Google’s Hummingbird update made quite a ripple in the search engine marketing world by introducing a more conversation-focused approach to search engine, but it did not completely revoke the relevance of keywords. Conducting keyword research for SEO is still as important as ever.

While there is no shortage of decent paid SEO keyword research tools out there, these tools are usually outside the budget of a startup. This guide will show you how you can painlessly conduct keyword research with free tools.

Tools you will need:

  • Microsoft Excel
  • Google Keyword Planner (Google AdWords account is required, though you don’t need to give your credit card information to use Keyword Planner)
  • Supplement free keyword research tools (you can find them here)

Before we go into details, allow me to paint you a picture of the end goal. Ultimately, what we are trying to get out of this exercise is a manageable list of keywords that accomplish the following:

  • Realistic chance to rank on the 1st page of Google (both in short-term and long-term)
  • Relevant to your business enough to be able to convert searchers into paying customers
  • Can positively impact your business’ bottom line

Now let’s get started.

Keywords Discovery

The first step is to expand our keyword repertoire to include as many keywords as we can, without evaluating them.

I’m sure you already have some ideas of words people search to find your business. Let’s say you own an eCommerce business selling pre-owned designer bags, the first term that comes to your mind might be “pre-owned designer bags” or even “second hand designer bags’. Add them to the list.

Think up different variations of these terms. You should absolutely include your company name, brand, product names (“pre-owned LV bags”), and keywords about problems being solved (“high luxury bags at affordable prices”).

Don’t forget to add your locations to the keywords if your business targets specific geographic regions. For example, if you own a direct marketing agency in Chicago, “direct marketing agency in Chicago” should definitely be on your list of keywords.

At this stage, give no attention to the quality of keywords. Don’t worry, we will be combing them through later.

To further expand your list, you might want to brainstorm with your team and jot down every idea that comes to mind. Your employees on the “front lines” (ex: your Customer Services rep and Sales team) should also have insights into what types of terms people use.

After you run out of ideas, it might help to talk to your clients and ask them what keyword phrases they would use to find your business. They might surprise you and tell you that they prefer googling specific types of bags like “totes”, “wallets”, “clutches” rather than the generic term “bags”.

You should have a decent sized list of keywords by now. We will lengthen it further by using free keyword research tools. I strongly recommend using Google Keyword Planner for this purpose. If you haven’t already, you need to create a Google AdWords account to access Keyword Planner, though you don’t need to run live ads to take advantage of the tool.

Let’s get back to our pre-owned designer bags e-tailer example and see how we can use Google Keyword Planner to uncover more keywords for this niche business.

Once you are on the Keyword Planner homepage, click on “Search for new keyword and ad group ideas”, and the following table will pop up. Let me walk you through it.

search for new keyword and ad group ideas

Your product or service: put all your existing keywords in this field.

Your landing page: if you have a webpage that you want to extract keyword ideas from, include it in here.

Your product category: specifying a product category will prevent the keyword tool from generating keywords that aren’t related to your industry.

The “Targeting” section presents an opportunity to narrow down your keyword suggestions so they will be more closely aligned with your buyer personas’ demographics. Be as specific as you can about the locations and languages restrictions that apply to your business. If you own a retail shop in Berrie, Ontario, it wouldn’t make much sense to target “All locations”.

Negative keywords are a great way to weed out unwanted words. Going back to our example of pre-owned designer handbags, I would include the words “free” and “expensive” as negative keywords so that any combinations of keyword phrases that includes any of those two words will be excluded from the suggestions.

Since the date range doesn’t affect keywords, feel free to use the default option “show avg. monthly searches for: Last 12 months”. Similarly, you can pretty much ignore most of the “Customize your search” options since they tend to be overly limiting, which is the opposite of what we want at this point.

The filled form looks like this for the fictitious pre-owned designer bags business:

search for new keyword and ad group ideas example

After I click on “Get ideas”, the Keyword Planner has shown me this:

Keyword Research Results Using Google AdWord

The keywords suggestions are grouped into ad groups. If you prefer to see the list of keywords instead, click on the “Keywords ideas” tab near the top of the page.

By now you should have an abundance of keywords to work with. There are a few alternatives to Google Keyword Planner that you might want to try, including some that offer competitive intelligence.

Once you have expanded your list as much as possible (it’s not crazy to have thousands of keywords at this point), you can proceed to evaluate these keywords and trim the list down to a manageable selection.

