One of the first services we typically recommend to new clients is a complete Keyword Research and Competitive Analysis. It’s a full-scale detailed look into where their business currently stands in terms of keyword rankings and blog content strategy, and then we compare it to where two of their chosen competitors stand.
The goal at the end of the Keyword Research and Competitive Analysis report is to give the client a digital marketing blueprint for the next 12 months. While it’s easy enough to give someone a template and tell them to start working their way through it, we think understanding the reasoning behind the method will help you make better recommendations to the client when you conclude the report.
We’re going to walk you through each step of the procedure so you can conduct more effective keyword research, which will lead you to find more relevant information, make more strategic recommendations to your clients, and most importantly: get the results you’re looking for.
(We’ll also give you a FREE keyword research and competitive analysis template that’s essentially plug-and-play!)
Got your coffee? Here we go.
Do Your Client’s Keyword Research
The first thing we do is get a snapshot of where our client currently stands. We look at:
- SEMrush Domain Rating
- Ahrefs Domain Rating
- Organic Search Value
- Number of Organic Keyword Rankings
- Monthly Ad Spend
We typically go to SEMrush for this information. SEMrush is one of our favorite tools at TCF. The content department literally uses it every single day for various tasks — keyword research and checking on client keyword rankings, as well as individual page rankings, backlinks research, determining issues with technical SEO, among many other things. (We love it so much we have an affiliate relationship — you can even get a week free if you sign up using our link.)
Determining Keyword Rankings
The “Organic Research” tab will give you the number of keywords your client is ranking for, its estimated value, an estimate of how much they’re spending on paid ads, and the number of backlinks they have. (Note that financial estimates represent monthly data — i.e. $6,400 traffic cost per month.)
If you scroll further down, you’ll see another section that focuses on organic keyword rankings specifically.
From there, you’ll see the full list populate. On the right side, you’ll see a little box that says “Export.” If you click on it, you’ll have the option of downloading the list into an Excel spreadsheet (among other things). Make sure you export “all” and not just the first 100 or so:
Putting all these keywords into an Excel spreadsheet is incredibly helpful (especially if there are a lot of keywords in question) because you can organize them, delete information you don’t need, copy/paste into different spreadsheets, and our favorite: color code the data.
We do this for a few reasons:
- It makes the data more interesting to clients
- The data is easier for everyone to read
- Green helps us pick out the better targets more quickly
This keyword research spreadsheet will become your home-base during this report. Create as many tabs as you feel you need, but our keyword research and competitive analysis template will have tabs for the necessities: the client’s current keyword rankings, new keyword suggestions, keyword suggestions based on competitors’ rankings, and pitches for blog content.
Ahrefs is another option for you that we sometimes use to supplement our research or gain a different perspective. Ahrefs offers much of the same services as SEMrush and is an excellent tool to use. Some SEOs love one over the other, but in the end, they’re both reliable and helpful. In many regards, deciding between SEMrush and Ahrefs is a personal choice.
The reason we look at domain rating (also called an authority score) is because of its impact on keyword rankings. While Google is, shall we say, “tight-lipped” on exactly how the algorithm works, we do know that domain authority matters quite a bit. The higher your domain authority, the more credible your website seems in the eyes of Google, which makes a fair amount of sense.
Many things play into domain authority, but quality backlinks are a main driver, which is why this metric can be found under the “backlinks” section of SEMrush. The key descriptor here is “quality.”
Spammy backlinks aren’t going to help you with your domain authority. Backlinks from Forbes or Inc. are of higher quality than someone’s food blog that gets 10 visits per month (from their family and friends).
SEMrush and Ahrefs each have their own method of determining domain rating. They may not have the exact same number, but they’re typically close together. (They both follow a scale of 1-100 with 100 being the highest.)
What “good” is heavily depends on your industry. In industries with a large SEO presence, you’ll want to aim for above 50, at least. With smaller industries, like our above client, you’ll want to aim for anything from 20 - 40.
Domain rating is something you should evaluate for the competitors, as well as your client. In doing so, you’ll also be looking at their backlinks — how many they have, where they’re coming from, and how they may be getting them (whether earned or organic). Backlinks are something you’ll look into further during the PR section of the report.
The next step of keyword research is to look at individual keyword rankings and the pages that are performing well. We look at the overall rankings, as well as the pages that are bringing in the most traffic (is it search volume or lots of keywords or both?), and also the keywords with the highest CPC (cost per click).
This is where we look for keywords that have the potential to convert, versus keywords that are bringing in traffic, but not serving much of a purpose past obtaining new information or are irrelevant to conversion. The most valuable keywords will not only bring someone to your website, but get them to sign up for your newsletter, buy something, or email to inquire further.
