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How To Do Keyword Research: A Step-by-Step Guide to SEO Keywords

If you want to create SEO-friendly content, you need to invest in keyword research before you start writing. In this guide, I’ll explain why keyword research is so crucial and walk you through the process.

Sep 28, 2023

17 m read

Keyword research is the foundation of a solid search engine optimization (SEO) campaign, and knowing how to do it effectively is critical to your website’s search visibility. Whether you’re in the beginning stages of site creation or are building an SEO strategy to boost organic traffic, you need to know the keywords your customers are using so they can find your content when they need it.

This guide will cover how to do keyword research for your business. You’ll learn how to find keywords for SEO, analyze their potential, and choose the most effective ones to use in your SEO content strategy.

get started guide: how to do keyword research

What Is SEO Keyword Research?

Keyword research is the task of finding and evaluating the words and phrases potential customers use in search, so your content ranks higher on search engine result pages for relevant terms. It’s one of the fundamental practices of SEO. The goal of SEO keyword research is to:

  • Find the search terms your customers are using
  • Prioritize the ones you want to optimize for based on search volume, competition, and your business goals.

Why Is SEO Keyword Research Important?

While you may already have some keywords in mind that you think describe your offerings, SEO keyword research helps fine-tune your keyword list and provides a reality check for your assumptions. SEO is less about forcing the terms you think are relevant into your content and more about determining what your target customers are actually searching for.

Your research might reveal that searchers don’t use the terms you think they might. You may also discover a variety of keywords you hadn’t considered, providing more opportunities for a targeted content strategy that will help you reach a wider audience.

How Keyword Research Boosts Your SEO Efforts

Keyword research ensures the language you use on your web pages matches user queries, so your pages rise in search engine result pages (SERPs). Search engines like Google won’t rank your pages for relevant queries unless they contain the keywords searchers use to find information users are looking for. 

If you’re hoping to rank for a certain search phrase, you need it on your website. I’ve said it once, I’ll say it a million more times, but Google’s algorithms are content-based, and there is no skirting around the fact that if you want to show up for something, you need to be using that specific keyword or a variation of it in your content.

Once you’ve researched relevant keywords, you can integrate the phrases into helpful and informative SEO content. Unique and useful content is what’s going to keep a user on your website longer, building familiarity and trust. If you can produce the best content for a given search term, you’ll likely reap the benefit of increased organic traffic while building topical authority for your website. 

How To Search for Keywords for Your SEO Strategy

Here’s a step-by-step guide to performing SEO keyword research, from generating keyword ideas to determining which ones best suit your business goals.

1. Decide What Matters to Your Business

The most important step in building a keyword-driven search engine optimization strategy is determining where you’ll focus your efforts. If you engage in keyword research that covers every page on your site, not only will the research phase be overwhelming, it won’t be easy to implement such a far-flung plan. 

I recommend that the first thing you decide is which pages on your site can move the needle on your business goals with the benefit of added organic traffic. 

Focus your SEO efforts on those pages. 

An important caveat: Your target audience might not be looking for the pages that are important to you.

It’s entirely possible that your keyword research will reveal that there’s no search demand for the pages you think are strategically important to your business. 

It’s essential that you take your cues from search data rather than trying to shoehorn existing content into your SEO strategy if it doesn’t fit. Search engines will tell you what you should be focusing on, and this information can be invaluable to your business goals. In this case, your business will benefit from focusing your efforts where they can yield the greatest results rather than wasting resources on the Sisyphean task of trying to rank content that prospective customers aren’t looking for. 

2. Brainstorm Topics

Start your keyword planner with a list of potential search terms based on your target pages. At this stage, the idea is to cast the net wide. Later, you’ll analyze the value of those keywords to prioritize which ones to implement.

Come Up With Keywords Internally

Get together with your marketing team and develop a list of keywords your target customers might use. Make a keyword planner list to refer to during the rest of the research process.

Begin with at least five or six general topics or content buckets. These seed keywords will “sprout” other keyword ideas.

