Understanding Keywords and the Research Process

There’s a wealth of information on the web surrounding the mystical art of search engine optimization. Doing great SEO covers everything from website design to social media to content marketing. Understandably, trying to parse it all can be completely overwhelming. With this in mind, we’ve created a guide to ease you into the discipline by focusing on its most important facet: Keyword research.

Whether you’re looking to start a paid advertising campaign or you just want to help your website rank on Google organically, keyword research is the starting point for all of your SEO efforts. It’s the very foundation of your online marketing efforts, and it can give you insights into what your potential customers are searching for and how you can provide it for them.

With that said, we’ll take a look at the principle ideas behind keyword research, how to go about doing it, and how you can use it to inform your larger marketing strategy. And hopefully, we’ll demystify the process a little along the way.

Keywords and How They Work

Depending on whom you ask, there are several types of keywords. Short, base, body, long-tail, commercial, branded and product keywords are just a few of the common names used to classify them. Unfortunately, there are no industry standards on how to organize and name keyword types, but there’s a single principle you can learn to help cut through the noise. But first we need to clarify what a keyword is.

In the simplest possible terms, a keyword is a word or phrase that someone uses to search the web. That’s all there is to it. These can be one or two words, complete sentences, and everything in between. For example, these are perfectly valid keywords:

  • Pizza
  • How to make pizza dough
  • Best flour for pizza dough
  • Cheap pizza place near me
  • Papa joe’s pizzeria

The point is that a keyword is simply a search query. Classifying keywords by type isn’t very helpful without first understanding the most important idea behind keywords, and that idea is search intent.

Search intent is defined by what someone is truly looking for when they search the web. Someone can go to Google and type in the word “pizza,” but what is their intent in doing so? Are they looking for pizza recipes? Do they want to order dinner? Are they doing a school report on the history of Italian cuisine?

Intent can be a little tricky to understand at times—after all, how can we know exactly what someone on the other end of a computer is looking for? Thankfully, most search phrases consist of more than a single word, and looking at the accompanying words can help gather some context.

At this point, it’s helpful to break search intent (rather than keywords) into a few different categories. Keep in mind, these aren’t hard and fast rules; a user’s search intent doesn’t always fit nicely into one category. It’s simply a few ways to look at keywords to help understand the concept of search intent.

Informational Search Intent

When people are searching the web for information, they use phrases that include words like how, what, who, why, guide, and tutorial. They’re looking for information or help or guides on how to accomplish something. They’re looking to learn something. Someone searching for “how to make pizza dough” is looking for information on how to … well, you know!

Navigational Search Intent

Navigational search intent refers to queries that have an end destination in mind. They aren’t browsing the web; they’re hunting for something specific. You can probably assume that someone searching for “papa joe’s pizzeria” isn’t looking to make their own pizza dough.

Commercial Investigation Search Intent

People often search the internet for product comparisons and reviews. They aren’t necessarily looking to purchase a product or service just yet, but they aren’t far off from it either. Phrases with a commercial investigation search intent will include words like best, compared, and review.

Transactional Search Intent

Lastly, searches made by people who are looking to buy something in the immediate future will have a transactional search intent. These kinds of phrases might include words like coupon, price, order, buy and so on. The person searching for “cheap pizza place near me” is hungry. Immediately.

By looking at the entire structure of a keyword, we can discern what the search intent is of the person searching. Some of these words will be more valuable to you, depending on your business and who you’re targeting. And now that we have a solid understand of search intent, we can look at how to do the actual research.

Keyword Research in 5 Steps

Step 1: Determine Your Goals

Keyword research starts with goals—what, exactly, you want to accomplish. Of course, you want to drive more traffic to your site, but are you doing so because you want to make more sales? Increase your brand awareness? Get people to sign up for your email list? Being able to answer these questions will help guide your keyword research.

Keep in mind that a balanced approach is usually a better one when it comes to online marketing. For example, it might seem reasonable to focus your efforts on keywords with transactional search intent. After all, these searches offer the most “bang for the buck,” as it were.

But you also have to take other factors into consideration, such as how well-known your business or brand is and how much authority you have. If your website or company is relatively new, you may want to put a higher emphasis on increasing awareness or convincing people that your business is trustworthy.

