Here Are Three Ways to Improve Your Keyword Research
Organic search is one of the best distribution channels at your disposal. It’s predictable. Traffic compounds over time. You can use it to reach your target audience at a pivotal moment, whether they’re trying to understand a painful problem, looking for the solution, or actively trying to purchase a product.
Keyword research is the process of systematically identifying the best opportunities to grow your organic search traffic. You identify the common words and phrases your target audience uses to search for information and answers. You prioritize the best queries and create content to answer them—placing your company front-and-center of their search results in the process.
That means looking for keywords that are:
- Relevant: Good keywords attract your target audience at a key inflection point. E-commerce pros struggling to understand why cart abandonment suddenly increased. Developers looking for a better way to track bugs. Recruiters weighing-up the pros and cons of competing applicant tracking tools.
- Popular: Keywords can range in usage from a single search per month to several billion. Your task is to find relevant keywords that will generate substantial traffic.
- Feasible: Many search results are crowded with competing content, so you need to augment potential keyword volume with the likelihood of your website successfully ranking for it. A second-page ranking will rarely cut it—most search traffic goes to first-page (and often, first place) search results.
Finding these keywords has always been a challenge, but in an increasingly competitive world, where the best keywords are already “taken” and new articles need to unseat incumbents with years of accumulated traffic and links, it’s harder than ever.
Today, it pays to approach keyword research differently. With that in mind, here are three of our favorite strategies for immediately improving your keyword research.
1. Tackle “Low-Volume” Keywords
It’s tempting to fixate exclusively on keywords with tens of thousands of monthly searches, but this is becoming less and less tenable. All too often, rival companies have already beaten you to the punch, building a competitive moat of backlinks and domain authority that you’ll struggle to cross. Many niche B2B industries lack these ultra-high-volume keywords altogether.
And yes, we’re putting “low-volume” in quotes for a reason—“low-volume” keywords account for the huge majority of the opportunity for SaaS companies. To some folks, low is anything below 10,000 searches/month. To others, it’s 50 searches/month. Whatever your definition, consider that most “high-volume” keywords are very difficult to rank for and provide nothing but a steady flow of high-bounce traffic anyway.
Instead, it’s a great idea to start bolstering your content marketing strategy with “low-volume” keywords with hundreds of searches per month, instead of thousands.
- Low-volume keywords have high volume in aggregate. Articles always rank for multiple keywords; many rank for thousands of related variations. In aggregate, these long-tail keywords can have a huge amount of volume; anecdotally, often four to fives times the estimated traffic of the target keyword. Even 0 search per month keywords can have traffic.
- Low-volume keywords are perfect for H2 and H3 headers. You can dramatically boost search performance by working long-tail variations of your primary keyword into the headers of your article (the same approach AdEspresso used to rank for 4,100 keywords with a single article, shown in the image below).
- Newer domains benefit from “bottom-up” keyword targeting. High-volume keywords are usually more competitive than their long-tail counterparts. By targeting lower-volume keywords, you can begin to build the domain authority needed to tackle higher-volume topics.
- Long-tail keywords have clearer intent. It’s easier to understand the intent behind the query “how to create a content marketing strategy” than it is “content marketing.” The clearer the intent, the greater the likelihood of creating an article that answers the query and ranks well.
Even truly low-volume keywords (less than 100 searches per month) can be lucrative if they show clear buying intent. Ahrefs reports less than 10 monthly searches for “buy crm software online”—but for a CRM company, those ten searches could represent hundreds or thousands of dollars in revenue.
2. Map the Search Intent
Single keywords often cater to multiple searches from multiple types of people. Let’s take “content marketing” as our example: what are these searchers looking for? It could be a definition. It could be a strategy, or a book, or a marketing agency.
Looking at the search engine results page (SERP) itself, we find a host of different types of content:
- The dictionary definition for “content marketing”
- The Twitter account for the Content Marketing Institute
- A beginner’s guide to content strategy
- A roundup with examples of content marketing
Google surfaces these different types of content in response to the different intents behind the query “content marketing.” As a result, writing an article tailored to this single keyword is a whole lot more complicated than it first appears.
To map your article content to the intent behind any search, try this four-step process:
- Sanity-check the common usage. A quick Google search is often enough to check whether your understanding of a keyword matches the common usage. Case in point: the keyword “branded TV show” might seem to intuitively relate to branded video content, like Wistia’s amazing One, Ten, One Hundred documentary series; instead, all of the top results refer to the Branded TV show from 1965.
- Analyze search features. Google often enriches search results with “search features,” like featured snippets and interactive maps. These features provide a good indication of the basic intent behind the search—maps suggest a local business search, while a product carousel suggests buying intent. Using a tool like Ahrefs, this process can be run at scale for thousands of keywords.
