We’ve already discussed the history of keywords, what black hat SEO is, and how Google’s search updates have made organic, high-quality content more important than ever for SEO content hubs.
This time, we’ll cover how you might go about identifying the “right” keywords for your content strategy—as well as paid advertising—so you can rest easy knowing your content initiatives are working hard to increase your online presence and brand visibility.
What are the “right” keywords?
Before we begin, it’s important to understand that while the keyword research and planning process is, on paper, all about objective decision making in the face of recent data, there’s also usually more than one way to achieve your goals.
So when we say, “the ‘right’ keywords,” we mean the ones that you ultimately decide are “right” for your business. Sometimes, more than one answer may be correct. But other times, depending on your budget and/or resources, there may be no good answer at all.
Before we get into any of the nitty-gritty, let’s talk about the tools you can use to do keyword research for your SEO content hub.
Popular keyword planning tools
As with all marketing solutions, you have many choices when it comes to the keyword research and planning tools. While ranking and reviewing these tools is beyond the scope of this article, we’ll briefly go over some of the most popular platforms.
The SEO research tool that started it all, SEMrush has been around since August 2008 and raised $40 million in venture funding. SEMrush is so popular that it went public on March 24th, 2021, under the SEMR ticker with a $1.9 billion valuation.
SEMrush stands out from the competition due to its breadth and depth of SEO and SEM insights. Most marketers will never use more than a fraction of the platform’s capabilities. It also has a generous free subscription, which includes 10 free searches per day, use of the Keyword Magic tool, the ability to track 10 keywords in the Position Tracking tool, and much more.
(For the purposes of this article, we will be using and taking screenshots from SEMrush.)
For the most part, Ahrefs can do whatever SEMrush can do. In some ways, it’s even more powerful and intuitive. The private, Singapore-based SEO and SEM research platform was founded in July 2010 and is the tool of choice for backlink analysis and multi-channel research. It aggregates data from 10 of the top search engines worldwide, including Google and Bing.
Unfortunately, the growing popularity of Ahrefs means that they no longer have a free subscription, just a 7-day free trial. Most features are now paid.
3. Google Keyword Planner / Trends
Of course, Google has released its own suite of tools that help marketers with SEO and SEM planning. Keyword Planner is a part of Google Ads and helps advertisers identify the best keywords for their paid campaigns, while Google Trends is a simple, intuitive organic keyword planning tool that lets users easily compare multiple keywords on one chart.
Both tools are free, and can be very helpful when used alongside more sophisticated tools like SEMrush and Ahrefs.
How to find the right keywords
Keyword research and planning for your SEO content hub can be as long or as short of a process as you want. There can be 20 different steps, or as few as four, depending on how you go about it.
Often times, we find that the more overly complicated a keyword strategy becomes, the less likely a company will actually follow through on it. Whether due to budgetary constraints or changing priorities, long-in-the-tooth strategies aren’t likely to be executed properly.
On the other hand, an easy-to-understand, easy-to-measure keyword strategy for your SEO content hub will not only make your life a lot easier, it will also make getting decision-makers on the same page a breeze.
That being said, nearly all keyword research and planning can be divided into four steps: Goal setting, competitive research, identifying keywords, and narrowing them down into a shortlist.
1. Goal Setting: Set realistic, achievable goals
Before doing research and conducting an experiment, every scientist formulates a thesis, given the variables they already know.
That’s why “What’s your budget?” should always be the first question you ask yourself before planning out a long and involved SEO content hub. At the end of the day, it’s always the most important variable.
If your budget is generous, you can afford to be ambitious. But if it’s tight? You’ll have to bootstrap your content campaign—and that means going for the keywords most likely to give you a return on investment.
Whether you want to create an SEO content hub for organic lead generation, an advertising funnel for paid lead generation, or a little bit of both, your budget will always be the deciding factor.
Goal setting case study
Let’s say you run a business-to-business (B2B) content marketing agency, like Tailored Ink. You sell your services, which range from one-off content requests to long-term, large-scale SEO content hubs for your clients.
What are your goals for this year? What about over the next five years? The answers to those questions shouldn’t be guesswork. By looking at what similar-sized agencies around the country are doing, you can get a good sense of how quickly (or slowly) they scaled from inception to date. Which brings us to our next point…
2. Competitive Research: Find out what the competition is doing
On the other side of the equation, it’s also good to know how far your dollars will take you, as well as whether you’re investing in the right keywords. The easiest way to do that? See what your closest competitors are up to.
