SEO Keyword Strategy: The Ultimate Guide
You can’t create content that contains the right keywords, or that delivers what your audience really wants if you go all gung-ho and dive into writing with zero planning or research.
Keyword research must be a core part of your SEO campaign.
You’ll be making life far too easy your competitors if it isn’t.
We’ve worked with countless clients who have followed the ‘build it, and they will come’ approach to their content by focusing mainly on quality.
We’re talking about truly exceptional content.
Articles based on months and months of independent research, and long-form content well over ten thousand words.
And you know what?
Time and time again, the results showed that it didn’t matter how good the content was if it didn’t target the right keywords.
Here’s what usually happened:
- The sites would end up on the first page of Google, but for keywords that so few people searched for that these rankings were mostly meaningless.
- Their content would contain a few keywords with high search volumes; however, these were usually too competitive and difficult to rank well for based on the authority of the site when the content was published.
- Their content often missed the mark because it was what they wanted to write about, or what they thought their audience wanted to read about.
Thankfully, by following a proven approach to keyword research like the one shown in this guide, you can help avoid these issues with your site’s content.
Types of Keywords
To save any confusion later on, let’s discuss the various types of keyword that you can target on your site.
The main types we refer to in this article are primary and secondary keywords:
The primary keyword is the most important keyword on the page.
It’s the specific term that the entire article gets built around, and it’s usually the one with the highest monthly search volume (more on this later).
In general, you don’t want to target more than one primary keyword in each piece of content.
You also don’t want to use your primary keyword across multiple articles either if you can help it.
It’s hard enough ranking for a single piece of content in the SERPs as it is.
It’ll be even harder if your articles are competing with each other too as well as with your competitors’ content.
Instead, spend your time and energy creating a single article or blog post for your primary keyword that’s as useful and authoritative as possible.
These are words or phrases that are highly relevant to your primary keyword.
If your primary keyword was coffee, your secondary keywords could be coffee machines, coffee maker, coffee grinder, or coffee beans, for example.
They’ll typically have much lower search volumes than your primary keyword, but they should also have lower levels of competition too making them much easier to rank for.
Unlike with your single primary keyword, your article or blog post could target eight to ten secondary keywords, or perhaps even more.
Beyond this, there are another three categorisations that can apply to either primary or secondary keywords.
Depending on their length and how specific they are, these include:
These are the search terms with the highest search volumes and the highest levels of competition to boot.
They usually consist of single words, for example, coffee, dogs, or insurance.
Someone searching for these terms could be looking for multiple different things.
For example, in the case of dogs, what they could really be looking for is dog food, dog training, dogs for sale, or even funny dog videos.
Because of this, head keywords usually have very low conversion rates – they’re just not specific enough.
These are slightly longer than head keywords, usually two to three words in length.
Examples include coffee body scrub, dogs for sale, or travel insurance.
Adding extra words to the search phrase causes two things to happen:
- The searcher’s intent becomes more apparent because the search phrase used is more specific, and this causes the conversion rates to be higher than for head keywords.
- The search volume and the level of competition decreases (the latter of which is excellent when it comes to SEO).
Lastly, there are long-tail keywords, and these are the longest of all at four or more words in length.
Examples include best coffee body scrub, dogs for sale in London, or travel insurance with medical conditions.
Long-tail keywords don’t get huge numbers of searches per month individually.
However, the volume of long-tail keyword variations available means that they drive the majority of organic traffic on the internet.
The money tends to be in long-tail keywords thanks to the fact that:
- They’re highly specific, meaning conversion rates are much higher.
- They’re easier to rank for because the competition is usually very low.
That’s the basic theory covered.
Now let’s get stuck into some techniques to help you find and use the best keywords.
The Four-Step ToolCrowd SEO Keyword Strategy
Now, let’s get stuck into the nitty-gritty of finding and using the strongest keywords to boost your on-page SEO.
Here’s the basic process…
This process helps eliminate all of the guesswork and hoping for the best when it comes to ranking your content.
It’ll help you figure out:
- Which search terms your audience is actually using;
- How you can best meet their needs by understanding what they want when they use those particular search terms;
- Where you can use those terms for maximum impact to boost your site’s ranking.
The first step though is to paint a picture of your perfect lead, client, or customer.
Without this, it’s virtually impossible to create content that’s both authoritative and valuable.
Let’s get started…
1. Understand Your Target Audience
One of the biggest opportunities when it comes to SEO and marketing, in general, is helping people solve their problems.
