How to Select Keywords for SEO and PPC

How to Select Keywords for SEO and PPC

Multi-channel marketing is almost universally accepted as a marketing best practice. However, that doesn’t mean every channel in the mix carries the same weight. For the majority of businesses, search engine optimization (SEO) takes center stage.

This comes as no surprise when you consider that 5.5 billion Google searches are performed each day. Consequently, 49% of marketers identified organic search as the channel that provided the best ROI.

SEO takes work… obviously. Your website won’t be easily discoverable without trying, and website traffic doesn’t come from out of thin air. You need to populate your website with content people want and optimize it so it’s easily discoverable by Google.

The first step in developing your SEO strategy, whether it’s for organic search or pay per click (PPC), is to select keywords. Keywords serve as the foundation of SEO. They’re the building blocks around which you build much of your content — not just SEO but also general marketing messaging.

On the surface, choosing keywords seems pretty straightforward. You pick the words and phrases that are most relevant to your company, products and services and you’re off to the races. However, it’s not that simple if you want to get the best return on your investment. To do it the right way, you’ve got to put in the work.

In this article, we’ll break down the process of how to select keywords for your SEO and PPC campaigns. It starts with research and involves lots of analysis along the way. But by the end, you’ll know what it takes to make more informed keyword selection decisions.

What is Keyword Research & Why is It Important?

Research is required to select keywords that are the best fit to help you achieve your business goals. Keyword research refers to the process of discovering the language your ideal customers use when searching online for the kinds of content, products and services your business offers.

Keyword research is important because it helps you gain a better understanding of buyers in your market. You’ll gain insight that will help you answer questions like:

  • What kinds of things are people searching for?
  • How many people are searching for those topics?
  • What kind of content do they want?

You may think the keywords you want to rank for are obvious. But without keyword research, you won’t know for sure. If you simply go with your gut and are wrong, you’ll end up spending lots of time and money and getting nothing in return.

In fact, check out this statistic from Ahrefs:

Organic traffic statistic

In addition to getting into the minds of your target audience, keyword research enables you to answer questions like:

  • How difficult will it be to rank for this keyword?
  • How much traffic will this keyword generate?
  • What content do I need to create to rank for this keyword?
  • Are searchers of this keyword my ideal customers and likely to (eventually) convert?

How to Select Keywords

Selecting keywords is a multi-step process. We break them down as follows:

Step 1: Brainstorm Ideas

Step 2: Perform a Competitor Analysis

Step 3: Discover Other Keywords

Step 4: Analyze the Keywords

Step 5: Prioritize Keywords

After going through these steps, you’ll be equipped with the knowledge to select your ideal keywords and put them into action as part of your SEO and PPC efforts.

Step 1: Brainstorm Ideas

To begin the keyword research process, brainstorm some basic ideas. These foundational terms are known as “seed keywords.” They are broad keywords related to your industry, products and services.

For example, a marketing agency like ours might start with terms like:

  • Marketing
  • SEO
  • Website Design
  • Marketing Automation
  • Graphic Design
  • Content Marketing

You may not end up selecting all of your seed keywords, but it’s important to have a good list of them. You will use them in later keyword research steps to help you identify keywords that are even more relevant.

There are many ways to expand your seed keyword list. One is right within Google itself — the “Related searches” section. To do this, simply search for one of your keywords and scroll to the bottom of the page. You will find several other examples to consider.

Relates searches example

And because you’re researching within Google itself, you know they’re popular and worth investigating further.

Another Google function you can utilize Is “Google autocomplete.” This is the list of keywords that appears when you are typing in a search query. This is Google’s way of predicting your intent.

Google autocomplete example

If you want to get away from Google to brainstorm ideas, you have plenty of options.

One tool we are a fan of is Answer the Public. You simply enter a search word or two, and the tool will generate a list of popular related search terms.

You can also tap into the discussions of your ideal customers by monitoring the digital spaces they occupy. These might include Reddit, Facebook Groups or forums/message boards. Take note of the questions that are frequently asked or topics that are discussed the most.

