The starting point for SEO-focused content marketing is keyword research.
A lot of content marketers are averse to keyword research—and SEO in general—because they think finding and using keywords means cramming those keywords into your content repeatedly. But that’s absolutely not true. In fact, keyword stuffing actually makes it less likely that you’ll rank highly in the search results.
Rather, keyword research is important because it tells you what topics your audience is searching for—and how you can cover those topics comprehensively—to write content that your audience will love and search engines will reward.
Here’s how to do keyword research for content marketing to find new content ideas and optimize the content you create for higher rankings in organic search.
What is a Keyword in SEO?
In SEO, a keyword is something that people type into a search engine to describe what information they’re looking for. It can be a single word (e.g. “marketing”) or several words (e.g. “how to do keyword research for content marketing”).
When people search using Google, it’s because they need something. They have an intent they’re trying to satisfy. According to Google, that intent usually falls into one of four buckets:
- to learn something (e.g. Who was the first president of the United States?)
- to go somewhere (e.g. What are the best breakfast restaurants near me?)
- to do something (e.g. How do I get more Twitter followers?)
- to buy something (e.g. What are the best tools for sending invoices?)
To satisfy their intents, people type keywords into search engines.
In SEO, keywords are often referred to by many names. The terms “keyword,” “keyword phrase,” “query,” “search query,” or “search term” are all regularly used, but all of these terms refer to the same thing: the words people are typing into a search engine to find results.
Typically, keywords are short-form questions. So if someone is asking Google, “Who was the first president of the United States?,” they might use the keyword “first U.S. president” instead of typing in the complete question.
But the question they’re asking—the intent they’re trying to satisfy—is the same: they want to know who the first U.S. president was.
What is Keyword Research?
Keyword research is the process of discovering what keywords people type into search engines regularly. By conducting keyword research, you can find out what questions people are asking search engines that are related to a service you’re offering, a product you’re selling, information you’re sharing, etc.
You can then use what you uncover in your keyword research to write content that answers those questions and ranks highly in organic search results when people search for those keywords.
Keyword research tells you:
- what people are looking for related to your product/service/idea
- exactly what they’re typing into Google to find that information
- how often people are searching for that specific information
- how much competition there is to rank for that keyword in search results
For that reason, keyword research is the starting point for SEO copywriting.
While it’s possible to start with an idea, write a piece of content, and then conduct keyword research after the fact to optimize your content for search, you’re almost always going to have more success with SEO by starting with a keyword and working forward from there.
Why is Keyword Research Important for Content Marketing?
Keyword research is important for content marketing for several reasons:
It tells you what questions your audience has that you can answer. The first goal of SEO-focused content marketing is to provide high-quality content that’s useful to searchers. If you’re not doing that, you won’t rank well. But if you’re finding the questions people have and answering those questions with accurate, detailed, and engaging content, search engines will reward your efforts with high rankings.
It tells you what questions your ideal customers are asking. If someone from an agency is looking for a better way to report marketing metrics to clients—and that’s exactly what your business provides—finding out what keywords they’re using to find that information and targeting those keywords with content is a great way to generate new leads and drive more conversions.
It gives you ideas for new pieces of content to write. As writers, editors, and content marketers, sometimes we have more ideas for content than time to write. Other times, it’s impossible to think of anything to write about. Keyword research is a goldmine for content ideas.
It tells you what people are actually searching for. You can write about anything you want, but if what you’re writing about isn’t something people ever search for, optimizing your content for search isn’t going to do you much good. Keyword research tells you how often people are asking specific questions, letting you know whether or not it’s worth your time to optimize your content for search.
It will eventually tell you exactly what you need to cover in your content. Keyword research is the starting point for putting together a content plan that ensures you’re writing comprehensive content—that you’re covering everything your audience wants and needs to know.
Ultimately, the goals of keyword research are 1) to find topics your audience cares about so you can write excellent content that answers their questions and 2) to make sure that a topic you’re considering writing about is something people care about and search for regularly.
How to Conduct Keyword Research for Content Marketing
There are two main starting points for keyword research as a content marketer: either you’re looking for ideas for content to write, or you have an idea already but you need to find a keyword to target for that piece of content.
First, let’s take a look at how to conduct keyword research to find new content ideas. We’ll go over how to conduct keyword research if you already have an idea in the next section.
