How to do Keyword Research the Smart Way: Targeting Interest and Intent

These days, effective keyword research is an increasingly important skill for digital marketers. Not only do they need to know how to develop a good keyword list for PPC and SEO, but smart content marketers use keyword research to find out what topics they should write about and what phrases they should use while writing.

But if you’re reading this, you probably already know how important keyword research is. You’re just here to learn how you might do it better or more effectively.

There are quite a few great, thorough keyword research guides on the internet (see here, here, and here). In general, they tell you to follow this process:

  1. Create a seed list of starting terms
  2. Expand your list using keyword research tools
  3. Refine your list with competitive research

So why am I adding one more article to the stack? Because I want to introduce you to a framework for categorizing keywords that I developed when I was running the paid search practice at Red Bricks Media. The infographic below sums it up:

keyword research target model

Click on the image above to see an enlarged view.

The idea behind this model is that different keywords represent different levels of interest and intent; some search terms are used by people close to a conversion, while others are used by people still in the early stages of research.

The model imagines that your desired conversion event is the center of a target. Keywords are categorized by type and arranged by how effective they are at converting. As a rule, it makes sense to invest the most time and money in keywords closer to the bullseye. Only after you have fully maximized the volume from those should you move further out.

1. Brand terms. People who are familiar with your brand already are the easiest of all to convert. In terms of volume, this category of keywords might not produce the most impressions or page views, but they usually will have the best conversion rate (in both paid and natural search).

2. Product terms. This is what your product is or does and what problems it solves. Depending on how diverse your array of products or services is, this list could be huge. People who are searching for these terms are a little further back in the decision cycle, and your cost per action (CPA) on these terms usually will be higher than on brand terms. But you can get only so much volume from brand terms, so eventually you’ll want to start winning with product terms, too.

3. Competitor terms. There was a time earlier in the life of paid search marketing that competitor terms were second only to brand terms for conversion rate and CPA efficiency. However, in recent years, Google has tightened up their quality score requirements; and now it is nearly impossible to find a reasonable cost per click (CPC) on competitor terms. If you have money to spend and are trying to make inroads against a strong competitor, these could be good terms for you.

4. Substitute product terms. This is something someone might use instead of your product. For example, if you’re selling pens, you might consider bidding on (or optimizing for) “pencils.”

As with competitor terms, Google won’t give you a lot of credit for relevance on these terms, so they will be more expensive to bid on for pay per click (PPC) and harder to win for search engine optimization (SEO). However, if you’re getting all the volume you can out of previous categories, they are worth considering.

5. Complementary product terms. These are things that go with your product, such as “TV stands” if you sell TVs. Basically, they are someone else’s product terms. You might win some marginal conversions with them.

6. Audience terms. This category covers all kinds of other terms that people in your target audience might be searching for. Usually the impression volume on these words is vast, so it can be a tempting category to try. Also, since this category is more aligned with traditional display targeting, which is based on the interests and pastimes of the audience, you might get a lot of suggestions from higher ups about trying these types of words.

That’s one reason the target model is so helpful. By understanding that these terms reveal there isn’t much intent on the part of the searcher to discover your product, you won’t be surprised when the terms act like display ads and generate the lowest conversion and highest CPA of all of your words.

Using the Target Model in Your Keyword Research

Now that you’re familiar with the target model, here’s how it comes into play during the steps of keyword research:

Creating your seed list

A seed list is your initial set of keyword ideas. Write down the six keyword categories. Then use a combination of brainstorming and investigation (see below) to fill out the list with keywords, spending the most time on brand and product terms.

You want this list to be thorough in terms of capturing all the things your product does and the problems it solves, but you don’t need to be exhaustive in coming up with synonyms, etc. That will happen in the next step.

1. Research your audience. What terms does your audience use to describe your products or services? What other relevant terms do they use in their day-to-day lives? Look at blog posts and comments, forums, LinkedIn groups, and your own support requests.

2. Find the search terms in use now. Use your analytics tool, Google Webmaster tools, and your weblogs to see what search terms people are using to get to you. If you have access to data on your internal site search, look at those terms to see what people are looking for.

3. Get some suggestions. Soovie is a tool that lets you enter a keyword and see what the top autocompletes are for a number of different search engines and other sites. It’s not worth running every keyword through Soovie, but you might try a couple to see if you missed anything.

4. Check out the competition. Tools such as SpyFu or SEM Rush let you see what competitors are bidding on. As with Soovie, there’s no need to spend hours on these sites. But it can be helpful to put in a few competitor names or key terms to see if there’s anything you didn’t think of.

Building your keyword list

Now it’s time to expand your list. Pop open your favorite keyword research tool and start entering your keywords.

