A new website gives you the advantage of a clean slate, but it can also make keyword research more challenging. Columnist Matthew Barby discusses his tips for conducting keyword research in the absence of historical website data.

Congratulations! You have a new website.

I have good news and bad news.

The good news is considerable: You have a modern infrastructure and research technologies you can use, and you don’t have to adapt to poor legacy decisions made years ago (homegrown CMSs, I’m looking at you).

Additionally, you can move fast without the fear of breaking things — after all, there’s nothing to break at this point.

The bad news, however, is that you don’t have any data. You’re starting pretty much from scratch. Consequently, much of the standard keyword research advice — analyze your current rankings and look for gaps, use your internal search data, look at your PPC terms, etc. — isn’t going to apply.

So, what can you do?

Well, don’t accept defeat. We’re search marketers after all, and there are lots of ways you can get good data for your new website.

Check Out The Competition

If you’re in any sort of meaningful revenue niche, then you’ve got competition — and that’s a great place to start.

Now, it’s easy to look at the competition from the outside and wonder, “How could I possibly compete with them? They have N resources and have been around for Y years!” This is especially true if they’re bigger or very well established.

Don’t let the façade of age or experience fool you, however — many of the big established players don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to SEO. Or their staff has really great ideas but can’t prioritize new initiatives over keeping up with the existing business. Or their legacy infrastructure makes them deploy on a quarterly basis. Or any of the other problems that size and legacy bring….

With that in mind, analyzing four or five of your top competitors is a great place to start when embarking on keyword research.

You can use a tool like SEMRush to find out what keyword phrases they’re ranking for in organic search — and what terms they’re bidding on in paid search.

Shapeways.com SEMrush

Using that “Export” button across 4-5 of your direct competitors can help you build a really killer list of keywords very quickly.

Additionally, take a look at the phrases your competitors are bidding on in paid search. If you have several competitors bidding on the same keywords, that’s a good sign that it’s an important term —and likely a high value/conversion keyword.

Check Out Your Audience

What if you don’t have any direct competitors? What if you have a new offer, or are taking something into a new market segment? Or, what if you know your competitors have no idea what’s going on, meaning they can’t really provide any directional intelligence?

If you find yourself in any of these scenarios, it’s time to follow your audience.  

You can start with the Google Keyword Planner. This will give you a good idea of what commercial terms Google is driving people to bid on — but beyond that, you’ll want to examine who you’re likely to be selling to.

One technique to do this is to use the Keyword Planner on some non-traditional sources like forums, Pinterest boards, and other sources of user-generated content:

Keyword Planner

Analyze Social Profiles & User-Generated Content

Taking that tactic a step further, you can go ahead and look at how people in your community describe themselves. What words and phrases do they use?

LinkedIn profiles are great resources for this:

LinkedIn Keyword Research

These highlighted phrases are all great elements to start your seed keyword set.

Carefully Consider How You’ll Attack These Keywords

One big risk with all of these methods is that you’ll turn up with some terms that are blindingly obvious — for example, “car insurance.”

Now, unless you’re going to buy GEICO from Warren Buffett (in which case, feel free to stop reading this article and call me for a consulting proposal), targeting a competitive term like “car insurance” is simply not going to get you anywhere.

You’ll need to prioritize your keywords and work on developing a keyword opportunity model:

  • What are the quick wins? These are lower volume keywords that will nonetheless drive revenue or organizational support you’ll need to keep going.
  • What are reasonable goal keywords? These are keywords that have medium volume and will move the needle for the business, but won’t be immediately possible to rank for.
  • And what are the “whale” keywords? These are keywords that will have an incredibly large impact on your business, but will take a long, long time to get traction on.

One key tool I use to get this level of competitive intelligence into keyword data is Term Explorer’s Keyword Analyzer.

This tool helps you pull keyword competitiveness and volume metrics in bulk, so you know what to go after and when:

Paleo Diet Keywords

Taking this a step further, the in-app report you see above gives way to a treasure trove of search engine results page (SERP) data when you export it to CSV. You can see a variety of metrics for every URL that ranks on page 1 of your selected search engine for a particular keyword:

Term Explorer CSV Export Results

Armed with this data, you can quickly sort to find the thresholds for the SERPs with the:

  1. highest monthly search volume
  2. highest contextual relevancy to your website or page
  3. least amount of indexed links
  4. lowest word count

…and many other edge case factors that you can use to prioritize which keywords you want to start targeting today, next month and next quarter.

