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Keyword Research Guide

12 min read

Keywords and their role in search engine optimization have changed over time. Originally, keywords were terms that search engines used to match documents with queries. Entering a keyword into a search engine returned a list of documents in which that term often appeared. That made SEO comparatively easy, but the results weren’t always the best for Searchers.

Fast forward to today, and we find Google has a much better understanding of language — search queries need no longer be keyword-centric, and the SERPs have evolved considerably. As a result content marketers must completely transform how they approach keyword research.

This is the first chapter in our guide to keyword research. In it we cover the basics including the difference between keywords and topics, common misconceptions about keyword volume, and keyword difficulty. We delve further going from keywords to content, exploring keyword cannibalization fallacies, and conducting keyword research with MarketMuse.

Keyword Research Guide Index

There’s a Big Difference Between Keywords and Topics

First, let’s explore keywords vs. topics. Understanding the difference between these two concepts will help advance your SEO content marketing strategy.

Understanding keywords

Keywords are the words or phrases internet users type into a search engine; also known as search queries. SEO strategists research what phrases people search for the most. They believe that using the results of that research — creating content based on those target keywords — makes their website easier to discover. By extension, so the thinking goes, those keywords also make your content authoritative and high-quality, too. However, this is an outdated approach (more on that later).

Understanding topics

A topic is the subject of something being discussed. What sets topics apart from keywords is the idea of semantic relevance, or how they relate to one another.  Given Google’s move away from keywords towards a semantic search engine (think Knowledge Graph and Topic Layer) it’s a good idea to start thinking more about topics. Nevermind what keywords to “sprinkle throughout your article” — instead, consider what topics to cover. Forget about keyword density (how many times to mention a term) and think about topic depth.  

Using the two together

With this fixation on finding the right keyword, can content strategists successfully merge the two approaches? I believe so.

If anything, a topical approach layered on top of keywords encourages thinking beyond the single page to incorporate topic clusters. This is critical for today’s environment where it’s rare that a single piece of content can stand on its own. Supporting content is key to content marketing success — it’s easier to execute that vision when taking a topical perspective.

Don’t Make Content Decisions Based on Keyword Search Volume

Keyword search volume tells content marketers how often a specific keyword gets used within a certain time frame. There’s a common misconception that keywords with a low search volume offer little value.

These terms, usually long-tail keywords, can improve your ranking with the right kind of audience and increase your expertise and authority. Also, keywords with high-purchasing intent naturally have the lowest comparative volume. It’s a universal truth that there’s always more people looking than buying. That’s the opposite of high-volume keywords, filled with visitors who are usually top-of-funnel and not yet ready to purchase.

Also, no keyword research tool is 100% accurate. You’re bound to get different search volume results for each research tool you use. Why? They have different data sources, ways of collecting and processing that data. Moreover, these tools only show keywords that get trackable search volume, accounting for less than 10% of what people are searching for.

Further, every keyword planner tool and keyword generator has changed over the years in parallel with search engine improvements. A few of these important updates include:

  • Hummingbird (2013): This Google system overhaul focused on understanding a user’s search intent.
  • RankBrain (2015): RankBrain’s AI-centered algorithm took finding and displaying relevant content to a new level by using machine learning.
  • Quality Update (2017): The 2017 Quality Update furthered its efforts on ridding low-quality sites from being visible on search results.
  • The Topic Layer (2018): The Topic Layer was added to Google’s Knowledge Graph, which helps Google understand the connections between people, places, and things. The Topic Layer analyzes hundreds of trillions of web pages to come up with thousands of subtopics that explore semantic relationships.

Google is constantly updating its  algorithms to show the best results. The key, then, is to adapt your keyword research approach  to what works best for Google today.

This is where the term pool multiplier comes into play. It is the potential your content strategy has beyond the limited trackable keyword volume.. In other words, it’s the organic traffic your web page gets from a multitude of low-volume keywords (aka the term pool). Incorporating the term pool will show you your content’s true potential beyond a few popular words. Don’t forget about the keyword variations in writing content or even a Google ad, and consider what topics would be of great interest to audiences as well.

Keyword Difficulty

Keyword difficulty is another SEO metric frequently used for content planning. The difficulty score usually goes from 0 to 100, with a higher number matching a greater level of perceived ranking difficulty. There are two problems with the industry standard keyword difficulty score:

  • It’s primarily link-based and no longer reflects the realities of modern search engines.
  • It’s not personalized, so the score applies to everyone (and by extension, no one).

A popular keyword research process combines keyword difficulty with search volume. The hope is to find the holy grail of high monthly search volume/low keyword difficulty terms. There are a couple of problems with this approach.

  • Market efficiencies cause this keyword volume/difficulty combination to disappear quickly. An abundance of cheap keyword data tools and the popularity of this approach means many people are using the same keyword strategy.
  • Creating content based around these individual keywords, if you can find them, is a haphazard approach that prioritizes page content as opposed to topic cluster development.

Now let’s look at another approach to keyword difficulty..

MarketMuse and the Personalized Difficulty Score

MarketMuse has a unique SEO metric called Personalized Difficulty. Unlike keyword difficulty, which measures how hard it is for anyone to rank for a topic, Personalized Difficulty measures how hard it is for you to rank for a topic.

