Keyword_ResearchI’ve written a lot about inbound marketing on this blog. There are posts about what inbound marketing is, how to build an inbound marketing strategy, and tips on creating great content at the top, middle, and bottom of the funnel. If you’ve read any of these – or if you are familiar with inbound marketing – then you know that it all starts with getting found online.

Today’s buyers don’t behave like they used to. I always use the example of buying a car. Instead of spending your weekend going from dealership to dealership getting the hard sell, just about everyone who buys a car starts online and waits until they know the exact make, model and trim package they want (and the price they are willing to pay for it!) before they visit a dealer. This change has come about because the balance of power in the sales relationship has shifted from the seller to the buyer and buyers are now more well educated than ever. We can go online and compare products or services, read reviews, and get recommendations from friends and colleagues. In short, buyers don’t want to be sold to – they want to BUY.

Companies that recognize this shift and respond accordingly are going to thrive in the new economy. Those that continue to rely upon old and outdated, sales-driven approaches will struggle. It’s that simple.

Where to begin?

To win business in our buyer-driven world, you need to get found online and that means being visible in search engine results. Why? A recent study by Fleishman-Hillard found that 89 percent of consumers turn to Google, Bing or another search engine to find information on products, services or businesses prior to making purchases. The best way to position yourself as the provider of choice is to get in front of buyers in the early stages of their decision making process when they are researching and self-educating.

To do that, you’re going to have to rank – and rank high – in search engine results. It’s not enough to be in the top 10. Research by online ad network Chitika reveals that the top 3 listings in Google search results get a 61.5% of traffic and the number one result gets a whopping 33%!

How do you get your website into these top positions? The key is to consistently produce lots of keyword-rich content. This is the whole theory behind inbound marketing. Produce great content that answers your buyers’ questions and solves their problems, make sure it is keyword optimized, publish it on your website, and you’ll get found by people looking to buy what you sell.

That’s the theory. Putting that theory into practice requires a solid keyword research strategy that will help you to identify what words and phrases your buyers  are actually using to find you online.

Getting Started with Keyword Research

Keyword research is, very simply, the process that marketers use to find the words and phrases that people are using to search for things online. This information is then used to optimize online content (from website copy to blogs, etc.) so that it gets found by search engines.

It stands to reason that before you can do research on the words and phrases your buyers are using to search online, you need to understand who your buyers are. The best way to do this is to create buyer personas – detailed profiles of your ideal customer that include information about their goals, likes and dislikes, challenges, priorities, etc. Armed with this information, you can get use the following tools and techniques to determine the words and phrases that they use to search for information online.

Short v. Long Tail Keywords

Before you dive into your keyword research, make sure you understand the difference between long and short tail keywords. This is an important concept when it comes to search engine optimization. Short tail keywords are the short words or keyphrases that you typically think of when you identify keywords. For example, if you are doing keyword research for an insurance agency, you might list words such as insurance, homeowners insurance, workers compensation, car insurance, etc. amongst your priority keywords. While these would indeed be relevant to your business, they are very broad and also very hard to rank for. Think about it. If you’re trying to get in the top three results on Google for “car insurance”, you’ll be competing with the 800 pound gorillas of the industry. Companies like Geico, Progressive, Esurance and State Farm have deeper pockets and teams of people dedicated solely to producing online content and improving the company’s search rankings.

The other problem with this approach is that it doesn’t necessarily yield the best leads. If you are a car insurance company serving Washington, DC and you rank in the top three for “car insurance” on Google, you’re going to get clicks from people all over the U.S. (and potentially the world) who are looking for car insurance. This is fine if you’re targeting such a broad audience, but if what you really want are car insurance buyers in Washington, DC, you’re better off targeting the keyphrase “Washington DC car insurance company” or the like.

But let’s take it one step further. I would argue that most people these days have changed the way they search – something I like to call the “Siri effect.” Whereas we used to search for “Washington DC car insurance company”, we now talk to search engines like they are people (think, “Siri, what is the best car insurance company in Washington, DC?” or “Siri, which car insurance company in Washington, DC has the best prices?”). This often means that our searches come in the form of a question or a full sentence.

This is what long tail keywords are all about. If I type “how can I save on car insurance for my teen driver” into Google and you happen to have a page on your website or a blog with that exact title, odds are that you are going to be the top result in my search. And if you’re the top result, odds are that I’m going to click on it and go to your website and voila, you have gotten found online!

Keyword Research Tools and Techniques

The most effective way to undertake keyword research is to start by identifying your short tail keywords and then build on those to develop a thorough list of long tail keywords. There are a number of tools you can use to help you do this.

