SEO success with keyword research: step-by-step instructions

Dominik Stein Last updated 23.08.2021
17 Min.
keyword seo
Last updated 23.08.2021

What is the most common mistake that self-employed people make in online marketing? My answer to this question is regularly: they don't do keyword research, create content that no one is looking for and therefore don't get any results. Welcome to the world of keyword research. A world where lack of preparation costs you budget, time and resources. I will guide you step by step through the entire research process.

The good news is that keyword research may take some time, but many websites are full of untapped potential. The following start-up from Hamburg was able to triple its traffic with little effort. It was only through keyword research that the company realised that it was already ranking for search terms with a high search volume. Only the right content was missing:

Traffic after keyword research
Increase in traffic after keyword research

Basics First! Basics of keyword research

Before I show you tools and possible techniques you can use to do keyword research, I want to introduce you to the basics of keyword research.

What are keywords?

Whenever we search engine optimizers talk about keywords, we mean the keywords and phrases that users, i.e. your potential customers, enter into their chosen search engine.

Both Google and various online tools provide data on how often those keywords are searched per month. This search volume helps us online marketers to distinguish significant from insignificant keywords.

This makes keyword research a must for online businesses that want to build organic traffic. This way you can find out in advance whether it is worth the effort to invest in suitable texts and content. And time is money, as we all know.

Types of keywords

In search engine optimization, keywords are divided into different categories. Each category has its own distinctive qualities. Behind each keyword there's a different user intent for the search and therefore different results. The following rough classification helps you understand what search volume or what kind of traffic you can expect to see in the different categories:

KeywordCharacteristics / Properties
Short tail keywordsGroups of words limited to 1-3 words. These groups are short and pertinent, have a large search volume and usually have high competition. Example: Pizza.
Long tail keywordsGroups of words that already deal with a topic in a much more specific way. They have a significantly lower search volume. In return, there is relatively less competition and higher conversion rates. Example: Why does pizza make you fat?
Local keywords (Geo targeting keywords)Keywords that refer to a place or a geographical position. Example: Pizza delivery service in Berlin.
Semantic keywordsKeywords that resemble a keyword, are a synonym of it or are arranged in a different order.
Brand keywordsKeywords that explicitly refer to a brand, product or company name. Example: Domino's Pizza.
Competitor keywordsKeywords that refer to the competition's brands, products or services. Examples for RAIDBOXES: WPEngine WordPress Premium Web hosting
Commercial keywords / Transactional keywordsKeywords with a purchase reference. With these keyword groups, you can already guess that the searcher is interested in a product and is considering buying it or is already comparing offers.

This subject area is vast. So vast that every online marketer handles these categories slightly differently. For more information on search queries, see Google's Search Quality Guidelines starting from page 66.

Search intent – Which keywords are relevant for my business?

Search engines have made it their business to always give the user the best answer to a question. This is no easy tasks with a pool of thousands of possible answers. In order to provide their users with the most relevant results, search engines must be able to deduce what the searcher is aiming for with their search query.

In the world of online marketing, this is known as the search intent.

As the operator of a website, you should always ask yourself during keyword research what information the searcher wants - and adapt your content accordingly to the visitor's goal.

I keep seeing outdated SEO methods, like creating doorway pages with the hope of ranking in other districts. Or the creation of hundreds of subpages with each district of a large city. Not only are these methods spam, they risk getting in the way of your real site ranking. Moreover, it's certainly not in your customers' interest if they're forwarded to the wrong address. Nor if they receive false information about a product. And this is by no means in the interest of the search engines.

Take the keyword "assemble PC" as an example. Only shopping results appear. For Google, the search intent behind this term is clear:

Search Intention Keyword
Google tries to recognize the search intent of the keyword

But just by changing our search query to "PC assembly tips", we reveal a completely different intention for our search. Google now provides us with informative content:

Search intention Information
The changed search intent for information

As the search intent will determine the future content for your topics, it's advisable to first take a look at the search results. This way you get a sense of what kind of content the user wants.