Keywords Evaluation

Now you must rank the keywords on your list based on their overall merit. Like previously mentioned in the beginning of this post, we want keywords that do the following:

  • Have realistic chance to rank on 1st page of Google (both in short-term and long-term)
  • Are relevant enough to convert people into customers
  • Can positively impact your business’ bottom line

We will be evaluating our list of keywords along the following metrics:

  1. Search volume
  2. Level of competition
  3. Keyword relevance
  4. Stage of buying cycle (SOBC)

Please open a new Excel spreadsheet and make the following 6 columns: Keywords, Search Volume, Competitiveness, Relevancy, SOBC, and KEI.

You might be asking: what is KEI? We will get to that in a moment.

In the “Keywords” column, fill it up with all the keywords that you have gathered.

To find the respective search volume for each keyword, you have to go back to our trusty Google Keyword Planner tool. This time, instead of “Search for new keyword and ad group ideas”, click on “Get search volume for a list of keywords or group them into ad groups”.

Now place all your keywords in the search bar. Make sure to use exact match type in your search, you can do it by putting brackets [ ] around each keyword.

Keyword research - search volume

Click on the “Get search volume” button and Google will give you the values for “Avg. monthly searches” for all your keywords. These are your search volumes.

Keyword Research Search Volume Example

The “Competitiveness” column is not the same as the “Competition” column in your Keyword Planner results. The latter only applies to paid search, not SEO.

There are some great paid tools that analyze keyword competitiveness in depth and with great accuracy, but you can also use this rule of thumb below to determine the competitiveness of each keyword:

  • 100,000 pages in SERPs*: Easy
  • 100K –1 Million pages in SERPs: Relatively Easy
  • 1M –10 Million pages in SERPs: Moderately Competitive
  • 10M –100 Million pages in SERPs: Competitive
  • Over 100 Million pages in SERPs: Extremely Competitive

*SERP stands for Search Engine Results Page

The actual values of the competitiveness precisely correspond to the SERPs for each keyword.

Keyword Research Competitiveness Example

For the “Relevancy” column, your subjective judgement and good business sense are required. Based on your knowledge and understanding of your business, you can utilize a simple low-mid-high scale to assign relevancy rank to your keywords.

Keyword Research Relevancy Example

Buyers typically go through these steps in their buying process: Awareness – Interest – Desire – Action. Through educated guess, we can deduce the stage of buying cycle (SOBC) people are at by looking at their search queries.

In the Awareness stage, people would search for broad terms like “tablets” or “marketing automation”, aiming to self-educate on a general topic.

Once their interest is piqued, their search queries become a little more specific and navigational in nature (ex: “iPad” or “marketing automation software”).

In the Desire stage, they already know what kind of products or services they want and are searching for the best solution by reading reviews and comparing prices (ex: “which generation of iPad is the best” or “top 5 marketing automation softwares”).

Then they move on to Action, when they know exactly what they want to buy and are ready to make a purchase (ex: “iPad Mini for sale” or “Hubspot marketing software”).

Obviously, keywords in the Desire and Action stages are more desirable because buyers in those stages are closer to convert.

Keyword Research SOBC Example

Now that we are done collecting data, it’s time to calculate the KEI for each keyword. KEI stands for “Keyword Effectiveness Index”, and can be calculated using the formula below:

KEI = Search Volume/Competitiveness

Take advantage of the many Excel features to compute the KEIs and sort them from largest to smallest.

Keyword Research KEI Example

Broadly speaking, the higher the KEI, the more desirable the associated keyword is. It makes perfect sense: we want keywords that have a large search volume but low competition, so we can easily rank for these terms that can generate a healthy dose of traffic to our site. However, because KEI does not take into account relevancy and SOBC, it is not the be all and end all measure. For instance, “bags” has a relatively high KEI, but from experience we know that people searching for this term are nowhere near ready to buy, which makes “bags” not as desirable as it seems.

Carefully analyze each keyword on your Excel sheet to narrow down your long list to a manageable number. Remember, we can only realistically rank for 2-3 terms per page, that ought to give you an idea how many keywords you can rank for, given the size of your website.

Make sure that there is a good mix of short terms (also called head terms) and long-tail keywords in your final list. We want to ensure both short-term gratification and long-term success.

You should also use tools to spy on your competitors’ keywords, make sure that your final list contains both original terms and some desirable terms that your competitors are also trying to rank for.

“Sobriety Check” (Optional but recommended step)

Before you invest 9 months to 1 year of your time and resources optimizing your site for your list of chosen keywords, if you are so inclined, you can put your keywords to a real test using Google AdWords. See if those keywords are indeed converting by testing them with real data. You will be able to draw pretty strong conclusions after getting 500 impressions per keyword.

The truth is, you can analyze and speculate as much as you want, but actual data results from your keywords are the ones that really matter and should form the basis of your decisions.

Now that the research is done, you can start implementing these keywords. We will get on that topic another time.

This post was originally posted on Flora Pang Startup Marketing blog.