Keyword research for SEO: the ultimate guide

Keyword research is the first step in the SEO copywriting process and an essential part of your SEO strategy. Before you create your website’s content, you have to find out which search terms your audience use. Their search terms are your keywords. Based on these keywords you can start writing useful and high-quality content. Here, we’ll take you through the many steps involved in keyword research.

Table of contents

What is keyword research?

Keyword research is part of SEO (search engine optimization). It’s the work someone does to come up with an extensive list of keywords for which one would like a website to rank. To obtain such a list, website owners need to dig into their desired audience and search engines: Which search terms do people type into Google when looking for their products, service, business or type of organization? And what do they expect to find? With this list, website owners can create content on their site that will attract more, high-quality traffic. Keyword research is never finished: repeating it regularly is essential to stay up-to-date!

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 came across business owners who used one set of words when describing their products, while their target audience used a completely different set of words. As a result, potential customers couldn’t find those websites, because of a mismatch in word use.

For instance, sometimes, a marketing department decides to give a product a not-so-common name. This can be a smart marketing decision: People could remember your product more easily. If you rent out vacation cottages instead of vacation homes, you might stand out. But beware: Very few people search for [vacation cottages]. 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 because your audience uses other words.

You’ll understand that it doesn’t make any sense to optimize for words that people don’t use. Thorough 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 what exactly your audience is looking for. Those queries should get an answer in the form of quality content.

In this video, Michiel tells a bit more about keyword research and how we think it should be done. It’s part of our free SEO for beginner’s course, available through our free Yoast SEO Academy subscription:

Essential concepts of keyword research

Before we jump to doing keyword research, we’ll shortly explain some essential concepts of it:

A focus keyword or keyphrase is the word or phrase you want a certain page on your site to be found for in Google. You’ll determine a set of focus keyphrases by doing keyword research.

If you want to easily optimize a post or page for one of your keyphrases, you can enter this phrase into the focus keyphrase input field for a post or page with the Yoast SEO plugin. It will provide you with feedback on how to optimize your content for this phrase to improve the chance of ranking.

Long-tail keywords are more specific and less commonly searched for than, so-called, head keywords. They focus on a niche. The longer and more specific search terms are, the easier it will be to rank for them since there will be less competition. Even though there are less people searching for these terms, they might be more motivated to buy, subscribe, sign up or whatever you’d like them to do.

Long tail graphic

Your keyword strategy is about the decisions you make based on your keyword research. For instance, what content are you going to create first? Will you focus on the head or tail? How and where will you publish it? Will you create a piece of writing, a post or a product page, a video tutorial or an infographic?

Digging into search intent is key here: you have to discover what a searcher actually wants or needs. You’re not just looking at keywords, but the underlying goals of what a searcher wants to know, do or buy. Your content should provide a solution to the searcher’s “problem”. This is also known as content design.

How is keyword research done?

We believe there are eight crucial steps while carrying out keyword research. Here, we’ll guide you through this process step-by-step, and we’ll give you practical tips to easily start your own keyword research.

  1. Determine your mission

    Before starting anything, think about your mission. Reflect on questions such as: What is the main goal of your business or organization? What makes it special? Who exactly are you trying to reach? And, what promises do you make on your website? Take your time and literally write down your mission. Once you’re able to answer these questions in detail, you’ll have taken the first and most important step in your keyword strategy.

    The market you’re in determines whether your mission will prove genius enough to rank high. Some markets are highly competitive, with large companies dominating the search results. These companies have huge budgets for marketing in general and SEO in particular. Competing in these markets is tough, so ranking in these markets is also going to be tough.

    Perhaps you sell cruises to Hawaii. You offer great facilities for children, making the cruises especially suitable for young or single parents. Offering the best cruises to Hawaii for young parents could very well be what makes your service unique. So, look for the thing that makes your product stand out from the competition. This should be your mission, your niche – and this is what you have to offer your audience.

    If you’re launching into a competitive market, your best bet is to start out small. Once you ‘own’ a small part of that niche and become a bigger name in the business of cruises to Hawaii, you could try to level up and sell your cruises to a larger (more general) audience. Your mission will then become more general as well.

  2. Make a list of keywords

    The second step is creating a list of your keywords, preferably in a spreadsheet, such as Google Sheets or Excell. With your mission in mind, try to get into the heads of your desired audience. What will these people be looking for? What kind of search terms could they be using while looking for your amazing service or product? Which of their “problems” does your product solve? Write down as many answers as possible. If your mission is clear, you will have a pretty clear image of your niche and unique selling points (the things that set your business apart from others). These are the terms you want to be found for.

  3. Research your keywords

    After you’ve created this first list, it’s time to dive a bit deeper into your keywords. Luckily, there are some tools that make your keyword research a bit easier.

    The first is Google itself. Google the keywords you already came up with and check the searches Google suggests while you are typing. Those are the questions people actually asked Google! You can also check out the “related searches” on Google’s results page. Or, have a look at our Yoast suggest tool or Answer the public. These tools will provide you with all kinds of variations of your keyphrases, synonyms and related keyphrases. In our post on keyword research tools you’ll find more details on how to use these and other tools.

    Check these tools out and add all the keyphrases to your list!

  4. Don’t forget the long-tail

    When people start out with keyword research, they tend to focus on very popular “head” terms. Unfortunately, those head keywords are mostly taken by large businesses. Long-tail keywords, on the other hand, get less search traffic, but there’s less competition too. Therefore it’s easier for you to rank on those keywords. Moreover, long-tail keywords even have a higher conversion value, as they focus more on a specific product or topic: a niche!

    A long-tail keyword often is longer and more focused than a head term. If your head term is [puppy training], a long-tail keyword could be [positive puppy training for Labradoodles in Amsterdam]. Using the tools mentioned in step 3 will also help you find more long-tail variants of your keywords.

    Don’t forget to add the long-tail keywords to your spreadsheet too. Put the head terms in the first column and add (multiple) columns for more long-tail keywords. This will help you with creating a proper site structure later. The more long-tail your search term is, the further down into your site structure the term’s landing page belongs.

  5. Analyse the competition

    Whether you should go after long-tail keywords 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 you’ll need to do some benchmarking for SEO.

    Google the keywords that came out of your keyword research. Start with your most ‘head’ term. 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. Take a closer look: Do you see professional websites? Company websites? Are you ‘equal’ to these companies? Does your website fit among these sites? Is your company of similar size and does it have as much influence in your niche?

    It’s harder to rank when you’re competing against sites with strong brand-names. If brands are known from TV or radio commercials, your chances to rank high will become even smaller. But it won’t hurt to take a look at their content. Is the content well written and well optimized? If your competition really has poor content, you might have a chance to outrank them!

    Also, take a look at ads in Google. Are there any? If you have a Google Adwords account you can check the pay-per-click. Search terms that have a high pay-per-click are usually also harder to rank for in the organic results.

    Make sure to make notes in your spreadsheet about your findings for the keywords you’ve investigated!

  6. Take a closer look at search intent

    Today’s SEO strategies should, for the most part, revolve around answering the questions people have or providing the best solution for their “problem”. 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.

    Try to find out which intent your audience when they type a certain keyphrase into Google: Do they have an informational intent (try to find information on a specific topic), navigational intent (want to access a specific website), commercial intent (want to research something before buying) or transactional intent (looking to buy something right now)?

    You can learn more about the search intent of certain queries by looking closely at the type of pages that already rank for that query. Do you mostly see product pages? Do you see a lot of informational blog posts? Do you see videos? Or, do you see a mix? These are all hints to what Google assumes the search intent of a certain query is.

    Find out which kinds of intent apply to your keyphrases and, again, add your findings to your spreadsheet!

  7. Determine a keyword strategy

    Based on the data you’ve collected now, you can determine a keyword strategy. If you’ve followed the steps above, you should have a spreadsheet with a substantial amount of keyphrases, and information about the competition and the search intent of your audience for those keyphrases.

