Keyword research is an important part of SEO. It helps you learn more about what your ideal customers are looking for when they search the internet.
Good keyword research can help you identify topics, sub-topics, related topics, phrasing, pain points and more. When you know this information, you can target your customers more effectively by presenting the information they need, in a way they relate to. This increases your chance of making sales.
But when you start, unless your business is very niche, you’ll find that your keyword research throws up hundreds – if not thousands – of potential keywords. It’s not possible or advisable to use all of these, so how do you pick a small handful that are going to help you be seen by the right people? That’s what this guide is all about.
Table of Contents
What is a keyword?
A keyword is any word or phrase that a user enters into a search engine such as Google. This can be entered in the traditional way by typing, or via speaking into a voice assistant such as Alexa. Keywords can also be searched using features such as Google’s “related searches”, which provides users the option to click on a similar keyword and therefore explore a topic further.
Why keyword research?
Keyword research helps link your content with users so that they can find information – or a product or service – they’re looking for, and so that you can gain a customer.
Keywords are inserted into your website copy (aka text) to help search engines identify what your website is about. This in turn – along with other good SEO practices – increases your site’s chance of being shown to relevant users, who hopefully click through and – either immediately or eventually – purchase from you.
How to do initial keyword research
Before reading on, you should read my beginner’s guide to doing keyword research for free. This will give you a good starting point and help you identify a long list of possible keywords to use on your site. Then come back here to narrow your list down to a focused handful of phrases.
The important thing to remember when you’re narrowing down your list of keywords is to remain focused on those that are going to drive traffic and sales. It’s easy to argue that almost any keyword has the potential to bring at least one or two visitors to your site. But that will leave you with an overwhelmingly long list of phrases. And trying to insert too many keywords into your text is called keyword stuffing – a black hat technique that will negatively affect your SEO.
We are selecting quality over quantity.
How to narrow down your list of keywords
Remove irrelevant keywords
Go through your entire list of keywords and remove those that are irrelevant to your site. They could be brand searches for other businesses, related to areas that you don’t cover, or about a completely unrelated topic or niche.
If you’re not sure about the intention behind a keyword (i.e. what the user wants to find when they search), then open Google in a browser that’s been cleared of cookies and history. Search for the keyword and see what results come up.
If the resulting websites closely related to your own site, then the user searching that keyword is looking for a website similar to yours. If not, then you can exclude it from your list.
One of the first thing you will find from your long list of keywords is that there are a lot of similar phrases. Keyword research will throw up different ways that users search for the same thing, or different sub-topics they’re searching around the same subject.
Grouping these similar phrases together is called clustering, and it’s a good way of breaking down your work into smaller lists that area easier to analyse and manage. A simple way to do this is to open a spreadsheet and create a new tab for each topic cluster. Then add the grouped keywords as a list onto the relevant tab.
When clustering, look out for phrases that mean the same thing, or phrases that have a similar intention. That means that one user may be using different words to another user, but are ultimately looking for the same information.
If you have a really long list of initial keywords, you might find it easier to start by clustering into broad topics. You can then look at breaking these down further if you need to.
From this process, you will find some topics may only have a handful of keywords, while other still have hundreds.
Assign keyword clusters to pages
Each page on your website should target at least one keyword.
Remember that each individual page is there to help a user in one way or another. So if you can’t link a page to something users are searching, then – in most cases – the page probably isn’t required.
Note: Exceptions to this rule include contact pages, which are necessary but don’t usually require a keyword, and pages such as website terms and conditions.
Make a list of all the pages on your website. If your site is small, you can just write them down from the menu. For larger websites, it may be easier to extract a list from your sitemap or from a free tool such as Google Search Console’s Indexing section.
Once you have a list of pages, compare it with your keyword clusters and assign a cluster to each page.
You may find at this stage that you have clusters that could match or part-match with numerous pages. In this case, you should break down your clusters even further.
For example, an online clothing store may have pages for All Dresses, Summer Dresses, Cocktail Dresses, and Mini Dresses. If you only have one topic cluster for dresses, then look at breaking it down further so that you have a cluster for each page.
If you have a keyword that could go on multiple pages, decide which it matches best and assign to that cluster. For example, a general phrase such as buy dresses online would suit any page, but would be best on the more general All Dresses page. Whereas summer dresses online is looking for something more specific so would be better on the Summer Dresses page.
Matching clusters to pages like this can also help identify additional pages to add to your website.
