How to do Keyword Research: Tips, Tools and Techniques

Posted in Guides By Sam Applegate

keyword research

With no keyword research, there would be no O in SEO. How can we optimise our website if we don't know what we're optimising for?

This is why every website you build, every article you write and even every title you create, should start with a healthy dollop of keyword research. (Also known as search engine keyword research, or even, Google keyword research).

Diagram describing what keyword research is

What is Keyword Research?

It's really not rocket science, I like to split it into two main areas:

Why Perform Keyword Research?

The short answer to this, is to ensure your website gets maximum exposure on the search engines, and your content reaches its desired target audience.

I actually think keyword research is less important than it used to be. In the social age, you can gain plenty of exposure through alternative sources such as Facebook, Twitter and Google+, without ever even loading up the Google Adwords Keyword Tool. However, having said that there's still no better source of traffic than ranking #1 for a super relevant keyword in a search engine.

Types of Searches - Getting Inside the Head of the Searcher

Before I dive into my keyword research guide, I'd like to take a look at the different types of searches that people perform. This is very important as it helps us understand the traffic quality we can expect to receive from a particular search term.

Search Term Length

One very interesting concept is the length of the search term, or the number of keywords contained in the whole key phrase.

How search term length affects traffic

'Traffic quality' can be defined as: how targeted the traffic is to your site, therefore the likelihood this traffic will convert into a sale, lead or sign-up.

Short search terms generally bring poor quality traffic, because they aren't specific enough. For example, 'watch' or 'mouse'.

Long search terms generally bring high quality traffic, because they suggest the user knows exactly what they want and are ready to buy. For example 'casio W-96H-1AVES mens resin digital prices' or 'logitec wireless mouse M510 5 button'.

The good news is, that super specific search terms have less competition. The bad news is that on their own, they don't bring a huge amount of traffic. You should therefore focus on long tail keyword research, aiming to rank for many different, specific (long) keywords, rather than on one, general (short) keyword.

Search Term Content

Ok. So to really get inside the head of the searcher, and therefore get an understanding of the potential traffic quality from a search term, you also need to think about the actual content of the search term.

This is quite obvious, but it shouldn't be overlooked. The following list contains keywords which may improve traffic quality (keywords which suggest the user is ready to buy):

So you get the idea. Similarly, the following list contains keywords which result in junk traffic:

(these are keywords which I usually add to the negative keyword list when using paid advertising).

For example, 'buy casio watch' should result in higher quality traffic than 'casio watch magazine'.

One important point here, is that all niches are quite unique in how they behave. Although we can get a good idea of which are the quality search terms, we can never be 100% sure. This is why ongoing testing and tracking is necessary. You should be constantly checking your website logs (using either Google Analytics or Google Webmaster Tools) to see what you're ranking for, and which keywords are resulting in sales. Evolve your understanding of the search terms which apply to your specific niche, and constantly target new keywords. More on this later!

How to do Keyword Research

There are two approaches to keyword research: content-centric and keyword-centric:

content centric approach to keyword research

Content-centric - You have a specific piece of content, or provide a particular product or service, and you want to find search terms people may use to find you.

keyword centric approach to keyword research

Keyword-centric - you want to identify profitable search terms, and then build content around them.

The ideal approach is to combine the two. You should start off with a content-centric approach, but as your site grows, you should constantly be on the look out for new, potentially lucrative keywords. This goes back to what I was saying above, about tracking your traffic and constantly targeting new keywords.


The most common type of keyword research is content-centric. Now, before using any online tools, you should use the biggest tool of them all - your noggin! Grab a pen and paper and go sit away from your computer for 5 minutes. Think about what you would type into the search bar, when looking for your product or service. Your first answer is usually the best, but keep going until you've got several different search terms.

I'll work through the process using an example. Lets say I'm a Brighton based driving instructor. Here's my 5 minutes worth of scribble:

Example keyword research list

You can change the order of keywords within the key phrase to make new search terms, however don't worry too much about this, as search engines can read the keywords in any order (and even in separate locations throughout your page). When you run out of ideas, start thinking about locations. I've decided I can travel to nearby towns, so I've also included those on my keyword list.

Now it's time to use the the Google Adwords Keyword Tool. Enter what you think will be your most popular keyword, to generate yet more ideas.

Using the keyword tool

Select [exact] match keywords only, and order the keyword list by local monthly traffic volume. Scroll down the list, adding any keywords you like the look of. Avoid general (short search term) keywords, remember that these are likely to be highly competitive, and poor quality. For example [driving lessons] is not specific enough for us.