Key Takeaways

With new websites, the good news is you don’t have any legacy cruft to fight your way through. The bad news is you don’t have any data.

By using smart competitiveness analysis and audience intelligence, you can start building your own keyword model for a new website.

Good luck and good keyword research.


Categorized in Online Research

Chasing after one specific keyword set can not only be frustrating, but also inefficient. The marriage of keyword research and content can result in strong, targeted pages that perform, reach the ideal demographic, and result in conversions — if you’re willing to test and think “outside the box.”

Targeting keywords solely because they have a high search volume isn’t necessarily the best way to go about creating your keyword roadmap for on-site copy and inbound tactics. As selfish as we like to be with keyword targeting, it can’t exist as its own siloed research anymore.

At the end of the day, the goal is to provide value to the end user in a way that benefits both them and the brand. This extends far beyond simply targeting specific keywords — it needs to be baked into your whole online presence.

Assuming that you’re hitting the ground hard, making sure technical is in order and your brand is strong and sturdy, here are some ideas to get better insight into keyword groups and how customers view your brand.

Listen to Your Current Customers

Current customer interaction can be extremely telling in terms of how a specific segment refers to your product in “natural language.” A big mistake during the keyword research and content creation process is assuming that what the masses are searching for is actually what your future customer is searching for.

Your on-site content should reflect natural language mixed with more general terms. Whether you’re a product- or services-based company, take the time to pay attention to any of the following information that you may have available:

  • Customer Testimonials  — This includes video, email or other mediums.
  • Customer Phone Calls — This can be customer service based, upgrade based or general feedback calls.
  • Customer Screening Calls — This applies to service providers that record screening calls for loans or other applications.

Using this information, try to determine the following:

  • How are your customers referring to your product(s) and/or services(s)?
  • Are there any specific word, service or product variations you’re hearing consistently?
  • How do these words and phrases match up with those you initially identified as your “high volume” terms?

After you have a fairly solid idea of what language your customer base is using, you can use this to inform and modify your target keyword list. From there, you’ll want to take your analysis a step further by determining the value of those keywords, based on conversion data.

For example, let’s say you’re targeting “bad credit” or “poor credit” as keywords, and these terms generate a lot of traffic and leads. Consider this, however: if customers are converting off of those terms through your lead generation form, are they actually being approved? And once they are, are they actually good customers who pay their loans back on time?

This ties more into the customer life-cycle discussion, but can help you understand what keywords aren’t worth targeting for a multitude of reasons — including potentially impacting your bottom line in a negative way over time.

Multi-Location Businesses

As I mentioned in a previous post, targeting ad copy to specific locations with “location specific” keywords is helpful, even if those phrases don’t have the highest overall search volume. Incorporating “familiar” words based on location will help in the overall message of the copy.

Suggestion: Send out surveys (not too frequently) asking your customers specific questions that could reveal the ways in which different cities view your company. You’ll begin to understand subtle differences in how various locations react and respond to your product, which may impact how potential customers are querying and searching for products or services like yours.

Mind Meld – Analytics, SEMrush and WMT + [Insert tool here]

There’s great insight that can come from merging general keyword research (your wishlist) with phrases that are: A) sending your site traffic, B) actually ranking, and/or C) converting well (organic and paid, if applicable). Remember, just because you have a page ranking well for a particular keyword on your wishlist doesn’t mean it’s sending you traffic or converting.

Once you have all of your sources separated into pretty spreadsheets (so you won’t lose your mind), create an extra one that aggregates all the data so you can start seeing patterns with duplication, search volume, CTRs, rankings, conversions, etc.

Multi-Source Keyword List

If you start with a large data set that pulls from multiple tools (including the “soft” data you get from customer feedback, calls, discussions, etc.), you’ll be able to whittle that list down to a small group per page to target.

