A step-by-step guide to keyword research in 2023

A step-by-step guide to keyword research

Keyword research is the process of finding, analyzing, and categorizing search terms that people enter into search engines. In this guide to keyword research, you’ll find a proven keyword research framework that you can easily adapt to your needs.

A keyword (also known as “search query”) is a particular word or phrase that describes the content of a web page. It’s the search term that you want to rank for.

Keywords are the foundation of both SEO and PPC marketing campaigns. Ranking at the top of Google for your target keyword can bring in a flood of free traffic. And if you have an advertising budget, you can use PPC to get your site positioned above the organic results.

Guide to keyword research: a step-by-step process

Keyword research can help you refine your SEO efforts and target high-quality traffic in your paid search campaigns. Once you know which keywords are most qualifying, you’ll know what you focus on.

Let’s review the main steps of the keyword research process.

Step 1: Define Your Goals

Keyword research begins with defining your business goals. What are you trying to achieve with your content? Most businesses are trying to achieve the following goals:

  • Lead generation: service-based companies and local businesses (e.g. lawyers, dentists) are usually looking for leads. Your content should inspire trust in your ability to serve the customer.
  • Traffic, return readership: traffic is important for sites supported by ad revenue and affiliate marketing programs. Your content should be exceptionally informative and/or entertaining.
  • Product sales: sales are the primary goal for e-commerce businesses. Your content should persuade people to buy.

Step 2: Determine what topics are important for your business

Make a list of all the topics related to your brand that you want to rank on Google. Use a Google document or excel spreadsheet and create tabs for each of these topics you’ve brainstormed.

For example, a software development company might list topics such as:

  • Services: custom software development, mobile app development, web development, software development outsourcing, development team augmentation, software reengineering, quality assurance, UX/UI design
  • Technologies: JavaScript, Java, Python, PHP, Go, React, React Native, Angular, Magento
  • Platforms: Android, iOS
  • Industries: fintech, education, logistics, real estate

Step 3: Brainstorm “seed” keywords

Seed keywords (short-tail keywords) are words or short phrases that you use to describe your products or services in general. These keywords need to be related to your various topics.

You likely have a few keywords in mind that you would like to rank for. These will be things like your services, products, or other topics your website addresses. 

Let’s say we want to analyze queries people use when searching for custom software development services. Here are some relevant seed keywords:

  • software development company
  • software development services   
  • software development firm
  • custom software development
  • building custom software  

Seed keywords are the foundations from which your list of keywords will grow.

Step 4: Use keyword research tools to mine the data

Once you have identified your topics and seed keywords, you can use a keyword research tool like SemrushUbersuggest, or Moz to expand your lists and discover other related keywords. 

All you need to do is type in the seed keyword into the search box and you’ll discover other keywords, common questions, and topics that you might have otherwise missed. You can parse out a mix of short- and long-tail keywords. 

For example, let’s use WordStream’s free keyword tool. Enter a keyword and you’ll get a list of keyword suggestions along with search volume, competition, and cost per click. You can filter by location and industry. The tool will provide the top 25 keywords right away. To get the full list, enter your email address and you’ll get it sent to you for free. 

Step 5: Determine search volume, difficulty, intent, and CPC

Once you’ve got your master list of short-tail and long-tail keywords, it’s time to assemble some high-level data: search volume, difficulty, search intent, and cost per click (CPC). The easiest way to discover this information is to use Semrush. All you have to do is look at any keyword-related report.

Step 6: Analyze your keywords

The next steps are to analyze your keywords. There are four key aspects to consider – search volume, keyword difficulty, search intent, and cost per click. 

Search volume

Search volume refers to the number of search queries for a specific keyword. It’s the number of searches, not the number of people who searched. Someone might search for a keyword multiple times a month and these searches contribute to the search volume, even though it’s the same person doing them.

The higher the search volume, the greater the competition and effort required to achieve organic ranking success. Large companies typically go after high search volume keywords, and since these brands are well established already, Google typically rewards them with authority over many topics.

Low search volume isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A low search volume keyword that converts a large percentage of searchers might still be strategically valuable for your business. 

Various keyword tools use different sources and different ways of data post-processing. As a result, there may be differences in search volume values. 