Branded Keywords

As you begin your keyword research, don’t overlook branded keywords, which are the phrases that are directly associated with your brand, products and services. Branded keywords include your literal brand name and any variations of it. They also include any specific products or product lines that are tied to your brand.

Branded keywords are sometimes overlooked because the company assumes they dominate the search results for those terms and don’t need to monitor or act on them. However, it is possible for someone else to outrank you for your own topics. You shouldn’t allow this to happen because they are queries about you.

Your goal should be for your homepage and relevant product pages to maintain the top spots for those branded search queries.

Step 2: Perform a Competitor Analysis

The next part of your keyword research is to perform a competitor analysis. This is when you identify which companies are your direct competitors and then investigate the keywords that are sending traffic to their websites.

The value of a competitor analysis is that it helps you discover SEO opportunities you may not have otherwise considered. You likely keep an eye on what your competitors are doing anyway — the products they are developing, the prices they are charging, the way they are marketing themselves, etc. Learning about their SEO efforts is similar.

When you perform a competitor analysis, you can answer questions like:

  • Who are my true SEO competitors?
  • How can I beat my competitors?
  • What keywords should I target?
  • What topics should my content be about?
  • How can I generate backlinks?

Identify Your Competitors

You probably have a pretty good idea of who your main competitors are. You may also have an idea of some of your fringe competition. However, validation is important. It’s counterproductive to your efforts if you either overlook competitors or include businesses you think are competitors that really aren’t.

Here is where the keywords you brainstormed in Step 1 come in handy. Search for them on Google and see which companies rank highly on the first page of results. Look at those websites. Are they similar to your site or how you’d like your site to eventually be? If so, you can probably consider that company a competitor.

However, you need to use your judgment. If you’re finding mega-brands like Amazon, Walmart, Home Depot, etc., you most likely won’t treat them as competitors. Look for brands that closely resemble yours.

Do a Keyword Gap Analysis

A keyword gap analysis, also called a competitive keyword analysis, is done to identify valuable keywords that your competitors rank highly for that you don’t. Valuable keywords refer to those that generate a high volume of traffic, are related to your business and are likely to convert.

You and your competitors could rank for hundreds or even thousands of keywords, so a manual comparison is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to perform. Fortunately, tools exist that can do the keyword gap analysis for you. Moz’s Keyword Explorer and Ahrefs’s Content Gap Tool are two examples.

To use these tools, enter your domain and those of your competitors. The tool will generate a list of keywords where you are trailing the competition in ranking. You can use these results to identify keywords where you want to close the gap and eventually surpass your competitors.

For more advanced analysis, go beyond a domain-level (homepage) comparison. If you have individual pages that cover similar topics to competitors, you can analyze those URLs as well.

Complete a Top Content Analysis

Keywords and content go hand-in-hand. A top content analysis is when you identify your competitors’ top-performing content. What you’re looking for are the pages of your competitors that have earned the most backlinks (since backlinks are one of the biggest ranking factors) and generated the most traffic.

To do this, use a tool like Moz’s Link Explorer. Enter your competitor’s domain and look at the top pages report. Note the topic of the top pages.

The goals of a top content analysis are to:

  • Compile a list of your competitors’ top content topics
  • Develop your own content about those topics that are significantly better
  • Promote your content to a similar audience

By doing this, you’ll start stealing traffic from your competitors and building backlinks to your site.

Link gap analysis

Perform a Link Gap Analysis

A link gap analysis is the process of identifying backlinks your competitors have compiled that you have not (yet). As mentioned in the previous section, building links is important if you want a high ranking.

You can use Link Explorer or a similar tool to compare your site to your competitors’. It will generate a list of domains that link to competitor pages but not yours. For more precise results, compare specific page URLs as opposed to just homepage domains.

Your goal here is to get the websites that have linked to your competitors to link to your website as well. Once you know the topics that are earning backlinks for your competitors, you can create better content pieces that focus on those topics. Your high-quality content that focuses on popular topics should earn you plenty of links.

