This is a thorough keyword research process you can use if you’re starting a business or even if you’re just starting a new niche site. This process, by design, costs $0 (no paid tools besides Microsoft Excel).
When doing keyword research for a new site, you have to accept that you know a whole lot of nothing. You can gather search data from keyword research tools, but it is going to be relatively inaccurate. Google’s keyword tool, for example, is incredibly inaccurate on a per keyword basis.
Precision Is Not An Immediate Possibility
That being said, it doesn’t need to put a damper on your SEO. With a proper dynamic framework, you only need some direction and you’ll be prepared to reap the rewards in the future.
What you DO know (hopefully) is:
- who your target market is
- which problem(s) they have that your product solves
- how your product solves these problems
(I’m using the word “product” in substitute of whatever your core offering is)
If you’re a startup then you don’t know any of this for a fact. If you’re following lean startup principles then you’ve conducted some customer interviews and you are working on narrowing down your assumptions into facts as we speak. All the more reason for a dynamic search engine optimization strategy
What you DON’T know is the language that your target market uses to:
- search for your product
- describe their problem(s)
- describe themselves
If you knew all of this, optimizing your site would be a breeze. You’d have a golden search phrase like “running shoes for a daily jogger with athletes foot” to work with. Writing your copy, optimizing your site, making the right product, etc. would all be infinitely easier. Since that is not your reality, you should take a dynamic approach to your keyword research.
The goal is to take some guesses and cast a wide net. Later, you’ll be gaining new rankings and you’ll have access to tons of proprietary data through Google Webmaster tools, Google Analytics, and other sources. You’ll discover which keywords are converting better and you can then optimize for them.
For now, the immediate goal is to prepare yourself to properly receive that data. The answer is to cast a wide net so as not to reach a local maximum and limit your traffic & conversions, and then iterate into more profitable keyword groups.
Imprecise direction now with the intent to steer later.
NOTE: If you run a blog or a niche site rather than a full-fledged business, this approach will still be fruitful for you. You want to sign people up for your email list right? Why not focus on writing content about and ranking for keywords that lead to a higher rate of sign-ups? In the end, you’ll do the same amount of work, but with much better results and a confident understanding of why your results are better than others.
ONE MORE NOTE: Yes, this post is quite long. Is this time consuming? Absolutely. Completing the process and analyzing the data will probably take you 4-6 hours. However, in this context – setting your site up for success for the next X years (or until a pivot) – the time invested is quite minimal.
*You may want to bookmark this page so you can come back later, or it and then you can always find it quickly in your search history using Snap Bird.
1) Brainstorm Keywords
Before you jump into any SEO tool or even run a Google search, take some time just to brainstorm a list of keywords. Rely on previous conversations/feedback from customers and your own intuition to come up with any terms people would use to find your product.
Open a new spreadsheet in Excel and add them to column B (we’ll be operating in Excel for most of the process).
2) Add Modifiers
Once you have a list of seed terms, come up with any modifiers you can. Modifiers are words like “cheap” and “best” that you can append to your previously brainstormed keywords.
If you are a local business, add neighborhoods and other location-based modifiers to your list as well. Aaron Wall has a list of common modifiers available, and AJ Kohn has a post on how to use Google Refine to find more modifiers. You can also add names to describe your target market here. Ex. “blogger” or”student”.
Add all of these terms to column A in your spreadsheet.
3) Find Additional Keywords With Tools
Tool #1 Google Keyword Tool
Copy and paste your keywords from column B, five words at a time, into Google’s keyword tool. As long as you’re logged in, GKT will give you up to 800 keyword ideas with each search. Five is usually enough for Google find 800 ideas, so you’ll get more variety between each set by separating them out.
Don’t worry about search volume yet. Just search for new keywords and add them to the appropriate column in your spreadsheet.
Tool #2 Ubersuggest
Ubersuggest pulls Google Suggest data for any search query you enter, so if you enter “SEO software for”, you’ll get results like:
- SEO software for small business
- SEO software for agencies
- SEO software for free
Google Suggest is highly affected by search volume which makes this an excellent place for finding new keyword ideas.
