How to Do Keyword Research Step-by-Step [+Bonus Headline Writing Tips]

Picture this:

You’re out of town for a wedding.

You settle into your hotel room and open your suitcase to hang up your clothes.

As you pull out your jacket, you realize your shampoo leaked onto it. 😱

You need a drycleaner – STAT – and you definitely don’t want to pay the inflated rate for your hotel’s in-house service.

Of course, you swipe open your phone and type “Charlotte drycleaner” into the trusty Google search bar.

Awesome: There are at least three drycleaners within walking distance of your hotel. You pick one that opens early Saturday morning, and the rest of your trip goes off without a hitch!

Here’s the thing: Those drycleaner websites at the top of your search results? They didn’t show up there by chance. They appeared there from good keyword research and search engine optimization.

That type of visibility is everything in our increasingly digital world. If you don’t choose the right keywords or – gasp – don’t even have a website, your potential customers won’t ever know you exist.

However, understanding how to do keyword research requires real skill and knowledge.

I’ve noticed over the years that many marketers misunderstand how to do keyword research effectively. Sure, they might get the technical parts down, but they don’t grasp the creative side of it.

Effective keyword research requires the perfect blend of:

  • Understanding your audience’s needs, interests, and wants
  • Mapping your keyword goals
  • Figuring out the intent behind each keyword
  • Comprehending the subtle differences behind how each keyword research tool works

It’s true: keyword research is a skill. It takes knowledge, time, and dedication to build your keyword research abilities.

That’s why today I wanted to show you my go-to keyword strategy, proven to deliver results.

how to do keyword research

How to Do Keyword Research Step-by-Step: Table of Contents

What is Keyword Research?

How to Do Keyword Research: Basic Terms and Concepts

Why is Learning How to Do Keyword Research So Important?

How to Do Keyword Research Step-by-Step

How to Do Keyword Research with the Right Keyword Tools

BONUS: How to Do Keyword Research for Hot Topics and Craft Killer Headlines

What Is Keyword Research?

how to do keyword research quote

Open your Google search bar and click – but don’t type anything. Google will show you a list of the most recent queries you’ve made:

Google recent queries

Those are all considered keywords. Some are terms while others are questions. Some are long but others are only one-word.

We type keywords, phrases, and questions into Google’s search bar when we want to find something or need an answer.

Keyword research is the act of finding and analyzing keywords in a way that relates to your brand and audience. Comprehensive keyword research gives you a better idea of what your audience searches for and how to show up in their Google search results.

Keyword research is a vital part of every content marketing strategy because it guides your topics and content creation – it’s that important!

How to Do Keyword Research: Basic Terms and Concepts

To understand how to do keyword research, you first need to know the basic terms and concepts. It’s easier to explain them all at once in a glossary here than individually throughout the rest of the blog.

Seed Keywords

Seed keywords are the general words and phrases surrounding your main brand, product, or topic idea. They’re short and contain no modifiers.

Searcher Intent

Intent tells you why someone searched for a keyword. The keywords “buy fitted black hoodies” and “fitted black hoodie material” each imply completely different intents.

Search Volume

Search volume shows how many times a certain keyword was searched each month either in a specific country or worldwide.


The competition score shows how many advertisers are bidding to show up in the keyword results with paid ad slots.

Cost-Per-Click (CPC)

If you were to run a pay-per-click campaign for the keyword, CPC estimates how much you’ll pay per-click. Terms in high-value industries tend to cost MUCH more per click than say, sneakers. For example, some law firms might pay over $400 for a single click!

CPC cost per click


Keyword Difficulty

Each keyword research tool gives you its own unique keyword difficulty score. This number tells you straight up how hard it will be for you to rank for a specific keyword. The number can range from one to 100 and depends on several factors.

keyword difficulty or KD



When your posts and pages show up in Google search results, keyword research tools will show your position or rank. Everyone wants that #1 spot! You might also earn spots for Google snippets like this:

Google SERP snippets


Some keyword research tools will show you a snapshot of how the keyword trends in popularity over time. No surprise that searches relating to gardening tools spike May through August.

