Step 1: Keyword Research

Step 1: Keyword Research

Keyword research is the process of figuring out what keywords you should, can, and cannot rank for. This process also gives you a method for ranking for those keywords.

If there was one single growth item that I would recommend, it is to do your keyword research before you ever write a single article. I made this mistake, I know tons of people who’ve made this mistake, and every time they realize the depth of the mistake, every one of them regrets it (including me). The total initial research time on this process is about a day, but the lost time from not doing it is weeks, months, or potentially more! So take the time on this one.

Project goal:

Find a list of keywords that your users are searching for and know how hard or easy it is to rank for each one.

Follow-up goal:

Create a list of articles that could be written that will rank you for those keywords.

Search Volume and Google

The first step to keyword research is learning what keywords people are searching for, aka search volume. You may think you’ve got that all figured out already, but even if you have some great ideas, you don’t know until you know. This is about variations in language as well as related topics of interest. If we just went for the keyword “scope of work” without doing our research, we wouldn’t have realized until stumbling upon it down the road that people are also searching for “statement of work”.

To find your search volume I recommend using Google’s keyword planner. If you’re already spending money on PPC ads this will be easily accessible. If not, you can still use the tool, but you’ll get a range instead of an exact number. A lot of other keyword tools provide search volume too, but Google is the most reliable. There’s going to be a bunch of other info that Google gives you beyond search volume, I recommend you set that aside for later since it mostly relates to PPC.

Negative keywords: Eliminating what you don’t want

In Google’s keyword planner, enter your best guesses of what people would search for and you’ll get about 1,500 suggestions. Some of those might be way off base. For example, I was looking for keyword ideas related to improving doctor reviews. Google suggested several dozen terms related to headphone reviews, which seemed completely unrelated. Then I realized the connection they made: Doctors => Dr. Dre => Beats by Dre => Headphone reviews. Once I realized what was going on it didn’t seem so silly. Afterall, he is probably one of the most popular doctors around.

Here’s where negative keywords come into play. As entertaining as Dr. Dre and his headphone reviews may be, they were cluttering up my keyword list. So I eliminated “Dre” and “headphones” by adding those as negative keywords on my search.

If you’re running PPC ads, negative keywords will need to be revisited in that arena separately where they are even more important. For SEO you could always pick those negative keywords out one by one (though you wouldn’t want to). But for PPC you pay for each click an off target search produces, so don’t forget your negative keywords on PPC!


Exactly whose search you care about will depend on your specific SaaS endeavor. Is it only people in the US? Is it only searches in the past six months? By now you know who you’re looking for and adding filters will give you a better picture of searches that actually matter to your cause.

Pruning your list

Don’t bother reading every suggestion just yet. Once you have a decent list from Google, export it and go through them one by one deleting any that are too far off base. Ask yourself, who would be searching for each term. In my keyword research targeting terms doctors or hospitals would be searching for I realized that hundreds of suggested keywords would actually be things patients would search for. “How to leave a Yelp review for a doctor” is pretty clearly a patient’s search, but some of them required a little more thought. In any case you don’t need all 1,000+ keywords that Google listed, so weed them out.

During this process and all of your future keyword research steps you will likely think of things to add to the list, which is a good thing. You might even want to go back to Google and get more suggestions, which is also a good thing. Even if your list is gigantic, don’t be afraid to add more. As you go through your suggestions you’ll get ideas and the terms you add yourself are often the most targeted and valuable.

Note: CRTL+F is your friend here and throughout your keyword research spreadsheet journey.

Keyword difficulty

Once you have your list looking nice and relevant, you can move on to the next step which is difficulty. This is the most important data point for your keywords because it tells you whether a term is worth pursuing or you’re wasting your time. Keyword difficulty reflects how much effort you’ll need to put into that keyword to rank for it. Difficulty is scored between 0 and 100 with low scores being less difficult. If a keyword has a lot of people or really powerful sites vying for it, the difficulty will be higher.

There are several systems that you can use to find your keyword difficulty. I recommend It’s easy to use and has a ton of data that is very reliable. You can run a few searches each day for free, or you can set up an account, which will be necessary in order to provide depth to your research (and is free for 30 days). That way you can run a list (or several) and just drop your data into your spreadsheet. Once you get your data in one sheet, match up your volume and difficulty using a “Vlookup” spreadsheet formula.

Assessing your most valuable keywords

Now that you have all the data together you’ll have to turn on your brain to assess what keywords are actually best for you. If you’re just getting started with SEO then you want to go after the lowest difficulty keywords first. Ideally, that means keywords with difficulty of less than 20. If that’s just not an option for you then you can choose keywords that are in the low 20s and just work your ass off to rank for them.

Pick out your favorite low difficulty keywords and highlight them so they don’t get lost in the mix.

