Keyword research is more than just a task in the checklist of search engine optimization (SEO) specialists. It’s a strategic process that helps propel a website’s visibility in search engine rankings. 

This guide will delve into the significance of SEO keyword research and how it has evolved over time. We will also provide clarity on user intent and the importance of maintaining a balance between long-tail and short-tail keywords in your SEO strategy.

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Modern SEO: The Evolution of Keyword Research

Keyword Research - SEO Keyword Research
Keyword Research – SEO Keyword Research

Over the last decade, keyword research has significantly evolved. It used to be a simple process of inserting a bunch of keywords into an article and waiting for a search engine to index the page.

However, search engines have grown smarter, employing complex algorithms to ensure that they deliver the most relevant and high-quality content to users. This change has made it essential for marketers to align their keyword research strategies with how search engines operate today. 

Marketers should focus not only on volume but also on relevance and user intent when choosing keywords. It’s crucial to select keywords that are most likely to be used by your target audience and align with the content on your webpage. 

Let’s look at two terms that come up often in modern SEO.

User Intent in Keyword Research

Understanding user intent is now one of the most critical aspects of modern SEO. User intent refers to what a user is specifically looking for when they search.

If a user searches for “how to start a blog,” are they looking for instructions on starting an individual blog post, or are they interested in how to launch an entire website for blogging? Understanding this intent is vital to creating content that fulfills the user’s needs and ranks higher on search engines.

Long-Tail and Short-Tail Keywords

When conducting keyword research, it’s essential to include long and short-tail keywords in your strategy. 

Short-tail keywords, also known as “head terms,” are short, generic phrases that consist of one to three words. They typically have high search volumes but are more competitive and harder to rank for. An example of a short-tail keyword could be “keyword research.”

On the other hand, long-tail keywords are longer, more specific phrases that consist of three or more words. While these keywords typically have lower search volumes, they are less competitive and can attract a more targeted audience. An example of a long-tail keyword could be “best keyword research tools for SEO.”

Conducting Effective Keyword Research: 5 Steps

Successfully carrying out keyword research is a multi-step process, where each step builds on the one before it. Here’s a step-by-step guide that can help you master this essential aspect of SEO.

Step 1: Brainstorm Relevant Topics for Your Business

A man brainstorming
A man brainstorming

Kickstart your keyword research process by deeply understanding your business and its offerings. Generate a list of topics that are closely related to your business and that your target audience is likely to search for.

For instance, if you own a digital marketing agency, your relevant topics could include “SEO,” “content marketing,” “PPC advertising,” and “social media management.”

Step 2: Identify Potential Keywords Within Those Topics

Choosing keywords on semrush
Choosing keywords on semrush. Source: Semrush

With the topics identified, the next step is to generate potential keywords that fall within these topics. Think from your audience’s perspective and imagine the terms they might use when searching for answers or services related to those topics.

Using our digital marketing agency example, if one of your topics is “SEO,” potential keywords could be “SEO strategies,” “SEO tips,” “SEO service providers,” and “affordable SEO services.”

Step 3: Use Keyword Research Tools to Broaden Your List

Keyword Research Tools- Semrush
Keyword Research Tools- Semrush. Source: Semrush

Use a keyword research tool to expand and analyze keywords further. These tools can provide suggestions for related and long-tail keywords and valuable information about each keyword’s monthly search volume and competition.

There are several free keyword research tools. For one, Google’s Keyword Planner is free and can help you identify variations of your listed keywords along with their search volumes and competition level. Tools like Ahrefs or SEMRush can also suggest related and long-tail keywords you may have yet to think of initially.

Pro Tip: To ensure you are using the right data, use tools that collate data from Google Search Console or Google Analytics.

Step 4: Analyze Your Keywords Based on Search Volume, Competition, and Relevance

Analyzing keywords based on search volume, competition and relevance
Analyzing keywords based on search volume, competition and relevance

Now, it’s time to analyze your expanded keyword list. Consider the following to finalize a list that you’ll target in your content:

  • Search volume is a measure of how often users search for a particular keyword. Keywords with higher search volumes can bring in more traffic but might also have high keyword difficulty.
  • Competition indicates how many other websites are trying to rank for that keyword. High-competition keywords can be more challenging to rank for, especially for new websites.
  • Relevance is how closely your keywords relate to your business and website content. The more relevant a keyword is, the more likely it will attract users interested in what you offer.

Step 5: Consider the Role of SERP Features in Your Keyword Selection

SERP Features
SERP Features

As the last step, look at how your chosen keywords appear in Search Engine Result Pages (SERP). Modern SERPs offer more than just regular organic results. They now include features like featured snippets, local packs, and knowledge graphs.

Understanding these SERP features can provide additional ranking opportunities for your keywords and help you drive more traffic to your site. For instance, if a keyword triggers a featured snippet, it could provide the opportunity to gain visibility on the first page of Google, even if your page isn’t among the top regular organic results.

Best 4 SEO Keyword Research Strategies

There are several crucial elements to consider to ensure your strategy produces the desired search results.

One: Balancing Head Terms and Long-Tail Keywords

Using long tail keywords
Using long tail keywords

A well-rounded keyword research strategy isn’t only about targeting the highest-ranking keywords. Balancing head terms, short-tail keywords, and long-tail keywords is crucial. 

