Keyword research sounds like such a daunting task. What’s the point of researching a keyword anyway? Shouldn’t your natural marketing instincts tell you which keywords are most relevant to your business. Not quite…

Without quality keywords, found through effective keyword research, your search marketing campaigns (paid AND organic) will be completely misguided.

If people aren’t searching for your keywords then they are essentially useless. Search volume corresponds to interest, and without interest in your keywords, leads won’t be able to discover your ads or organic listings, visit your website, and turn into a paying customer.

On the other hand, if the keywords you’re trying to rank for or bid on are too popular, you might have a hard time getting on the SERP at all, or end up really overpaying for your ad clicks.

According to, Google search is responsible for driving a full third of internet referral traffic:

why do keyword research

And guess how people use Google search to find content and landing pages? Keywords.

Keywords are basically the building blocks of your business.

In this guide, I’ll walk you through the basics of keyword research, including why it’s important and how to do it right, with recommendations for tips and processes that will make your keyword research easier and more effective so you can drive more traffic to your site.

What Is Keyword Research?

Keyword research is the process of finding the search query strings that people use to search for information on a topic, as well as how often those keywords are used in search engines like Google and Bing. Keyword research is the best way to find new, relevant keywords to expand your paid and organic search marketing campaigns.

do your research

Keyword research can be conducted through a variety of tools that I’ll discuss in more detail below, but the main goal is to find the right search terms that have intent aligned with your business’s content and offerings, along with decent search volume.

In addition to search volume, other keyword metrics may be helpful when conducting research and prioritizing which keywords to target, such as cost-per-click (CPC), competition level, and your own site authority.

Why Is Keyword Research Important?

Google now processes over 2 trillion search queries per year, or 5.5 billion per day. That’s a whole lot of keywords!

Now, more than ever before, our economy is running on the internet. Businesses that cannot be found online will not succeed, and keyword research provides the starting point to understanding your buyer’s journey.

For digital marketers, these are the three areas where keyword research is most critical:

#1: For SEO

The first and most obvious reason we need keyword research is to optimize for organic search. Search engine optimization (SEO) helps Google bots crawl and index our websites to rank organically on the search engine results pages (SERPs). One of the primary ways that search engines decide what to rank is by crawling for keywords that show relevance between the user’s search query and the content on your website.

seo keyword research

While Google is frequently changing their algorithms, keywords are likely never going to lose importance.

#2: To Fuel Your Content Strategy

We all know that SEO and content go hand-in-hand. Without content on your website, strong SEO will not follow.

“Effective content strategies start with keyword research,” says Search Engine Land columnist Nate Dame. “Modern keyword research provides significant insight into what audiences want and need.”

Every single piece of content on your site, whether it be a 300-word blog post or 5,000-word guide, should be focused around a keyword that strikes the right balance between high search volume and competition.

#3: For Paid Campaigns

Marketers often think about SEO and content when referring to keyword research, but all of your paid campaigns should also be keyword focused. Whether it be your paid search ads, display ads, remarketing, or social media campaigns, all of these strategies need to be keyword focused.

keyword research for ppc

For example, with paid search you’re literally bidding on individual keywords. Keywords make up your ad groups, which make up your campaigns. If these keywords have low search volume, then your ads are going to get little or no traction. Also, if your keywords do not pertain to your target audience, you’re going to get the wrong people clicking on your ads, which wastes your precious budget.

The bottom line is that keyword research is key in all search marketing campaigns!

The Importance of Keyword Intent

Before we get into the logistics of how to conduct keyword research, it’s critical to mention the importance of keyword intent. WordStream’s Content Manager, Elisa Gabbert, recently wrote a thorough post on intent marketing, which she defined as “any kind of marketing that aims to meet an end user or prospect’s intent – that is, what they really want or need in the moment.”

keyword intent research

You can see why this would be important for keyword research, right? If you’re unable to understand the true intent of your keywords or if the keywords you’re targeting have the wrong intent that isn’t aligned with your business goals, then they are essentially useless.

Let’s take paid search as an example. The keywords “wedding cake” or “wedding cake ideas” show very different intent than “buy wedding cake in Boston” or even “wedding cake shops near me.” These two latter options have much higher commercial intent, meaning they indicate that the goal is to find a store and purchase a cake. People searching on those keywords are closer to the bottom of the funnel, the point of purchase.

Therefore, it makes sense to target commercial keywords with shopping ads, conversion-optimized landing pages and other content that makes it easy to buy.

The intent of higher-funnel, less commercial keywords might be better met with a blog post full of wedding cake ideas, or a Pinterest board.

Being able to truly understand your prospects’ intent is critical to being successful at keyword research and search marketing in general.

How to Get Started with Keyword Research

Now that you understand the importance of keyword research, where do you start? Here are two easy steps to get you off to a productive start!

Start thinking of the different categories and topics that pertain to your business. Start broad, and don’t worry about getting too specific right away.