I’m going to use the example of a fictional ecommerce cosmetics and beauty retailer called BeautyTrend to illustrate the keyword research process. 

BeautyTrend starts their initial keyword list with the products they offer on their website. They want to attract potential customers who search for these terms with the intent to purchase:

  • Skincare
  • Makeup
  • Eyelash extensions
  • Nail designs
  • Eyebrow shaping

The list also includes related information their customers might be searching for, such as:

  • Makeup tutorials
  • Beauty news and trends

These broad keywords are difficult to rank for because they’re so general. But once you identify higher-level topics, you can come up with more specific keywords to fill the buckets. 

The skincare category, for example, could include phrases such as “moisturizer for dry skin” or “hydrating skin mask.” Informational terms might consist of basic search terms combined with words like “how-to,” “guide,” or “step-by-step.”

Check Out the Competition

Your competition is a critical source of keyword information. Begin by identifying key competitors and find the keywords they rank for in SERPs.

Consider companies that are selling to the same audience as you. If you rely on local customers, pick competing businesses in your area. A corporation with an international presence has an entirely different set of competitors. (Learn more about local keyword research here.)

Find competing businesses by plugging the keywords and phrases you’ve brainstormed into Google and look at the companies at the top of organic search results.

To get a sense of how your competitors perform in search, run their URLs through a keyword research tool such as the Ubersuggest Chrome extension or SimilarWeb. You’ll want to note how many organic keywords the sites are ranking for, monthly traffic, backlink profiles, and domain scores. You can analyze the content itself later.

Find Your Competitor’s Keywords

SEO tools like Ahrefs Site Explorer let you examine a domain’s top-ranking pages. You can see your competitors’ most popular pages and the best keywords that generate the most organic traffic for them. When you find a search term that also applies to your business, add it to your keyword planner.

This type of review can turn up SEO keywords or niche questions you’re missing. You’ll use what you learn to develop valuable, authoritative content that will increase your ranking in SERPs and help you attract more organic traffic.

Get to Know Your Customers

Another way to generate keyword ideas is to study your customers to see what they’re interested in. Browse social media, forums, discussion groups, and Q&A sites such as Reddit to see what questions your target audience is asking online. This can help you uncover other keywords and craft content that addresses their needs.

For example, a BeautyTrend marketer might notice that online discussions about wrinkles include questions about anti-aging skincare routines and products with natural ingredients. Add relevant topics like these to your keyword planner.

3. Analyze Specific Keywords

After using SEO tools and competitor research to fill your topic buckets, it’s time to drill down and figure out the keywords that will work best for your site. 

Many factors come into play when analyzing the value of a keyword.

I want to pause right here and issue the following caveat about how one keyword research tool will differ from another:

Every tool you might use to conduct keyword research, whether free or subscription-based, will have its own way of calculating the values for the keyword data I discuss below. 

Prioritize your keywords according to your business goals and cross-reference your research findings between different keyword research tools. 

Keyword research is as much an art as a science.

Search Volume

Monthly search volume, or MSV, is a metric that shows how many people search for a particular keyword or term. The MSV gives you an idea of how many people might see your search snippet when it lands on the first page of SERPs. Keywords with low monthly search volume aren’t as frequently searched as other keywords, meaning the sites that rank for them are pulling traffic from a smaller group of potential searchers. 

Low MSV isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A low search volume keyword that converts a large percentage of a small set of searchers might still be strategically valuable for your business. This is what I would call “low hanging fruit” and it should never be overlooked just because the number isn’t as big and shiny as others!


The number of clicks is a measure of how many people click a search snippet link after searching for a specific term. You can use the Ahrefs Keyword Tool to see how often a site ranking for a keyword gets clicked each month and compare this data to the number of times the term is searched monthly to estimate the click-through rate.

As explained by Moz, some search terms may have a low click-through rate because questions are answered directly on SERPs by the Google featured snippet or knowledge panel.

Traffic Potential

How much traffic are you likely to get from a keyword? You can estimate traffic potential using monthly search volume and click-through rate data. A keyword research tool like Ahrefs’ Keyword Explorer also shows how much traffic top-ranking pages are attracting for a specific keyword.