Step 2: Come Up with Keyword Ideas

Once you have your goals outlined, you can start brainstorming keyword ideas relevant to them. For example, if your goal is to position your business as an authority in your market, your strategy might be to produce content that offers expert knowledge or insight in your market. As such, your ideas should consist of a list of keywords that focus on knowledge and expertise relevant to your business, products, and services.

There are plenty of methods for coming up with ideas. One good way to do so is to look at trending topics for your particular subject. We have a guide to help you do just that. The important thing is to find ideas and then look at them in terms of their search intent. Once you have a solid list of keywords to work with, you can start narrowing them down based on research.

Step 3: Analyze Your Keywords

Analyzing the keywords you’ve come up with involves looking at each one and determining how many people are searching for it and how difficult it would be to rank for it. To accomplish this, you’ll need an SEO tool.

There are myriad tools available for SEO. They run the gamut of simple and inexpensive to incredibly complex and costly. That said, these tools are engineered with professional marketers in mind, so learning to use them effectively isn’t something you can do in an afternoon.

In maintaining the spirit of simplicity, we recommend Google’s Keyword Planner for your research. While it doesn’t offer the same level of analyzation available in other tools, it’s relatively straight-forward and free to use.

When analyzing your keywords, there are a few general ideas you should focus on to determine which ones you should use and which ones you should throw away:

Search Volume

Search volume tells you how many times a keyword is searched for per month. This is the first metrics you want to look at when analyzing your keywords—after all, if no one’s searching for your keyword, there isn’t much point focusing on it.

Keep in mind, this is the number of times the keyword is searched, not the number of people searching for it. There are instances where a single user searches a single keyword multiple times, so this isn’t a one-to-one measure of the number of people searching your keyword.


Relevance refers to how important a keyword is to the page in question. This is how search engines determine what the page is about and what’s contained within. It’s precisely where search intent ties into your keyword analysis—how well does your website provide what the user is searching for?

To figure this out, you need to look at your competition—the pages that currently rank for the keyword you’re analyzing. And then you need to ask yourself a few questions:

  • Given the websites and the keyword, what exactly is the user searching this keyword looking for?
  • Is what they’re searching for adequately provided by the websites that currently rank?
  • Can I make something that provides a better answer than what’s currently ranking?

Answering these questions can help you determine whether you should focus on a particular keyword. If you believe you can provide a better solution than what’s available, then you have a shot at being more relevant for a keyword.

Keyword Difficulty

Taking these metrics into account, you can start to get an idea about how difficult a keyword will be to rank for. If a keyword has high search volumes and a lot of great content, it’s going to be difficult to rank for it. Obviously, it’s going to take some work to find keywords that have good search volumes and openings for your content, but this is where analyzing comes in.

As you continue to analyze your keywords, you may find that you need to go back and revise your initial list. But this means you’re on the right path—finding great keywords takes a considerable amount of time and effort. The benefits are pretty clear, however—once you find great keywords with good search volume and low-quality content, you have a shot at providing relevant results to the people searching the web.

Step 4: Implement Your Keywords

Your goals will ultimately inform you on how to implement the keywords you analyze. If your goal is to increase conversions, you may want to focus on integrating your keywords into your website copy or landing pages. If your aim is to increase your brand awareness and position yourself as an authority in your market, you’ll want to create some killer content that your visitors find valuable.

Step 5. Refine Your Research

SEO is an ongoing process. Popular searches last month aren’t necessarily popular this month. Content that was once unique is suddenly everywhere. And on top of all of this, Google constantly tweaks their search algorithms. In other words, you eventually need to revisit the keyword research process.

The good news is that the more you do it, the more you’ll learn what works and what doesn’t, and how to choose the right keywords that work. The takeaway is that keyword research and SEO never ends. If you want to keep the traffic rolling in, you need to revisit your keyword research again and again.

Wrapping Up

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this guide. Hopefully, you now have a solid understanding of keywords and search intent. While it can all seem pretty complicated, understanding keyword research will go a long way in helping you build a sturdy foundation for all of your digital marketing.

After all, digital marketing is just as important as the website you’re running, whether it’s a blog or an e-commerce site. It’s important to make your voice heard to the people that will get value from hearing it. The best way to do that is to start your marketing off right with solid keyword research.

If you’re in the Greater Toronto Area, and you’re ready to take your digital marketing to the next level, a focus on local SEO is a great way to drive more customers to your doorstep. Consider hiring an SEO agency to craft a successful local SEO campaign for you.