Keyword research for SEO: where do you start?

September 30, 2021


Keyword research can be vague and nebulous, but it doesn’t have to be. Jacob Clarke joins the show to share how he approaches keyword research for SEO, including:

  • why keyword research is essential for SEO campaigns
  • first steps to getting started with keyword research
  • how to find keyword ideas to write about
  • signs of a great keyword
  • tools to help with keyword research

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John Tyreman:  Hi gang. Welcome to The Digital Marketing Troop, where we go in the trenches to help you learn more about digital marketing. I’m John Tyreman, your host, and I am joined today by a returning guest. If you follow him on LinkedIn, you’ve seen him drop a bunch of SEO knowledge. If you’re not following him, you should. Mr Jacob Clarke, Senior SEO Account Manager at Silverback Strategies.  Jacob, how are you doing today?

Jacob Clarke:  Doing well John, glad to be back here. 

John Tyreman:  Well, I am glad that you’re back too, because we’re talking about an important topic, a seemingly basic topic, but there’s a lot to unpack and there’s a lot that goes into it:  keyword research for SEO. But before we dive into our topic today, I have an icebreaker for you to get things started. I like this one. So if you were seated next to a celebrity on a three hour flight, who would you want to sit next to and have a conversation with? 

Jacob Clarke:  you know I was just recently listening to a podcast with the screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. He’s got some really good movies he’s done so I’m going to pick Aaron Sorkin.

John Tyreman:  Forgive me I don’t know who Aaron Sorkin is, but I’m going to look him up as soon as we get off this podcast episode.

Jacob Clarke:  Cool. Yeah, he’s got some great movies, so, I was just talkin about some of the movies he’s written, so definitely top of mind. 

John Tyreman:  Right on. Well, Jacob, let’s dive into our topic today. So keyword research for SEO, just for our listeners who might not fully understand what that is, can you help define it? Like what is keyword research? Why is it important to SEO? 

Jacob Clarke:  Keyword research for SEO is about learning what queries your audience is typing into Google, so you can then create content that addresses those searches. It’s a great way to get in front of your audience, right at the time that they’re searching for the problem that your business solves. It allows you to learn exactly what your target market wants to know as they’re in the process of eventually buying your product or service. So if you’re a university offering online degrees, that decision is likely something that people are going to make over the course of several months. They probably aren’t just going to Google, you know, “best online software engineering degrees” and then sign up for the first program that shows up. They’re probably going to type in a lot of questions along the way like, “How much does a software engineer make”, “software engineering versus computer science”, “careers for software engineering graduates”. Or if you’re like a B2B company that sells a platform for HR teams to manage their benefits, taxes, payroll, you want to do keyword research to learn what HR teams are typing into Google throughout the day, so you can get your brand in front of those decision makers. So the goal is really to learn, what are my target customers typing into Google, and then how can I create content that answers that query. 

John Tyreman:  I know that all customer journeys are different, and there are so many different paths that customers can take so I’d imagine that there’s a lot of analysis that goes into what keywords are they searching for at what points in the journey, but I’m curious from your perspective, if you were starting to do keyword research there’s probably 100 different places that you could start, what are some of the first steps that you should take? 

Jacob Clarke:  Yeah, there’s definitely a lot of different places that you get started with. Most of the websites that I’m working with have pages that we kind of break down into two categories. We call them functional or editorial content. On the functional content, that’s more so gonna be like your money pages where you’re pitching the product or service that you’re offering and hoping that the user either contacts your company, signs up for the product demo or requests a quote. And then the editorial contents can be more blog style, where you’re writing content that’s mostly just providing information that answers a question, because the reader isn’t always looking to buy something immediately, they really just want an answer to their question. And the reason that I generally start doing keyword research in the corresponding content updates for the functional pages is because that is where users are more likely to turn into a paying customer. So like for the HR software example, this will be a page promoting how they offer retirement planning services for their platform or lets HR managers manage the retirement plans for their employees. They will often have things like screenshots of the platform or a testimonial from a customer, and it’s clear that from the start, the purpose of that page is to convince the HR managers to connect with one of their sales representatives. And the reason that I’d like to start with these pages is because the goal of the upper funnel content on the blog is going to be to send users to those functional pages, and we want to make sure that those are in good shape before we start sending you much traffic there because even if we’re successful later on and a bunch of traffic goes to those functional pages, but they’re not good for SEO, they don’t have great user experience, those customers are going to be turning into a paying customer. 

