How to do Keyword Research in 90 Minutes

Originally published on MOZ by Jeremy Gottlieb.

Everyone’s been in the position where there’s a million and one things going on, but a client (or you) still requires top-notch keyword research. So something needs to get done in a pinch. Searching around the internet and learning more about the trendiest aspects of keyword research (because let’s face it, either it’s been a while since you last did it or it’s your first time doing it) can take a ton of time. There are literally millions of things you could be reading about it; actually 15.4 million if we want to be precise.

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Unfortunately, no one has time to sift through 15,400,000 results and identify which ones are timely, relevant, or even correct. That’s why I set restrictions so I could stick to a regimented, specific and effective schedule for identifying and presenting the most effective keywords for organic search, no matter who the client is.

We begin this case study with a fictitious client, Joey Antipodean, who lives in Manhattan and really loves kangaroos. In fact, he loves them so much he decided to make a website, www.kangaroosnyc.com (not real and available for sale on GoDaddy) for other admirers of this wonderful marsupial to ask questions, share stories and have a vibrant, loyal community.

Using the Google suite of tools (40 minutes)

Let’s assume Joey has properly set up Google Analytics (GA) and Google Webmaster Tools (GWT). This is a great place to begin, as we can start to see which pages are attracting the most organic traffic and for which terms. Since Google stopped displaying its keywords in GA and replaced them with “not provided,” utilizing GA for keyword research involves a bit of educated guesswork. Step by step, this is what we’ll do:

  1. Enter into Joey’s GA account and click on “Acquisition” in the left-hand navigation
  2. Under “Acquisition”, click on “Source/Medium”
  3. In the primary data on the page, click on “google / organic” (Figure 1)
  4. Click on “Secondary Dimension” and under “Behavior” you will find “Landing Page” (Figure 2)

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(Figure 1)

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(Figure 2)

What we are left with are the top landing pages (as opposed to destination pages, which are for internal search), and from here we can infer which keywords and their variants are driving traffic to the site. We can also assume based on the content of these pages what the users’ intent is and at what point in the conversion funnel they are.

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But we can get even more specific. GWT allows us to see specific data on search queries, impressions, clicks, CTR, and average position on the page. Once again, we’ll find Joey’s account, and this time we’ll click on “Search Traffic” in the left-hand navigation, which will reveal anchor text for “Search Queries”. Clicking on “Search Queries” will yield the treasure trove of information mentioned earlier that can be easily sorted and/or downloaded. Filters can be played with to remove branded traffic and voila, all that remains is pure, unbranded search queries actually used by real, live people to at least see SERPs for www.kangaroosnyc.com.

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We can even click on the tab for “Top pages” instead of “Top queries,” and we can see once again the top pages by organic search. What is different about this than the GA list of URLs is that by clicking on the individual URLs, GWT will actually provide a list of keywords used to generate impressions and clicks. Pretty great, right?

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Let’s begin to place some of the fictitious keywords we found in the fictitious GA and GWT accounts for Joey’s site into a Google Docs spreadsheet. In a bit, we’ll get back to these and attach a number of monthly searches to them. Now we know what we’re dealing with and we can move on to improving our selection of keywords. One of my favorite tools is Google Keyword Planner (GKP), and while it is by no means perfect, it certainly is a great place to start.

In GKP, we’ll click on “Search for new keyword and ad group ideas” and enter “kangaroos” into the box as our product or service. We can leave the rest of this empty for now, though there are many other ways to successfully leverage the other boxes on this page for keyword research.

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After we click on “Get ideas” at the bottom of the page, the magic begins to happen. Click on “Avg. monthly searches” to sort the queries from most sought-after to least.

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Clicking on the top ad group, “Kangaroo”, we see mostly short-tail keywords that receive the lion’s share of the search queries, but towards the bottom we see a few long-tail queries like “where do kangaroos live” that receive 1,000 searches per month. Being realistic and knowing the audience of our site, we should focus on more long-tail queries. This will grant us a better chance of competing in the SERPs due to lesser competition from sites like National Geographic, Wikipedia, and zoos among others.

Another relatively unknown Google-provided tool for keyword research is Google Instant. Google keeps track of what people are searching for and as we begin typing a query into the search bar, it will begin to autopopulate the remainder of the query based on what other people are searching for. This is a great tactic for identifying long-tail keywords.

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We’ll take these keywords as well as the ones we already had (before we began the keyword research) and plug them into the part of GKP that allows us to find the search traffic for specific queries. All we’ll need to do is click on “modify search” and click the option for “Get search volume for a list of keywords or group them into ad groups” before loading the box up with the desired keywords.

Assess the reality: To optimize existing pages or make new ones? (15 minutes)

We want to do a quick analysis here to establish where and if we can compete in the SERPs. Are the domains authoritative and strong or relatively weak and unknown? Moz’s Open Site Explorer is a fantastic option for checking out the strength of the competition in the SERPs and finding out if we’ve got a chance on the first page. For the search query “what do kangaroos eat”, which gets 2,400 searches per month, the results seem to be fairly easy competition. Of course, our site doesn’t actually exist so it’s impossible to rank higher than a real site, but the point is that some weaker pages in the SERPs can be overtaken.

