I confess to being confused by keyword research when I first started learning about it. There were so many approaches and so many tools to use, that I was overwhelmed by the task. I could generate long lists of keywords, but I had no idea how to use the keyword deluge that gushed forth. I was like a DIY plumber who sets out to plug a leak and ends up flooding the basement.
But with practice, my understanding has grown. Now I can compile lists of primary phrases and alternatives, assess the search volume for each keyword, and estimate your site’s ability to rank for that phrase.
Head, Body, and Tail Keywords
First, some background. The term keyword does not always mean just one word. It can—and frequently does—refer to phrases of three to five words, or even more. In fact, the length of a keyword phrase is an important basis for categorization and analysis.
Keyword researchers use the terms head, body, and long tail to categorize keywords. A head keyword is typically just a single word. A body keyword is a phrase consisting of 2-3 words. A long tail keyword is a phrase consisting of four or more words. Some SEOs also use the term short tail to refer to body keywords. If you’re interested in the topic, check out the excellent Keyword Research for SEO: The Definitive Guide by Brian Dean at Backlinko.
Keyword Length, Search Volume, and Competition
These categories are important because they affect the results you achieve with your content marketing. Head keywords draw lots of searchers, but pages optimized for those keywords don’t convert well—that is, they don’t often persuade the visitor to engage with your organization or perform an action on your website. Body and long-tail keywords draw fewer searchers, but pages optimized for them tend to convert better. The diagram below illustrates this relationship.
Head and body keywords attract many searchers but convert poorly because they are non-specific. They mean many things to many people.
Long-tail keywords attract fewer searchers but convert better because they are more specific. It’s easier to create content that meets the needs of the long-tail searcher because those needs are more predictable. The lower search volume also tends to minimize competition from other authors. With less competition, your chances of ranking, or landing on the first page of the search results, are greater.
The Mountain Bike Example
Let me explain by way of example. Suppose you’re planning to purchase a bicycle. If you simply type the head keyword bicycle into the search engine, you’ll pull up a huge list of undifferentiated results—635,000,000 in the experiment I tried just a moment ago.
Head keywords, as we noted above, have huge search volumes—as I write this, the Keywords Everywhere tool, which pulls data from the Google Ads Keyword Planner, pegs the average monthly search volume for bicycle at 673,000. The high volume makes this term highly competitive, which means it is hard to battle your way onto the first page of the search engine results. What’s more, the searcher’s intent is unclear. As a publisher or marketer, you can’t tell if these searchers are looking for kid’s bikes, road bikes, mountain bikes, bicycle clothing, or bicycle tours.
But let’s return to our scenario and suppose that you, as a potential customer, are looking for a mountain bike. The body keyword mountain bike has an average monthly search volume of 450,000—lower than the volume for bicycle, but still pretty good. (Mountain bicycle, by contrast, attracts only 6,600 searchers per month, which makes it a less attractive keyword.) And as marketers, we have begun to differentiate the searchers. We now know that they are interested specifically in mountain bikes.
If you’re looking for something more specific, you might type in a long-tail keyword, like mountain bike shop, mountain bike brands, or mountain bike trails near me. I know people actually use these keywords, because they were in a list of long tails I generated at Soovle.com. The average monthly search volumes are smaller, but still attractive—3,600, 6,600, and 18,100, respectively, accordingly to Keywords Everywhere.
The Beauty of the Long Tail
The long tail is where things get interesting. Although the search volume drops off, the differentiation of searchers increases. You know just what their angle is on the mountain bike question. When you target a long-tail keyword, it’s easier to attract the right kind of visitors to your site.
What’s more, the competition for each term also drops off sharply, which suggests it will be easier to rank for such terms, while still pulling in respectable numbers of visitors. I wouldn’t worry that mountain bike trails near me is not specifically about buying a new machine. If you’re a bike retailer, a blog post about local mountain bike trails would be a great service to your readers and an excellent way to lure them deeper into your funnel.
Yet there’s still more to consider. The terms mountain bike shop and mountain bike brands suggest a high commercial intent, or readiness to make a purchase. Anyone who searches on mountain bike brands is conducting research, which suggests they are reasonably firm in their intent to buy a bike. Mountain bike shop suggests an even greater readiness. That person is ready to visit your shop and test drive a model in the parking lot.
Keyword research begins with brainstorming.
To find keywords that help you reach your business goals, first generate a list of rough ideas, then refine the list based on search volume and other factors.
There are many keyword generators out there, both free and paid, but I like to keep my workflow simple. First I brainstorm, review existing content, and talk to subject matter experts to generate a preliminary list. Then I use tools like Moz Keyword Explorer and the Google Ads Keyword Planner to generate a list of alternates and check search volumes. Then I look for long tails at Soovle, Ubersuggest, or Answer the Public, which pull in results from Google Autocomplete and other sources. Then I do one final volume check for the revised list.
