As was explained in the previous article, SEO keyword selection needs to take into consideration a number of strategic factors. But how do you even get started figuring out where to start your keyword research?

Today's blog post aims to give you some tools for building a keyword list. The post covers the following topics:

  1. Brainstorming
  2. Keyword Discovery Tools
  3. Evaluating Search Volume
  4. Keyword Competition
  5. Putting it all together

Don't let the number of available tools intimidate you. You can pick and choose which tools to use based on how many terms you're researching and how much time you have. The more thought you put into targeting your content for the highest-value keywords, however, the more sustainable traffic you will be able to drive over the long term.c

Start Brainstorming

The very first place to start with building your keyword seed list is your own knowledge about what your content is about and what content you have the ability to create. Take an inventory of your assets and write down all the different phrases you can think of to describe them. Don’t over-think it – just start writing down everything that comes to mind like a word association exercise.

Synonyms are a good place to start, but don't limit yourself to a thesaurus; part of this exercise is also about discovering related concepts.

For example, if you had content about this summer's oil spill story and you thought in terms of variations of the same phrase, you might realize there are opportunities to optimize for:

  • Gulf oil spill
  • Gulf oil leak
  • Louisiana oil spill
  • BP oil spill
  • BP oil leak
  • Deepwater Horizon disaster
  • BP disaster
  • Oil spill disaster

But what about thinking a bit more creatively and looking for ways to capitalize on related search traffic like:

  • Exxon Valdez spill
  • Offshore drilling
  • Drilling moratorium
  • Louisiana economy
  • Katrina recovery efforts
  • BP safety record
  • Oil company executives
  • Gulf seafood industry

These are just some obvious related concepts and you can certainly keep going. Once you get to the evaluation phase of the keyword research, you'll start to trim your list back down, so don't get too narrowly focused during the brainstorming stage.

Similarly, you may not have the ability to create content to support SEO efforts for all the great high-value terms you uncover during brainstorming; this first phase is just for helping you uncover high-value terms, and the exercise is a great way to build a strong seed list.

Action item: Put all your terms into an Excel file. (Tip: If you're researching terms for a large number of pages, you may want to create separate lists for each keyword family, and create a separate Excel tab for each grouping.)

Explore Keyword Discovery Tools

Once you've exhausted all the ideas you can think of off the top of your head, you can turn to some of the many free tools that exist to discover how search engine users actually discover content. Use these tools to uncover more keyword variants you wouldn't have thought of on your own.

The Wonder Wheel

Want to know what keywords Google thinks are related to yours? Use this as a brainstorming tool for discovering relevant connections you might have overlooked.

Try it.

You can access the Wonder Wheel from any Google search result by expanding "more search options" in the left-hand column of the search results page.

This tool has been discontinued.

Google’s Suggested Terms/Bing Related Searches/Yahoo’s Also Try

All three major search engines make suggestions to users about search refinements. These recommendations to search engine users about related searches double as useful hints about related keywords a content creator might consider optimizing for.

See screenshots below to see how Google, Yahoo and Bing make recommendations for search refinements:

Tip: Try Soovle to see recommendations from across different services

The tilde search

By adding a tilde (~) in front of any keyword, you expand your search to include synonyms. The related terms are highlighted in bold.


Google Analytics/Google Webmaster Tools

Your analytics tools will tell you what keywords are already driving traffic to your site. (If you use Google Analytics, you'll find this data under Traffic Sources > Keywords.)

By itself, this may not be useful information because the terms that already drive traffic may not be ones you want to focus on. In theory, these data would reveal terms you’re already ranking for, rather than terms you should be ranking for; however, by combining info from your analytics with other tools, you could discover some low-hanging fruit.

For example, if you’re seeing significant traffic from relevant terms, but you don’t have Top 10 rankings for those terms, this presents an opportunity to dramatically increase the volume of traffic to content you already have, simply by moving up in the rankings a few spots.

(This is because users overwhelmingly click on search results at the top of the first page. The higher your position on the page, the bigger your share of that search traffic would usually be. More details on that later.)

Conversely, if your site ranks in the Top 3 results* for particular phrases but you're not seeing any organic traffic in Google Analytics for those terms, this might not be a particularly useful term for you and you can switch the focus of your optimization effort.

*Make sure that you're not looking at Personalized Results, which might give you a false indication of your rankings as other visitors might see them.

Google's Keyword Tool

Google's keyword tool, even with its many faults, has one big thing going for it: Google has more data on search engine user behavior than any other company in the world. Type a few (related) phrases into the Google Keyword Tool and hit the "Search" button; you'll get back a list of search terms related to your original phrases. These suggestions are based on Google's proprietary data.

Action item: Take the new keyword phrases and combinations you've discovered through this process and add these terms to your existing Excel list(s).