An online shop with a PC configurator could miss valuable traffic opportunities if it relies solely on the marketing of its PC configurator. This would simply not rank for informative search queries.

Step by step to keyword research

There are all kinds of methods for conducting keyword research. Although you may want to invest your time in content promotion or creation, prior keyword research is mandatory. However, I encourage you to do your keyword research conscientiously and carefully. It is not insignificant for the success of your contributions.

In this tutorial, we'll be creating a mind map with relevant keywords. The whole thing will look something like this:

image mindmap keyword research
The goal of your research: a mind map with your relevant keywords.

In the brackets on the mind map you can see the search volume of related search terms. The advantage of this method is that our keywords are sorted by search volume and also by tool. This makes it easier for us to structure the keywords later on.

Tip: Keywords from your mind map that don't make it into your content are excellent for separate blog posts or subpages later on. There you can strengthen the reference to your most important keywords (main topic) by means of internal links.

After our keyword research, we will put the keywords from this mind map into the following structure:

image content structure by keyword research
Structure of your researched keywords

In this example, job reference is the "seed keyword", which will form the main heading (H1) on our site . Related keywords with the highest search volume will form the subheadings (H2). Visitors to a website usually only scan for specific information. Subheadings are a perfect guide to get them started with your content.

Search engines also benefit from this structure, as they can better "understand" the content of your website. These topics can then be expanded with further subtopics (H3).

Keywords without a high search volume might still match the topics of our subheadings. These keywords give us ideas for later content.

The advantage of this method is that you do not have to be an expert in a topic. Based on the keyword research and the structure developed with it, you are immediately clear about which content is relevant for your users. You only have to concentrate on working through the "keywords". Or you can pass this structure on to suitable authors.

Step 1: Brainstorming - collecting keyword ideas

For this guide I assume that you've already got some ideas or instructions for which keywords you want to optimize.

If not, open a separate document and make notes on potential topics you could write about. Rough bullet points will do. This could be hobbies or topics that interest you. Or problems you or someone around you has been confronted with in the past months and that you were able to solve. Or it could be purchases you've made and the criteria for them.

If the future content is about services your company offers, roughly jot down these services and products. Don't just think about the products you want to sell here, but also consider the questions that will ultimately lead to your service. After all, you could be the solution to your users' problems.

Then enter them into Google's input mask. Google 's Autocomplete / Google Suggest feature will provide you with ideas of which search terms are also being searched for by other people in combination with your service. Use these suggestions as inspiration for your keyword research and product range.

Google Autosuggest KW job reference
Use the Google Suggest feature of Google Search

At the end of the search results, further suggestions are made for that keyword. These could also contain useful incentives for your keyword research:

Related search terms in SERPs
Google shows you similar searches

Step 2: Using Freemind to create a keyword mindmap

FreeMind is an open source software for creating mind maps. The program is available for free for MacOS as well as for Windows. To download: http://freemind.sourceforge.net/wiki/index.php/Main_Page.

  1. Open FreeMind and write your keyword in the middle. From there you can create a new tab by pressing the "INSERT" key (MacOS: Tabulator). To maintain an overview, subdivide these by search intent or platform.
  2. Organize your keywords according to the tools or subtopics you use. Always sort your found keywords by the highest search volume.
  3. Completed topics can be deleted later with a marker so you don't lose the overview!
Structure Keyword Sources Mindmap
The structure of the keyword sources in a mindmap

Step 3: Take a first look at the competition and search results

After we've entered our search term into Google, we'll take a close look at the search results. You can get a lot information about a keyword just from the SERPs (Search Engine Result Pages). 

Search intent: What kind of content dominates the search results? Predominantly products, e-commerce websites and shopping ads? Then it will be difficult to achieve rankings with a pure content page.

Competition: How "strong" are the domains in the first 5 positions? Are the results high authority domains (e.g. Wikipedia) or rather private websites, news portals and forums?

Are the results or sites optimized? Good meta descriptions, well-designed landing pages or long texts can be indicators for successful search engine optimization.

