This is the most detailed resource about keyword research you’ll find online. Click through each chapter to learn proven tips, tricks, and tactics to ignite a windfall of organic results.

Here, you’ll find how to conduct keyword research:

  1. Determine the keywords you already rank for
  2. Compile topics and keywords relevant to your brand
  3. Find related terms that could boost your rankings
  4. See what keywords your competitors rank for
  5. Assess keyword volume and cost per click (CPC)

Let’s dive into this masterclass on keyword research.

Along the way, Dorsa Aerabi, HawkSEM’s marketing manager and keyword research expert, will walk us through the best keyword research tools, metrics, and best practices.

What is keyword research?

Keyword research is the process of discovering and analyzing search terms that your target market is using to find your products or services. It helps you understand your audience’s intent, needs, and pain points so you can deliver content and ads that entice them to engage with your brand. The goal? To convert them from browser to buyer. 

Keywords are fundamental to your search engine optimization (SEO) and paid search efforts. Marketers use these terms in copy and content because they match up with common terms people use when searching for a product or service. They can also help people find your business organically online.

But how do you start the process? As a test, start with a keyword search. Type in your brand’s offerings into the Google search bar and see what comes up. You might get some keyword ideas from Google’s predictive search, which populates the search bar with keyword suggestions for you. 

Once you hit enter, look at the results. 

The brands that appear at the top of the SERP have done their (keyword) homework. 

Now it’s your turn. 

keyword research 101

Basic keyword research is an essential component of a fine-tuned digital marketing strategy. (Image: Unsplash)

How to conduct keyword research

Keyword research gives you a window into your audience’s mind and, eventually, their wallet. 

But the fact is, the average person has thousands of thoughts per day. It’s a massive task to determine how those thoughts translate into Google search queries. Luckily, you have a wealth of resources to find those keywords, starting with this chapter. 

The tough part is sifting through all the possibilities. 

Step one? Find out where you appear on the SERP. 

Determine the keywords you already rank for

Curious about where your website and ads appear? You can use tools like the Google Search Console, or HOTH’s Google Rank Checker to discover the keywords your brand ranks for and in which positions they have. 

Here’s a quick snapshot of how we helped ThriftBooks’ leading keyword rankings in organic search results: 

ThriftBooks’ leading keyword rankings in organic search results:

(Image: HOTH)

Notice all those #1 keyword rankings? You can dominate the SERP, too, with help from our SEO experts.

Your existing rankings give you an idea about where you currently stand on the SERP and where you might want to bridge some gaps. 

Keep reading to generate more keyword ideas to reach your audience. 

Compile topics and keywords relevant to your brand

It’s time to go to the drawing board. Think of a few topics that speak to your brand. If you’re a jewelry ecommerce retailer that specializes in golden necklaces and earrings, you might come up with: 

  • Gold jewelry
  • Handmade jewelry
  • Necklaces
  • Earrings
  • Pendants

Can you just use these keywords on their own? Sure, but they might be too broad to capture the most relevant audience. Think of these topics as clusters where you can plug in more specific keyword ideas that your audience might type in.

Pro tip: AnswerThePublic is a helpful tool to find commonly searched-for questions your target market is asking online so you can optimize keywords with search intent in mind. 

Find related terms that could boost your rankings

Imagine a potential customer seeking your product. Using our example above, this jewelry retailer’s audience might type in more specific terms and phrases than “gold jewelry.” 

And while that initial term might be a great topic cluster to create content for, you want to use more specific, related keywords like:

  • Gold heart pendant
  • Gold earrings with pearls
  • Gold-plated handmade jewelry
  • Where to buy handmade gold jewelry

The searchers typing these phrases into Google or Bing are great prospects itching to find this retailer’s specific product designs and features, not just standard gold jewelry.

In other words? They’re itching to find this brand. So they want to ensure their competitors don’t get to them first. 

Speaking of competitors…

See what keywords your competitors rank for

Think back to your keyword list above. You’ll want to know if your competitors rank for those same keywords. 

The key to unlocking this crucial intel? Competitor analysis. If they rank for popular keywords on your list, you might have some competition that may or may not be worth investing in, depending on the keyword difficulty and volume (more on that later). 

But if your competitors don’t rank for them? That’s a budget-friendly opportunity to fill in a keyword gap, and one that Aerabi says brands often miss.

“This step is crucial because it allows you to identify potential keywords that your competitors may not be targeting,” says Aerabi. “Pursuing these keywords can be cost-effective and, being niche, can attract highly relevant audiences.” 

Plus, you can harness competitor analysis to discover new industry terms you might have overlooked, which enhances your keyword strategy even more. 

Now that’s some 24-karat (keyword research) magic.

You’ll have a solid list of keyword ideas informed by your brand industry, niche, and competitor rankings. But you’ll still need to narrow things down with detailed metrics. 

Assess keyword volume and cost per click (CPC)

Keyword metrics help you predict profitability for your keyword strategy. But Google Analytics can only take you so far. That’s why Aerabi accesses certain specs through keyword analysis on Semrush, a dedicated keyword research tool.

Her go-to metrics to analyze? 

