How to do Keyword Research for SEO

There are an infinite amount of methods of performing keyword research for SEO, and for newer practitioners, it can be difficult to know where to start. In this lesson, we’ll share with you the exact keyword research process we use to drive consistent organic traffic growth for our clients.

33 minutes

Key points you can
learn in this lesson.

Identifying Keywords

Learn the process of identifying valuable keywords for the core pages of your website

Users Search Process

Understand how users are searching for your services or product

Organizing Data With SEMRush

Use tools like SEMRush and Keyword Research Example Sheets to organize findings

Our key metrics increased. More importantly, we implemented a lot of new tactics and test scenarios, which will boost our company’s future prospects.
Dave McCue
Digital Marketing Manager at Allstate

Lesson Preview

In this section, we will be reviewing how to do keyword research for the core pages of your website. The purpose of this exercise is to understand how people are searching for your services or product, how many people are searching for it on a monthly basis, and analyze how competitive each term is in Google. 

I will first give context into the process, walk through the tools, perform keyword research live, and give you access to all of my templates. At the end of the lesson, you will have completed keyword research across all your services/ products and have matched the keywords to pages on your website. Lastly, we’ll show you how to get buy-in from other people on your team so that you’re able to leverage this keyword research effectively. 

What is keyword research?

Keyword research is the process of gathering data on queries that users are typing into a search engine. Common data points that are being gathered are search volume and keyword difficulty. Keyword research is commonly used to optimize core pages on a website or for discovering topics for a website’s blog. 

In this lesson, we will be identifying relevant keywords for the core pages of your website. The same principles can be applied to blog topic ideation. 

What is the history behind keywords and Google?

The Hummingbird update did change the landscape for how keywords are leveraged on a website. With this update, Google is looking more at providing results that match the intent of the searcher rather than trying to identify results that have a strong keyword match. Before, webmasters abused keywords by stuffing them within the content, titles, and metadata. 

Now, it is less about the title of your page, but the quality of content within the page. Google is looking for semantically relevant information to the query within your content. For example, I don’t need to remember the movie name, “John Wick” in order to find the movie within Google. Even if I type in “Reeves movie with the dog”, I get John Wick results. 

Google is smart enough to know my intent when all three of the following entities are added together: 

  • Reeves
  • Movie
  • Dog

While this update devalued things such as keyword stuffing, it did not change the value of the keyword research. If anything, it made keyword research even more important. The truth is you cannot rank for a keyword without a page that speaks towards the user’s intent. Therefore, you still need to do your keyword research to identify the different intents (keywords) that users have. The primary difference after this update is that now you must make sure you actually have good content on the page as well. 

Why is keyword research important?

Keyword research is the foundation of SEO. This should be the first thing you do after setting up your website on all your Google applications. As an SEO specialist, you can miss a lot of things but always make sure you know your keyword targets for your website. 

From your keyword research, you will be able to give your core pages the proper navigation coordinates in order to drive organic traffic. This process also leads to identifying new core page opportunities that give you, as the SEO, more opportunities to drive organic traffic to the website. 

Lastly, your keyword targets will help lead your content and link building strategies. 

What you’ll need:

There are many tools that you can use for keyword research. Here are some free options:

  • Google Keyword planner
  • UberSuggest
  • Google Trends

Here are some of my favorite paid options:

  • Moz Keyword Explorer
  • Ahrefs Keywords Explorer
  • SpyFu
  • SEMRush

In this lesson, we will be using SEMRush. Each tool is a little different, but the same principles apply across all of them. They each have competitiveness scores, related keywords, search volume, etc. Here is a link to SEMRush’s free trial. Sign up for the Guru free trial, it has all the features needed to walk through this lesson. 

Additionally, you will need the following template:

  • Keyword Research Template

Also, here is an example keyword research doc that you can use as you follow along:

  • Keyword Research Example

The Process:

Step 1: Create a Keyword Matrix

The Keyword Matrix is a great tool to help you organize all of the different service/product lines that you offer. When doing the research, you want to make sure that you don’t miss a combination of terms that describes what you do. 

  1. Copy the keyword research template
  2. Go to the “keyword matrix” tab

Step 2: Fill in Keyword Matrix template

The keyword Matrix template is a great tool to help you organize all of your different service/product lines. When doing the research, you want to make sure that you don’t miss a combination of terms that describes what you do. As you can see from the example above, you can test multiple combinations by going left to right. For example:

  • Best search engine optimization agency
  • Best search engine optimization company
  • Best search engine marketing agency
  • B2B search engine optimization agency
  • etc.

The best way to be thorough in this process is to scan your website’s core pages. Therefore, scan the website while performing the following steps in the keyword matrix.

  1. Fill in the head column.
    • In this column, we are adding our adjectives. These are terms that are at the beginning of your phrase that describe your services. 
    • As a best practice, I would always include “best” and “top.” These two terms are very common in every industry. For Directive, we are a search agency that services B2B, B2C, Enterprise, and International clients. Therefore, I have added those to the list.
    • Some other common ones that I have seen across various industries are:
      • Cloud
      • Affordable
      • Small
      • Red
      • Small business  
      • Organic
      • Mobile
      • Portable
      • Bulk 

2. Fill in the body columns.

    • In this section, we are adding our core services. I broke this out into two separate body columns for Directive because there are a lot of combinations of what we do within our service lines.  

