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How to Do Keyword Research

22 September 2008

This article explains how to do keyword research, introducing a keyword research methodology every web entrepreneur can use.

The methodology I describe is unique; you won’t find this approach described in all the ebooks and articles on keyword research you’ll find on the web. My approach doesn’t require expensive membership subscriptions; it combines free data from a social bookmarking site, a web traffic measurement service, and Google user data to create a comprehensive inventory of your keyword universe.

How Effective Is It?

I developed this approach when I worked as a consultant and Internet marketing mentor for my friends Joe “Mr. Fire” Vitale and Jerry and Esther Hicks. Joe Vitale is now well-known as an “Internet marketing guru” and Jerry and Esther Hicks have become NY Times best-selling authors. Keyword research has been a foundation for the success of all my consulting clients. Over time I’ve refined the approach and I describe it in detail for the first time here. If it’s helpful to you, leave a comment and I’ll share other techniques in future articles.

Keyword Research

Why Keyword Research?

If you are thinking about the launch of your own web startup, you’ve likely got a brainful of Web 2.0 marketing strategies in mind. These days you may be thinking about techniques for social bookmarking, encouraging friending, and various forms of viral marketing. Marketing techniques from the Web 1.0 world, such as email newsletters, pay-per-click ads, and search engine optimization may seem dull or irrelevant. But don’t rush into the future too fast. Fundamental principles from earlier days still matter. And truth is, most founders don’t give marketing sufficient attention.

Truly, how well have you researched the market sector you intend to reach? Skip any self-serving estimates of “reaching 1% of all people who book travel online” (or whatever) and spend time getting inside the minds of your potential users. Key to this is the fundamental technique of all Internet marketing: keyword research.

After completing your keyword research, you can run live tests using Google AdWords to gauge the potential market for your service (there’s more about this in the section at the end of this article, “What To Do With Your Keyword Research”).

In this article, I’ll introduce you to a keyword research methodology every web entrepreneur should use before he or she writes a business plan. Don’t leave this task for the marketing manager you plan to hire in the future. Do the research now and refine your plan accordingly.

After doing keyword research, you’ll be better prepared to direct a marketing manager or outside marketing consultant you hire in the future. More importantly, with a better understanding of the market, you’ll be able to refine your ambitions to more closely match the needs of web users.

Keyword Research First Step: What Sites Are Similar?

Where do you start? Google? This may surprise you, but I find that Google is not a good tool for searching for web sites. It’s great for finding content on web pages, but it doesn’t show a list of sites ranked by traffic, which is what I want to see when I’m looking for competitors. Instead of Google, I use TagURLs.com to search for sites by market niche. TagURLs.com is a little-known site that mashes up data from del.icio.us, the popular social bookmarking site, and Quantcast, a service that measures web traffic. Visiting TagURLs.com will help you find sites that have been tagged as similar, ranked by traffic.

You start with TagURLs.com by entering a word that describes your market niche. For example, enter the keyword “travel.” The site will display a list of all sites that have been tagged as “travel” by users of del.icio.us. Voila! An instant report of every site in your niche.

Even better, you can enter the domain name of any web site and see a list of every site that shares the same tags. So if you’ve identified a prominent site in your niche, you can see a list of all the other sites that people think are similar, ranked by traffic. TagURLs.com is a powerful market research tool.

I like to supplement TagURLs.com with information from SpyFu.com, which uses data from Google AdWords advertisers to show sites that share keywords. SpyFu.com charges a membership fee though you can get a wealth of information for free (TagURLs.com is a better place to start because it’s entirely free). Unlike TagURLs.com, which is based on tagging by del.icio.us users, the data from SpyFu.com is based on keywords that are selected by sites purchasing AdWords keyword advertising. This means you are getting a perspective on your market segment from possible competitors (hence the name SpyFu). If you dig through the busy interface, SpyFu.com offers a wealth of interesting detail (though you won’t find the traffic ranking data that is prominently featured at TagURLs.com).

After using TagURLs.com and SpyFu.com, you’ll have a comprehensive list of all the sites in your market sector.

Keyword Research Second Step: What’s Your Keyword Universe?

You likely already have a list of keywords in mind for your site. Unless you’re God incarnate, your keyword list is incomplete. There is no way you can be sure that the keywords you’d use to find your site are the ones that everyone else is likely to use. That’s where research is required. Not only will you find popular keyword phrases that you haven’t anticipated, the entire “long tail” of obscure and unanticipated keyword phrases may add up to more traffic than the most popular keyword phrases you’ve already identified. Your goal should be to identify the entire keyword universe, not just your corner of the known universe.

For example, for a project where I wanted to reach developers who use the Rails web development platform, I was sure that “Rails examples” would be the most relevant and most popular keyword phrase. As I did my keyword research, I was surprised to find that the phrase “Rails samples” was used just as frequently. If I hadn’t done the research, I would have missed reaching half the potential market!

Google AdWords is your vehicle for this journey of discovery. AdWords is the service that displays text ads alongside Google search results. Google AdWords offers a Keyword Tool (fondly known as the Google KWT) for its advertisers and anyone else who wants to use it. There are other keyword tools (such as Keyword Discovery, Wordtracker, Wordpot, and Wordze) but it’s only the AdWords Keyword Tool that gives you access to Google’s own search data.

