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How We Do Free Keyword Research & Keep Our Content Organized
As the head of SEO for Ampjar, I’m a bit biased when it comes to the importance of keyword research. We use it as the basis for almost all of our content and have developed a process to ensure every webpage we create is optimized for organic traffic.
However, when it comes to most small businesses interested in driving organic traffic, the main issue we see is that keyword research is often an afterthought in regards to content. A company might have a blog, they may even post content regularly, but a lot of this content misses the mark in terms of focus – this can be solved with keyword research.
In this post we’re going to explore how to do keyword research for free and give you a behind-the-scenes-look at how we do it for the Ampjar blog.
The importance of keyword research
When it comes to creating content, think of keyword research as a way to ensure a return on your investment. Done correctly and it can help reduce the chances of writing something that sees little to no traffic.
From a business perspective, taking the time to do your research can help ensure you’re:
- Writing about something that people want to read – if you are just guessing that a topic will be popular you are likely going to waste a lot of effort for nothing.
- Targeting your specific user persons – finding a good topic is more than just search volume – doing research will help you weed out the topics that aren’t a good fit for your customers.
- Choosing a topic you can actually compete for – plenty of companies care about SEO and if you go into content creation blindly you could end up competing with sites that are much stronger than yours (and that you have no hope of overtaking).
- Increasing conversions and ultimately sales – one function of our blog is to drive people deeper into our site and introduce them to our product – think of it as getting a user started with your sales funnel.
The free keyword research tools we’ll use
There is no shortage of free keyword research tools out there – we’re going to focus on the 3 we actually use internally.
This is an incredible free tool provided by Google and should be considered the source of truth when it comes to understanding where you site currently ranks in the search results.
This tool is more about where you site currently sits rather than topic research, but it still plays a role in the process we’re going to use.
Run by marketing guru Neil Patel, Ubersuggest is one of the better known free keyword research tools out there – it allows you to look up keywords as well as see what terms other websites rank for.
We’re going to use Ubersuggest to find potential topics and confirm that we can get our posts to rank against the competition.
SEO Quake is a free Chrome Extension that shows you the basic structure of a page as it related to SEO best practices.
For this example we’re going to use it to look under the hood of our competitors’ pages.
Paid keyword research tools with trials
It’s also worth mentioning that there are some really great paid keyword research tools with free trials. We primarily use Ahrefs but SEMRush is also a good option if you’re looking to test out some advanced functionality.
However, for this post, we’re going to be focusing on what you can do with free tools – let’s dive in!
About keyword competition – can you rank?
It’s important to keep keyword competition in mind when doing keyword research – you want to target terms that you have a chance of showing up for (especially with a newer site) and being aware of this will help you choose better topics.
A good rule of thumb here is that the bigger your industry, the harder it will be to rank for focus keywords. Let’s look at two examples:
- If you sell shoes it’s unlikely you’re going to be able to create a page on “the best shoes for men” and compete with the big guys in your industry. Instead, try and narrow your focus to more niche terms like “best shoes for men with narrow feet” – this will likely have less competition and you stand a better chance of ranking for it.
- If you sell a digital service or product (like we do at Ampjar) then your market is probably saturated with bigger and stronger websites – instead of going after “how to do ___” where you go after your customers’ major pain point, niche down and “how to do ____ for ___” where you focus on one specific user group.
You can see an example of these in our page Best Art Hashtags – “best hashtags” was far too competitive for us but adding in “art” has reduced the competition and made this one of our most-trafficked pages.
Luckily, Ubersuggest has a metric for difficulty – it shows how hard a keyword would be to rank for on a 1-100 scale.
The good news is that as your business and website grow you’ll be able to target harder and harder keywords – your focus now should be laying down a foundation of easier keywords to get your traffic started.
The free keyword research process
Time to get to the nuts and bolts of this post – how to actually do the research. To help illustrate everything, we’re going to be using an example for an upcoming Ampjar blog post: how to build a brand community.
If you don’t have a clue on what to write about, you can do a few things:
- Check out a competitor’s blog and see what they are writing about
- Visit industry communities on Facebook or Reddit and see what people are discussing
- Type ideas into Google or Google Trends and see what comes out
The goal of all of this is to have at least one topic idea you can validate via Ubersuggest.
To dig into this,we’re going to look at the following:
- Keyword research
- Hints from Google & other sources
- Looking at the competition
We’re getting to the good stuff now, let’s get started!
Keyword research organization
We create anywhere from 5-15 pieces of content + web pages a month so it’s important to stay organized. To help us keep our sanity we use both a Google Sheet and content briefs to keep things standardized.
Our sheet is made up of columns that allow us to easily review the status of different pieces, where it was published, how much time and effort it took to write, etc. Yours will likely look different but the goal should be the same – to help you track all current and upcoming pieces of content
Note – if you have an active blog but don’t have a place where you track everything I highly recommend creating one – it helps immensely when updating things en masse or looking for details like how many posts you published last July.
We also use a standardized content brief to help inform our writers of all keywords, format suggestions, etc. No matter if we’re creating a page internally or sending it to one of our writers, we always use the same template to make sure the end result is what we’re looking for.
I’ll fill this out as we work our way through the keyword research process.
So now that we have decided on a topic that we’re interested in, as well as the means of keeping everything organized, let’s get into the actual research.
I personally like to start by researching the biggest term I can think of that relates to this topic – we call this the focus term but it’s also known as the head term. You won’t always be able to rank for this term (remember “best hashtags”) but it will open the door for other possibilities.
There is no magic formula for finding the focus term – I usually just look at a topic and think about the biggest grouping it fits into. For our shoe example, this could be “best shoes” or even just “shoes.” From there I’ll start to add modifiers to it like “shoes for men” and just follow the data in terms of search volume.
