Selecting keywords for SEO involves more than just choosing words and phrases that appear both relevant and searched often. In reality, mastering the art of keyword selection is actually far more methodical and strategic than one might think. It’s also the foundation that can make or break your SEO strategies.
Choosing the best keywords involves a psychological grasp of user intentions and behaviors, along with knowing the dynamics of the search results and who you're competing against. After all, you’re fighting the entire internet for one of only 10 (10!) coveted front-page spots on Google. And as more and more marketers see the value of organic traffic, outpacing the competition becomes increasingly difficult.
In turn, SEO success often hinges on the initial discovery stages of what keywords we choose and how they’re used to support our marketing efforts. When the post and pray method has failed you, it’s time to take a closer look at your keyword strategy before wasting any further resources on content creation. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to effectively research, select, and use keywords to help grow your business.
When people talk about using keywords for SEO, what they really mean is that they’re using certain words or phrases in the content of their webpages. These words and phrases help explain what your content is to search engines, thereby making it relevant and rankable for target keywords. When search users (or searchers) look up these words and phrases, your goal is to be appropriately positioned in the search results so that they’ll click on your content versus a competitor’s.
For example, your local creamery in Cleveland might use keywords such as “ice cream shop”, “ice cream near me”, and “best ice cream in Cleveland” to help generate more traffic to its website. Not only do these keywords help describe what the business is, but they reflect the intention behind the users searching those keywords. They also specify that the creamery is a local business that serves people looking for ice cream in Cleveland.
Although this example is simplified and straightforward, the process of “how to choose” keywords for your industry, brand, and marketing goals is oftentimes more methodical and strategic. That’s where keyword research comes in.
To properly conduct keyword research, you’ll need to identify words and phrases that align with a set strategy and take the big picture (user intent, current rankings, search landscape, competition, etc.) into account. Additionally, a winning SEO keyword strategy makes use of different types of keywords and semantics, so don’t get too rigid and hung up on one specific word or phrase
Different types of relevant keywords help paint a full picture of what your website is all about. Even websites devoted to a single topic can use more than one type of keyword in their strategy to help contextualize where it fits in with other search results. Here are the 5 different types of keywords you should consider incorporating in your SEO strategy.
Some marketing blogs claim there are as few as 3 or as many as 18 types of keywords. The ones we’ve just covered are the fundamental essentials for websites engaged in SEO. But if you have additional online properties (such as an app or Google paid ads) then look into adding a few other types to your strategy.
As you go about choosing which keywords that best fit under each type of keyword, you have to consider user intent.
User intent (also known as "Search Intent'') is the primary objective or intended outcome a user wishes to achieve when submitting a query into a search engine. There are several types of user intent, which can be categorized into the following buckets:
For instance, a user who searches "what is a gravel bike" is likely seeking information, whereas a user who searches "gravel bike for sale" is likely further down the sales funnel and in a more transactional state of mind.
User intent is the difference between what the user is searching for and what they actually want to find; satisfying user intent is the top priority of Google and other search engines.
For example, a search for the keyword phrase “what is carrot cake?” doesn’t just bring up a definition or content related to the meaning of carrot cake. Instead, Google’s complex ranking algorithm has determined that what people really want to see is content related to recipes, ingredients, nutritional facts, and maybe even the origin of carrot cake.
So even if you have the world’s best blog post for the definition of carrot cake ready to go, you may want to add depth to your post by including recipe ideas, key ingredients, and other supportive content of interest. For instance, a cursory glance at the search results will reveal People Also Ask (or “PAAs”) related to the query, like:
In your blog post, you may want to incorporate some of these related questions along with thoughtful answers. Doing so will help ensure your content aligns with user intent, which proves to Google that you understand what this audience really wants, and thereby ranks your content accordingly.
The lesson here is there’s often a difference between what you think the user is looking for and what they’re actually looking for, reinforcing the importance of understanding users’ behaviors and intentions when creating your SEO roadmap. In essence, a quick Google search for your target keywords of interest is crucial for determining user intent, so don’t skip this step!
Learn more about search intent classification.
In a timeless video with Rand Fishkin, former head of Moz, he defines the primary goal of keyword research as to "understand the search demand landscape so we can craft better SEO strategies."
The supporting article of that video goes on to underscore that "keywords are important because they are the linchpin between what people are searching for and the content you are providing to fill that need." In other words, find what people search for - specifically, your potential customers - and solve that need.
Rand and the Moz team strike a vital balance between the importance of keywords, user intent, and how these insights guide our SEO efforts. Without keyword research, your content lacks the aim and direction needed to realize its SEO potential and is otherwise rooted in assumptions based on what you think your target audience is looking for. Sure, we all formulate ideas based on the problems and needs of our target users. But researching and using keywords to help validate those ideas, you can add substantially more value to your content getting found.
