Keyword research – part 1: first steps

Commercial web projects aim to generate their turnover through website visitor transactions. This means that website operators aim to gain as many visitors as possible, and, if possible, transform these visitors into customers. As search engines are the first point of contact for a potential website customer, they play a central role in this process. So if you want your website to be successful and get a lot of hits, you need to find out how users search for content online and what their intentions are. You can discover this information through keyword research. But just knowing popular search terms isn’t going to increase your profits; the real challenge is determining which keywords produce leads and conversions. Identifying these keywords allows you to best target potential customers and continuously improve your on-page optimization process.

What is keyword research?

Strategic keyword research is the basis of any effective on-page optimization procedure. In order to get a noticeable spot on search engine results pages, website operators should obtain detailed information about the search terms most relevant to their service. Before beginning any keyword research, you should always ask yourself the following questions:

  • What does my target group search for online?
  • Which search terms are associated with the products, services, and information offered on my website?
  • And how would customers describe technical or industry-specific terms?

These questions can be answered by collecting and analyzing a list of relevant key terms. The research behind these search terms is a necessary first step to building a comprehensive keyword strategy. The goal of these measures is to determine relevant keywords with the highest search volumes, so that you can use those terms is your webpages for search engine optimization purposes. While traditional keyword research focuses on promotional search terms, such as the specific products and services offered on the website, holistic keyword research allows you to define all the search terms associated with your project. This allows content strategies to reach users who are seeking information, rather than just customers with purchasing intention. By publishing content on a particular topic, website operators aim to build a reputation as an expert in this area and strengthen their potential customers’ trust.

Keywords: what does my target group search for online?

When internet users don’t know exactly which website will offer exactly what they’re looking for, they turn to search engines to reach their goal. They enter a brief, vague description of their desired content. From the search terms (or keywords) entered, the search engine will come up with a comprehensive list of search results. Keywords can consist of a single word or a search phrase with several words. When website operators truly understand the terms and wording used in internet searches, they can use this information to optimize their websites with the corresponding keywords. This understanding allows them to be more likely to enter the top ranks of the search engine results pages (SERPs). But before website operators start their SEO keyword research, it’s necessary to clarify how keywords in search engine marketing (SEM) are classified, what search intent can be derived from certain search terms, and how keywords are processed by the search engine.

Defend vs. conquer

In principle, keywords can be distinguished according to whether they are connected to a particular supplier, or whether they are generic (not connected to a particular brand). In search engine optimization, this refers to defend and conquer keywords.

  • Defend keywords are typical search terms that internet users use to land on a particular supplier. Generally, the searcher is already aware of the supplier’s products or services. This means that they use the supplier’s brand name, product name, advertising slogans, or a combination of these elements in their search query. As a rule, it should be the goal of every provider to occupy the search engine’s top spot for the defend keyword of your own company. This is usually the case when it comes to corporate brands; with regard to individual product brands, suppliers often have to compete with sales partners and online retailers that offer the same product in their web stores.
  • Conquer keywords are generic search terms that the search engine user enters when he or she is not looking for any one particular provider. In online marketing, conquer keywords are of central significance in generating new customers, provided that the goal is to improve their rankings. A high ranking in the search engine results conveys to potential customers both a certain authority and a strong relevance to the products or services they are seeking. Unfortunately, those who do want to rank highly with conquer keywords have to be prepared to face constant competition for the top-ranking positions.

From short head to long-tail

With a few exceptions, the more specific the search query, the less often it’s searched. For example, the term office chair is searched for about 246,000 times on average per month, whereas office chair black leather only receives about 70 searches per month. As this example shows, more specific search queries tend to consist of longer phrases with more words, so they determine more precisely what the user wants to find. In search engine marketing, these kinds of queries are referred to as long-tail keywords, as the central keyword is followed by a string of less crucial keywords, like a tail. The opposite of search terms like these are called short head keywords, which are shorter and a lot more general. Terms that fall in the gray area between the two are known as mid-tail keywords.

  • Short head keywords: short head keywords that specifically refer to products or service are especially popular among advertisers, due to their typically high search volumes. But the top places in the organic results list, which search engines give to just these keywords, are also incredibly competitive. Often, the financially strongest market leaders in the industry already occupy these coveted spots. And for the others, even if optimizing with these keywords proves successful, a lot of money must be invested.
  • Long-tail keywords: long-tail keywords are another matter completely. Due to their lower search volumes, these keywords are far less competitive. But that’s not the only benefit of optimizing long search queries. Users who search for long-tail keywords generally have a very precise idea of what they expect to find. As a result, achieving a high ranking with these particular keywords increases website operators’ chances of attracting visitors to their website.

