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My Step-by-Step Guide to SEO Keyword Research (How I Do It)

Content Strategy, SEO Strategy

Times change. The world of 1998 (when we were crying over Titanic and bopping to Alanis Morissette) looked nothing like the world of today. But one thing hasn’t changed: the way we find things online with Google Search.

You’ve done it a million times. You type in a word or question, press enter, and wait as Google pulls up a list of pages it thinks you might be looking for. You click one, and you’re on your way.

As businesses, we must figure out how to get our content to appear in this information lineup, or else we’ll be left in the wilderness that is the World Wide Web. 

The way to do this is simple: divining what keywords your target customer is using, then understanding what they’re looking for when they type it in. In other words, SEO keyword research.

A brief history of SEO

Then and now, keyword research has been crucial in getting your content to rank. If we understand a keyword and write a piece of content around it, we can start ranking for that keyword. (At least, that’s the idea.)

But before we can get a piece of content to rank for a keyword, we must show Google which keyword it’s written for. That’s not always a straightforward process.

Back in the dark ages of the internet, you could notify Google of your intended keyword just by coding it into the HTML, no matter what the page actually contained. In a surprising twist that came as a surprise to absolutely no one, this feature was abused by so many people that Google finally discontinued it in 2009.

Since then, Google has engineered and reengineered its algorithms to more accurately assess the content of the page, in hopes that hack-happy SEOs could no longer force mediocre content into the top results. 

Today, Google uses a complex collection of algorithms and signals whirring and clicking together like cogs to figure out what your content is about. No one (besides Google employees) knows the full picture of how it works. And that’s the point. You can’t game an algorithm if you don’t know how it works.

Still, to this day, people try to find ways to “guarantee” a ranking (like mass creation with AI or including keywords in specific places), and Google has to reevaluate its algorithms yet again.

The best approach to SEO in 2024

Where does that leave us, the well-meaning businesses that simply want to give our content the best chance of getting seen?

In a pretty good place, actually. There are no new strategies or “weird tricks.” Instead, our best bet is to follow what Google has been recommending since the singer-songwriter days of 1998: write good content that helps people.

The act of writing good content is still complex, but the basic steps are clear: First, thoroughly understand a keyword and what its searchers are looking for. Then, write something that satisfies that search, answering all the questions and tying up all the loose ends.

What follows is my step-by-step process for keyword research. This will become a brief of sorts that you can use to write an SEO-optimized article.

My SEO keyword research process explained

Earlier this month, I wrote a post for a client using the keyword “how to engrave wood.” The client sells laser engravers among other high-tech crafting equipment, and as you might imagine, people wanting to engrave wood might be in the market for a laser engraver, too. I followed the same process for keyword research as I do for all SEO articles. Here’s how it goes.

I start with a simple SEO keyword research template (click that link to download mine and follow along).

First, I do the same Google search that my target reader would do. I use Ahref’s Chrome extension to imitate the search results in the target country, usually the U.S., as I live in Japan.

Then I screenshot different parts of the search results page (SERP for short):

  • The AI search results (officially known as Generative Search)
  • The featured snippet
  • People Also Ask questions (I open and close a few to display more options.)
  • YouTube results
  • Forum results

All of these give me clues for what questions to answer in the content, how I might structure the post to get included in AI results, or other features to include.

Next, I analyze the top 3 ranking articles, skipping any non-article pages that might be ranking, like YouTube videos or Pinterest pages.

I record:

  • The name of the website
  • A screenshot of the article title and description 
  • The URL

This helps me identify the other key players in my industry, brainstorm ways to write my title and description to stand out in these results, and how I should structure my URL. 

For each article, I open the link and use the free Chrome extension Detailed to quickly copy down these:

  • Word Count
  • Article Headings and Structure

This shows me how long of a post I might want to write (or at least how thorough I should be), and the article structure and content that’s performing well. In other words, this is the information searchers are looking for (or at least Google’s best guess).

After this, I scroll back up to the search bar and click “Overview” to open up the keyword in Ahrefs. (This is a paid tool.)

I screenshot the top info bar with important stats like keyword difficulty, search volume, and traffic potential.

I already know these numbers from my keyword selection phase, but I keep this as a record for myself and my client of the potential of the keyword at the time of writing.

Next, I click “Also ranks for” to find other keywords and topics to consider in my article.

I skim through the list and organize important-looking terms into a bullet-point list.

Finally, while all of this minutiae is fresh in my mind, I write a short blurb or bullet-point list of ideas for an article. I might list up all the main topics I need to cover, come up with a basic structure, or brainstorm a way to improve on what’s already out there. Or I might list more questions to explore during the research process.

When this work is done, I have a cheat sheet for writing an SEO-optimized article. But there are still other steps to my process (like choosing which keywords to use, prioritizing keywords by business value, deciding the article structure, and actually writing the post). I can expand on these in other posts.

Keyword research isn’t a guarantee to rank

Keyword research helps you uncover what to write about in your SEO-optimized article, much like a doctor’s consultation with a patient helps them determine what kind of treatment to apply.

But the content and helpfulness of the post isn’t the only thing Google considers. The search engine also looks at the number of articles you’ve published, how authoritative and trustworthy you seem to be, which topics you demonstrate authority in, and other related signals. 

To give you the most useful information, Search algorithms look at many factors and signals, including the words of your query, relevance and usability of pages, expertise of sources, and your location and settings. The weight applied to each factor varies depending on the nature of your query.

Google, How Search Works

For example, some articles I published for a client ranked with breakneck speed, because the articles expanded on a product category they’re known for. But our articles on newer product categories are taking longer to see the light.

Plus, some industries have published more content, making it harder for newbies to rank. That’s not to say you can’t be successful, but you’ll face a taller hurdle.

So no, it’s not all about the content. But without good content, the rest doesn’t matter; kind of like a coffee shop with great atmosphere and terrible coffee.

Final thoughts

Use my SEO keyword research process to help you write more strategic content with less effort. And unless Google someday changes the original, fundamental way it works, this’ll still help you get ranked in 2050 and beyond.

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