“Wait!” I hear you saying. “What should be my favorite keyword research tool? Do you have a secret weapon?”

Nope. Many keyword research articles recommend a whole list of tools, but in my opinion you can start and end with the Google Adwords Keyword Research Tool. In the U.S., the majority of traffic comes from Google, and the proportion of PPC traffic is even higher, so you might as well get your words – and your traffic estimates – from the authority. A few tips for how to use it:

1. Group words by topic. As you start putting in your keywords, you can enter more than one keyword at a time, but keep them topically grouped. For example, if you sell both mustard and ketchup, you can put “mustard” and “Dijon mustard” in at the same time, but put ketchup in separately.

2. Under Match Types, select Exact. You can find a thorough explanation of Google match types here, but basically Exact Match will give you the number of searches for that term and that term only. This is a better and more conservative estimate of the search traffic you might get from a term.

3. Under Advanced Options and Filters, select the language and location you’re interested in. If you want only Spanish speakers from San Francisco, set up the filters that way. The number you see in Local Monthly Searches will reflect searches from people matching your criteria.

4. Set up your columns. Select the columns Competition and Local Monthly Searches. There are columns with other data, including approximate CPC, but I never have found them as useful as these.

5. Check off the keywords that seem interesting; then select Download/My Keyword Ideas. This will produce a spreadsheet of your results. The keyword ideas stay in the left column as you enter more seed terms, so you can just download after you are finished.

Refining your keyword list

Now that you have a good list of keywords, it’s time to refine it and zero in on the best keywords. This is especially important if you’re developing a keyword list for SEO, where there is a limit on how many words you can reasonably optimize for. There aren’t any hard-and-fast rules here; you’re generally looking to eliminate less interesting words. Some factors to consider as you hone your list:

1. Keyword Category. If you ended up with 500 audience keywords but only 15 product keywords, you probably can drop some of the less interesting audience terms. Focus on the categories closest to the center of the target.

Also, use the categories to understand the intent of the search. In other words, if you sell a B2B financial product, then “financial management” is a potential product term, but “financial management jobs” is an audience term and therefore less interesting.

2. Competition. In the online tool, Google rates keyword competition from Low to High. In your downloaded sheet, they’ll have changed this to a number from 0 to 1, with higher values meaning more competition. Google’s number relates to paid search only. Moz has a tool (available to paid subscribers) that gives a keyword difficulty score for SEO.

These tools can help you find words that you might have an easier chance of winning. Don’t spend a lot of time fretting over these numbers, though. You shouldn’t be discouraged from going after more competitive words, just understand that it might be harder.

3. Search Landscape. Enter some of your most important terms into Google (or another search engine) and see what comes up. For example, if you’re doing a campaign for the bath-and-body brand The Body Shop, until you see the search results, you might not realize that “body shop” also refers to cars.

Also, if you have a marginal term of ambiguous meaning, it might be worth dropping it off the list. And you can start making a list of potential negative keywords for any off-topic results you see (that is, keywords you don’t want your ads to appear for).

4. Semantic Grouping. As you go through your words, create a column to group them semantically. For example, words like “free website,” “free website creation,” and “free website tool” might be grouped under “free website.” These tightly-connected groups of words can be used later as your PPC ad groups. If you find a group with a large number of words, you might drop some of the ones with a lower search count.

Many people want to know how big their keyword list should be. This depends a lot on how big or complex your product or service is, but it doesn’t need to be huge. Unless you are developing a list for a large enterprise, think dozens or hundreds instead of thousands. In PPC, you can use broad match (to capture long-tail terms) and Google’s keyword reports (to add the effective ones to your list).

Categorizing your keywords to capture the interest and intent of the searcher can help you develop, refine, and analyze your list. Have you tried something similar? Let me know in the comments.

About the Author: Beth Morgan is marketing consultant and early-stage startup advisor. You can find more of her writing at her website, Marketing Nerdistry, or follow her on Twitter.

  1. Chris Neumann Jul 11, 2013 at 3:16 pm

    Hey Beth,

    Good article. eBay did some research and found that they were wasting millions of dollars per year on brand terms since people were going to go to eBay anyway. What’s your opinion on that – do you think it’s worthwhile to buy brand keywords, or just let organic search take care of it?

    • Oooo, that is a good question. I’ve seen arguments on both sides– on the one hand saying you shouldn’t pay for words you’re ranking well for, and on the other saying that it’s worth it to get more shelf space and to crowd out competitors. What I’ve never personally seen is a straight up test of this– running brand terms for a period of time, then turning them off to see how it affects overall traffic and conversions.

      So that’s kind of a non-answer answer.

