Where to Kickoff Your Keyword Research


Keyword research is a pain in the butt, but someone’s gotta do it! And, let’s be honest, if you’re a search engine marketer there really isn’t anything more important than keywords. So, you’re essentially doomed to a life of tedious research and spreadsheets. Sorry.

How many of you get judged solely on the movement of one vanity search term? How many of you know that search term doesn’t convert well, but your boss really wants the world to know you rank for it? Meanwhile, you still have to get the conversions! So, you spend your day fighting with developers over small on-site changes that could make a world of difference, but they’re giving you the run around. Frustrating, huh?

On the bright side, you aren’t alone and there’s a cute cat picture to help you get through hump day!

Back to keywords. We know keyword research is boring and we know you have to do it, so the question is really just a matter of how. Everyone has their tried and true method. Back in the day, I was a Wordtracker gal. It was what I was trained on and most companies already had an account with them. Sure, I dabbled with Wordze, SEO Book’s Keyword Suggestion Tool and Keyword Discovery, but I always ended up back in bed with Wordtracker. Unfortunately, it doesn’t cut it for major decisions (though I do love their Keyword Questions tool), so I had to look elsewhere, too. Now my keyword research method is a hodge podge of tools, search engines themselves, analytics and the force.


I already mentioned Wordtracker, Wordze, SEO Book and Keyword Discovery, so let’s talk about industry newbie, Wordstream. They offer comprehensive keyword management products and, as a nice brand builder, just launched a free keyword research tool. It’s very easy to use and returns robust results at the same time. I almost wish they’d make it look more complicated so the product felt like the heavy hitters it belongs to.

Wordstream Free Keyword Research Tool

I’m also not a fan of the “related keywords” suggestions, which returned results like [condos], [dog food], [kb], [mattel], [hasbro] and [little people] with my [cat toys] search! There were some related keywords like [scratching], [perch], [enclosures] and [cat] that made sense, but at least half did not (keep in mind, I’ve never been impressed by Wordtracker’s related results as well, but kept using it). I will say that with more long tail searches, like one I did for [martin fender stratocaster], I received much more relevant suggestions. I’m also not a fan of the way the negative filtering feature was implemented. It isn’t glaringly apparent to a first time user and I wish I could see those terms dropped into a separate bucket just in case I want to add them back later. Still, it’s a good feature if you know to click on the keywords in the list.

Things I love – the super simple “Click to copy keywords” button at the bottom of the page after you’ve finalized your list. It’s ridiculously fast! And, I also like that I can email the full list, which is sent as a zip and unzips into a tidy little CSV file with terms and relative volume. Most importantly, it’s FREE, so it’s by far the best free option and rivals the paid. I wish there was more transparency about where they were pulling the results from, but I did like the full lists I was pulling for different keywords, so the secret sauce is working for now.

Search Engines

The search engines have made major headway in communicating keyword suggestions to users and us. Here are just some of the incredible tools that help us better understand user intent, which in turn means a better understanding of what we can/should target:

Check out Wil Reynold’s post on targeting long tails for a nice look at how to take advantage of some of those tools. I like his philosophy, it’s a lot like ours. Whatever problem you’re solving, there are several paths you can take to get there, but the data should guide you in a statistically significant and positively trending way.


That brings me to your analytics. We need to know what the search engines are telling us about users, but more importantly, we need to know what the site offers! Even though Google says a lot of cat owners want to make homemade toys, you’re in the business of selling manufactured toys. You could do some creative things to target that term, but it probably shouldn’t appear in the top level categories of your site, because it probably isn’t going to convert well. You have to turn to analytics to prove that.

A recent client came to us with a “well-optimized” site. They just wanted link development and social media work. They ranked well for their major search phrases, so we proceeded. Several months in, it’s become apparent that those terms really don’t define the client. They’re heading in a new direction and the keywords don’t support their goals. We took a look at their analytics and sure enough, they rank well, but those terms drive little to no converting traffic. Oh boy, it’s overhaul time!

The Force

After years of keyword research, there’s a certain component to it that I can’t explain to muggles (yeah, I just got Star Wars and Harry Potter in this post and Lisa’s cringing). Seriously though, after staring at keywords for years and working in certain industries, you pick up on trends, user intent, what works on your site, etc. So, no matter what the tools, search engines and analytics are saying, sometimes your gut has to take a leap. What works for the competition may not work for you and you have to embrace the differences or work towards fixing them.

