I wince whenever I hear someone say, “If money and time weren’t obstacles, what would you do with your life?”
I guess that assumes I’d have money (lots of it) and tons of idle time. So what would I do? Help other people. Isn’t that the right answer?
What I wouldn’t do is spend too much time researching keywords.
It’s not that it’s boring. I actually like it (far more than link building). But like me, you do have limited time and money. My advice is to try some of these options and tools and know that there will overlap. And then call it a day for a while. Along the way, see what suits you.
Small businesses don’t always need to exhaust themselves with keyword research. Get some leads – and sales – from your first efforts and then refine your list based on your choices, ranking analysis and your capacity to add new content to support more keyword phrases.
Major Online Tools
You can always use Google Keyword Planner, but I like some of the features in affordable solutions like the well-regarded SEMrush and Moz. Ahrefs and Majestic have well-regarded tools. I use these them to analyze new clients and their competitors.
Always pay attention to Google Search Console. Yes, you should include this source in your keyword research even if you’re not ranking as well as you want to. You’ll see search impressions, clicks and your ranking. Even if you’re No. 75, it could just be that you don’t yet have ideal content for that keyword. If your website already is successful, you’ll still get a good picture of your performance. But turn to other tools for a more complete picture of the keyword possibilities.
SEMrush offers an assortment of options by type and volume, which is an average of monthly searches on Google (such as the USA). Broad means the keywords are in a broader collection of words like “looking for a new CNC laser-cutting machine.” Phrase refers to keywords that are together: “buy a CNC machine” and exact match is more precise: “CNC machine” or a very close variant like CNC machines.
Backlinko offers additional details about major keyword research platforms and how much data you can expect from them.
Other Keyword Research Tools
BrightEdge Data Cube
Very sophisticated and advanced tools.
Generates good keyword ideas.
It’s a handy tool that provides ample ideas.
Track the popularity of a keyword phrase over time.
Google People Also Ask
It’s the bane of SEO specialists because it’s one of the nasty search engine results pages (SERPs) elements that effectively pushes down organic results. But the questions may prove invaluable as you explore keywords.
Get a real-time sense of competitors and keyword possibilities.
Ahrefs Keyword Generator
Produces spinoff ideas, such as questions with the root keyword phrase.
It taps Google’s autocomplete feature and provides an assortment of ideas. Use the negative and positive filters.
Answer the Public
I kick myself for not turning to this tool enough. You can discover all sorts of keyword phrase ideas through this tool that shows questions that people ask and how they position their queries, such as phrases with comparisons.
It shows the keywords people use when they’re active on Reddit. You can get a feel for search queries you never even considered.
Expect plenty of results for many keywords; it contains millions of questions that people ask. Some marketers use it to generate blog post topics, but it can help with keyword research.
Bulk Keyword Generator
A useful tool for local search, it forms keyword phrase suggestions based on business types and the location you have in mind.
The tool specializes in the long tail variety – relevant keywords that people use. Often, long tail keyword phrases have less competition so it’s easier to rank. Also, try Long Tail Pro.
The tool references the suggested keyword phrases feature from multiple websites.
I just came across this tool, which introduces a variety of similar or related phrases. Give it a test run.
When I have time (or make the time), I visit industry directories like:
I like the Domain Overview feature in SEMrush. Yes, it’s a good way to begin to see what keywords might work for a client. But I also run reports here for competitors and other industry websites. If you’re a small business, don’t just look at your known competition. I routinely see which sites rank well for various phrases and sometimes within certain cities. Your competitors may not rank well either so you might have limited data if you don’t broaden the websites you research.
After I’ve started to optimize pages – adjusting page headers, page titles text, internal links, regular text and images – I use Domain Overview to discover what other keyword combinations have emerged. For example, maybe I optimize a page for “gear coupling” and find out that “gear coupling selection” jumped way up in the rankings. Even if “gear coupling selection” wasn’t on my main radar, my changes likely had an impact on the ranking improvement.
I’ve developed keyword lists from all sorts of places like clients’ business plans and sales proposals as well as the index at the back of a book.
Any keyword research can be overwhelming. With any results and reports, I do a lot of sorting and exclude keywords like competitor names and their brands. I exclude my client’s name too. Yes, it’s important for them to rank well for their official corporate name (and variations) as well as products and services. But many of those do rank well, especially if they’re somewhat unique. I focus on other keyword possibilities and then get to the easier company-based phrases.
As you gather keywords, don’t hesitate to include some that may be too competitive. It’s not a bad idea to be aware of them. I add a column in Excel for special notes like “broad,” “competitive,” “brand,” etc. I also create a column for topics so I can later sort by product type or service.
Many of my clients sell nationally and sometimes internationally. If they have a local market, I settle on possible keywords with local references and run a new Project in SEMrush, which allows me to indicate what data I want to view. I can find out how the words rank in a specific city, county or state.
Keyword research should be an ongoing activity long after you’ve put an SEO strategy in motion. I often return to SEMrush to find out what similar keywords are ranking.
A project, for example, may have 30 keyword phrases I monitor. But I go back to Domain Overview every few months to see a broader cross section of keywords that my client ranks for – well beyond my most strategic set.
One reason I love SEMrush is that it has history – back to 2012. If I made a baseline ranking report for a client in March 2020 – and later decide to add a keyword phrase like “gear coupling selection,” it would be good to know how it was ranking before I started optimizing website pages. If I added “gear coupling selection” in July 2020, I can use the SEMrush history report to see how that word ranked in March 2020.
Be Careful with Zip Codes
Some small businesses executives may be curious about the use of zip codes with search queries. People do use them, but not every zip code is popular. Test out a few and see if there is any search activity that keyword research tools reveal. But don’t pack your website with the same 30 zip codes on every page. That might be perceived by Google as overkill. I have had success working with product and model numbers as well as automotive diagnostic codes.
Specificity and Conversions Go Hand in Hand
Early in my career, I made the mistake of trying to rank a website for “power tools.” I definitely got it in the top 10 on Google. But it didn’t help with conversions. Searchers were more likely to convert for a specific type of power tool. However, there were very few searches or none that Google reported for many of the actual brands and models. Sometimes you need to find the right mix of keywords for products and find out if there is sufficient search volume. With power tools, a keyword with a brand name and voltage may or may not have searches. A website that sells “Kobalt 80v power tools” may do well because there are some searches.
Grab Page Titles
Tools like Screaming Frog SEO Spider can give me data that helps me cull potential keyword phrases. I often check website page titles.
Related Searches on Google
Client Wish Lists
Sometimes new clients go a little too broad. I’ve asked them for keyword ideas and I get words like “ROI” and “Thought Leadership.” But sometimes they provide some excellent keyword ideas or some good starting points.
Regardless of where you look, always use your brain to think about other combinations. Expect overlap from keyword research sources. Start with a strategic set and revise it over time.