10 Steps to Advanced Keyword Research

Posted by randfish

Some keyword research is surface-level, fire and forget type stuff. If you just need to see relative volume levels, then a basic keyword research tool is all you need. If, however, you want to really dive deep and get the full skinny on your keywords, I’d recommend having each of these data points.

#1 – Relative Search Volume from 3 Sources

There are three sources on the web that I’ve found to work best for comparative numbers research. These are:

  1. Google Adwords: Keyword Tool – enter any term or phrase and get back data about both the average search volume and the volume from the previous month.
  2. MSN AdCenter: Research Keywords Tool – you need to be logged in to use this, but the data is solid and shows actual counts.
  3. Wordtracker: Keyword Tool – although the numbers Wordtracker shows are frequently less accurate than the two above, they are reasonably decent for estimating comparative search volume. Unfortunately, due to the declining share of Wordtracker’s data sources (the Infospace owned search engines – Metacrawler, Dogpile, DoGreatGood, etc.), niche and long tail term volume estimates can be way off.

Here’s why I don’t use Yahoo!:

Yahoo!'s Keyword Volume Estimates

From there, rather than build a spreadsheet just showing raw numbers, I like to work in comparative sizes (the real numbers rarely prove accurate anyway). Thus, rather than having a graph of data like this:

Keyword Search Query Volume

I can have one like this:

Relative Keyword Demand

Note how, in this view, I’m showing the relative volume percentage of the demand for keyword "SEO" made up by "seo services" and "seo tools." This graph tells me that while Google thinks "seo tools" and "seo services" are tiny fractions of the volume that comes in for the broad term, "SEO," Microsoft & Wordtracker both say these phrases make up a more substantive percentage. Since keyword targeting is really about choosing one keyword over another and much less about trying to estimate exact traffic, the latter system makes much more sense to me.

#2 – Temporal Fluctuations

When are your queries in highest demand? Knowing the answer can help you predict when competition may ramp up and additional SEO efforts are needed as well as provide insight into your market overall (if demand has been dropping steadily over the last few years, you might want to target some different terms, or even shift product focus). Two sources of data are solid on this front:

Google Trends for Keywords

Google Trends

MSN AdCenter Labs: Keyword Forecast Tool

MSN AdCenter Labs

#3 – Top Ranking Domains

In order to get a full understanding of the competitive landscape, it’s essential to know who’s ranking for the terms you’re targeting. A basic query is a great start, but I like to append those with a bit of extra data, as I’ve visualized below:

SEO Services SERPs with Data Overlay

Those three are my favorite pieces of link data to append, not because they alone are predictive of rankings, but because the range so perfectly illustrates what’s necessary, on both the URL and domain level to be competitive. Nick’s been pushing hard to get this functionality automatically included with the SEOmoz Toolbar, so hopefully we can make that happen in the next few months.

#4 – Fresh Web (News, Blogosphere, Tweetosphere) Activity

The fresh web (aka social media sphere) can help to show how often keywords are appearing in content and conversation in blogs, forums, feeds and more. It’s particularly valuable for identifying emerging trends which may not yet have search volume (but will if the conversational content acceleration continues). There’s a few tools I like on this front:

Facebook Lexicon

Facebook Lexicon Screenshot
There appears to be some correlation between "party tonight" on Friday and "hangover" on Saturday

Twist: See Trends in Twitter

Twist: See Trends in Twitter Screenshot


Blogscape Results for Walter Cronkite vs. Michael Jackson

Google News Trends

Google News Archive Search
I’d love to see some of those 19th century SEO tools!

The real value (and reason for spending time in these sectors) is to:

  • A) Identify patterns or trends indicating a keyword/product/concept is on the rise/fall
  • B) Find content that in the past has attracted large amounts of attention around these keywords (an excellent starting point for viral content development)
  • C) Locate portals on the web or in social communities where your topic may be hot, and opportunities for promotion or links exist

They’re not universally valuable for every part of keyword research, and you shouldn’t trust the volumes to predict keyword demand (some things get written about more than they get searched), but a good SEO leaves no opportunity un-investigated.