The Force

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Your Comments

  • Nathan Schubert

    Excellent article! Keyword research is simultaneously one of the most significant factors in good SEO & Content Creation AND one of the most soul-crushing tasks we SEMs have to deal with. You’ve got to love what you do, and that means ALL of it.

    I’ve been working with a company for years and the owner doesn’t recognize the value of SEM, especially when it comes to paying for services like Keyword Discovery & WordTracker. We’re in a very very (very) narrow niche, so those tools don’t usually work anyway.

    I have found the Google Keyword Tool to be among the most easy to use for those super niche categories, and of course good ole’ fashion intuition (the force is strong with me) and careful monitoring always takes you through the home stretch. Thanks again, great writing!

  • Tom Demers

    Hi Rhea,

    Great post, and thanks for the WordStream mention! We’d agree that no single keyword tool (even ours :)) can tell you exactly where to go next. They’re definitely suggestion engines, and while they can be directionally useful don’t tell you how people will actually interact with your site, as you mentioned.

    Also just a quick note on negative keywords: we’ll be pushing out an update of the tool that will let you save a list of negatives in the next couple of months. We had actually included that feature in our first UI implementation but beta testers found it very confusing so we stripped it until we could figure out how to make it more intuitive. I’d also agree that we can better expose the filter; we’ll definitely take that under advisement for a future release.

    Anyway thanks again for the mention, glad you found the tool useful!


  • Rhea Drysdale

    Thanks Tom for providing feedback. Can’t wait for the next iteration and it’s awesome that you guys are on top of the suggestions. Great tool, thanks for sharing it!

  • Barbara Ling, Virtual Coach

    The Force is most definitely with your post. And the cute cats too!

    Gotta love high SERPs for non-converting traffic. Catching that early on is key when moving one’s business to the next level.

  • Jonah Stein


    Strangely enough, those big cat toys are called “cat condos”, so the related suggestion wasn’t as bad as it seems. As for me, I find the Google tools are mostly my default because while they have issues/limitations, I trust their data source…and free isn’t bad either.

  • Rhea Drysdale

    Jonah – good call on the cat condos!! I should know better, Lisa has a mansion for hers. I still don’t understand the [little people] reference, but I don’t work with a cat toys client. ;)

    Barbara – thanks, I really just wrote the post around the cats.

  • Yawn Webmaster!

    You talk about the tools but not the sources used to generate them.

    Finding keywords has never been the problem, its the strength of that keyword to your audience – You’ll get more value asking pensioner with hearing problems how they search for hearing aids, rather than some of the tools you mention which are not actually representative of the keywords people are typing (they get chopped and normalized) and are they actually reliable? do you trust them?

    The best advice is use common sense, and use a paper chart to map out all your potential customers/whatever on paper before you power up your keywords suggestions. Only when you’ve done that (which will involve using your brain and thus is destined for greater success), should you then use these tools to fill the gaps.

    Think first, tool later.

    I enjoyed the article, good list of links which will be useful.

  • Rex

    I had not heard of the Wordstream tool. I just tried it and am very pleased with what I saw on a few quick searches. Thank you.

  • Keyword searching in Minneapolis

    Working with clients to pull out the industry specific keyword terms is a place to start. But I find many people have a hard time switching from what they want people to type in to find them, to what people are typing and how to insert their page/site into that stream. Showing the numbers helps to both get people off bad keywords and also to realize that maybe second tier might be a better target given the amount of work the ranking sites have put in to get thousands of back links and hundreds of content pages.

  • Katerina

    Rhea- I truly enjoyed your writing style on a subject that most authors make even more boring than keyword research can be:) I still like google keyword tool and I have found some gems, those rough diamonds in the suggest for real estate agents I coach to drill down into some great niches that are overlooked in the main search section. I will try out the new free tool you discovered. I am always looking for great tools for the clients we coach as well as our own real estate business.

  • Jim Hardin

    Hi Rhea
    Keywords are definately a very important thing if you want your site to be found by search engines. You are right though it can be a pain, but if you do it right it really does payoff. I use the google Keyword tool myself. It seems to work pretty well and it is free. FREE is good in my book!

    Anyway I really enjoyed your article.
    Thanks for the tips!
    Jim Hardin

  • Steven van Vessum

    Good stuff Rhea, a decent Keyword Research is the start for everything SEO related. Whether it’s linkbuilding, copywriting or creating a good site structure, there’s always a need for a Keyword Research.

    Somehow I get the idea that people in the UK and North-America get all the handy tools. In the Netherlands there are less tools.