Search intentions: who uses which keywords - and why?

As well as the frequency with which certain keywords are used, the intentions behind these keywords also play a big role. In search engine marketing, we identify three main search intentions:

Navigational search queries

When entering navigational search queries, users tend to have a very concrete idea of which website they want to visit. It could be that they’ve just forgotten the exact web address, or it’s more convenient to search than to type the address into the browser’s search bar. Users generally search for the names of brands, companies, institutions, or organizations in the hope that the search engine will take them to the homepage of their desired website. Popular navigational search query examples include Youtube, Facebook, and Gmail. If users need to find a particular subpage, they’ll often add an extra search term such as terms and conditions, contact, directions, opening times, or jobs.

When entering search queries such as Washington state library or doctors’ appointments, users neither have an intention to buy a product, nor wish to understand the keywords themselves; instead, these terms simply act as anchors to navigate the internet. Navigational keywords therefore only normally generate traffic and conversions if the website operator decides to implement SEO measures using keywords referring to his or her own brand. For example, if you offer an e-mail service, you shouldn’t invest too much in the keyword Gmail when carrying out SEO measures. When a user enters a navigational keyword like Gmail, they just want to use the Gmail service, rather than another mail service that appears in the results pages. In general, this means that you shouldn’t rely on navigational keywords to win customers.

Informational keywords

Internet users use informational keywords to find answers to specific questions. When users enter search queries like husband of Michelle Obama, Shakespeare biography, and are bees too fat to fly, they are searching for information. Typical indicators of informational search queries include elements like what is, definition, how to, how does … work, and tutorial.

When entering keywords like this, the user expects to find the answer to his or her query on the websites that appear in the results pages. This means that commercially orientated websites experience a high bounce rate when users mistakenly land on them. But that’s not to say that web store operators should ditch informational keywords when optimizing their sites, as this category also includes search queries about products and services. Sometimes, product guides, descriptions, and reviews are sufficient for satisfying the user’s request. Creating content relevant to informational search queries really gives web store owners the opportunity to put their product expertise to the test. This ultimately pays off, as customers tend to go back to stores that keep them well informed.

Transactional keywords

Above all else, web store operators should pay attention to keywords that indicate an intention to buy. When users enter a query coupled with a search term like buy, order, rent, or download, it means they’re on the lookout for a website that allows a specific transaction to take place. Generally speaking, the user already knows what kind of product they want to buy or which service they would like to use. The use of a search engine simply allows the user to find the best offer from the most suitable provider. Transactional search queries often include elements like cheap, affordable, discount, and free shipping.

Internet users generally trust the search engine’s rating system, which is sorted according to relevance. This means that customers often settle for the web store with the number one spot on the results pages. Therefore, focusing on relevant transactional keywords during the website optimization process can prove beneficial in generating a good number of conversions further down the line. The only downside is that the huge potential of transactional search terms is no secret, which means that there is stiff competition for the keywords with the highest search volumes.

How do search engines process keywords?

When using a search engine, internet users tend to type in keywords as they pop into their heads. As a result, search queries don’t usually consist of standard marketing terms, a consistent writing style, correct grammar or word order. When conducting keyword research, it’s important to keep in mind that there are several ways of phrasing one search term. For example, synonyms are recognized as such by search engines, but count as separate keywords. Various word combinations offer users a great deal of scope when forming their queries. During keyword research, website operators often encounter mixtures of keywords that can be written in different order, yielding a different result each time. For example, the market leader, Google, can differentiate between lunchbox (18,100 searches/month) and lunch box (74,000 searches/month). It’s important to remember here that dashes count as blank spaces, so it doesn’t make a difference if the user searches for lunch box or lunch-box. However, it’s not always necessary to include different word combinations, particularly if they don’t yield very high results. Website operators must therefore decide whether to include these combinations on a case-by-case basis. In most cases, though, when conducting keyword research, you should only include correctly spelled phrases. Search engines don’t take into account whether keywords are written in lower case or capital letters. Keyword variations, which might alter depending on the precise grammar used in the search term (tense, number, or person used), are also becoming less important. While there are some exceptions (for example, the keyword shoe throws up different results to shoes), in general the grammatical variants of a keyword are covered by a website’s normal content. As a result, it is ineffective to define separate landing pages for every single grammatical variation of a keyword. Thanks to modern search engines’ auto-correct functions, misspelled keywords are also a no-go in contemporary SEO. For example, Google can recognize search terms that are written incorrectly and will automatically deliver results for the correct keywords. Another argument against the inclusion of misspelled keywords is the fact that those incorrect keywords must then appear in your website’s content-. This practice is rated negatively by search engine crawlers and looks unprofessional, leaving readers with a bad impression of your site. However, if misspelled keywords with high search volumes are still taken into account (with regard to search engine marketing), it’s better to use those keywords within search engine advertising (SEA) measures.

