The ultimate beginner's guide to keyword research

Keyword research is a fundamental aspect of SEO, but choosing the right keywords can be daunting. This is your guide to keyword research that will rank your website for the right keywords, and get you in front of your customers on Google.

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Keyword research is one of the fundamental tasks you will need to perform in SEO.

Keyword research is daunting, though.

Between hundreds (or thousands) of keywords you could target, metrics to be aware of, and prioritizing which keyword to focus on first, it’s enough to make your head spin.

There are plenty of articles and guides on keyword research that cover the basics and leave you with a decent starting point. This is not one of those guides. This page will cover our entire process for keyword research from brainstorming keywords, to tools and tactics, and all the way to keyword usage and reporting.

Think of this as Keyword Research 101, 201, and 301 all in one page.

Think of this guide as your pathway out of spinning your head and heading down the road to SEO success. Good keyword research will set your SEO strategy up for success, and give you a massive advantage over your competitors on Google.

We’ve worked with dozens of companies to build effective SEO strategies, and they all begin with rock-solid keyword research.
In this guide, we will teach you:

  • The basics of keyword research
  • Our favorite methods to find keywords
  • Our favorite tools to use conduct keyword research
  • How to find low-competition keywords
  • How to prioritize keywords
  • How to use keywords in your content

And more!

Continue reading and you will master keyword research like a pro SEO.

What is keyword research?

Keyword research is the process by which you research how your target customers are using Google to guide a content strategy.

It’s tempting to boil keyword research down to what an SEO tool will spit out for you, but it’s so much more than that. Conducting good keyword research means identifying your target customers, mapping their buyer’s journey on Google, and collecting the questions they ask as they move through the funnel.

It’s one part psychology with another part market research and a healthy sprinkle of creativity for good measure.

Effective keyword research is the bedrock of an SEO strategy that brings in results. On the flip side, poor keyword research can doom your SEO strategy before you even publish a piece of content.

Why is keyword research important?

Keyword research is more than just a process to brainstorm blog topics, it is absolutely critical to your SEO success.

Here’s why.

Keyword research gives you a better understanding of your customer

I’ve talked to many founders and marketers who think they know what their customers want, but they quickly find that there is quite a bit they have to learn.

When you go into keyword research open-minded, you will usually walk away learning something new about your customers, the way that they buy online, and the challenges they are facing.

This lightbulb moment is my favorite part of working with clients. It’s when our clients realize there’s a whole new world of opportunity for them to reach their customers, and SEO goes from a chore to an exciting new frontier.

Keyword research gives your content strategy focus

This is an easy one: good keyword research results in a focused content strategy.

Blogging once per week, or even once per day, with no focus will result in a lot of time spent on content with no results to show for it.

Keyword research acts as the guiding focus and compass to your content strategy, giving you a clear direction to run in. Without a thorough review of the keywords your customers are searching online, you just won’t be focused in your content strategy.

Keyword research gives you more intelligent SEO reporting

By doing keyword research you will amass a set of terms to target with your content, and have a handy way of tracking your progress. We’ll talk more about reporting later. For now, we’ll leave you with the fact that reporting on your rank for individual keywords leaves a lot to be desired in terms of intelligent insights. By grouping keywords strategically and reporting on on their performance, you will walk away with key insights that will drive your SEO strategy forward.

How to find keywords to target

We like to take an unorthodox approach to keyword research - our approach does not start with a tool, instead we like to think creatively about keyword research to help you stand out in search results.

We have a few reasons for that:

  • Tools are easy, so everyone starts there. This means your keyword research will be nearly identical to your competitors who start with tools.
  • Tools give you data, but there is no nuance about your customer
  • Tools encourage bad habits (like obsessing over search volume, more on that later).

I do use tools (we built a great one! More on that below) but I like to start with the following tactics first before using tools to enhance my keyword research.

Brainstorm product terms

Brainstorming keywords based on your product/service is usually the easiest place to start, and a great way to invite your team to keyword research without needing much SEO knowledge.

When doing this, try to bring in as many people as possible. It’s great to get people from sales, marketing, product—even the exec team—in these conversations.