Understanding which search terms will be more transactional for your client will help you narrow down the possible keywords you’ll recommend later, in addition to assessing how valuable currently ranking keywords actually are.
Let’s talk about Google Analytics. It will be important for you to have access to your client’s Google Analytics. You’ll need to be able to find out which pages are getting the most actual traffic, and where it’s coming from. Because you’re focused on SEO, you’ll want to look at organic traffic.
In your client’s Google Analytics, set the time period for at least the last 30 days. Then expand the “Acquisition” dropdown menu, then the “All Traffic” dropdown menu, and click on “Source/Medium.”
Then isolate “google/organic” traffic from the list of sources, and click on “Secondary dimension” at the top:
Click on “Behavior” to open the dropdown menu:
Then, click on “Landing Page:”
This will give you a list of the pages bringing in the most organic traffic to your client’s website:
From here, you can check which keywords these pages are ranking for, specifically. This will give you an idea of the types of keywords your client is able to rank for — can you choose higher keyword difficulty? Or do you need to stick with high volume-low competition options? Of course, this will help you narrow down your keyword research.
(Pro tip: When we say check which keywords these pages rank for, we don’t mean using Google Analytics: take these individual pages into SEMrush or Aherfs — Google Analytics keywords data is obfuscated past usefulness.)
These pages may be good targets for something we call revamps. Revamping existing blog content can be a way to get easy wins — sometimes good content can be made better by adding some content and increasing the instances of keywords (in a way that increases quality, not in a way that becomes keyword stuffing).
Shoving the words “keyword research” on a page that doesn’t offer actual advice on how to do keyword research isn’t going to help you rank. In fact, it will signal to Google that your content isn’t very good. Instead, focus on writing a really good piece of content about how to conduct keyword research.
(Pro tip: Google Analytics is one of the best ways to track your conversions. We have clients who consistently don’t have conversions set up in Analytics, and it never makes sense. Knowing which pages convert the best for you will help you decide which content resonates best with your audience, and therefore tells you which type of content to focus on.)
How to Do Keyword Research on Your Competition
Conducting keyword research on your competition will largely mirror the process of doing your own (or your client’s). You’ll pop your URL into SEMrush, Ahrefs, or whatever SEO tool you’re using and see where the chips fall.
You’ll want to compare the same metrics for your client (or yourself) and every competitor in question, so look at domain ratings, backlinks, keyword rankings, and ad spend. This is a marketing agency who will remain nameless:
Be sure to download an Excel file of all the keywords the chosen competitors rank for (or as many as you can with your SEMrush subscription). You can copy and paste these into your master keyword research spreadsheet (you can grab a copy of if you haven’t already) if you want to, or keep them separate and only copy/paste the keywords you think your client should target.
This is also a good opportunity to put filters on your keyword spreadsheet tabs, but in a way that allows you to keep rows linked — you don’t want search volume detaching from the keyword it belongs to.
Here, you can see filters added using Google Sheets (the Google Drive version of Excel):
When you click on one of these arrows and sort in descending or ascending order, the entire sheet is re-organized according to the chosen metric.
These filters will allow you to change any metric at any time without losing the integrity of your data. Each keyword will still have the correct volume, keyword difficulty, CPC, competition, etc.
Once you have your competitors’ keywords compiled, you can begin to choose keywords you believe would be good targets for your client. From there, it’s about copying and pasting the rows into a tab, and the filters you’ve put in place will organize the information for you with just one click.
How to Choose Keywords for SEO
This is also an important time to do a brief industry analysis, as it can affect your keyword research. The types of keywords that are relevant to your client vary according to what customers need and the competition involved in ranking for them.
For example, the health and fitness industry is extraordinarily competitive — particularly in the United States. It would make sense to target higher volume keywords because they’re easier to rank for (more volume = more opportunity). Of course, this will only be one factor in choosing keywords, but we’ll get into that later.
However, in the health and fitness space, you’re already dealing with hyper-competitive keywords and content. If your client has a low authority score, it’s going to be difficult (but not impossible) for them to rank in high positions — regardless of keyword volume, the competition/difficulty level, or how good the content is.
The industry analysis — in combination with the competitive keyword research you conduct — will inform your keyword target decisions and therefore, content recommendations. If you’re completely new to an industry, looking at the current SERPs will help you get an idea of just how difficult it will be to rank for a given keyword (SEMrush is also super helpful here).
In choosing keyword targets for your client, it’s first important to check how effective their previous blogging strategy has been for them — although, it can’t be that good, since they’re asking you for help.
Look at the type of content currently on their blog, how often they’re posting, and how much engagement they’re getting. Compare that to how each competitor’s blog is performing. How often do competitors post? How does the quality compare to your client’s? What are they doing that seems to be more (or less) successful? What can you learn from the competitor’s strategy, and what cues can your client take from them?