If you use a backlink tool: Do high-quality backlinks link to these URLs?

Structured Data: Is more information about the search term displayed directly in the search results or even answered? This can also be an indicator for a successful search engine optimization. As a site operator, you have to do the same as the competition in this case:

  • Review stars (Google stars) in the search results
  • Search queries answered directly in the search results
  • "FAQ" / "How To" boxes under the search field
  • "Recipes" (Rich Cards) directly in the search results

So-called Rich Snippets are made possible by Structured Data and can strongly influence the CTR(Click Through Rate) of search results. If no operator in the niche uses structured data, you can also see this as an opportunity to stand out more in the search results or even appear in prominent places:

structured data
Example of Rich Snippets in the food scene
rich cards
Example of Rich Cards in Google

Step 4: Check the keyword potential

If a quick look at the search results shows that it could be a keyword with weak to medium competition, then the next step is to check how profitable the keyword is. For this we need a keyword research tool.

Paid tools are always more reliable than free tools. These usually also have a larger and more up-to-date keyword database. Here are some examples of online tools.

The following characteristic values are important:

  • The search volume shows you how many users search for your search term per month.
  • Cost per click (CPC) stands for how much money advertisers pay on average for a click on an ad for this keyword. High click prices are an indicator of strong competition or niches where high profits are possible.
  • Search trend: Defines whether the keyword has gained or lost importance in the past months.

Ubersuggest

UberSuggest shows you all the data you need for your keyword research. The user interface with all its key figures may seem confusing at first glance. But for our purposes, you only need a few numbers and functions:

Keyword tool Ubersuggest by neilpatel
The Keyword Tool "Ubersuggest" by Neil Patel

Meanwhile, UberSuggest can even analyse domains for their most profitable keywords and thus find out which keywords your competitors are optimised for. More about this type of keyword research later.

In the tab "Keyword ideas" you will see further suggestions for related keywords. The results are sorted by search volume:

Keyword ideas in Ubersuggest
Ubersuggest shows you more keyword ideas.

Since these keyword ideas have a high search volume, you should also cover them in your content. It seems that these topics are relevant for a large part of the users. Write down the suggestions that are relevant for your business in your mind map. They will later form the subheadings or the topics in your content.

SEMrush (free variant)

From a personal point of view, SEMrush is my favourite tool. This is primarily due to the huge keyword database and the numerous data on websites and their traffic. The cheapest package costs 99.50 euros per month. What is not advertised anywhere, however, is that SEMrush also offers a free membership. For most operators of small websites, this is completely sufficient.

Keyword overview semrush
My personal recommendation: the SEO tool SEMrush.

The free membership includes:

  • Limited access to almost all SEO tools (onpage optimization etc.)
  • Ability to view data such as search volume, CPC etc.
  • 10 results each for a domain's keywords or related search terms

Tip: Searches can be repeated as often as you like. With the right filters, you'll always get different results, even in the free version. You just have to choose the right search criteria.

The "Keyword Wizard" is also useful. It suggests other related and relevant keywords along with their search volume. The screenshot already shows how big the difference in keyword ideas is compared to a free tool:

Keyword ideas from semrush
The Keyword Wizard from SEMrush

Note down all the relevant keywords in your mind map. Set yourself the goal of always writing the most detailed article on a topic that leaves no questions unanswered. The result should be THE resource online, which is considered an expert post on this topic. Such an article deserves first position in the search results. That should be what you're aiming for.

Use Google Suggest as a keyword tool

By the way, the most powerful of all keyword research tools is right in front of our eyes the whole time - Google Search! To be precise: The auto-suggest feature of the input screen. Although this tool does not provide any data on search volume, the suggestions can certainly keep up with keyword research tools. Many of these solutions are actually based on the auto-suggest feature.

