Post updated in July 2019.
Keyword research. These two words sound about as sexy as an empty milk carton in a windy car park. But, unlike said piece of packaging, keyword research is insanely useful. It helps to identify big content marketing wins without relying on trial and error only.
And the good news is that on early stage startup scale it relatively simple and quick to do.
Keyword research is based on 2nd-grade mathematics. The more monthly searches a keyword has, the better. The less competing blog posts and pages are about the same topic the better. And finally, the more relevant that keyword is to the service or product you want to promote, the better.
High number of monthly searches + low competition + high relevancy = content you should be creating.
Let me give you an example from the world of sales and CRMs. Which one of the following four keywords would you start producing content for?
“customer relationship management” sounds like a huge opportunity, and “sales pipeline report” kind of pointless, but it might be a mistake to start by creating content for the former and dismissing the latter.
Here are the same keywords with some additional information:
You’ll notice that “sales pipeline report” and “sales quotes” appear to be less difficult/ competitive terms. But more importantly, when you factor in relevancy to what you offer, the picture changes completely.
While “customer relationship management” is a popular search term, people who type it into Google have varying motivations. They include business students doing some homework, secretaries trying to decipher whether the email they just received should be deleted or forwarded, and many others. Very few of them are CEO’s thinking “I should probably get a new sales tool so let me google the dry conceptual term for the thing my team does every day”.
On the other hand, if you’re searching for “sales pipeline report” and I’m offering sales pipeline software with built-in reporting you’re kind of looking for me. I really want to reach you and the 89 other monthly searchers that are putting up your hand.
And if you put the three things together, it becomes evident that more often than not you shouldn’t probably focus on chasing high-volume generic keywords but the less popular and more relevant ones. Long tail keywords, as they’re called.
This is especially true if you’re an early stage startup with a relatively new and content-light site. It’s very unlikely you’ll start ranking for popular keywords in your niche before you run out of money. For a fresh startup, 30 qualified visitors in 1-2 months are much better than 1000 visitors in a year.
Keyword research in 4 easy steps
1. Compile a mega list of search terms that are even remotely relevant to what you do
The first step is to map all or most keywords people may be searching for when it comes to your domain expertise. You’ll want to start with at least a 100 keywords.
As co-founder of a marketing automation tool I’ll want to cover different kinds of searches.
- keywords that directly describe what we do (eg. “marketing automation tool” or “email automation tool for small businesses”)
- keywords which kind of describe what we do or describe part of what we do (eg. “email automation for pipedrive” or “web tracking for sales teams”)
- keywords that people use when they have problem-related to the thing you do (eg. “how to nurture leads” or “how to automate lead generation”)
- things only vaguely related to what you do (eg. “best marketing books” or “how to het hired as a marketer)
Possible sources for compiling your keyword mega list:
- keywords that are driving traffic to you, free and paid that you can see in Google Analytics.
- keywords that are driving traffic to your competitors. I tend to use SEMRush for that but there are other tools.
- search queries Google suggest and that you can see when you type in a word and a letter … and refrain from pressing Enter. For example in Pipedrive’s case “crm h…” gives this list
“crm (for) healthcare” looks like a solid long tail keyword. On the other hand, “crm hobbies” are two words I’ve never seen next to each other, so it’s either a great or a terrible idea to write content for it.
- keyword tools like keywordtool.io, Google Keyword Planner and Answer the public
- words that people search once they’ve hit your site
- words that people use when they write to your support, comment on your blog, etc.
- last but not least, brainstorming
2. Look up estimated search volume
3. Look up (and triangulate) keyword difficulty
The same tools also give you an estimate on keyword difficulty, but different sources tend to show very different results, so I usually take an average of two or even three sources.
4. Assess relevancy, calculate Total Opportunity Score
The final step is the easiest and also the most important. Using any data you have about keyword history and common sense (invaluable resource!) you add an index of relevancy. You’ll then get something I call Total Opportunity Score for each keyword you have thought of at that stage.
FREE RESOURCE: here’s a basic Google Spreadsheet template I’m using to do keyword research.
Please note that it can and should include more data fields such as current ranking in search results and the same for your most important competitor(s).
How to apply keyword research
It’s worth pointing out that completing this keyword research exercise doesn’t give you the authoritative answer on what content you should create, and in which order. If your content resources are limited, you’ll want to sense check and manually pick the keywords and topics you want to double down on. This way you can make sure you have a healthy mix of relevant long tail keywords that can give you an almost guaranteed result within a reasonable time frame and higher volume generic terms that take more time to start ranking for but can potentially be big home runs.
And finally, keyword research is not a “set and forget” type of things. Rankings and search trends change, new competitors and technologies arrive all the time. I don’t know what the consensus is on how often this should be done but I’d say at least once per year.
Personal story: how I once made keyword research work for Pipedrive marketing
With Pipedrive I started with a blank sheet, zero search traffic and, characteristically for a startup, no money. Here’s what Hubspot’s now-shelved tool called Website Grader (its current incarnation is Marketing Grader) showed me back in 2011:
This is not a screenshot cut off at the wrong place. We really did rank for no keywords at all.
I drooled over keywords like “crm software” or “best sales tools” but a few evenings of reading the Moz blog and other resources quickly taught me that going after them wouldn’t be the best possible start. I decided to tackle the very long tail term “sales pipeline management software” first and some weeks later we were on the first page of Google. Even more importantly we had people coming to the site and signing up. I didn’t know I was doing keyword research at the time, but it worked and so we moved on to trickier keywords.
Here’s the Website Grader report a couple of months later:
Needless to say, today Pipedrive ranks for many more than the 5 keywords shown above. I’ve left the team long ago, but I’m pretty sure that the team still puts a lot of effort into producing and promoting content, finding linking opportunities and improving landing pages. An effort that can be pleasantly productive thanks to the keyword research.