Brainstorm synonyms

Depending on your industry there may be a few ways that your customers would describe your product or service, so it’s important to be aware of the different synonyms your customers use.

Using our site as an example, our core term is ‘SEO coaching’ but a synonym might be ’SEO training’.

Identify topics/problems your customers care about

This is where we start getting deeper into keyword research, and build out the funnel your customers are following on Google as they search. We’ll explore tactics and tools to help you through this, though you can get a good start without tools just by thinking about your customers, their jobs, and their challenges.

For us, those topics might be organic marketing, SEO (obviously), or organic growth. We can niche down further into topics under each of these, like keyword research, link building, or conversion optimization.

Online forums

Online forums are a goldmine for keyword research. Keyword research tools can only do so much, but by browsing the forums your customers are using online you can see the real questions that real people are asking. And see which answers get the most upvotes and reactions from the community.
Quora and Reddit are great places to start, but many industries will have niche forums you can research.

Customer support and sales conversations

Your prospects and customers are an excellent source for questions you can target with content. Sales conversations are great for giving you insight into the types of solutions your customers are looking for, and support conversations give you unique insights into the types of things your customers are trying to do.

Tools to do keyword research

There are plenty of great tools you can use in addition to the above tactics for keyword research. These can be grouped into free and paid tools, which we’ll examine in more depth.

Free tools for keyword research

While the above tactics are an excellent way to brainstorm some keywords, there are a few free tools that are worth using to collect more keywords that you should consider for your strategy.

Google auto-suggest and People also ask

Google auto-suggest and the “people also ask” section are my all-time favorite ways to brainstorm keywords.

Often, I start here before anything else and move onto the other tools after spending an hour or so just using Google.

Why start here?

According to Google, the predictions of what the missing words are in a user’s search query come from the most common and trending queries that other users are making on the search engine.

That means that by paying attention to Google auto-suggest, you can get a glimpse into what your customers are actually searching for—and how those searches evolve based on previous searches.

Start typing in keywords that are relevant to your business, and see what suggestions come up. These suggestions could provide more keywords to you, or long-tail keywords. However, when you’re doing so, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Try singular and plural forms: Surprisingly, typing in the singular or the plural form of a keyword could turn up different suggestions. To be thorough and get the most out of your keyword research, see what comes up for both terms. This means if you’re typing in “baking apron,” you’ll want to type in “baking aprons” as well.
  • Run through different letters in the alphabet: Feeling lost on how to get more useful predictions from Google? Type in your chosen keyword, and then go through typing each letter of the alphabet, one by one, to see the different results that turn up. This could send you down a meaningful path of research.
  • Move your cursor around: Did you know that auto-suggest will add to different sections of a phrase you’ve typed in, depending on where your cursor lies? Experiment with where you have your blinking cursor and observe how Google auto-suggest reacts. Again, this helps you perform due diligence and the most thorough research as possible.
  • Get inspiration for content topics: Search predictions can help you further understand what your target audience wants to know, and you can in turn build out content on your website that answers these questions and covers the topics your target users are searching for. This content could come in the forms of blog posts, infographics, video tutorials, or many others-whatever suits the subject the best.  

Check out our guide to using Google Auto Suggest for keyword research to learn more.

Google Keyword Planner

Google Keyword Planner is another classic SEO tool provided by Google. While Keyword Planner is designed to be used for ad campaigns, it can be an effective free keyword research tool for organic search as well.

Google keyword planner gives you the same basic metrics that many SEO tools will provide such as:

  • Search volumes
  • Search trends
  • Cost per click data

It’s a good start to brainstorming some keywords that you might have missed in your initial brainstorm.

Google Trends

Another fantastic, free tool by Google is Google Trends.

Google Trends allows you to track the relative popularity of a keyword over time, and compare two or more keywords to track popularity. Google Trends also will suggest related keywords you can consider.

Paid SEO tools for keyword research

There are a couple paid tools that can help accelerate your keyword research. Paid tools are a great way to extend a good process built by using free tools as they will help you find more keywords to sift through and save.

