Keyword Research: The Definitive Guide
With all the talk in the SEO world today about content, authorship and social signals it’s easy to forget a little thing that happens to be the foundation of SEO: keyword research.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that without keywords, there’s no such thing as SEO.
Keywords are like a compass for your SEO campaigns: they tell you where to go and whether or not you’re making progress.
They also help you figure out the thoughts, fears, and desires of your target market (as your Analytics stats will tell you, people type their inner-most thoughts into Google’s little search bar).
In fact, keyword research is just market research for the 21st century.
To Benefit from Keywords, You Need to Know How to Find (and Use) Them
If you can master the lost art of finding awesome keywords for your business — you’ll not only benefit from more search engine traffic – but you’ll also know your customers better than your competition.
Despite the importance of keyword selection, most people’s keyword research process looks something like this:
1Come up with a few keywords that potential customers might search for
2Plug those keywords into the Google Keyword Planner
3Pick a keyword based on a vague combination of search volume and buyer intent
Well today, all that changes.
Because now you have a comprehensive guide that’s going to show you exactly how to find words and phrases that your target market uses to find information on the web.
And when you tailor your on-page SEO around the right keywords, you’ll watch your site rocket to the top of Google — landing you more leads, sales and commissions in the process.
But there’s a catch:
Before you fire up a keyword research tool or fiddle with a single title tag, you need to identify niche markets in your industry.
Once you find these niche markets, you’ll be able to tap into untapped buyer keywords that your competition doesn’t know about.
Niche Markets: Where (Smart) Keyword Research Starts
As I mentioned earlier, most people begin the process with a keyword research tool, like the Google Keyword Planner (GKP).
This is a HUGE mistake.
Why? Because as great as the GKP is at spitting out closely related keywords, it’s horrible at coming up with new keyword ideas.
Here’s an example:
What do you think of when you hear the word “basketball”?
Whether or not you’re a diehard fan, here are some words that may have popped into your head:
But when you enter the word “basketball” into the GKP “Search for new keyword and ad group ideas” box…
…none of those related words show up.
In other words, the GKP only shows you keywords that are VERY intimately tied to the keyword you gave it.
Keywords that are closely – but not directly – related are rarely shown to you. And these are often the most profitable keywords in your market.
No wonder so many keywords are next to impossible to rank for: everyone and their mom are targeting the exact same keywords!
That’s not to say you shouldn’t target any keywords that the GKP gives you (in fact, there’s an entire chapter in this guide dedicated to using the tool).
But don’t rely on the GKP (or any other tool out there) to show you the full breadth of what’s out there.
To do that, you need to identify niche markets.
Niche Clouds: The Easiest Way to Find Niche Markets
You may be wondering:
“What is a Niche Market, exactly?”
A Niche Market is simply a sub-segment that’s part of a larger market.
For example, let’s say that you run a business that sells basketball hoops.
As we saw earlier, the GKP is essentially useless at giving you anything but very, very closely related keywords:
While some of these keywords might be a great fit for your business, there are dozens of others that are less competitive and are just as valuable to your site.
In my experience the easiest way to find these untapped keywords is to map out your industry’s Niche Clouds.
Niche Clouds are simple mind maps that identify niches that are closely related to your bread and butter niche.
For example, someone interested in buying a basketball hoop may also search for:
- How to shoot a better free throw
- Slam dunk highlights
- How to get recruited by college scouts
- Nutrition for athletes
- How to improve a vertical jump
Each of those searches are part of a unique – but closely related – Niche Market.
For example, the keyword “How to shoot a better free throw” is part of the Niche Market “free throw shooting”.
Niche Markets are usually small-ish niches that aren’t large enough to support their own website or product.
In fact — while some Niche Markets will hook you up with 10 or more keywords – most will have only 2-5 keywords with enough search volume and commercial intent for you to actually optimize pages around.
But when you add them together you’ll often find that you have more low-competition keywords than you know what do with.
As I mentioned earlier, Niche Clouds makes finding all of the Niche Markets in your industry super-easy.
Here’s how to do it:
Creating Your First Niche Cloud Map
The goal with your Niche Cloud Map is to map out the different “clouds” that tend to float around your actual industry. Each cloud represents a Niche Market.
All you need to start is mind mapping software or (if you want to go old school) a pen and paper.
Here’s what our basketball hoop example would look as a Niche Cloud map:
You should be able to come up with at least 5 different Niche Markets off of the top of your head…which is enough to find some great keywords.
If you’re struggling – or want to find more Niche Markets – here are a few simple strategies you can tap into.
A buyer persona is a super-simple way to identify other Niche Markets that potential customers belong to.
And once you identify these Niche Markets, you can easily find keywords that potential customers use when they’re not searching for your products and services (in other words, most of the time).