- Read the top-ranking content. Dig into the existing search results to understand the types of content Google believes best satisfy the query, and the audience each article is targeted at. Some queries will have multiple audiences: the SERP for “group interview activities” is split almost 50/50 between articles for employers and articles for job seekers. Choose the most relevant intent for your business, or else, plan on creating multiple articles to address multiple intents.
- Identify unserved “gaps” in search intent. Lastly, ask yourself: is anything missing from these search results? Perhaps none of the top-ranking articles answer the query as directly as you’d like. Perhaps they’re all long, meandering “skyscraper” posts, while you’d prefer brevity. Use your article to meet this unserved intent, and create the article you’d like to read.
Single keywords harboring multiple search intents means that volume alone isn’t a particularly useful metric: you need to determine if it’s relevant volume, and whether that volume estimate should be split across multiple search intents.
3. Diversify Your Keyword Sources
Keyword research tools like AdWords, Ahrefs, SEMrush and Moz remain the backbone of keyword research, but with thousands of marketers staring at the same tools and data sets, there’s a competitive edge to be found by looking to other sources.
By their nature, SEO tools are backwards-looking. They’re great for showcasing the keywords and content types that have worked in the past, but they’re powerless to show you better, untested ways to convey information and match search intent. SEO tools help you emulate existing content; if you want to create something that’s radically—not marginally—better, you need to look to different sources.
These are some of my favorite non-conventional keyword sources:
- Question and answer sites. Scour sites like Quora, Reddit, and Stack Overflow to find the biggest pain points and questions your audience is asking.
- Niche communities. Find the Slack groups and forums your audience visits, and start engaging. Ask questions, analyze the types of content they share, and feed their ideas back into your keyword research (for content marketing topics, I love Jimmy’s Slack group, pictured below).
- Search features. Explore the related searches and “People also ask” call-outs for your existing keywords, and brainstorm new topics to tackle their suggestions and questions.
- Weak rankings. You’re probably already using your competitor’s top-ranking keywords as inspiration for your own articles, but how about their lowest-performing keywords? Analyze their content to find lucrative keywords that their articles rank poorly for (on the second, third, fourth pages), and create your own article targeted explicitly at the keyword. The same process can be applied to your own content.
Consider this the bleeding-edge of keyword research. Many of the queries you’ll uncover won’t have masses of search volume, but they’ll reward you in other ways. You’ll be the first to address a burgeoning topic. You’ll cover interesting, novel topics while your competitors rehash the same, tired handful of “how-to” articles. You’ll position yourself at the top of the SERP, should volume increase over time.
Keyword Research Doesn’t Stop When You Hit “Publish”
Keyword research isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it exercise. After you’ve published an article, it’s a good idea to periodically revisit your content and current rankings.
- Look for “gaps” between target keywords and ranking keywords. Is your article ranking for the keyword you intended to rank for, or something else?
- Re-optimize your article for its highest-ranking keyword. If the article ranks best for something other than your intended keyword, try updating the title, headers, and meta-data to match the “new” keyword.
- Periodically refresh your content. Keywords aren’t constant. Volume, intent and search rankings will all fluctuate, and even your top-performing articles will decay over time.
Lastly, remember that content that lives alone, dies alone. While a one-off keyword can offer a boost to organic traffic, long-term, compounding growth is a product of targeting lots of related keywords. Every single keyword—no matter how tantalizing the volume on offer—needs to function as part of a broader content marketing strategy.
The Secret to Content Promotion Is Hidden in Plain Sight
For many marketers, distribution is the final stage of the content marketing process. They bring their creativity to bear on a novel, interesting concept. They write a well-crafted article, often tailored to a carefully-chosen keyword. They hit publish, and share the article to a panoply of promotion sites: Twitter, Hacker News, Facebook.
This process worked well in a time when search results were less crowded and social media still offered organic reach. But today, there’s too much noise from competing content. The web’s traffic is concentrated on a handful of search and social networks, increasingly reluctant to share their traffic. Their audiences are more discerning than ever before. The content ecosystem has changed, but for most marketers, the distribution process remains the same
Today, sharing a single article to a dozen disparate promotion sites doesn’t work. In a crowded, competitive world, content needs to be shaped to a specific distribution channel. The solution, therefore, is simple: one post, one channel.