Not only does keyword research help inspire and instruct content creation, but it increases the chances of getting more page views, acquiring new leads, and making all that time and money you spent creating website content worth it in the end. As long as people use the internet to look things up, keyword research will remain relevant.
Before you get started mapping pages, posts, and assigning keywords to content, you have to come up with a plan. In terms of finding and using keyword data, your plan is your overarching SEO strategy and the keyword mapping exercise behind it, which defines which keywords you’re targeting for what pages (starting with a list of keywords), as well as your SEO goals for the website as a whole.
Kickstart your SEO strategy and your search to find the best keywords by answering these questions:
You should have a lot of keyword ideas after answering those questions. However, not all keywords are created equally, so your strategy will adapt heavily based on your target audience, where you currently rank for certain keywords, and whether you operate internationally or not, which means you’ll have to narrow this big list down.
While you can gain a lot of insight by simply searching Google, the process of finding the right keywords for SEO can be improved with the right tools. At a minimum, you need to have:
Do note that a solid SEO keyword tool will hit many of the above requirements; for example, both Ahrefs and Semrush can act as a keyword planner, SEO optimizer, and competitive keyword tool. They can also handle rank tracking and reporting for you. With these tools, you should be able to develop a list of prospective keyword ideas to choose from, distill, and utilize.
Now you have some solid ideas about how to find keywords for SEO amidst the bigger picture of user intent and keyword types, it’s time to strategically choose keywords that best fit your SEO objectives. Here are a few tips and processes to keep in mind for keyword selection.
Start typing your initial keyword ideas into the homepage of Google. Look for relevant terms that Google tries to auto-fill and add them to your list. Then, get a better understanding of user intent by skimming first-page result titles for repeating themes or words.
Next, see if Google has included any special category cards such as local business listings, image spotlights, shopping ads, or any niche-specific call-outs (a search for “bone broth” brings up a Flavor card).
Finally, make note of the “Searches related to” section at the very bottom. Add these new keyword ideas to your master keyword list or aim to include them as secondary keywords for content related to the term you searched.
This section is also included in the Google search results, but it’s so important that it deserves its own step. People Also Ask questions are the clearest view into search intent the engine has to offer. Aim to answer all relevant questions as part of your strategy so that Google sees your website as an authority on the subject.
In a perfect world, the best keywords have high search volume, low competition, and high conversion rates. But since we don’t live in a perfect world and almost all keywords with high search volume are fiercely competitive, we’ll just have to settle for good keywords that come as close to that as possible.
Bad keywords, on the other hand, are words and phrases that are too generic, already dominated by the competition (e.g. high keyword difficulty, or "KD" in Ahrefs), and/or just aren’t being searched for. Bad keywords might also appear relevant to your SEO strategy, but when you search Google and examine the results, you find the user intent is entirely different than what you had expected.
Also, remember that long-tail keywords add up; low search volume (or clicks) keywords can be incredibly valuable in aggregate. Long-tails can help round out your secondary keyword target, as well as instruct ongoing content strategies, like blogging, video topic creation, and other more granular queries that you find meaning addressing.
Maybe a user is looking for informational content and you show them a product to purchase. Or perhaps they are seeking to purchase and you deliver informative content instead. Either way, you aren’t meeting those expectations appropriately. Moral of the story: Don’t forget to research and understand the user’s Informational vs. Transactional intention, then use this insight to give them what they want.
This doesn’t mean you can’t offer products as solutions to informational queries. But it does mean that you better meet that informational need first and foremost. You should also clearly outline exactly how the product is a good and appropriate solution for the query. Think these through and you’ll have yourself some good (maybe even great) keywords!
Even though good keywords have high search volume, they could be considered “bad” if they don't get any clicks (read more below for exceptions to this rule.) After all, the point of SEO is to rank highly on page one to the point of generating organic search traffic, and eventually, leads and sales.
Metrics that define “No Click” searches include Clicks and Return Rate (which Ahrefs can measure), and Organic CTR (which Moz can measure). Eliminate any keywords from your master list that are proven to not convert traffic based on these results, no matter how well they rank.
It can be easy to dismiss and overlook keywords that have little to no reported search volume. But in areas of niche subject matter - especially where a brand or professional running the brand has substantial expertise - these low-to-no volume keywords shouldn’t go overlooked.