      • Tom Jankowski Nov 25, 2013 at 7:12 pm

        I guess the answer will vary from one industry to another.

        Check Google ads for some shopping cart solutions and you will find that some companies bid for a competitor name. Now imagine potential customer typing the name of your company into Google. At the very first spot he sees the advert of your direct competitor. A competitor is above you. Because you didn’t advertise for your brand name your competitor may get a potential client who was ready to do a business with you – only now he sees the alternative he wasn’t even aware of.

  2. Hi Beth,

    Nice post, I’ve built a simple free tool that help in getting more keyword suggestions, it’s called Übersuggest you can find it at http://ubersuggest.org.

    I hope you’ll find it useful.

    • Your tool seems like it occupies the same niche as Soovie, using Google Suggest to give some other keyword ideas. So it would be helpful for brainstorming in the same way, but honestly unless there’s more data given (such as search counts) it doesn’t help with ultimately refining a PPC list or picking the best topic for a blog post.

      • ubersuggest is very helpful when combining it with the google keyword tool, you can throw the whole list in there and see what phrases have enough keyword volume to merit their own adgroup or even give you some good negative keyword ideas.

      • Nice post Beth

        I find Ubbersuggest to be a great tool for suggesting keywords that you wouldn’t even think of.
        Especially when you’re working in a niche with specific vocabulary that is not familiure to you.
        You just have to select the keywords you find usefull and copy them into Google Keywordtool to get tons of data.

    • Ubersuggest is a great tool , however, the problem I have with ubersuggest is that it does not allow for alternate orders of phrases. if you type in “ppc matt” for example, it will not show you “matt best ppc” as a possible option because it does in clude the phrase.

  3. Hi Beth,

    This article is a great resource! Thanks for sharing your knowledge. I hope the keyword framework you explained will help me convert more of my traffic.

    Now time to research!

    Thanks,
    Josh

    • I actually find it is most useful for understanding why words that seemed like they would be winners didn’t convert at all, or converted but were very expensive.

  4. I use SEMrush to do my research, however it would be nice for a tool to be able to use that data via the api and categories the results but I suspect this would have to be done manually.

    Currently I am seeing a lot of keywords left on the table for a site whereby it is not even listed in the top 100. So a simple data-mining has provided the necessary keywords to attribute to a url, but the audience terms I almost feel as if Google rewards your site for it if you can rank well in the serps. I have definately seen this for several sites, not that you should exclude as part of the activites; could be expensive to write content targeting

    • Do you have some examples of sites ranking well for tangential words like audience terms? I’m always looking for examples.

  5. Great infographic about search term categorization.
    I think that substitute and complimentary products might share a level rather than be nested. They are two alternate paths to your product, and neither is any further down in the sales funnel / conversion path.
    I also think that competitor products might span two levels, sharing space with substitute and complimentary, and also the level below, product – not have it’s own level. Some competitor products may be exact matches and some may be substitute products. For instance, Nutella in the example above.
    For the sake of simplicity, I understand why you grouped as you did. And I could probably complicate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich! ;-)
    This categorization scheme will go a long way to helping devise landing pages. Thanks.

  6. Results from the Google Keyword Research Tool are ordered according to search frequency. Only 100 terms are shown at once.
    You can change the ordering by clicking on the various column headers. It may be worthwhile to look at the less frequently searched terms to find long tail terms or to weed out terms that don’t merit attention.
    Google Trends can help you determine if they keywords you are targeting have seasonal interest variation or if the subject interest is trending up or down. Downward trending may indicate a keyword you might not want to invest effort in. Upward trending may indicate a good opportunity.

    • Actually, the default order for results in Google’s keyword research tool is “relevance.” It tries to give you terms that are the most similar, and you’ll see a mix of terms with higher and lower search counts. I often find when I sort by search counts that I end up having to wade through lots of less relevant terms.

  7. Thanks so much for this Beth! As we start up our travel and photography blog we’ve been trying to wrap our heads around basic understanding of SEO/SEM as it relates to writing and the posting of content. This info was quite helpful!

  8. Rhonda Hurwitz Jul 14, 2013 at 7:15 pm

    Since Google adwords keyword tool is going away, what will you use in it’s place?

    • Excellent question, and I should have mentioned the rise of the Keyword Planner (and eventual sunsetting of the Keyword Tool). I will still continue to use it– only the external tool is going away forever, since I have an AdWords account I always use the tool logged in anyway. In fact, the Planner makes keyword research even easier, because you can create ad groups within the tool (and thus have your new keywords already attached to ad groups when you do the download). There are some minor flow changes to what I’ve described above, but the functionality is still there.

