Keywords are the foundation of SEO. If nobody is searching for what you’re writing about, you won’t get traffic from Google—no matter how hard you try.
Given how important keyword research is, it’s hardly surprising that we’ve written a lot about it already. But reading through tons of posts and trying to piece everything together yourself is hard work, especially if you’re new to this SEO stuff.
That’s why we wrote this guide. It runs through a proven keyword research framework that you can easily adapt to your website and goals. This is the same framework we used to grow our blog traffic to over 700,000 monthly search visits in just a few years.
We also tried hard to keep everything below as jargon-free as possible without holding back on detail. That’s not our style. Everything you need to know to create a winning keyword strategy is here. We also link to extra resources in each section in case you find yourself wanting to learn more.
Let’s get started.
Keyword research basics
Before we start looking for keyword ideas, let’s make sure we understand the basics.
What are keywords?
Keywords are the words and phrases that people type into search engines. They’re also known as search queries or “SEO keywords.”
What is keyword research?
Keyword research is the process of finding keywords that you want to rank for in search engines. It’s about understanding what potential customers are searching for and how.
It also involves analyzing and comparing keywords to find the best opportunities.
Why is keyword research important?
Keyword research is the only way to figure out what people are typing into search engines. You need to know this to avoid creating content about topics that nobody is searching for. Lots of website owners make that mistake, and it’s likely a big part of the reason why 90.63% of pages get no traffic from Google.
Keyword research also helps you to answer questions like:
How hard will it be to rank for this keyword?
How much traffic am I likely to get if I rank for this keyword?
What kind of content should I create to rank for this keyword?
Are people searching for this keyword likely to become my customers?
Knowing the answers to these questions will help you pick your battles wisely.
How to find keyword ideas
Keyword research starts by understanding how customers might search for your business. You can then combine that knowledge with tools to find more keyword ideas, before cherry-picking the best ones.
Seed keywords are the foundation of the keyword research process. They define your niche and help you identify your competitors. You can also plug seed keywords into keyword tools to find thousands of keyword ideas (more on that shortly).
If you already have a product or business that you want to promote online, coming up with seed keywords is easy. Just think about what people type into Google to find what you offer.
For example, if you sell computers and parts, then seed keywords might be:
If you’re struggling to come up with seed keywords, check the Search Results report in Google Search Console. This shows up to 1,000 keywords that you already rank for.
If you don’t have Google Search Console set up, or just want to see more than 1,000 keywords, use Ahrefs’ Site Explorer. Just plug in your site and check the Organic Keywords report.
Don’t obsess too much over coming up with seed keywords. It should only take a few minutes. As soon as you have a handful of ideas, move on to the next step.
2. See what keywords your competitors rank for
Looking at which keywords send traffic to your competitors is usually the best way to start keyword research. But first, you need to identify those competitors. That’s where your brainstormed list of keywords comes in handy. Just search Google for one of your seed keywords and see who ranks on the front page.
From here, you can plug these websites into Ahrefs’ Site Explorer one by one, then check the Top Pages report. This shows their most popular pages by estimated monthly search traffic. It also shows each page’s “Top keyword.” That’s the one sending it the most organic traffic.
With this approach, one competitor will often give you enough keyword ideas to keep you busy for months. But if you’re hungry for more, go to the Competing domains report to find more sites like your competitor. Then repeat the process above over and over for near-unlimited keyword ideas.
Are you seeing a lot of topics you’ve already covered?
Plug a few competing sites into Ahrefs’ Content Gap tool, then paste your site into the bottom field. Hit “Show keywords” to see those that one or more competitors rank for, but you don’t.
Learn more about performing a content gap analysis in this video.
3. Use keyword research tools
Competitors can be a great source of keyword ideas. But there are still tons of keywords your competitors aren’t targeting, and you can find these using keyword research tools.
Keyword research tools all work the same way. You plug in a seed keyword, and they generate keyword ideas.
Google Keyword Planner is perhaps the most well-known keyword tool. It’s free to use, and although it’s mainly for advertisers, you can also use it to find keywords for SEO.
Let’s enter a few of our seed keywords and see what it kicks back:
You’ll notice that some of these suggestions contain a seed keyword. These are known as phrase-match keywords. However, not all of them match this pattern. That’s because Google is smart enough to understand what words and phrases are related to each other beyond phrase-matching.
The “Competition” metric that you see in Google Keyword Planner has nothing to do with SEO. It shows how many advertisers are willing to pay money to show ads in the search results for that keyword. You should pay no attention to it.
Beyond Keyword Planner, there are tons of free third-party tools. These tend to pull most of their keyword ideas from Google’s autocomplete results, which are the search suggestions that show up as you type your query.
Although these tools can be useful for discovering ideas, they rarely show more than a few hundred suggestions. They also tend to show questionable monthly search volume estimates or none at all. That makes it hard to judge the relative popularity of the keywords.