“Closest” competitor is definitely the key word, here. While every content marketing agency might aspire to have the same brand recognition and authority that brands like HubSpot and Content Marketing Institute do, a smaller agency simply can’t afford to play that game.
According to HubSpot, small blogs should aim for 3–4x blog posts per week (or between 12–16x blog posts per month), while large blogs should shoot for 4–5x blog posts per week (or about 16–20x blog posts per month) to sustain and grow organic traffic.
Competitive research case study
Your hypothetical agency has only been in business for one year. Would looking at Contently’s organic content be a good use of your time? Let’s find out:
Results for “contently.com” in SEMrush’s Domain Overview search
A quick SEMrush search gives us a lot of stuff to review. Contently’s website has an authority score of 70, which is very good, and around 111,100 unique views from organic traffic over the previous month. Contently.com is also currently ranking for 57,250 keywords. Obviously, that’s not the kind of volume a new agency can even hope to compete with.
But there is some useful data here. if you look at the “Organic Traffic” chart in the screenshot above, you’ll see that there’s an “All time” view, which shows you all the data SEMrush has on a company since inception. Contently was founded in 2010, so this chart looks pretty accurate.
Those huge traffic spikes between 2016–2018 are mostly due to organic traffic, which is very impressive. They likely occurred after Contently invested in numerous SEO content hubs that targeted specific audiences. But for their first 5 years in business, even with significant venture capital behind them, Contently’s organic traffic grew at a modest, reasonable pace.
3. Identify the right keywords: What will give you the most bang for your buck?
Now that you’ve looked over your closest competitors, it’s time to identify the right keywords for your business goals. This is easily the most time-intensive step in the SEO content hub-planning process, and it takes the most practice to get right. That’s because the “right” keywords are changing all the time.
SEO and SEM strategies should not be static nor unchanging. After all, what people search for online changes all the time. What’s popular one day may be out of fashion the next. The same is true for both organic keyword search traffic as well as paid keyword competitiveness and pricing.
Unless you regularly review your chosen keywords, you run the risk of burning cash to produce content that has little to no ROI. That’s why it’s important to look at keyword metrics over time and not just in the present.
Identifying keywords case study
Let’s go back to our content marketing agency example. Naturally, one of the keywords you’re most interested in is “content writer,” so you do a quick search for it in SEMrush:
Results for “content writer” in SEMrush’s Keyword Overview search
The “Trend” box in the upper right hand corner displays a simple, easy-to-understand chart over the past 12 months. As you can see, the search volume for “content writer” has been mostly consistent during that timeframe, which makes it a good keyword for your SEO content hub.
Of course, “content writer” shouldn’t be the only keyword you’re interested in. The next step is to create a shortlist of keywords related to your services and/or business goals. You want to identify the keywords that have decent organic traffic, but aren’t too competitive for a new agency (in other words, the ones that your target audience will actually search for, and which you can actually rank for).
What does this mean in practice? If you’re a B2B service agency, you don’t need keywords with thousands of searches per month. Keywords with more than 100 unique searches per month could be viable. But if you’re a B2C company, volume is the name of the game.
Generated using SEMrush’s Keyword Manager
As you can see, some keywords have more traffic than others. “Website writer,” “website writing,” and “website copy” all look like good keywords to create content around, while “blog post writer” and “blog post writing” aren’t bad, either.
If you look at the “Trend” column, you’ll see that most of these keywords have fairly consistent search volumes, too. “Blog post agency” stands out as a volatile exception, but its search volume is too low for it to be added to our keyword shortlist.
At this point, you want to repeat this process, looking at the “Keyword Variations,” “Questions,” and “Related Keywords” SEMrush suggests for every keyword in your shortlist. This process can take as long as you want it to. We typically spend between 1 week to 1 month on the keyword research and planning phase, depending on the scope of the project.
Write the right keywords
As you can see, finding the right keywords is a process, but it’s by no means rocket science. It just takes some diligence to make sure your efforts have palpable results.
If you want some insight into building the right keywords, our team specializes in building smart keyword strategies for game-changing content hubs.