Google search trends


Broad Keywords

These are phrases of just one or two words like “car” or “blue car.” They’re super general, high-volume, and high competition.

Long-Tail Keywords

Long-tail keywords contain three words or more. They might not produce thousands of monthly searches, but they’re easier to rank for and tell you more about intent.

Search Engine Results Pages (SERP)

SERPs are pages a search engine displays in response to a user entering a query (i.e. keywords). These include a list of results — the web pages ranking for whatever query was entered + links to those pages.

SERP snippets like the explainer box, questions, and images aim to give users information on their query without having to click away from the SERP. Websites can rank for these snippets and have their content populate them.

Why Is Learning How to Do Keyword Research So Important?

Consistent keyword research is vital for understanding your audience and building content around their queries, questions, and problems so you can position yourself as an industry authority.

Google doesn’t rank content designed to please search engine bots. It wants to promote quality content that solves problems and answers questions with authority. With every algorithm update, Google implements new factors for improving the user experience and understanding natural human language.

Believe it or not, 90.63% of all pages have no – zilch, nada, nothing – organic traffic coming from Google. Yikes!

Learning how to do keyword research helps you find phrases, queries, and questions to structure your content around. Plugging the keywords in the right places isn’t enough, but it’s definitely one part of a bigger strategy.

Keep in mind that search volume, competition, and trends all change regularly. As you launch your brand, for instance, you can’t learn how to do keyword research once and continue using the same keywords for years. Instead, you should shoot for fresh keyword research every three months or less depending on your topics, seasons, and markets.

How to Do Keyword Research Step-by-Step

With all the numbers involved, it’s easy to think of keyword research as a methodical black-and-white process. It’s not! That means you need to start by getting your mind in the right place.

Keyword research requires an open mind and some creativity. You really need to put yourself in the shoes of the searcher and consider the data as needed.

1. How to Do Keyword Research by Getting into the Mind of Your Audience

Before ANYTHING, you must understand your audience. If you’re building a brand from scratch, you should have some audience personas mapped out.

Remember, you’ll be using these keywords to create interesting and useful content. It helps to understand your audience on a deep level by identifying things like:

  • Gender
  • Age
  • Location
  • Hobbies
  • Interests
  • Marital status
  • # of kids
  • Type of work
  • Education level
  • Favorite apps, websites, and publications
  • Long-term and short-term goals
  • Daily problems and concerns

Twitter, Reddit, and Pinterest are awesome places to see what your target audience is sharing and reading. No one wants to read or share the same advice they’ve seen 30 times. Thorough audience research helps you start your keyword research with some leverage.

2. How to Do Keyword Research by Setting Goals

You can’t figure out how to do keyword research effectively without setting your own goals. Setting goals directs your content strategy and helps you measure its effectiveness.

Keep in mind that most people who find your site through Google keywords aren’t ready to buy right away. That means you should set attainable goals beyond converting sales.

Each keyword’s intent can dictate your goals for the content. For example, a keyword like “buy tea in San Jose” is perfect for converting sales. But something like “how to make iced tea” would work better for building brand authority.

Some other keyword goals might include:

  • Increasing regular website traffic
  • Reducing website bounce rates
  • Building blog subscribers
  • Increasing YouTube subscribers
  • Lead magnet downloads

In my Content Strategy & Marketing Course, I recommend creating content around three main goal buckets:

3 bucket topic strategy

3. How to Do Keyword Research by Identifying Topic Clusters

Here’s where some of the artsy side of keyword research comes into play.

You can’t understand how to do keyword research effectively without looking past your own area of expertise.

Let’s say you’re running keyword research for a brand that sells chic dinnerware like plates, napkins, and place settings. You can only write so many blogs about plates, right? After “how to fix a broken plate” you’d be stumped.

Think outside your circle of expertise and brainstorm what your audience wants to read:

topic areas

I cover this in-depth in my Content Strategy & Marketing Course.

enroll in the Content Strategy and Marketing Course

Now go back to your audience research and personas. What other topics might they be interested in?

