In our tech-infused world, most pursuit of knowledge starts with an online search. Mobile devices make this activity ubiquitous; anywhere you go people are likely to be searching for burning questions on their mind.

For businesses, this phenomenon means that a search engine will be a major source of site traffic for leads, purchases, appointments and other conversions critical to revenue. Without search volume, your site could be doing a whole lot of nothing, especially if it’s not an instantly recognizable brand. Learning how to do keyword research properly is the first step towards developing a solid SEO strategy.

In the past, keywords were the only vector by which search engines could bring people to your site—and while that may have changed thanks to the evolving sophistication of search engine algorithms, the fact remains that keyword research is a critical tool for forming your entire online strategy.

Therefore, do not take the following suggestions lightly, and keep in mind that your eventual use of keyword research findings will become a whole lot more diverse than simple keyword-stuffing practices of years before.

A Note on Goals— Keyword research is a means to an end, so always consider what your eventual goals will be when starting in order to guide you more ably to the desired outcome.

How to Do SEO Keyword Research in 2016

I. Think About Your SEO Approach

Your first step is to simply brainstorm. You are going to be diving into a lot of technical details in the very near future, so gathering your thoughts independent of your later findings can help you come up with ideas you wouldn’t when your mind is full of new concepts.

Start your keyword research by coming up with general topics and generic phrases that might be associated with your business.

Here are just a few hypothetical example businesses to get us started:

  • Jack’s Sandal Shack — An online-only eCommerce sandal retailer
    • Buy sandals online
    • Buy men’s sandals
    • Athletic sandals
  • Vicky the Vet — A one-clinic veterinarian located in a large market near Philadelphia
    • Philadelphia vet
    • Philadelphia pet care

Once you have compiled a list just like the above, you can begin to add refinements and modifications. For instance, Vicky can recall how her clinic has lots of customers thinking about “elder dog care” or “vet services for rodents.” Jack may think about people who want to “buy men’s dress sandals.”

Start pooling keywords like these together into different categories. They can be arranged however you want, but ideally you will want to start thinking at this point about the intent someone would have when searching for something. Therefore, Vicky would separate things like “elder dog care” from more general search terms that are just looking for any vet nearby.

Hang on to these categorized lists — they’re going to get a lot bigger soon!

At this stage you will want to also think about how you will use keywords later in order to strategize your approach. You can start a spreadsheet for SEO priorities, a general strategy outline or anything you want, but doing so will help you keep your thoughts organized and goal-oriented.

II. Look at Your Current Organic Traffic

With your catch-all list of things you think are related to your business, it’s time to start digging in to more data-based information. The best place to start is your very own website.

Use your preferred analytics tool to process site traffic over the past few months. You can use Google Analytics, a different free tool like Piwik or anything else you prefer.

You will want to look for two main things:

  1. The keywords searches that led to inbound traffic from search engines (you can use Google webmaster tools or just work backwards from what you’re already ranking for)
  2. The pages on your site that get the most attention and whether they came from inbound sites

Mulling over these two elements, you can add on to your growing keyword list and continue to refine its categories.

You can also begin to assess your site visitors’ intents and where their primary interest lies. Find out what your hot performers, segments or inbound leads are. How can you make them better?

You can also look for opportunities to add more inbound traffic from low performers. For instance, if Jack has some customers looking for “discount sandals,” should he be targeting more to help out his site?

III. Get into the Offline Element

At this point, we’re going to step away from our computers again and do some old-fashioned research. Ask your front desk staff, sales associates, customer service reps and any other public-facing individuals what questions, comments and topics they hear from customers the most.

Such conversations can lead to revelations like, “We actually have a lot of people asking about what dog food is best,” or “People keep asking about any sandals we have on clearance.”

These insights help you work backwards from mind of the customer and realize what real people care about independent of what any analytics report says.

You could also begin to think about the value of each question. For instance, let’s say a business named Mike’s Plumbing & Pipes has people calling in about two things:

  • How hot should I have my water heater set?
  • What is this brown sludge coming out when I turn on the hot water?

One question naturally seems closer to a money-earning transaction than the other, so remember the difference when starting to weigh priorities later on.

IV. Research Your Competitors and Look for Trends

Now that you have three source lists of potential keywords, you are going to make them even bigger! Search online for the suspected “hottest” keywords you think would be vital to traffic. You will want to definitely focus on Google since they have a majority share in the industry, but other search engines like Bing and Yahoo matter a bit, too.

You will be looking for two things in each Search Engine Results Page (SERP):

  1. Your competition
  2. Any associated words

Focusing more on the second one, you can look down on the bottom of Google just above the page navigation tool for a section entitled. “Searches related to ____.” You can also glance around for product listings, Knowledge Graph information and any paid ads that appear. All of these tidbits can help you free-associate new possible keywords

What you find at this stage can provide critical information moving forward. For instance, maybe Jack typed in “men’s sandals” and found that the page was completely overrun with ads and product listings. Maybe he typed in “sandals for cold weather” and found nothing but fashion thought pieces but no competing retailers. All this information can be weighed carefully when prioritizing your keywords at the end of the process.

