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An introductory guide to keyword research

6 minute read

Rachel Ramsay
Rachel Ramsay

Whether you run a website for your small business or you have your own blog just for fun, you might be wondering how you can get more people to visit your site.

One way to encourage natural traffic growth is to familiarise yourself with a concept known as search engine optimisation, or SEO. This is a way to get your website to appear higher up in search engine results pages, and it’s a practice that revolves around the idea of ‘keywords’.

In today’s post, I’m going to introduce you to keywords, give you some top keyword research tips and show you how to find the ones you can use to your advantage.

What are keywords and why use them?

Google search for keywords

Keywords are the words and phrases people use to find what they’re looking for online. They enable complex search engine algorithms to break down and understand information on the internet as they try to deliver relevant information to users.

When you search for anything in Google or other search engines, the words you type in are keywords. ‘Restaurants in London’, for example, or ‘women’s shoes’.

Keywords are important to small business owners and bloggers alike, because they help search engines understand what your site is about.

This means that when people search for sites like yours, you’re more likely to appear higher up in those searches if your site contains relevant keywords. That means more visitors and, for commercial sites, more customers.

By learning how to use keywords and how to optimise your site for search engines, you’re taking advantage of a free and potentially powerful form of internet marketing.

Secondary and long-tail keywords

As you might expect, though, it’s not quite as simple as that, a distinction can be made between primary and secondary keywords.

Secondary keywords add more detail to primary/initial keywords and are often more related to search intent (we’ll look at this in more detail next). For example, if your primary keyword was “bike”, secondary keywords might be “lightweight” or “mountain”.

When someone types more detail into a search engine, this is known as a ‘long-tail keyword’. Examples of these more complex queries might include ‘vegetarian restaurants in Clapham, London’ or ‘pink high-heeled women’s shoes size 6’. Questions are common long-tail keywords; ‘what is the best way to unblock a bathroom sink?’, for example, or even ‘what is the meaning of life?’.

Understanding user intent

Understanding the reason behind a search – user intent – is vital when you’re picking your keywords and planning content to target it.

If you’re wanting to rank for a particular keyword, it stands to reason that you’ll be more successful if the content you’re targeting it with provides what the user is looking for. That’s because Google wants to provide the most relevant results to that search query.

A keyword can often give clues as to what the user has in mind when they’re searching for things, as well as where they are in the process of purchasing something.

For example, a keyword such as ‘women’s shirts’ suggests someone browsing, while ‘best women’s shirts’ or reviews suggests they’re looking for information on comparing different brands. A search for ‘women’s red shirt size 8’ suggests that the user has a clearer idea of what they’re looking for and is more likely to be near the point of buying.

Of course, people don’t just search for things to buy. Someone searching for ‘how to boil an egg’ is looking for a how-to guide; someone searching for ‘how long did it take for Titanic to sink?’ is looking for the answer to a question.

Finding queries like these that are relevant to your business provides a great opportunity to generate helpful content that draws visitors to your site, increasing your brand awareness and potentially driving sales as a result.

So, the big question: how do you find the keywords that are worth targeting? Let’s take a look.

Finding keywords: how to do keyword research 

The Google Keyword Planner tool is designed for those running a Google Ads campaign (the paid adverts you see at the top of the Google search results), but it’s a handy tool for anyone wanting to find keyword ideas and compare the popularity of different search terms.

It allows you to search for keywords based on a theme, and it generates lots more ideas for related terms people are searching for. It also tells you approximately how many people search for a keyword each month, so you can understand which keywords are likely to result in more visitors to your site.

To use the Keyword Planner, click “discover new keywords” and you’ll have the option to start by either typing in your product or service or by putting your website URL into the tool.

Google Keyword Planner Tool

Then click ‘Get results’ and the tool will then generate lots of ideas for you to work your way through. They won’t all be relevant, but you can select the ones that are and then export your keyword ideas into a spreadsheet. Ordering the ideas by search volume will show you the top keywords for your site.

Another good source of keyword information is Google Trends, where you’ll find information on trending topics that will allow you to find out what people are searching for at the moment.

There’s also a handy comparison tool, which allows you to compare two or more keywords to find out about their popularity over time and in different geographical regions.

Google’s ‘auto-complete’ suggested search terms are another great place to find secondary and long-tail keyword ideas; simply type a topic relevant to you and phrases such as ‘how to’ or ‘why do’ for suggestions.

For example, typing in ‘food blog how to cook’ results in suggested searches including ‘how to cook a turkey’, ‘how to cook bacon in the oven’ and ‘how to cook sweet potatoes’ (see below). These are some great ideas for blog posts, too, because you know that they’re popular topics that are more likely to bring visitors to your site.

Google SearchFor even more keyword ideas, there are keyword research tools you can pay for, which have more powerful capabilities than Google’s Keyword Planner – such as the ability to search for keywords by user intent. The top ones are SEMrush, Moz and Ahrefs.

Competitor research

As with other areas of your businesses, competitor research can form a useful part of your keyword research process. It’s always worth keeping an eye on what your competitors are doing with regard to keyword targeting, as this can generate new ideas for keywords as well as giving you an insight into their SEO strategy.

To find out what keywords they’re targeting, a simple way is to go onto their website and look at the title tag for each page, which will appear in your browser tab. If it just says ‘home’, for example, they probably haven’t thought about SEO – so you’re at an advantage!

Deciding which keywords to target

Now that you’ve gathered together a bumper list of potential keywords, how do you go about refining your list down to the ones most worth your while targeting?

Unfortunately, it’s not as straightforward as simply picking the ones with the highest search volume. These will be most competitive, and searches for these terms tend to be dominated by big brands with extensive resources. Here are some top tips and things to bear in mind when you’re picking your final keyword selection:

  • Balance keyword volumes with difficulty ranking – which keywords will receive the most traffic while not being so competitive that you stand little chance of ranking for them? As a small business, you’ll find it easier to rank for more precise keywords, such as “Thai restaurants in Oxford” as opposed to just “restaurants”, so aim for keywords of two to four words in length
  • Choose relevant keywords – your chosen keywords need to be highly relevant to the content on your site. Don’t try to target a competitor’s brand name, for example
  • Map your keywords to pages – which pages will you use to target which keywords? Go through your site and choose two or three relevant keywords from your list for each page
  • New content – you may find there are pages you don’t yet have content for, which you’ll need to write or hire a copywriter to create for you. Keyword research can be a great source of inspiration for blog posts and other new content

Finally, find the right balance

In the old days, when search algorithms were less sophisticated than they are now, website owners used to cram as many keywords as possible into each page so that search engines could be in no doubt as to what terms they wanted that page to rank for.

Fortunately, algorithms are a bit cleverer than that these days, realising that this so-called ‘keyword stuffing’ isn’t something a real human wants to read. With that in mind, stuffing too many keywords onto your site is likely to do more harm than good to your search engine rankings.

So, use keywords sparingly. Write for human readers, but with an awareness that search engines need to understand what you’re talking about too. Using keywords in your website copy won’t automatically bump your website up to the number one position in relevant search results, but over time, it will help grow your audience without costing you a penny.

Rachel Ramsay

Rachel Ramsay is a freelance copywriter with a background in digital marketing. She's written copy for clients ranging from the United Nations World Food Programme to The North Face, and particularly enjoys working with lifestyle and travel brands. In her spare time, she volunteers for Guide Dogs and flies light aircraft and helicopters.

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