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We’ll need to take the list of keywords that we’re accumulating in our Google Doc and sort it in descending order of monthly search volume. From here we can get a better view of synonyms or closely-related keywords and their search volume. From here, it’s time to put our work to the test to see the variance in the SERPs for different but related keywords. If we’re seeing the same pages show up time and time again for different queries, we can infer that we don’t need to place all the different queries on separate pages; we can just leave some out because they will naturally receive organic traffic through Google’s advanced understanding of semantic intent.

Lastly, we’re going to select our top-performing keywords from our already-existing list of keywords driving traffic to the site as well as the new ones and figure out where they should go. Are the current title tags perfectly optimized for keywords, or do some need tweaking, while others present solid opportunities, but there is no page that exists for them just yet, so a new page should be created? These are the questions we answer now.

Listen to the ideal audience (15 minutes)

What we’ve done so far is monitor what we think our audience wants and track those results in Google, but we’re biased. I think it’s time we heard it from the horse’s (read: kangaroo’s) mouth. Social media is a very powerful tool, but most marketers only think of it as a tool for content dissemination. By using hashtags and keywords, we can find out how people are actually speaking about what interests us. Ideally this will lead us to influencers or people with large followings and judging by what is said, we can figure out what is interesting to the audience that occupies a given niche.

For example, by typing “kangaroo pet” into the Twitter search bar we’re able to see that there is indeed demand for these words and largely within the context we want to see, not the action of softly stroking the animal. This post by Ann Smarty details some other forms of social media that can be used to perform keyword research, but in the spirit of sticking to a 90-minute plan, we’re only going to focus on Twitter for now.

Searching on Twitter should confirm or give a few ideas that can be passed into GKP in order to add to our list of potential keywords. However, it’s worth pointing out that most long-tail queries aren’t going to receive enough traffic to justify building out a new evergreen page, but if the topic is talked about on social media, it could very well serve as a good blog post. Evergreen content, for those unfamiliar with it, is content that rarely becomes irrelevant with time as opposed to a timely blog post.

Slightly different than social media and Twitter is the use of forums. The informal nature of these tends to lead to questions and answers actually posed and answered by humans, not indexed by robots and spit out by some algorithm; responses here are usually very detailed and highly relevant to a given question. If a question surfaces in multiple threads or is just genuinely interesting, that could serve as the impetus for a new evergreen page or as a blog post. We’ve already established that long-tail is going to be better than short-tail keywords for this particular client, so we need to take advantage of Google’s advances in semantic search by providing authoritative content that is interesting and provides strong answers to common questions asked by members of the ideal audience.

Wayne Gretzky had a famous quote for what made him such a great hockey player. He said, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” If we’re metaphorically always skating to where the puck has been rather than where it’s going, we’re granting other sites the ability to develop authority on a topic before we do. Even if Joey’s site does not focus on a small, but growing niche now, by beginning to blog and write about it, by the time that topic does become a part of Joey’s main offering or it becomes mainstream, Google very well might recognize the site as an expert because it has been writing about it for a while when no one else was. An example of this could be “how wallabies differ from kangaroos” or “are wallabies legal in the United States as pets”.

Demonstrate room for growth (20 Minutes)

So, great, we’ve done our keyword research and feel proud of the work we’ve performed, but how do we know Joey Antipodean will care or even take interest? SEOs often find themselves immersed in their own little worlds so sometimes it can be difficult to realize that outsiders care less about semantics or hunches about keywords, and more about data and easily recognizable figures.

An e-commerce site should be able to provide the average order value (AOV) for a transaction, but not every site, Joey’s included, measures conversions in terms of dollars. In this case, let’s say that www.kangaroosnyc.com is looking for email signups and converts visitors at a 3% rate. We’re also going to assume that five of the site’s fictitious, non-keyword optimized pages hold the number four spot in the SERPs of Google for a couple of search queries.

Using estimated click-through rate data, like the graph below from a study published by Advanced Web Ranking, we see that the number four spot on average has a click-through rate of 6.97%. Assuming that there are 10,000 impressions for those top five pages in a month, 697 will advance through to the website. Of those 697, only 3% or nearly 21 people will sign up and provide their email.

Read more about this study in Google Organic Click-Through Rates in 2014.

Read more about this study in Google Organic Click-Through Rates in 2014.

This isn’t the best we can do. We anticipate that the keywords that we’re trying to rank for can eventually land us in the number one position. The same study mentioned above cites that the number one position on Google has a click-through rate of 31.24%. Moving up to the number one spot (just a three spot gain) would earn 3,124 clicks across those same 10,000 impressions, which would yield close to 94 email signups, or 73 more signups with keyword optimization vs. leaving the pages as un-optimized. This is the type of data to be highlighted in a keyword research document. For an e-commerce client, we’d focus on possible future revenue rather than email signups.

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The example of Kangaroos NYC and its make-believe traffic and conversion rate is just an example, but the concept holds true for nearly all clients. Find out your client’s current click-through and conversion rates and demonstrate how that data compares to known click-through rate for SERPs on the first page. Don’t forget, the whole reason for keyword research is to rank as high as possible for terms that drive (qualified) traffic, so being able to show how much room for growth exists makes your cases for implementing changes all the more compelling.

What are your tips and tricks for quick, but effective keyword research?

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10/15/2017 at 7:59pm
RT @chiefmartec: Martech and the modern marketing org (results of a study with 275 marketing leaders) https://t.co/Ftpq8hvb6A #MarTech #CMO cornellazar photo
10/11/2017 at 8:35pm
RT @tailopez: When there is pain and failure there is usually growth. That's the good thing.