For example:

  • Extract the top 50-100 phrases (non-branded) from tools that you’re using.
  • Drop them into an excel sheet that has a column to identify the source.
  • Use conditional formatting to identify and mark duplicates.
  • Dive in and start finding answers to questions.

Start analyzing and ask yourself questions: Are keywords that rank well sending a lot of traffic, or minimal traffic? Are phrases that produce substantial traffic actually converting? Are there repeated long-tail queries that show opportunities for “clarification content” (informational content to answer frequent queried questions) or new keyword research?

Answering these questions can help in a number of ways. They can provide ideas for informational content to capture and convert more traffic. They can also help you to understand your weaknesses or areas where improvements need to be made (clearer CTAs, more concise messaging, etc).

Keyword Density vs. Natural Language

“I want xx percent density, make sure you’re repeating this particular keyword because it’s important to our business.”

How many times have you heard this from your superiors, or even a client that you’re working with? Plenty, I’m sure.

Here are the two main problems with this attitude:

  1. This person is attempting to define the most important keyword to their business (and probably has no clue), and
  2. This person is asking for a specific density and usage of said keyword.

This topic of keyword density still comes up, though it’s something that those of us in the industry know hasn’t mattered for quite some time. This can be a big education point for your upper management (or clients) if you’re working on copy and mapping out the keyword integration for on-site and off-site strategy. In general, you want to do the following:

  • Use natural modifiers, synonyms and related phrases from your previous research. For example, the word “career” has many variations, as do the actual professions where words may be interchangeable. Mining SERPs with the “~” attached to your target keyword or phrase can help bring those to light.
  • Integrate these phrases into your outreach campaigns, along with branded variations, to create a strong, cohesive web between your off-site and on-site signals.

Related Words

Once you get over the obsession that drilling the same keyword(s) into the headings and body copy over and over again  is effective, you’ll be in a much better position to capture relevant search traffic.

Remember and repeat this phrase:

It’s not just about one keyword — it’s all about the relationship between thematically connected words.

Remember: You can never judge a keyword or phrase solely based on its numeric value — you must take into account all other factors, including how you’re optimizing on-site and what your off-site strategies and tactics are. You can find diamonds in the rough that are unique to your business and convert, which don’t require your only option being brute force in a vertical that may already be highly competitive and saturated. Your research should constantly evolve and be refined as data pours in.
Get creative. There are keywords out there to mine.


Categorized in Online Research

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how to use your first meeting with a client to understand their business and collect information that could later inform your keyword research. Now, you’re back at your desk and wondering what to do with all that information.

To begin with, you should have three lists of keyword-types (I call them seeds):

Types of Keyword Seeds or Categories
  1. Seeds most important to your clients (note that these may include jargon and industry-specific terms that need further research)
  2. Seeds that accurately describe the business (these would be your own layman’s terms for what this client does)
  3. Seeds that are not relevant or core to your client’s business

I like to refer to these as seeds because they are a seed of an idea that could grow into giant “trees” of information and possibilities.

There’s no need at this point to distinguish between “deck” and “decking” for example, and this is a mistake SEOs often make; trying to narrow the field too much too early.

Let’s dive into each of these a little more deeply using an example of a client I did work for: Artisan Contruction Services.

Note that all of these lists have far more than 2-3 keywords on them, but for purposes of example, I’ve simplified them. This client is a local (to Raleigh, NC) remodeling company that specializes in building decks and screened porches and remodeling kitchens and bathrooms. (Those are my own words for List Two).

The owner of the company, when asked to describe the product in his own words, said:

“We provide decking, siding and window replacement, and interior remodeling.”

Seeds most important to the client (based on the above description and the keywords he mentioned) are decking, siding, windows and interior remodeling. This would be List One above.

Seeds that aren’t relevant (List Three above) are things the client prefers not to do or sub-contracts out, such as roofing (says he can never do it as cheaply as professional roofers), plumbing (he hates it) and highly specialized design work like tile inlays. He’s also not a licensed electrician. So these are keyword seeds to avoid.