For example, if you’re a bakery you might break down your topics by the types of baked goods you sell, like cakes, quiches, croissants, cupcakes, brownies, cookies, etc. It can help to use a Google document or excel spreadsheet and create tabs for each of these main topics you’ve brainstormed.

keyword research brainstorm

#2: Use Keyword Tools to Find Specific Keywords Within Each Topic

Alright, this is where the fun begins! You really need to put yourself in the shoes of your customer, and think how you would go about discovering your business if you were them. If you’re a marketer with little customer-facing interaction it can help to speak with your sales team to see the language that new leads typically use.

You can start with a simple brainstorm. Let’s go back to our bakery example for this one, focusing in on the “cakes” category. Since you make cakes for special occasions you might write down some keywords like “wedding cakes,” “affordable wedding cakes,” “stylish wedding cakes,” “summer wedding cakes,” etc. Then you may focus in on other occasions that you sell cakes for like birthdays or anniversaries. You’ll then recall that people often search for specific flavors like “red velvet” and “marble.” Oh, and location is important! You should add the keyword “near me” to the end of these searches, like “affordable wedding cakes near me.”

how to do keyword research

Should you stop there? NO! Instinct will only get you so far – it’s easy to miss whole pockets of relevant keywords that you should be targeting, or you may find that the keywords you think would drive traffic are so low-volume that they won’t get you anywhere. You need to use keyword tools to make sure you’re surfacing all the relevant keywords that should be in your content plan and search campaigns.

Type each of your main topics (“cakes,” “cookies,” etc.) into a keyword tool to get a list of related keywords, their associated search volume and other data. You can also type in any specific keywords from your brainstorm session to see what kind of volume they get.

Remember, if they’re far-fetched or too specific, keyword research tools will reveal that your keywords are not worth focusing on. On the other end of the spectrum, your keywords might be too broad, and result in super high search volume or a high level of competition. If you’re a small, local bakery, you wouldn’t want to compete with a global cookie company. Rather, your keywords should be more targeted around your location.

Keyword research tools will help you discover which keywords are worth investing in. The list of the top tools below will help you determine which ones to try first.

5 Favorite Keyword Research Tools

Where in the world should you be conducting keyword research? There are tons of tools out there, both free and paid, that can set you up for keyword research success. Here are five of our favorite keyword research tools.

#1: WordStream’s Free Keyword Tool

WordStream’s new and improved keyword research tool not only provides keyword ideas and search volume, it gives you the ability to filter by industry and country to get more targeted data.

wordstream keyword tool

Even better, if you connect your Google AdWords account, you’ll get personalized competition and CPC data based on your own business’s metrics, as well as an Opportunity Score that helps you prioritize where to start. A higher Opportunity Score represents a keyword with more volume but less competition – target those keywords first for the best, and fastest, results!

Once you’ve got results, you can get the full list of keywords and associated keyword data emailed to you for free.

#2: Google’s Keyword Planner

If you’ve got a Google AdWords account, then you’ve got access to Google’s free Keyword Planner. To navigate to this tool, log in to your AdWords account and click the “Tools” bar on the right.

There are lots of ways to use Keyword Planner for keyword research. You can:

  • Enter a broad topic to get specific keyword ideas
  • Upload an existing list of keywords to check their search volume, seasonal trends and other data
  • Enter a website URL (your own, or someone else’s) to see what keywords they are bidding on and ranking for

best keyword research tools

Here are more tips to help you make the most of Keyword Planner.

#3: Moz’s Keyword Explorer

If you’re looking to go down more a premium route for your keyword research, I’d recommend exploring Moz’s Keyword Explorer. You can explore their free version here or start a free trial of the paid tool to see if it’s worth the investment.

keyword explorer research

#4: SEMrush

SEMrush is another great tool that allows for extensive keyword research with both a premium paid and free version to try. The free version still provides very useful information, from organic search volume and CPC to competitive info and a list of organic search results for each keyword.

For more in-depth analysis with 10,000 results per report, you can upgrade to the paid version, but depending upon your goals the free version just may do the trick.

semrush keyword research

#5: Google!

Google itself is an underrated keyword research tool. You can start typing a keyword into Google to get more helpful suggestions. For example, see some of the keywords that appear when I type “wedding cakes” into Google.

google keyword research

“Wedding cake toppers” and “wedding cake ideas” could not only be keywords worth bidding on, but they could also be keywords worth creating additional content on. For instance, a blog post on “wedding cake ideas” or a comparison chart of “wedding cake prices.”

When you’re considering keywords to target, you can also use Google to see what’s already ranking. Get a sense of the competitive landscape. Ask yourself questions like:

  • Is the SERP highly commercial – i.e., are there lots of ads? Does it make more sense to enter the ad auction with an ad than try to rank organically?
  • Are the top-ranking sites much larger than you? (It’s hard to compete with the likes of the New York Times and Buzzfeed.)
  • Do the current results meet the intent of the keyword? If not, you could swoop in and beat them with a better answer to the question!

You should also look for SERP features like the “People also ask” box and related searches at the bottom of the SERP. Including these additional related keywords in your content can help you meet the searcher’s intent and help your content rank!

google for keyword research

A Word on Competitive Keyword Research

Don’t forget to put your spy gear on when conducting keyword research! It’s important not to forget about the competition when pursuing keywords found through keyword research.