  • Dinner recipes
  • Urban farming
  • Rustic décor
  • Healthy snacks for kids
  • Zero-waste living

Now you have a TON of topic ideas!

4. How to Do Keyword Research by Listing Your Seed Keywords

Once you nail down some general topics of interest, you can start listing your seed keywords. No pressure – you’re just brainstorming here.

Let’s start with the general topic of urban farming. Some of our seed keywords to research might include:

  • Backyard gardening
  • Patio garden
  • Apartment balcony garden
  • Growing food
  • Urban farming tips
  • Urban farming collective
  • Urban farming *insert city name*
  • Growing herbs
  • Best vegetables to grow in winter

Now, some of these seed keywords might be total duds – but you need to start somewhere.

5. How to Do Keyword Research by Researching Your Seed Keywords

It’s time to plug our seeds into a keyword research tool and study their analytics!

I’ll explain how to use different keyword research tools below, but right now, let’s focus on SEMrush.

SEMrush tends to have the best keyword data of any tool. Plus, it’s loaded with other useful features and info.

Let’s run a search for “apartment garden” and click onto the questions tab for more specific results.

keyword research in SEMrush


Lots of great topic ideas! Let’s run another search for “balcony garden” this time.

keyword research 'balcony gardening'


More awesome keywords! Although the difficulty to rank on Google is high, we could still use these keywords for Pinterest – where our audience persona hangs out.

I recommend keeping tabs open for two different keyword research tools. Let’s head over to KWFinder and see how their data looks for these keywords:

keyword research on KWFinder


6. How to Do Keyword Research by Choosing the Right Keywords

With so many metrics, questions, and ideas, how can you choose the right keywords?

See, I told you it takes skill!

It’s tempting to shoot for those short, broad, high-volume keywords, but that’s not the best strategy.

“But why not? If I want lots of traffic, I should try to rank for high-volume keywords!”

That’s true. However, your content will be too general if you choose short keywords like “garden.” What about “garden”? Supplies, tips, plants?

Plus, shooting for broad high-volume keywords puts you up against established websites with huge marketing budgets.

Instead, I tell everyone to choose long-tail keywords. Long-tail keywords contain at least three words (usually several more) and they:

  • Are easier to rank for
  • Have lower competition
  • Are much more specific
  • Contain other broad keywords
  • Suggest higher purchase intent
keyword sweet spot

Someone searching for long-tail keywords is typically further along in the sales funnel. They’ve DONE their general research. They want super specific answers now.

And if you play your cards right, you can rank for those high-volume keywords after proving your value to Google with effective long-tail content.

For example, you might get a blog ranking for “how to start an apartment patio garden” and find out you’re ranking for “apartment patio garden” a few months later.

Long-tail keywords help you create the most relevant content possible. If you choose “patio garden” as a target keyword, how can you be sure your content will be relevant? You can’t.

Finally, make sure your keywords are relevant to your product or business. If you’re selling dinner plates, branching out into gardening, homemaking, or recipes is fine. But you wouldn’t want to start offering car repair instructions or tree trimming tips – they’re just not relevant to your brand’s products.

7. How to Do Keyword Research by Exporting the Best Keywords for Topic Planning

As you search for keywords in SEMrush or KWFinder, make sure to check those little boxes (in most keyword tools, they’re to the left of each keyword) and save them to your list by exporting the data.

You can always remove keywords that don’t look great at a second glance. That’s better than losing an awesome keyword into the internet vortex when a page refreshes.

save keywords during keyword research


You now have your best long-tail keywords tucked away safely in a spreadsheet.

8. How to Do Keyword Research by Analyzing Competitors

Your competition is no doubt already ranking on the first page of Google for hundreds – or even thousands – of keywords.

Investigating their content marketing is critical for differentiating yourself and adding nuance to the discussions. But investigating their keywords can help you find new topics to target and ideas you might have never considered.

World Market targets a similar customer base as our chic dinnerware company. Let’s take a deeper look at their blog keywords to see what we’ve missed.

In SEMrush, click on the Organic Research tool and plug in the domain URL to see what they’re ranking for.

