Keyword Research and Analysis: If SEO Basics is “Set the Right Expectations,” Step #2 is to define your keywords. Clients begin their quest to “discover you” by composing in keywords or key expressions into Google, Yahoo, or Bing. (For simplicity’s sake, I’ll use the word keyword to mean either a single or multi-word phrase as a search engine query). Recognizing customer-driven keywords is the establishment of effective SEO. Your best keywords match your business value proposition with high volume, high-value keywords used by your customers.
Keyword research and analysis methodology for SEO
- In This Post, we’ll brainstorm our list of keywords, focusing on “getting all the words” on paper as a keyword brainstorm document.
- Next, we’ll turn to organize these keywords into a structured keyword worksheet.
For now, don’t worry about how to organize your keywords. Your goal in this Post is to get all your possible keyword targets on paper; this Post is about brainstorming your keyword universe.
Let’s get started!
» Brainstorm Your Keywords
» Reverse Engineer Competitors’ Keywords
» Use Google Tricks to Identify Possible Keywords
» Use the Google AdWords Keyword Planner
» Deliverable: Keyword Brainstorm Worksheet
Brainstorm Your Keywords
Sit down in a quiet place with a good cup of coffee or tea, or if you prefer, a martini, i.e. anything to get your ideas flowing! Brainstorm the keywords that a customer might type into Google that is relevant to your company, your product, and/or your service.
- When a potential customer sits down at Google, what words do they type in?
- Which keywords are DEFINITELY those of your customers?
- Which keywords are CLOSE to a decision to buy?
- Which are farther away, earlier in the sales ladder?
- Which customer segments use which keywords, and how might keywords differ among your customer segments?
- Which keywords match which product or service lines as produced by your company?
Conduct a Keyword Brainstorming Session
I highly recommend that you organize a formal keyword brainstorming session with your marketing team (it might be just me, myself, and I, or it might be your CEO, your marketing manager, and a few from the sales staff). Devote at least ONE HOUR to brainstorming keywords; close the door, turn off the cell phone, tell your secretary to “hold all calls” and start drinking (either coffee or martinis).
Brainstorm, brainstorm, brainstorm the keywords that customers are typing into Google. Try not to miss any possible keyword combinations!
Do this, first, individually – take out a piece of paper, and write keyword ideas down WITHOUT talking to the others in your group.
Don’t be shy. Don’t leave anything out. The goal is to get EVERYTHING on paper, no matter how ridiculous it might be.
Then have a group session and go over all the keywords each person has identified.
Drink some more coffee, or more martinis, and keep brainstorming – write all possible keywords on a whiteboard, a piece of paper, or a Word / Google document.
Don’t censor yourself because there are no wrong answers. The goal of this exercise is to get the complete “universe” of all possible keywords that customers might type into Google.
“Think like a customer” sitting at his or her computer screen at Google:
- Assume you are a completely new, novice customer. Assume you know next to nothing. What single words or multi-word phrases (keywords) would you type into Google?
- Segment your customers into different groups. What keywords might each group use, and how would they differ from other groups?
- Are there are any specific “helper” words that a potential customer might use? Common helper words specify geographic locality (e.g., San Francisco, Berkeley, San Jose), for example. Others specify things like “free,” “cheap,” “trial,” or “information.”
- Don’t miss your synonyms! If you are a “lawyer,” don’t miss “attorney.” If you are a “dry cleaner,” don’t miss “wash and fold” or “laundry service.” If you are an “SEO expert,” don’t miss “SEO consultant.” If you are an orthopedic surgeon, don’t miss “knee doctor.”
For your first TODO, open up the “keyword brainstorm worksheet” in either Word or PDF, and begin to fill it out as completely as possible.
Again, for right now, don’t worry about the organization of your keywords. Don’t police your thoughts. Write down every word that comes to mind – synonyms, competitor names, misspellings, alternative word orders. Let your mind wander. This is the keyword discovery phase, so don’t exclude anything!
Reverse Engineer Competitors
After you’ve completed this first wave of brainstorming, let’s you and your group members do some searches on Google for target keywords. Take a few of the keywords you’ve already identified, and type them into Google. As you search Google, identify your “Google competitors,” that is, companies that are on page one of the Google results and therefore doing well in terms of SEO. You’ll want to reverse engineer their keywords.