Your keyword research-focused buyer persona should include your target audience’s:
- Approximate income
- Hobbies and interests (what they do for fun)
- Things that they struggle with
- What they want to accomplish (personally and professionally)
Depending on your niche you may have several different buyer personas.
For example, following our basketball hoop example, you might have buyer personas for basketball players AND for parents (who in many cases will be the ones that ultimately buy the product).
In my experience the easiest way to make a buyer persona is to create a PowerPoint slide:
This slide helps you get into the head of your target customer, which will help you think of with Niche Markets that you may have overlooked the first time you sat down with your Niche Cloud Map.
Forums are like having live focus groups at your fingertips 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
The easiest way to find forums where your target audience hangs out is to use these search strings in Google:
“keyword” + “forums”
“keyword” + “forum”
“keyword” + “board”
You can also use BoardReader.com, which is a search engine for forums.
First, click on “forums” in the top left corner of the screen:
Then, enter a keyword and hit “search”:
Find forums that your target audience hangs out on:
Once you find a forum, note how the forum is divided up into sections: Each of these sections is often a Niche Market.
To dig deeper, check out some of the threads on the forum to find other Niche Markets your ideal customer belongs to.
In about 10 seconds I’ve identified 3 potential Niche Markets from a single basketball forum:
- Basketball socks
- Basketball confidence
- Basketball accessories
One you’ve found a few Niche Markets that make sense for your site, add them to your Niche Cloud Map.
Wikipedia Table of Contents
Wikipedia is an often-overlooked goldmine of niche research.
Where else can you find overviews on a topic curated by thousands of industry experts and organized into neat little categories?
Here’s how to use Wikipedia to find Niche Markets.
First, head over to Wikipedia and type in a broad keyword:
That will take you to the Wikipedia entry for that broad topic.
Then, look for the “contents” section of the page:
And take a look at the sections of the page.
Some of these sections will be killer Niche Markets that you may not have found otherwise:
You can also click on some of the internal links on the page to check out the Table of Contents of other, closely related entries.
For example, on the basketball entry we have a link to Rebounding:
When you click on that link, you’ll notice that the table of contents for the Rebounding page has a few more Niche Markets for you to add to your map:
In this case we found three more Niche Markets:
- Types of rebounds (offensive, defensive)
- Boxing out
- Notable NBA rebounders
The Head, Body and Tail
Now that you’ve identified a large group of Niche Markets it’s time to find some keywords!
Most people in SEO (myself included) divide keywords into three main categories: head, body and the (long) tail.
These are usually single-word keywords with insane amounts of search volume and competition (for example, “insurance” or “vitamins”). Because searcher intent is all over the place (someone searching for “insurance” might be looking for a car insurance quote, a list of life insurance companies or a definition of the word), Head Terms usually don’t convert very well.
Body keywords are 2-3 word phrases that get decent search volume (at least 2,000 searches per month), but are more specific than Head Keywords. Keywords like “life insurance” or “order vitamins online” are examples of Body Keywords. These almost always have lower competition than Head Terms, but can still be very competitive.
Long Tail Keywords:
Long tail keywords are long, 4+ word phrases that are usually very specific. Phrases like “affordable life insurance for senior citizens” and “order vitamin D capsules online” are examples of long tail keywords. Even though they don’t get a lot of search volume individually – when added together– long tails make up the majority of searches online.
I recommend putting most of your effort behind Body and Long Tail Keywords.
As you just read, Head Terms are a) super competitive and b) don’t convert well. So those are out.
In my opinion, Body Keywords hit the sweet spot of search volume, buyer intent and competition. And when you optimize pages around Body Keywords, you’ll usually rank for related long tails automatically. Not to mention the 15% of all keywords that have never been typed into a search engine before (!).
In other words, when you optimize for Body keywords, you tend to gobble up a lot of long tail traffic naturally from totally unique searches and from crazy long 5-12 word keywords (if you’ve ever checked your Analytics to see what people use to find your site, you know what types of looooong keywords I’m talking about).
Because they’re usually easier to rank for than Head or Body Keywords, many SEOs focus on Long Tail Keywords. Although Long Tail Keywords are less competitive (and tend to convert well), they’re not without problems.
What do I mean?
Remember that each Long Tail Keyword may only get 100-1000 searches per month. Which means – in order to get lots search engine traffic from long tails — you need to bang out dozens (or even hundreds) of articles…each optimized around a single Long Tail Keyword. Publishing reams long tail-focused content puts you at serious risk of a Google Panda penalty. In fact, companies like Demand Media and Suite101 lost millions betting on this strategy.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t use long tails as part of your search engine optimization strategy (in fact, there’s an entire chapter in this guide dedicated to finding them). But don’t fall into the trap of banging out hundreds of pages hoping to rank for long tails.