Keyword research: how to conduct a keyword search like a pro

The key to conducting keyword research for Google and other big search engines is to develop a list as comprehensive as possible of all the keywords that related to your online project. These should include those used by internet users to find relevant products, services, and information. This task cannot be attempted without the appropriate programs. Website operators and SEO experts rely on a variety of keyword research tools, which can be used to collect the appropriate keywords. But even the best research programs need user input in order to be able to carry out its tasks, which is why every keyword research procedure starts with identifying associated words.


Unless you’re starting up a completely new online project, the starting point of any keyword research process involves figuring out the status quo of the website that is to be optimized. The first step towards creating a comprehensive list of all relevant keywords involves an analysis of the existing data, and using this analysis to brainstorm fresh ideas. This leads to the following questions:

  • Which sector does this project belong to?
  • What kind of products, services, or information is on offer?
  • Which target group is this geared towards?
  • What benefits can the visitor or customer gain from this offer?
  • How is the website constructed?
  • Do the navigation structure or product categories show any indication of keywords?
  • Does the site include keywords that can achieve good rankings?

Asking these initial brainstorming questions is the first part of the SEO keyword research process, which can then be split into two further phases: generating ideas and structuring.

  • Generating ideas: free association is the focus of the first phase in the brainstorming process. If you’re not outsourcing your keyword research to an external service, you should gather suggestions from all your business’ departments in order to have as many diverse and profitable ideas as possible. In this exercise, team members list as many keywords as possible related to the online project, the brand, the company’s image, and the products or services.
  • Structuring: the second phase of the brainstorming process involves taking a view of the collection of keywords, and sorting them according to the website structure. The result of keyword brainstorming is a structured list of keywords, grouped thematically and assigned to different subpages of the web project. This can also sometimes result in ideas for completely new areas that are not yet part of the website structure.

Keyword research tools and synonym databases

Developing a focused keyword strategy requires more than just collecting the relevant search terms. While keyword lists are great place to start, they tend to be the product of a single brainstorming session, meaning that there are often many gaps, which only emerge later on in the research process. This is where research tools come into play; these complete keyword lists systematically, revealing the SEO potential of each search term. Three popular free keyword research tools are Google’s keyword planner, Übersuggest, and Mergewords. You can find a more detailed description of these tools as well as other keyword research and analysis programs in the second part of our series. Synonym databases provide a further resource for SEO keyword research. These can aid website operators in finding keywords that are related by region, style, or culture. Only once you’ve conducted careful preliminary research on which keywords your target group use in order to find your products, services, or information can you complete your list of keywords and analyze their potential for on-page optimization. The following websites can be used to find synonyms:

Analyzing the competition

Analyzing the competition is yet another good introduction into the world of keyword research, especially if you’re developing a new sector, line of business, or market. In order to keep up with other businesses, it’s important to find out how much your competitors invest in SEO, which keywords they invest in, and how successful they are. To find potential competitors, you can simply enter your own central keywords into a search engine and see which companies occupy the top spots in the SERPs. Here an analysis of specialized competitors often proves particularly profitable. However, there are only a few exceptional circumstances when it makes sense to analyze large online retailers and marketplaces like Amazon or eBay (for example, if your business is similarly large and diverse). This is because these companies are active in virtually all markets, meaning that they are able to use a massive selection of optimization measures to suit a wide range of genres and keywords. The process of analyzing the competition can also be automated. For website operators who are already performing well in the SERPs, the SISTRIX Toolbox can generate a set of keywords, which can be compared to that of any competitor websites in order to gain new relevant keywords.

Evaluation of keyword research

With extensive keyword research, website operators can create a detailed analysis of their chosen keywords. The aim of this is to prioritize the keywords according to specific evaluation criteria: assigning keyword sets to single subpages of the website (keyword mapping), and potentially setting up new areas of the site. To find out how to do this, check out the third part of our series on SEO keyword research which covers the topic keyword strategy.

About the author

Andre Alpar’s entrepreneurial career in online marketing began in 1998, during his degree in economics and computer science at the TU in Darmstadt, Germany. After founding several companies, he was in charge of strategic online marketing advice in a managerial role at Rocket Internet. Alongside his professional career, Mr. Alpar has acted as a Business Angel for over 40 internet startups, while he was also responsible for initiating the online marketing conferences OMCap, PPC Masters as well as Content Marketing Masters. His current role is CEO of the 170-person search and content marketing agency Performics in Berlin. Performics has over 2200 employees globally and is considered a major player in performance marketing.

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