John Tyreman:  That makes total sense. So, do I have it right in that, from your perspective, starting at the bottom of the funnel, if you want to think about it that way, at the bottom of the funnel and working your way up? Is that a good kind of way to visualize the priority of the keywords you want to start with?

Jacob Clarke:  Yeah, that’s a good way to visualize it and that I would just be concerned that, you know, we can say hey we’re driving a ton of traffic to your blog, they’re then going to these kind of money pages here, but these pages provide such a poor user experience, don’t make the brand look very good. That you always lose them there and so I’d rather get the foundation set, and then start driving a lot of traffic there.

John Tyreman:  And that makes sense too, in that would be the quickest path to seeing a return on an SEO investment.

Jacob Clarke:  Yes, it definitely can be the quickest path to seeing a return on the investment there, but it’s often not the quickest path to traffic, just because generally you’re able to get more traffic to those upper funnel blog posts and functional pages, but you do want to keep the broader picture in mind knowing that most sites aren’t concerned about just driving traffic, they want that traffic to turn into a paying customer.

John Tyreman:  How can marketers get started to find these keywords ideas to write about? Like, where would you go to get inspiration?

Jacob Clarke:  It’s helpful to have a tool like Ahrefs or SEMrush to do keyword research because they’re able to give you a ton of ideas for what people are searching and then how often they’re searching it each month. I really like to start with pretty broad keywords, and then use those tools to make the keyword more specific until I’ve reached a point where it’s not too competitive, but it still has search volume. So let’s say your company is a personal budgeting software and you want to drive traffic from people who are interested in budgeting. A really broad keyword would be something like “budgeting tips” which gets about 4000 searches per month. But if you Google that keyword, you’ll see that it’s really competitive with authoritative sites like, a government website, NerdWallet, The Balance – all ranking at the top. And so you want to make this keyword more specific to the point that it isn’t as competitive but you can still drive some traffic to it. And so if you look through related searches you would see there’s things that people are searching for like, “budgeting for tipped employees” – so like waiters and bartenders, looking for budgeting tips when they have an irregular income. The site’s ranking for that keyword are much lower competition, so it’s a better opportunity for sites than trying to compete with some of the biggest players in finance for a term like budgeting tips. So you take that really broad term, and then you just work your way down, making it more specific to where it still aligns with your audience, but it’s not nearly as competitive. And then another great way to take topics is to just steal them from your competitors. You don’t want to steal their content, but you definitely want to steal their keywords. Some of the most successful pages that my clients have published have been ones where we’re directly targeting ones that their competitors have been successful with. And the way that you do that is by identifying a few competitors that you consistently outrank when you’re going head to head for the same keyword. So look at the keywords that your site ranks, like number one through three, four, and see if there’s any sites that are consistently ranking below you for those terms, and then you would kind of go back and see, okay, which keywords are those sites ranking number one and two for that my site doesn’t have a page on. And so the logic is that if you’re consistently out ranking them every time you go head to head, that’s a good indicator that Google sees your site as being more authoritative and having better information. 

John Tyreman:  I’m glad that you brought that up because I’ve always used as a rule of thumb, and, you know, please tell me that I’m totally wrong with this, but I’ve always used a rule of thumb as look at your site’s domain authority, whatever that number is, that’s kind of like in the range of what keyword difficulty you want to target. Am I totally off base with that? 