Complete a Google SERP Analysis

To beat your competitors in the SEO battle, you need to go beyond keywords. You also need to understand searchers’ intent for the keyword. Yes, they are interested in that keyword, but why? What are they hoping to find?

It seems like it would be impossible to answer those questions, but the functionality of Google actually provides some great insight. Search the keywords on your list. What kind of content comes up in the top results? In what format is it presented (blog post, video, etc.)? Some research like this will help you identify the intent of searchers.

You can also look at search engine results page (SERP) metrics for more in-depth knowledge. Tools like MozBar allow you to view and export metrics like:

  • Keyword monthly volume – Number of monthly searches for the keyword
  • Keyword difficulty – A score of how difficult it is to rank for the keyword
  • Organic clickthrough rate (CTR) – An estimate of how many searchers click to the website result on that SERP
  • Priority – An estimate of the potential value of the keyword based on the volume, difficulty and clickthrough rate
Discover other keywords

Step 3: Discover Other Keywords

After brainstorming your initial keywords and identifying others through your competitor analysis, you should have a sizable list established. However, there are still many others out there that you haven’t thought of yet and your competitors aren’t targeting. To discover them, utilize a keyword research tool.

There are several keyword research tools out there. The one that is perhaps the most well-known is Google Keyword Planner. It is a tool designed mainly for advertisers doing PPC campaigns, but it works for finding SEO keywords as well.

To use it, simply enter a few of your seed keywords and see what other options it provides. In addition to numerous keyword variations, it’s intuitive enough to provide other relevant keyword ideas even if they don’t contain your seed keywords.

After completing this exercise, you should have a ton of keywords to consider for selection. Narrowing it down to the best possible options may seem overwhelming. Fortunately, there is a method you can use to make informed decisions, and you’ll learn about it in the next section.

Step 4: Analyze the Keywords

It’s great to have a bunch of keywords from which to choose, but that also makes it challenging to select the keywords that will make the biggest impact. Rather than making decisions based on hunches, turn to the data. Numerous keyword tools exist (like those referred to earlier in this article) that allow you to get a breakdown of the numbers.

There are five SEO metrics you can analyze to drive your decision-making process:

  • Search volume
  • Clicks
  • Traffic potential
  • Keyword difficulty
  • Cost per click (CPC)

Search Volume

Search volume is the average number of times a keyword is searched for in a month. This metric refers to searches performed, not the number of people searching. So, if one person searches for the same keyword 10 times, 10 searches will be factored into the calculation.

It’s important to note that the average is calculated by annual searches, so seasonal spikes and dips need to be considered. You also need to consider geography (global vs. country-specific). Focus your research on only the country or countries where you sell the most. Your keyword tool should allow you to search based on geography.

You would think that the keywords with the highest search volume would be the ones you should target. However, high volume means high competition. The more popular the keyword, the more companies there are trying to rank for it. You could enter that fight, but it will take a lot of work and time to break through, if you are even able to at all. Many times, it’s a losing proposition when you’re going up against huge, well-established brands.

On the other hand, targeting keywords with low volume and low competition isn’t the answer either. Yes, it would be easy to dominate those searches. However, the low search volume means it won’t help you in your quest to boost traffic to your site.

The best approach is to target long-tail keywords. Long-tail keywords are highly specific, low-competition search terms. Conversions are better with long-tail keywords because they are more relevant to the searcher’s intent, rather than being ambiguous like a seed keyword. For example, someone looking to buy books in Chicago will get more relevant search results with the long-tail query “bookstores in Chicago” than they would by simply searching “books.”

Here’s a graphical representation from Backlinko:

Keyword competition vs conversion


It’s one thing for someone to search for a keyword. It’s another for them to actually click on the search results. One explanation of why is that Google wants to keep people on its platform longer. (This is why we stress the importance of having a Google Business Profile listing.)