Keyword Difficulty

Keyword difficulty (KD) estimates how hard it is to rank in the top ten organic search results for a keyword. Different keyword research tools will arrive at this value in different ways. 

In Ahrefs, KD is a straightforward average of the number of websites that link back to the content ranking in the top ten positions for that term. 

Ahrefs keyword research example

Moz uses a more complicated formula to calculate keyword difficulty, taking into account its proprietary metrics for the page and domain authority of top-ranking content.

There are trade-offs to consider for low and high-difficulty keywords. Easy keywords might give you a premium place on a Google search page, but fewer people search for that term. More difficult keywords take more time and resources to rank for, but you can dramatically increase organic traffic if you reach the first page of search results for them. 

Difficult SEO keywords also indicate that the topics covered by that keyword are in demand, and you may be able to land backlinks for your content while you wait to break into the top of SERPs.

4. Narrow and Group Keywords Within Your List

Once you complete your preliminary brainstorming, you’ll likely have more potential keywords than you could possibly use. Now it’s time to narrow down which keywords to focus your SEO strategies on.

There are four main types of keyword data to consider when finding new keywords. Each one is important for different reasons, so you’ll need to weigh the factors against each other.

  • Relevance. Keywords should be important to your customer and naturally fit into your content.
  • Authority. Compare the authority of your website to currently ranking sites for that keyword. Determine the time and resources it may take for your site to land higher in SERPs.
  • Search Volume. Decide if high search volume keywords are worth pursuing or if you’ll stick to medium and low search volume terms that are easier to rank for.
  • Difficulty: Consider a mix of low, medium, and high difficulty keywords for each topic category so you can see progress over time — results from more accessible search terms first and harder search terms later.

Organize Your New Keywords

Sorting your keywords into manageable batches makes it easier to spot opportunities for how and where you’ll use them. When you group related keywords together, you might see how to combine broad and long-tail keywords into themes that will work together on a page to help it rank in search results. 

5. Prioritize Keywords

After narrowing down the keywords, begin prioritizing them so you can decide which ones to focus your SEO strategies on.

Identify Search Intent

Search intent describes why someone is searching for a particular word or phrase. Understanding intent provides insight into how customers use keywords and what type of content they’re looking for. If you’re not sure of the search intent for a keyword, do a Google search and look at the type of pages ranking for it.

There are four types of search intent:


Searchers use informational keywords to find the answer to a question. These types of keywords are precise but not always phrased as a question: “what does serum do for your skin?” or “highest concentration of retinol available.”

What the searcher wants is usually straightforward. If you serve up the right content to answer their question, you may land on the first page of search results or in a featured snippet — both being prime areas of SERP real estate!


People use navigational keywords to find a specific page on a website. A user might simply enter the name of a business into the search bar instead of typing the whole URL — for example, “BeautyTrend.”

Searchers may also search for a specific page of a domain to get there in one click from SERPs, such as “BeautyTrend return policy” or “BeautyTrend blog”.


Customers perform transactional searches when they’re ready to purchase something. They’ve usually researched, compared products, and are looking for a place to buy what they want. If you can create high-ranking product or category pages around keywords such as “best price on headphones” or “l’oreal auburn hair color,” you can decrease the distance from search to purchase and convert more website visitors into customers.

Commercial Investigation

Searchers use commercial keywords when they are narrowing down their choices before they purchase. People looking for this type of content are looking for reviews, advice, or guidance.

BeautyTrend can satisfy these types of queries by incorporating keywords such as “best moisturizers for dry skin” or “top concealer creams” into articles and linking to product pages.


Local searches are targeted to a specific area and usually use “near me” or a specific city name in the search box. Google uses location capabilities to know exactly where the user is and serve up relevant results. Searching for “manicures near me” will generate different results in Seattle and New York.

If your business has a local presence, use the name of your city, town, or neighborhood in your content to help you appear in local searches.

