- → What is Keyword Research?
- → Keywords in Content Marketing
- → Traditional Keyword Research
- → Competitor-Based Keyword Research
- → Tracking Keyword Performance
- → Advanced Keyword Research Tactics
- → Glossary
Keyword research is an integral part of any digital marketing strategy, and its importance will never fade away.
This guide answers the following questions:
What is keyword research, and why is it just as vital as ever?
What do keyword research terms and metrics mean?
How do I find hot topics for content marketing?
How do I find the best keywords for organic SEO?
How do I find the most cost-effective keywords for a PPC campaign?
How do I track my website’s performance for specific keywords?
What are the advanced keyword research tactics?
What is Keyword Research?
Keywords are the terms that people enter into search engines to find information. Keyword research shows where organic search traffic comes from, but, contrary to popular belief, keywords are not just about SEO. In some form or another, keyword research instructs all digital marketing activities.
Proper keyword research will help you to:
Understand and reach your audience
Find new relevant topics to cover
Get qualified leads
Improve ad campaigns, get clicks and impressions
Build awareness of your brand
Why Keyword Research Should Be Done On a Regular Basis
- Keywords change — there are multiple ways to say the same thing; what is trending now matters.
- Your audience grows and evolves, and the way people use search engines changes.
- Search engines evolve too; algorithms get more advanced to better understand content and also match users’ intent.
- You need to keep upgrading your content for it to be relevant.
Keywords in Content Marketing
Some might say that content is just a tool of SEO, which is partly true—content marketing and SEO do go hand in hand and overlap a lot. The success of each one is in large part, determined by the quality of the other.
SEO is more technical, while content marketing is broader and more holistic. Keyword research for content marketing is less about obscure metrics and more about what interests your audience and what’s trending.
So, before learning the nuts and bolts of keyword research for SEO and PPC, let’s start with a more casual approach.
With the Topic Research tool, you can find hot topics, and generate content ideas and catchy headlines without digging deep into big data.
Topic Research is a simple yet effective tool for generating resonating topics, subtopics, and ideas to include in your content.
Just think of anything you might want to cover on your website and enter it in the search bar.
You can specify the location down to the city level to target your search for ideas.
For your convenience, you can switch the view from Cards to:
Explorer – if you prefer working with tables.
Overview – if you want a condensed version of the report.
Mindmap – if you like a more visual representation of your topic cards.
Whichever view you choose, you will be presented with the top:
Headlines – The most resonant titles prioritized by the number of backlinks the pages have.
Questions – The most common questions people are asking on the topic. Answering these in your content will bring more value to it, and give you a chance to appear in the Featured Snippet on SERP.
Related Searches – The terms that are frequently queried along with the analyzed topic in Google search. Use them to understand the user’s intent better and enrich your content accordingly. Click on one to regenerate the Topic Research for it.
Add Headlines and Questions to the list of Favorite Ideas, and use it to shape up your content plan and create the most engaging pieces.
Traditional Keyword Research
Do not buy into the hype that ‘traditional keyword research is dead’.
Traditional keyword research is merely an approach that focuses on your website and uses seed keywords to grow lists of search terms to cherry-pick from. It has nothing to do with writing for robots, keyword stuffing, and other obsolete SEO tactics.
Painting a traditional approach as outdated and superficial comes from a lack of knowledge and quality tools, or the desire to innovate for the sake of innovation.
The SEMrush toolkit offers you several ways to gather the best keywords; good basics never fail, and traditional keyword research is where you should start.
Tools for traditional keyword research:
Keyword Overview: Get a Quick Analysis
Keyword Overview is the easiest way to get a quick analysis of your keywords. A comprehensive summary of all major keyword metrics — volume, CPC, competition in paid search, top-ranking pages, ad copy, and more.
Launch the report, enter your keyword in the search field, and start analyzing.
Keyword Overview: Ad History Report
The Ad History report lets you identify advertising trends, and understand if the keyword was previously actively used in paid search.
See all of the domains that bid on the given keyword and had a PPC ad over the last 12 months.
The number in the cross-section shows the paid position that the ad occupied in the given month. Note that this position isn’t necessarily the location of the ad on the search results page. Even if you are the highest bidder, your ad can appear under the organic search results.
