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5 Steps to Killer Keyword Research

Preston Van Dyke

Without keywords you have nothing in SEO. You can consider the keywords the vehicle of your campaign and inbound links, your fuel. Much of your success and results will be driven through each of the phrases targeted.

In this initial process of keyword research, it can be easy to go one of two ways—just barely scratching the surface or going overboard and wasting time. With a process set in place, you will do much better at achieving quick, quality results.

Quality keyword research includes 5 phases:

1. Baseline Keywords

To begin your keywords research you will need a starting point. This will usually be a smaller list of phrases that define what products, services, or pages you would most like to promote. Here are a few great ways to get your baseline keywords:

Keyword Rankings or Top Referring Keywords


Knowing what kind of ground your website has already gained in the search engines is a great way to determine how your are viewed by them. Whether your are assessing rankings manually or through a ranking tool this should be a fairly quick snapshot of potential opportunities that should not be passed up. Take those keywords and add them to your preliminary list.

This step is very similar to checking which keywords you are ranking for. Naturally, those that rank well (or rank at all) are going to be those that drive traffic to the website. Typically I would not recommend pulling both rankings and top referring keywords to get your baseline. Go ahead and choose one or the other and you should be good to go.

2. Keyword Expansion

Let Search Volume Set Priority

While keyword research is not determined solely upon search volume it certainly is a major playing factor in the final selection of target keywords. Not only this but—as one of the only few ways we can clearly communicate the potential value of targeting a certain phrase—this can be a great motivator to clients. The process of compiling a list of keywords to filter through and discover your trophies should be fairly easy and quick when using the Google Adwords Keyword Tool. Knowing how to use this nifty tool correctly is important. Check this post out for the best practices for the Adwords Keyword Tool.

3. Keyword Filtering

There are a few questions to ask yourself as you begin eliminating keywords from the list. For example, how quickly you would like to rank? What type of keywords from the list support one another? Which keywords and phrases here represent the biggest money makers of the website in question?

With these questions answers will come best in the following processes:

Use Your Client

If you haven’t already done this in the “baseline” process make sure to speak with your client about what keywords you are looking at. Determine which of these represent their best money makers. Having this bit of knowledge in mind could hugely change the end result of what is selected. A lower search volume phrase with the potential to drive only 10% or even less in traffic as compared to another could earn much more.


This should be a process familiar to most—the idea of bringing supportive and similar phrases together to target one page. The idea is to spread the value of link building and on page optimization across multiple phrases while keeping the content natural and not forced. For instance, when you are writing an article on “ link building ” it is likely you will use the phrases:

  • link acquisition
  • link bait
  • building links

What we have here are 4 different phrases that can be used almost interchangeably to support one another.

When beginning your clusters, first choose what you would consider your “trophy” keywords. These will typically be those that are super competitive, have a high potential for traffic or are the big money makers. From these phrases start breaking your list out into iterations following them.

What Does The Competition Look Like?

When asking yourself how quickly you need to achieve a quality rank, and the answer is “NOW!” then stop doing keyword research for SEO and start building out lists for a great PPC campaign. If your answer is “soon” you will want to make sure the keyword has less established competitors. Typically I like to fan out the time frame possibilities for ranking and competitiveness in the final target keywords—classing them into 3 different levels of difficulty and estimated time of performance. To evaluate your competitors for a certain phrase consider these processes:

First, run a search for your phrase. Then take your top 4-5 results URLs. These are your main competitors.

Open Site Explorer

For a quick, in-depth analysis of your competitors link portfolio, the SEOmoz Open Site Explorer is your source. While this tool can be used for a plethora of different purposes, for our intent here you will want to pay attention to the following:

  • Linking Pages – take a quick look at what type of pages the website has gained links from. Is there only one or two with a super high authority or is the entire first page of linking pages high in authority. If you have a wide spread of authority in linking pages you can assume this is a more competitive website and will take more time to overcome. (At this point you should also be asking yourself if the acquisition of these same links is possible for the website in question. If so, how difficult will they be to acquire?)
  • Full Metrics – once you the snapshot of linking pages in mind go to the Full List of Metrics. In a spreadsheet gather the data found here to compare to the other competitors and your website too. This will be a great determinant of what you are up against.

Page Rank

The page rank provided to your competing URLs will also help you gauge the difficulty level. Use a toolbar or extension to grab those digits quickly and throw them into the spreadsheet as well. These will give you a comprehensive enough snapshot to know your difficulty level relative to other keywords in question.

4. Keyword Selection

What Are The Trends?

At this point your list should begin looking narrowed and nearly final. For quality assurance, you will want to check the trends of your keywords. The trending graph you see above is from Google Trends. This is a good way to get a snapshot for a Year-over-Year (YOY) comparison in the demand of key phrases.

Search Optimization is a long term approach to your online success. With that in mind even search volume, as it stands today, should not entirely determine your selection of keywords. I will usually implement Google Trends at two different points of my keyword research: First, when I am selecting my “head keywords” or those I will then select iterations from to build a cluster of supportive phrases as explained above. And second, at the final quality assurance check of the target keyword clusters selected.

5. Keyword Mapping

What Are You Targeting?

Throughout the entire process of keyword research, we as SEO’s have link building in the back of our mind. This is the end goal and the very reason we are choosing key phrases to target. But just as important as the selection of phrases is where you are going to be pointing them to: the target page.

Choosing which URLs to target can be part of the process throughout or at the end. The poignant matter to be aware of is whether or not building new pages is in the realm of possibility. It is likely you will complete your research and determine that one or two of your ideal keyword clusters may not have sufficient, relevant content to link to. At that point a new URL and webpage is essential.


Other Factors To Consider

Stay Legal

Some companies and clients will be dissident toward certain phrases or keywords due to an overcommitment such as with the word “best” or you may have selected a phrase that indicates a competitors brand without knowing. Check into these items and discuss them with your client to be sure you don’t run into any issues.

Other Tools To Consider

Microsoft Ad Center – for expanding keywords lists and finding missed opportunities

Microsoft Commercial Intention – determine the commercial intent on a scale of 0 to 1.

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