First, click over to their homepage or whatever page is showing up on page one of Google for a search that matters to you. Next, view the HTML source code of this page. To do this, in Firefox and Chrome, use right click, then View, Page Source. In Internet Explorer, use View, Source on the file menu. Finally, find the following tags in the HTML source code:
<Meta Name=“Description” Content=”…”>
<Meta Name=“Keywords” Content=”…”>
If you have trouble finding these HTML tags, use CTRL+F (on a PC vs. Command+F on a Mac) on your keyboard, and in the dialog box type <title, description, or keywords.
For each, write down those keywords your competitor has identified that might also be applicable to you. Here’s a screenshot of ( http://www.globalindustrial.com/c/hvac/fans), one of the top Google performers for the search “industrial fans” with the three critical tags highlighted in yellow –
Read each tag out loud to your group members. Notice how each tag in the source reveals the “thought process” behind this page, showing the synonyms “fan” for “blower,” plus the “types” of fans people might search for – pedestal, agricultural, ceiling, etc. The goal of viewing the source of your competitors’ pages is to “steal” their keyword ideas and write down any relevant keywords onto your “keyword brainstorm” document. VIDEO. Watch a quick video tutorial on how to use “view source” to reverse engineer competitors at
For your second TODO , open up your “keyword brainstorm worksheet,” and jot down the top five competitors who appear at the top of Google for your target keywords, use the tactic above to view their source, and then write down keyword ideas taken from their TITLE, META DESCRIPTION, and META KEYWORDS tags. Did you discover any keywords you left out in your first brainstorming session? If so, be sure to write those on your list.
USE GOOGLE TRICKS TO IDENTIFY POSSIBLE KEYWORDS
After you have brainstormed keywords and used View Source to view the keywords of competitors, it’s time to use free Google tools for keyword discovery. You can find a complete list in the companion SEO Toolbook (Keywords Chapter) or on my SEO dashboard at ( https://jm-seo.org/dashboard/seo ), but here are my favorite strategies starting with Google’s own free tools.
First, simply go to Google and start typing your keyword. Pay attention to the pull-down menu that automatically appears. This is called Google Suggest or Autocomplete and is based on actual user queries. It’s a quick and easy way to find “helper” words for any given search phrase. You can also place a space (hit your space bar) after your target keyword and then go through the alphabet typing “a”, “b”, etc. Here’s a screenshot of Google Suggest using the key phrase “motorcycle insurance”.
Hit your space key after the last letter of the last keyword (e.g., after motorcycle insurance) and more keyword suggestions appear. You can also type the letters of the alphabet – a, b, c, etc. and Google will give you suggestions. Here’s a screenshot for the letter “b”:
Second, type in one of your target keyword phrases and scroll to the bottom of the Google search page. Google will often give you related searches based on what people often search on after their original search. Here’s a screenshot for “motorcycle insurance” –
Note the helper words it tells you people use to search: cheap, rates, best, “how much,” comparison, cost, and average. Are these not wonderful clues as to how customers search Google? As you look at Google autocomplete and related searches, add these keywords to your master list.
A third party tool that pulls data from Bing search queries is Ubersuggest at ( https://ubersuggest.io/ ). It basically types through the alphabet for you and gives you nifty keywords. Spend some quality time with the Google tools as well as Ubersuggest.org, using your “starter” keywords and looking for synonyms and helper words.
VIDEO. Watch a quick video tutorial on how to use “Google tricks” to generate keyword ideas at
These three Google tricks are great ways to find helper words, related phrases, and synonyms for your target keywords and key phrases. For your third TODO, open up your “keyword brainstorm worksheet” and write down some keyword ideas garnered from these free tools. You want a messy, broad and complete list of the “universe” of possible customer keywords via your own brainstorming process, via reverse engineering your competitors, and now via Google tools such as autocomplete and related searches.
USE THE GOOGLE ADWORDS KEYWORD PLANNER
Now it’s time to use the most comprehensive keyword tool of them all: Google’s own official AdWords Keyword Planner. It’s free, but you’ll need an AdWords account to use it fully.