Jacob Clarke:  No, you definitely do want to consider domain authority, it’s not the be all, end all to where if one site has a higher domain authority and yours is lower than theirs, that there’s no way to outrank them, but that’s definitely something to consider when it comes to the competition level of a keyword. And that’s actually one of the biggest mistakes that I see when people are doing keyword research is targeting one that’s way too competitive. The vast majority of clicks go to the top few results and so if you’re outside the top five. It’s really tough to get more traffic, even if there’s lots of searches for it every month. So every website would love to be able to rank for the primary keyword related to their business, in ranking the top five for it, but there’s so much competition and there’s so few spots there, that most websites are better off going after searches with less volume and lower difficulty. And so one of the ways to measure the difficulty there is looking at the domain authority. You know, if there’s a 70 or 80, and yours is a 35, that’s a good indicator that kind of all else being equal, you’re not going to be able to outrank them. And then another way to judge the competition of keywords is to look at how many other pages on the internet are targeting that particular query kind of regardless of their domain authorities. The way that you can do this is by using a search operator called Allintitle. So what you do is you search the words, Allintitle in Google – just all one word – followed by a colon, and then you type in your main keywords. So if you’re looking at the term like “best laptops for college students”, you would go to Google and type Allintitle, colon, and then like, “best laptops College”, and you would see that Google returns thousands of results that are all targeting that query. And then you want to do the same thing for some synonyms like “top laptops College”, and you’d see thousands of more results. And so that means you’re competing against thousands of pages, or really just 10 positions on page one. So in that case, the odds are really against you and unless you have a super high domain authority and a lot of content on your site about technology or laptops, it’s going to be almost impossible to rank on the first page there. Instead it’s much more helpful to go after pages where or keywords where there’s gonna be 20 or fewer pages that are targeting that query, because that means if you’re creating good content for it, there’s a much better chance you can rank well. 

John Tyreman:  That is such a cool trick. I just went into Google and typed that in. I’m definitely going to use that when I’m doing some keyword research. 

Jacob Clarke:  Yeah, it’s a great way to see basically, how many other sites you’re going to be going up against. 

John Tyreman:  Well especially – well I guess, let me ask you. So recently, I’ve heard that there’s been an update to Google’s algorithm that prioritizes., was it H1 tags over title tags? Do I have that right? 

Jacob Clarke:  Yeah, so the update is that instead of often showing the title tag in the search results, Google replaces your title tag with H1. Yep.

John Tyreman:  So would that impact this Allintitle search method? 

Jacob Clarke:  I’m not sure of the answer to that. That’s a good question because I’m wondering if the search operator would pull kind of the Allintitle from the actual title tag, and like the HTML of the page, or if Google would see that if they’re going to replace the title tag with the H1, if that search operator would instead be pulling the H1. I’m not sure of the answer to that, but that’s a good question. 

John Tyreman:  Well, we’ll put a pin in that. We’ll circle back to that another time. So, Jacob, let me ask you, we talked a little bit about it, but what are some signs that you look for that a particular keyword is a great opportunity?

Jacob Clarke:  There’s no formula that can guarantee ranking but there’s definitely a checklist that you can go through for each keyword that really raises the chances that you’re going to be able to perform well for it. So I give us a few things to look for here and then we’ll kind of go into detail on each of them. The first is like we’ve talked about, domain authority and top ranking pages. The second would be the topical relevance of the site. The third is the Allintitle operator where, how many pages are you competing against. And then the fourth can just be the kind of the overall quality of the content. So when it comes to the domain authority, like we said, if it’s going to be super authoritative sites, toward the top, it’s going to be tough to beat them. If you’re targeting a finance related term and you see Investopedia, NerdWallet, Bankrate and Forbes in the top positions, they’re going to be super tough to beat. The topical relevance of sites, means that you should look at the site’s area of expertise, and make sure that it matches your site’s area of expertise. So if you’re looking at the search results for a particular keyword and all the top sites are about running, but your site is about camping, that’s probably going to be an indicator that Google sees running related sites as a better area of expertise than camping. It doesn’t mean you can’t ever rank for it was just kind of one of the general indicators to look at. And then again if you do the Allintitle search, and you’re competing against 100 plus pages, your odds certainly go down. But then lastly, you do want to look at the overall quality of the content. If you notice the content quality is pretty low, doesn’t really answer the question, there aren’t good images. those are all areas where your site can do better than that and give you a better chance of ranking them.

John Tyreman:  Okay, I just want to make sure that I didn’t miss any on this list because that’s a really good list. So, topical relevance, competition, search volume and the quality of the content on the results page. Is there anything that I missed? 

