Keyword Research (Part I): The many purposes of keyword research 

This is the first part of a series of entries about keyword research and, by extension, SEOs bad habits and terrible use of language, of which I am not an exception and have taken part as much as everyone in the industry. In our first entry, we’ll introduce what we think we mean when we say keyword research and mainly, why the hell do we do something that sounds so terribly wide and still just use the term ‘keyword research’ as it was referencing a monolithic truth. Just a heads up: ‘keyword research’ is multi-intent. 

It’s Monday and you just got to your desk. As every week, you start combing through upcoming tasks and pending tasks, trying to get things organised so you can keep unplanned work to a minimum. And that’s when you see it. A task fittingly named ‘keyword research’ with not much going on the description department. But surely, everyone should know what ‘keyword research’ is, so no need for a detailed brief, right? 

Wrong. Let me use a short story to illustrate. When a dear friend started working for one of the most successful websites globally, one of the first items on her/his deck was ‘keyword research’. This task or action had been right there for a while, everyone agreed fresh ‘keyword research’ was needed, but no one seemed to be truly clear about who was responsible or what sort of output should be produced. The solution: let’s request the same piece of work, same brief, to different people across the organisation and see what they come up with. The result: although most documents had some things in common – as in they included relevant keywords and some different data around it – the methodologies used, and the resulting outputs all varied wildly. Sometimes doing vastly different things for quite different purposes. And if the same task doesn’t have the same goal when performed by different people, perhaps we should clarify why we are doing something called ‘keyword research’ to begin with. 

Why do we research keywords? 

So why is it that we do something called ‘keyword research’? Wikipedia, rather surprisingly, has an entry on the subject, defining the process and purpose of keyword research as follows: 

“The objective of keyword research is to generate, with good precision and recall, a large number of terms that are highly relevant yet non-obvious to the given input keyword.” 

So, just grab your seed keywords and spam a few more that are ‘relevant’ with enough ‘precision’ and ‘recall’. Or better, as it tends to be common, just press a button and hope your tools fulfil the requirements. Sounds easy? Yes. It is realistic? No. But before we start slamming the beautiful communal project that Wikipedia is, let’s look at a few other definitions. 

OK. We know now that one of the many purposes might be expanding your keyword set with relevant data. And that’s fine and truthful. Inputting ‘keyword research purposes’ on our friend Google throws another set of definitions: 

  1. Just on the featured snippet, Google scrapes an answer defining keyword research purpose as to gain more insights from your audience and what topics resonate with them. 
  2. The second result is about finding keywords but also about understanding why they rank the way they do.
  3. The third result does not define a goal, just that keyword research has the goal of utilising keyword data obtained for a specific purpose. Yes, a specific one. It also says to prioritise low-hanging fruit, another proof that if Darwinian laws were applied to SEOs the industry would be packed with people with impossibly short limbs.  

The rest of the results all tend to go around the same things: we do keyword research to find what queries users are using, we use it to understand how these queries perform for our websites and how they can perform better, we use it to understand what users might be looking for when using those specific queries – usually referred to as ‘intent’ – and we use it to find new pieces of content to write and to optimise existing pieces. From most blog posts and articles on the subject, it looks like keyword research has at least 6 main purposes: 

  1. Knowing for which keywords or queries you are already performing. 
  2. Expanding those keywords with relevant topics and queries you should be targeting.
  3. Understanding what sort of information or action users want from those queries.
  4. Finding new pieces of content to write and optimising current ones.
  5. Better understanding user journeys. 
  6. Finding those ‘low-hanging fruit’ opportunities. 

From these first list of purposes, we can already ascertain why something as simple in principle as keyword research has so many definitions and names: ‘keyword gap analysis’, ‘keyword audit’, ‘content gap analysis’, ‘competitive gap analysis’, ‘keyword mapping’– and information architecture is thoroughly ignored in most definitions – and many other names depending on how creative your teammates or clients were feeling when writing that damned brief. As with any research, our main purpose is still to retrieve information and reach new conclusions on a specific subject. It is not so much about an overarching purpose but making sure we are answering the right questions. And, of course, asking the right ones. 