Search Volume vs. Relevance
Now you have smaller clusters of keywords, its time to really hone in on one or two per page.
Look at search volume for each keyword (i.e. how many monthly searches are made for that exact keyword). You’ll have this information if you’ve used a free tool like Google Search Console or Google Ads Keyword Planner. If you make use of paid tools such as SEMRush, then you will have even more useful information such as a keyword difficulty score, which tells you how competitive that particular keyword is to target.
Although it may seem sensible to target keywords with the highest search volume, that’s not necessarily the case. The higher the search volume, the more likely it is that other companies are also targeting it. If there are many sites targeting the same phrase, there’s more competition – probably from very large companies with big budgets – and so your site is likely to get lost in the search results.
Instead, look at those keywords with slightly lower search volumes. Are there any that fit your niche more specifically, or that are focused on your unique selling point? The key here is to find balance between search volume and ranking difficulty. A keyword with 50 searches a month and a 5% difficulty score is possibly a better option than one with 100,000 searches a month but a 99% difficulty score.
If you don’t have access to a paid tool that tells you difficulty score, you’ll need to make an educated cost. Generally, the higher the search volume, the more difficult a keyword. Alternatively, you can enter a keyword into Google and see how many results come up. The higher the number of results, the higher (generally) the difficulty.
This is a good place to look out for long-tail keywords, i.e. phrases made up of more than 2 or 3 words. They are generally more specific, with less traffic and also less competition.
Consider your sales funnel
You can make an educated guess about where a user is in the sales funnel based on a keyword.
Using our dresses example from earlier, a phrase such as buy dresses online suggests they are high up the sales funnel. They’re casting the net wide because they’re not completely sure what type of dress they want, or where they want to buy from.
On the other hand, someone looking for a red polka dot midi dress, size 12 is closer to making a purchase because they know more specifically what they want.
Knowing where a searcher is in the sales funnel can help you narrow down your list of keywords. If your page targets users on the verge of making a purchase, it makes sense to select a keyword that also reflects that.
For example, a blog page called Top 10 Dress Styles This Season is reasonably high up the sales funnel because its aim is to help an unsure user gain a clearer idea of what styles are out there and therefore what they want to buy. So a target keyword such as best summer dresses 2024 would be better suited to this page over buy summer dresses, even if it has a lower search volume. The buy summer dresses keyword would be better on a shop page that targets users closer to making a purchase.
Another free tool from Google is Google Trends. This is helpful for picking your keywords because it gives an idea of long-term performance. Enter your remaining keywords into this tool and see how popular the search is in a selected time period. If one keyword remains consistently popular over a long period, and another only sees high search volumes at peak periods, then the first may be a better choice.
Check out the competition
Who are you competing against for these keywords?
Open a browser and clear all cookies and browsing history. Then run a search on Google for a few of your shortlisted keywords. Which sites show in the top results (excluding ads)?
If big players such as Amazon and ASOS rule the first page of rankings, then it’s very unlikely you’ll ever rank in the top positions for that particular keyword. If, however, you see smaller competitors, then you’ve got a better chance. Again, you have to find the balance between the amount of monthly searches and your likelihood of ranking well against competitors.
Take an educated guess
If you’ve done all of this and still have more than a couple of keywords, then take an educated guess. Selecting keywords is not an exact science, so don’t overthink it.
If you have multiple keywords remaining, with similar search volumes and difficulty scores, just pick one or two. As long as you use some keywords to indicate your page’s topic, Google is smart enough to understand context and to link your page to other similar searches.
Track and review
Once you have selected two or three keywords for each page and integrated them into your text, you need to ensure they’re working for you. Keep a log of which keywords you have used, on which pages, and when they were added. Then track performance on a monthly basis using some of Google’s free tools.
Reports from Google Search Console will tell you a page’s average position on Google Search for each page and keyword. Tracking this on a monthly basis will help you see any improvements or drops (though remember to give it 3 to 6 months to see a change).
Google Analytics can provide more information such as organic search traffic per page, user behaviour on the page and purchase revenue per page (if you have this set up). All this can show you whether your new keyword has improved traffic.
If you don’t see any improvement after 6 months, consider revisiting your list of keywords to try another that may be more successful.
After some initial keyword research, you’re likely to have hundreds of keywords to choose from. To avoid keyword stuffing, you should focus on just one or two keywords per page. Narrow down your list by comparing search volume and competitiveness, as well as by targeting keywords that best suit your niche and USP.