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Minimum Viable Keyword Research

John Doherty —  February 7, 2012
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Keyword research is often a large undertaking, but it doesn’t have to be. You can do keyword research quickly to find the right terms to target for a blog post or article quite quickly. Keyword research only becomes a large undertaking when you have a large site that has never had SEO done on it before, and even then there are tips and tricks that can be used to do keyword research in a scaleable way, or at least to prioritize sections of your site to conduct keyword research on first.

The goal of this post is to teach and provide you the tools and strategies you need to do minimum viable keyword research for a new article in a brief amount of time. This applies whether you are going for a new head term (like with the Linkbait Guide on Distilled) or for a longtail SEO strategy.

You’ll need access to each of the following tools to make this work (note: a couple of them require an SEOmoz membership). The tools you need are:

Let’s get started. We’re going to get a bit meta, as I’m going to show you exactly how I went about optimizing this post for keywords.

Google Adwords Tool

The Google Adwords Tool should be your first stop when searching for keywords. What I always do is take 4-6 keywords that seem to fit the topic and run them through the tool. Here is what I saw today:

Then I take a look and see what else is being suggested (sometimes this is helpful, sometimes it’s not. Often you have to weed through some unhelpful generic suggestions to find the gold). I saw this for Exact Match based off of the keywords submitted:

Important note: You would be wise to know about how strong your domain is and therefore how competitive of keywords you can target at this point. I know that my domain is fairly strong (DA 41), so I probably won’t be able to rank this post (yes, I am writing about the process of keyword research for this post as I write it. How meta.) for “keyword research”, but “seo keyword research” or “how to do keyword research” are both terms that I could target and possibly rank for without too much effort.

Pro tip: When trying to evaluate the value of a keyword, look at the following two metrics:

  • Competitiveness (mouse over it on the Adwords tool or use the SEOmoz Keyword Difficulty Tool in conjunction with the SERP Analysis)
  • Local Monthly Searches. If you rank #1, then multiply this by 18% and that is the amount of traffic you could be looking at. The percentages go down from there (numbers based off the Slingshot SEO ClickThrough Rate Study)

Ubersuggest

Once I have found some words that I could potentially target for a post, I’ll go over to Ubersuggest, which is a pretty awesome keyword expander tool (and my go-to now that the Google WonderWheel is gone). Let’s say I plug in “seo keyword research”:

Ubersuggest then provides a list of keywords starting from your provided words. For this post, I found the following that are relevant and could be useful, such as:

  • seo keyword research guide
  • seo keyword research process
  • seo keyword research tutorial
Pop back over to the Adwords Keyword Tool and see if they have search volume. The above examples unfortunately do not, so I won’t optimize for them, but sometimes you find gems.

SEOmoz Keyword Difficulty

The SEOmoz Keyword Difficulty Tool is the next step in the minimum viable keyword research equation. Put your keywords that you think you want to target into the tool and you will receive the difficulty as well as the Adwords data, like so:

The real strength of this tool comes in when you click the Full Analysis button as seen in the screenshot above. Then you’ll see a report like the following, which shows you the top 10 results in the Google search engine of your choice (most of us will probably choose Google US):

Looking at this search engine results page (SERP from here on out), I can see that I would be up against a number of competitive domains (SEOmoz, SEObook, Youtube, Clickz, Wordtracker), but then I look at numbers 3 and 6.

“Why are those ranking?” I ask myself. That is for a future post, but at this point all I care is that there are some less-competitive sites ranking for this keyword (seo keyword research), and thus I may have a chance at ranking for this term if I do a little bit of linkbuilding to the post. Brilliant!

Quick SERP Analysis with Google search and Mozbar

Another way to do the SERP Analysis is to do a quick depersonalized Google search with the Mozbar installed to your browser (if you’re doing any fairly frequent SEO or care about your blogging, you should install it). When I do a search for “seo keyword research” using the appended &pws=0 parameter (which I talk about in this post), I see the same results as with the Keyword Difficulty Tool, but within those results are the Moz Metrics that matter to me. Check it out:

Boom! This is also a great way to begin familiarizing yourself with your site’s competition online and to have an idea of how strong a domain or page needs to be to rank for competitive keywords.


This post became a bit meta as we walked through the process of optimising a post (this one) for keywords. One important note I would like to make, because you may all be asking yourselves “So why didn’t he take his own advice here?”, is that sometimes I think we need to de-optimise page titles in order to get maximum shareability.

Thought experiment: If I called this post “SEO Keyword Research Guide”, you’d probably think “Man, that sounds like 99% of the other SEO articles I see in my tweet stream each day”. You wouldn’t be as likely to share it, right? However, by calling this post “Minimum Viable Keyword Research”, I hooked you in.