Google has implemented features like local packs and snippets that provide answers right on Google, so people don’t need to click to websites to get the answers they need. Google Ads (PPC) are also more prevalent than they used to be, which pushes organic results lower on the page. A study found that nearly 65% of Google searches in 2020 ended without a click to another web property. That was an increase of 15% from 2019.

This means that you shouldn’t select keywords based on search volume alone. A keyword may have a great monthly search volume but a poor CTR.

Traffic Potential

As you are doing your keyword research, keep in mind that Google doesn’t limit the search results it provides to the query exactly as keyed in by the searcher. It factors in the searcher’s intent and context to provide the most relevant results possible. This is possible because Google doesn’t just crawl web pages for individual keywords. It searches for synonyms — both individual words and phrases.

So, when you’re analyzing keywords, think about keyword pools as opposed to individual keywords to estimate the traffic potential of a topic. Does the keyword or phrase have synonyms? If so, what are the search volumes and CTRs of those? If your page ranks for one keyword/phrase, it will likely rank for all related keywords/phrases as well.

Keyword Difficulty

As the name implies, the keyword difficulty metric refers to how challenging it will be to rank for a particular keyword. Many SEO professionals agree that backlinks are the critical factor to consider. The more backlinks a page needs to accumulate to rank in the top 10 search results for a keyword, the higher the difficulty score will be.

If you have a newly created website or just don’t have many links yet, targeting low-competition keywords will get the ball rolling and begin to build your authority. These low-hanging opportunities make sense, but that doesn’t mean you should shy away from high-competition keywords entirely.

Competitive keywords identify the hot topics that people want to learn about. Throwing your hat into the ring on a few of these keywords can pay dividends… eventually. If you hit it out of the park with your content, the backlinks will come and your authority will grow.


CPC is a metric that tells you how much advertisers are willing to pay for each ad click from a keyword. It answers the key question of whether or not people who search for a keyword convert and make a purchase. It’s obviously very valuable for companies doing PPC campaigns. But it’s also beneficial information for those doing organic SEO because it lets them know what the value of a keyword is.

Because CPC reflects commercial intent, you can with reasonable confidence assume that a keyword with a high CPC is a good one to target. CPC isn’t tied to search volume, either. A keyword can have a low search volume but a high CPC.

It is important to note that CPC is a more volatile metric than search volume. While search volume typically remains fairly consistent from month to month (seasonal keywords notwithstanding), CPC can change drastically at any time.

Tip, Trick or Talk

Step 5: Prioritize Keywords

Once your keyword research is complete, you can continue the process of prioritizing the keywords you want to focus on. You likely began this process as you made your way through the first four steps detailed above — either by compiling a priority list or simply making mental notes. Now, it’s time to get more serious so you can make final decisions.

When reviewing your keyword list, analyzing the metrics and putting together keyword groupings, consider factors such as:

  • Traffic potential of the keyword
    • Will the keyword boost visitors to your website?
  • Level of competition for the keyword
    • How difficult will it be to rank for the keyword?
  • Content needed to succeed with the keyword
    • Do you have existing content that can be updated to satisfy the need?
    • Will you need to create new content?
  • Your current rank for the keyword (if applicable)
    • Can you boost traffic by improving your ranking a few spots?
  • Impact on the sales funnel
    • Will ranking for the keyword contribute to your goal of converting leads and increasing sales, or will it simply create brand awareness?

By thinking about these factors, you can give higher priority to the keywords that you believe will bring the most value to your company and deliver the best ROI. When you go to select keywords for SEO and PPC campaigns, start with the ones that are the highest on your priority list.

Once you’ve implemented them, monitor their performance and optimize for continued improvement. When you’ve gotten those keywords into a strong, stable position, you can expand your efforts to keywords a little lower on your priority list to expand your reach.

Select Keywords with Confidence

Keywords are the foundation of SEO and PPC campaigns, so you don’t want to choose them at random. For best results, utilize the available tools and follow the analytical, data-driven approach outlined in this article.

Have additional questions about keyword selection or want to learn even more? Call us at 815.431.1000 or submit this form to contact us. And to learn more about SEO, visit the SEO/SEM section of our blog.


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