I’m one of those weirdos who finds keyword research fun; seriously, it’s one of the most enjoyable parts of my job. When you’re looking for new keywords to target, the world seems bright and full of possibility.
Looking for keyword gold at the end of the SEO rainbow
I recently ran a little keyword research workshop with some folks on the WordStream marketing team, in an effort to get others around here as jazzed about keywords as I am. Here are a few of the keyword research and optimization tips I shared. Let’s hope they help shake you out of your keyword rut!
#1: Check out the SERP before you write anything!
This step is so, so important and I’d wager that most people skip it: You should evaluate the existing rankings on the search engine results page (SERP) for your keyword before you do anything else.
Why? You need to see what’s already ranking for a keyword in order to strategize how to rank for it. Because Google isn’t just going to hand you a page 1 ranking; you have to earn it by beating someone who is already ranking at their own game.
You can get your competitive intel in two ways:
1) Use a tool that shows you the page 1 rankings for a given keyword (e.g. SEM Rush, KWFinder, or Moz Keyword Explorer):
2) Just manually google the keyword, preferably in an incognito window, and scope out the competition.
You’re looking for a few things here:
Is the SERP locked up with branded results?
An example would be the SERP for “facebook advertising” – aside from the ad competition, the first six organic results (not counting the “top stories” section) are all pages on the facebook.com domain.
That’s going to make it very hard to rank, assuming you don’t work for Facebook, because it means Google is interpreting this as a brand query.
Verdict: Pass unless your domain authority is bangin’ and the keyword is super high-volume. In that case, you might be able to get a lot of traffic from a bottom-page ranking even if your CTR from the SERP is super-low.
Do all the headlines and content formats look the same?
Sometimes you run across an organic SERP that looks like what Larry calls a “jackpot” when it comes to PPC ads – i.e., all the ads look exactly the same!
Check out the SERP for “explainer video examples”:
Not a lot of variety here; everyone is meeting the intent of this query in the same way.
A “jackpot” SERP is a double-edged sword. One the one hand, you could look at it as a golden opportunity to stand out. On the other hand, maybe there’s really not any opportunity here. Does the world really need another list of 10-20 explainer videos?
Is the intent of the query already perfect matched with super solid results?
Sometimes when you look at the existing SERP for a keyword, you’ll find lousy, easy-to-beat results. Other times there won’t be much else to add:
This question has been answered; why bother answering it again?
To sum up, what you’re looking for is opportunity. It’s possible that you can’t deliver a better result than what’s already ranking, in which case, why waste your time? Find another keyword to target.
#2: Keep a list of related keywords in your document
We’ve found that including a lot of variations on your main keyword that are closely semantically related is a great way to get and keep good content rankings, because it shows both Google and your visitors that you’re providing complete and thorough information on the topic they’re trying to learn about.
One easy way to make sure that you actually get all those keywords into your SEO content is to include a list of related keywords in the document where you’re writing it. You should use that list of keywords to inform your outline and the structure of your content, then check it again before publishing to make sure you got everything in there.
Where to find related keywords
On the Google SERP
When you’re doing Step 1 above, take note of the following:
- Suggestions that come up as you’re typing
- The “People also ask” box (especially for question keywords)
- The “Searches related to X” links at the bottom of the page
All of these are great additions to your related keywords list.
In keyword tools
Once you’ve settled on a keyword to target, plug that keyword into your keyword tool to find other closely related keywords to include in your content:
Keyword Planner ad group ideas
Don’t just look at the “Keyword Ideas” tab in Keyword Planner; click into different ad groups in the “Ad Group Ideas” tab to see pre-clustered groups of closely related keywords:
Here’s what you’ll see when you click on one of the ad groups:
The highest-volume keyword should be your focus, but the less common variations are still fair game.
Pro-tip: If you’ve got older content that’s not yet ranking, or could be ranking better, go back in and add more of these related keywords.
#3: Look for “secret keyword formulas”
A while back I noticed that some of our most popular blog posts from the past few years include the word ideas; for example:
- 64 Creative Marketing Ideas to Boost Your Business
- 25 Restaurant Marketing Ideas: Tips & Strategies to Win in the Food Business
I realized that for our site and audience, “marketing ideas” is kind of a “secret keyword formula.” We’ve been able to use that formula again and again by just plugging in other forms of marketing:
- grassroots marketing ideas
- small business marketing ideas
- retargeting ad ideas
- Facebook marketing ideas
To find your own secret keyword formulas, open up your analytics and look at the headlines and keywords from your site’s all-time best (or recent best) traffic-driving content. See any secret formulas?
You can use Buzzsumo in a similar fashion to see which headlines are driving the most social engagement. Take a look at some of HubSpot’s most shared blog posts of 2016:
Notice how many of them follow this formula:
[Number] [Adjective] [Noun] that [Verb Phrase]
Granted this is a headline formula not a keyword formula, but the concept is the same: Look for patterns you can spin out again and again, like “how to learn [process/software/etc] for free” or “what to do in [city/place]"
#4: Look for weak featured snippets you can steal
Featured snippets, like this one below, are a big SEO win because they deliver such high organic CTR.
SEM Rush has a cool feature that allows you to see what keywords your competitors rank for, including keywords where they’ve earned the coveted featured snippet. To find this info, type in a website address in the Domain Analytics tab, then expand the organic rankings report and click “Featured snippet” under “SERP Features”:
Let’s say you have an up-and-coming food blog and you’re trying to compete with the heavy hitters. You could see what featured snippets Smitten Kitchen has earned:
Of course, it would be rude to try to take ALL of her snippets (especially the branded ones). Further, it’s probably a waste of time. A good use of your time would be to try to find weak snippets – instances where Smitten Kitchen has a featured snippet without great intent match.
For example, a post on how to toast walnuts ranks in “position 0” for “how to roast walnuts.”
These queries don’t have exactly the same intent, IMO – you toast walnuts for a salad or to use in baking, but roasted walnuts sounds more like a dish of its own, probably involving some kind of oil or fat and seasoning. You just might be able to steal that snippet.
How to steal a snippet
It’s tough, because that site has the snippet in the first place due to better-than-expected CTR. But if you can do even better than them, Google might make the switch. Avenues to explore include:
- Better intent match
- Richer, more up-to-date information (does the #0 result look outdated?)
- More schematic/structured formatting (for example, a list of steps or a table – see below)
Google loves to snippet structured information like this
You don’t have the time, money, or energy to target every SEO keyword you can find that’s vaguely related to your niche. The best way to focus your resources on creating SEO content that will have an impact is to prioritize based on opportunity, and then make sure your content is optimized to give both Google and your readers what you know they like.