    • Keyword CPC: How much each click costs for certain keyword rankings in PPC campaigns. E.g. exact match keywords have higher CPC than broad match ones.
    • Search volume: The number of times per month people search for a keyword on Google. E.g. 20k per month is a high-volume keyword.
    • Keyword difficulty: How easy (or difficult) it is to rank for a keyword, measured on a scale from 1 to 100. E.g., 93 is an immensely difficult keyword.
    • Keyword competition: The number of competitors that appear when a particular keyword is searched. E.g. specific keyword phrases are often low competition.

Does high competition mean you should abandon a certain keyword? Aerabi says no, though you should examine more in-depth metrics to decide whether it’s worth bidding on: 

“Plugging in competitors in Semrush is very helpful in scaling what keywords they are bidding on and what additional areas we can cover,” says Aerabi. 

That’s HawkSEM’s standard keyword research process. But, we dive deeper into optimization tactics guided by a brand’s marketing goals, budget, and audience. 

man focusing camera lens

One way to ensure you’re spending your ad budget effectively is by focusing on the right keywords in your PPC strategy. (Image: Unsplash)

How to optimize your keywords like the pros

With your keyword research results in hand, the next step is to optimize those keywords. This way, you’ll be more likely to get high-quality leads on your website.

Optimizing your keyword list is all about creating synergy so that the right keywords your audience at the perfect time. Think about your buyer’s journey. You’ll likely use different keywords and phrases for different parts of the journey. That’s a great start! 

Some other ways you can optimize your keywords include: 

1. Establish search intent

What motivates potential customers to type things into Google? Search intent tells you whether they’re looking to learn, compare, find, or buy. Put into practice, it looks like this:

  • Informational intent: People looking to learn about a topic
  • Navigational intent: People searching for a specific website, page, or brand
  • Commercial intent: People in the market for specific products across various competitors
  • Purchase intent: People looking to buy

Think back to the jewelry example. 

Your potential customers might want to learn more about different gemstones before deciding on a product. 

So you might appeal to their informational intent with an article that ranks for the keyword “opal vs pearl.” Similarly, you might appeal to someone who is ready to buy with the keyword “buy opal necklace online.”

  • “opal vs pearl” is informational intent
  • “buy opal necklace online” is purchase intent

Aerabi says the latter keyword type has a higher purchase intent because it implies that someone is searching for a product. 

“We can identify a keyword’s high purchase intent by considering factors such as its long-tail nature and the presence of terms like “software,” “system,” or “tool,” explains Aerabi.

A keyword’s search intent also dictates the appropriate destination that each search result should link to:

“[For purchase-intent keywords], we typically direct them to a landing page that focuses on the product itself rather than a landing page centered around gated content or informational material.”

2. Use long-tail keywords 

Short-tail keywords have 1-2 words that speak to broad categories, like: 

  • Scheduling software
  • Project management
  • PR consulting

These are often high-competition keywords that are expensive to rank for, but have a broad target audience. While they help drive traffic and brand awareness, they don’t bring you the most qualified leads that are likely to convert. 

On the other hand, long-tail keywords are phrases with three- to four-word terms that speak to more specific audience queries, like: 

  • Scheduling software for restaurants
  • Project management tips for beginners
  • PR consulting for government executives

See the difference? 

You’ll reach a smaller audience pool with these, but that audience will have a higher chance of actually needing your product (and converting). 

That’s why long-tail keywords are vital to any keyword strategy with sales-qualified leads (SQLs) as a goal: 

“Whether the aim is to generate more leads, SQLs, enhance brand awareness, etc., a preliminary understanding [of marketing goals] allows us to determine which keywords to focus on,” says Aerabi. 

Another vital component of keyword optimization? The right tech. 

3. Leverage the best SEO and keyword research tools for budgeting and revenue predictions

Earlier, we mentioned Semrush to find keyword ideas and relevant metrics like volume and competition. You can discover other juicy keyword insights from a wide variety of SEO tools, often with free trials or budget-friendly pricing plans. 

Aerabi’s tool of choice? 

“I use keyword planner to identify how much these potential keywords may cost and provide projections to clients,” says Aerabi.

Best keyword research tools

A few more HawkSEM favorites for SEO keyword research tools include: 

Our secret weapon for data insights? ConversionIQ. Our proprietary tech attributes every keyword to every type of performance metric across all your channels. All our clients have direct access to its dashboard, where they can monitor keyword performance in real-time. 

Your first instinct might be to look for general keywords that speak to your industry. But guess what else constitutes relevant keywords for your brand? Branded ones. 

4. Bid for branded keywords

Non-branded keywords speak to general products and topics, while branded keywords include a business name along with the query. Sometimes, branded keywords might just include your business name alone. 

For example, Spotify might rank for these keywords:

  • Spotify music (branded)
  • Music streaming (non-branded)

Aerabi says businesses might miss ranking opportunities when they forget to bid for branded keywords

“There are several advantages to targeting brand terms,” says Aerabi. “If you don’t bid on them, competitors may take advantage of this and bid on them themselves.”