Step 1: Compile a list of words and phrases that are related to your product/service
Start by writing down any keywords you think people might use to find your business and its products, services, or existing content. Think about what you might type into Google if you were looking for what your business provides.
For example, if you’re writing content for the business blog of an email marketing tool, you might write down keywords like “email marketing,” “marketing automation,” “drip campaigns,” and “email newsletters.”
If you’re writing content for the business blog of an applicant tracking tool, you might write down terms like “human resources,” “hiring best practices,” “applicant tracking,” and recruiting.”
Try to come up with several non-branded keywords (i.e. write down email marketing, not Mailchimp) people might type into a search engine when looking for your solution. When you’re finished, move on to step two.
Step 2: Search for your keywords using Moz Keyword Explorer
My favorite tool for conducting keyword research is Moz. Moz Pro, which starts at $99/month, is well worth the money if you can afford it and plan to do a lot of keyword research. But in many cases, you can conduct all of the keyword research you need to do with a free Moz community member account.
With a free Moz community member account, you can conduct 10 free keyword searches a month in Moz Keyword Explorer.
Type one of the keywords you wrote down in the last step into the search bar, and click the search icon.
Once the results appear, click the “See all suggestions” link in the “Keyword Suggestions” box.
The result? Up to 1,000 additional keywords—each related to your original keyword—along with monthly search volumes (how many searches are conducted for that keyword per month) for each.
Next, click the “Export CSV” link, and save the file as the original keyword you searched for.
Now, repeat this process for the other keywords you added to your list in step one. However, you’ll want to focus on keywords that aren’t very similar to each other in order to get the widest variety of keyword results.
If you search for two keywords that are very similar—like “email marketing tools” and “email marketing software”—the related keywords Moz provides will overlap.
At the end of this exercise, you’ll have thousands of keywords related to your business, brand, products, and/or services. Each keyword represents something your prospective customers may be searching for, so each also represents an opportunity to earn their attention with content that satisfies their intents.
Step 3: Narrow down your list of potential keywords
Having a list of thousands of possible keywords to target is both good and bad. It’s good to have plenty of ideas, but 10,000 ideas might feel a little overwhelming. Don’t worry; your next step isn’t to create 10,000 pieces of content. It’s to pick the specific keywords that you’re interested in writing about.
Go through each of the CSV files you saved and select some keywords that you’re interested in writing about. You can highlight rows in the spreadsheet or write your keywords down on a separate sheet of paper or in a notes app—whatever works best for you.
If you write them down in another source, make sure you also note the search volumes for each keyword.
When you’re finished, file your CSVs away in a folder you can reference later. This will save you from having to conduct a search for that keyword in Moz again later, and you can reference these CSVs again another time when you’re ready to find some new ideas.
Once you’ve compiled a list of keywords you’d like to write about, it’s time to start evaluating your keywords to find the best ones to target.
How to Do Keyword Research if You Already Have an Idea
Let’s say I’m a writer, and I have an idea for a post: I’d like to write about how to use Google Search Console.
The first thing I need to do is find out if that’s a topic that people are searching for. Frankly, if no one’s searching for a topic, it’s probably not going to drive much—if any—organic traffic to my site. So it’s important to validate that the idea I came up with is a topic that people want to learn more about.
That’s not to say that it’s never worth writing about things people don’t search for. If you have a really engaged email or social media audience, not everything you write has to be optimized for search.
But if the goal is to drive traffic to your post through organic search, your content needs to revolve around and be optimized for a keyword that people search for regularly.
Here’s how to find a keyword for a topic you’ve already decided you want to write about.
Think about what you’d type into Google if you were looking for information about that topic
My idea is to write a piece of content about how to use Google Search Console. So the first step is to think about what I might type into Google if I was looking for the information I’m planning to cover in my content. My first thought: “how to use Google Search Console.”
For an initial pass at testing whether or not my guess at a keyword is something people are searching for, I like to use the free browser extension Keywords Everywhere (available for Chrome and Firefox).
After you install Keywords Everywhere, you can type a search query into Google just like you would if you were searching for that information yourself. On the results page, Keyword Everywhere will show you the average monthly search volume for that keyword just below the search bar.
Using this data, I can see that my initial guess at a keyword was pretty good: 1,000 people each month search for the keyword “how to use Google Search Console.”