To best understand this, we need to look at two related concepts, Topic Authority and Competitive Advantage. Topic Authority is a score based on the content on your site and its performance. Publish a lot of content on a topic that performs well and you’ll have a high Topic Authority score. Conversely, publish little content that performs poorly, or no content at all, and you’ll have low Topic Authority for that topic. The higher your Topic Authority, the lower (better) your Personalized Difficulty.

Competitive Advantage reveals the difference between the general difficulty score (keyword difficulty) and Personalized Difficulty. MarketMuse represents this graphically as a bar with a theoretical range of -100 to +100 (higher is better).

Combining Personalized Difficulty with Competitive Advantage is extremely powerful.  While Personalized Difficulty can give you an idea of the amount of effort required to succeed, Competitive Advantage predicts how likely you are to succeed.

For example, with a Personalized Difficulty of 9 you typically would have to just update one page (if it matches the intent) to improve your ranking. If your Competitive Advantage is 70, you’re very likely to succeed with this little amount of effort.

However, if your Competitive Advantage was 0 and Personalized Difficulty remained at 9, it’s unlikely that minimal effort would yield any result.

Read: Content Inventory Analysis: 3 Decision-Making Metrics

How to Turn Keywords Into Content

This guide emphasized the need for content over keywords, but how exactly do you make the keywords-to-content transition? The key is to create the best page on the internet for the content you are writing about. Though search engine algorithms are getting more complex, at the end of the day, content marketing is all about providing the best results for website visitors. Giving them a relevant, useful, and informative page is still the number one way to get a high search engine ranking.  

Analyzing SERPs is the best way to understand what the competition is missing in terms of specific topics. One approach is to look at SERP modifiers, or alterations of a keyword phrase. For instance, you can try switching the order of keywords, or adding a word before or after a keyword phrase.

Performing this research will generate more related keywords. From there, you can start mapping out ideas for topics you notice are lacking in representation, forming a keyword list. It’s with these topics that you then mark down relevant keywords to better your content overall.

Why Keyword Cannibalization Isn’t What You Think

Keyword cannibalization isn’t just a scary-sounding phrase — it’s a concept of which any SEO strategist needs to be aware. Keyword cannibalization is typically considered as multiple pieces of content on the same site competing for the same search term. This keyword cannibalization problem, as many believe, leads to lower rankings and a blow to your site’s overall reputation. However, this general definition and belief doesn’t fully address the entire keyword cannibalization issue. They’re missing two important points.

Firstly, the cannibalization issue has to do with searcher intent, not just SERPs. By multiplying content solely on one main keyword, you limit your readers from having access to unique and useful content. Secondly, overlap in content is inevitable with a main topic, as there is a natural connection between pieces of content and a general subject.

With these points in mind, there are a few steps you can take to spot and fix keyword cannibalization in your keyword strategy:

1. Solving metadata cannibalization  

For commerce sites, duplicate content in metadata can be difficult to avoid as you may sell many products of the same category, such as televisions. However, for other kinds of sites, it can become an issue. To overcome metadata cannibalization, use keyword variations in title tags or headers rather than repeating the same target keyword.

2. Solving page content cannibalization

This is when a focus keyword (with the same intent) is covered on more than one page of your site. You have several options when fixing page content cannibalization:

  • Combine similar articles: merge two articles by reading through them and taking note of what’s different about them. With this information, combine the two articles into one, making sure the new article has the same intent.
  • Improve pages: sometimes, you just need to spruce up your pages by refocusing them. They may be similar now, but could they stand as their own pieces of content with a little rewriting?
  • Work on your internal linking: lastly, consider your more technical options. For example, redirect repeated pages using a 301 redirect, which will take users to your landing page. Alternatively, you can apply the no-index tag — rel=”noindex” — so they’ll be removed from Google’s index and won’t be shown to users.

You can also implement preventative keyword cannibalization measures to make certain that you don’t come across this problem again. Plan out your content using MarketMuse so that each piece has a specific purpose and a function. Google Search Console is another option, allowing you to see each page on your website that ranks for a specific user search query.

Lastly, you can use a rank tracker, which monitors keyword opportunities and webpage ranking on SERPs. With this data, you can determine which relevant keywords or types of content are successful. Some rank trackers also give you insight into your competitors’ keyword rankings, which can further help you develop a content idea. However, if you’re using MarketMuse, a rank tracker becomes redundant.

Keyword Research With MarketMuse

Last but certainly not least, you can conduct keyword research with MarketMuse. Conduct deep research on any topic to determine:

  • Your current authority on the subject
  • The type of content and intent requirements
  • The amount of content necessary
  • How much value you’ll gain by executing your plan
  • Your likelihood of success

The Takeaway

Keyword research has evolved quite a bit since search engines first launched — even the significance of keyword research has shifted. Understanding modern-day search engine ranking factors and implementing the most effective strategies will ensure your content ranks high, provides value to visitors, and aligns with business objectives.

Keyword Research Guide Index

What you should do now

When you’re ready… here are 3 ways we can help you publish better content, faster:

  1. Book time with MarketMuse Schedule a live demo with one of our strategists to see how MarketMuse can help your team reach their content goals.
  2. If you’d like to learn how to create better content faster, visit our blog. It’s full of resources to help scale content.
  3. If you know another marketer who’d enjoy reading this page, share it with them via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook.

Stephen leads the content strategy blog for MarketMuse, an AI-powered Content Intelligence and Strategy Platform. You can connect with him on social or his personal blog.