Ahrefs or SEMRush

Ahrefs is one of the leading SEO tools on the market and a great fit for SEO specialists and experts.

Like Centori, it taps into a massive database of keywords and allows for advanced filtering to refine the keywords that you pull. Ahrefs starts at $99 and allows you to track 750 keywords and only have 5 lists and one user login- if you need more you will have to pay more.

Like Ahrefs, SEMRush packs in a lot of power in an interface designed for pro SEOs. It boasts many of the same features as Ahrefs with a few extra features geared towards marketers (like social media management tools) though comes in at a higher starting cost at $199/month which includes 500 keywords and like Ahrefs just one user.


The Centori software platform is an excellent companion for keyword research. Not only do we pull from a database of over 3 billion keywords, but we have all sorts of advanced filters allowing you to pull keywords within a specific search volume range or under a certain difficulty metric.

This makes it exceedingly simple to load thousands of low-competition keywords. Unlike other tools, we don't like limiting you.

That means:

  • You can save and track your rank for as many keywords as you'd like
  • Create as many lists as you'd like for each project
  • Invite your entire marketing team

And at $39/month we think that’s a great deal (did we mention the SEO Slack community we have for support, and monthly group coaching call available for all customers?). Learn more about our keyword research tools here and see how you can get started.

Keyword metrics to note

When you use a keyword research tool (like Centori) you’ll come across a few metrics. These may seem a bit strange if you’re new to keyword research, but soon enough they will be helpful guides in comparing and evaluating keywords for your strategy.

Search volume

Search volume represents the number of times that particular keyword has been searched for in a month. Take these with a grain of salt for a few reasons:

  • Search volumes go by the exact match, meaning that exact keyword has been searched that many times, but there are often many variations of a keyword so search volumes add up.
  • At best, search volume is an estimate (even ours!).
  • Search volumes do not take intent, funnel stage, or relevance to your brand into account.

Because of this, I don’t rely on search volume too much other than to get a better understanding of how popular a search term is, or to compare two different ways of phrasing a term.

In fact, we often recommend going after no/low-volume keywords due to the fact that many of your competitors will likely overlook them, making them an excellent target for your content.

Cost per click (CPC)

This is where the metrics get a bit more interesting. Cost per Click (abbreviated CPC) represents how much an ad on Google costs for that keyword.

I like to reference CPC when doing keyword research because it helps give me a better understanding of how popular a keyword is to buy an ad for, which gives me a sense of the commercial value behind that keyword.

Businesses (mostly) buy ads for keywords that are lower in the funnel and closer to resulting in a sale. The higher the cost per click, the more commercial value that keyword has which gives you a sense of where it sits in the funnel (and the same goes for the inverse of this, lower CPC generally means higher up in the funnel).


Difficulty is another handy metric, though in my opinion it also gets a bit overused.

Difficulty is a score of 1-100 that tells you how difficult the keyword is to rank for. What this usually means is how authoritative the websites that rank for this keyword are. If there are some heavy hitters ranking for that keyword, then it will have a high difficulty score.

This leaves out a few things:

  • My difficulty is not your difficulty, difficulty is relative. You need to see what kinds of keywords you rank for to get a sense of what your ‘difficult’ is.
  • A keyword might be impossible to rank for, but the content itself is valuable for you to have. Don’t let a high difficulty scare you.

I like to use difficulty to find low-hanging fruit, or get a sense of how crowded one space might be compared to another topic. SEO is a long game, but by being smart with the keywords you target you can get a few quick wins along the way.

How to find low-competition keywords

Along your journey through researching keywords, you’ll find that some are more competitive and some are less competitive.

We’d love to rank for ‘SEO’ but take a look at the competition:

Yeah, we’re not beating Google’s developer docs or Wikipedia (though we’re coming for you Moz!).

We could try to optimize for SEO, spent an unimaginable amount of time building a pillar page and loads of backlinks… or we could rank for a host of other keywords that are a bit less crowded.

If you’re hesitant to dive into the wonderful world of link building, low competition keywords are your best friend.

