terms.
Keyword research tools are not infallible, so if budget and resources allow, you may wish to consult current and prospective customers about which terms they might use to find the products or services being offered.
- Filter out irrelevant keywords
Once you have expanded the seed keyword list, it’s time to start filtering out the irrelevant keywords. This is pretty labour-intensive and involves sorting through rows of data. As we go, we’ll try and sort things by topic. Topics are fairly subjective, and often you’ll get overlap between them. We’ll group similar keywords and phrases together in a topic based off the semantic relativity of those phrases.
|ski chalet||ski chalet, ski chalet rental, ski chalet hire, ski chalet [location name]|
|catered chalet||catered chalet, luxury catered chalet, catered chalet rental, catered chalet hire, catered chalet [location name]|
|ski accommodation||ski accommodation, cheap ski accommodation, budget ski accommodation, ski accommodation [location name]|
Many of the keywords will be decision-based keywords — particularly those with rental or hire in them. They’re showing buying intent. We’ll then try to put ourselves in the mind of the buyer and come up with keywords towards the start of the customer journey.
|ski resorts||ski resorts, best ski resorts, ski resorts europe, ski resorts usa, ski resorts canada, top ski resorts, cheap ski resorts, luxury ski resorts||Consideration|
|skiing||skiing. skiing guide, skiing beginner’s guide||Consideration|
|family holidays||family holidays, family winter holidays, family trips||Awareness|
This helps us cater to customers that might not be in the frame of mind to purchase just yet — they’re just doing research. It means we cast the net wider. Conversion rates for these keywords are unlikely to be high (at least, for purchases or enquiries) but if utilized as part of a wider marketing strategy, we should look to capture some form of information, primarily an email address, so we can send people relevant information via email or remarketing ads later down the line.
- Pulling in data
Once you’ve expanded the seed keywords out, Keyword Explorer’s handy list function enables your to break things down into separate topics. You can then export that data into a CSV and start combining it with other data sources. You may consider uploading the keywords into the Keywords Everywhere Chrome extension and manually exporting the data and combining everything together. You should then have a spreadsheet that looks something like this:
You could then add in additional data sources. There’s no reason you couldn’t combine the above with volumes and competition metrics from other SEO tools. Consider including existing keyword ranking information or Google AdWords data in this process. Keywords that convert well on PPC should do the same organically and should therefore be considered.
- Aligning phrases to the customer journey
The next stage of the process is to start categorizing the keywords into the stage of the customer journey. Something we’ve found at iEntrepreneur is that keywords don’t always fit into a predefined stage. Someone looking for “marketing services” could be doing research about what marketing services are, but they could also be looking for a provider. You may get keywords that could be either awareness/consideration or consideration/decision. Use your judgement, and remember this is subjective. Once complete, you should end up with some data that looks similar to this:
This categorization is important, as it starts to frame what type of content is most appropriate for that keyword or phrase.
The next stage of this process is to start noticing patterns in keyphrases and where they get mapped to in the customer journey. Often you’ll see keywords like “price” or ”cost” at the decision stage and phrases like “how to” at the awareness stage. Once you start identifying these patterns, you can then try to find a way to automate so that when these terms appear in your keyword column, the intent automatically gets updated.
Once completed, we can then start to define each of our keywords and give them a type:
- Pillar page
- Cluster page
- Target page
We use this document to start thinking about what type of content is most effective for that piece given the search volume available, how competitive that term is, how profitable the keyword could be, and what stage the buyer might be at. We’re trying to find that sweet spot between having enough search volume, ensuring we can actually rank for that keyphrase (there’s no point in a small e-commerce startup trying to rank for “buy nike trainers”), and how important/profitable that phrase could be for the business.
Once this is complete, we have a data-rich spreadsheet of keywords that we then work with clients on to make sure we’ve not missed anything. The document can get pretty big, particularly when you’re dealing with e-commerce websites that have thousands of products.
- Keyword mapping and content gap analysis
We then map these keywords to existing content to ensure that the site hasn’t already written about the subject in the past. We often use Google Search Console data to do this so we understand how any existing content is being interpreted by the search engines. By doing this we’re creating our own content gap analysis.
The above process takes our keyword research and then applies the usual on-page concepts (such as optimizing meta titles, URLs, descriptions, headings, etc) to existing pages. We’re also ensuring that we’re mapping our user intent and type of page (pillar, cluster, or target), which helps us decide what sort of content the piece should be (such as a blog post, webinar, e-book, etc). This process helps us understand what keywords and phrases the site is not already being found for, or is not targeted to.
Do you have any questions on this process? Ways to improve it? Feel free to post in the comments below.