Initial Lists of Keyword Seeds

Example of Keyword Seed Lists

List One

List One is based on jargon, and requires further research. The first thing I do with keywords like this is to look at competitors’ websites. I’ve gotten a list of competitors from the client that I’ll research, and I’ll also put these terms into Google or Bing and look at the sites that come up in the results (I’ll localize to Raleigh, NC so that I’m getting the most accurate set of competitors).

Reviewing these sites will give me more seeds to research based on that jargon. In this case, I found specific types of decking, such as composite and pressure-treated, and I found that many competitors also refer to screened porches as sunrooms or patios (which are slightly different, but may cover more potential customers).

One additional thing the client told me is that customers often aren’t sure of what they want until they call him in for an estimate, so I’m keeping this in mind. Also during my research, I found another competitor in search that wasn’t mentioned as a major competitor. I’ll put this on a list of things to ask the client about in our next meeting.

List One Keyword Seeds

Example of List One Expansion based on Competitors research

Next, I’ll look at how customers are actually referring to the different products and services.

I’ll use theGoogle Search Bar “related searches” area at the bottom of Google’s SERPs, Google Insights to look at trends, and the “Discussions” search option (click “More” under “Search” on the left side of a Google SERP page).



Based on what I found here, I’ve learned that many people are asking what the differences are between screened porches and sunrooms, as well as that they’re sometimes referred to as lanais or three-season porches. I’ll add these seeds to my research.

I also learned that many people are interested in enclosing an existing deck into a screened porch, or “winterizing” a screened porch. More seeds for my research.

To review, I’ve taken the keyword seeds [screened porch], [patio], and [sunroom] and added:

  • enclosing deck
  • winterizing porch
  • lanai
  • three-season porch

These are all things that my client’s customers are looking for that his competitors aren’t servicing. They should be easy wins.

Keyword Seeds List Two

Example of List Two expansion based on Google "Discussions"

List Two

I can research List Two in much the same way I did List One. I’ll add these seeds to the research as well.

List Three

List Three is a little different from the others. I won’t add these as seeds to my research, but I will save them for the elimination and refinement process later.

This is where instinct and experience becomes particularly useful, as it’s likely that I can take any list of keywords to avoid and expand it on instinct.

For example, based on what I know of this client, he already wants to avoid roofing, plumbing, tile, and electrical. But here are a few more statements I jotted down at our meeting that give me more clues:

  • “I’m not the best priced contractor out there, because I don’t hire any undocumented workers and I pay my taxes. But I am very experienced and my clients are always happy with my work.”

Now I know I need to avoid [cheap], [free], [low-cost], [best priced], and other keywords like that. [Quality], [experience] and [ethical] are possible modifiers that are allowed.

  • “I prefer to work with composite materials rather than pressure-treated lumber for decks. It’s much higher quality and creates a nicer finished product.”

So it’s a good idea to focus on any searches asking for the differences between those materials. Also I’ll probably weight the research more heavily to different types and brands of composite materials.

Another note I’m jotting down from this statement is to suggest the client create a page that discusses the pros and cons of composite vs. pressure-treated materials.

  • “A lot of customers get a quote from a company like SEARS home improvement when they’re thinking about doing a remodeling project. This makes it tough for me because the materials that SEARS uses are limited to less-expensive ones. It helps me a lot if I can get a sense of a client’s budget beforehand; a single project can vary by thousands of dollars depending on the materials used. But of course, nicer materials create a nicer finished project.”

I’m not exactly sure what I could take from this, but there are likely to be a lot of keywords related to home improvement and/or SEARS.

I’ll be careful of those keywords and use something like Google Insights to determine if those trend higher at a certain time of year. I might even put them into a tool like ComScore to see if I can determine if people who search for [home improvement] related terms are in a lower income bracket. Of course, I also know I’ll have to avoid any keywords having to do with the television program of the same name.

Keyword Seeds List Three

Example of expansion of List Three based on notes from the client meeting

This is just the tip of the iceberg for keyword research. The proverbial “rabbit hole” can get very deep sometimes, so it’s important to make good decisions about which keywords to expand and which to keep at surface level.