These are keywords that are less competitive (also called low-competition keywords, or long tail keywords). So let’s walk through my favorite tactics to finding low-competition keywords and how to target them with content that ranks.

But what about search volumes?

Maybe you're on the fence about low-competition keywords due to the low search volumes that come with them.

Don't be.

If I had to pick between a broad keyword with 1,000,000 searches per month and a lower competition keyword with 10, I'd go with the low-competition keyword 10/10 times. Here's why: ranking for a keyword with 10 searches per month will get you infinitely more traffic than targeting a keyword you cannot rank for.

We ran a blog post a while back on why Google might show the wrong meta description. This is a very niche question that shows around 10 searches per month on Google. Except for the fact that this keyword is asked on Google around 20 different ways and we rank for all of them, which adds up to hundreds of visits each month from Google.

Don't let low search volumes scare you off of long tail keywords, let your competitors be scared off while you siphon traffic away from them.

What is a good keyword difficulty?

Like I said above, keyword difficulty is a relative metric.

My ‘ideal keyword difficulty’ is probably not yours, but that’s because your site might be more, or less, authoritative than ours.

A good keyword difficulty is within the realm of possibility for you to rank because going after keywords you do not stand a chance at ranking for is a waste of your time.

To identify your ideal keyword difficulty, take a look at the keywords you rank on page 1 of Google for. This will give you a decent sampling of the types of keywords you can reasonably target. If you pop open your favorite keyword research tool, or run a quick Google search, you should be able to get a sense of how competitive these keywords are.

If you’re ranking for competitive terms, then congrats! You’ve got a pretty broad range for the types of keywords you can target.

If you’re only ranking for niche keywords, don’t fret. That just means you’ll want to target the especially low-competition keywords for now, and then build up authority over time.

How to prioritize keywords for your SEO strategy

By now, you should have a nice, long list of potential keywords to target.

Do you just run down the list and write a blog post for each one? Should you group them, or order them somehow? Unless you have a content team upwards of 50 people, you will have to prioritize your keywords. Here’s how we like to prioritize keywords for our SEO strategy:

  • Review your keywords against your goals, which ones best align with your strategic goals?
  • Of the remaining keywords that align with your goals, which ones can you rank for?
  • Of those remaining keywords, which would make the biggest difference if you ranked for them? Rank them accordingly.

This is a simple, yet powerful framework to help you take a massive list of keywords and turn it into a list of priorities to target with your content.

How much time you should spend on keyword research

The beauty of keyword research is it is such a fluid process, but the danger is that it can also be an endless process.

Rather than recommend a fixed amount of time that keyword research needs to be done in, we recommend breaking this out into a series of manageable chunks.

Book time on the calendar to meet with your product or business teams to define the product terms. Book another hour to meet with your customer success and sales teams to learn more about the customer journey. Spend an hour or so diving into online forums, free tools, and paid tools. Then meet as a team to rank and prioritize to build out your calendar.

In as little as five hours, you will come out with a unique keyword strategy perfectly suited to reaching your target customers.

How to organize your keywords for your SEO strategy

Keywords sitting in a spreadsheet or a keyword research tool don’t do a lot for you.

When it comes to organizing and managing keywords, I like to divide my keywords into lists. The beauty of keyword lists is the ultimate flexibility that they afford. The more you can align your keyword lists to your strategy, and strategic goals, the better.

That’s pretty theoretical, so here are some practice ideas for your keyword lists:

  • Divide keywords up by persona
  • Divide queries by funnel stage
  • Divide keywords up by topic
  • Divide keywords up by modifier (best or alternatives)

For a client of ours that sells shoe insoles online, we worked with them to create keyword lists:

  • By brand
  • Modifiers for two categories they have on their site
  • To track keywords for a content series they created

Here’s an example of a few of our lists, we’ve divided things up by strategic topics that we are covering as well lists that correspond to areas on our website:

How to use keywords in your content and rank

The old way of targeting keywords (use it in the title, the first 100 words, and sprinkled throughout) just doesn’t work anymore.