Based on your competitive research and industry analysis, you can compile a list of potential blog pitches for your client. We typically write between 12 and 15 — enough for an entire quarter’s worth of content. They should include titles, descriptions, and keyword targets. We keep these in the same master keyword research spreadsheet in their own tab marked “Blog Pitches.”
But first, let’s take a step back. How do you write blog pitches?
One really great resource for writing pitches is Answer the Public, which is a service that helps you determine what questions people are asking online based around the keyword you’re interested in writing about.
It’s super easy to use and doesn’t really require any kind of training, so we’ll just run through it quickly. First, you’ll go to the home page and type in a keyword you’d like to target. For the purposes of this explanation, we’re going to use “seo content writing.” When you click “search,” you should see a graphic like this one:
To continue with this example, we’ll talk about the “how” branch on the left.
As you can see, these questions aren’t only about “how” seo content writing is done (though that question is also appearing), but also about learning how to do seo content writing. This could give you an idea of topics to cover in your blog post. An obvious thing to cover would also be “what is seo content writing.”
If you decide this is a direction you may want to take, you should check to see what’s currently ranking for the keyword in question. You can use SEMrush for this, or you can pop up an Incognito Window and search that way. Here’s what comes up for “seo content writing:”
Oh hey there! That’s us in spot #5, right below Neil Patel, but above Search Engine Journal and Moz. We’ll take that (for now).
If you want to write a piece of content that outranks all of the ones on this list, you need to write something better than all of it — and not just a little better, but about 10 times better. We like to follow the 10x concept.
So in the case of your client, what you need to think about is: can you write content that will 10x the content currently ranking for those keywords? Keeping in mind that domain authority and current rankings are factors, your main goal still needs to be to create a better piece of content than what already exists.
It’s not a bad idea to aim high, but remember that it will take at least six months for content to get any kind of traction — the more competitive the keyword, the more difficult it will be.
When you start choosing keywords, there are multiple factors to consider:
- Keyword difficulty (an SEMrush statistic to estimate how difficult it would be to rank for this keyword)
- CPC (Cost Per Click in AdWords)
- Volume (estimated search volume per month)
- Competition (another estimate of how competitive the keyword is)
These are all important metrics to keep in mind when choosing keywords. Some of this will come with experience — with more keyword research, pitches, and blog posts, you’ll get better at keyword selection.
On the other hand, there are other things to keep in mind that will affect your decisions that aren’t as easily measured:
- Industry — This will have to be a judgement call you make by assessing how well your client is already doing versus how competitive the industry is. Some industries are far more competitive than others and the choices you make will be informed in part by the marketing strategy your client would like to pursue.
- Long Tail Keywords — Long tail keywords are oftentimes lower in volume (which may lead you to not choose them), but are typically more specific to your clients’ needs. Something like “entrepreneur success stories” is a lower volume than “entrepreneur” alone, but is more indicative of what your article is actually about.
So, let’s get back to pitches. Once you’ve identified some keywords you believe would be good targets for your client, it’s time to write some pitches. Use Answer the Public to gain whatever insight you can find, and look at their competitors’ blogs to see what you can 10x there.
Write up a list of about 12-15 and put them in the Blog Pitches tab of the keyword research spreadsheet.
When your client sees the pitches, they may have feedback or questions. Remember that pitches are suggestions, and you should make sure your clients know this so they feel comfortable telling you what they like and don’t like. In turn, you should accept negative feedback with grace — don’t get defensive. All feedback is information. You’re learning what they want, or don’t want.
Don’t Forget About Non-Blog Content
As an agency that focuses heavily on blog content, we obviously tilt our keyword research in that direction. That doesn’t mean that blog content is the only thing keyword research is useful for, however.
You should also be keeping track of keywords for individual pages on your site — your website’s copy also needs to incorporate keyword research, after all.
Wrapping Things Up
After you’ve pulled the complete competitive analysis, you should identify which strategies have worked well for your client and their competitors, as well as where the failures have been, so they can be avoided in the future.
In your SEO and Blogging Recommendations at the end of the report, you’ll outline a comprehensive digital marketing strategy that can be tied seamlessly into the PR and Social Media strategy we’re recommending. These recommendations should be considered a 1-year marketing plan your client can follow through the next year (although ideally, they’re hiring us for it).
And that’s it! You’ve completed the keyword research portion of this report! Arguably, it’s the most complex, but we like to believe it’s also the most fun.
If you’re using our keyword research and competitive analysis template, you’ll notice there’s also a social media and PR section. Keep your eyes on our blog for guides on how to fill out those sections — they’re coming soon!
Have questions — need someone to help you with your SEO research? Contact us today.