Sign up for AdWords
To sign up for AdWords, go to ( ADWORDS KEYWORD PLANNER ). You’ll need a credit card to set up an account, and the Google interface will attempt to get you to start advertising right away. (You’re not actually going to advertise; you’re just getting around Google’s restrictions on how to access the Keyword Planner).
Use the AdWords Keyword Planner Tool to Identify SEO Keywords
Now that you’re signed in to your AdWords account, next, go to the “Tools” tab at the top, and scroll down to “Keyword Planner.” Here’s a screenshot:
Here’s how to use it. First, on the left-hand side where it says “Get search volume and forecasts” type one of your keywords and hit the blue box at the bottom entitled, “Get Started.” Here is a screenshot of the button, which is very easy to miss because it is literally at the bottom of the screen:
This gets you into the tool’s real interface. This is where you’ll do most of your work, and it looks like this:
Again, Google is giving you great ideas of related or helper words (e.g. “best”) as well as synonyms (e.g., “knee replacement” for “knee surgery”). Note the ones down that make sense, and write them onto your keyword brainstorm worksheet.
Don’t Miss Your Synonyms!
Notice how the tool gives you both helper words and synonyms. For example, you get the best knee replacement, telling you that best is a helper word, and you get a doctor as well as a surgeon, orthopedic as well as the knee. The tool is telling you how people search: some people search for knee doctors, and others for orthopedic surgeons.
Many people search for best knee surgeons (and to the contrary, few searches for worst knee surgeons). Because to Google, a word is just a word, you want to be sure to capture ALL your key synonyms. A search for “best knee doctor in San Francisco” is different from a search for “best orthopedic surgeon in San Francisco,” even though the latter may include the former, i.e. many people searching for orthopedic surgeons who do knees.
This is true across all domains; a lawyer, to Google, is not the same as an attorney. In summary be sure to identify all your helpers and synonyms, and write these down on your Keyword Brainstorm Worksheet. Next, click on the tab “Keyword ideas,” you should see something like:
Choose All “keywords” that you want and Selected Those keywords with “Tick Marked”, and add them “add to plan”.
For purposes of our example, let’s assume we are a New York orthopedic surgeon specializing in knee surgery, and so we’ll enter “knee pain.” After you click “Get Started,” you’ll see a tab called “Ad group ideas,” and one called “keyword ideas.” Scroll down under the “ad group” ideas and click “into” the various suggested groups. Google will give you good ideas for related keywords here. For instance, if you type in “knee surgeons,” Google will give you these suggestions:
Click on any group, and Google will drill down into more related searches. All of these give you great ideas for possible keywords. Note that it also gives you volume information; a rough approximation for how frequently a keyword phrase is actually used.
Next, you’ll want to play around with the tool and understand some of its more advanced features. Let’s start with the columns and pull-outs mean. Starting on the left column, take a look at “Targeting.” You’ll see where it will default to “All locations” or perhaps “United States.” If you click the pencil to the right of “United States,”
you can drill down to specific states or even cities by typing their names into this space and then clicking “remove” on other entries. This is useful if you’d like to know the keyword search volume for specific states; at the city level, the tool isn’t very useful as the search volume is often insufficient, however.
Alternatively, you can “remove” the United States and target “All locations” which is “Google-speak” for the entire world. Note that to activate a change just click elsewhere on the screen or hit enter. (The brilliant engineers at Google failed to clarify how to enter data into the tool!)
Generally speaking, you’ll need a broad geography: so choose “The United States” rather than “Tulsa, Oklahoma” to research “industrial fans” or “knee surgeons” as you brainstorm keywords. If a search is too narrow, the tool returns zero data. The Negative keywords feature also has some utility. You can filter “out” keywords that don’t matter to you.
For example, if we type in “exercises” it then filters out keyword phrases that contain the word “exercises.” Many companies want to filter out words like “free” or “cheap,” so use negative keywords for any desired refinement.
Refocusing the Keyword Planner
You may notice that the tool gives you very broad and often irrelevant keyword suggestions, so I often recommend that you refocus it to just your target phrase and related phrases. To do this, on the top of the table column where it says “Filter Options,” click here, and then select “Show broadly related ideas/Closely related ideas”. Here’s a screenshot:
the column “Avg. monthly searches,” and the tool will sort your keywords by volume (the number of searches per month for your target geography). The above screenshot is for “knee pain” after having focused the tool by entering “knee pain” with location set to “all locations,” and “Keyword filters” set to “Only show ideas closely related to my search terms”:
You can see the average monthly search volume for “knee pain” for “all locations”.
