SEO is crucial for long term blog growth, and at the heart of SEO is keyword research. But what exactly is keyword research, and why is it so important for blog growth? Find out in this step by step guide to keyword research for bloggers – and watch your blog traffic soar!
Keyword research is an essential part of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) – you’ve spent time writing your blog post and you want people to read it! Preferably lots of people. This is where keyword research can help you. Get keyword research right and you will be able to get your content in front of the very people who will really want to read it… and are most likely to want to become loyal long-term followers of your blog.
But there are two big problem that bloggers often fall into:
- not writing what people want to read
- writing what people want to read but not writing it in a way that will help people find it easily
Keyword research addresses both these problems.
Before you write a blog post, you need understand who your target audience is for that post and what they are most likely to be typing into search engines. Then you can use those exact search terms in your blog post so that you start ranking for them.
The concept of ‘keyword research’ is sometimes seen by bloggers as confusing, unnecessary and a bit ‘artificial’. But actually it’s none of those things, it is very simple basic marketing: providing customers with what they want.
Keyword research is about finding out what your customers (i.e. your readers) are looking for and helping them find it on your website not someone else’s!
But often advice on this topic is made overly complicated or full of jargon. I promise you will get neither of those things here! This is my plainly written, jargon-free guide to keyword research.
But first, let’s start right at the beginning…
What are keywords?
Keywords are one of the main elements of SEO. Keywords are words (or phrases) that you want your blog post to be found for, when a potential reader types that word or phrase into a search engine.
Keywords are not usually one word, but rather a keyword phrase such as ‘how to do keyword research’ or ‘easy lamb bolognese’.
Long keyword phrases are known as long tail keywords. Long tail keywords tend to have less search volume (less people searching for that word) BUT it tends to be easier to rank for long tail keywords as they have less competition.
You focus keyword is the main keyword/keyword phrase you want your blog post to be found for. For example, for this blog post my focus keyword is ‘keyword research for bloggers’. The focus keyword is what you put into the ‘focus keyword’ section of the Yoast SEO plugin.
However, you don’t want your blog post to rank for only one keyword! You want to try and get your blog post to rank for as many relevant keywords as possible. These extra keywords are known as secondary keywords.
By optimising your blog for both your focus keyword AND a selection of secondary keywords you increase your chances of ranking on search engines and increase the number of searches you are likely to be found in, and so the number of page views you are likely to get from search engines.
What is keyword research?
Keyword research is all about identifying who your audience is, working out what problems/questions they have and which words they are using in search engines to try and get answers to their problems.
You can then use the results of your keyword research to create content that your ideal readers will want to read and to optimise that content for search engines so that they will be able to find it.
Put simply, Keyword research is trying to get inside the head of your ideal readers to work out what they want and then creating content that they want to read and helping them find that content easily.
Why is keyword research so important?
Keyword research will help you start thinking in terms of your target audience – who are they and what are they looking for, and crucially, which words are they using in search engines to try and find what they are looking for?
One mistake that bloggers make is creating content that they want to write, rather than the content that their readers want to read. Now obviously if your blog is primarily a hobby and you are not particularly bothered if no one really reads your blog, then writing what you want to write is absolutely fine!
But if you want your blog to be successful, both in terms of page views and money, then writing what people want to read is absolutely vital!
If you take the time to work out what your audience wants and create content that answers their questions, problems and desires, you’ll rank higher in search engines, you’ll rank for more keywords and you’ll see long term growth in search engine traffic to your blog.
This type traffic is sustainable, tends to get better over time and with relatively little extra effort (unlike social media, which requires continued high levels of effort to sustain growth). Put another way: if your blog relies on social media for its traffic and you are sick for a month, chances are your blog traffic will be hit hard, if it relies on SEO and search engine traffic, chances are being unable to work for a month will have very little effect on your blog traffic – you could even grow!
But how do you do it?
How to do keyword research
There are two distinct phases to keyword research: ‘big picture’ keyword research and individual blog post keyword research. Or you could think of it as ‘macro’ keyword research and ‘micro’ keyword research.
‘Big Picture’ or ‘macro’ keyword research involves identifying your target audience and working out what they want. This process will be how you come up with your content ideas for your Content Calendar.
‘Blog Post Level’ or ‘micro’ keyword research involves trying to find out which particular keywords you should optimise your individual blog posts for. In other words which search terms are your potential readers actually using to get answers to their questions.
During both phases you also need to pay attention to what your competition is doing to ensure you are not trying to optimise your blog posts with keywords that are too competitive
The final step is to use those keywords correctly in your blog post so that search engines recognise that your blog post is a good answer to that search query.