1. Google Adwords Keyword Tool

I always begin my keyword research with Google Adwords. Google used to have a public keyword tool that anyone could use to identify the words and phrases people are using to get to a particular website or web page, but in recent years that tool was removed and replaced by the Adwords Keyword Planner. To use the Planner, you must have a Google Adwords account. If you do, simply log in and click Tools > Keyword Planner on the menu. Then choose “Search for new keyword and ad group ideas.” Here, you will be given the choice to enter a product or service keyword (car insurance), a landing page (ex. The car insurance page on your website), or a product category (insurance) and specify things like geographic targeting (do you want to see what everyone in the world is searching on this topic, or just the US?), timeframe (the last twelve months or the last 30 days?) and negative keywords (terms you DON’T want information on). Plug all this in and Google will tell you what people are typing into its search engine, how many people are searching for that phrase, how competitive it is to rank for it, etc.


If I were doing keyword research for my own company, I would start by entering in my own URL, but would then research my competitors to see the keywords people are using to find them online. It’s always interesting to see if there are gaps in my keywords and to identify areas that I could improve my ranking.

In addition to searching by URL, I would also search certain targeted keywords or phrases to see if they reveal additional search terms that should be targeted. For example, you could search professional liability insurance to find out what related terms people use. Here’s what a Google Keyword Planner search might look like for my company…


I like to export the results of my Google Keyword Planner research to an Excel spreadsheet (Google makes it really easy to do this) and then sort the results by how competitive the terms are and how much search traffic there is. The terms with high search volumes and low competitiveness scores are the low hanging fruit of the search engine optimization world.

In addition to Google Keyword Planner, be sure to check out Google Trends. This is one of my favorite tools and allows you to see how often a particular search term is used compared to other similar terms. I like to use Google Keyword Planner when I’m not sure whether buyers use the same terms that my clients use when they refer to their services. Quintain is a good example of this. We refer to the service we deliver as “inbound marketing” but you’ll also hear people call it “content marketing.” There are some subtle differences between the two but it’s interesting to run these terms through Google Trends to see how often each is searched. Turns out content marketing is by far a more popular term. Knowing this, I have a decision to make – stick with “inbound marketing” and appeal to a very targeted but niche audience, or use “content marketing” to get in front of more people? We generally stick with inbound marketing because we believe the leads we get are better with that term, but that might not be what everyone would do in this case.


The bottom line? Information is power, and Google Trends provides incredibly useful information!

3. Competitive Keyword Analysis

If you’re really curious what your competitors are doing to rank so well in Google, there is a simple way to find out. Go to their website, right click on the main content area of the page and click “view source”.


Enter a command find function (command + f) and then enter “keywords” and use the arrow or Next tab to advance through search results on that page. You’ll find the meta title, description and keywords that they’ve added to attract the attention of search engines. Pay particularly close attention to the meta title and description. The title holds the most sway in terms of how search engines rate the page, while the description is designed to get searchers to click on the result.


You can do this type of competitive keyword analysis for your competitors’ homepages or the interior pages of their website and there is no limit to the number of searches you can perform. Compare the results you find with the keyword analysis from Google Keyword Planner and Google Trends to see if you’ve missed anything or need to reprioritize the keywords you’re targeting.

4. Turn On Your Listening Ears

You heard me right! One of the best keyword research tools is actually sitting right on your head. Use your ears and listen to the questions your buyers are asking because odds are, they are the same questions that they’re entering into search engines. Write those questions down and keep a running list. Each one of those questions contains valuable long tail keywords. Build your content around them, and you will get found.

Don’t try to tackle this alone. It’s best to pull in as many customer-facing employees as you can so that, as a group, you can brainstorm the questions that are frequently asked about your product or service. I’ve done this exercise a number of times and typically come away with 50+ topics or questions.

What’s Next?

With so many tools at your disposal, it would be easy to get so wrapped up in keyword research that you forget the ultimate goal – to produce great content and get found online. I don’t see keyword research as a one-time thing. Get started, identify your top keywords, and then focus on creating content that answers your buyers’ questions and incorporates those keywords in a way that is natural, not forced. That is how you will get found.

Once you’ve made progress with your inbound marketing strategy and you start to see results, go back and revisit your keyword research to see if it needs to be adjusted. This is where a tool like HubSpot comes in handy. Use HubSpot or an equivalent marketing software tool to track how you’re ranking for your target keywords and where there are opportunities for improvement. You can also see if you happen to be ranking for keywords that you WEREN’T tracking but should be.

Do you have some other tools you like to use for keyword research? I would love it if you’d take a moment and share them with me in the comments!