Clever marketers distort Suggest results all the time. Keep an eye out for ads and commercials that distort Google Suggest results. For instance, the trailer played on TV for “After Earth” didn’t tell viewers to go to afterearth.com; it said explicity to “Google ‘After Earth.’” Sure enough, typing “after” into google immediately brought the movie up as the first suggestion.
The amount you can learn from Ubersuggest is crazy, so take your time. Here are some suggestions for using the tool:
- enter incomplete queries that end with words like “to” and “for”
- enter incomplete questions ex. “why is cooking”
- enter incomplete problem queries ex. “my iphone case isn’t”, “my iphone case won’t”
(This is also a good way to brainstorm blog posts)
Keep in mind that the majority of the terms are going to be irrelevant or repetitive. Your job is to pick out the diamonds in the rough until you start facing some serious diminishing returns.
You can put any product keywords into your column B and new modifiers in Column A.
Tool #3 Soovle
Soovle does the same thing as Ubersuggest except it only shows the top 10 suggestions, but it also includes Youtube, Bing, Yahoo, Amazon, and Answers.com. Controlling Soovle is a bit wonky, for me it seems the right arrow key will navigate, but the left will not :/
Repeat the process here that you did with Ubersuggest.
Tool #4 Google Contextual Targeting Tool
Here’s where you can find the contextual targeting tool:
Just enter in some primary keywords (comma separated) and Google will give you a few keyword sets and even show you relevance scores. Most likely, you’ll discover a few new modifiers here.
Add them to your spreadsheet when you’re done.
Tool #5 Related Searches
By now, you probably won’t be finding a whole lot of new terms, but for the sake of thoroughness, spend 5 minutes with the last couple tools.
Throw some of your keywords into Google and scroll to the bottom to check out the suggested “Related searches”. They don’t always show up, but are more likely to appear when using 2-4 word queries and you might get a new idea or two here.
If you come up with some new keywords you may want to return to Ubersuggest or an earlier tool to do some more exploration there.
Tool #7 Google Bold Scraper
When you search in Google, you will notice that your keyword is bolded in the titles and meta descriptions of the results. However, other terms considered highly relevant or synonymous with your search query are also bolded.
Yukon shared this Google bold scraper Warrior Forum that makes this research very fast and easy. You just enter your search query, click search, and then click the scrape button. You can quickly scan the list of terms and add any new ones to your spreadsheet.
Tool #8 Blog Comments & Forums
At this point, you’ve basically exhausted your resources. However, in the future, pay close attention to the language that your target market uses. A great place to see exactly how your target market talks is to browse forums and comments on blogs in your niches.
Since you’ll be immersed in your niche, you’re likely to come up with new keyword insight in the future, and you can easily include these new terms using the dynamic system being outlined here.
4) Create Your Keyword List
You should now have two columns full of terms in your Excel workbook – Column A full of modifiers and Column B with terms to describe your product. As a reference, on my last go-through I had 31 modifiers and 35 terms in Column B.
First add a blank cell at the top of Column A. Next, copy & paste the following formula into C1:
Yes, I know that’s a crazy formula
This takes the first cell in Column A, concatenates a space after it, and combines it with every cell in B outputting each result into Column C. It then repeats this for every entry in Column A so you have every combination of terms in your spreadsheet possible. All in all, I ended up with 1,085 different keywords in my Column C.
5) Gather Search Volume Data
Now, it’s time to get some data on these keywords. Copy your entire list of terms and paste them into Google’s Keyword tool. Make sure that “Broad” is selected as your match type and click “Search”. The number of search terms you put in will be reduced by a few because some will be so similar. Putting in 150 terms showed 144 of them and adding in all 1,085 yielded 1,054 for me.
- click on “keyword” to sort them by name.
- click on the “save all” button
- click “download”.
- download “my keyword ideas” as CSV for Excel.