Map the Keywords to a Buyer’s Journey

Traditional marketing is based on the customer’s journey — the path a buyer takes from their first introduction to a product or service to the purchase stage. The process is more fluid on the web, with customers often shifting between stages instead of following a linear path.

When you match keywords and content to the sales funnel, you’re ensuring visitors to your site find the right content when they need it. 

This journey can be described as having three parts.

ToFu: Awareness

At the top of the funnel (ToFu), buyers first become aware of your company and offerings. Visitors may not yet be searching for a specific product, so they’re unlikely to use keywords that focus on brands. For ToFu customers, opt for SEO keywords that introduce your niche through instructional content and thought leadership pieces. The aim is to grow your authority and trustworthiness and begin building a customer relationship.

BeautyTrend can focus on keywords such as “how to apply eyeliner” and “the best anti-acne face wash” to attract buyers at the top of the funnel.

MoFu: Consideration

The middle of the funnel (MoFu) is where customers consider taking action. They’re signing up for a mailing list, sharing a social media post, entering a contest, or entertaining the idea of making a purchase. Keywords should focus on products, services, and content that customers want.

BeautyTrend might build content around keywords such as “free shipping beauty products” or “makeup brush set sale” to attract customers close to making a decision.

BoFu: Decision

The bottom of the funnel (BoFu) is where a prospect makes the purchase decision. Customers are now searching for specific products. For example, BeautyTrend should focus the keyword phrase “wet n wild megalast retractable eyeliner” on a product page rather than in a long-form eye makeup tutorial.

Keep long-term and short-term business goals in mind as you select your keywords. For example, you might have an immediate goal of increasing sales, so you want to target BoFu keywords. But, allocating some resources to ToFu keywords helps you build an audience of future customers. 

Learn more about ToFu, MoFu, and BoFu here.

Find Your Fat-Head and Long-Tail Keywords

Keywords fall into two general categories: fat-head and long-tail keywords. They differ in search volume and ranking difficulty.

Fat-Head Keywords

Fathead keywords are one or two-word search terms that are very broad and usually have a high MSV. BeautyTrend’s fat-head keywords might include “beauty” and “makeup.” These keywords can be in such high demand that ranking for them is generally more difficult, especially for a new business that’s yet to establish topical authority in their industry.

Long-Tail Keywords

Long-tail keywords are more specific. They draw fewer searches but have a lower keyword difficulty. More importantly, they reach a highly targeted audience. BeautyTrend’s long-tail keywords include “oil-free eye makeup remover” and “talc-free setting powder,” both of which get fewer than 1,000 searches per month, but traffic resulting from those queries is more likely to convert on their site.

Each vertical topic bucket you developed during the brainstorming phase should include a combination of broad/fat-head and long-tail keywords.

Where to Use Broad and Long-Tail Keywords

Once you know if your SEO keywords are broad or long-tail, you can put them to work.

An SEO-friendly website is built with topic pillars and cluster pages. Pillars cover a broad topic and link to related, more detailed cluster pages.

  • Place fat-head keywords in pillar pages that introduce a topic
  • Fit long-tail keywords into cluster pages designed to answer specific questions or delve into a subject in-depth

Using Your SEO Keyword Research Effectively

Once you’ve chosen your target keywords, it’s time to incorporate them into your content-rich website and maximize search potential.

Search engine rankings are heavily weighted toward quality SEO content that demonstrates expertise. You can’t simply create a page and fill it with search terms you’ve discovered during the keyword research process (try as you may)—pages with relevant, substantive, and informative content rank higher than thin content that doesn’t provide unique value. 

While a few pages of stellar content is a good place to start, you’ll generate the best online visibility with a site that’s rich with unique content. Use the information you gained from your careful keyword research to populate your website with interesting, engaging pages that naturally incorporate each target keyword.

The more content pages you have that are ranked well, the more chances people find you in search engines. It also helps other areas of SEO, giving opportunities for backlinks and building your authority and expertise in the industry.

Learn more about expertise, trustworthiness, and authority signals and how they can impact your search visibility.