You can’t do this particularly well, or over and over again if you write about whatever you want.
Your content needs to be laser-focused on meeting the needs of your target audience; whether that’s answering their questions, providing solutions to their problems, or recommending products or service that’ll help them get the results they want.
It isn’t enough to assume that you know what your target audience is looking for. You need to use cold, hard facts.
We aren’t just talking about whether they’re mainly male or female, their age, or where they live, either.
It should go much deeper than this.
You want to understand their interests, what drives them, their pain points, and their fears.
What issues are they coming across again and again? What are they happy with?
You don’t want to leave any stone unturned.
At ToolCrowd, we do this for our project sites by firstly looking at the core topic of the niche they cover, and then…
- Searching on Google for related blogs and resources to see what kinds of content gets the most engagement, for example, comments and social media shares.
- Checking out customer questions, answers, and reviews on Amazon for related products.
- Reading YouTube video comments on related videos.
- Reading forum comments.
- Checking out questions and answers on Quora.
- Joining Facebook groups to eavesdrop on discussions related to similar products or services that our client’s offer.
By far though, our favourite option is to use answerthepublic.com
If you ever wanted a way to get into the head of your target audience, this is it.
Enter the core topic of your business into the search bar, hit enter, and you’ll be presented with a diagram and lists showing the related searches that people are completing, the questions they’re asking, and the problems they’re having.
This is the level of research it takes to truly understand the kinds of topics, and the types of keywords you need to be targeting with your content.
2. Find a Primary Keyword
Next up, you need to find a primary keyword for your content.
The ‘holy grail’ when it comes to keyword research is uncovering the search terms that offer:
- The highest traffic potential.
- The lowest competition.
- The highest business value.
This translates into a search term with a high search volume, a low level of competition, and maximum relevance to whatever products or services your business offers.
You’ll probably need to compromise in at least one area, but the more time you dedicate to keyword research, the stronger the search terms you’ll be able to target which helps you keep these compromises to a minimum.
At ToolCrowd, there are four questions we ask as part of every keyword research campaign we complete for our various project sites:
- What are people searching for?
And once we’ve got a good understanding of this, we ask the following for each of the keyword options:
- How popular is that search term?
- How realistic is it to rank for that search term?
- What are people looking for when they use that search term?
Let’s look at how you can answer these questions for your SEO campaign…
There are plenty of ways to find keywords for your content.
From free research opportunities to paid tools, there are loads of options to suit every budget.
Here are some popular options:
Go back to the results you got from the target audience stage.
What words, phrases, and themes come up again and again on related blogs and websites, in YouTube comments, in Facebook groups, and on answerthepublic.com?
Add these to your list of primary keyword options.
Next up, we’ll use a handy (and free) tool available within Google itself.
First, brainstorm a list of topics that are relevant for your business.
For example, an accountancy practice would probably list the following:
- Audit Services
- Pensions Advice
- Self Assessment
- Tax Planning
- VAT Consultancy
Next, take each of these one at a time and type them into Google’s search box.
Don’t press the return key or the ‘Google Search’ just yet though; we want to look at the various options that Google suggests.
For example, in the case of ‘self assessment’:
There’s a reason why Google is suggesting these too.
They’re popular search terms that people search for again and again.
This is a straightforward way to gauge popularity, and a quick way to grow your list of primary keywords.
Another quick and easy way to find keywords is to look at Google’s examples of related search terms.
Continuing with the ‘self assessment’ example, let’s complete the search this time.
Next, scroll to the bottom of any page in the search results to find a section titled ‘Searches related to [search phrase]’;
Here’s what it looks like:
As with Google Suggest, this is made up of search phrases that Google knows are popular.
Take advantage of this and add these to your keyword list.
You can dig even deeper too by clicking on one of the related search suggestions, and scrolling to the bottom of this page to find even more related searches.
Do this across each of the different topic areas you identified for your business, and you’ll have an almost limitless supply of popular search queries.
As great as the previous examples are, our favourite option by far is using a premium keyword research tool.
Well, using a tool like Ahrefs or SEMrush can save hundreds of hours of manual research, making the subscription cost of these tools a relative bargain.
The one we turn to time and time again is Ahrefs.
Here are the three keyword-related functions we use most in Ahrefs:
Whereas Google’s Suggest and ‘Searches related to…’ functions offer eight to ten keyword suggestions at a time, Ahref’s Keyword explorer lets you find thousands at once.
You also get an indication of the search volume, keyword difficulty (how hard it’ll be to rank for), and loads of other data for the keywords it finds.