It’s easy to use the Keyword Tool . To start, you can enter one or two of the keyword phrases you’ve already identified. There is a more powerful approach, however. The Keyword Tool gives you a button for “Website content” and suggests that you “Enter a webpage URL to find keywords related to the content on the page.” It also gives you a checkbox to “Include other pages on my site linked from this URL.” Now, just think about this. Using TagURLs.com, you’ve obtained a list of every web site in your market niche. Though Google doesn’t explain this, you can enter the URL for anyone’s site in AdWords Keyword Tool, not just your own. That means you can take your list from TagURLs.com, force the AdWords Keyword Tool to visit every page of every site in your market niche, and generate a complete list of the entire keyword universe for that niche. Whew! You are godlike.

One more tip: If there’s a Wikipedia entry that is related to your site, point the AdWords Keyword Tool at the Wikipedia page. Most Wikipedia entries are dense with relevant keywords.

Keyword Popularity

The AdWords Keyword Tool gives you more than a list of all keywords found on the web sites in your market niche (other keyword research tools can do that). The AdWords Keyword Tool shows how frequently each keyword phrase is used by people using Google; or “approximate Search Volume,” as it is labelled in the Keyword Tool results. Knowing “keyword popularity” is a superpower. You’ve got an ability to look deep into mass consciousness and see what millions of people are thinking.

The Keyword Tool also displays “Advertiser Competition” as a green bar which may be empty, or partially complete, or all green. The experts at pay-per-click marketing use this information to determine which keyword markets are saturated with competition and which keyword phrases are popular but overlooked by advertisers (thus offering opportunities for generating traffic at low cost). You can combine the “keyword popularity” rankings with the Advertiser Competition “green bar” to get ideas for undeveloped markets.

Organize Your Keywords

Unless your market niche is narrow, you may find that your keyword universe is huge. You’ll want to organize your keywords by “keyword cluster.” Looking at a list of keywords, you’ll see groups of keywords that are related; these are your “clusters.”

There are many ways that keywords may be similar and clusters can be differentiated. One powerful approach is organization by “persona.” Persona is an analytical concept often used in interaction design (IxD) or user-centered design. We imagine different user types based on similar behavior, values, desires, and limitations of the user; these are “personas.” By clustering keywords based on personas, we begin the process of identifying market segmentation and we take crucial steps toward designing our product or web application.

I recently helped a client who is launching a web startup to serve people who are recovering from alcohol addiction. His keyword universe is huge. As he looked at a very long list of keywords, he saw an opportunity to cluster keywords by persona. Some keyword phrases were entered by people who were in the early stages of identifying a problem with alcohol abuse (”how to stop drinking”, “how to quit drinking”). Other search phrases were entered by relatives or partners of an alcoholic (”dealing with alcoholic”, “alcoholic husband”). Other phrases were entered by people who had begun a recovery program or people in the helping professions looking for resources for clients. By segregating keywords by persona and comparing keyword popularity, my client was able to determine market opportunities and refine his business plan and application design.

I suggest that you copy the keyword suggestions from the AdWords Keyword Tool and paste them into a text document or spreadsheet. Then copy and paste the keyword phrases to organize them by clusters.

What To Do With Your Keyword Research

Depending on your market niche, you may discover a dozen to a hundred keyword phrases that real people are using every day to find sites like yours.

The first use of the research should be to brainstorm. Have you learned anything new about your potential market? Have you discovered new market opportunities you hadn’t anticipated? Are there changes you might make to your business plan, now that you’ve seen what actual users are searching for?

Now that you’ve defined your keyword universe, turn around and start searching on Google with the phrases you’ve discovered. What content is out there? Are there business development or marketing opportunities? Are there forums, blogs, publications, or meetups where you can connect with potential users?

The most powerful use of your keyword research can be to gauge the market potential for your business, using a temporary web site and Google AdWords to test your concept and offer. Eric Ries, a Venture Advisor at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and a former startup CTO, describes this technique in detail in his blog article “Using AdWords to Assess Demand for Your New Online Service, Step-by-Step.” Don’t miss the opportunity to get real-world market data before you begin development!

Your keyword research can have other practical uses. You may want to register domain names based on the keyword phrases you’ve found. You may already have a cute Web 2.0 domain name composed of pleasant nonsense syllables (you don’t?) but you might want to register other domains and forward traffic or redeploy services, especially if you can tailor your content or services to match what people are searching for.

And lastly, use your “Web 1.0″ keyword research to plan your Web 2.0 marketing strategy. Search del.icio.us and other social bookmarking sites using the tags you’ve discovered. Search Twitter to find people who are using your keyword phrases. Try the same on other social networking sites that use tags to identify people’s interest. Keyword research will yield a richer and more effective marketing effort when you launch.

Let me know how it works for you by leaving a comment below.


  • MicroISV Digest – 01/13/2010 said:

    [...] Daniel Kehoe has authored, Learn How to Conduct Competitive Research for Your Startup [...]

  • Cynth said:

    This is really helpful. It’s concise and easy to understand. If you’re thinking about writing more articles on web marketing strategies, you should do it. Even though the web tries to cover these topics ad nauseum, it’s hard to find content that’s brief, concise and ready to use. Thank you

  • Daniel Kehoe (author) said:

    Thanks so much for the kind words! I’m working on my own startup now so it’s difficult to find time but your comments are encouraging me to think about taking more time for writing.

  • Terje said:

    Thanks a lot for a great article! This was an eye-opener. I’m from Oslo, Norway, and will launch a website for learning math (algebra and equations) in a few months. Your article gave me much value.

  • Christian Green said:

    Great article. I have prevouisly spent month developing a web app and a mobile app that I couldnt get any traction on. This a great way to test out all the ideas I have (and I do have several of them) before I start developing.

  • Ian said:

    Thanks for the tip on Spyfu, just signed up for a demo.

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