Knowing the ins and outs of proper keyword research can enhance your whole digital marketing program.

Here, you’ll find:

  • Best practices for keyword research 
  • Pro tips for optimizing your keywords
  • Ways to boost pay-per-click (PPC) campaigns through keywords
  • How keywords improve search engine optimization (SEO)

Keywords are a common topic of conversation among digital marketers. It’s easy to see why — keywords are the backbone of a successful digital marketing program. 

What’s more, without optimized keywords (both branded and non-branded), people may overlook or never be exposed to your products or services, even if they’re in the market for them. 

Half the battle of marketing online is understanding how people search, so you can ensure your ads are visible to the right audience at the right time. 

And because of how important keywords are to digital marketing, there’s no shortage of tips, tricks, and tools floating around about how to make the most of them. 

But don’t let the amount of information overwhelm or prevent you from using them to your advantage.

Let’s dive into the crash course of mastering keyword research. 

keyword research 101

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

What are keywords and why are they important?

Of course, keywords are fundamental to your 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.

Keyword research is the process of discovering and analyzing search terms that your target market is using to find your products or services. In short, keywords should be at the core of your marketing efforts. They should also factor into every decision you make when it comes to your program.

How to conduct keyword research

Basic keyword research is an essential component of a fine-tuned digital marketing strategy. 

It’s also something that needs to be monitored and updated regularly for best results. Luckily, there are things you can do to make informative keyword research as efficient as possible. 

Most of these can be done manually on the search engine results page (SERP) or by using tools like Ahrefs, Google Trends, or SEMrush (plus, many of these offer free trials or service levels): 

  • Determine the keywords you already rank for 
  • Find related keywords that could boost your rankings
  • See what keywords your competitors are targeting
  • Experiment with Google’s predictive search, which autofills search terms based on factors like popularity or similarity
  • Put yourself in your target market’s shoes and ask what terms they’d use to find you

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. 

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 via Unsplash)

How to optimize your keywords like the pros

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

Optimizing your keyword list means you’re using the right keywords in the right format at the right time. For example, when you think about your buyer’s journey, you’ll likely use different keywords and phrases for different parts of the journey. 

Some other ways you can optimize your keywords include: 

  • Using long-tail keywords (more specific three- or four-word terms)
  • Leveraging keyword research tools (like the ones mentioned above and less common alternatives)
  • Paying attention to the search volume and competition level of keywords you want to rank for
  • Using location-specific keyword research to rank higher in your target locations 

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. 

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. 

One way to ensure you’re spending your ad budget effectively? Focus on the right keywords in your PPC strategy. 

If you’re using irrelevant keywords or fighting to rank for super competitive terms, you’re sure to get frustrated or feel like your PPC campaign isn’t working. 

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

You can optimize keywords for your PPC campaign by:

  • Looking for keywords that are already successfully driving conversions and sales — these are your winning keywords (we also called them “money keywords”)
  • Seeing if those keywords have a low budget, which could limit the campaign’s success
  • Determining if 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 reviewing your PPC campaigns for opportunities to optimize
comment spamming

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

SEO and keyword research go hand-in-hand

Using the proper keywords can be a huge, cost-effective boost for your SEO efforts. We know how important content marketing is for helping your SEO, and keywords are a huge part of that.  

You obviously want to make sure the content is high quality, beneficial, and relevant to your business before adding it to your website. After all, if your target audience isn’t interested in the topic you’re writing about, you’re essentially wasting time and resources. 

Being well-informed about users’ search intent is key to building an effective SEO strategy. Although SEO takes more time than paid search in terms of seeing results, using the right keywords is essential for long-term success. 

SEO keyword tactics to avoid

The goal of creating website content shouldn’t just be to rank high in search results. For it to be truly effective, your content should educate and inform actual humans, not simply please search engine bots.

Because strong SEO takes longer to cultivate, it can be tempting to use black-hat SEO tactics that promise significant results in a shorter amount of time. 

But not only are these methods often unethical, they can also end up hurting your rankings. (The algorithm may penalize you if they discover you’re doing something that goes against their guidelines.)

Before you think you can outsmart them, know that these algorithms are updated nearly constantly to combat the latest black-hat techniques. Some of the more well-known black hat tactics include:

  • Keyword stuffing: Going overboard with including your keyword throughout your content unnaturally in an attempt to rank for the keyword. Search engine bots are actually able to look for the value of the content vs. the number of times a keyword is mentioned. 
  • Cloaking: 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

Understanding how and why people are searching for your products or services will make it much easier to improve your SEO and PPC campaigns. Plus, it’ll help a great deal when it comes time to do deeper keyword research

Once you know the keywords that are bringing you the most success, you can start building out your list and use it as a reference for future marketing strategy planning. 

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.