- open a new sheet in your Excel workbook
- copy the entire Column A full of your keywords and paste them into Column A in a new sheet.
- copy Global Monthly Searches (Column B) and paste this into column C in your new sheet.
- Re-title this column as “GMS Broad.”
- return to the keyword tool
- refresh the screen to delete your saved keyword ideas.
- Paste in your list of terms again
- uncheck “broad” match, and check off “exact.” (These terms will be in the same order because we sorted by name earlier).
- click “save all” and download the same way as last time.
- this time, only copy the global monthly searches from the spreadsheet and copy it into column D in your new sheet.
- re-title this column “GMS Exact”.
Now you should have a Column A with your keywords in alphabetical order, an empty Column B, Column C with your GMS Broad, and Column D with GMS Exact. Save it! This is your hard-earned data that you’re going to have some fun with now.
6) Use Keyword Match Ratio
In Column B we’re going to find your “keyword match ratio” (credit to AJ Kohn). Your keyword match ratio is the broad monthly search volume of a keyword divided by the exact monthly search volume. This number is going to help you better understand the intent or at least the range of intents behind each search query.
“Customer service application” gets 12,100 broad match searches, but only 170 exact match giving it a high keyword match ratio of 71.2. Why so high?
The difference is due to the nature of broad match vs exact match. Exact match is literally for the exact query, and broad match includes the query and queries Google considers related/similar. What does this mean for us?
A high KMR indicates a broad range of intents behind the search. The words used are popular, but for many different purposes.
“Customer service application” just isn’t a good keyword. In the SERPS, the ambiguity of intent is clearly reflected with a range of results including Apple’s support page, customer service web app Desk, and even applications for customer service jobs.
The keyword match ratio gives you one number to quickly analyze the range of intents behind search queries. You may find some great high search volume keywords to target using this ratio, but you’ll also find lots of really good low search volume keywords with low competition to target.
7) Calculate KMR in Excel
Add this formula into cell B2:
This is going to divide the broad traffic by exact match traffic. Also, it will display “none” instead of an error if one of the numbers is 0. Click and drag that formula all the way down to the bottom. Then, choose to display them all as numbers and reduce the decimal places to 1.
8) Analyze Your Data
Okay it’s finally time to analyze your hard-earned data.
First, sort your keywords by keyword match ratio, smallest to largest. The cream of the crop is going to rise right to the top. Take some time to look through them and pick out five that seem like good fits for your business. I like to mark the whole row with a different background color.
Next, toss these five keywords into Google Trends to see how these keywords are performing. The keyword tool considers data aggregated from ALL time, so you might find surprising data here.
For instance, Google’s keyword tool says “helpdesk software” gets more than 2x as much monthly search volume as “customer service software”, but look at them on Google Trends. People don’t use the term “help desk” nearly as often as they used to.
You can select a winner from this group and use that term as your main keyword. The act of choosing keywords like this is a bit old-school, but you’ll need a good term to add to your page title, h1, etc. to describe your product anyway.
9) Create Your Masterpiece
Copy every keyword that has a KMR other than “none”. In other words, any keywords that actually gets searched for, and pastes them into Tag Crowd.
This is going to give you a quick visualization of the 30 most important terms for your site. The more frequently used terms will appear larger and less frequent terms smaller. In a glance, you can see which terms are more important for your site.
It’s deceptively simple, but this visual is going to be the best resource for your optimization. Pair this knowledge with what you learned from Google Trends and you should have a good understanding of how to optimize your site initially.
You took what you knew and what you found to generate a list of 30 words most important to your business. You’ve got your seed list of keywords to target along with a basic understanding of the intent behind those keywords.
In a glance, you can make educated guesses on how to optimize until you start getting search traffic and more meaningful data.
In my next post, I’m going to show you how to implement your keyword research to optimize your site and its architecture without disrupting your design or copywriting. You have the ability to receive lots of important data, but implementing your keyword research properly is the next critical step in casting a wide net.