For instance, when a keyword has very high search volume, it can often be seen as much more competitive. But how can you be sure your competitors are ranking for such terms? Well, as mentioned, one of the easiest ways is Google! Simply Googling the keywords you’re looking to target to see what is currently ranking is a great approach.

What about your paid search competitors? You can use the AdWords Auction Insights report to see how your main competitors are doing compared to you, in terms of impression share, average position and more.

auction insights

Once you know who you’re competing with, you can use a tool like WordStream’s Free Keyword Tool or SEMRush to see what keywords they’re ranking for. Just drop in their URL instead of a keyword or topic.

To gain back ground from your competitors in paid search, think about how you can be more compelling. For instance, you can add extensions to your ad or try writing more emotional, intriguing ad copy, which may entice searchers to choose your wedding cakes over the not-so-tasty cake shop down the street.

Here are some more tips on how to write ads that get high CTR (which in turn raises your Quality Score, and saves you money!).

spy time

Several of the tools covered above also include competitive analysis and insight into what keywords your competitors are ranking for, so take advantage of these competitive insight features when doing your keyword research.

Research for Question Keywords

One of the best ways to build brand trust and affinity is to provide great answers to your prospects’ burning questions.

Targeting questions allows you to get right at the problems your customers are having, in turn leading them to discover your business and engage with your content. Question keywords can also benefit you greatly in the organic search results. If your provide the highest quality answers to difficult questions, your credibility will rise, allowing you to rank higher on the SERPs.

So how do you find these ideal questions? What questions are your searchers asking? If you can figure this out, then you’ll have a long list of informative keyword phrases to incorporate into your SEO, paid search, and content strategy.

If you’re at a standstill when it comes to brainstorming questions, there are some really great keyword tools out there like Answer the Public. This awesome free tool, with a super weird homepage, works like so: Type in a keyword, and behold the beautiful visual that appears, with a circular display of questions grouped by the word they start with (where, which, who, how, why, etc.):

keyword research tools

If my intent was to sell wedding cakes, I could target some high-intent questions from this list, like “who sells wedding cakes” or “where to buy wedding cake.” You’ll also find higher-funnel questions that people in the market for a wedding cake need help with, like “what size wedding cake to feed 200.”

The next step would then be using one of your keyword research tools to get search volume data for these questions, as well as other helpful metrics to ensure the keywords are worth pursuing. One strategy would be to target as many of these keywords as possible in a single “ultimate guide” type resource to planning your wedding cake.

Keyword Research for PPC

Let’s take a moment to review some of the specific considerations related to keyword research for PPC, or paid search marketing. Keyword research for paid search can be a bit more daunting, since your budget is on the line. In order to spend it wisely, and actually see an ROI from the keywords you bid on, keep these four tips in mind when conducting keyword research for paid campaigns.

#1: Research the Associated Costs for Each Keyword

All of the keyword tools outlined in this post typically include metrics around the cost-per-click (CPC) associated with each word. Keeping cost in mind will help you determine if certain keywords are in or out of budget for your upcoming campaigns.

most expensive keywords

You want to ensure you’re able to bid high enough to rank in the first 0-3 slots on Google, but not so high that you’re paying an absurd amount for one single click. Pay attention to these metrics when researching and deciding on keywords for your ad groups.

#2: Make Sure to Do Negative Keyword Research

Conducting negative keyword research is just as important as regular keyword research when it comes to PPC, because if you’re not excluding irrelevant words you could be wasting money on irrelevant clicks. You’d be amazed how much money you can waste this way. This is especially important when using broad or even phrase match types.

Tools like WordStream Advisor’s QueryStream will help you see what your searchers are typing in to reach your ads, and from there you can exclude the irrelevant words.

Also, just typing your keyword into Google and seeing what appears as suggestions to search for can help you identify negative keyword terms. For instance, if I’m selling cakes, I’m probably not interested in showing up for any “recipe” queries, since I’d have to pay for those low-intent clicks.

#3: Bid Highest on Commercial Intent Keywords

Your goal in advertising on Google is likely not just to drive clicks. If it is, well then ignore this tip!

However, if you’re actually looking to target the most interested and qualified searchers, driving more conversions and sales, you should focus most of your budget on commercial intent keywords – such as those containing words like “buy now,” “discount,” “free shipping,” brand names, and any other terms that demonstrate the searcher is ready to make a purchase.

While you may still need to target keywords outside of this bucket, I’d recommend allocating a higher budget to keywords with high commercial intent since they’re the most likely to have the highest return.

buy now

#4: Group Your Keywords Properly

Once you’ve identified your high-intent, commercial, appropriately priced keywords, you need to group them in order to configure your campaign. Small groupings of tightly related keywords is how you should approach structuring your ad groups. If you have a long list of keywords, and this task seems daunting, check out WordStream’s Free Keyword Grouper to help you out! Just drop in the keywords the it does the work for you.

Never again be lost for words

Keyword research might seem like a daunting task, but it’s a critical one, and with an organized method and the right tools, you’ll be finding the perfect keywords in no time!

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