Instead of treating
Our new process looks like this:
- Distribution: identify a single distribution channel
- Ideation: develop a concept tailored to the nuances of that channel
- Execution: bring our channel-specific concept to life
We eschew shotgun promotion in favor of sniper rifle accuracy. Every element of our content, from thesis to sub-headers to voice, is shaped to the interests of a single audience. Instead of crossing our fingers and hoping that an article resonates, we create an article specifically designed to resonate
1. AdEspresso and Organic Search Distribution
Few niches are more saturated and competitive than digital marketing, but AdEspresso cut through the noise with their distribution-first ethos to SEO content. Instagram Hashtags You Should Use for Every Day of the Week is an organic traffic powerhouse, generating over 255,000 page views since publication last year, and ranking for 4,100 keywords.
These stellar metrics are a product of the article’s structure
- Add lucrative keywords to <h2> headers. Instead of getting the bulk of its traffic from a single keyword, the article ranks for seven high-volume keywords—[monday hashtags], [tuesday hashtags], [wednesday hashtags] and so on—and thousands of long-tail variations. Multiple searches are satisfied by a single article. Anyone looking for “
mondayhashtags” benefits from “ tuesdayhashtags,” and vice versa.
- Use HTML tables to encourage featured snippets. Information is presented in a way that’s both
user– and search engine-friendly. Each batch of hashtags is neatly organisedin a HTMLtable, making it easy for Google to pull out relevant text for use in featured snippets.
- Create content that’s rich with long-tail variants. In most situations, hyper-long content is unwieldy, hard to read, and hard to maintain. But clocking in at 3,600-words, this article demonstrates a deliberate, strategic use of length, allowing AdEspresso to rank for as many long-tail keyword variants as possible.
Organic search is a powerful traffic driver, but it can’t work unless you are laser-focused on creating content specifically for the mechanisms that make Google tick.
2. SFOX and Twitter Distribution
Despite being part of a niche, complex industry, cryptocurrency trading platform
These metrics come care of a carefully chosen, Twitter-friendly structure:
- Use round-ups to create natural tagging opportunities. Round-up articles are often overused and poorly executed, but with careful curation, they create a natural promotional mechanism. By tagging industry figureheads in promotional tweets, it’s possible to raise awareness for an article among thousands (even hundreds of thousands) of engaged followers.
- Flatter contributors to encourage re-sharing. Touting the skills and expertise of featured contributors provides a strong incentive for those people to actively promote it within their networks. Write an article that makes someone look good, and they’ll take care of distribution for you.
- Engage with hyper-active communities. SFOX’s article is positioned as more than just a blog post, created as a simple marketing gimmick. Instead, it’s a “community guide,” serving to curate the achievements of #cryptotwitter, one of Twitter’s most active and engaged communities.
It’s certainly possible that this post can do well in organic search as well, but that should be a byproduct of its performance on social. One piece of content cannot serve two masters.
3. Slab and Hacker News Distribution
Hacker News is famed for its discerning, marketing-resistant user base, but as team knowledge-base tool Slab demonstrates, it’s by no means immune to content promotion. Slab’s article How Jeff Bezos Turned Narrative into Amazon’s Competitive Advantage generated 14,477 page views in a single day, almost entirely driven by traffic from Hacker News.
That same principle that works for search and Twitter applies even to Hacker News. Identify a handful of traits that resonate with your intended audience, and build content to leverage them:
- Tackle well-known concepts in a novel way. Both Hacker News and Reddit are frequented by marketing-savvy people, like developers, founders and, most savvy of all, marketers themselves. Instead of retreading the same tired content marketing formula, Slab’s article homes in on a relatively unexplored nuance of the Amazon story.
- Use strong opinions to spark discussion. Although well explained
andrational, Slab’s article is opinion, not fact, and that serves as a powerful prompt for discussion. Slab’s storytelling hypothesis generated hundreds of comments and questions, including a written response from a former Amazon executive.
- Piggyback the success of platform darlings. Spend time on Reddit and Hacker News and you’ll quickly see a fascination with entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, Warren Buffet, and Jeff Bezos. Slab’s article was published at a time when Bezos was particularly in the limelight, allowing the company to ride a topical wave of interest in Bezos and his business methodology.
Traffic from sites like Hacker News comes in spikes, then dies off. Organic traffic starts slow and builds over time. Each can be valuable, but you’ll want to set the right expectations in your reporting.
The Secret to Content Promotion Is Easier and More Obvious You Think
Many great articles languish in the quiet backwaters of the internet because their authors didn’t consider distribution, or labored to promote an article somewhere it didn’t really fit.
A distribution-first ethos to content marketing creates
Every distribution channel—social media, bookmarking sites, newsletters, search, press mentions—has these quirks and preferences, hidden in plain sight. By reverse-engineering successful articles, and building common characteristics into our content at the very beginning of the creation process, effective promotion is no longer an uphill struggle—it becomes inevitable, and a natural consequence of our content.
The Content Growth Cycle
Content marketing gets easier and delivers better ROI over time.