You can access this function by clicking the ‘Keywords explorer’ link from the top menu of Ahrefs:
The next step is to type a topic idea in the input box.
Let’s continue with the example of ‘self assessment’ here….
You can also choose which search engine you want the keywords to be ranked on (we select Google in 99% of cases), and which region you want to target (in this example we chose the UK to focus on google.co.uk rankings).
Once you’re happy with your choices, click the button with the magnifying glass icon to proceed:
All keyword explorations lead straight to the Ahrefs keyword dashboard.
As you can see from the screenshot below, this provides loads of data including an estimate of how difficult the keyword is to rank for, and the estimated global and local monthly search volumes for that particular phrase.
The keyword dashboard also includes some summary tables, which are an absolute goldmine from a keyword research perspective.
For example, you can quickly access tables that include thousands of related search terms, questions built around the keyword phrase you entered, and even examples of other relevant keywords that appear on the pages which rank for your chosen keyword.
You can click any of the results directly from the summary tables to dive into more detail, or you can click the ‘View all…’ link at the bottom to see the entire list of keywords, including their respective search volumes and ranking difficulty scores.
This gives you a virtually endless selection of keywords to work with.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could spy on your competitors’ best content, and steal the keywords that drive the most traffic to their sites?
Well, with Ahrefs, you can.
It’s really easy to do, too.
Enter your competitor’s domain in the search bar and hit enter:
On the dashboard that appears, navigate to the left sidebar and click the ‘Top pages’ link:
The Top Pages table shows a list of the web pages on your competitors’ site that are receiving the highest estimated organic traffic.
From this, you can see which web page is ranking for which keyword, along with the estimated search volume and the exact ranking position for your chosen region.
This removes virtually all the guesswork from keyword research, helping you target the search terms and queries which are already proven to rank.
Can you imagine how much time, effort, and money you can save by having access to all this data?
The third and final Ahrefs keyword function that we use almost daily at ToolCrowd is Content Gap.
Like Top Pages, this lets you see which keywords your competitors are ranking for, except, here, it shows the ones your site doesn’t have any rankings for.
To get started, click the ‘Content gap’ link in the left sidebar menu.
Enter your website’s domain in the bottom box, and enter up to three of your competitors’ domains in the boxes above.
Hit the ‘Show keywords’ button, and you’ll find a handy table showing the keywords your competitors are ranking for that you currently aren’t:
Take advantage of this function to find popular gaps in your content that you can write new articles or blog posts around.
By now, you should have a list of potential keyword options.
The next step is to review these in terms of search volume and ranking difficulty to see how worthwhile, and achievable it’ll be to rank for these terms.
There’s a reason we’re covering these two questions at the same time; search volume and keyword difficulty are almost always linked.
The general rule of thumb is…
The higher the search volume, the more competitive and difficult the keyword is to rank for usually.
Also, the lower the search volume, the easier it typically is to rank for a particular keyword.
You need to consider both factors simultaneously.
For example, what would happen if you chose to look at search volume without looking at the level of competition?
The chances are that you’d write off loads of long-tail keyword options because individually their search volumes are very low.
Doing so would be a huge mistake.
As we pointed out above, long-tail keywords collectively are responsible for huge amounts of traffic.
They’re also much easier to rank for, and the conversion rates associated with long-tail phrases are considerably higher, which makes them great for boosting revenues.
We compromise much more on search volume than we do on difficulty.
For example, when it comes to long-tail keywords, we’re happy to accept a lower search volume because they’re less competitive.
We tend to be very strict on keyword difficulty, however.
So, if a search phrase is too competitive, we’ll often overlook it even if it’s getting hundreds of thousands of searches per month.
Our strategy is to try and match keyword difficulty to the authority of our clients’ sites.
If a client’s site lacks authority, for example, which usually occurs from having too few high-quality backlinks, we’ll target low competition keywords initially.
Then, once the site’s authority grows, we’ll start to target more and more competitive keywords.
Let’s look at both search volume and keyword difficulty in more detail…
This is an estimation of how many people search for a particular keyword each month.
You’ll never get access to actual numbers here (unless you work for Google or Bing, but even then, probably not!).
The best we can do, therefore, is work from estimates.
What constitutes a ‘good’ search volume will vary from one topic to the next.
Search Engine Optimisation, for example, will receive exponentially more monthly searches than, say, underwater basket-weaving.
The important thing is to spend some time figuring out what a good search volume is for your business’s particular areas of expertise.