There’s a new way you can use keywords in your content, and we’ll explore it here.
There are a series of steps you can take when targeting keywords with your content, we’ll examine them one by one:

  • Define the question behind the keyword
  • Brainstorm related questions and synonyms
  • Use the keyword strategically

Define the question behind the keyword

Before blindly including a 3-word phrase several times in a page, stop and think about the question (or search intent) behind the keyword. The motivation to ask “how to get more traffic from Google” is very different than “cheap SEO tool”. The other way of thinking about this is how the keyword maps to the buyer’s journey.

I like to call this the keyword funnel:

The keyword funnel forces you to think about that buyer's journey your customer takes, and the reasons that they ask those questions on Google.

For example, for SaaS companies there are usually 3 types of questions people ask on Google:

  • How do I do my job better
  • I need a tool to do my job
  • I need an alternative to my current solution

See how already this gets so much more nuanced (and interesting!)? Doing this will lead you to make some pretty critical content decisions, as well as lead to a richer understanding of what your customer is looking for and how you can serve them better.

And that’s a recipe for better content. By this point, you have a decent head start, but to really level up your keyword targeting you need to do a bit more research into the related questions and synonyms that your target customer might be searching.

Brainstorm related questions and synonyms

You’ve identified the core question and funnel stage for your target keyword, now let’s go one step further to come up with related questions that you should address.

Why related questions?

Google has gotten so far beyond just checking for one keyword in a piece of content; now Google can understand what a piece of content is about holistically. That means you need to cover your core keyword from all angles to ensure you’ve covered it as comprehensively as possible.

Note: comprehensive does not mean super long, just make sure you’ve got your related topics in order.

Brainstorming related questions is one of my favorite things to do before I write any piece of content. So, how do you find these related questions? A keyword research tool (like Centori’s!) is great, but I also like looking at Google Auto Suggest and Google’s People also

Ask for this too.

Google has a ridiculously frightening amount of data on how people use Google, and they show that to you for free. All you need to do is pay a little attention to what Google shows you in search results. Google heavily curates the experience for its users on search, through autosuggest you can see what your audience is probably also searching for, or what they’d search for next.

This gives you a goldmine to pull from when it comes to identifying related or tangential questions your customers are asking. And that’s a recipe for comprehensive content that will rank.

Use these keywords strategically in your content

You’ve got a core question and corresponding funnel stage, along with a set of related questions to address as well, now let’s use them in your content.
There are 2 areas I tend to focus on using the keywords in my content:

  • The title
  • The headings

But probably not for the reasons you’d think.

Conventional SEO wisdom says to jam the keywords in and game the Google algorithm in hopes you’ll rank, instead weave the keywords in so that:

  • The page jumps out in search results
  • The page is easy to scan
  • The page leads the reader a logical conclusion in your content

It’s not about using the keyword just to use the keyword. It’s about taking care to mirror the core question with your title and h1, and use informative and helpful headings to guide the reader through the content.

It just so happens that Google appreciates this too.

Check out our guide to using keywords in your content to learn more.

How to report on keywords

Remember those keyword lists from before? Those are your reporting super power.

Being able to segment keywords strategically allows you to do some truly powerful reporting—and quite simply too!

Our analytics philosophy is this: start broad, and go narrow. Seeing your Google Search Console performance is nice:

But being able to view performance for a subset of target keywords and compare different subsets gives you advanced SEO insights with ease.

Rather than track rank for individual keywords, I like to review performance for indexes of keywords to give me a sense of how content is influencing search performance, where the best opportunities are, and where there is room for improvement.

Centori makes this exceedingly simple. You can track search performance for a keyword list, view performance for individual keywords in that list, content that is ranking for those keywords, and your rank distribution for the list:

Pro-level SEO reports in seconds.

You have everything you need, now it’s time to master keyword research!

This page represents everything that we know and have collected over the years when it comes to conducting effective keyword research that will set your SEO strategy up for success.

Keyword research is more than opening up a tool and loading a few thousand suggestions. It’s about understanding how your target customers use Google to answer their questions, how those questions change through the buyer’s journey, and where your best opportunities to rank are.

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