    • With the structure above, you can make all types of combinations of terms such as: 
      • Search engine optimization
      • Search engine advertising
      • Search engine marketing 
    • Not all combinations will make sense like “digital optimization.” That is okay because we will just skip them in the research phase. 
    • Don’t forget to include acronyms.
      • In many industries, it is common to describe the services or products using acronyms. 
      • For digital marketing, we use acronyms quite often. Here are some common ones:

3. Fill in the tail column.

    • In this section, you won’t fill in what you do, but what you are. For Directive, you can describe what we are in multiple ways. We are a company, an agency, a services firm, etc.
    • The same goes for other industries as well. For a software company, you can describe yourself as a platform, application, system, etc. 
    • If you are an educational organization, you could refer to yourself as an academy, university, school, center, etc. 

4. Don’t forget the idea dump column

    • As we move along with our research process, you will come across different topics that “could” fit into what you do.
    • For instance, with Directive, you could say we are a lead generation company. SEO & PPC does generate leads. At the same time, there are many other services that generate leads. 
    • If it came down to ranking between “SEO agency” and “lead generation agency”, we would choose to rank for “SEO agency” 10 times out of 10. The good thing about SEO, unlike PPC, is that we don’t need to choose. Once we have a page for this term, it doesn’t cost us any money. Therefore, we might as well include it in our research.


Step 3: Perform Competitor Research

Competitive research is a very important step in this process. When coming up with your services and their adjectives, you might have missed some opportunities. By scanning a competitor’s website you can get new ideas to add to your keyword matrix.

  • For business owners and students:
    • Use the keyword matrix in this exercise. You don’t need to get buy-in from anyone so plugging it in directly into the matrix will save you time. 
  • For agencies & in-house marketers:
    • You will need to use the table in the “Competitors Research” tab

    • As an agency, we need to get buy-in and feedback from the client before we decide to invest a lot of time into researching these terms.
    • As an in-house marketer, you still need to get buy-in for the terms you choose. Sometimes, your target market searches your services in a way that you don’t necessarily see yourself. Sometimes there are grey areas and it helps to know where the competition lands in those grey areas. 
      • This is very common with software companies. They often don’t see themselves as software, but more of a cloud platform. That is nice and all, but the research will tell you that the market still sees them as a software provider. Therefore, we must include software in the language of our website.
  1. Choose a competitor.
    • When choosing a competitor, you must think about them as digital competitors. Often times, we get a list of competitors from a client and we cannot use it in our research. They are actually direct competitors offline, but these companies do not do much online. Therefore, they are nothing to measure against or build off of. 
    • The best way to ensure you have a good list of competitors is to plug their domain into SEMRush to see what their SEO metrics look like.

2. Check if they are a digital competitor:

    • Plug the domain into SEMRush

    • Check organic search performance:

-Traffic cost is a handy metric. It calculates how much they would be spending in Google Ads to generate the same traffic that they are generating from organic traffic. It calculates this by utilizing search volume, click-through-rate (CTR), and Google Ads estimated cost-per-click (CPC).

    • Check organic performance for a specific vertical:
      • Sometimes you have a competitor, who is massive and does everything, but you only compete on one of their product lines. The best way to measure their performance in your market is to filter their performance by keyword. 
      • Click on “advanced filters” > Set drop downs to “Include”, “Keyword”, “Containing” 
      • Plug in your main service line
    • Check organic performance:

    • Perform the same steps on another competitor until you have 2-3 solid digital competitors.


3. Scan one of the competitor’s websites for keyword opportunities:

    • For time’s sake, I only scan the homepage and core pages being linked out from the menu.
    • Remember, we are only trying to find keyword opportunities for the services we offer. Therefore, not every core page is relevant. For instance, if they have a security page about being GDPR compliant, don’t write down GDPR compliance as a keyword. That is just something that they have, not a service they offer.  
    • Mainly, I only scan the services pages. For my first competitor, it is
    • On this page, they have a section that lists out all of the services and sub-services. This is a jackpot for keyword opportunities as I now have keyword ideas on sub-services that I did not gather from my own site.

4. Input keyword opportunities into the competitor research tab:

    • When you find an opportunity like this, make sure to click on each page and gather all the keywords that refer to services/products. 
    • When I went through all the paid media pages, I found the following opportunities that I didn’t even think of before:

5. Apply the same process across all competitors:

    • After applying this method across all clients, I found some really good opportunities for more keywords in my research. 

6. For in-house marketers and agencies, this tab is ready to send to a client or internal team for review & approval. 

    • Instructions are available within the sheet for the client to score the relevance of each term. 

    • Once they have color-coded all the cells, you are ready for step 4. 
    • Now that you have received client feedback, you know what terms you don’t need to waste time on and the terms you should spend some extra time digging into. 

7. For business owners and students, you should have been able to decipher which terms were relevant as you went and placed them directly into the keyword matrix. 

    • You don’t need feedback because you are the person in charge.


Step 4: Perform Keyword Research

  1. Open up the keyword magic tool in SEMRush.


2. Plugin your first keyword into the search box.

    • I usually like to start with my top service offering. 

3. Once you click search, it will take you to this screen:

    • The keyword magic tool defaults to “broad match.” To get an explanation of each, read the next step.


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