It’s hard to overemphasize the importance of thorough keyword research for search engine optimization (SEO). Most companies rely on their gut when choosing the keywords to optimize their site around — leading to wasted effort and disappointing results.

The 7 steps below turn keyword research into a rigorous, scientific process that uses a 30-point scoring method, with equal weight given to each keyword’s relevance, competition, and search volume. I find this process consistently gives me:

  1. A set of keywords that drive increased quality traffic and conversions after SEO
  2. The confidence I need to avoid second-guessing my keyword list during optimization
  3. A firm grasp of the language customers use to talk about that business — which helps us create stickier, better-converting content

The guys at The Keg Koozy have kindly agreed to serve as my example for this process. Their cool product is just what it sounds like: a koozie for kegs. Its wetsuit-like neoprene keeps beer cold for up to 6 hours — without the hassle of ice and tubs. They’ve been selling more and more by word of mouth, but are eager to get more sales from people searching for this type of product on Google.

1. Brainstorm (15 min)

Start by asking this question: if someone is looking for my typeof product or service on Google, what keyword phrases would they enter?

Write down anything that pops into your head. If you’re struggling, try one or more of the following:

  • Scan your homepage’s text
  • Scan your competitors’ homepages
  • Google your keywords and scan the results
  • Use a thesaurus

Once you have your list, break it into categories. Here’s what my brainstorm led to for Keg Koozy:

Koozie Keywords: keg koozy, keg koozie
Insulation Keywords: keg insulation, keg insulator
Cold Keywords: how to keep kegs cold, keep keg cold
Kegerator Keywords: kegerator, cheap kegerator

2. Use Google’s Keyword Tool for Volumes and Ideas (30 min)

Now it’s time to expand your list and get some volume data in the process. Copy and paste your keywords from your first category into Google’s keyword tool and select “exact match” in the bottom left (so that you get data only for those exact phrases). Google will return monthly search volumes — along with a “competition” metric — for each.

It will also return a list of similar keyword phrases — or “keyword ideas” —— that are commonly searched. You don’t need to go through all of Google’s keyword suggestions, but scan at least the first 50. You will likely discover highly relevant keywords you never considered — in my case, phrases like “keg coat,” “keg wrap,” and “keg coolers”. Nice ones!

Check all the keywords that are relevant, even those that warrant a new category, and clickDownload > Selected > CSV for Excel from the dropdown at the top. Repeat this process for each of your category lists.

Then copy data from all of your spreadsheets and paste them into a single spreadsheet, preferably a Google Doc or some other easy-to-share product. Finally, add a category column to the spreadsheet and enter the appropriate category for each keyword. Since your list is larger and more diverse than when you started, you’ll probably need a new category or two.

3. Rinse and Repeat (30 min)

The “keyword ideas” you get from Google in Step 2 help expand your list, but to discover all of the best keywords, you need to treat them as a launching pad, not an end point.

Look through your new spreadsheet and highlight any keywords not from your original brainstorm list that seem like an especially good fit for your business. Then repeat Steps 1 and 2 above, doing more brainstorming and running all of your new keywords through Google’s keyword tool.

Here’s an example of how this process helped me: “keg coat” and “keg wrap” (original Google ideas) → “keg jacket”, “keg blanket”, “keg glove” and “keg sleeve” (from brainstorming) → “keg cooling jacket“ and “keg cover” (from new Google ideas).

None of these were on my original list, yet all made our final target list. Overall, my list for Keg Koozy grew from around 20 to 65 keywords during this step. Persistence, an exploratory mindset, and general geekiness pay off when it comes to keyword research.

4. Add Competitiveness Data (30 min)

Now that you have your expanded list, you need to add some additional metrics before narrowing it down to a managable target list.

First you want to get an idea of how competitive our keywords are on Google organic search. The “competition” metric Google’s keyword tool gave us refers to AdWords (paid search) competition. This is somewhat helpful, because there is a correlation between competition on paid and organic search. But it’s not a direct correlation, so you’re better off using data that is specific to organic search.

My favorite approach here is to use Google’s allintitle operator, which Ilearned about from Jill Whalen. It tells you how many web pages have a given keyword phrase in their title tag — which, given the weight search engines place on title tags, is a great indicator of how competitive that keyword is.

Add a column in your spreadsheet labeled Title Tag Pages. Then, one by one, enter your keywords into a Google search using this convention: allintitle: “[keyword]”. For the keyword “keg insulation”, I would enterallintitle: “keg insulation”. Google will return a “results” count at the top of the page; enter that number in your spreadsheet.

There are some spreadsheet tricks that speed this up, but it’s a tedious process. If you have interns, give this step to them.