Once you have a list, your next step is to prioritize your targets. The key thing here is to asses the competition so that you target those keywords that give you the best chance of ranking.
Assessing Keyword Competition
The next step in keyword research is to check out the competition.
Once you choose a keyword you’d like to target, you have to assess the competition on the first page of the SERP. The Moz bar can help you with this task. You’ll need to download and install the Moz bar and open at least a free account on Moz.com. This extension only works with the Chrome browser.
Moz uses two proprietary rankings—page authority (PA) and domain authority (DA)—to estimate how well individual pages and entire websites will rank in search results. Moz updated the DA algorithm in March 2019. As Moz reminds us, the PA and DA algorithms are their own tools for predicting search results. The big search engines don’t actually use these algorithms.
Domain and page authority scores range from 0–100 and are computed on a variety of ranking factors. Because so many factors go into the making of these composite scores, it’s best to view them as relative indicators of rankability, not absolute ones.
Note also that these are logarithmic scores, which means that as these scores rise, it becomes steadily more difficult to increase them still further. A score in the upper range of 0–100 is quite good indeed.
When you review a SERP with the Moz bar installed and turned on, it will tell you the page authority and domain authority for every entry returned by the search. I’m using a Moz Pro account, which shows the number of inbound links for the page and the domain, but you can see almost as much information with a free Moz Community account.
Let’s look at the SERP for the mountain bike trails near me example. Google will emphasize local results for searches in which location is an important factor, but you can perform keyword research for any location, using Moz bar profiles for the geography where you want to perform your research. You can also set up profiles for Yahoo or Bing.
Now let’s look at the results.
The three entries all have page authority scores of 32 to 37—not bad scores, but not great ones either. If you have pages with a higher authority, you might be able to rank on this page of the results.
Now let’s consider the link profile for each entry. Search engines count links as important popularity signals, both for pages and domains. But the raw link score is not the only thing that matters. Search engines also consider the quality of the referring domains and pages.
Moz gives total link counts of 936 for Trailforks, 6 for the MEC blog, and 0 for the Alltrails entry. These numbers include both inbound and outbound links. Those last two scores are particularly low. You might be able to do better.
Next, let’s look at our competitors’ domain-level authority scores and link counts.
All three entries have DA scores ranging from 52 to 68. These are solid scores, but if your domain is well established, you might be able to beat them. These entries also have very high link counts at the domain level.
Remember, though, that domain metrics are relative, not absolute. Trailforks and Alltrails are not exactly household words, are they? Unless you’re a mountain bike or hiking fan, you probably haven’t heard of them. MEC, or Mountain Equipment Co-op, is a fairly well known Canadian brand, but it’s not a giant like Home Depot or Wikipedia.
Note, too, that a high domain-level link count doesn’t automatically make for a high domain authority. Search engines consider other link factors, such as the number and quality of referring domains. A site with a lower link count but higher overall link quality might stack up well against a site with a higher link count but lower overall link quality.
If you really want to drill down into these details, click Link Analysis at the right edge of each entry. Moz will tell you everything you want to know. Make sure you set aside ample time for this exercise—it might tie you up for a while.
I’ll close with a few caveats.
Keyword research lets you discover the language your audience is using. Knowing what language your audience uses helps you create better content.
Keyword usage is dynamic, so you have to be on your toes. The keywords your audience uses changes through a range of situations. Being alert to these changes will help you design content for every stage of your marketing funnel. This knowledge can be incredibly useful in planning a communications campaign.
Still, keyword research has its limitations. You can use it to generate ideas, but don’t write about something just because you’ve stumbled onto a hot keyword. Use your list to explore or generate ideas, but don’t be a slave to it.
A better method is to use your keyword list to align the language you already use with the search terms people actually type into the search engines. For example, in a plan I did recently for a technology client, I found the intriguing phrase zero touch onboarding in their product literature. It piqued my curiosity, but when I checked Keywords Everywhere, the term had a search volume of, well, zero. The phrase zero touch provisioning proved to be a more attractive target.
Keep in mind also that SEO is a long game. Not many sites rank at the outset. It takes time to drive traffic to your site and build your page and domain authority.
But that’s OK. Ranking isn’t everything. You don’t have to dominate the SERPs to achieve results for your organization. So relax. Just create the best content you can and optimize it for whatever keywords you choose.
If you don’t rank, you can still promote your content via social media, search engine ads, and other means. Good keyword research and optimization will make your promotion all the more effective.
What Is Content Marketing?
Setting Goals, Objectives, and Metrics
Optimizing Content for Your Audience
How to Do Keyword Research
Promoting Your Content
How to Create a Content Calendar