Keyword Research for SEO: The Definitive Guide
With all the talk in the SEO world today about content 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.
In fact, keyword research is just market research for the 21st century.
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To Benefit from Keywords, You Need to Know How to Find (and Use) Them
If you can master the 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 gut feeling
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 search 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 traffic, leads, sales 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 Topics in your industry.
Once you find these Niche Topics, you can tap into untapped buyer keywords that your competition doesn’t know about.
Niche Topics: 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…
…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.
And they very rarely show you keywords that are closely – but not directly – related to what you sell. 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 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) to show you the full breadth of what’s out there.
To do that, you need to identify Niche Topics.
How to Quickly Find Niche Topics
You may be wondering:
“What is a Niche Topic, exactly?”
A Niche Topic is a topic that your target customer is interested in.
In other words, this isn’t a specific keyword. It’s a broad topic.
(I’ll show you exactly how to extract keywords from your Niche Topics later in this guide)
For example, let’s say that you run a business that sells basketball hoops.
As we saw earlier, the GKP is pretty 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 just as lucrative.
Unfortunately, these keywords can be REALLY hard to find.
In my experience, starting with Niche Topics is the easiest way to find these sorts of untapped keywords.
Niche Topics are a list of niches that your customers care about AND 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
See how that works? Each of those searches are part of a unique – but closely related – Niche Topic.
For example, the keyword “How to shoot a better free throw” is part of the Niche Topic: “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 Topics makes finding the best keywords in your industry super duper easy.
Here’s how to do it:
Creating Your First Niche Topic List
The goal with your Niche Topic list is to map out the different topics that your target customer searches for in Google.
All you need is a simple Google Doc or text file.
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.
Here’s an example Niche Topic List from our basketball hoop site:
- How to shoot a 3-pointer
- Dribbling drills
- Nutrition for athletes
- Improve vertical jump
- Basketball shoes
If you’re struggling – or want to find more Niche Topics – here are a few simple strategies to can tap into.
A buyer persona is a super-simple way to identify Niche Topics that your potential customers care about.
And once you identify these Niche Topics , you can easily find keywords that potential customers use every day.
Your keyword research-focused buyer persona should include your target audience’s:
- Approximate income
- Hobbies and interests
- Things that they struggle with
- What they want to accomplish (personally and professionally)
Depending on your industry, 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 can uncover topics that you may not have thought of otherwise.
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”
Once you find a forum, note how the forum is divided up into sections: Each of these sections is often a Niche Topic.
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 Topics that make sense for your site, add them to your Niche Topics List.
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 Topics.
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 Topics 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 even more Niche Topics that you can add to your list:
In this case we found three more Niche Topics:
- Types of rebounds (offensive, defensive)
- Boxing out
- Notable NBA rebounders
Chances are your target audience hangs out on Reddit.
Which means, with a little stalking, you can find fistfuls of Niche Topics with ease.
Let’s say that you run a site that sells organic dog food.
You’d head over to Reddit. Then search for a broad topic that your target audience is interested in…and something that’s related to what you sell.
Then, choose a subreddit where your audience is likely to hang out in:
Then, keep an eye out for threads that have lots of comments, like this:
In this case you’d add “dog food allergies” to your Niche Topic list.
Rinse and repeat.
The Head, Body and Tail
Now that you’ve identified a large group of Niche Topics 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 closely-related long tails automatically.
In other words, when you optimize for Body keywords, you tend to gobble up a lot of long tail traffic naturally from very long 5-12 word searches.
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.
The Big Problem With Long Tail Keywords
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. And each of these need to be optimized around a single Long Tail Keyword.
Publishing reams of 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.
You just finished Chapter 1. Congratulations! Now it’s time to turn your Niche Topics into keywords. How? I’m going to show you how to use the most popular keyword research tool online: The Google Keyword Planner.