The importance of research questions 

Many years ago, I had a manager who was quite fond of sharing wisdom jewels like: “don’t bring me questions, bring me answers”. As much as the industry is not quite fond of university degrees – I suppose post-graduates are even worse -, there are a few things we can learn on how any graduate and – mainly- post-graduate students might start planning research. And yes, it starts with questions, not answers nor solutions. Starting any sort of research without having at least one key research question as goal is just another way of producing aimless, templated work providing us with a list of keywords, some ‘low-hanging fruit’ for the short-limbed people out there, and perhaps a lengthy list of keywords so copywriters can hate SEOs for the rest of their lives. So, we need some questions to start with, but which ones are the most common for effective, purposeful keyword research? 

A good research question or questions – yes, it is normal to have multiple questions and even sub-questions – needs to be original, concise, complex, arguable, feasible, focused and, of course, researchable. What this means is that any research needs to be unique and specific to a subject and goals and it needs to be concise enough to not allow any noise to diminish understanding. it needs to be both complex and arguable, not allowing to be answered by simple yes or noes, but complex answers than can be revisited and argued by future or alternative research. Lastly, it needs to be doable in the time frame and space allowed, agreed or contracted. Your keyword research will be as good as your research questions allow, so always make sure to get this right before you start grabbing data, as this will impact your methodology and results heavily. 

Using keyword research to answer the right questions 

However, the history of keyword research is long and most of the time the process has quite some similarities and allows for considerable methodological diversity. As we are not studying steam cells or neural paths, most keyword research done within the SEO industry will try to answer many similar research questions, sometimes implicitly and unknown to researchers. As we have already gone through several purposes, let’s try and collate the most common questions we might be trying to answer when we perform any kind of keyword research, divided in 5 areas of analysis: 

  1. Keyword discovery: 
    • For which queries is the website, section, page or component performing? 
    • Are there any relevant queries the website, section, page or component does not currently rank for? 
    • What are the usual questions and sub-questions users might be asking related to these keywords, groups or segments? 
  2. Semantic & Intent Analysis: 
    • Can these keywords be grouped or segmented in any way or manner? What is the proper taxonomy to follow?  
    • What is the ‘intent’ behind the queries, groups or segments? What sort of information or action are users trying to achieve? Are current URLs covering it effectively? 
  3. Competition Analysis 
    • Who are the true competitors for each keyword, group or segment? 
    • How are competitors performing for these keywords, groups or segments? Why? 
    • Are competitors ranking for anything we aren’t? Also tied to keyword discovery. 
  4. Performance Analysis 
    • Are any keywords, groups or segments showing performance variation? 
    • How have keywords, groups or segments performed historically? 
    • Are there any correlations between keyword, group or segment performance and other factors? Are these factors internal or external?
    • Are the proper URLs ranking for the proper keywords? 
    • What are the most valuable keywords, groups or segments from a traffic and commercial perspective? 
  5. Opportunity Analysis 
    • Are there any missed keywords, groups or segments compared with most relevant / closest competitors? 
    • What sort of SERPs are search engines showing to users for specific queries, groups or segments? 
    • What is the maximum ranking this domain could achieve considering all relevant information like SERP diversity and closest-competitors performance? 

That’s a lot of questions. Worse of all, we are likely missing a few. From this perspective, ‘keyword research’ looks more as a discipline or research area rather than a specific task marketers do to get some insights on users. As in, as with technical SEO specialty becoming increasingly common, maybe we should consider keyword research a specialism. Or perhaps what we need is a SOP that properly covers the frequent questions above while allowing enough flexibility to expand questions and supply non-streamlined, original answers to any relevant request. Because, yes, no research is definitive and more questions is always good, regardless of what middle-manager wisdom tells you.  

And that’s all for now. In this article, we have stablished how ‘keyword research’ might mean different things and it mainly has either very open purposes – they are not focused – and then to skip a basic outline of research questions altogether. We have tried to map the most common research questions relevant to SEO and keyword research and have unfortunately discovered we might be doing a little bit too much for something usually considered a single task.

Our conclusion and advice: stablish a proper Standard Operating Procedure. How do you do that? Keep your eyes peeled for the next entry on this series. 

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