I’m sure at this point, you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned Googles's keyword Frequency Tool. Researching search frequency can be very useful, especially in determining how far to expand a certain keyword seed. For example, I found almost immediately that [lanai] has very low search frequency. So I didn’t spend a lot of time on it.

Conversely, I found that [enclosing deck] is actually quite large, especially when viewed through Google Insights in the spring and summer months, localized to North Carolina.

Ultimately, I’ll put all of these keyword seeds into the Google Keyword Tool to find the most highly searched combinations of keywords and an overall estimate of the search frequency of one service (decks) over another (window replacement). This will help me guide the client on what content should be created for the website.

I prefer to do most of the research in the manner discussed above, and then use search frequency to refine, categorize and prioritize it. I have certain tools and formulas that I use to do that. Next time, I’ll give you these tools and explain how to refine what you’ve found and present it to your client.


Categorized in Online Research

For many SEOs, keyword research starts and ends with the Google AdWords Keyword Planner. But columnist Dan Bagby believes we need to go deeper for optimal results.

You may have recently read Rand Fishkin’s article, “Why Good Unique Content Needs to Die.” In it, he basically says that good, unique content is no longer enough; instead, marketers need to create content that is 10 times better than the top results in SERPs in order to really do well.

This got me thinking — not only do we need to create content that is 10 times better than our competition, but we need to step up our game in all aspects of SEO, starting with research.

Keyword research that starts and finishes with Google Keyword Planner, or whatever your tool of choice is, needs to end. If you want to see results, you must do more than simply putting in a few keywords and putting a bullseye on a few targets to go after. Instead, increase the likelihood of success with the keywords you ultimately decide to go after by digging deeper during keyword research.

A Step Beyond Keyword Research

Start keyword research by going to Google Keyword Planner to get some ideas, identifying ones that are relevant and have decent search volume. I suspect this is what most people do.

I remember when this would be the end for me. Sometimes, I would gauge competition by looking at the number of exact “intitle” matches, but nothing more. Today, I take it further to really improve the likelihood of success by answering the following questions.

What Is The User Intent And How Is Google Answering?

Check keyword intent by performing a search of each phrase to review what content is returned. Google has a preference for certain content types for each query and has a data-driven understanding of what content users are looking for based on the keywords.

I’ll give you an example using queries related to acoustic guitars that allows you to see the differences in content type and results. A product-related search like “Fender FA 100” results in product pages on e-commerce sites, most of the pages featuring product reviews and additional article and video reviews.

A broader search related to acoustic guitars produces “best beginner guitar” results in long-form articles with descriptions of recommended beginner guitars, as well as a few category pages. More informational queries, such as, “how to play bar chords” or “how to tune an acoustic guitar” receive answers in the form of Google Quick Answers, long-form articles by sites of many sizes, shorter articles from more authoritative sites, videos and forum conversations.

Also, take a moment to review the articles to see what other information is being provided, beyond what is being asked in the query. This can help you find other keywords to target and also make sure you are covering the necessities to rank.

How Did These Pages Get Links?

Now that you have an idea of what content is ranking, review how they gained links. Review the competitive metrics including Page Authority, Domain Authority, number of links and linking root domains to get a better idea of what it will take to rank (the Moz Chrome extension makes this easy).

Review links going to other pages to see patterns. With a quick look at some of the queries mentioned above, I noticed a few sites on the first page only had links created through comment spam.

Others had only a few links from guitar-related blogs or educational sites. It’s likely you will find publishers that have linked to more than one competitor. These are great targets for outreach. Review these sites you are considering reaching out to with your content ideas to start a relationship that can be helpful during content planning through publishing and promotion.

What Will You Create?

At this point, you have a strong grasp of the competitive outlook for the keywords you want to rank and what content types typically rank. Listen to Rand Fishkin, and think, what can I create that is 10 times better than anything I have just seen?

Just as good, unique content isn’t enough any more, quick keyword research isn’t going to cut it, either. Doing keyword research this way will take longer, but it is sure to improve your results.

Not only will it help with individual keywords and campaigns, but you also will start to notice patterns in SERPs that you would not have seen otherwise. You will also find the insights you need before you start creating content, instead of having to change course during or after some work has already been done.


Categorized in Online Research
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