But let’s imagine that, instead, Keywords Everywhere said my guess at a keyword receives zero searches per month. It also populates a sidebar in your search results showing related keywords; you can review that and see if there’s anything that applies to your topic that people are searching for.
Another option: scroll to the bottom of the search results to find Google’s “Searches related to” section. Keywords Everywhere also populates search volume data alongside these additional queries.
If you can find appropriate keywords using this method, great! If not, you have another option.
Search for your initial keyword in Moz Keyword Explorer
I like starting with Keywords Everywhere because I use the free version of Moz, and with only 10 free searches per month, I don’t want to use it if I don’t have to.
But sometimes, the related keywords in Keywords Everywhere and Google’s related-searches recommendations just don’t work for what I have in mind.
When that’s the case, Moz Keyword Explorer never fails to provide me with plenty of other potential target keywords. It’s better than any other tool I’ve used at providing highly relevant related keyword suggestions.
So if Keywords Everywhere and Google’s related searches don’t give you any viable keywords, type your keyword idea into Moz Keyword Explorer. It will populate as many as 1,000 additional keywords to consider (and the search volumes for those keywords).
Once you have one or more ideas for keywords to target, it’s time to evaluate the keyword you chose to make sure it’s the best keyword to target.
How to Find the Best Keywords to Target
When choosing a target keyword for your content, there are four things you need to consider.
1. Is the keyword relevant to the content you’re planning to create?
The very first thing you need to do when choosing a keyword to target is to search for that keyword in Google.
Why is this important? It’s far too easy to assume that a keyword means what you think it means. In reality, it may mean something completely different.
For example, a while ago I was writing a blog post about the best survey tools (think SurveyMonkey). I found the keyword “best survey apps,” and it seemed relevant.
But when I searched for the keyword in Google, I discovered that none of the top results were lists of apps like SurveyMonkey. Rather, they were lists of sites that let people earn money by taking surveys.
If I had targeted the keyword “best survey apps” with a list of survey tools like SurveyMonkey, I would have never ranked for that keyword. Why? When people search for the keyword “best survey apps,” they’re not looking for tools like SurveyMonkey. They’re looking for ways to make money by taking surveys.
Always, always search for keywords you’re considering targeting before you target them. Never assume a keyword means what you think it means. Most of the time, it will. Sometimes, it won’t.
If you target a keyword that means something other than what you’re writing about, you will never rank for that keyword. You’ll just waste your time.
2. How many monthly searches does that keyword get?
Your natural inclination may be to choose the keywords you find that have the highest search volumes. But that isn’t necessarily the best approach because higher-volume keywords almost always have more competition.
The more competition there is for a keyword, the harder it will be to rank for that keyword, particularly if you’re creating content for a newer website or blog.
Additionally, content typically ranks for more than one keyword. Your target keyword might only get 10 searches per month, but in all likelihood, you’ll rank for more than just your target keyword. You might rank for 10 other similar keywords that also get 10 searches per month.
So targeting a keyword with 10 searches per month doesn’t mean that content will only ever get a maximum of 10 visits per month.
Instead, ranking highly for one keyword usually means you’ll rank highly for other, related keywords, so the traffic you’ll generate is likely to be exponentially higher than just the estimated monthly search volume for the one keyword you’re targeting.
All of that is to say that your best bet when picking keywords to target with blog posts is selecting lower-volume keywords.
I will happily write a blog post targeting a keyword with 10 searches per month. These posts typically generate far more traffic than just 10 visits per month. Plus, there’s usually less competition, so I don’t have to worry so much about building links to that content to get it to rank highly in search results.
3. How much competition is there to rank for that keyword?
Next, you might want to consider how much competition there is to rank for the keywords on your list. A helpful, free tool to use for this exercise is MozBar.
MozBar is a browser extension that will give you some details about the competitiveness of a keyword. Install it. Then, navigate to your website and see what MozBar says is your website’s Domain Authority. The bar will appear at the top of the page, and the number you’re looking for is listed next to “DA”:
Domain Authority is a Moz metric that predicts the likelihood of one site outranking another. Comparing your site’s Domain Authority to the top results for a keyword you’re trying to rank for can give you an idea of your likelihood to rank highly for that keyword.
For example, Mailchimp’s Domain Authority is 90, which is really high. My own website’s Domain Authority is far lower: 14.