You can also see the amount of ad traffic, ad traffic price, and the total number of ads for that keyword.
Keyword Magic Tool: Build a Keyword Master List
Keyword Magic is a powerful tool for in-depth keyword analysis and for building terrific master lists. Explore your niche, and find semantically related long-tails broken down into topic-specific subgroups.
Start with a single seed keyword:
Hit Search and get to work:
Explore the suggested groups and subgroups of related topics to find niche long-tails and ideas for your PPC ad groups. Sort groups by volume or by the number of keywords; exclude groups that you don’t need with an eye icon. Bear in mind that all advanced filters you have applied will also apply to the list of topics.
Pay attention to the Match Modifiers, allowing you to broaden or narrow down the keyword selection to your liking.
Make use of the Questions Filter; this neat feature will sort out question-based keywords. These keywords drive tons of quality traffic and often trigger featured snippets, which can serve as a shortcut to the top of SERP.
Use flexible Advanced filters to further specify the scope of your key phrases with the range of word counts, search volume, keyword difficulty, CPC, competitive density, and the number of results in SERP. Include or exclude keywords with broad or exact matches, and pick SERP features to show the words that trigger them (some words can trigger multiple features).
Keyword Difficulty: Find a Competitive Edge
We hate to spoil your dreams, but you will probably not be able to rank highly for every keyword in your master list right away. You need to choose wisely where to put your efforts first.
The Keyword Difficulty tool will estimate how hard it will be to outrank your competitors for a specific keyword. With this knowledge, you will know which keywords you can realistically target in organic search and which you shouldn’t waste your SEO resources on, and maybe turn to PPC instead.
The Keyword Difficulty tool will also estimate how hard it would be for a new webpage to outrank the pages that are currently ranking on the first two pages of Google. The difficulty index is a percentage (1-100%). The higher it is, the harder it would be to outrank your competitors in organic search results.
Besides difficulty, this report shows the monthly volume of a keyword, the number of URLs in organic results, and SERP features. You can also see the SERP’s snapshot and the trends of a keyword’s popularity over the previous 12 months.
Finding keywords with low competition levels takes patience, but it pays off as you will not waste time and energy striving for unrealistic ranking goals.
Competitor-Based Keyword Research
Competitor-based keyword research is a counterpart of the traditional approach; it uses websites that have already made it to the SERP as a jumping-off point. Instead of seed keywords, you gather seed websites to start the research.
Of course, you don’t have to choose a single approach to keyword research, combine techniques, and use everything at your disposal to get the best results!
The keyword research tools in SEMrush offer several ways to gather insights on your competitors’ keywords.
Tools for competitor-based keyword research:
Organic Research: Discover Your Organic Competitors
With Organic Research, you can find your organic search competitors, see the keywords they rank for, and examine recent ups and downs of their pages in search results.
Even if you know who you are up against, it would still be a good idea to check it with our tool. You might be missing some players; there are always new contestants on the horizon.
Go to Organic Research, enter your domain in the search bar, select the Competitors tab, and scroll down to the table:
Now you have a list of your competitors; these will serve as your seed domains. The list is sorted by the Competition Level — this metric shows how close of a competitor the website is to the one you have entered; it is based on the total number of keywords the competitor is ranked for and the percentage of keywords they share with the given website.
Sort the list of domains by the Competition Level or by the number of Common Keywords. Click the arrow icon to open the website in a new tab, or click the domain name to reassemble the report for it.
How to Get Your Competitors’ Keywords
Next stop is the Positions report of the Organic Research for your seed domain.
Here you can get all of the keywords that a given domain is ranked for in the top 100 search results. Each keyword a domain ranks for is accompanied by the URL of the corresponding landing page and some metrics to guide your research process.
The list you will get will probably be too long, so you can add some filtering options by clicking on the Advanced Filters button.
For example, we can find keywords from the first search results page, [Include - Pos. - Less than - 11]
with low Keyword Difficulty, [Include KD - Less than - 60]
Try other filtering options in different combinations to get the most relevant data.
There is an easy way to find potential quick wins — you need to keep an eye on your competitors’ ranking changes.
Go to the Position Changes tab, and take a look at the lists of Lost and Declined keywords.