Unfortunately, the Keyword Planner gives only “exact match” data, so you have to manually enter a bunch of related keyword phrases and then tally them up to get a total for phrases.
The Keyword Planner has been strongly criticized by the SEO community for this flaw because the old Keyword Tool did allow such functionality but to no avail. So, so far you can only get keyword volumes for an exact match. So for now, to compare keyword volumes you are left with manually “guessing” related phrase and entering them into the tool.
You can, however, enter multiple phrases and compare them. Let’s set our location to New York, NY, and let’s take these keywords:
knee surgeons New York
To compare phrases, enter them as a comma-separated phrase as follows and click “Get Results”:
knee pain, knee surgery, knee surgeon, knee surgeons New York Here’s a screenshot:
Keyword Volume vs. Value
To understand what this all means, let’s use an analogy: fishing and fish. As the SEO technician, you’re the fisherman of course.
First, you want to “fish where the fish are.” This is the column “Avg. monthly searches” showing you that there are 4,400 searches in New York, NY, for “knee pain” vs. only 20 for “knee surgeon” and even fewer for “knee surgeons New York.” However, you want to catch yummy fish and the price per pound as set by the market gives you a strong clue as to their value: tilapia at $1.00 a pound isn’t as tasty as organic halibut at $22.00 a pound. Similarly, knee pain is worth only $2.60 per click, while knee surgeon is worth $9.07.
Volume vs. Value
There is, in short, a see-saw between volume (fish where the fish are) and value (catch yummy fish); the AdWords marketplace is telling you that “knee surgeon” is worth MORE than “knee pain” even though “knee surgeon” has far less volume. Why? Well, think about what each search query tells you about the customer need.
A search for “knee pain” might be someone who needs an aspirin (a $1.00 sale at best), while a search for “knee surgeon” is probably someone who is looking for surgery (easily $50,000).
“Knee pain” is an “educational” search by someone who is using Google to learn vs. “knee surgeon,” which is a “transactional” search by someone who is using Google to find a surgeon to buy knee surgery from.
In general, “educational” searches will have lower average costs-per-click indicating a lesser value that “transactional” searches; AdWords is giving you strong clues as to “where the fish are,” and “which fish are yummy to eat.” Your competitors using AdWords, in short, are bidding up the keywords that are likely to end in sales and thus telling you which keywords you should SEO!
Riches are in the Niches
Back to fishing, if you want to “fish where the fish are” (high volume keywords) and “catchy yummy fish” (high-value keywords), you also want to find “secret fishing holes.” These are keyword phrases that tend to yield good customers yet your competitors have not discovered. They are less expensive in AdWords and easier to optimize for via SEO (because they are undiscovered).
If you discover a “secret fishing hole” vs. one everyone knows about, you have struck gold (to mix metaphors). Don’t tell anyone! Riches, in sum, are in the niches when it comes to keywords and SEO.
For “knee pain,” the niche search is “knee surgeon” or better yet, “best knee surgeons in the Bay Area.”
Here’s another example.
Let’s assume you sell auto insurance. The generic “auto insurance” keyword query will have a lot of volumes, and a lot of value, and be pretty difficult to show up high on Google because of intense competition. In this case, look for “niche” keywords such as “auto insurance for teens,” or “auto insurance for high-risk drivers,” or even “auto insurance for classic cars.”
You may find that highly profitable niches of your business reflect highly profitable keyword queries for SEO, and – to the extent that your competitors are ignorant – a “secret” niche keyword is the best of all.
Get ALL Your Keyword Ideas Down on Paper
For your final TODO, open up your “keyword brainstorm worksheet,” and jot down keyword volumes and the CPC values of relevant keywords. Again, don’t worry about being organized. Just indicate – in general – which keywords are higher volume vs. higher value, which ones are educational vs. transactional. It won’t be a perfect map, but you will start to see patterns as to volume and value.
Now we’ve come to the end of the post, and you should have the chapter DELIVERABLE ready: your completed keyword brainstorm worksheet.