You can use a free tool like Google Keywords Planner, or a premium tool like Ahrefs to figure this out.
Generally, so-called ‘head’ keywords will have the largest search volumes, body keywords have less, with long-tail keywords having the lowest volumes.
One thing that most people fail to do is to figure out if it’s worth the time and effort ranking for a particular keyword.
You can set limits here to help you out.
For example, you could choose to target primary keywords with an estimate of at least 1,000 searches per month, and at least 100 from each of your secondary keywords.
Assuming you had a good chance of ranking in the top spot for a particular keyword, 1000 searches per month would lead to around 312 visitors (based on this table discussed earlier).
Is this high enough, and will the traffic be targeted enough to invest the time and money into creating it, optimising it, and promoting it?
It’s up to you to figure this out.
Just because a particular keyword has 10,000 searches per month, that doesn’t mean you’ll get anywhere close to that number of visitors coming to your site.
Firstly, you’ll be limited by the click-through percentages, but also by your ability to rank for that keyword in the first place.
This brings us to keyword difficulty, which is an assessment of how difficult it is to rank for a particular search term.
Generally, the higher the search volume, typically the more competitive and difficult a keyword will be to rank for.
Similarly, the lower the search volume, the easier it usually is to rank for a keyword as the competition is lower:
It’s crucial to find a balance when choosing keywords.
Too low and you’ll get virtually no traffic even from ranking in the top spot.
Too high and the amount of competition will make it incredibly difficult to rank meaning you’ll also get little to no traffic.
There are a couple of ways to assess keyword difficulty.
Firstly, type your keyword into Google and check out the first page of the search results.
If smaller sites are ranking on the first page, for example, blogs, this gives a good indication that the keyword isn’t particularly competitive and that you stand a good chance of ranking for it with a bit of effort.
Alternatively, you could use a free tool like Google Keyword Planner, which will assess the level of competition for your chosen keyword as low, medium, or high.
By far the easiest solution, however, is to use Ahrefs.
As we pointed out above, Ahrefs assigns a specific and regularly updated keyword difficulty (KD) score for each phrase in its database.
Even better, it provides a handy estimate of how many backlinks you’ll need to rank on the first page of Google for each keyword.
It’s hugely important to understand a searcher’s intent when using a particular search term if you want to create content that resonates with your audience.
There are four main types of intent that you can assign to your keywords:
Let’s look at each one in more detail…
At the top of the ‘intent funnel’ is informational intent.
Unsurprisingly, as per the name, this is when the searcher is mainly interested in finding information quickly.
Informational searches rarely result in a transaction.
We’d also count purely entertainment-based searches in this category, for example, epic fails videos.
Information queries often start with:
The goal for any content targeting informational keywords should be providing information to educate the reader on a particular topic.
Navigational searches occur when someone is looking for something specific, for example, a website, brand, or person whom they believe can help them with their needs.
Examples of searches include Facebook, Daily Mail, etc.
In most cases, we don’t pay too much attention to keywords with navigational search intent.
Well, in nearly all cases, the first result for a navigational keyword will get virtually all the traffic.
Let’s pretend, for example; we have an article about the Daily Mail that we manage to rank in position four of the SERPs.
When someone searches Daily Mail, do you think they’re looking for our website and the information we provide?
Or, are they looking to go straight to the Daily Mail’s website because they couldn’t be bothered typing in the full URL?
We’d argue that it’s almost always the latter.
The good news is that if you optimise your website correctly, you’ll naturally rank for relevant navigational keywords.
Because of this, you don’t need to worry too much about targeting these separately.
Next up is investigative intent, and this is when the searcher is looking for more information on a specific topic, usually to weigh up their options before purchase.
In most cases, the searcher will be aware of the various available options, but they’ll want additional recommendations and insight to help them choose.
Investigative queries often include the following words:
Content that targets investigative terms should be as detailed as possible, providing all the information necessary to help the searcher choose and be confident in their choice of purchase.
Investigate content could come in the form of reviews, or buyer’s guides that include comparison tables, pricing tables, advantages and disadvantages, or key benefits, for example.
Finally, at the bottom of the intent funnel, is transactional intent.
This is where the searcher is looking to complete a specific action, for example, purchasing a product or booking an appointment.
Conversion rates are at their highest here because the search queries are much more focused and transactional in nature.
Transactional queries often include the following words:
So why is it so important to pay attention to keyword intent?
First and foremost, search engines like Google are smart enough to change the search results depending on the perceived intent.