Declined – The domain’s positions for these keywords dropped, but it still ranks in the top 100.
Lost – The domain is no longer ranking in the top 100 for these keywords.
Try adding different filtering options, and with some luck, you may find keywords to capitalize on.
Advertising Research: Pinpoint Your Rivals in Paid Search
Finding paid competition for any domain is a piece of cake with Advertising Research. Your workflow here will be similar to the Organic Research.
Start the report, type in your domain, and switch to the Competitors tab.
At the top of the report, you can see a Competitive Positioning Map. This visualization is based on the domain’s Paid Search Traffic and the Number of Paid Keywords, so it gives a nice overview of a paid search competition landscape.
Below you will see a table listing Paid Competitors of the analyzed domain.
The table is by default sorted by the Competition Level in the same manner as in Organic Research, except it uses paid keywords for the calculation.
Here you can easily pick up your seed domains from your top competitors.
Click the arrow icon to open the website in a new tab, or click the domain name to reassemble the report for it.
Analyze Your Competitors’ Paid Keywords
To collect and analyze the keywords your competitors are bidding on, go to the Positions report of Advertising Research.
To make the most out of this report, use Advanced filters (e.g., Include Volume Greater than 1000, and Exclude Keywords with your competitor’s brand name.)
Try different filter combinations to narrow down the list, and find low-cost and low-competition keywords for your PPC campaign.
Keyword Gap: Compare Keyword Portfolios
The Keyword Gap tool allows you to compare domains’ keyword profiles side by side. It is a great and simple way to see where you are outperformed and to find opportunities.
Let’s find the keywords that your competitor ranks for, and you don’t.
Enter your domain first, your rival’s domains in the other 4 fields.
Choose the types of keywords you want to analyze (organic, paid, or PLA keywords).
You can explore keywords on different levels (root domain, exact URL, subdomain, subfolder).
Once everything you're all set, click Compare, and the tool will generate a report with all Shared, Missing, Weak, Strong, and Unique keywords.
Scroll down to see the full table of the keywords you and your competitors use. Choose one of your competitors and click Unique. You can select and add the keywords you are missing from here, add them directly to the Keyword Manager tool, and continue working with them.
Try using different intersection types and advanced filter combinations to find opportunities. For example, you can use the Shared intersection type to find the same keywords you and your competitors rank for and find out who is ranking higher.
Apply filters to show keywords that your competitor is ranking for on Google's top 10.
You can also compare different keyword types, for example, you can find keywords that you have high rankings for, and your competitors advertise for.
Tracking Keyword Performance
You have found the best keywords, sprinkled your website with them, bid on the most cost-effective ones, and now you wait and see. While you are at it, you can use our spyglass tracking system to assess your performance in organic and paid search and compare it to the competition.
Position Tracking tool.To monitor the daily rankings for any keyword, set up the
Simply enter the URL of the site you want to see keyword rankings for, select the device and location, and add your keywords.
You can simultaneously target multiple device types and geographic locations, down to ZIP code level, find SERP features opportunities and your local competitors.
Advanced Keyword Research Tactics
SEMrush provides various solutions to go along with your keyword research workflow. Let’s look at some advanced techniques for keywords and SERP analysis.
Organic Traffic Insights
Organic Traffic Insights will help you analyze your website’s organic search performance by combining your Google Analytics, Google Search Console, and SEMrush data within a single dashboard. This integration of three data sources ensures that you are getting the most accurate and complete keyword data (including the ‘non-provided’ keywords from Google Analytics).
CPC Map is a nifty tool with an interactive map that shows the costs of advertising across different regions or states. Gain insights into CPC and search demand for your services on a local level.
PPC Keyword Tool
Use the PPC Keyword Tool to find the best potential keywords to target with your ads. You will be able to determine which keywords are worth your investment, plan out ad groups, and automatically generate cross-group negative keywords for your campaign plan. Another important feature of the PPC Keyword tool is its ability to provide keyword CPC and search volume on a local level for a specific city or region.
Our Sensor can measure volatility in search results for your keywords to help you catch up and react to any sudden fluctuations. Whether it is a result of Google’s algorithm or something happening in your industry, you will know first.