The feature suggest additions to your search query:

  1. Open an incognito tab in a browser of your choice
  2. Go to google.com
  3. If you don't want to sell a local service/product, make sure to block access to your location - so as not to receive local keyword suggestions.
  4. Enter your keyword and the letter "a" in the search box
  5. Write down relevant suggestions for your keyword in your mind map
  6. Continue with the rest of the alphabet
Local Google Search
Block access to your location
Google autosuggest example
How to use Google Suggest as a keyword tool

This process does take some time. The advantage is you'll only be shown relevant search terms which are regularly being searched for by other people in the search engine. What data is more reliable than the data provided by Google itself?

Usually there are a number of long tail or question keywords where the competition is relatively weak. Such keywords can be implemented in the form of an FAQ (e.g. by structured data). This is a unique opportunity to display your answers directly in the search results.

Write down relevant keywords in your mind map for later use - perform a search for each letter of the alphabet.

Tip: This process can also be followed on other Google products (e.g. YouTube) to get more content ideas for other content formats.

YouTube search autosuggest
Autocomplete feature on YouTube

Tip 2: You can speed up this process by using paid tools like Hypersuggest. The tool works the same way, but saves you precious time. However, the free version only includes 20 results per query.

HyperSuggest
The paid tool "HyperSuggest" reduces your workload.

Google Trends

At least when it comes to keywords with high search volume (brands, products, movies, celebrities), Google Trends is a wonderful tool to investigate the popularity of a search query:

Google Trends example
Google Trends for keywords with high search volume.

You can see from the statistics in the example that the interest is constant. In addition, you will receive further keyword ideas for the search term under "Similar search queries". With a bit of luck, you may even find suggestions that have only become interesting in the last few months. If your competitors are not yet working with it: Perfect!

The disadvantage of this method is that it often only works with popular search terms, i.e. those with a high search volume. For niches with low search volume, it's not really possible to find any relevant information.

BONUS: Determine keyword ideas based on the competition

Unfortunately, this method of keyword research is actively used by very few companies. In my opinion, it is the most effective way to get ideas for new traffic sources.

You need an online tool that is able to show you the rankings of your competitors. The larger the keyword database, the better the selection of suggestions.

I use SEMrush in the "Organic Research" tab for this. Of course, you can also use the free traffic analyzer from UberSuggest.

Taking advantage of the competition's laziness

The truth is: Hardly any site operator really knows for which keywords they rank at all. The most important tool, Google's Search Console, is not actively used by most people. Of course, most operators know about the most important keywords and have clear ideas about which "big" keywords they want to rank for. All the "smaller" search queries are quickly forgotten - or they are not even known.

These are mostly keywords briefly mentioned by the competition or those which rank passively but aren't especially prominent on the website. The beauty of these keywords is that the inattention of your competition can be your biggest chance to build traffic.

How to find out your competition's ranking

First, enter the URLs of your competitors into a keyword tool of your choice. We are interested in positions 4 to 20, in the case shown from SEMrush. Of course, you can also find keyword ideas in lower positions. But it helps immensely to limit the number of possible positions first:

SEMrush Alternative
Analyze keywords of the competition in SEMrush

At the same time, limit the search volume to avoid suggestions for keywords where it's not worth creating content for. It's up to you where to the place that limit, I personally start with a search volume of 200.

Tip: Play with the search filters. If you don't get any matching results, widen your search criteria. This way more results can be found.

Now search the results for topics that also apply to your keyword or service. Assess the ranking URL according to its content:

  • Is this a specially created URL for this search term? If so, how good is the content on this topic? Are you able to create a better place to go for this topic?
  • Was the ranking URL optimized for a different keyword? If yes: Is the keyword on this URL treated extensively or at all?

Always keep the search intention in mind. If you find an interesting keyword that has not received enough attention from the competition, then take a look at the search results. There may be other competitors who have done it better. However, you can also use them for your competitor keyword analysis, which will give you access to more keyword ideas.

Basically, this process can be repeated endlessly:

  • You can use the competition of your competitors for your analysis.
  • If you're marketing a local service, it makes sense to take a look at other cities. So you can see how companies build up their traffic there.

Note down important keywords in your mind map or keep them in mind to create your own landing pages on this topic.