The solution to this problem is to use a ‘professional’ keyword tool. These are searchable databases of billions of keywords, complete with SEO metrics. For example, Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer contains over ten billion keywords across 171 countries.
Let’s enter a few of our seed keywords and see how many ideas it generates.
19.2 million ideas. And that’s just from the “Phrase match” report. The five other keyword ideas reports pull ideas from other sources.
Now, that might seem like an overwhelming amount of ideas, and it is. But don’t worry. You’ll learn how to narrow these down in the next section.
Keywords Explorer has millions of keywords for other search engines too. Bing, YouTube, Amazon, and Baidu are just a few of them.
4. Study your niche
Everything we’ve discussed so far is enough to generate an almost unlimited amount of keyword ideas. But at the same time, the process kind of keeps you “in the box.” It’s limited by your seed keywords, and that means you’ll almost certainly miss some ideas.
You can solve this by studying your niche in more detail, and a good starting point is to browse industry forums, groups, and Q&A sites. This will help you find more things that your prospective customers are struggling with that didn’t show up in keyword tools.
For example, here’s just one popular thread from the /r/suggestapc subreddit:
This person is looking for a gaming desktop. If we plug that topic into Keywords Explorer, we see that it gets 36,000 monthly searches in the US, on average.
We might not have found this using tools because it doesn’t include any of our seed keywords.
Here are a few other interesting topics from that subreddit that might be worth covering:
64gb workstation for under $1k
Desktop for light gaming
Best budget computer for 50+ parents
144 hz monitors for under £150
Powerspec G353 vs G354
If you notice any trends in topics, you can use those as new seed keywords in Keywords Explorer to find more ideas. For example, if we use “powerspec” as a seed keyword and check the “Phrase match” report, we see thousands of keyword ideas.
Beyond browsing forums, your customers can also be a fantastic source of keyword ideas. Remember, these are the people you’re already doing business with. You want to attract more people like them to your site.
Here are a few ways to extract insights from clients or customers:
Chat with them face to face
Look through past emails
Look through customer support requests
Try to recall common questions that came up in past conversations
Make sure to pay attention to the language they use when doing this. It will often differ from the language you might use. For example, if you sell computers online, maybe your customers are searching for problems related to specific laptops. E.g., “what is the best mouse for macbook pro.”
Search volume tells you the average number of times a keyword gets searched each month. For example, “best gaming desktop” has a monthly search volume of 10,000 in the US.
Don’t confuse this number with the amount of traffic you’ll get by ranking. Even if you manage to rank number one, your traffic from this keyword will rarely exceed 30% of this number. And that’s if you’re lucky.
In Keywords Explorer, you’ll see a search volume filter in every keyword ideas report. This makes it possible to filter thousands of keywords by search volume in seconds.
If you need to see search volumes for a country other than the US, there are 171 to choose from.
Note that while most keyword tools show search volumes, estimates tend to vary from tool to tool. That’s because they each calculate the metric in different ways. You can read more about this in the two posts linked at the end of this section.
Keyword search volumes are annual averages. That means there are a couple of situations where they can be misleading.
The estimated monthly US search volume for “macbook pro 16” is 19,000.
The problem here is that it’s an annual average, and Apple released this laptop less than a year ago.
Looking at the trends graph in Keywords Explorer, it’s clear that there have been way more than 19,000 monthly searches in the past few months.
Look at the estimated monthly search volume for “christmas computer wallpaper.”
Do you think the same number of people search for this every month? Of course not. Most searches will occur in November and December. This fact isn’t reflected in the search volume estimate because, again, it’s an annual average. But it is in the trends graph.
Note that with some seasonal keywords, it’s best not to rely on the trends data in Keywords Explorer. That’s because we only show data for the past 30 months. For terms like “world cup,” that’s a problem. This event happens once every four years, so there will only be one spike on our graph.
For these kinds of terms, use Google Trends. The data goes back further.
The Clicks metric tells you the average number of monthly clicks on the search results for a keyword. That’s important because not all searches result in lots of clicks.
Just take a look at a query like “how to screenshot on mac.”
Despite having a monthly search volume of 530,000, it only gets 95,000 clicks.
That happens because Google answers the question right in the search results. There’s no need for people to click to find the information they’re looking for.
Google is providing answers in the search results for more and more queries. That’s why the Clicks filter in Keywords Explorer is so invaluable. You can use it to weed out keyword ideas with miserable search traffic potential.
You should also be wary of keywords where paid ads “steal” lots of the clicks. For example, 54% of clicks for “hp all in one computer” go to paid ads.
Search volume and Clicks help you to understand the popularity of a single keyword. But there may be tons of synonyms and variations for that keyword, and you can often target all those with one page.