If I’m trying to compete against Mailchimp for a target keyword, it’s unlikely that I’ll stand any chance of outranking them with content alone. I’m probably only going to be able to outrank Mailchimp with a piece of content that gets tons of backlinks from reputable sources.
You can use MozBar to see what the competition is for each of the keywords you’re considering, which will help you choose keywords that you’re more likely to rank highly for.
Take your list of keywords, and search for each in Google with MozBar activated. Below each result, you’ll see a bar showing the Domain Authority for that result.
If your site’s Domain Authority is higher than the existing top-ranked search results, great! You’ve found a keyword you probably have a good chance of ranking highly for.
If your site’s Domain Authority is comparable—or even 20 points lower—that’s still a good sign that you have a chance of ranking highly for that keyword.
If your site’s Domain Authority is far lower—say your DA is 14 and all of the top results have DAs of 80+—it’s going to be extremely hard to rank highly in organic search for that keyword. Take it off of your list for now and focus on something with less competition.
4. What’s the quality of the content that’s currently ranking highly?
Backlinks (which are used to calculate Domain Authority) are just one component of how Google ranks its search results. Content quality is another, and it often carries far more weight than number of backlinks.
So the final thing you want to do to narrow down your list of keywords is to look at the existing top-ranked results.
Open every result on page one and read it. Is the content high-quality? Could you write something better? If you think you can write a piece of content that’s higher quality or more comprehensive than the existing top results, you’ve found a great keyword to target.
In the end, Google’s goal is to provide searchers with exactly what they’re looking for, so if you can write the best blog post on the internet about a topic, you’ll have a good chance of ranking for that keyword.
What’s the Best Keyword Research Tool?
If you have the budget to pay for a keyword research tool and plan to conduct lots of keyword searches each month, I’d highly recommend Moz Pro’s Keyword Explorer.
Moz Pro starts at $99/month and gives you 150 keyword searches/month. The cost is well worth it for content marketers who are producing lots of content and optimizing that content for search.
I’ve tried many keyword research tools over the years, but none of them are as good at producing relevant keyword ideas as Moz.
How to Do Keyword Research for Free
Moz is great if you can afford it. But if you’re working as a freelancer, running a small business, or trying to grow a bootstrapped startup, you may not have the luxury of being able to spend $100 a month on a tool just for keyword research.
If you can’t afford a Moz Pro subscription, there are lots of free keyword research tools you can use. I’d recommend playing around with a few of them until you find the one you like the best:
Moz Community Account: If you don’t need to conduct keyword research for hundreds of ideas a month, you may be able to get by on the 10 free keyword searches per month you get with a free Moz community account.
Google Keyword Planner: Google Keyword Planner is designed for doing keyword research for PPC ads, but you can use it to find keywords and volumes for organic keyword research, too. The only differences are that the keyword volume data is listed in ranges (0-50 vs. 35) if you don’t run PPC ads regularly, and the competition data in Google Keyword Planner is competition for PPC ads—not organic search results.
Keywords Everywhere: Add this browser extension to get keyword volume data every time you use Google Search.
Google Search: Find keywords (but not volume data) using Google’s autocomplete suggestions, “People also ask” boxes, and related-searches lists. Then, use Keywords Everywhere to get volume data for those keywords.
Ubersuggest: While there are a lot of “free” keyword research tools, many throttle use of the tool for free accounts. Ubersuggest lets you conduct as many searches as you need as often as you want.
This Seems Like a Lot of Work. Is It Really Worth It?
If you’re trying to do keyword research as a content marketer for the first time, this probably sounds like a lot of work. But the truth is that it’s really just a few steps; this post is long because I’ve tried to take the time to explain the “why” behind each of the steps rather than just presenting the “what.”
I’d say finding an ideal keyword to target for a blog post I’m writing takes about 15 minutes. If I’m doing keyword research to find content ideas, that takes longer. But that’s something I’m doing maybe once a month, and it reduces the amount of research I have to do down the line when I’m ready to start writing.
It may take you a little longer when you’re just getting started, but soon enough, you won’t have to reference this blog post anymore—you’ll just go through the motions quickly every time it’s time to start writing a new blog post.
And the increases you’ll see in organic search traffic by optimizing your content for keywords will be well worth the time you invested in finding the best keywords to target for each of your blog posts.