BONUS: Get keyword ideas from Search Console

For the last part of this tutorial, I'd like you to answer the following two questions truthfully: "Do you know which keywords your website ranks for? Do you know which keywords generate your traffic?"

If your answer is "No", then go to Search Console at https://search.google.com/search-console/ immediately. If not already done, verify your website and wait a few days.

Search Console
The performance of your website, as seen in the Google Search Console

Most website operators only focus on keywords with high search volume or those they already optimize in their SEO. At the same time, many websites build up rankings for additional keywords. It's not uncommon for top URLs with hundreds of keywords to rank high with one page - without the content having been optimized for these keywords. And all this quite passively. With a bit of luck, you'll find keywords here that still have a high search volume, but are just missing the "optimal" content.

In particular for those sites not yet able to rank for a main term, these keywords are a good starting point to get initial visitors and to lay the foundation for further rankings.

Under the menu item Performance you get insights about the performance of your website in Google search. Hide clicks / CTR and display only the positions. At the end of site you can define how many results you want to display per site . Set this value to 500. Set this value to 500 and sort the positions by ascending rankings. As in the case of SEMrush, you then focus on keywords for which your website ranks beyond position 10, for example. Then relax the search criteria.

Positionings Search Console
Positioning in the Search Console

In the example above, the website ranks on the topic "vitiligo" (skin disease) for many keywords, even though there isn't appropriate content on these topics available. You may find keywords with a high search volume here.

What is the search volume for the term?

Unfortunately, Google doesn't provide any data on search volume in the Search Console. As Google no longer provides usable data in the Keyword Planner, you can't avoid buying an SEO tool to get the search volume. Alternatively, you can enter the terms one by one in tools like Ubersuggest.

However, there is the possibility to export keywords from the Search Console into a table, in order to insert them afterwards in an inexpensive SEO tool. There, the search volume of the entire list can be displayed. For example, through SERanking (cost: around 5€/month).

  1. In the Search Console, under "Services", click on the "Export Data" icon
  2. Save the Excel file
  3. Insert the exported keywords into an SEO tool of your choice and check the search volume of each term.
SERanking Keyword Research
Check keyword search volume with SERanking

Find worthwhile keywords

As in the previous step, you'll search for keywords with the following qualities:

  1. Good search volume (>100)
  2. Good existing initial rankings
  3. Which match the content of your website and which you think would be a great
    addition to your portal.
  4. In line with your services or products or which could offer entry into new, interesting niches

Increase your website ranking 

Look closely at the content of each URL and be critical:

  • Is the topic being dealt with in detail?
  • Are you solving your visitor's problem? (keyword search intent)
  • Do links go from thematically matching pages into this subpage?
  • Do you need to deal with the topic (keyword) more intensively? For example, regarding the length of text or the quality of questions answered in the article.
  • Should you link the topic (keyword) on your own website more?
  • Do other domains link to this subpage?

Step by step you can optimize the most important subpages and increase their visibility in Google & Co.

Tools that support you with keyword research

To carry out successful keyword research, you need tools that show you keywords with their monthly search volume. And you need a way to structure the keywords you find.

Free Tools:

Paid tools:

Which tools do you prefer to use for your keyword research, and why?

Do you have any questions about keyword research or this article? Feel free to use the comment function. You want to be informed about new articles on SEO and online marketing? Then follow us on Twitter, Facebook or via our newsletter.

Contributed photo: Hasan Albari

What started out as a passion has become Dominik's permanent profession. Working for the SEO agency "FirmCatalyst", Dominik plans the strategy and implementation of OnPage and OffPage measures for companies from all over Germany. As a blogger and author, Dominik shares his knowledge about search engine optimisation in numerous blogs.

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Comments on this article

Yiannis

This article is great. Proper keyword analysis is very important. In the start I only used to look at the total trafffic of any keyword to choose. Thats why I chosed the keyword SEO for my very first website. Today, I know that it will take my 50 years to rank higher for that keyword and my decision was wrong.

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