For example, the keyword “400 dollar gaming pc” gets an estimated 1,100 searches and 1,000 clicks per month.
If we assume that 30% of clicks go to the top page, we can expect around 330 visits per month to this page if we rank number one. Or can we?
In Keywords Explorer, we can see estimated traffic to the top-ranking pages. And it looks like the top result gets around four times more monthly visits than we estimated.
That happens because the page gets traffic from hundreds of keywords.
Ranking for more than one keyword like this is quite the norm. We studied three million search queries and found that the average top-ranking page ranks in the top 10 for almost 1,000 other keywords.
The moral of the story: don’t judge keywords on their Search volume (or Clicks) alone. Look at the top-ranking results to estimate the search traffic potential of the topic.
Keyword Difficulty (KD) is an SEO metric that aims to judge the relative ranking difficulty of keywords. It’s scored on a scale from zero to a hundred, with higher scores being hardest to rank for.
Most keyword research tools have a similar score, but the calculation for it varies. We base ours on the backlink profiles of the pages ranking in the top 10 because backlinks are a strong ranking factor.
Ranking difficulty scores are useful for comparing thousands of keywords at scale. You can do that with the KD filter in Keywords Explorer.
However, you should always manually assess keywords before going after them because lots of factors affect ranking difficulty. It’s just not possible to boil down the complexity of Google’s ranking algorithm to a two-digit number.
It’s also worth noting that you shouldn’t necessarily give up on high-difficulty keywords. It depends on the balance between its business value and ranking difficulty. Some keywords may be super easy to rank for, but the visitors they send will never become customers. Others will be hard to rank for but game-changing for your business.
Cost Per Click (CPC)
Cost Per Click (CPC) shows how much advertisers are willing to pay for ad clicks from a keyword. It’s more a metric for advertisers than SEOs, but it can serve a useful proxy for a keyword’s value.
For example, the keyword “computer backup services” has a high CPC. That’s because many searchers are looking to buy cloud backup solutions, which can cost hundreds of dollars a month.
It’s the opposite story for “how to backup computer.” That’s because most searchers aren’t looking for paid services. They’re looking for information on how to back up their personal data for free.
One important thing to know about CPC is that it’s much more volatile than Search volume. While search demand for a keyword fluctuates monthly, its CPC can change any minute. That means that the CPC values you see in third-party keyword tools are snapshots in time. If you want the actual data, you’ll have to use AdWords.
That said, CPC isn’t a foolproof way to judge a keyword’s value.
For instance, although the keyword “computer backup services” has a high CPC, it wouldn’t be particularly lucrative for a site selling computers and parts. There’s just no way to monetize that traffic.
You can filter keyword ideas by CPC in Keywords Explorer.
Let’s say that you’ve got these keywords on your list:
build a computer
is it easy to build a computer
how much to build your own computer
what do you need to build a pc
how to make your own laptop
You might be wondering, should you build a different page for each keyword or target all of them on a single page?
The answer largely depends on how Google sees these keywords. Does it see them as part of the same topic (i.e., how to build a computer)? Or does it see them all as individual topics? You can get a sense of this by looking at the Google results.
For example, we see quite a few of the same pages ranking for “build a computer” and “is it easy to build a computer.”
We also see that most of the results for both searches are posts about building a PC. That tells us that “is it easy to build a computer” is a subtopic of the broader topic of building a PC. For that reason, it would probably make more sense to target both of these keywords on a single page than to create two separate pages.
However, if we look at the results for “how to make your own laptop,” we see the opposite:
Almost all of the results are guides about building laptops, not PCs. That tells us that “how to make your own laptop” isn’t part of a broader topic. We’d probably need to write a separate guide to rank for this keyword.
The problem with this approach is that, while it works, it’s not very scalable. You can’t check the search results for every single one of the keyword ideas on your list. It would take way too long.
In Keywords Explorer, our solution to this problem is to show a “Parent Topic” for each keyword. This tells you whether we think you can rank for your target keyword while targeting a broader topic instead. To identify the “Parent Topic,” we take the top-ranking page for the keyword and find the keyword that sends the most traffic to the page.
Let’s plug our keywords from earlier into Keywords Explorer and check their “Parent Topics.”
What we see here mirrors what we saw in the search results. Most of our keywords are long-tail keywords that fall under the same Parent Topic. It’s only “how to build a laptop” that has a different Parent Topic and would require a page of its own.
To group keywords on your list by Parent Topic in Keywords Explorer, just sort by the Parent Topic column.
2. Group by search intent
Let’s say that you have these keywords on your list:
gaming laptops under 1000
how to build a pc
best gaming laptop
If you run an online store with a blog, you need to understand which to target with blog posts vs. store pages.
For some keywords, this is obvious. You wouldn’t create a product page for “how to build a pc” because that doesn’t make sense. It’s clear that searchers want a blog post explaining how to build a PC, not a product page selling PC parts.