At the start, it’s a hard slog. New visitors, search rankings, and backlinks are few and far between, but each success builds on the previous one. Every time a visitor clicks through a search result, shares an article, or links to it in their own work, you’re setting the groundwork for your next article—and the next, and the next—to perform even better.
This is the content growth cycle.
It’s something we see often—a virtuous cycle of compounding growth where every new article improves the performance of the next, generating better and better results over time. Stick with it and content marketing becomes a sustainable growth engine.
How the Content Growth Cycle Works
Every new article has a follow-on benefit for all of the content that comes after it. This growth cycle means that each time you publish a new article, you do so from a stronger position. New content improves the performance of future content and grows the business in the process.
Let’s look at this in more detail.
A steady stream of new content is required to initiate the growth cycle. Each new piece creates the opportunity to expose more people to your website. This is the mechanism that makes the next two steps work.
Every time you publish a new article, you increase the chance that the next post will perform even better for three important reasons:
- Distribution. New visitors can subscribe to newsletters and follow you on social media, creating an ever-growing distribution network that can be leveraged over and over. The larger the network, the easier the distribution for each new post.
- Links. New posts are new opportunities for backlinks. Each new link increases the domain authority of the root domain, which helps search performance for all articles.
- Engagement. Every organic search visit provides Google with more data to assess the quality of content: time on page, bounce rate, and pages/visit. The more you publish, the easier it becomes to build a reputation as a provider of useful content—assuming, of course, that you consistently provide useful content.
As your network, rankings, and content quality improve, more people find, read, and share your content. That, in turn, improves the network, ranking factors, and content quality, leading to more people finding, reading and—you guessed it—sharing your content.
As content helps acquire customers and grow the business, more money becomes available to create more and higher quality content. And since you’re publishing even better content on a site with higher domain authority and sending it to a larger email list, it’s much easier to distribute.
This is what makes the content growth cycle go round. It’s also how sites evolve from the occasional, one-off successful blog post to a reliable stream of ever-increasing organic traffic.
The Growth Cycle in Practice
Let’s look at a few examples to see how this works in the real world.
These graphs show identity management tool Auth0’s weekly website traffic from the very beginning. For the first year, traffic is pretty flat (blue), picking up between weeks 50 and 75 to average out at 3,820 weekly sessions. Traffic is growing, but not very fast. This is Phase One, where a steady stream of content is required to get things moving.
Gradually, the benefits of their early posts begin to compound. A steady trickle of visitors, backlinks, and social shares strengthens their domain authority and builds a network of interested readers. A year on, the team sees a big increase in traffic (purple), averaging out at 26,936 sessions per week. This is Phase Two, where the network effect begins to kick in. Traffic grows faster and momentum is building. Growth happens 2.9x faster here than in Phase One.
Each new article feeds into the growth cycle, improving the performance of every article that comes after it. Another year on (yellow) and Auth0 is hitting an average of 116,288 sessions each week. This is Phase Three, where established distribution channels and a strong domain drive business growth, which opens up budget for more and higher quality content. Growth happens 2.8x faster than in Phase Two.
This same pattern repeats for AdEspresso, the Facebook Ad optimization platform.
In Phase One, traffic averages 10,914 sessions per week. Jump forward a year or so to Phase Two and the weekly average has increased to 44,601 sessions and moves 2.1x faster than Phase One. Another year on at Phase Three and the site is generating an average of 90,629 sessions per week—another 1.8x jump over Phase Two.
We see the same trend for Wistia, albeit over a longer period. Traffic growth starts relatively slowly in Phase One, before a sharp increase in the growth rate after two years of compounding content. Momentum starts building in Phase Two— traffic grows 3.2x faster than Phase One. Phase Three is when things really get moving. Traffic grows 2.2x faster than Phase Two thanks to several years of regular publishing.
Unlike the five phases of growth we outlined in The Science Behind 100,000-View Blog Posts, the growth phases here are less distinct. Steady, linear growth—which should be the goal of nearly all B2B content marketing strategies—doesn’t begin on day one and often accelerates beyond a linear growth curve later on.
The exact date where Phase One transitions to Phase Two is not important. What is important, however, is the concept that growth gets easier, faster, and more efficient overtime.
Stick With It
It’s common for content marketing to feel slow at first. In each of the examples above, it took several years to complete the content growth cycle. Rand Fishkin, one of the most popular and well-known creators of marketing content in the world, says he published “no fewer than one thousand blog posts before [they] posts achieved consistent, broad readership.” He doesn’t have that problem anymore, but it took years to get there.
You should see growth in the early days, but don’t be frustrated when it isn’t exponential. Publish, distribute and re-invest—then do it again.