    Now think about this 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 more long-tail keywords first. 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.

    When you’ve decided where to jump in, think about the type of content: What was the search intent for my keyphrases? What is my audience looking for? But also, which content can I create that isn’t there yet, and how can I stand out, in terms of quality or providing solutions? This will help you decide on the type of content you’re going to create.

  8. Start constructing landing pages

    In theory, this step is out of the scope of keyword research itself. Nevertheless, creating awesome landing pages is, of course, essential if you want to get traffic to your website. So, you’ll need to build landing pages for your search terms, but you don’t have to create all these pages immediately – it can be a long-term effort. Your keyword strategy will help you prioritize.

    For your most important keyphrases you’ll create cornerstone content articles; you create the best possible content about that keyword – authoritative and all-encompassing. All your supporting, more long-tail articles will link to this cornerstone content. This should be part of your internal linking strategy, which Yoast SEO Premium can help you implement.

Tips for keyword research

This all might sound pretty straight-forward, but we know it’s a lot of work and easier said than done. When put to practice, you might bump into some common issues or questions. Here we’ll give some tips to make it work!

Want us to guide you through keyword research step-by-step? With videos, quizzes and other training material? Take a look at our keyword research training, part of our online SEO training subscription, and let us help you carry it out!

Prioritize your keyword list

How many keywords should you have? Well, 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 are probably too many! 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. You can add content bit by bit. Think about what keywords you want to rank for now – perhaps the more long-tail ones? – and which ones aren’t as important right away. Understand your priorities and plan the creation of your content.

Keep reading: Managing a growing blog: content planning »

A focus keyphrase and its synonyms only need one page

In the past, each of the keywords you wanted 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, like synonyms, of a keyword.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use synonyms! In fact, synonyms can really improve the readability of your copy, so use them in your text! Our Yoast SEO Premium plugin can help you with this; it allows you to optimize your content for synonyms and related keyphrases. Related keyphrases are words and concepts that deepen and broaden the understanding of your focus keyphrase. They even help Google better understand the topic you’re talking about. By using synonyms and related keyphrases in your text you can paint a complete picture of your focus keyphrase in your article.

Check out results for singular and plural keywords

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 intending to buy a book. 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.

Yoast SEO Premium has word form support, so it automatically detects all the different forms of your focus keyphrase (known as keyword stemming). So, you no longer have to optimize your post for a specific word form. Optimizing your post has become a much more natural process. However, there are reasons why you’d still want to optimize for a very specific word form of a keyword. In this case, you can put your focus keyphrase in quotes: “best books ever”. Yoast SEO will now only take that exact focus keyphrase into account when checking your content.

Use a keyhrase only once

Beware, you should not use your exact focus keyword more than once. If you do, your rankings might suffer from keyword cannibalization. Google has a hard time distinguishing between content that’s very alike. Therefore it might rank very similar posts or pages lower.

Not sure if you used a focus keyphrase before? The post why and how to export your focus keyphrases with Yoast SEO Premium will help you get an overview of the focus keyphrases you’ve used before and on what page. Also, Yoast SEO throws off a warning in the SEO analysis if you use one twice.

Did you find out you’ve already used the same or very similar keywords or keyphrases on various posts and pages? Then, it probably makes sense to audit your content and perhaps merge/delete/redirect some of it. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to solve keyword cannibalization issues.

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, share it on social media and in your newsletter. 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 efforts are paying off!

If you’re not able to rank on the first page, try to write another article, focused on an (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!

Quick keyword research

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. But, 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.

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 mentioned in step 3 and Google Trends to quickly check 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! In our focus keyword article, you’ll find more tips on how to do keyword research on the fly.

Read on: How to choose the perfect focus keyword »

Ready? Start writing!

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. Check out our Ultimate guide to SEO copywriting to get started!

Keep on reading: WordPress SEO: The definitive guide to higher rankings for WordPress sites »

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