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Keyword research for SEO: the ultimate guide

Keyword research is the first step in the SEO copywriting process and an essential part of any SEO strategy. Before you write your website content you need to think about which search terms you want to be found for and this means getting inside people’s heads to find out which words they use when searching. Then you can use these exact terms in your content so that you start ranking for them. This is keyword research and this ultimate guide will take you through the many steps involved.

What is keyword research?

Before we start explaining the process of keyword research, let’s look at the most important concepts behind it.

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Keyword research can be defined as the work you do to come up with an extensive list of keywords you want to rank for.

Keyword strategy is about the decisions you make on the basis of that keyword research.

Key phrases are keywords containing multiple words. We tend to use the word keyword all the time, but we don’t necessarily mean it’s only one word. ‘WordPress SEO’ is a keyword, as is ‘Google Analytics plugin’. Keywords usually consist of multiple words! So, in this guide, when we talk about keywords, we usually mean a phrase, rather than a single word.

Long tail keywords are more specific and less common because they focus more on a niche. The longer (and more specific) search terms are, the easier it will be to rank for the term. Keywords that are more specific (and often longer) are usually referred to as long tail keywords.

Focus keyword is the keyword or the key phrase you most want your page to be found for. You should put your focus keyword into the meta box of the Yoast SEO plugin.

Search intent is all about discovering what a searcher actually wants. These are not just keywords, but the underlying goals of what a searcher wants to know, do or buy.

Read more: What is keyword research? »

Why is keyword research important?

Proper keyword research is important because it will make clear which search terms your audience uses. At Yoast, we frequently come across clients who use one set of words when describing their products, while their target audience uses a completely different set of words. These sites aren’t found by their potential customers because of a mismatch in word use.

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Sometimes a marketing department decides to give their products a certain name. That can be a smart marketing decision. It can be a way to make people remember your product. For example, you don’t rent out vacation homes, but ‘vacation cottages’. Be aware that very few people search for ‘vacation cottages’ though. If you optimize your text for these terms, you’ll probably rank well on these specific terms. However, you won’t generate a lot of traffic with these terms and you’ll miss a large part of your potential audience.

It doesn’t make any sense to optimize for words that people don’t use. Good keyword research makes sure that you use the same words as your target audience and this makes the whole effort of optimizing your website far more worthwhile. In addition, by looking at search intent, you find out which questions your customer has. Those questions should get an answer in the form of quality content.

Keep reading: The basis of keyword research »

How to do keyword research

For us, there are four steps to keyword research. First, you write down the mission of your business. Next, you make a list of all the keywords you want to be found for. Then you look at search intent and finally, you create landing pages for each of those keywords. This ultimate guide takes you through these steps in much more detail.

Step by step, we’ll guide you through the entire keyword research process, and we’ll give you practical tips to easily start your own keyword research.

Step 1: What is your mission?

Before starting anything, think about your mission. Think about questions like: Who are you? What is your website about? What makes you special? And what promises do you make on your website?

Read on: What is the mission of your website »

A lot of people can’t effectively answer these questions at first. You have to figure out what makes you stand out from the crowd. So take your time and literally write down your mission on a piece of paper, a computer or an iPad – anything will do, as long as you do it. Once you’re able to answer these questions in detail, you will have taken the first and most important step in your keyword strategy.

Step 2: Make a list of keywords

The second step of keyword research is creating a list of your keywords. With your mission in mind, try to get into the heads of your potential buyers. What will these people be looking for? What kind of search terms could they be using while looking for your amazing service or product? Ask yourself these questions and write down as many answers as possible.

If your mission is clear, you will have a pretty clear image of your niche and your unique selling points (the things that set your business apart from others). These are the terms you want to be found for.

Tools you can use

Making a list of possible search terms is hard. Up until a few years ago you could just check Google Analytics and see the terms people used to find your website, but unfortunately, that’s no longer possible. So you have pretty much no idea which terms people use in search engines to end up at your website. Luckily, there are still some other tools which make your keyword research a bit easier. Read our post about tools you can use in your keyword research for more tips and tricks.

Step 3: Look at search intent

Much of today’s SEO strategy should revolve around answering the questions people have. Whenever someone enters a search query into a search engine, they are on a quest for something. Every type of question needs a specific answer. In my SEO basics article on search intent, I said:

“Search intent has to do with the reason why people conduct a specific search. Why are they searching? Are they searching because they have a question and want an answer to that question? Are they searching for a specific website? Or, are they searching because they want to buy something?”

When planning your content, always ask yourself these questions. There are four types of intents:

Find out which intents apply to you and try to answer these search intents by literally giving people what they want.

Step 4: Construct landing pages

The next step towards a long-term keyword strategy is to create awesome landing pages. In the past, every one of the keywords you want to be found for got its own landing page. Today, however, search engines are so smart that they mostly use search intent to give searchers the best answer to their questions. The page that answers those questions best will rank on top. Search engines also understand subtle differences between keywords so you don’t have to create landing pages for all subtle variations of a keyword.  You can just optimize a page for multiple keywords.

Create an overview

We would advise you to build your page structure in a well-structured way – using a spreadsheet programme like Excel or Google Docs/Sheets is a great way to do this. Create a table then add your list of keywords. Using a table forces you to set up a structure and to make relevant landing pages. Put the search terms in the first column and add columns for the different levels of your site’s structure.