Jacob Clarke:  No, that pretty much covers it. Yeah, we can definitely jump into search volume here as well, that’s something to consider too. That’s often the question we get asked is, like, well what’s enough search volume, what’s not enough search volume to go after. And it’s, it’s definitely a subjective judgment, but generally the way I want to look at it is that you want to consider what the value of a customer is to your website. So if you’re a software company and the lifetime value of a customer is like, $15,000, you’re probably going to be okay if only a few dozen visitors come to a particular page on a given month, even if you just kind of convert a pretty small percentage of them, because their value to their business is going to be pretty high. But on the other hand if your site only generates revenue through display ads and your revenue per 1000 pageviews is like 20 bucks, you’re probably not going to want to create a page targeting a keyword with only 20 searches per month, because if you weren’t able to get maybe 10 or 12 visitors from that, that’s really just going to be worth pennies to your business. 

John Tyreman:  So, if your lifetime value of a customer is high, search volume may be less of a factor in selecting the right keywords. Do I have that right?

Jacob Clarke:  Yeah, you’re gonna be much more concerned about bringing the right audience into your site which might be a smaller number of people than you would be about bringing just a huge number of people to your site, but none of them are really qualified for your product. 

John Tyreman:  Well there’s riches in the niches, right, Jacob?

Jacob Clarke:  That’s definitely the case, yeah. A lot of issues in those 10 searches a month keywords. Yeah.

John Tyreman:  That’s right. So, I know we talked about this in depth on a previous podcast episode about SEO content strategy, and if folks are listening to this episode, they’re gonna want to go back and they’re gonna want to check that episode out. But from a high level, can you help the listeners of this podcast episode, like, once you’ve decided on a keyword opportunity, how do you go about creating content for that keyword? 

Jacob Clarke:  When you’re creating content for a keyword, you always want to take your cues from the pages that are already ranking well for that keyword. And the reason is because those pages must be doing something right, in order to rank at the top. And so your job is to assess what’s causing them to rank, and then find a way to make your page even better. So let’s say you wanted to rank for the term like “mortgage insurance”. You might think that you should create a page on your site explaining the mortgage insurance that your company offers, and essentially making a product page. But when you Google the term “mortgage insurance”, you can see the top pages are actually all informational pages that aren’t even insurance companies explaining their particular offerings, but they’re instead pages titled like “what is mortgage insurance and how does it work”, “what is mortgage insurance – how it works and when it’s required”, “a guide to private mortgage insurance”. So you know that in order to rank for that query, you need to run an informational page instead of a product focused page. That’s another mistake we see pretty often is trying to rank for a keyword by creating the wrong type of page for a query. It might be really good content, explaining your particular product really well, but it’s not the type of page that Google thinks the user is looking for. 

John Tyreman:  That’s right, yep. An informational search query. And for mortgage insurance, I’m sure that there are a lot of informational search queries that are happening around that topic for sure. 

Jacob Clarke:  Yeah, that’s definitely the case. So that one’s also one that’s very competitive and so you see all the biggest players in finance competing for that one with super long pages like 2000 plus words. And so you’d have to match that type of content, but then also find new ways to make yours even better. 

John Tyreman:  That sounds like a tough task. So that’s why the competitive intelligence and the research that you do is so important in selecting the keywords because if you select a keyword that you don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of ranking for, then it could be wasted effort. 

Jacob Clarke:  That’s right, yeah. You definitely want to spend a lot of time qualifying the keywords before you decide to write the page on it because you’d much rather spend more time upfront, picking the right keyword, rather than just kind of picking one right off the bat pretty quick, and then investing all the time into content and publishing for for a topic that you really don’t have a chance of ranking for to begin with.

John Tyreman:  And that folks, is why keyword research for SEO is important, and a critical foundational piece of your SEO Content Strategy. Jacob, thank you so much for taking the time to come on this podcast with me today. Folks should connect with you on LinkedIn, you’re dropping all sorts of knowledge. 

Jacob Clarke:  Thanks John. Always happy to chat and yeah, definitely feel free to reach out on LinkedIn – love to connect.