Pro tip: Don’t become a slave of search volumes, take them as a clue. If you rank for a certain keyword, your page will also rank for all kinds of related keywords. Ahrefs studied three million search queries and found that the average top-ranking page ranks in the top 10 for almost 1,000 other keywords. Look at the top-ranking results to estimate the total search traffic potential of the topic.

Keyword difficulty

Keyword difficulty is a metric that estimates how hard it is to rank for a certain keyword. 

You can use Semrush, Moz, or Ahrefs to check the keyword difficulty of any keyword. The difficulty metrics used in keyword tools take into consideration the authority of websites ranking in the 1st SERP.

If you consider the authority of all the websites ranking for a keyword in the 1st SERP, you can estimate how difficult it will be to rank for that keyword. If there are many low-authority websites in the first SERP, there is a high chance of ranking for the keyword. 

Pro tip: This metric should serve only as a guideline, not an absolute value. If your content is better and more relevant, you can outrank websites with higher authority. You can find competitors with similar website authority as yours, look at the keywords they rank for, and create better content to outrank them.

Search intent

It’s important to identify the intent behind each of the keywords you’re targeting because you want to make sure you’re delivering an experience that matches the user’s intent. There are 4 basic search intent categories: informational, navigational, commercial and transactional.

Informational: The user is searching for general information. You can distinguish informational keywords by “question words” as they usually contain clues like how do/does, how to, guide, when is, what is, best way to, fix, prevent.

Navigational: The user is searching for a specific service/brand. Navigational keywords include brand/product/service names, locations, or words such as near me, features of, cost of, service, reviews, compare, benefits, pros and cons.

Transactional: The user is ready for a transaction but still looking for reliable service. Transactional keywords often feature words like where to buy, reserve, deals, discount, for sale.

Commercial: The user is ready to buy something right now. Commercial keywords include such words as buy, purchase, subscribe, order.

Pro tip: Do not focus only on transactional keywords. Some of your visitors may not want to buy immediately, but they’ll remember you as an authority in the field when they are ready to buy in the future.

Cost Per Click (CPC)

CPC shows how much advertisers are willing to pay for each ad click from a keyword. It’s more a metric for advertisers than SEOs, but it can serve as a useful proxy for a keyword’s value.

For example, the keyword “software development company” has a relatively high CPC of $23.88. That’s because most searchers are looking to build software, which can cost thousands of dollars. But it’s the opposite story for “how to design software.” Its CPC is $3.74. That’s because most searchers aren’t looking to buy anything. They’re looking for information on how to design software.

Pro tip: One important thing to know about CPC is that the values you see in keyword tools are snapshots in time. While search demand for most keywords stays roughly the same from month to month, its CPC can change at any minute. If you want real-time data, you’ll have to use AdWords.

Step 7: Select keywords for every stage of the buyer’s journey

To keep up with Google’s algorithm updates, it’s crucial to move from a keyword-centric to a content-centric approach that is based on searcher intent. It means we have to dig deeper to understand our customers and create content that helps them at each stage of their journey.

The buyer’s journey represents the path a buyer takes before becoming a paying customer. It can be broken down into three stages:

  • Awareness stage

Description: A consumer begins to do high-level research related to their problem. At the awareness stage, buyers use informational keywords.
Types of content: Content that answers questions and solves problems: e-books, guides, articles, and videos.

  • Consideration stage

Description: A consumer understands their specific problem and begins to search for more specific solutions. At the consideration stage, buyers use navigational keywords.
Types of content: Content that helps get to understand your unique approach: case studies, guides, and blog posts.

  • Decision stage

Description: The buyer decides on the right provider. At the conversion stage, buyers will be using transactional and commercial keywords.
Types of content: Content that helps alleviate buyer concerns: sales pages, reviews, before-and-afters, and FAQ pages.

Group your keywords to figure out the type of content to produce to target the query.

Step 8: Finalize your keyword research report

Now that you have a great keyword matrix, you should look for the sweet spot with keyword competition and search volume.

What keywords from your list have high search volume but low competition? Prioritize keywords that you have a chance of ranking for based on your website’s authority. Focus on those with the highest return on investment.

However, do not only look for “easy to rank for” keywords. You should have short, medium, and long-term ranking goals. If you only focus on short-term goals, you’ll never rank for the most lucrative keywords. If you only focus on medium and long-term goals, it’ll take years to get any traffic.