Create landing pages

Then you’ll need to build a landing page for your search terms, but you don’t have to create all these pages immediately – it can be a long-term thing. The more specific your search term is, the further down into your site structure the term’s landing page belongs. The most important keywords will lead to your cornerstone content articles. These are the keywords you definitely want to rank for. To do this, you create the best possible content about that keyword – authoritative and all-encompassing, just like the ultimate guide you are reading right now. All your supporting articles will link to this cornerstone content. This should be part of your internal linking strategy, which Yoast SEO Premium can help you implement.

After completing your keyword research for SEO, you should have a clear overview of the terms people use and the terms you want the pages on your site to be found for. This overview should guide you in writing content for your website.

Long-term keyword strategy

No website should rely on one single keyword or one keyphrase for its traffic. You should use your mission as a starting point, then take our three steps in carrying out proper keyword research and work towards a solid base: a keyword strategy. This section of our ultimate guide explains why it’s important to have a long-term keyword strategy.

How many keywords?

We can’t tell you the exact number of keywords you should have, but we can tell you that you need a lot of them – as many as you can think of. However, more than 1000 keywords is probably too many!

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Even if you’re a reasonably small business, you’ll probably end up with a couple of hundred keywords. But there’s no need to create pages for all of these straight away. The great thing about having a Content Management System (CMS) like WordPress is that you can add content bit by bit. Think about what keywords you want to rank for now, and which ones aren’t immediately so important. Understand your priorities and plan the creation of your content.

Keep on reading: Managing a growing blog: content planning »

Ad hoc keyword research strategies

In an ideal world, you would do your keyword research, make a beautiful table and create landing pages for each one. Your site structure would be flawless and you would blog and write every day making your site rank higher and higher in Google. Unfortunately, we live in the real world.

Of course, your keyword research will not always be as extensive. And some posts or articles aren’t written as part of an awesome strategy, but just because the topic was in the news or something inspired you to write it. That’s just how these things work. But this doesn’t have to be a problem.

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If you’re writing something that doesn’t exactly fit your strategy, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to make that content rank. You could still use it to rank for something related to the terms in the list of your keyword strategy. Use tools like Google Trends to choose which keyword you’d like to rank for. At least take some time to think about how to make your article or blog fit your strategy. After all, if you are writing valuable content, you might as well make it rank!

The importance of long tail keyword strategy

Focusing on long tail keywords should be an important part of a long-term keyword research strategy. Long tail keywords are keywords or key phrases that are more specific (and usually longer) than more common keywords, often called “head” keywords. Long tail keywords get less search traffic, but will usually have a higher conversion value, as they focus more on a specific product or topic. Read our post about the importance of long tail keywords if you want to know why you should focus on long tail keywords when optimizing your site.

Read more: Make friends with the long tail »

What is the competition doing?

Whether you should go after long tail keywords, which are specific and consist of multiple words, or after head terms largely depends on your competition. If the competition in your niche is high, you’ll have a hard time ranking on competitive head terms. If you have little competition, you’ll even be able to rank for head terms. So how do you determine your competition? What should you be looking for? There are two strategies:

Google and analyze your competition

Google the keywords that came out of your keyword research. Start with your most ‘head’ term. The most general one. Check out the search engine result page (SERP). These are the websites you’ll be competing against once you optimize your content for such a keyword. To check whether or not you’ll be able to compete with the websites on that result page, analyze the following things:

Keep reading: Keyword Research Tools »

One simple question

It all boils down to a single question: how does my website hold up, compared to the websites in the SERPs? Are you of equal size and marketing budget: go ahead and focus on those head terms. If not: try a more long tail keyword.

The next step is to do the same analysis with a keyword that’s slightly more long tail. Longer and more specific search terms will generate less traffic, but ranking on those terms will be much easier. Focusing on a whole bunch of long tail keywords combined could very well attract a lot of traffic. Once you’ve managed to rank for those long tail keywords, aiming for more head terms will become a bit easier.

Try, evaluate and try again

Once you’ve done a thorough analysis of your chances to rank on a specific term, the next step is to write an amazing article and optimize it accordingly. And hit publish. Make sure you’ll attract some nice backlinks. And wait a little while. Check out your rankings. Does your article pop up? Did it hit the first page of Google’s SERPs? Or is it hidden away on page 2 or 3? Make sure to evaluate your articles in the SERPs. Google the terms you’ve optimized your articles for. Check whether or not your SEO is paying off!

If you’re not able to rank on the first page, try to write another article, focused on a (even) more long tail keyword. Make it a little bit more specific, more niche. And see how that goes. Evaluate again. Continue this process until you hit that first page of the SERPs!

Synonyms and related keywords

Our Yoast SEO Premium plugin allows you to optimize your content for synonyms and related keywords – up to five per article in fact. This is a functionality we’re developing and extending currently, to make our content analysis just as smart as Google. Marieke has written a roadmap for this here. We’ve also written a post about why you shouldn’t use your focus keyword more than once.

Singular or plural focus keyword?

Should you aim for the singular or the plural keyword? Well, this depends on the query. As Google is learning more about search intent of your query, it is able to better guess what you’re looking for. For instance, if you search for book, you get a different result than if you search for books. Apparently Google thinks that in the first case you’re looking for a definition or certain stories, in the second case it believes you’re looking for books to buy. So make sure you know what you offer on your page and that it fits with the query and results Google gives on that query.

Read on: How to choose the perfect focus keyword »

Conclusion on keyword research for SEO

Keyword research should be the start of any sustainable SEO strategy. The result will be a long list of keywords for which you’d like to be found. But the hardest part is still ahead: writing all that content. You should write articles and blog posts on every single keyword you would like to be found for. That’s quite a challenge!

Keep on reading: SEO copywriting: the ultimate guide »