If you put a term into Ubersuggest and see little to no volume, it’s probably not a focus term and you can try another one.
In this case I’ll throw “brand community” into Ubersuggest and see what comes out.
So far so good – not only does this term have good search volume but it spits out some great supporting keywords. I’ll copy them to our brief as well as some of the related sites – the sites will go in our resources section so we can reference them later.
Note: low search volume isn’t always bad – if you’re selling a niche or expensive product then traffic is valuable in any quantity.
From there I’ll do this a few more times with a few other keywords (usually working my way down in terms of search volume) to make sure I’ve got a good list of keywords and sites to use as inspiration (I try not to list more than 5 resource pages as it can slow down the rest of the process).
Our writing brief now looks like this:
I’ve added a few more keywords, resource sites, and a proposed URL based off of the focus keyword.
Gettings hints from Google & other sources
Before we get into the structure of this post we also want to take a quick peek at Google and a few other sources to make sure we’re covering the topic in depth.
Let’s start with Google:
Whenever you search for something on Google there is a good chance it will give you hints on similar questions or topics – these come in the form of “People also ask” and “Related searches.” These are based off of real searches and you want to make sure to include the most relevant ones.
I’ll add a few of these to our brief and then move on to Quora, a site used for asking and answering questions.
Quora is great for getting first hand responses on a topic while also showing you what other people are asking – you can treat it just like Google and add the most relevant questions to your brief.
You can repeat this process for as many sites as you like – I also use Reddit and Facebook Groups but the goal remains the same – to find out what people are asking regarding the topic so you can provide answers in your piece of content.
Looking at the competition
The last step before writing is to do a quick look into the competition – we want to see how our resource pages are structuring their content as well as how long it is.
To do this we’re going to use SEO Quake – start by opening up one of the pages you wrote down and right click in the body – then hover over SEO Quake and choose ‘Diagnosis.’
You should end up with something like this:
I’m most interested in the heading section as it shows how they laid out their content – the idea isn’t to copy them but get a sense for how it’s structured and make ours better and more thorough.
You can also check out the Meta keywords section – if there is anything there (often there isn’t) these should be the terms they care the most about and you can add them to your brief.
Once you review the Diagnosis, our last stop is the ‘Density’ tab – here we want to see how long their piece is:
Word count only matters in a general sense – we don’t have to write more than other pages but we don’t want to write significantly less – if you write 1,000 words and everyone else writes 2,000 it will be hard to compete.
Repeat both of these steps with the other pages you’ve listed and add the ballpark word count + any new keywords to your brief.
The final brief
The last thing to do before passing your brief to your writer (or yourself!) is to make some notes on how you think the post should be formatted. For Ampjar, we treat these as suggestions – we trust our writers to cover the topic in the best format possible, but we also want to provide them with information that helps them be efficient and effective.
Our final brief looks like this – I’ve added the recommended format (summary) as well as the word count (for anyone following at home, the HBR piece was 5500 words but the rest were around 1500 so I’m confident we can do well with 2000).
This brief will then get added to our content tracking doc and assigned to a writer – the draft will be written within the same doc so we can easily review the layout + keyword usage.
Reviewing your content
Content doesn’t always perform as you expect – there will be times when some pieces rank while others don’t and some keywords will seem to never get traction. This is ok and fairly common when it comes to keyword research-based content.
To combat this, we employ a 6 month content review process – each piece of content gets a reminder to be reviewed after 6 months. The thinking is that you should have a pretty good idea of where you content stands after 6 months and finding ways to improve it should be pretty simple.
To do this we’re going to use the first tool we mentioned: Google Search Console. This tool should have been setup before you published your first word and ideally has data on all of your pages.
To get started, you’re going to open up your performance report, change the date to 6 months, and select “+ New” to add your page URL. Copy in the URL you want to review and you should get a report that looks like this:
There’s a lot going on here but we’re going to do 3 things with the goal of identifying ways to improve this page.
Note: every page won’t need to be improved – if you’re happy with a page’s performance, move on to the next one. In our case, this example page saw a big drop in traffic so this is part of the effort to identify the cause of that drop and make any necessary improvements.
- Make sure Clicks, Impressions, and Average position are highlighted/clicked in the graph at the top of the page – this will make sure the corresponding data is available in the table below.
- Click Impressions on the table to sort by that column, it should now have a down arrow next to it.
- Apply a filter to the table using the 3 line icon and choose Query and then Greater than 10.
Now you have a list of keywords that you’re ranking for on page 2+ for, all filtered by impression which should give you an idea of which terms are being searched for the most.
We use a new brief when doing content reviews (after all, our writers will likely need to do some writing!) and would add every worthwhile term to the new keyword section.
Once you have some terms you’d like to see improved, figure out the best way to this (add a new section, change a section header, use the keyword more frequently) and add these ideas to the summary section.
Search Console is an amazing tool and worthy of its own in depth guide – for now I’ll leave you with a few more suggestions on how to best utilize it:
- Change the date to comparison mode – this will allow you to compare weeks and months of traffic and ID terms that changed for the better or worse.
- Use the Pages tab (as opposed to the Query tab) and filter by title – if you have posts that share a keyword (like Instagram or Email) then you group them using this filter and see which are performing and which aren’t.
Should you be doing keyword research?
In my opinion, companies and websites can benefit from keyword research even if they don’t have a blog. Keywords can be applied to every type of page (product, feature, about us, catalog) and will put that page in a better position to receive organic traffic.
Unless you want to constantly pay for traffic or rely on social media, it’s worth the effort to learn how to apply these tips and build them into your publishing processes.
Organic traffic is a flywheel and the effort you put in now can deliver visitors to your site for months and years to come. Good luck!
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