Tools for Evaluating Relative Search Volume

Once you've built a robust seed list, you'll want to identify your priority terms. This step starts with finding relative search volumes for the terms in your list.

To do that, we're going to go back to Google's AdWords keyword tool.

Google's free AdWords tool is probably the most user-friendly tool for evaluating whether a search term has any search traffic, but take their data with a grain of salt. This tool is designed for AdWords advertisers (those buying "sponsored" positions in the box at the top or along the right) – and the data skews heavily toward terms they can sell ad inventory against – so don't take the numbers as absolute gospel; use them to evaluate relative importance and supplement the data with a healthy dose of common sense.

Go to Google's keyword tool now
(if the link doesn't work, just do a Google search for keyword research tool)

Steps for using this tool:

  1. Copy-paste your keyword list into the Traffic Estimator tool,
  2. Hit "Search"
  3. Change "Match Type" in the left column to "exact match" (Important!)
  4. Export the resulting file

Other keyword discovery/comparison tools you might like try:

All of the above tools will have allowed you to do two things: 1) discover a broad range of relevant terms that you could optimize for, and 2) prioritize which terms you actually want to pursue based on how much potential traffic they could drive.

So now you have a file of all the keywords you've brainstormed and their relative search volumes. You could stop right there and have some pretty interesting data, but one last bit of information is going to complete the big picture – what's the competition like for these terms?

Evaluating Competition

As we mentioned in the previous blog post, you don't just want to pick keyword terms based solely on their search volume.

Remember, the predicted search volume tells you how much total traffic there might be for a keyword phrase, but to see even a portion of that traffic end up on your site, your site needs to show up at the top of the results for searches on that term. That's where competition (and relevancy) comes into play. Usually, there is a fairly direct relationship between the search volume for a term and the competition for that term; the more people are searching for a term, the more sites will want to rank for that term, the more difficult it can be to compete in that crowded field. However, there are often opportunities to find keyword phrases that have strong volume and relatively less competition – that's the sweet spot you're looking for.

The best quick-and-dirty way to evaluate relative competition is to use an advanced search operator called "allintitle"; this will tell you how many pages in Google's index contain your words in the Title tag, and is a good indicator of how many pages are optimizing for this particular phrase (i.e., how many pages are in direct competition with you).

To do that, go to Google and type: "allintitle:[keyword]" (without the quotes). Hit enter to get the results for that query. Right below the search box, it'll say "About X results", where X is a proxy for the number of pages you're competing with.

Compare the number of "allintitle" results for a few of the phrases on your seed list to see which terms have less competition.

There is no hard and fast number at which a term is "too competitive" to go after; weigh the potential traffic against the level of competition and pick a combination of terms that seem to make sense to you. If in doubt, ask your program manager for feedback.

Action item: Take the keyword terms you think you're going to go after and check the allintitle competition for those terms. Create a new column in your spreadsheet for "allintitle competition" and add this data in the rows for your selected terms.

(Tip: you don't need to do this for the least competitive terms, only your "big money" phrases. And don't do too many of these searches one right after the other, or Google might block you from doing more searches on the grounds that you look like you're sending automated queries.)

Putting it All Together: The Beauty of Spreadsheets

If you've been following the Action Items in the above steps, you should now have a fairly robust spreadsheet for each of your potential terms that you can refer to throughout your optimization/content development process.

Highlight those phrases in your spreadsheet that have a good volume of search traffic and a moderate amount of competition (and for which, of course, you have relevant content). These are your priority phrases.

Congratulations, you now have a well-researched list off of which to base a solid keyword strategy.

Tips for Brainstorming Keywords

  • Tip #1: The best tool for brainstorming is your own brain. Don't rely too heavily on tools because they are limited in their ability to make logical connections and to evaluate what terms fit your content strategy.
  • Tip #2: Maximize your Long Tail by creating longer phrases out of your main phrases; making three-word terms out of two-word terms helps terms complement rather than compete with each other. Something as simple as adding terms to the end of your primary phrase could help you generate new SEO keyword ideas that are probably already contained within your content. Example, take your phrase and add another word like "facts", "photos", "video", "myths", "games" or "quotes" to create a new unique phrase to target.
  • Tip #3: Do a search for your target terms, see what sites rank at the top for those terms, then see what other terms those pages are also optimizing for (e.g., what related words are in the title tag, in the text of the page, in the text of pages that are linked from the well-ranked page, etc).

If you have other ideas or examples of how you've approached keyword research, please share them in the comments.

In the next post in our keyword research series, we'll talk about what to do with your keywords you've chosen; in other words, how to optimize your pages for your target terms .

1 Comment

  1. Melanie Phung AUTHOR

    Here's another great article about picking the best phrases to target: