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How to Do Keyword Research: A Beginner's Guide.

Original Post by Rachel Sprung

keywordsWhile Google's kept us on our toes with all those algorithm changes they keep rollin' out, one thing has stayed pretty consistent for inbound marketers looking to optimize for search: keyword research.
Well, needing to do keyword research has stayed the same. How you actually do it hasn't.
So in this post, I'm going to lay out a process you can use to establish a strong keyword strategy that can help you come up with and narrow down a list of terms you want to rank for. Let's get started.

Step 1: Make a list of important topics based on what you know about your business.

To kick this process off, think about the topics you want to rank for in terms of generic buckets. These topics will turn into a list of about 5-10 topics that you think are important to your business, and you'll use those topic buckets to help come up with some specific keywords later in the process.
If you're a regular blogger, these are probably the topics that you blog about the most. Or perhaps the topics that come up the most in Sales conversations. So if you were a company like HubSpot -- selling inbound marketing software (for which we have an SEO tool, but I digress) -- you might have general topic buckets like "inbound marketing," "blogging," "email marketing," "SEO," "social media," and "marketing automation."
Make sense?

Step 2: Fill in those topic buckets with keywords.

Now that you have a few topic buckets that you want to focus on, it's time to identify some keywords that fall into those buckets. These are keyword phrases that you think are important to rank for in the SERPs (search engine results pages), because your target customer is probably performing searches for those terms.
For instance, if I took that last topic bucket for an inbound marketing software company -- "marketing automation" -- I'd jot down some keyword phrases that I think people would type in related to that topic. Those might include:
  • Marketing automation tools
  • How to use marketing automation software
  • What is marketing automation?
  • How to tell if I need marketing automation software
  • Lead nurturing
  • Email marketing automation
  • Top automation tools
And so on and so on. The idea in this step isn't to have your master list of keyword phrases -- you just want to do a brain dump of phrases that you think potential customers might input that relate to that particular subject matter. We'll narrow the lists down later in the process so you don't have something too unwieldy.
(Note: If you're a HubSpot customer, you can actually spend a little less time cutting keywords. The Keyword tool lets you sort through your keywords easily based on criteria like visits, rank, and difficulty, so you can cut through the clutter pretty quickly.)
Repeat this exercise for as many buckets as you have. And remember, if you're having trouble coming up with terms, you can always head on over to employees on the front lines -- like Sales or Services -- and ask what types of terms people use, or questions people have. 

Step 3: Check for a mix of short- and long-tail keywords in each bucket.

If you don't know the difference between short- and long-tail keywords -- well, it's pretty much what it sounds like. Short-tail keywords, sometimes referred to as head terms, are short keywords phrases. They're typically just one or two words in length. Maybe three words in length, depending on who you talk to. Long-tail keywords are longer phrases, and usually contain three or more words in the phrase.
It's important to check that you have a mix of short- and long-tail terms because it'll give you a strategy that's really well balanced with long term goals and short term wins. That's because short-tail terms are often (not always, but often) much more competitive than long-tail terms, so it'll be harder to rank for it. Think about it. Without even looking up search volume or difficulty, which of these terms do you think is harder to rank for?
  • How to write a great blog post
  • Blogging
If you answered #2, you're right. And frankly, the traffic you'll get from the term "How to write a great blog post" is usually more desirable.
Because someone looking for something that specific is a more qualified searcher for your product or service (presuming you're in the blogging space) than someone looking for something really generic.
So check your keyword lists to make sure you have a healthy mix of short- and long-tail keywords. You want to have some quick wins, but also continue to chip away at more difficult terms over the long haul.

Step 3.5: Research related search terms.

This is a creative step you might have already thought of when doing keyword research -- hence the "Step 3.5" above -- but if not, it's a great way to fill out those lists.
If you're struggling to think of more keywords people might be searching about a specific topic, go to Google and take a look at the related search terms that appear when you plug in a long-tail keyword. When you plug in your phrase and scroll to the bottom of Google's results, you'll notice some suggestions for searches related to your original input. These keywords can spark ideas for other long-tail keywords you may want to take into consideration.
Want a bonus? Go to some of your related search terms and look at THEIR related search terms. 
What another bonus? HubSpot customers can get suggestions for keywords to consider within the Keyword tool.

Step 4: See how competitors are ranking for these keywords.

Just because your competitor is doing something doesn’t mean you need to. The same goes for keywords. Just because a keyword is important to your competitor, doesn’t mean it's important to you. However, understanding what keywords your competitors are trying to rank for is a great way to help you give your list of keywords another evaluation.
If your competitor is ranking for certain keywords that are on your list, too, it definitely makes sense to work on improving your ranking for those. However, don’t ignore the ones that your competitors don’t seem to care about. This could be a great opportunity for you to own market share on important terms, too.
Understanding the balance of terms that might be a little more difficult due to competition, versus those terms that are a little more realistic, will help you maintain a similar balance that the mix of long- and short-tail terms allows. Remember, the goal is to end up with a list of keywords that provide some quick wins, but also helps you make progress toward bigger, more difficult goals.

Step 5: Use Google tools (or HubSpot) to cut down your keyword list.

Now that you've got the right mix of keywords, it's time to narrow down your lists with some more qualitative data. You have a lot of tools at your disposal to do this, but let me share my favorite methodology.
If you're a HubSpot customer, you can narrow down your list easily within the Keyword tool. Data on visits, rank, difficulty, historical performance, and even how your competitors are performing is accessible right within the tool where your keywords live.
If you don't have HubSpot software, I like to use a mix of Google's Keyword Planner tool (you'll need to set up an AdWords account for this, but that doesn't mean you have to create an ad), and Google Trends.
In Keyword Planner, formerly known as the Keyword Tool, you can get search volume and traffic estimates for keywords you're considering. Unfortunately, when Google moved from Keyword Tool to Keyword Planner, they stripped a lot of the more interesting functionality. But, you can make up for it a bit if you take the information you learn from Keyword Planner and use Google Trends to fill in some blanks.
Use the Keyword Planner to flag any terms on your list that had way too little (or way too much) search volume, and didn't help you maintain a healthy mix like we talked about above. But before you delete anything, check out their trend history and projections in Google Trends. You can see whether, say, some low-volume terms might actually be something you should invest in now -- and reap the benefits for later.
Or perhaps you're just looking at a list of terms that's way too unwieldy, and you have to narrow it down somehow ... Google Trends can help you determine which terms are trending upward, and are thus worth more of your focus.
Congratulations! You've now got a list of keywords that'll help you focus on the right topics for your business, and get you some short term and long term gains. Be sure to re-evaluate these keywords every few months -- once a quarter is a good benchmark, but some businesses like to do it even more often than that. As you gain more authority in the SERPs, you'll find that you can add more and more keywords to your lists to tackle as you work on maintaining your current presence, and then growing in new areas on top of that.