Who’s to say that I can’t, or won’t, go back in just a few days and change the title to something like “Guide to Minimum Viable SEO Keyword Research”? I probably will, but you will be none the wiser. Well, maybe you will now that I’ve told you, but it is possible to have your cake (social sharing) and eat it too (organic search rankings).

I’d love your comments.

John Doherty

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I'm the Senior Marketing Manager of HotPads.com, based in San Francisco. Previous to Hotpads I worked at Distilled for 2 years as an online marketing consultant. In my spare time I shoot lifestyle photography, ski, rock climb, and update my Twitter and Google+ accounts.

27 responses to Minimum Viable Keyword Research

  1. Great Article! Totally in the midst of doing a total keyword overhaul and I just had to share this with my co-SEO’s on the floor. Your posts are always great, instructive, and informative! Thanks!

  2. Nice post John. It’s always great to see how efficiently some simple keyword research can be completed with a few tools like these and good analytical mind. I also like using http://www.mergewords.com as a tool for quickly gathering several variations of a keyword phrase I am looking at. Anyways, very informative and I especially like that you included the SERP analysis step with the Mozbar, always crucial!

  3. Really great post John – I’m going to use this to help educate some new folks on our team here. This also reminds me that sometime I should show you the HubSpot keyword research and tracking tool – You’ll find it very interesting :)

  4. Excellent post! One additional tip I’ve found is that for the AdWords tool, the more keywords you enter, the better the ideas they’ll offer you – the keywords you input need to be tightly segmented/very similar for this to work though. Generally I do a search with 4-6 keywords, then add in additional suggestions based on the “Keyword Ideas” and then re-run the search for better/more relevant suggestions…it’s a lot like how you’d setup SEM campaigns in AdWords with various Ad Groups being very tightly segmented, and then build out ad groups with more exact match terms once you see additional KW ideas come through…

    Toggling on/off the “Only show ideas closely related to my terms” can also be really helpful, especially when working with big brands going after some very competitive terms.

  5. John, great post. Nice look at trimming the fat and getting to the point. I wrote a post recently about a similar keyword approach for beginners, I think getting in the serps to see the results is crucial and an forgotten aspect of SEO. Not every answer is in a tool. sometimes you just have to look.

    • Derek -
      Totally agree, man. Sometimes we can get so into the code/technical details that we forget to stand back and go “Wait. This site sucks.” or “Wait. I’d be competing against X Y and Z hard site to beat”, not that those realizations sink you, but at least you know the reality of the situation.

  6. Might want to add in the cost/conversion to your metrics to determine whether that keyword or segment is really worth the effort.

    • Hey Deric –

      You raise a good point in that this is can be a crucial part of business KWR, but most people aren’t going to know how to do this, hence it’s not part of the “minimum viable” for the crowd I’m shooting to reach here.

  7. Another great post… Seems like everyone is becoming so tool-centric lately, it’s nice to see someone preaching “just look at the SERPs”… totally adding a link to this post to our training materials… thanks!

  8. You crushed this post and really liked your play on MVP (or “Minimum Viable”), which is getting thrown around everything. Enjoyed the succinct breakdown and I wasn’t aware of UberSuggest so that will be a great tool in the post-WonderWheel world.

  9. Love your “bare minimum” approach, John – that’s precisely why so many webmasters ignore keyword research; it seems to be too complicated.

  10. You pretty much just told everyone my method of doing keyword research, how dare you! Only thing I was doing different was using Scrapebox to generate related-keywords instead of Uber Suggest (mostly for the automation and scale of creating long tail keyword lists around core keywords.)

    Good post though, very digestible and applicable. I only just recently have been turned onto UberSuggest, may use it when doing smaller scale keyword research

    • Sorry about that man :-)

      Once again, this is meant to be the minimum. I go much much further in a full KWR piece, but this is a great place for people to start when just doing KWR for an article. In fact, this is the process I normally follow.

  11. Hi John,

    appreciate you sharing your precise methods on keyword research.

    Other ‘experts’ refer to this as “the keyword research rabbit hole”.

    Not really somewhere I want to go.

  12. Great post John!

    So, do you mean to say that you may change the title alone after a few days or the URL too? (by redirecting the current URL to the new one using a 301 redirect). Will changing the URL too be a good practice?

  13. Does your site have a contact page? I’m having a tough time locating it but, I’d like to send you an e-mail. I’ve got some recommendations for your blog you might be interested in hearing. Either way, great site and I look forward to seeing it grow over time.|

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