Before we go into the nitty gritty of exactly how you do this, let’s briefly look at an example…
Keyword research example: this blog post
Through macro keyword research I have identified that my ideal reader wants a simple, jargon free guide to keyword research that is relevant to bloggers (as opposed to big companies or super tech savvy people).
Through micro keyword research I have identified my focus keyword phrase: ‘keyword research for bloggers’ and a selection of secondary keywords: ‘how to do keyword research’, ‘keyword research for SEO’ and ‘what is keyword research?’ etc.. I have also identified that my focus keyword is not too competitive.
Finally I have used my focus keyword in key places throughout this blog post (title, meta, slug, alt tags, first paragraph & headings) in order to ensure my blog post ranks for ‘keyword research for bloggers’. I have also used my secondary keywords in the text and (where possible) in headings in order to give myself a chance to rank for more than one keyword.
So now let’s look at each part step by step…
Keyword Research at Macro Level
Step 1: Identify your audience
This is super important. If you don’t know who your audience is, you won’t know whose questions to answer and therefore which keywords to target.
Take a moment to jot down some ‘facts’ about your target audience. How old are they? Are they male, female or both? What is their family situation? What level of income do they have? And crucially – what do they want that you can offer?
Step 2: Working out what your audience wants
This second step of keyword research involves trying to get inside your ideal reader’s head. What are these people looking for? What are their questions and problems? What kinds of search terms are they using to help them solve those problems/questions? Create a list of ideas. There are lots of great free keyword research tools that can help you with this phase.
Free keyword Research tools
Contrary to what other people may tell you, you do not have to spend a fortune on expensive keyword research tools. Most of the best ones are free! Here are my favourites…
Existing popular posts
One of the best indicators of what your audience wants is your existing popular posts. Go to Google Analytics and look at your top posts (BEHAVIOUR => SITE CONTENT => ALL PAGES & set the dates for at least the last 3 months) Can you spot any trends? Can you spot any gaps? Can you think of similar content that you could produce?
Searches on your blog
Another great way to discover what YOUR audience is looking for is to look at what they are searching for on YOUR blog. To find your site’s searches in Google Analytics go to BEHAVIOUR => SITE CONTENT => ALL PAGES & then type ?=s into the search bar. This will give you a list of all the searches on your site in your chosen time period in order of what people search for most. It makes for fascinating reading!
Google Search Console
Probably my favourite keyword research tool is Google Search Console. Its insights are like gold dust. You can use it in lots of different ways, but my favourite is to go to SEARCH ANALYTICS, toggle on CLICKS, IMPRESSIONS, CTR and POSITION and order by POSITION, then scroll through the results. Look to see what search results you are ranking highly for. Pay particular attention to any search terms you rank well for which you don’t really have any content specifically aimed at that search term. For example, I’ve just had a quick look through my Easy Peasy Foodie results and noticed that I rank at position 1.1 for ‘Leftover Lamb Pasta’ and 1.3 for ‘Leftover Lamb Pasta Bake’ yet I don’t have a recipe specifically called Leftover Lamb Pasta or Leftover Lamb Pasta Bake!
What your audience are telling you
Another easy one. What are your audience actually asking for? Chances are every week you are being asked for something by your readers, either via email, social media or even face to face. Over time you should be able to build up a picture of what your readers are really interested in. And what subjects they want you to write about.
If you have Jetpack installed you can also look at specific search terms from other search engines, (though not Google) Go to JETPACK => SITE STATS => SEARCH ENGINE TERMS. It’s generally most useful to look at this over a longer period of time such as the last 3 months or last year to build up a general picture.
There are other tools you can use for ‘micro’ keyword research, which I’ll cover in step 3.
Step 3: Prioritise content based on keyword research
Now it is time to prioritise those ideas you’ve got from step 2 based on two criteria: search volume and competition.
Because here’s the thing. There are 2 big mistakes you can make with keyword research: one is targeting keywords with too few searches, the other is targeting keywords with too many searches!
Sounds paradoxical doesn’t it? But actually it makes perfect sense. The first is more straightforward. If your keyword has a low search volume (in other words very few people use that search term), then you will get very little search engine traffic, if any, from that keyword.
If on the other hand, if your keyword has very high search volumes, then chances are you will have a lot of competition – and unless you have a website that is very highly optimised for SEO and which has a lot of authority, you are not likely to appear on page 1 or even page 2, and when you consider that 95% of searchers don’t look past page 1 of Google, that’s pretty pointless too.