We can however, use these general keywords as inspiration to create our own. For example [cheap driving lessons] and [crash course driving] may be too general for a local business, but by adding 'brighton' on the end, we can create a highly targeted keyword.

It's time to use excel. Add your original keyword ideas, together with any new ones you find from the Google keyword research tool.

Excel keyword list

If you have an area-specific product or service (like my driving instructor example), you can add additional keywords by duplicating your most common keywords, then changing the town name using find/replace (ctrl+h).

Excel find and replace

Just as 1-keyword or 2-keyword search terms may be too short and general. It's also important not to get too specific, and start thinking of 7-keyword search terms. Yes they will be highly targeted to your content, but they will result in very little traffic. The sweet spot is usually 3, 4 or 5 keyword search terms. However, this does vary dramatically depending on the popularity of your niche. The following chart gives us a way to visualise this concept.

The keyword research sweet spot

Keyword Research Tools

To be honest, the Google keyword research tool is the one I use 90% of the time. If however, I'm doing keyword research analysis for a more complex niche, I may use some other tools. There are literally dozens out there, including: Wordtracker, the Bing keyword research tool, Wordstream and Wordze.

You can even look at ranking statistics in webmaster tools or traffic reports from your own analytics account.

I don't want to write too much about all the different tools you can use, as it's already been done! There are a couple of great posts here and here on alternative, free keyword research tools.

Continuing with our Example...

So, we're coming to the end of the first part of our niche keyword research (finding keywords), now we need to move onto the second part, understanding the keywords. This is also where we can adopt a keyword-centric approach and find inspiration for new content (or even provide new services).

Add 4 more columns to your excel spreadsheet, titled: competition, traffic, traffic/competition and quality, like this:

Example keyword research table

You can populate the competition column, by performing a Google search (as we're focusing on UK keyword research). Type the search term in quotes, to count the competing websites which exactly match (and are therefore optimised for) the term.

Search for driving lessons hove

The traffic estimation column can be populated using the Google keyword research tool (if you want to make a more accurate estimation, take a look at this post here):

Traffic for driving lessons hove

The traffic/competition column is self-explanatory, divide traffic by competition then multiply by 100. We can use this column to sort our results, for a quick-and-dirty understanding of which are the best keywords (or at least, which are the worst). Remember we obviously want maximum traffic with minimum competition, and highest quality...

'Quality' is a score, from 1 to 10, which I assign to each keyword based on how likely I think it is to convert. For example, short search terms such as [driving lessons] are poor quality, as they are too general. Search terms which include some 'quality boosting' words like [cheap driving lessons brighton] get a high score, as they suggest the searcher is ready to buy.

Now look for the search terms with the highest amount of traffic, least competition and highest quality. Highlighted here in yellow:

Excel list with top keywords

These are the search terms I would optimise my driving instructor website for!

I just want to make a couple of points before I wrap up.

Firstly, when conducting keyword research for SEO purposes, you might want to look into the quality of the competition (rather than just the number of competing websites). This overlaps into a whole new topic called competitive research, so I wont talk about this here. Just point you in the direction of some great reading.

Secondly, this post is for keyword research, not SEO. But, I just want to give a quick piece of advice for on-page optimisation. Please don't, don't, don't stuff these search terms across your website! All you need to do, is mention them naturally in the content. Get a friend to read through your website, if they notice the content has been stuffed with keywords, then you are creating a bad user experience, and potentially at risk of a Google slap.

Thirdly, by all means, DO use this research to give yourself ideas on new content (which will attract more targeted visitors). For example: 'Advantages and Disadvantages of Learning to Drive in an Automatic Car'. Then include the [automatic driving lessons brighton] keyword where you can, just once!

So that's keyword research done? Well not quite. As I mentioned before, we can never completely understand all the search terms before we've actually launched our website (or released our piece of content), and collected actual data on the type of visitors it receives. Continually check your logs for new keywords which you rank for. If they are resulting in sales, leads or sign-ups, then create new content based around these keywords (this is effectively what keyword-centric keyword research is). You can also create mini PPC campaigns to test out new keywords. If they work, start the organic SEO ball rolling.

That's it! Hope you enjoyed. Please comment below if you have any questions or improvements. Plus share to anyone who you think might find this useful!

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Sam Applegate

About the Author

is a UK based SEO consultant. He is also a keen blogger, poker player, world traveller and fitness enthusiast. Read more on his about page.

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