#5 – Vertical Results (and Vertical Opportunities)

It’s wise to be aware of where and how your keywords can cross over into vertical search results. The best way to do this currently is, unfortunately, manually. You’ll want to:

  1. Search for your target terms at the major search engines
  2. Identify any vertical results that appears in the top 10-20 listings
  3. Employ strategies to reach into the applicable verticals

The most common and highest value are typically:

  • Local
  • Product
  • News
  • Images
  • Blog
  • Video

#6 – Searcher Intent

What are the goals of the individuals searching for your targeted keywords? What phase of the decision process are they in? Answering these questions can give you an excellent idea of the potential ROI from drawing in traffic on a given term/phrase. Many times the highest volume keywords are not bringing in the best traffic.

Some good resources on this front include:

MSN AdCenter Labs' Commercial Intent Detection Tool

Your goal should be to narrow down the potential tasks a visitor who has just performed the query wants to accomplish. This can dramatically boost your site’s performance when coupled with delivery of those paths upon arrival.

#7 – Potential Relevance

The best way to determine the relevance between a keyword and the content/service/product you offer is to test. Run a PPC campaign or dig into your analytics and choose only those visitors that have come via the search query. Pull out data like browse rate, time spent on site, conversions, etc.

Page Views / Visit for Keyword "SEO Blog"
The majority of visits who come into SEOmoz for the keyword "SEO Blog" stick around to read at least a couple of pages

Relevance is highly actionable data because it does such a good job predicting which keywords are going to bring valuable traffic. While branded terms often perform highly (and are typically easy to rank well on), longer tail and more specific queries also have this tendency to be more relevant (and, again, are easier to achieve).

#8 – PPC Advertising Data

Even if you’re not planning on bidding for keywords through paid search campaigns, it’s wise to know what the competition is doing and how much value they’re getting from it (and what they’re willing to pay). A few good resources for this information include:

MSN AdCenter’s Keyword Estimate

AdCenter's PPC Pricing Graph

I really like what AdCenter does with this spiffy graph – showing the cost and estimated clicks in an easy-to-read graphic. Just remember that MSN is the engine with the fewest advertisers, which often means pricing is less aggressive than on Google or Yahoo!

Google AdWords Traffic Estimator

I’m a bit less fond of Google’s standard take on the data, but their pricing is the gold standard, as AdWords has the highest number of advertisers and the most traffic by far.

Google AdWords Traffic Estimator Tool Results


A solid tool with a lot of uses, particularly for competitive keyword analysis, SEMRush shows some decent numbers around the average CPC and competition levels for most keywords at the head of the demand curve.

SEMRush Keyword Data

Take the cost-per-click data and competition levels into account when you’re considering things like relevance, potential conversion rates and visitor value. Most companies aren’t dumb – if they’re bidding high dollar values for potential visits, they’re converting those visits into dollars and that means you can both learn from them and find strategies to outperform.

#9 – Top Related Queries

Related queries is an easy metric to understand – you want to know what other terms searchers who used these keywords also employed. It’s a no-brainer to then add these to your list of potential keyword targets. Many good sources for this data exist:

  • Google shows related searches in both their AdWords Tool and through web search (you’ll want to click the "show options" link at the top followed by the "related searches" link in the sidebar)
  • Bing, Microsoft’s new engine, shows related searches by default in their web search interface
  • Yahoo! Search has their "also try" list and clicking "more" will give you an interface just below the search box that finds lots of great, relevant keywords
  • The aforementioned SEMRush shows great data on this (though you’ll need to sift through as there can be a lot of junk) if you’re a paying member
  • Compete.com’s Search Analytics has good information by query and website, though you’ll need to subscribe to their service to get the full value

Get the related queries, dig into the data about them and target those that have enough volume and relevance to help you get increase valuable traffic from SEO.

#10 – Legal Issues

Last, and probably least in most cases, it’s wise to do some research into the legalities surrounding the keywords you’d like to target. Using trademarked terms and phrases on your site can cause attorney trouble, and no one likes that. The place to start, at least in the United States, is here – USPTO Trademark Electronic Search System.

Whew… That’s a lot of work for keyword research – now you can see why some firms charge hundreds of dollars per hour for this type of deep dive. Put these recommendations to good use, though, and you’ll have an impressive set of terms to target – and that can be a serious competitive advantage.

I’ve undoubtedly left out a few metrics and, as always, appreciate any ideas or suggestions you’ve got on this topic.

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