So what should you do? The idea is to find the sweet spot, or as I like to call it the ‘gold dust’. Keyword research gold dust is where you find a search term that has reasonable search volumes and relatively little competition. Why is this such gold dust? Because Google is very keen on relevance.
Put simply Google would rather give you a result that answers your question perfectly, but is from a smaller website, than an answer that doesn’t quite answer your question from a bigger blog.
THIS IS REALLY GOOD NEWS PEOPLE!!
This is essentially how I grew my food blog Easy Peasy Foodie so fast
By using keywords with moderate search volumes and low to zero competition for that specific keyword you can trigger amazing blog growth from a constant stream of high quality traffic.
Not only is targeting those more specific ‘long tail’ keywords great for search engine traffic in the short term, it’s also great for driving long term traffic too. Because long tail keywords are more specific, you are likely to be attracting the sort of people who will be interested, not just in that one blog post, but the rest of your content as well, and hopefully any products and / or services that you have to offer! This is good news for the long-term growth and stability of your blog.
SOUNDS GREAT IN THEORY, BUT HOW DO YOU THIS PRACTICALLY?
There are a variety of tools which will help you organise and prioritise your ideas, but one of the best I’ve found is KW Finder. The downside is KW Finder is only free for the first 5 searches per day. If you want more searches you have to pay. (Currently 25 euros per month*.)
When you run out of searches on KW finder, you can use another free tool: SEO Book Keyword Tool, which is free for as many searches as you want. There are plenty of other premium tools e.g. SEMrush, Ahrefs, MOZ, but I find a combination of KW finder and SEO Book quite adequate for my needs.
Start by taking your list of ideas and run them through your keyword research tool of choice, noting down the search volumes.
Next run down the same list this time assessing the competition. If you are using KW finder (free or premium) or any of the other premium tools this is easy as it will give you a score for competitiveness of the search term. Which you can note next to each idea.
If you have used up all your free searches on KW finder and don’t fancy shelling out for a premium keyword research tool, then you can check out the competition manually by typing your search term into Google and seeing what comes up. If the first page is full of big players in your niche, then you don’t stand a chance. However, if there are only smaller names there or even better no competition at all for that specific search term, then you are onto something.
Now prioritise that list in order from best to worst based on both criteria. To make this easier to do practically, give each blog post idea a score for both search volume and competition. Then rank the posts from best to worst.
Step 4: Create content based on what your audience are searching for
This is the opposite of what most bloggers do, but it is absolutely what you need to be doing if you want your blog to be successful.
Instead of starting from a list of things you want to blog about, start with your list of ideas from Step 3. Use these ideas to fill up your blog’s editorial calendar.
Ideally you would want to start with your number 1 idea and work down the list, but in reality you will have other things to think about: some blog post ideas will be seasonal, so best fitted in the correct season; there will be other things you need to blog about – for example sponsored content, personal posts, posts related to the latest news in your niche… but in and around fixed commitments, write content based on your keyword research.
Now it’s time to look keyword research at micro level…
Step 5: Do a more in-depth keyword analysis before writing a blog post
At macro level you looked at general blog post ideas and identified which scored best when rated against search volumes and competition. Now it’s time to drill down and look a bit more in detail at one particular idea.
It’s important to do this for two reasons: first to find the ‘perfect’ keyword to be your focus keyword. And secondly to find good candidates for those all-important secondary keywords.
An example of keyword research at blog post level…
Let’s take an example from my food blog this time. Let’s say, in my macro keyword research, I’ve identified that ‘leftover lamb curry’ would be a good search term to target. But can I do better? I would type in lots of variations of that keyword trying to find the best combination of words for that recipe. I could try ‘roast lamb leftovers curry’ or ‘curry with leftover lamb’ or ‘curried leftover lamb’. Alternatively, I could try and get a bit more specific: ‘leftover lamb korma’ or ‘leftover lamb jalfrezi’. Again, I would then check these ideas to find out which are the best in terms of highest search volumes / least competition.
I would use my ‘best’ keyword as my focus keyword and a selection of the other keywords as secondary keywords.
I would also probably sprinkle in a few of those high volume / high competition keywords – as I start ranking for my lower competition keywords, and assuming searchers click through and have a good ‘user experience’, so I will start to rank for the higher competition keywords too!
Step 6: Optimise your blog posts for search engines
It’s no good doing all that hard work if you then don’t use your keyword research properly in your blog posts. Put simply search engines won’t realise your blog post is the perfect answer to your ideal reader’s search query if you don’t play by the rules.
So how do you do that?