  9. It seems to me like substitute products are *somewhat* closer to conversion, just because the person is looking for the general sort of thing you have– a different way to solve the same problem. Complementary are barely related at all. But! The best way to determine that is to try the words out and see what converts best. Some words may work better for some brands than others. (This is after you’ve exhausted all budget on better words like brand/product, of course.)

  10. Great post Beth,

    I think it’s one of the best explanations I’ve read about how to differentiate the levels of interest and intent of a keyword.

    It is also important to emphasize that for PPC you should start with a relatively small number of keywords, the best one’s of course, in order to evaluate the conversion rate of your landing page before spending large amounts of money.

    Cheers

    • Totally agree! Years ago when I was starting PPC we used to launch lists of thousands and thousands of keywords, and it was effective. But as CPCs have gone up over the years it’s become less so, and now I tend to start with a pretty bare-bones list and use broad match and the keyword report to selectively add more.

  11. Nice and amazing deep analysis to do keyword research Beth, for newbie like me, the whole process is too complicated. Also, Semrush and Moz is paid tool. Is there any free tool to check SEO difficulty score?

    • For free you have a couple of options:

      1) Sign up for the Moz free trial, which will at least give you 30 days of keyword assistance
      2) Just hit the SERPs yourself and do a general assessment. Are the results for that keyword well-optimized (as in, taken by microsites, big brands, dedicated entry pages, etc), or are the results a little looser (blog posts, forum posts, other incidental results, etc)? That could show you some opportunity.

      If there are other free tools people use, chime in!

  12. Great post. I’ve got my interns to read this and bookmarked for future reference.

    We use a model very similar to the Target Model for PPC too.

    • Cool! In all the things I’ve seen written about keyword research I’ve never seen something similar, and it worked really well for us at Red Bricks Media. That’s why I wanted to write it up.

  13. Thanks for sharing this useful information. Can you please explain how to use Google keyword tool? i want step by step procedure to use it. your help will be appreciated.

  14. Great tips! Certainly is useful information! Is it possible now with the Keyword Planner though?

    • I am planning to go back through this and update on my own blog. It’s basically the same tool, things are just laid out differently.

  15. There is no Google Keyword Tool now, as I’m sure you’re aware of. How does Google’s new Keyword Planner Tool affect how you run your own keyword and SEO analyses now? Also, with each new algorithm change Google throws at small online businesses, it becomes more painfully clear that they are determined to limit the use and effectiveness of any other keyword/SEO tools other than their own! Any comment on this, especially in light of Penguin and the most recent changes in how Google ranks your site(s)?

  16. Willam Thomas Nov 01, 2013 at 11:00 am

    Very informative post. Keyword research is very important for any SEO project. We have to follow smart tips as below:

    Brainstrom keyword list based on the client objectives and suggeted keywords
    Use Google keyword planner tool
    Drill down your keyword list using suggested keyword phrases from keyword tool
    Verifying keyword phrase relevance
    Looking at search volume to determine consumer demand
    Analyzing the competition for shortlisted keywords

  17. Actually this is a very useful post, thank you for posting such a valuable posts. Good Luck..!!

  18. Great post Beth! Just a quick question, has the Google Algorithm updates changed your strategy?

  19. very informative and nice post thanks,

  20. I’ve moved heavily into affiliate marketing recently so I’m doing a lot of keyword research. There’s a lot of good stuff in your post that I wasn’t aware of, so many thanks for that.

    One tool you didn’t mention that I have found very useful is SEO Quake. That runs as a free add-on in Firefox and provides a lot of analytical information. Think it also runs in Chrome.

  21. great , i love this, but this will take lots of time and effort, what i do is just to use this service here http://goo.gl/mnmyVR for just $5 and i save myself all the time and effort, i get my result in just a day and the results are great but to tell the truth i love your explanation.thanks

  22. Nice article on SEO. Keyword Research is where it all starts. It’s important to start off on the right foot and I think you’ve provided some good insight. Thanks :)

  23. Nice article. It helped me a lot.

  24. Thanks
    That’s a very good point; intent can often trump search volume when analyzing for opportunity. I tried to separate the importance between optimizing for traffic vs. optimizing for conversion, in which case intent is all that matters.
    Very smart. I don’t use CPC data enough when segmenting my keywords into related sets for content… and you just gave me another idea for a post. I love when that happens as a byproduct of commenting!

  25. This is very informative and practical.Thanks for this great tips.

  26. Keywords research is the most important factor of an SEO campaign. 50% of the ranking depends on the selected keywords and these techniques can help to choose the best keywords for one’s business.

  27. The infograph is really amazing. No need to read the article, one can get entire information by zooming the infograph.

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