PROTIP: Sort out your difficulty, volume, and other factors by using conditional formatting in your spreadsheet to color code specific ranges of values.

Keyword groups

Once you have picked over your keywords you probably still have a few hundred remaining. Now it’s time to sort them. How you group your keywords will depend on your business.

Take this example. You launched a SaaS that helps people register for local dance classes. Your keyword groups might be something like this:

  • Latin dances

  • Ballroom dances

  • Tap dance

  • Line dance

Or something like this:

  • Intro classes

  • Series classes

  • Kids classes

  • Private lessons

Or a mixture of the two, or something else entirely, like location based terms. It really depends on what’s on your list. Basically, if you have a bunch of keywords related to a topic, make a new tab for it and copy/paste those babies over.

Domain authority

For those of you who are new to the keyword game, we need to discuss domain authority since yours is probably low. Domain authority is the strength of your domain. Higher is better and you can generally expect your domain authority to increase over time if you’re putting a decent amount of effort into your keyword strategy.

Domain authority is basically brownie points that a site has earned with search engines, so their content is ranked higher than the same content would be on a site with low domain authority. You can check your domain authority on Moz or a number of other systems if you’re not sure where you stand.

As a general rule, it’s a waste of time to try and rank for any keywords with a difficulty above 20 if your domain authority is below 20. If you want to compete on keywords with a higher difficulty, you need to boost your domain authority up first.

Long-tail keywords: Your ticket to the top

Alright, I know you just dumped a ton of stuff into your spreadsheet and then deleted most of it. But we are going to need to add more, and no matter how confident you are in what you’ve got so far, don’t skip this part.

Long-tail keywords are more specific keyword phrases or complete thoughts. These are also often the kinds of requests that people ask verbally to Alexa, Google, and Siri (do people still talk to Siri?) They tend to have lower search volume, or may not even register on Google’s Keyword Planner. But don’t be deceived! Long-tail keywords account for 70% of all searches and they are far more targeted than short-tail keywords. On top of that, 15-20% of all searches have never been searched before, so new isn’t always bad.

Let’s stick with the dance class registration system from our previous example. You’re working on your SEO and Google’s Keyword Planner gives you tons of suggestions with high search volume like:

  • Dance classes

  • Dance lessons

  • Summer dance classes

  • Sign up for dance classes

  • Dance classes near me

These seem targeted, after all, the dance class thing is your thing. Then you go to Moz and find out that most of those have a fairly difficult rating. Bummer. Don’t worry, you didn’t want those any way.

You want long-tail keywords. That means specific phrases that people are searching when they really know what they want and they are ready to take action. We’re talking things like:

  • Where can I take a 6 week waltz class in Nashville?

  • How much is a beginner’s hip hop class for teens?

  • Where can my fiance and I take private dance lessons before our wedding?

These are the kind of things people are searching when they know what they want and they are looking for a specific solution. Those are the people who are ready to convert.

So how do you know what long-tail keywords to go for? First, go after phrases are the most specific to the thing that you do. Then see what the top rankers for that phrase are. That’s your SERP analysis.

SERP analysis

SERP stands for Search Engine Results Page. Your SERP analysis is an assessment of the current top ranking results for a specific keyword search. Moz gives you some data on this, but really this one is going to take a bit of manual investigation.

Let’s say you are trying to choose which of the long-tail keywords from the above example to try for. Start by plugging those into the Moz Keyword Explorer. That will show you the top ranking sites for the term and their domain authority. If the domain authority is high then search engines care less about their content.

Next, look at each of the top pages. Is the content, specific, lengthy, and well written? If the answer is not really then you might stand a chance. Often times I see pages ranking for keywords that aren’t even on the page. Google works in mysterious ways.

How you rate your SERP is up to you. I usually assign a score ranging from one to five.

What to do with that glorious spreadsheet

Once you have all of these steps complete you should have a clear picture of what keywords are best for your business with a handful that really stand out. Maybe some these are the ones you had in mind before you started this process, maybe not. Either way the keyword research was worth it.

There are two main ways to use your keywords, and you should use both.

First you can sprinkle them around your homepage and other pages on your main site. These will likely be some of those short-tail keywords. What’s that look like?

In my example, my tagline on my homepage might have been:

“The easy way to find and register for dance classes in one place”

Let’s imagine that from my keyword research I found that the keyword “Register for dance classes” had a difficulty of 52 which is just not going to work. But I also found that “sign up for dance classes online” had a difficulty of 33 (still hard but better than 52). So I change my tagline to:

“The easy way to find and sign up for dance classes online”

Easy right? Now do that for all of the content on your site.

The second way to use your keywords is on your blog, which is more involved. So you need to start with a plan.

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