But why would a competitor bid on your business name? Easy — so they can one-up you on the SERP. An example: affiliate marketing tools SaaSquatch and Tipalti try to gain market share by ranking for competitor software Tapfiliate:

affiliate marketing tools SaaSquatch and Tipalti try to gain market share by ranking for competitor software Tapfiliate:

See the dilemma? Someone could type in your brand name and generate SERP with competitors. 

“This can result in diverting organic traffic and customers away from your site,” says Aerabi. 

Topic keywords? Check. Branded keywords? Got it. Let’s shift to another common motivation for Google searches: geography. 

3. Use location-specific keyword research 

Does your audience research reveal a qualified group of potential customers in one location? 

Then you should include location-specific keywords in your strategy. For example, if you sell accounting software for small businesses, you might narrow down your audience with keywords like:

“Accounting software for Chicago businesses”

If you rank for this keyword, you won’t just rank on SERP for people who type in the location. You’ll also appear in broader searches, assuming the person searching has a device with active location services on.

Pro tip: Keywords help pages rank, not your entire website. That’s why it’s wise to optimize all the pages on your site that you want to rank for valuable keywords. 

Next up: Consider budget constraints for PPC keywords and educational quality for SEO content. 

Boost your PPC strategy with the right keywords

PPC is one of the most effective ways to get fast results for your online marketing efforts. But, without an effective strategy, you may quickly go over budget. 

Essentially, the right keywords keep your budget on track, while the wrong ones blow it out of the water.

If you use irrelevant keywords or fight to rank for super competitive terms, your PPC campaign won’t generate the revenue you’re after. 

That’s why informative keyword research is an essential step to a successful PPC strategy that gives you the most ROI for your efforts. 

Best practices to maintain PPC keyword rankings

To optimize keywords for your PPC campaign:

  • Look for keywords that already successfully drive up conversion rate and sales — these are your winning keywords (we also called them “money keywords”)
  • See if those keywords have a low budget, which could limit the campaign’s success
  • Determine whether you can expand your keywords by looking at the search term data of winning keywords for search terms you could add to your keyword database
  • Regularly review your PPC campaigns for opportunities to optimize

With your PPC keywords sorted, let’s move on to discuss keyword research for your web content. 

comment spamming

Comment spam is a kind of link scheme involving spamming links to your website in blog comments. (Image: Unsplash)

SEO and keyword research go hand-in-hand

Keywords can boost both your ad campaign performance and website rankings with organic content marketing and SEO. The main difference? SEO keywords aren’t as expensive to rank for as PPC, which makes them a vital component in your content strategy. 

But even with inexpensive, high-ranking, and low-competition keywords, you won’t get far on the SERP with mediocre or thin content. 

Your top SEO goal? Create high-quality content. After all, if your article has mistakes or doesn’t speak to your audience’s interests, your readers will lose interest, and therefore, so will Google. That’s one way to drain your marketing budget. And we don’t want that. 

How to create high-quality content

  • Offer value and cover topics comprehensively
  • Dive into topics in-depth, giving high-level answers accentuated by industry insights and quotes from thought leaders
  • Scour the SERP for top-ranking content for your chosen keywords, then look for content gaps and ways to cover the topics better than your competitors do.
  • Inspire other industry authorities to cite you with backlinks by promoting your best content with PPC ads and social media content.
  • Focus on E-E-A-T: Showcase Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness.

We get it; SEO is a long game that takes time to cultivate, so it can be tempting to use black-hat SEO tactics that promise significant results in a shorter amount of time. 

However, these methods are often unethical, and they can end up hurting your rankings. (The algorithm may penalize you if they discover you’re doing something that goes against their guidelines.)

SEO keyword tactics to avoid

  • Keyword stuffing: Don’t go overboard by including your target keywords too close together within your content. Search engine bots are actually able to look for the value of the content vs. the number of times a given keyword is mentioned. 
  • Don’t cloak content: This refers to the act of presenting different content or URLs to users and search engines.
  • Comment spam: This is a kind of link scheme involving spamming links to your website in blog comments.
  • Invisible text: This involves hiding text in your website’s code, so the page can rank without the content being seen by visitors.

The takeaway

Ready to shine the spotlight on your brand? Keyword research helps you drive brand awareness, trust, and conversions while maintaining brand authority to stand out from competitors. 

But juggling metrics like monthly search volume, CPC, and difficulty gets tricky when managing multiple content and ad campaigns. And once you have all your keywords? You might be short on time to plug them into a campaign strategy effectively. 

Need reinforcements? HawkSEM’s SEO and PPC strategists are ready to roll. 

Our expertise paired with keyword data insights from our unique marketing system ConversionIQ, will give you a robust keyword strategy that drives traffic and conversions in as little as one month. 

It’s time to roll out the red carpet to rankings and ROI. Let’s get your brand on the digital map with a supercharged keyword strategy! 

This article has been updated and was originally published in October 2020.

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Caroline Cox

Caroline Cox

Caroline is HawkSEM's senior content marketing manager. Through more than a decade of professional writing and editing experience, she creates SEO-friendly articles, educational thought leadership pieces, and savvy social media content to help market leaders create successful digital marketing strategies. She's a fan of reading, yoga, new vegetarian recipes, and paper planners.