In many cases of using keyword research tools, you’ll come across interesting and relevant search terms that have either “0” or “0-10” searches per month. While it can be tempting to brush these keywords aside, in some cases these terms can add value to your SEO strategies. Sure, these keywords may not have significant search volume, but in some cases, research tools just haven’t acquired enough data yet. And for B2B, these might just be highly specific lead generation goldmines.
One interesting example our friends noticed in the cycling community is the rise in “gravel plus bikes” - a more robust version of standard gravel bikes that allow for larger tire clearance.
Despite our research tools showing low-to-no search volume for these keywords, the industry knowledge and experience of our cycling friends proclaims this to be an emerging trend that’s quickly blooming in the bicycle world. In short order, we wouldn’t want to dismiss these keywords! Instead, view them as a viable SEO opportunity to jump in front of a trending niche.
Work with your paid search (PPC advertising) team to better understand the following, and inform your SEO keyword targeting decisions:
If your chosen keyword doesn't accurately align with what you are offering, don't bother. All the search volume and traffic in the world won't matter if you don't meet the user's needs (and for goodness sake, don't mislead them!)
For instance, it may be tempting to optimize for alternative keywords that don’t entirely fit but have significant search volume. In most cases, these keywords will prove to be an uphill battle
Once you have found and organized your keywords, the next step is to figure out the correct way to implement them. The steps on how to use keywords for SEO will vary depending on the stage your website is in (e.g. pre-launch, redesign, SEO overhaul, ongoing content strategy, etc.) but in many cases, the following concepts can be universal best practices worth adopting.
While it might sound counterintuitive to use keywords that are already working for your site’s SEO, this proven technique is worthwhile to help maximize momentum and harvest low-hanging fruit. To effectively leverage keywords that already drive organic search traffic to your site, use the following steps.
First, take a good hard look at the keywords you already rank on the first page for. Then, begin to add interesting target keywords (that you don’t yet rank for) onto both pre-existing pages, and perhaps more appropriately, new pages.
Adding new target keywords to the mix will help you create new rankable content, produce traffic from new audiences, and cover content gaps in the keywords you already rank for. They’ll also paint a clearer picture of what your website is all about.
In most cases of growing SEO performance, utilizing new keywords is the primary area of focus. If you don’t identify new potential targets, you’ll likely miss out on big opportunities to grow your search visibility and keep your site up-to-date with relevant content. Sure, your current rankings may be good, but what if additional keywords of interest will move the needle even further? You never know until you try!
Create a keyword matrix to organize and visualize what keywords you are going after - plus where they’ll appear on your website. For a simplified process, try using our SEO Keyword Mapping template (simply make a copy of this template to utilize it; please don’t request access.) This preformatted spreadsheet will help organize your sitemap and which keywords are assigned to what pages.
To make one, you’ll list the following information in a spreadsheet:
For an even more comprehensive look at your site, you can also choose to include:
When taking a more comprehensive approach, use our Keyword Matrix template to get started. This strategic website inventory gives you instant visibility into your strategy as a whole. It also helps ensure you know what content has already been created so you don’t duplicate your efforts. A keyword matrix also makes it easy to see how you’ll link to these existing pages from new content by using your target and supporting keywords as anchor text.
For every URL, make sure that your chosen keywords appear naturally in the heading tag (the visible title or Header 1 on the page), any sub-headings, and within the content (e.g. page copy) of each page. If you include media assets (like images, videos, etc.) you’ll also want to add keywords there that describe those assets (e.g. image name and alt text.)
Wondering how many keywords are good for SEO? Well, in today’s evolved SEO world, less is more. In fact, you only need to feature your main keyword a few times in a piece of content. And in many cases, it’s more about where (e.g. Title, Headings, Metadata, etc.) than how much and how often.
If your target keyword is very general, like “carrot cake,” then you can certainly use it more times throughout each webpage where it’s natural. But just keep in mind that Google can penalize your website and drop your ranking if it detects that you’re using nonsensical keyword inclusions to cheat the system.
In addition to using keywords in the pages’ content, you’ll also need to ensure they’re mentioned in your metadata. Website metadata refers to the meta description and title used on each page. Although these elements are invisible and behind-the-scenes to users on your page, they represent the main headline link users will see in search engine results pages (SERPS).
Make sure you include your primary keyword or key phrases in the title tag - ideally towards the front of the tag - and in the meta description as well (if possible). Do note that keyword relevance of the meta description is not a ranking factor, however, it can appear in the search results and shape how users view and engage with your content.)
By now, you’ve learned the nuts and bolts about how to choose keywords for SEO as well as how to organize, optimize, and implement them.
Whether you’re planning to optimize existing content or create new SEO content that reflects your keyword & content strategy, The Gray Dot Company can help. Contact us for help choosing keywords for your digital marketing & search engine optimization efforts.