Watch for Keyword Crossover

Although it’s fine to use the same keyword in more than one page on your website, you want to be sure that you’re crafting each piece of content to fit a unique search intent. If the overall sum of the content on two different pages is too similar, they can end up competing with each other for the same search queries.

Learn more about how keyword cannibalization can hurt your overall search rankings.

Useful Tools for Keyword Research

Online tools and plug-ins save you time when trying to pinpoint the right keywords for your SEO strategy. Here’s a list of useful research tools to help you find, analyze, and assess keywords for any industry.

  • Ahrefs Webmaster Tools. Website owners enjoy free limited access to Site Explorer and Site Audit when signing up for an account and verifying site ownership. Paid features offer more functionality.
  • Answer the Public. Discover the questions and phrases people search for related to your target keyword. This free keyword tool includes information on search trends and real-time searches.
  • Google Keyword Planner. Designed for Google Ads campaigns, the Google Keyword Planner requires you to open a Google ads account and provide billing information to access the tool. But you can use the tool to analyze relevant search terms for your business without buying any Google ads. 
  • Google Trends. Use this free keyword tool to see popular and trending searches. You can also search a specific keyword to compare search patterns by time range and geographic location. Learn more about how to use Google Trends.
  • Google Search Console. Use Search Console to see your site’s performance, including traffic, the keywords bringing traffic, and where your site ranks for the keywords. Sign up for an account to access this free service. Check out our Beginner’s Guide to Google Search Console.
  • Keyword Generator. Enter up to ten words or phrases into this free tool from Ahrefs to see keyword ideas along with difficulty and search volume. You can generate keywords for Google, Bing, YouTube, and Amazon.
  • Keyword Difficulty Checker. See how hard it will be to rank in the top 10 search results for a specific keyword. This tool includes an estimate of how many backlinks you’ll need to rank.
  • Keywords Explorer. This paid tool from Ahrefs provides detailed keyword suggestions and an array of advanced SEO metrics such as keyword difficulty, search volume, and clicks.
  • Keyword Rank Checker. Use this free tool to see where a site ranks for a specific keyword along with the current top-ranking pages.
  • Keyword Sheeter. Plug a search term into this free tool to generate a keyword list. This basic tool is based on autocomplete suggestions and doesn’t include search volume, difficulty, or other data.
  • Keyword Surfer. Add this free Chrome extension to your browser to see search volume right in Google Search. It also offers keyword suggestions, related terms, visibility metrics, and on-page data.
  • Keyworddit. Built by Reddit, this keyword generation tool pulls ideas from titles and comments of Reddit threads, serving up words and phrases people are interested in.
  • QuestionDB. Enter your broad keyword ideas into this tool to see a list of related questions people search for. There are free and paid versions available.
  • SpyFu. This tool provides detailed insight into your competitors and the keywords they’ve purchased on Google Ads. It includes information on ad variations and organic rank.

Keyword Research for SEO FAQs

What Makes a Good Keyword?

Many factors come into play when choosing a good keyword, ask yourself:

  • Are my keywords targeting what people are searching for?
  • Can I create the best content on the internet for this topic?
  • Will this traffic help me reach my goals? (conversion goals, revenue goals, brand reach goals, etc.)
  • Does my website have the ability to rank for these keywords?

You can still target keywords that don’t satisfy all these criteria. Weigh the importance of each factor and understand that it may take more time to get results, and adapt your strategies accordingly.

How Do I Find the Best Keywords for My Niche?

To reach a specific niche, define your target market fully and focus on long-tail keywords. A beauty retailer may want keyword ideas related to organic, eco-friendly cosmetics or skincare products that address the concerns of specific ethnicities, for example.

The more tightly you define your niche when you begin your research, the more long-tail keywords you’re likely to discover. Use the same tools and research processes as a less specialized company, but start the search with more precise keywords.

Where Can You Find Keywords for SEO for Free?

While there are many paid SEO tools, Google provides some free keyword tools.

