Keyword Research for SEO: The Complete Step-By-Step Guide

a picture of Tom Donohoe
Written by: Tom Donohoe
Last updated: June 29, 2018

Keyword research is the foundation of your on-page SEO strategy.

But here’s the deal:

Finding keywords you want to target, and their monthly search volume isn’t enough.

In this guide, you’ll learn my process for keyword research, which drives business results.

Here we go.

Chapter 1

What is keyword research?

Keyword research is the process of finding words and phrases that people type into search engines. Think Google and Bing.

It’s critical to then prioritise keywords that could drive relevant, high-intent and quality visitors to your website.

Keyword research is a must-have skill for every business owner and marketeers skill set. It’s vital to both paid and organic search success.

In this article, I’ll focus on applying it to organic search (SEO).

4 Limitations of traditional keyword research

Most people do keyword research with the intention to find a keyword monthly search volume.

This approach works to some degree, but it’s flawed. A lot more goes into selecting keywords to target then the number of times it’s searched each month.

Worse still, you can’t trust the data in most keyword tools as it is inaccurate. If you do take the traditional approach, you’ll move forward without the information you need to make informed decisions.

1. Lack of knowledge of Search Intent

If you go more in-depth with keyword research, you can only guess what user intent might be. Understanding what people want when searching a keyword is extremely important.

A keyword might have 2000 monthly searches and look like a great option to target. But every one of those searches might never take action on your website.

For example, the keyword “men’s socks” has 1,300 monthly searches. It sounds like searches would have great intent. And they likely do. But what socks do they want to buy? Sports socks, bed socks, work socks, green socks? You don’t know.

2. One Source of Data

Taking a traditional approach to keyword research limits yourself to one data source. Rarely in life would we ever settle with the first opinion or option.

Keyword research is no different. Getting information from several sources is much more reliable. And will give you a greater understanding of your keywords.

3. No understanding of the content that ranks

Great, you know how many searches a keyword gets. But do you know what content ranks for those searches?

How can you create fantastic content that will rank on the first page if you don’t know what already does?

4. What’s already working

Why are you looking for keywords? Have you even checked what is already working on your website? You might be already ranking for keywords, and you can work on improving them.

Some of the best keyword research happens when you look at your internal data. You might find some keyword gems you could have never thought to target.

Or what about your competitors? With competitor research tools you can discover keywords that are driving traffic for others. Then you can replicate and improve their SEO strategy.

Long-tail keywords: understanding the demand curve

There are three types of keywords head, body and long-tail keywords. Each type has their distinct characteristics.

an illustration of the keyword demand curve

(image source: Backlinko)

The head keywords are 1-2 words. They often have a lot of competition and high monthly search volume. An example of a head keyword would be “movies.”

Body keywords are 2-4 word phrases. They have moderate to high competition and substantial monthly search volume. An example of a body keyword would be “comedy movies.”

Long-tail keywords are 4+ word phrases. They are specific, and when a person types these long-tail keywords, they know what they want. They are often less competitive, but the trade-off is less monthly search volume. An example of a long-tail keyword would be “top 10 romantic comedy movies in 2017”.

Search intent: what do people want?

Understanding search intent is vital to your keyword research strategy. It separates the beginners from the professionals.

There are four ways that people search in Google, and you need to know how they are different. They all meet different business objectives, and the content you need to rank won’t be the same.

In Google’s Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines they refer to search categories as understanding user search intent:

  • Know Query (informational): the searcher is seeking information, such as how many people live in Australia?
  • Do Query (transactional): the searcher is seeking to achieve something, such as sign up for Facebook.
  • Website Query (navigational): the searcher is seeking a particular website, such as YouTube or Daily Telegraph.
  • Visit in person query (navigational): the searcher is seeking a location to visit, such as coffee shop or petrol station.

Later in this guide, I’ll share a technique to help you identify the search intent of a keyword.

Competition: how it influences keyword research

The level of competition for a potential target keyword is a crucial consideration. Naturally, everyone will want to rank for keywords with high-intent search traffic.

Sometimes you need to avoid targeting a keyword because it’s too competitive. Identifying these keywords is a vital skill in keyword research.

Keyword research tools will have a competition metric that helps you evaluate the difficulty of ranking for a keyword.

what the keyword difficultly metric looks like in ahrefs keyword research tool

Chapter 3

Keyword research tools

To conduct keyword research, you’ll need tools at your disposal.


You can get away with free tools for keyword research. But to take it to the next level you have to pay (and you should).

In this step, I’ll run through the tools I use in my approach.

1. Google Keyword Planner

Google Keyword Planner is a keyword research tool that helps you to find keywords to target. You can discover new keyword ideas, compare key data insights, and export the data for further analysis.

Google Keyword Planner dashboard

2. Ahrefs, Moz or SEMRush

Ahrefs, Moz or SEMRush are all paid SEO tools that have a keyword research feature.

You can research relevant keyword ideas with search volume. Along with additional metrics that Google Keyword Planner doesn’t offer.

Here’s the ahrefs dashboard:

ahrefs Keyword Explorer dashboard

3. Google Search Console

Google Search Console will reveal all the queries that your website is already showing on Google. You can use these queries to expand your keyword list for ideas that you might have missed.