5. Add Relevance Scores (15 min)

Next we need a metric for “relevance,” which I define as the likelihood that someone visiting your site from this keyword search will turn into a customer. It’s the most subjective step in the process, but it’s a critical one. And if you’ve smartly categorized your keywords in steps 2 and 3, it will be much easier to be consistent in your scoring.

Insert a “Relevance Score” column into your spreadsheet and then sort by Category. Give each keyword category a 1-10 relevance score, where 1 = least likely to convert and 10 = most likely to convert. All keywords in a given category get the same score for now.

Scoring is relative to the rest of your list, so you should have a wide range of scores. For example, I scored the keg “jacket” category a 9, while I scored the “home brew” category a 2. This doesn’t mean that someone Googling “home brewing kits” would never buy a keg koozie, just that they’re much less likely to convert than someone Googling “keg wrap.”

Finally, go back through your list keyword by keyword and tweak your scores based on keyword differences within categories. For example, I scored the “cooler” category a 6, but I bumped “portable keg cooler” up to a 7 because that’s a stronger fit with our product than just “keg cooler”.

6. Convert into Scores (15 min)

You now have data for the 3 critical components of a search keyword: Volume, Competition, and Relevance. Before you can total this data up, you need to convert Volume and Competition data into 10-point scores so that all 3 factors are on the same playing field.

To do this, add a Legend tab (see example on right) to your spreadsheet that equates data ranges with a 1-10 score. Then add Volume Score and Competition Score columns to your spreadsheet, and use a VLOOKUP function to convert each keyword’s data into the appropriate score from the legend. Sort by each column and check the distribution of scores; if for instance 90% of your keywords are a 1 or a 2, you need to tweak your legend.

7. Finalize Targets (15 min)

Add 2 final columns to your spreadsheet: Total Score and Target Tier. In the Total Score column sum up the volume, competition, and relevance scores, and sort it in descending order.

In the Target Tier column, put a 1 next to the 5-10 highest-scoring keywords. For the next 5-10 highest-scoring keywords, put a 2. And so on. How far down you go depends on a few factors, but in most cases I end up with about 30 target keywords.

Finally, go through your keywords and tweak your Target Tier numbers based on your judgment and any other factors you think are important that weren’t captured in the scoring. These might include your current rankings, existing site structure and content, and other competitive factors. Also try to achieve some diversity in the categories represented in each target tier.

Your keyword research is done and your target list is now complete. Hooray! But before you move on to optimizing your site for these keywords, take the time to do 2 final steps that help you fully leverage your new list now and in the future.

Bonus #1: Transform into Copy Guide (15 min)

You want to treat your target keyword list as a trusted guide when optimizing your site’s content and title tags. But a single column of keywords doesn’t make the best copy guide. Especially since you’ve already taken the time to categorize your words, it’s worth putting them in a more useful format.

Copy your Keyword, Category, and Target Tier columns for all of your target keywords, and paste them into a new tab called Copy Guide. Sort by Category, then add columns for each category name (Cold, Jacket, Insulate, etc.). Cut and paste keywords into their respective category columns and delete the original Category and Keyword columns. Finally, move the Target Tier column to the right of your new category columns and sort it by ascending order.

Now if I’m optimizing a sentence, paragraph, page, or tag related to “insulation”, I can quickly see all of my available target keywords for that category in order of priority.

Bonus #2: Transform into SEO Measurement Tool (15 min)

Your keyword list should also serve as the foundation of your post-SEO analysis to see what worked and what didn’t — namely, which target keywords are driving more conversions than before SEO, and which are driving the same or fewer. You’ll need to wait a while for data to come in before you can measure the success of your SEO using web analytics. But in the meantime, you can create your measurement framework.

Copy your Keyword, Category, Target Tier columns for all of your target keywords into a new tab called SEO Metrics. Sort by Category, then add a column called Root Keyword. Your post-SEO analysis will be more effective if, rather than focusing on the exact target keywords (e.g. keg jacket), you focus on the base or root of your keywords (e.g. jacket). This allows you to capture all of the many variations of that keyword users search for (e.g. jacket for kegs, keg ice jacket, etc.).

With this in mind, for each group of keywords that share a common root, enter that root once. When you’re done, delete the Keyword and Category columns and sort by Target Tier in ascending order. Wait a few months, then use Google Analytics to measure your SEO results.

Learn More

See my final list of keyword targets for The Keg Koozy, along with all major steps along the way.

Share questions and other keyword research tips on the Marketade blog.

Get more articles like this delivered to your inbox. Subscribe to The Keyword, Marketade’s free bi-monthly newsletter.