  • Keyword Planner is probably the best-known source for free keyword searches. The Google Keyword Planner helps you find search terms relevant to your business so you can analyze keywords according to your SEO strategy. You’ll need to create a Google ads account to access the Google Keyword planner, but you don’t need to purchase any ads to use this valuable tool to analyze keywords.
  • Google Trends is a search analytics tool that shows search volumes for terms over time and location. You can see patterns in searches as well as related topics and queries.
  • Google Search Console can show you what your site is already ranking for. Use this info to improve content or write new content to improve your rankings for those keywords.

Another option is to enter keywords into your Google search bar. The autocomplete predictions make suggestions based on actual queries made by users. You can also look at the “People Also Ask” box in the search engine results to see popular related searches.

What Is a Keyword Strategy?

A keyword strategy is an overall plan for using the search terms to increase organic traffic to your website. An effective strategy:

  • Outlines the tactics you’ll use to drive traffic
  • Sets benchmarks and goals
  • Details the specific content to produce to ensure keywords are covered and properly placed on pillar and cluster pages
  • Uses a content calendar to manage the scheduling and roll-out of posts
  • Covers how you plan to track keyword performance so you can tweak keywords or add complementary posts and articles that encourage more backlinks and sharing

How Often Should You Do Keyword Research?

The search environment is constantly changing based on consumer behavior, keyword trends, the strategies of your competitors, and search engine algorithms. It’s good practice to review your keyword use regularly.

I recommend reviewing keywords every six to twelve months to stay on top of unexpected changes to search volumes and identify new industry search terms before your competitors begin ranking for them.

Where Can You Use Keywords?

Keyword research is time-consuming, but take heart. The search terms you’ve identified have many purposes and can be used on:

  • Blog posts
  • Web pages
  • Social media posts and profiles
  • Online directory listings
  • On-page SEO in page titles, meta descriptions, URL slugs, and image ALT text.

How Do I Find the Most Profitable Keywords?

The most profitable keywords attract qualified prospects to your website — visitors who are low in the sales funnel and close to making a purchase or connecting with a service. These users search for very precise and specific keywords such as “Almay oil-free eye makeup remover” or “contouring brush wood handle.”

Searchers higher in the sales funnel are searching for general information and use broad keywords such as “beauty tools” or “makeup remover.” While they’re further away from conversion, informational content might nurture them into becoming loyal customers.

What Is a Good Keyword Search Volume?

Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to this one. The ideal keyword search volume differs for every situation and depends on your business goals and budget. It also hinges on the difficulty of the keyword. Large businesses with a significant SEO budget may find it worthwhile to compete for the top spots for high monthly search volume keywords to generate traffic. Keywords with lower search volumes but higher conversion rates can help you convert the traffic you get and reach specific sales goals.

The best keyword strategy is based on realistic expectations. Use the results from your keyword research to decide whether the benefits of ranking for a keyword are worth the time and resources you must invest.

What Are Evergreen Keywords?

Evergreen keywords are words and phrases that have longevity and generate search interest year-round. Use a tool such as Google Trends to check search patterns for a particular keyword.

Seasonal keywords (“Best Mother’s Day gifts”) are only searched at particular times of the year, although they may be important to your business. Trending keywords are focused on a recent event that may lose relevance over time.

Do Keywords Have to Be Exact?

You may come across suggested keywords that are awkward or ungrammatical, such as “beauty sponge tip contoured.”  While my personal preference is to stick as closely as possible to the exact keywords users might run a search on, I draw the line at including awkward phrasing that impacts the user experience on the page. With enough semantically related keywords on a page, search algorithms can “intuit” the connection between your content and less “natural” search terms. 

Go ahead and write naturally for the reader and not the search engine. Search engines can recognize that “beauty sponge with a contoured tip” satisfies user intent for this search phrase.

Elevate Your SEO Strategy With Victorious

As I said before, keyword research is as much an art as a science, which is why I love pulling back the curtain on how it’s done. Our best customer is an educated customer.

As much as I know about SEO, you know more about your business needs. Working in a collaborative partnership with you, our SEO agency can enable the best possible outcomes to help your business thrive. Learn more about our people-first approach to SEO services

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