If your content doesn’t match up with what the search engines are looking to rank, it’ll be a real struggle to bring about any meaningful increases in traffic.
Let’s look at a few examples on Google to illustrate this:
A clear example of informational intent, Google provides information-rich content with dictionary and Wikipedia excerpts, and first page results that provide detailed information to answer the search query as fully as possible.
There are no adverts or product listings for this particular search because Google is smart enough to understand that conversion rates will be extremely low for this type of search.
This search phrase shows investigative intent, as although the searcher is clearly interested in Goji berries, they haven’t made their mind up on which specific option to purchase.
To help the searcher, and because investigative search phrases have higher conversion rates than informational terms, Google starts to show adverts in the search results.
The first page of search results is also full of reviews, buyer’s guides, top-five/top-ten lists, and Amazon product pages.
Google understands that the money is in long-tail keyword phrases, and so, because of this, the search results for transactional phrases are dominated by adverts, as well as e-commerce product pages.
Don’t underestimate the importance of this.
Firstly, you need to understand the various types of intent, and then you need to pay attention to how the SERPs change based on perceived intent.
This is the step we see people miss time and time again when it comes to keyword research.
Don’t make things harder for yourself.
Find out what Google wants to rank, and give them, as well as your audience, exactly that.
For example, this could be YouTube videos, blog posts, e-commerce product pages, Amazon listings.
The easiest way to gauge this is to look at the top-ten results for the keyword in question to see what Google is predominantly showing.
Whatever it is, take a note for later as you’ll want your content to align as closely as possible to this.
3. Find a Secondary Keyword
Once you’ve singled out a primary keyword, the next step is to choose around six to ten secondary keywords to bulk out your content.
Secondary keywords will nearly always have lower monthly search volumes, as well as lower difficulty scores, than your primary phrase.
The lower level of competition is ideal because it helps your content rank faster.
These phrases are also great for adding context, and completeness around your primary topic, both of which Google loves.
Search intent is still important here, so look for secondary keywords that match the intent of your primary keyword.
4. Write Content and Use Keywords Effectively
In this section, we’ll look at where you should add your keywords for maximum impact.
We’ll be using a webpage from Sage that targets the search term Accounting Software as an example.
You’re probably most used to seeing page titles when viewing Google’s search results. Page titles appear in blue for each listing.
Because of their prominence, the page title typically has a lot of influence on whether or not someone visits a search result.
We recommend adding your primary keyword as close to the start of the page title as possible.
It’s also a good idea to add your secondary keyword, and your brand name if possible:
It used to be that people would focus on achieving a specific keyword density within their content – it is now widely accepted that this no longer works.
The best approach is to identify your keywords as shown in the previous steps, and then write natural copy around these.
While your keywords should appear evenly throughout your content, we recommend adding your primary keyword at least once within the first 100 words of your body text.
Google uses the H1 header tag when trying to figure out the context of a webpage.
It’s a good idea to give their crawlers a helping hand here by including your primary keyword in your H1 tag.
Adding keywords to your URLs will help both human visitors and the search engine crawlers gauge the relevance of your content to specific keywords.
Don’t go overboard here.
One instance of your primary keyword should be more than enough.
Meta descriptions are very prominent within the search results.
They’re the long piece of (usually) descriptive text which sits below the page title and page URL. This position means it is vital to get your meta descriptions right.
While the search engines don’t use them as a ranking factor, it’s still important to add keywords to your meta descriptions. Any keywords related to the search query are highlighted in bold.
This increased visibility helps a potential visitor to quickly gauge the relevance between your webpage and their search query, which can help increase click-throughs.
We also recommend adding keywords to the anchor text of your links.
A link’s anchor text is the (usually blue) clickable text which directs you to wherever the link points.
The anchor text should be concise and relevant to the location the link points to, and shouldn’t be overloaded with keywords.
Another good location to add your keywords is within your image’s titles and alt text.
This will also improve the likelihood of your image appearing in Google Images for the specific keywords used, boosting visibility.
That’s all folks.
We hope that you’ve found this article valuable.
The key takeaway here is that you can’t expect your website to rank if you aren’t targeting the right keywords.
Keyword research shouldn’t just be a one-time thing, either.
You need to continually research what phrases your target audience is searching for, what keywords are already performing well for your competitors, and how realistic it is for you to rank and compete for these terms.
We’ve given you everything you need to get started.
There’s no point reinventing the wheel here, so feel free to steal our keyword strategy to massively improve the effectiveness of your SEO campaign.