But what about a keyword like “gaming laptops under 1000?” Should you target this with a blog post about the best gaming laptops, or an ecommerce category page showing all the gaming laptops you sell under $1,000 like the one below?
Given that your goal is probably to sell more laptops, your instinct is likely to create a category page with all the laptops you have for sale.
That would be the wrong move because that kind of content doesn’t align with what searchers want to see—otherwise known as search intent.
How do we know? If you look at the top-ranking pages for this keyword in Google, almost all of them are blog posts listing the top gaming laptops for the price.
Google understands intent better than anyone, so the top results for a keyword are often a good proxy for search intent. If you want to stand the best chance of ranking, you should create the same kind of content as you already see ranking on the first page.
You can view the top results for your country in Keywords Explorer. Just hit the “SERP” caret.
As you’re assessing keyword ideas, you can use lists in Keywords Explorer to quickly and easily group keywords by intent.
3. Group by business value
Let’s say that you have these keywords on your list:
how to build a pc
what is a computer
dell xps 13 vs macbook pro
macbook pro 16 review
hp laptop elitebook 2570p intel core i5 3210m newegg
To gauge the value of these keywords, many content marketers and SEOs will map them to the buyer’s journey. That’s the process people go through before making a purchase. Conventional wisdom says that the earlier people are in their journey, the less likely they are to buy.
How do people do this? The most popular method is to group keyword ideas into three buckets: TOFU, MOFU, and BOFU. Generally speaking, TOFU keywords have the highest traffic potential, but visitors aren’t looking to buy anything just yet. And MOFU and BOFU keywords will bring you less traffic, but those people are closer to becoming your customers.
Here are some examples for TOFU, MOFU, and BOFU keywords for Ahrefs:
Top of the funnel (TOFU): online marketing, what is SEO, how to grow website traffic.
Middle of the funnel (MOFU): how to do keyword research, how to build links, how to do website audit
Bottom of the funnel (BOFU): ahrefs vs moz, ahrefs reviews, ahrefs discount
At Ahrefs, we think that this concept is limiting and perhaps even misleading.
Here are three reasons why:
First, it doesn’t take into account that you can take someone barely “problem aware” and walk them through all stages of the buyer’s journey on one page. That is what direct response copywriters are known for. They don’t create their ads based on TOFU/MOFU/BOFU. They create one ad that takes the reader from barely understanding their problem to buying your solution.
Second, it’s quite challenging to assign each keyword a definitive TOFU, MOFU, or BOFU label because things aren’t always that clear cut. For example, “link building tool” could be a MOFU or BOFU keyword for us. It depends on how you look at it.
Third, some marketers broaden their definition of TOFU to such a degree that they end up covering unrelated topics. Case in point: Hubspot has a blog post about the shrug emoji that gets lots of traffic.
Given that HubSpot sells inbound marketing software, this topic is so TOFU that it would be almost impossible to convert those visitors into customers. Hardly any of them will ever need what HubSpot sells.
For this reason, we prefer not to map keywords to the buyer’s journey and argue about TOFU, MOFU, or BOFU. Instead, we’ve created a simple and objective “business score” that helps us determine the value of a keyword for us. And this is based mainly on how well we can pitch our product in our content.
Here’s an example of the scoring criteria we use for blog topics:
3: our product is an irreplaceable solution for the problem;
2: our product helps quite a bit, but it’s not essential to solving the problem;
1: our product can only be mentioned fleetingly;
0: there’s absolutely no way to mention our product.
By pairing this score with the estimated search traffic potential of a topic, we’re able to get a good idea of which topics are most valuable for our business. You’ll notice that we barely have any posts on our blog with a business score of zero where there are no mentions of our product.
Keyword prioritization isn’t exactly the final step in the keyword research process. It’s more something that you should do as you go through the steps above. As you’re looking for keywords, analyzing their metrics, and grouping them, ask yourself:
What is the estimated traffic potential of this keyword?
How tough is the competition? What would it take to rank for it?
Do you already have content about this topic? If not, what will it take to create and promote a competitive page?
Do you already rank for this keyword? Could you boost traffic by improving your rank by a few positions?
Is the traffic likely to convert into leads and sales, or will it only bring brand awareness?
Just remember that you’re not only looking for “easy to rank for” keywords. You’re looking for those with the highest return on investment.
Focusing only on low-difficulty keywords is a mistake that a lot of website owners make. You should always 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.
Think of it like this: picking low-hanging fruit is easy, but those at the top of the tree are often juicier. Does that mean it’s not worth picking the ones at the bottom? No. You should still pick them. But you should also plan ahead and buy a ladder for the ones at the top now.
Let’s wrap this up
That’s it—everything you need to know to create a winning keyword strategy in one simple guide. If you want to see how to put it into action from start-to-finish, watch this video: