How to do SEO, Part 4: Keyword Research


Keyword research is the process of analyzing the words used by real people on search engines. This information – a window into searchers' desires – is a gold mine for search engine optimization.

This post is the fourth installment in my "SEO How-to" series. "Part 1: Why use it?" discussed the importance of search engine optimization for e-commerce. "Part 2: Understanding Search Engines" covered the basics of how search engines work. "Part 3: Strategy and Planning" explains how to set up your SEO program for success.

Keyword research lays the SEO foundation for all content. We can mine keyword data and then analyze it to understand how to meet searchers' needs.

Keyword data consists of a word and a number. The example below, from Google Keyword Planner, shows how many times a month people search for keywords related to "bookstore." The data links a specific word or phrase (for example, "bookstore near me") with a number (301,000 in this case), which shows the average number of times a month the keyword's theme searched during the past year in the United States.

Keyword Average monthly search
May 1, 2019 to April 30, 2020
bookstore 450 thousand
amazon bookstore 450 thousand
bookstore near me 301 thousand
thrift store books 165 thousand
Christian bookstore 110 thousand
bookshops near me 90.500
force books 90.500
children bookstore 90.500
used books 74 thousand
Christian books 74 thousand
amazon books teeth 74 thousand
kindle bookstore 74 thousand
Christian bookstore near me 49,500
used book stores near me 49,500
used bookstore 49,500
Christian books distributors 49,500
book best seller 49,500
kindle store 33,100
amazon books prime 33,100
strings bookstore 33,100

Each keyword search contains the two components: a keyword theme and the number of matching searches. Various keyword research tools also include other data fields, such as the estimated cost-per-click to advertise on that keyword's theme and competition level.

Keywords and themes

Search engines have gone beyond exact keywords to understand the nuances of human speech and intent. Keyword research mimics evolution to a certain extent and merges data from variations in spelling and phrasing into a single keyword theme as opposed to individual words.

Most keyword tools organize data by themes. For example, the number of searches for the keyword theme "bookstore" also includes searches for the plural form "book stores", the only word variant "bookstore", and all popular misspellings or wordings.

However, the keyword theme for "bookstore" in Google Keyword Planner does not summarize the searches for other words in that dataset. Thus, 301,000 searches for "bookstore near me" are not included in the 450,000 searches for "bookstore." These are unique themes that reflect different applicants and their intentions.

Keyword Research Tool

Google's key planner is the leading source of keyword research. Google provides the tool for Google Ads customers, but it is also very useful for SEO. Its data make up 92 percent of all searches worldwide.

Like all data sets, Keyword Planner has limitations that can affect your decisions, including:

  • The data includes only Google searches.
  • The data represents a single month on average over the last 12 months in the original data set. Google does this to remove seasonal, but that means there may be fewer or more searches in a given month than the average number shown. However, the detailed monthly data set is available for export.
  • Keyword data is rounded to the nearest tens, hundreds, thousands, or millions, depending on the number.
  • If you don't have access to a Google Ads account with a meaningful budget, your data will be enclosed in brackets based on the number of searches, such as 1,000 – 10,000, which makes it impossible to determine the relative popularity of a keyword phrase within this bracket.
  • Google provides the information to sell advertising.

Thus, while keyword research is fundamental to SEO, take the data as direction rather than absolute. We can assume that a keyword with 18,000 searches is more popular than one with 12,000, but small differences may be less reliable.

Microsoft Ads also offers a free keyword tool, but its data set is much smaller because Bing represents only 3 percent of searches worldwide. And Bing's users are usually older and more affluent.

Many of the major SEO tool platforms, such as seoClarity, BrightEdge and Ahrefs, also include keyword research features. Their data comes from the Google Keyword Planner API, although they can use additional custom metrics.

Buying a license on one of these platforms is a way to get more accurate keyword data without having access to a Google Ads account. However, the cost is prohibitive if all you want are keywords because the platforms also include features such as organic rank tracking, predictive modeling, error checking and SEO recommendations. Some, like SEMrush, offer a limited free version.

Other tools offer a non-numeric subclass of keyword data based on autocomplete suggestions provided by Google and other search engines. While useful for generating ideas for connecting to a numeric keyword research tool, suggestion-based tools do not show the relative popularity of words and phrases.

Customer Survey

Keyword research is an underutilized source of free consumer research. Consumers tell Google and other search engines what they want every day. Use that information. Examples include:

  • New products to offer.
  • New product features.
  • Topics for frequently asked questions or instructions or to lower customer service costs.
  • Buyer guides and other support materials that help drive sales.
  • Content formats – such as videos and podcasts – to attract new customers to your site.
  • New product filters that help customers navigate your site based on popular search attributes.



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