World Market competitor analysis


Lots of awesome topic ideas there!

Mule drinks, engagement gifts, charcutier – all great keywords to research further.

9. How to Do Keyword Research by Looking for Keyword Gaps

This really comes in handy once you have an established Google presence.

With keyword gap analysis, you’re searching for missed keyword opportunities that similar websites have nailed.

Let’s see how West Elm and World Market compare.

keyword gap analysis - world market vs west elm


By clicking on “view details,” we can see all the keywords we might have overlooked and decide whether they’re worth pursuing.

keyword gap analysis details


The keyword gap tool isn’t limited to competitors. You can also compare popular blog sites for less salesy keyword ideas.

Let’s see how some trendy home décor blogs stack up.

keyword gap analysis

Wow! Look at all those awesome topic ideas that TOTALLY relate to our brand.

By now, you should have more than enough keywords to complete your first few months of an editorial calendar.

How to Do Keyword Research with the Right Keyword Tools

You can’t figure out how to do keyword research properly without the right tools. A fair warning: Not all keyword research tools are created equal. In fact, each tool tends to provide different stats for each keyword.

Don’t get intimidated! These keyword research tools might seem confusing at first, yes. But it’s easy to get the hang of them once you start clicking around and figure out how they work.

For a deeper dive on my top three tools, check out this in-depth blog comparing SEMrush, KWFinder, and Ahrefs.

How to Do Keyword Research with SEMrush Keyword Research Tools

SEMrush is much more than a keyword research tool: It’s a complete suite of content strategy tools.

This is one of the most reliable and trustworthy keyword tools. Some keyword tools aren’t the most accurate but SEMrush is as close to perfect as it gets.

For our purposes here, let’s say we’re developing a content marketing strategy for an e-commerce site that sells top-quality teas.

We’ll plug our seed keyword “tea” into the Keyword Magic Tool and check the results:

SEMrush keyword magic tool


Most of the results are pretty general, right? That’s no good.

To get a little more specific, we could look at the box on the left-hand side of the screen to sort by different topic categories. We might also click the Questions box in the top left to see what people are asking about tea.

By filtering for keywords that contain “green” and sorting by question, we get lots of great opportunities. Plus, the trends are pretty consistent all year:

keyword magic tool


For even more ideas, we could click on the Related tab to see what other topics people search for.

keyword magic tool related tab

As we come across hot keywords, we’ll check the box and export them to use for our content research.

export keywords from keyword magic tool

How to Do Keyword Research with KWFinder Keyword Explorer

KWFinder is a close runner-up to SEMrush in terms of capabilities and quality. You can buy services a la carte through KWFinder so you don’t have to pay for a full suite of tools if you only need to do keyword research.

Let’s plug “tea” into KWFinder and explore the results:


We’ve got lots of choices here but they’re not as long-tail and specific as we need.

KWFinder results

Let’s switch the results to autocomplete:

KWFinder results autocomplete


“Tea for nausea,” “tea for sleep,” or “tea for bloating” might be good places to explore deeper.

But let’s see what happens when we switch to questions.

KWFinder results questions

Wow! Look at all those awesome easy-to-rank long-tail keywords and perfect blog topics.

Now we just select our top keywords and export them to use in our content planning.

KWFinder export keywords

How to Do Keyword Research with Ahrefs Keyword Research Tools

Ahrefs is an all-in-one SEO tool. But for our purposes here, we’ll be sticking with the keyword explorer.

Ahrefs keywords explorer


Instantly, Ahrefs organizes our results by related keywords, questions, and even newly discovered keywords:

Ahrefs keyword results


Let’s investigate the questions tab.

Ahrefs keywords explorer questions


Look at all those awesome long-tail keywords! Plus, most of them look easy to rank for.

Ahrefs gives you some extra details other keyword research tools don’t provide: clicks and parent topic.

Clicks tells you how many clicks the keyword generates a month. Usually, each keyword will have more searches than clicks. If the ratio of clicks to searches is too low, however, it’s probably not worth targeting.

