If you want to rank well in search results, you have to undertake keyword research. This is the process of researching the search terms that users actually enter into search engines.
The way that you think about the solution your business offers might be different from the way a prospect thinks about their problem they’re looking to solve. This disconnect can lead you down the wrong keyword path and keep you from finding the most interested prospects.
That’s why keyword research is so critical. It gives you real-world knowledge, which empowers you to show up in the right searches. Not sure where to start? Here are my five steps to effective keyword research.
1. Brainstorm on Your Own
Any good research project grounded in the scientific method, begins with listing out your hypotheses. Brainstorm a list of the words, terms, and questions you think people are searching for when they’re looking for your business or the type of solution you offer.
These may be terms that are related to what you do or sell, they may be based on your location, or they may be questions people could have about your area of expertise.
Let’s say you’re an electrician in the New York metropolitan area. What are the kinds of things people who need an electrician might search for? They might have a question like, “How do I install a hanging light fixture?” They might also search for your services more directly, using the phrase, “electrician near me.” Or maybe it’s something more specific to the kind of service you offer, such as, “same day service electrician NYC.”
Once you’ve come up with your own list, ask your team to do some thinking, too. They might have a different perspective that opens you up to terms you wouldn’t have hit upon on your own.
2. Let the Googling Begin!
Next, you want to open things up to the broader world. You can start getting a sense of how people actually search by going to Google and seeing how it auto-completes your terms.
Sometimes you find something interesting or unexpected. Going back to the electrician example, say you type “lighting installation” into Google. What you find as you begin to type in the search term is that two of the suggestions are about lighting inside cabinets. Perhaps you were thinking of that as more of a niche request, but it actually seems like a pretty popular search term. If this is a service you offer, maybe you want to think more deeply about trying to rank for that term.
You should also check what search terms you already rank for using Google Search Console. This will help you identify the terms that are working for you and how you can improve them further.
3. Narrow it Down
Now that you have a healthy list of potential terms, you want to create your short list. Ideally, these are approximately five foundational phrases and eight to ten long-tail phrases.
The foundational phrases speak to the heart of what your business does. These are the keywords that you want associated with your home page and with specific landing pages related to your most popular offerings or areas of expertise.
How you select the foundational keywords should be strategic. They can’t be too narrow (that’s what the long-tail keywords are for), but going too general means that it will be harder to rank for that term. Returning to the electrician example, “electrician” is likely too broad, but “electrician with expertise in kitchen appliance installation in NYC with quick turnaround time” is likely too narrow. Aiming for something in between the two, like “same day NYC electrician,” is best.
Long-tail keywords are about intent. The person who Googles “NYC electrician” likely has a different intent than the person who Googles “how to install recessed lighting.” With long-tail keywords, you want to target the second type of search, one with a clear intent and specific problem. These keywords will link up to detailed, related content you have on your website. In the above example, that might be a blog post or explainer video about the work involved and costs associated with installing overhead lighting.
4. Use Google’s Keyword Planner
Now that you have a list of 15 or so search terms, you want to run them through the Google Keyword Planner. This is a free tool that allows you to check the popularity of the keywords on your list, find new keywords you hadn’t thought of, and get bid estimates.
At this point in your process, nothing should be set in stone. You might find that one of the keywords on your list is highly competitive (and therefore costly), so it might be back to the drawing board. Alternatively, you might happen upon a great keyword you hadn’t thought of on your own—don’t hesitate to throw that into the mix.
The thing about keyword research is that it’s an ever-evolving process. Once you do select your final keywords, you should revisit your Google Search Console once a month to see how things are going. If you find that one of your keywords remains unsuccessful month-over-month, replace it with something else.
5. Aligning Your Keywords with Content
As I said earlier, these keywords are page specific. While you want to use your broadest keywords on your homepage, you can get more granular on the other pages of your website.
That being said, you want to make sure that the content on the page aligns with the keywords you’ve selected. For example, if you’re that electrician and you have the long-tail keyword “how to install recessed lighting” for one of your web pages, you better be sure there’s detailed information about recessed lighting front-and-center on that page! If someone clicks through a search result and finds information about appliance installation crowding out the top of the page, they’re going to be confused and frustrated. That’s not what they were looking for, so they’ll bounce right back to the SERP.
More broadly, you want to ensure that this content is the voice of your strategy. Yes, the keywords and content should line up, but the content should also speak to your larger strategic goals. If your business doesn’t make much money on installing recessed lighting and you’re trying to get away from offering those services, don’t include those keywords and content as a focus on your site, even if it is a popular search term. Or, if it is a popular search term, perhaps there’s a way for you to restructure your pricing and offerings to make that service more profitable for you so that you can meet the demand in the market.
As with all things in marketing, keyword research really about something much bigger than just picking out some search terms. An effective approach to the process will take your larger strategic goals into account and will help you to reach your broader business objectives. By being systematic about your keyword research approach, you can find the terms that give you the best shot at ranking with those prospects who are most in need of the products or services your business provides.
If you liked this post, check out our Small Business Guide to SEO.