Google Search Console query report

4. Google Search

Search keywords on Google, and you will get related keyword ideas that people search. These keyword ideas are often super relevant long-tail variations of your target keywords.

Google Search suggested keywords

5. Answer The Public, Ubersuggest or similar

Finally, there are some useful free tools out there for finding long-tail keywords. Answer The Public is one of the better ones, it pulls together a bunch of long-tail ideas for your target keyword.

Answer The Public keyword suggestions

Chapter 4

4-step layered approach to keyword research

Researching and targeting keywords that drive business results isn’t easy. It takes a lot of upfront work.

But taking a layered approach will pay off by saving you time in the long run.

This process can be used in any situation such as a new website, web page, blog post or anything you want to put online.

Let’s run through it.

How to take a layered approach to keyword research

The layered approach to keyword research breaks down into 4 phases:

  1. Objective setting: define what you want to achieve and why you’re doing the keyword research.
  2. Keyword research: researching keywords that will help meet your objectives.
  3. Intent analysis: analyse keyword intent and priorities them by importance to your objectives.
  4. Content research: research the content that already ranks well for your target keywords.

Let’s dive deep into each step.

1. Setting your keyword research objectives

Outline your objectives for your keyword research and what you want to achieve. Always use the SMART goals framework when writing your objectives.

Here’s the example that I’ll use for this guide:

If you have measurable targets for your keyword research, it will keep you on track.

2. Conducting the Keyword Research

Now it’s time to find the keywords that can meet your objectives. I’ll take you through step-by-step of my process-driven keyword research.

2.1 Brainstorm keyword ideas

First up, I’ll brainstorm 5-10 keyword ideas that will help meet my objectives.

My keyword ideas

  • SEO consultant
  • SEO consultant Sydney
  • SEO consultant Australia
  • SEO consultant Melbourne
  • Freelance SEO consultant

2.2 Expand my list and collect data with Google Keyword Planner

Now I have a seed keyword list to start with; I’ll use Google Keyword Planner to expand my list and collect data.

Google Keyword Planner dashboard

This data looks promising. My seed keywords sum up to 2280 monthly searches, so I’m on the way to meet my objective.

Next, I download all keywords into Excel. With that CSV file, I can quickly do a text filter for keywords contain “SEO consultant.” After the filter, I have a list of 30 prospect keywords with an estimated 3070 searches a month.

Google Keyword Planner datas exported to excel

2.3 Expand with a paid SEO tool

Now I’ll dig deeper into the keyword and gather more data to combine with my keywords list. In the example, I’m using Moz Keyword Explorer.

In the below image, I’ll click on Keyword Suggestions and export that to Excel. Then again I can filter to find the relevant terms.

Moz Keyword Explorer overview

After removing duplicates, Moz took my keyword list from 30 to over 150. So, you can see the value on collecting data from a second source.

2.4 Review Google Search Console

To expand my list even further I filter the queries in Google Search Console by “SEO consultant.” In the last 28 days alone, I’ve had over 2,000 impressions.

Google Search Console filtered by keyword

I’ll export this list into Excel again and remove duplicates.

2.5 Review Google Search Suggestions

Then I search several keywords in Google and scrap the search suggestions for keywords that are relevant.

Google Search suggested keywords

Again put them into Excel and remove duplicates. My keyword list is now over 200.

2.5 Use a long tail SEO tool

The final step is using Answer The Public to collect long-tail keywords to add to my list. Put in your head keyword, in my case ‘SEO consultant’ and then download to CSV.

 Answer The Public longtail keywords

After removing the duplicates in Excel, I now have 405 keyword ideas.

3. Intent analysis

Intent analysis prevents wasting time trying to rank keywords that won’t meet objectives.

In this step, we need ask two questions of our target keywords:

  • What search category does the keyword belong to?
  • Will the keyword help meet the objective?

I find looking at content Google is already ranking on the first page the easiest way to do this.

Google “SEO consultant,” and you’ll see every result is a business website. The results tell me that people searching have high-intent and are looking for services.

The keyword could fall into two categories:

  • A ‘Do Query’ as people are looking to contact a provider
  • A ‘Know Query’ people are looking for information. Both will achieve my objective, so we are ready to proceed.

Google results for SEO consultant

To give you an example of where intent might not meet my objective, Google “SEO Specialist”:

Google results for SEO consultant

On the surface, this keyword sounds excellent. But if you look at the results of this query, it is not high-intent. There is a mix of results from blog posts about ‘what is an SEO specialist’ and even SEO specialist jobs. We can assume, there is a lot of different intents for this search.

4. Content research

Once the keyword list is complete and intent confirmed to be relevant, we move on to content research.

When creating content, it’s rare that you want to reinvent the wheel. Content that works, works for a reason. So, again analyse the top 10 results on the first page, look for common themes and topics in each result.

Make a list of everything that’s on the page and what appears the most. With this information, you’re well placed to create a page that’s ten times better than the other results.

Over to you

There you have it, my exact keyword research strategy for you to try out on your website.

Follow this guide, and you’ll be focusing on keywords that drive business results.

If you have any questions, drop them in the comments!