Understanding the Fundamentals of Keyword Research

As a newbie to SEO, the infinite number of highly technical posts surrounding keyword researchcontent optimisation and link building can be very daunting. With SEO it’s particularly important that you learn to walk before you begin even considering a run – the fall that will ensue could be quite painful.

Consequently, the best starting point is to gather a basic understanding of keywords, the role they play in an SEO campaign and how you can conduct some basic keyword research.

Luckily for you, I’ve spent the past seven years improving and refining the process that I use for researching SEO keywords (amongst many other things!). Within this article I’m going to give you the answers that you need surrounding keyword research without overwhelming you with technical detail. By the end of reading this post you should have a grasp of the following:

  1. What keyword research is used for.
  2. The role that keywords play within an SEO campaign.
  3. How you can identify relevant keywords for your campaign.

Let’s Talk Keywords…

On the most basic level, a keyword is something that is searched for within a search engine that will return a list of results. These results are made up of different webpages that have been deemed relevant to the term searched for.

The idea is that if this keyword is relevant to your website, you want your site to be appearing highly within this list of results to increase the chance of the user visiting.

You don’t need to worry about how you will get your website ranking well in the search engines at this stage; you just need to understand which search terms you’d like to have an appearance for.

There are three major factors that make up the suitability of a keyword for your campaign. They are:

  1. Relevance.
  2. Traffic Potential.
  3. Competition.

1. Relevance

In order to ensure that you’re bringing the right visitors through to your website, you need to ensure that the keywords you’re targeting are relevant to the content that you’ll be displaying to them.

If a user has searched for the keyword ‘buy car paint’ and they land on a webpage that talks about the different types of car tyres available then this is a seriously negative user experience. Even if you were to bring in a lot of traffic by ranking well for this keyword, the majority of the traffic would instantly be lost due to it not delivering the result the user is after.

This is a very important point to bear in mind. Traffic isn’t everything – sometimes less is more.

2. Traffic Potential

Alongside the keywords being relevant to the content that you’ll be displaying, there should be a significant amount of potential traffic that could be driven back to your website as a result of ranking highly for it.

You will be able to see how many times a keyword is search for each month via Keyword Eye. Based on monthly search volumes, you’re able to predict potential traffic based around ranking in various positions in the search engine results pages (SERPs).

Image source: http://moz.com/ugc/how-to-get-more-clicks-with-low-rankings

There have been loads of studies into the click-through rate of search results within the SERPs. In general, a good figure to go with is between 30-40% for ranking at the top of page one.

For example, if a keyword was searched for 10,000 times every month, you could expect between 3-4,000 visits to your webpage if you ranked at #1 in Google.

3. Competition

As well as ensuring the keyword is relevant and searched for regularly, you need to be aware of the competition surrounding it within the SERPs. By this I mean, how easy will it be to achieve good search engine rankings for this keyword?

As a general rule, the higher the monthly search volume of a keyword, the higher the competition. Now, there are exceptions here but this is generally the case.

You’ll need to be able to identify when a keyword is going have a high level of competition to rank for this in order to calculate your ROI effectively.


Onto the Keyword Research

The first stage of your keyword research is to map out some ideas for what it is that you’re trying to target. Forget about search volumes, relevance and competition at this stage, just focus on the basic – what is it you’re trying to bring people through to?

Let’s use the example of a consumer electronics retailer. Before they even begin looking at the likes of the search terms people are searching for, e.g. buy plasma televisions online, they would need to map out all the different products/services/themes associated with the business.

This could look like this:

  • USB flash drives
  • Plasma televisions
  • Consumer electronics
  • Surround sound systems
  • Home cinema
  • Keyboards
  • PC monitors

You get the idea…

Once you’ve mapped out an extensive list of the different products/services/themes of your business, it’s time to drill down into the search phrases associated with them – this is where you’ll need some help from Keyword Eye.

The first step is to navigate to New>Keyword>Suggestion. You can then search for one of the terms within your list of products/services/themes. For example, USB flash drives.

Keyword Eye will go through and find any search terms that are related to the one that you’ve inputted and supply you with a ton of extra data surrounding them. For example, monthly search volume, PPC competition and the number of webpages shown in the results (a good indication of how competitive it is).

You’ll also have a word cloud with all of the results so that you can visualise each of the suggestions in a way that is easy to break down. You can order the size of the word based on search volume so that it becomes easy to find any keywords that are searched for regularly.

I often use this feature to get inspiration for new search terms. For example, within the above screenshot I can see that many people refer to USB drives as pen drivesthumb drives and USB sticks. This is really useful to know as you can add these terms into your main list of keywords.

The best process for gathering and analysing keywords is to go to the Grid View tab and then download the list of keywords to an Excel spreadsheet (via the Download button). I always find that it’s much easier to go through keywords once you’ve got them in Excel.

Refining Your Keywords

Once you’ve gathered a big list of keywords for each of your products/services/themes that you outlined, you need to go through and refine the list. This will include checking that they are relevant, that they’re searched for enough and also grouping them into categories.

Once you’ve downloaded your keywords, they should look something like this (see above).

The first thing that I do at this stage is to go through all of the keywords and just remove any of those that are obviously irrelevant. For example, in the USB flash drives example, there were keywords like what is flash and portable office which are completely irrelevant for people coming through to buy these products. These would be deleted from my list.

Once you’ve done this, you need to separate the short tail and the long tail keywords. Long tail keywords are generally longer in length and more specific. Short tail keywords are shorter in length and are generally broader.

For example, a short tail keyword would be USB drives. An example of a long tail keyword would be what is a USB flash drive?

Source: http://moz.com/

You can see in the diagram above that there are many more long tail keywords than there are short tail (fat head and chunky middle). 70% of all keywords are long tail keywords and this is usually the largest source of overall traffic to a website. Individually they may not be searched for a lot, but ranking well for a number of them can bring in serious numbers of traffic.

You will usually have a base set of short tail keywords that you can then build out variations of long tail keywords to target alongside this. For example, with the short tail keyword, Plasma TVs, you could have a whole host of long tail keywords, such as:

  • 32 inch Plasma TVs
  • Where to buy Plasma TVS
  • Plasma TVs with free UK delivery
  • How do Plasma TVs work?
  • Are Plasma TVs better than LCD TVs?
  • Thin profile Plasma TVs

Starting to get the idea?

Once you group your keywords within your spreadsheet, you’ll make it a lot easier for you to select specific pages on your website that you want to focus sets of keywords to.

Alongside the fact that you can easily assign keyword groups to specific page of your website, you can also get an idea of the total monthly search volume for each keyword set. All this requires you to do is calculate the sum of the monthly search volume (which Keyword Eye provides) for all of the keywords related to one product/service/theme.

This will make it much easier for you to prioritise the keywords you’re targeting based on their potential ROI. Once you’ve got all this mapped out, you’re well on your way to getting a good understanding of the fundamentals of keyword research.

See, it’s not that bad!


  • Understand whether your keywords are relevant, have the potential to drive through traffic and that you can compete in the SERPs.
  • Map out a list of products/services/themes to identify keyword for.
  • Filter out irrelevant keywords from your master list.
  • Identify short tail and long tail keywords and group them.
  • Calculate the total monthly search volume for your keyword sets to estimate potential ROI.

Written by AJ Silber

Read more of AJ's articles.