Head terms are typically one to three words long and have a high search volume. They’re broad and competitive, but if you can rank for them, they can significantly increase the volume of traffic to your site. Using our previous example, “SEO services” might be a head term. 

Long-tail keywords, on the other hand, are longer, more detailed phrases with lower search volumes. These tend to be less competitive and can attract more targeted traffic that’s easier to convert. Following the same example, “affordable SEO services for small businesses” might be a long-tail keyword. 

Two: Selecting Less Competitive Keywords

Competitors research
Competitors research

While high-search-volume keywords may seem attractive, they often come with very high competition, making it challenging for newer or smaller websites to rank for them.

One strategy is to target less competitive keywords or long-tail keywords. These keywords may have a lower overall search volume, but they often lead to more qualified traffic — visitors who are more likely to convert because they’re searching for something particular. 

Three: Leveraging Google Keyword Planner and Google Trends

Google trends
Google Trends

Google Keyword Planner is a free tool that provides keyword ideas and trends. It can help you understand which keywords are most relevant to your business and provide insights into the historical and forecasted performance of these keywords.

Meanwhile, Google Trends can show how a keyword’s popularity varies over time. It can help you identify seasonal trends or understand if a keyword’s popularity is increasing or declining. Using these tools together can help you choose keywords that are not only relevant but also timely and likely to perform well.

Four: Understanding Customer Search Behavior

Google search console graph
Google Search Console Performance

What terms do your customers use when looking for products or services related to your business? By understanding their search habits, you can choose keywords that align with their queries, increasing the chances that they’ll discover your website.

Do they search for “best digital marketing agency” or prefer to use terms like “top SEO services”? Tools like Google Analytics can provide valuable insights into the search terms people use to find your site, helping you refine your keyword strategy.

Competitor Analysis

Competitors analysis
SemRush SEO Dashboard

Another crucial aspect of keyword research is understanding your competition. By conducting a competitor analysis, you can gain insights into the keywords your competitors are targeting, enabling you to identify keyword gaps and opportunities. Below are two of the best ways you can spy on your competitors.

Learn Your Competitor’s Strategies through Their Keyword Choices

One of the most effective ways to understand your competition is to analyze their keywords. Tools like SEMrush and Ahrefs can help you uncover the keywords your competitors rank for. This analysis can provide insights into their SEO strategies and reveal high-performing keywords you might be overlooking.

For instance, you might find that a competitor ranks well for “affordable SEO services for e-commerce,” a long-tail keyword you hadn’t considered. By noticing this, you can decide to create content around this keyword to compete for the same audience.

Identify Keyword Gaps and Opportunities

Keyword gap analysis is discovering keywords that your competitors are ranking for, but you’re not. These ‘gap’ keywords represent opportunities for your SEO strategy.

A keyword gap analysis tool, like the ones offered by Ahrefs or SEMrush, can help you perform this analysis. These tools list keywords that several competing sites rank for, which your website does not currently rank for.

By identifying these gaps, you can expand your keyword list and explore new content creation opportunities. For instance, it’s a clear opportunity if several competitors rank for “best keyword research tools,” but you do not have content optimized for that keyword. Create content around that keyword to fill the gap and potentially increase traffic.

Applying Keyword Research to Your Content Strategy

It is one thing to do proper keyword research but another to convert these keyword insights into actionable content plans. Here’s how you can apply your research to your content strategy.

Converting Keyword Research into Content Decisions

After identifying the terms your audience uses to search for your services or products, you can start crafting content that addresses their needs and queries. Each keyword represents an opportunity to create content that resonates with your audience.

If your keyword research reveals that your audience frequently searches for “best digital marketing strategies,” you could write an in-depth guide that explores various digital marketing strategies. Integrating this keyword naturally into your content can improve its discoverability by search engines and relevance to your audience.

Regularly Revising Your Keyword List 

The digital landscape is dynamic, with trends, audience preferences, and search engine algorithms perpetually changing. Hence, it’s crucial to review and update your keyword strategy regularly. 

Monitoring your existing content performance can help identify opportunities for improvement or optimization. You might find that specific keywords are only effective once new ones have emerged, reflecting changes in your industry or audience behavior.

For instance, you might have successful content around “Marketing Trends 2021,” but as we move into 2022, updating the content and keywords to reflect the new year can keep your content relevant and engaging.

Structuring Your Content into Topic Clusters 

Adopting the topic cluster model is one practical way to organize your content and prioritize keywords. This model involves creating a comprehensive “pillar” page focusing on a broad topic, with various “cluster” posts or pages that delve into related subtopics. 

Let’s say you want to focus on the broad topic “Keyword research.” Your pillar page could offer an extensive guide to keyword research, touching on its various aspects. Then, for your cluster pages, you could write individual articles based on related long-tail keywords like “best tools for keyword research,” “understanding keyword competition,” or “how to identify relevant keywords.” Each cluster page links to the pillar page, creating a network of interlinked, SEO-friendly content.


Now that you have a comprehensive understanding of keyword research, the next step is to implement this knowledge. 

Start by brainstorming relevant topics for your business. Then, identify potential keywords, use keyword research tools to refine your list, and analyze your keywords based on search volume, competition, and relevance. 

Leverage this data to inform your content strategy, aiming for a balance of head terms and long-tail keywords. Review and update your plan regularly, and remember to consider your competition.

If you found this guide helpful, please share it with others who might benefit. Stay tuned for more insightful articles on advancing your SEO strategy.

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