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.