Take “how much caffeine in tea” for example.

Ahrefs keyword data

Only 902 clicks is a TINY amount for 5k searches. This probably means people are finding the answer to their question from a Google snippet so they have no reason to click a link.

Then we have the parent topic category. This is another awesome benefit to long-tail keywords: They usually contain multiple high-volume broad keywords. The parent topic category tells you which general/broad keywords you might also rank for if you target the long-tail question.

For example, you could also rank for “sun tea” if you target “how to make sun tea.”

Pssst… I teach you how to do keyword research with top tools in my Content Strategy & Marketing Course. Enroll to get practical instruction from yours truly.

Enroll in the Content Strategy and Marketing Course

Why Shouldn’t You Do Keyword Research with Google Keyword Planner?

I get questions about Google’s free Keyword Planner all the time from students in my Content Strategy & Marketing Course and readers of my book, So, You Think You Can Write?

I know it’s confusing because there’s a ton of conflicting information out there. On one hand, Brian Dean of Backlinko recommends it. On the other hand, myself and many others discourage using Google Keyword Planner.

There are two major reasons I don’t recommend Google’s free keyword research tool:

1. Google wants you to pay for PPC ads. They’re trying to sell a service through AdWords, so they have no incentive to help you build accurate keyword reports. You’ll notice the results from Google’s free tool tell you a keyword has a range of 1,000-10,000 searches a month – that’s a huge range! How can you build effective content around that?

2. Free tools usually aren’t accurate. Paid tools invest time, money, and resources into building a quality database. You just can’t get quality keyword data from free tools.

Just look at the results Google Keyword Planner gives us. It says “tea” is low competition (ha!) and even tells you to run a paid AdWords campaign if you want better data. 

Google keyword planner results for tea

Trust me, it’s worth the investment to depend on a paid tool alternative. If money’s an issue, start with KWFinder. Their basic plan starts at $49/month (or $29/month if you pay for a full year up-front). That’s half of what SEMrush charges.

BONUS: How to Do Keyword Research for Hot Topics and Craft Killer Headlines

This part is fun!

You’ve learned how to do keyword research and followed all the steps above. Now it’s time to use your keywords and develop them into incredible headlines.

Why is headline writing included in a blog on how to do keyword research? Because if you don’t write killer headlines, you might as well not even bother doing keyword research or trying to rank.

80% of people will read your headline but only 20% will read the actual content. This is your ONE shot to make it work.

how to do keyword research quote

I teach everyone on my team at Express Writers to use the eight headline formulas outlined in Robert Bly’s book, The Copywriter’s Handbook. Let’s use some keywords and a little help from BuzzSumo (an awesome topic research tool) to create eight awesome blog titles:

1. Direct: 7 Teas to Help You Sleep Better Tonight

2. Indirect: This Isn’t Your Grandma’s Iced Tea Recipe

3. News: Teenager Admitted to Hospital After Drinking Too Much Bubble Tea (Yes, this really happened.)

4. How-to: How to Make Sun Tea Step-by-Step

5. Question: What are the Best Teas for PMS?

6. Command: Make Your Own Boba Tea

7. Why: Why You Should Drink Green Tea Every Afternoon

8. Testimonial: How I Use Tea as a Nootropic

how to do keyword research quote

Join the Content Hacker’s Club

I explain all these points in-depth in my Content Marketing & Strategy Course. Enroll today if you want to learn how to do keyword research and build an effective content strategy from scratch.

These aren’t skills colleges teach in school but they’re vital for developing content that earns engagement, rankings, and shares.

Profitable Content Marketer Skills Cheat Sheet

About Julia McCoy

Julia McCoy is an entrepreneur, 6x author, and a leading strategist around creating exceptional content and brand presence that lasts online. At 19 years old, in 2011, she used her last $75 to build a 7-figure agency, Express Writers, which she grew to $5M and sold ten years later. In the 2020s, she's devoted to running The Content Hacker, where she teaches creative entrepreneurs the strategy, skills, and systems they need to build a self-sustaining business, so they are finally freed up to create lasting legacy and generational impact.