What is SEO Keyword Research and Why is it Important?

A lot of common SEO tasks are heavily based around reading trends and analysing data. One of the most important tasks is SEO keyword research.

Keyword research is a crucial component of any SEO strategy and it's a task that's regularly carried out throughout an SEO campaign.

It allows an SEO to determine which keywords, or search queries, a website should be targeting, whether that be through optimising existing on page and off page ranking signals, or guiding the creation of new content by highlighting content gaps and opportunities.

What are SEO keywords?

At its most basic level, SEO keywords are essentially the terms or phrases users are typing into Google. For example, if I’m hungry, I may type ‘restaurants in Leeds’ into Google’s search box. The resulting search will be tailored to that search term, therefore (in theory) solving my initial problem. 

However, Google is much smarter than this. It’s becoming more intelligent when it comes to understanding searcher intent, as well as the semantic relationship between words. For example, when I search for ‘chicken chow mein Leeds’, you can see that Google is also picking out and highlighting other keywords that it thinks are related to ‘chicken chow mein’, which include ‘chicken fried rice’ and ‘chicken chop suey’.

Screenshot showing an example of how Google highlights synonyms in SERPS

These are synonyms, or very close relations, to my main seed keyword of ‘chicken chow mein’. Google is looking at the main keyword and doing some analysis behind the scenes to say ‘hey, this looks really, really similar to what you’re searching for, so we think it’s important’. These related terms are placed in bold, along with words contained within my initial query.

It's worthwhile using synonyms and phrases that relate to your main keywords, as this will help you to keep your content sounding natural, but will also keep it focussed around your main topic. In fact, tests have shown that using synonyms throughout copy can dramatically improve rankings.

So whilst it's a good idea to have a main keyword that a page is optimised around, it's also beneficial to include variations and synonyms of this main keyword on the target page, too.

SEO keyword research is the process of finding viable keywords to target

The most common way to carry out keyword research is to use search terms and words that you think will be important, and place these into keyword research tools, such as SEMRush, Google Keyword Planner, Longtail Pro, and AHREFs.

Your tool of choice will then be able to suggest more suitable keywords, some of which you would never ever have been able to think of on your own.

You can then export the new data that has been generated, and then get to work assessing the viability of certain keywords, picking out any juicy ones that you can use in your campaign.

Understanding SEO keywords and searcher intent

When people search in Google, it’s because they have a problem that needs fixing. They’ve initiated a process for finding data that can answer their query. And thinking about Google searches as queries or questions is really important for when you want to understand why people search in the way they do.

There are three main types of keyword searches: navigational, informational, and transactional

Navigational search queries

Navigational search queries are where the searcher already knows the website they want to go to. They’re just using Google as a middleman to get there. So for example, searches like ‘Gmail login’ or ’BBC news’ would be classed as navigational searches.

It's generally pretty clear where the user wants to end up. In this situation, a searcher is effectively asking Google ‘can you take me to this location?’

Informational search queries

Informational search queries are where people are researching or looking to gather information to solve a problem. These are the types of queries that are great to target throughout blog posts and content marketing pieces.

Some example content types include guides, tutorials and recipes. These are particularly valuable keywords because, although the searcher may not be looking to purchase a product, or otherwise immediately convert, it’s still extremely qualified traffic.

In this situation, a searcher is effectively asking Google ‘I need more information on X, can you show me some good resources?’

Transactional search queries

Transactional search queries are where searchers are looking for very specific service or product. This makes transactional queries extremely profitable to target as the traffic they generate is hyper qualified and ready to convert or make a purchase.

For example, an e-commerce website that sells trainers will want to target very specific transactional phrases on their relevant product pages, e.g ‘white high top Nike dunks’, and category/brand pages, e.g ‘buy Nike trainers online’.

In this situation, a searcher is asking ‘I’m looking to buy X product, can you show me where I can do that?’

What makes a good SEO keyword?

A good SEO keyword will largely be placed down to the context between the search, the target website, and SERPs competition.

When picking which keywords to target, you should keep in mind the overall goal and purpose of the website or specific page that you are working on.

If the main goal is to sell something, you will want to go with highly specific transactional keywords.

If the main goal is to capture more organic traffic via a killer blog post, then you will probably want to target informational keywords.

But you also need to be aware of the metrics of your website, as well as the competition. If you are a brand new site with few links, it’s unlikely that you will be able to hold you own in a SERP against older domains with lots of authoritative links.

You can perform quick, on the fly checks of SERPs using tools like the AHREFs Toolbar. This is really useful for quickly checking how competitive SERPs are by checking how many backlinks each result has.

Another great tool is SERPChecker which gives a breakdown of the important SEO metrics of websites in the SERPs. Both of these tools are extremely useful for determining how difficult it will be to rank for a certain keyword.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind when deciding whether a keyword is a good candidate for you to target in your SEO campaign:

  1. Is it realistic? Are your metrics good enough to rank for this phrase? If they’re not, do you have adequate resources to improve them, enabling you to rank competitively?
  2. Is it beneficial to rank for this term? Is it tied in to your overall marketing goal? Will it deliver you relevant, qualified traffic?

Generally, the best advice when picking keywords is to go as specific and long tail as possible, whilst also ensuring the term has sufficient search volume. This is because these phrases are often easier to rank for, and will deliver more qualified traffic due to their specificity.

Obviously if your website is an SEO powerhouse with a strong backlink profile and great content, you will be able to target more competitive phrases. This is why big online retailers are able to rank for extremely broad keywords such as ‘laptops’, whereas smaller sites with weaker metrics may choose to target more long tail queries, which are more specific, but have a much lower monthly search volume, such as ‘buy cheap laptops online’.

Is all of this keyword analysis really necessary for a successful SEO campaign?

Carrying out effective keyword research is vital for the success of any SEO campaign. It will help uncover areas to focus your efforts, as well as highlighting any potential ‘quick win’ scenarios.

In many situations, a page may be (inadvertently) targeting a keyword it will never rank competitively for, or is simply unprofitable to rank for. Without access to keyword research data, this fact could not be uncovered - leaving the page to continue under performing.

Keyword research is also invaluable for any content creation activity. With the masses of data a good round of keyword research can give, it becomes much easier to plan content topics and ideas, from an inspiration standpoint, but also from a strategic standpoint.

You know any content produced in line with your keyword research data will be in demand, and stands a very good chance of ranking well, even if it takes a while to secure good visibility.

Closing thoughts

Even though the way marketers use keywords, and the way Google processes them, is changing, keyword research is still extremely important. It’s often one of the first ports of call within any SEO campaign, essentially laying the strategic groundwork that the rest of the marketing activity will be focused around.

By generating robust, quantitative data to base your decisions around, you give any campaign the best chance of succeeding, helping it run as efficiently as possible.

About Zack Neary-Hayes


A headshot of Zack Neary-Hayes, a freelance SEO and digital marketer

Zack is a freelance SEO and digital marketer currently based in Leeds. He's a fan of remote working and also reckons he's a dab hand in the kitchen. He's not a fan of writing about himself in the third person. 

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