The Post Tracking report lets you monitor the performance of your content on external sources. Guest posting is a great way to build links and promote your brand, but measuring the success of your efforts can be hard without the right tool.
Before you get into actual keyword research, you may need to determine exactly which pages of the website you should be working on. Will you need to create some new ones or simply optimize what you already have? Answer these questions in detail with SEMrush Traffic Analytics.
Reveal your competitors’ overall traffic volume and their main traffic sources. Some of your competitors may turn out to perform worse in organic search than in all the other channels. Take them as anti-models and study their keywords only to know what mistakes to avoid.
Reveal your strongest competitors’ top landing pages. Note the types of pages that you should add to your own website and those that you already have and can enhance.
Figure out which channels drew traffic to your competitors’ top landing pages. Depending on the distribution, decide if this is advertising copy or SEO content that needs your keyword research first.
Keyword research terms you need to know
Keyword (search term, query) – A word or phrase used in an online search.
Ad keyword – The query that triggers paid results.
Search volume – A fundamental keyword metric, it shows the number of searches for a particular keyword in a given timeframe (usually per month). Bear in mind that keyword popularity can be affected by seasonality (e.g., ‘black friday deals’).
Keyword difficulty (level of competition) – An estimation of how hard it would be to rank high for a keyword in organic search or how pricey it would be to appear in ads. You need to analyze the difficulty level to choose your battles wisely.
Keyword type – An important attribute that can be assessed with the naked eye—its length.
Short keywords – Also known as shortheads or short-tail, keywords consisting of one or two words tend to have high volume, high competition, but for the most part, they are often generic and target too broad audiences, which means low-quality leads and low conversion rates.
Long keywords – So-called long-tail keywords that have 4+ words are much more specific; they have lower volume but are used by a more engaged audience, therefore bring higher quality leads. Most search traffic comes from longtails.
(e.g., ‘why are cats scared of cucumbers’)
Search intent – There is a specific intention behind every search query, and competent keyword research should not only answer what people are looking for but also why they do it. Of course, the intent behind a keyword is not always crystal clear, but usually, it falls into one of four distinct categories:
Informational – Searches for the specific information, whether it is a simple answer to a question or detailed coverage of a topic.
(e.g., ’how to cook eggs for cats’)
Navigational – These searches aim to locate a specific webpage or site; usually includes the name of a brand, product, or service.
Commercial – This type of query is conducted by people who consider a purchase and want to investigate their options.
(e.g., ‘best cat toys’)
Transactional – Searcher is looking to purchase something.
(e.g., ‘buy cat toys’)
Understanding the search intent will help you to serve the right pages to the right audiences. For example, a person with a transactional intent would not be bothered with informational pages, and, conversely, someone who is looking for information could be scared off by a sales page.
Web traffic – Simply put, this is the flow of visitors coming to your website. The quality and quantity of traffic define the success of a website or a page. There are different ways people can get to the pages of your website, but we will focus on the two main traffic sources that require keyword research:
- Organic search traffic – Visitors who came from an unpaid search engine result; this kind of traffic is crucial for the long-term success of a website.
- Paid traffic – Visitors who came from paid sources (advertising).
SEO (Search Engine Optimization) – The process of growing a website’s traffic income via the organic search engine results.
PPC (Pay per Click) – An internet advertising model used to bring traffic to the website through the means of paid ads (Google Ads). Choosing the right keywords is essential for the success of a PPC campaign. There are three forms of payment:
- CPC (Cost per click) – Advertisers only pay when the ad is clicked.
- CPM (Cost per impressions) – Advertisers pay for the number of times an ad is shown.
- CPA (Cost per acquisition) – Advertisers pay when users have fulfilled the determined objective.
CTR (Click-Through-Rate) – The percentage of people who clicked on an ad or a link in search results out of all those who saw it.
SERP (Search Engine Results Page) – The list of web pages provided by a search engine for a query.
SERP feature – An added layer of information or context on top of a regular search engine result. There is a great variety of SERP features, triggered by all kinds of keywords.
Featured Snippet – The most prominent SERP feature that appears on top of search results and provides the most relevant answer to a query.
Local Pack – SERP feature that appears for queries with local intent or includes a geographical name (e.g. ‘pizza near me,’ ‘best pizza in Philly’).