V.  Start Using Keyword Research Tools

Some people more familiar with keyword research may start at this step here quicker, but it always helps to know how to brainstorm keyword ideas “from scratch” using the above method before entrusting your strategic decisions to what a piece of software says.

That said, using keyword tools will help you move away from abstract, subjective decision-making into a more objective, data-based mode.

The most commonly thought-of keyword tool is the Google AdWords Keyword Planner. You don’t have to pay anything to use it, but you will have to set up an AdWords account even if you have no intention of buying any paid search ads.

There are also a few other alternative, free-to-use keyword research tools out there:

Of course, there are also incredibly powerful, professional tools like LongTail Pro that can offer all the functionality you would ever need to quickly conduct keyword research and obtain actionable information on which keywords to use, but we’ll save the marketing pitch for another time.

All these keyword research tools will display search history data on any keywords you entered as well as their most commonly associated cousins. Here, Vicky the Vet may find out that “Philadelphia vet” is not as popular of a search as “veterinarian in Philadelphia,” along with similar information. She will also likely be able to see the amount of effort others have put into dominating such a category, helping her see which queries have the highest potential to shoot for the top of the SERPs.

There are also less conventional methods of keyword research using tools like:

  • Google Trends — Helps you know what categorical search terms are increasing or decreasing in volume
  • Wikipedia Article Traffic — Generates statistics on recent Wikipedia article page views, letting you know trending topics
  • Social Media Analytics — Just like your website analytics, these tools help you measure engagement, inbound traffic and which topics get the most attention

VI. Begin Sorting Keyword Priorities

By now you should have a huge, somewhat-messy list of keywords of interest. Most of them should be organized into “piles” according to their general category, and more than a few should be marked with priority scores given the information displayed in the aforementioned research tools.

With these categories and rankings, you can begin to sort through this pile in earnest. Your first task is to locate the more-generic, less-specific search terms and separate them from the longer, more-specified terms. They will form the following two categories:

  • “Head” queries that represent overarching topics or the most general version of a search, e.g.:
    • Sandals
    • Veterinarian
    • Plumber
  • “Long tail” queries that are looking for more specific information regarding a small slice of the overarching concept, e.g.:
    • Women’s casual sandals
    • Cat dental clinic
    • Residential water lead level testing

As you might imagine, long tail queries and keywords are more amorphous and harder to cover at once. You may only have a few pages or even just a few sentences dedicated to each one, if at all. This is okay! Long tail queries make up around 70 percent of the average search, meaning that you don’t have to have all of your bases covered to be considered useful to online searchers. You should, however, cater to the long tail queries that most closely match your specialization, area of interest or typical clientele requests.

When prioritizing keywords at this stage, make sure to watch for blind spots! Something as simple as using a singular form when a plural is more common or rearranging the words in a less-common way can affect keyword relevance.

VII. Prioritize in Earnest Based on User Intent

At this point, you are almost done with keyword research. This last stage is simply refining your lists and priorities established earlier.

And how will you do this? By thinking about what search terms come from highest-value traffic, aka analyzing user intent.

Look at your pool of prioritized keywords and try to decipher where on a buying journey the customer might be. For instance, someone may be searching “how to repair flip flops” and not necessarily looking to buy a new pair just yet, whereas someone searching for “best price on leather flip flops” almost certainly is. Website analytics can help inform such decisions by letting you know which inbound leads were most likely to convert or make a purchase.

Examining intent can also help prevent logical blunders. For example, Vicky the Vet may want to avoid “cat food weight loss” when trying to reach new potential clients because such a search is likely trying to find a diet cat food intending help with weight loss. Instead, she can prioritize “How much should I feed my cat?” or better yet “Why isn’t my cat eating?” to find customers with a more direct intent to purchase veterinary services.

Cross check your newly chosen prioritized keywords with the competition each category faces once more, just to know what you will be up against. Don’t throw anything out just because it seems like it could be harder! Just maybe put it off until later or keep the challenge in mind when putting your hard-earned research results to use.

Also, guess what? You’re done! Now the only question is: What to do with it all?

VIII. Suggestions on What to Do with Your Keyword Research Results

This section could fill a whole new guide, so let’s leave it at some quick suggestions for how to use your priority keywords:

  • Inform site layout such as navigation, parent pages and sub-page structure
  • Dicate the verbiage of headers, metadata, page titles
  • Develop a content marketing strategy to help you rank for priority keywords
  • Refine your online word-choice habits on social media, when making new pages or when generally leaving a digital trail online
  • Refine your business model to more closely reflect the niches with the highest potential
  • Start a PPC (AdWords) campaign to get more inbound traffic data
  • Create spreadsheets that help you assign a dollar value to ranking for a keyword based on site performance
  • Look to social, local or other search algorithm influencers

No matter what you do, always remember these three words: Measure, Adjust, Repeat.

Your work with keyword research is never truly done because you will constantly be measuring your site performance based on your keyword use, adjusting your strategy to pursue better outcomes and repeating the process to make incremental refinements that help you pursue goals and push growth.

Good luck!

LongTail Pro is a comprehensive keyword research, prioritization and planning suite that provides all of the actionable insights a digital marketer needs at their fingertips. Visit our home page to learn more.