Your keyword research report should include real examples to make it clear what the results need to be, especially in sections such as website hierarchy, article ideas, or content strategy. 

Types of keywords (with examples)

The keywords you choose to target will determine what kind of traffic you get. There are two main types of keywords: short- and long-tail. 

  • Short-tail keywords

Short-tail keywords are search terms that are made up of one to three words and cover a broad topic. They have a high search volume, making them very competitive. 

Example: “Software”, “software development” and “software development outsourcing” are examples of short-tail keywords. 

  • Long-tail keywords 

Long-tail keywords are phrases that contain three words or more. They have lower search volumes and lower competition.

Example: “Top 10 software development companies” is a long-tail keyword. 

Keyword research tools (free & paid)

There are also a plethora of keyword research tools at your disposal. It doesn’t matter which one you choose because the top brands offer nearly identical features. Some of the most reliable keyword research tools include:

  • Semrush keyword magic tool: You can access this tool by creating an account and selecting skip trial. Semrush allows you to sort keywords into topic-specific subgroups and apply filters to narrow or expand your search. However, the free account limits you to ten searches a day.
  • Moz’s Keyword Explorer: You can explore the free version or start a free trial of the paid tool to see if it’s worth the investment.
  • Free Keyword Generator by Ahrefs: It’s powerful tool for generating keyword ideas and identifying the competition level. You can enter any target keyword or phrase, and it will pull the top 100 keyword ideas from its database.
  • Keywords Explorer by Ahrefs: For when you’re truly serious about finding the best keywords for your website, you can use Keywords Explorer. You can filter the keyword ideas reports for keywords that matter to you, assess their traffic potential, and ranking difficulty.

The evolution of keyword research

Google has developed hundreds of algorithms over the years to help deliver relevant search results. The most important include:

  • Panda has penalized low-quality content and duplicate text.
  • Penguin has penalized unnatural usage of keywords.
  • Hummingbird has improved semantic search and focus on search intent.
  • RankBrain has helped Hummingbird provide more accurate results.

Today, Google uses machine learning to determine the most relevant results to search engine queries. It understands what is the search intent behind the query. Google analyzes phrases instead of relying on keywords alone. In other words, keyword research is becoming more and more topical.

Because there are thousands of variations on every keyword, Google clusters them together. It is no longer about finding keywords. It is about understanding the audience and covering the topic in a complex way.

When do you need keyword research?

Keyword research provides you with specific search data that can help you answer questions like: What are people searching for? How many people are searching for it? In what format do they want that information?

These are the three areas where keyword research is crucial:

  • For SEO

The first and most obvious reason we need keyword research is to optimize for organic search. One of the primary ways that search engines decide what to rank is by crawling for keywords that show relevance between the user’s search query and the content on your website.

  • To fuel your content strategy

Content on your website should be written with SEO in mind. Strategic keyword research will help you determine the search intent of your target audience and get your content in front of the right kind of people.

  • For paid campaigns

Whether it be paid search ads, display ads, remarketing, or social media campaigns, all of these strategies need to be keyword-focused.

The next step

You’ve analyzed and categorized your keywords. You picked the ones with the best metrics.

What to do next?

The method described above should provide you with a foundation of between 100 and 500 keywords. From there, you have the building blocks to start a successful marketing campaign and establish yourself as a trusted source for information in your niche.

Alona Tomina

Hope this was helpful. And if you have any questions, I’m always happy to chat about digital marketing over a virtual cup of coffee on Instagram.


A keyword is a term used in digital marketing to describe a word or a group of words that users type into search engines to find information on a particular topic.

Keyword research is the process of finding keywords that people use when searching online.

The easiest way to find good keywords is to use tools like Wordstream, Ubesuggest, Semrush, Ahrefs, etc.

You can use Ahrefs Content Explorer to find high-volume, low-competition keywords that can quickly skyrocket your website’s rankings.

You’ll need to do keyword research when you want to find new content ideas, optimize your existing content, or start a PPC campaign.

Keyword research provides valuable insight into the queries that your target audience is searching on Google.

Tools like Wordstream, Moz, Ubesuggest, Semrush and Ahrefs have free versions of keyword tools you can use, though you will unlock additional data and features when you select a paid version.