It’s very easy: ensure that your ‘focus’ keyword is in all the right places:
- URL (this is less important than it used to be)
- Meta (the bit in the Yoast SEO plugin that’s a short summary for search engine results)
- First paragraph
- Alt tags on images
- Scattered a few times elsewhere (naturally) in the test of the text
- Anchor text in links from your other blog posts to this new one
If you use the Yoast SEO plugin, this is very easy as the plugin will prompt you with its traffic light system to place your focus keyword in all of these places in your blog post.
Step 7: Give your keyword-optimized blog post a head start
Don’t forget to promote your new keyword-optimized blog post! This will speed up the process of getting your blog post moving up the rankings. Share it everywhere: social media, your email list, linkies and roundups – use this post on ways to promote your blog posts to help you.
Step 8: Keep optimising your posts!!
It’s no good doing this once. Things change: you change, your blog direction changes, your readers change… So keep on going through these steps coming up with fresh content ideas that you know your audience is searching for and doing micro keyword research to come up with the specific keywords for each blog post.
Keyword research and the real world!!
Does all this sound like a ridiculous amount of effort? I can assure you it’s not. Keyword research and SEO in general actually takes very little time once you get into the swing of things. In my experience keyword research takes far less time, effort and energy than social media and for far greater gain.
Want proof? I put in roughly the same amount of effort per week on social media and SEO (including keyword research)… 85% of my traffic comes from search engines and only 5% comes from social media. This is why I am so passionate about SEO and keyword research. When you learn to do it properly, it’s one of the best productivity tools out there: less work for so much more gain!
All I do is a little macro keyword research about once a quarter, when I am planning my next quarter’s content. This might take half a day, 4 times a year. And then I do about 5 minutes on micro keyword research before I start each post. That really is all you need to do.
Using keyword research to update old posts
One additional way to harness the power of keyword research is when you are updating old posts. When you are updating old posts, look for ways to improve them.
Do keyword research on the current focus keyword (if the old blog post has one!) as well as similar search terms. If you find one that is better than your existing focus keyword, then it’s quite OK to change your keyword. But bear in mind you will also need to change the keyword elsewhere in the post – for example the title, first paragraph, meta, alt tags, headings etc.
The one place you shouldn’t change the focus keyword is the URL, as this will mess up any backlinks you have to this post. Keep the URL the same, but it’s quite OK to change everything else.
The other thing you can do is beef up old content with new secondary keywords, dotted naturally throughout the text.
Common mistakes with keyword research
Mostly keyword research is a very positive thing for your blog. There are however a few mistakes you will need to avoid:
This was a technique employed ‘back in the day’ when ‘stuffing’ your blog full of keywords was the most effective way to get to the top of search results. This led to horrible articles, which didn’t help searchers at all, being top of the list. These days search engines are much more sophisticated and ‘user experience’ and ‘relevance’ are much more important. Stuffing your blog post full of keywords in an unnatural way will not help you, nor will it be a nice experience for your users. So drop keywords in naturally and don’t repeat them too much.
Targeting keywords which are too competitive
If page 1 of the search results for your chosen keyword is full of big, powerful names in your niche, you are very unlikely to rank well for that keyword. By all means go for that competitive keyword as one of your secondary keywords, but target a less competitive long tail keyword for your main ‘focus’ keyword.
Keyword research is not an exact science. You can do everything ‘right’ and for some reason you don’t rank. Or the opposite – I expect we’ve all got an old blog post in our back catalogue that seems to do amazingly well, despite not being optimised for SEO. Don’t worry too much – just keep working through the steps and little by little you will start to see more and more traffic coming from Google et al.
Dismissing keyword research as somehow artificial or false
As someone coming from a marketing background, this attitude baffles me! As far as I am concerned if you want your blog to do well the old rules of marketing still apply – find out what your target market wants and provide them with it where and how they want it. In the case of blog posts, find out what your readers want using keyword research and then ensure they can find it easily on search engines by optimising your posts with keywords.
Dismissing keyword research because it takes too long
This is something of a false economy. Yes, it will take a little extra set up time in the short term, but long term you will experience much stronger, more reliable and less time consuming blog traffic, than if you rely on social media for your blog traffic.
Expecting it to work overnight
It won’t! Spending time on keyword research and optimising blog posts for keywords will reap big rewards in the long term, but you might not see much difference immediately. When I started doing it for Easy Peasy Foodie, it took 3 months before I began to see any real results, and about 6 months before my traffic started soaring.
I know keyword research and SEO in general can be a tad confusing! So please do feel free to ask any questions you have in the comments below, or head over to the Productive Blogging Community Facebook Page and ask them there!
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*Price correct at 12/09/2018