There’s no shortage of articles explaining the basics of keyword research. In our view, it’s a solved problem that doesn’t need any additional coverage. But we do have something important to say about honing in on the keywords that’ll add real value to your marketing campaigns.
To be clear, we’re not talking about identifying the most popular or well-searched keywords in your niche. We’re talking about drilling down to the keywords that are used when a potential customer is right on the cusp of making an important decision – or searching for a trusted voice to lean on as they navigate their buying journey.
Moving beyond basic metrics like search volume and the very basic “intent” scoring provided by SEMRush and similar tools, there’s a raft of important micro-signals to consider when deciding which keywords to prioritise with your SEO or PPC campaigns.
Get this process right and you’ll generate tangible results; spike digital revenue and make yourself look like the smartest marketing manager to ever grace the planet.. But if you get it wrong, you risk diverting important resources and sending your internal team(s) on a wild goose chase that hamstrings growth.
Here, we want to set out a foolproof methodology for honing in on the right keywords; drawing on our 20+ years of hands-on experience to provide a blueprint that you can use to either build your own marketing strategy, or check the work of agencies you’ve employed to do the same.
You won’t find any gimmicks or ‘hacks’ here. Most of the following is fairly common-sense advice organised into a single, linear process but we think there’s real value to having and following a process like this: It’s how we generate consistent revenue for our own digital marketing clients and we think it’s applicable to most B2B businesses selling a product or service with pre-existing demand.
1. Profile Your Ideal Customer
It might feel antithetical to the completion of an exercise that normally revolves around the creation of several intricately coloured spreadsheets, but understanding your audience really is key to honing in on the search terms that will make a tangible difference to your bottom line.
Simply put, the way people buy B2B products or services is changing fast. As The Harvard Business Review is quick to note, the idea that prospective customers buy new software, components or services by visiting a website, reading a landing page, filling out an enquiry form and engaging with a sales team is seriously outdated (source: Harvard Business Review).
Instead, B2B buyers generally spend a lot of time in the ‘consideration’ phase of the buyer journey: researching various vendors, comparing their websites, asking questions or engaging with webinars and other educational content so that they can build a solid case for your solution – and sell your credentials to their CFO.
Thanks to the clever folks at Laire Digital, we also know that B2B buyers may touch your brand’s content up to 50 times during the consideration phase (source: Laire Digital). Some of this contact is just requirement-building, but a decent chunk of it is being used to build a shortlist of potential vendors prior to the “decision making” stage of the process.
And circling back to the research conducted from The Harvard Business Review, we know that 90% of B2B buyers have settled on one or two potential vendors by the end of the consideration phase (source: Harvard Business Review).
What does this mean for marketers? In simple terms, there’s no real point targeting the keywords people use at the very end of the buying journey– they’ve already picked a vendor by the time they start using these phrases and any attempt to “swipe” someone else’s sale will invariably fail
At the very least, we need to know how people are searching during the consideration phase – so that we start modelling their behaviour and building a list of the keywords they’re using.
To do this well, we need to know who the key decision makers are; what their job title is and who they answer to. Ideally, we’d also know what the validation and approval process look like: Who do they have to sell the product to, and what objections are they likely to face?
More importantly, what are their key pain points, what levers do we have to pull and how do we speak to them in a way that resonates? And let’s not forget differentiation: What else are they hearing during the buying process, and what’s giving them pause.
Data Driven Profiles > Fluffy Nonsense
As you can see, we’re a million miles away from the ‘creative’ buyer personas produced during the majority of (frankly rubbish) marketing workshops. We’re looking for a much more concrete and illustrative persona that clues us into the language prospective customers are likely to be using as they navigate the buying journey.
But that doesn’t detract from the fact that we do need a model or persona to guide our efforts to hone in on those high-value keywords.
In an ideal world, you’d also use this as an opportunity to map out the average buyer’s journey; looking at touch points and common behaviours, honing in on the support they need at various stages of the process and working out what questions they’re asking so that you can start building out a content calendar or generating assets.
Once you have your personas and know how people search for whatever product or service you’re selling, you can start building your list of seed keywords and start refining to find those hidden gems that’ll supercharge your SEO or PPC marketing efforts.
But let’s take a breath. Before we dive into the nitty-gritty of generating seed keywords or refining your list of good keywords, we thought it’d be expedient to provide you with an example that illustrates the value of a robust persona-building exercise in terms the most hard-headed and sceptical C-suite exec will understand.
A Real-World Example To Get You Started
Let’s pretend you sell asset management software for the oil and gas industry. This software is used to oversee routine maintenance on offshore platforms and FPSOs.
Coming to this fresh, you may assume that the focus should be on keywords like “asset management software for offshore assets” or (more succinctly) “offshore asset management software” Ultimately, these phrases are the ones that CTOs will use to find and subscribe to a tool like the one you’re selling – and 10 years ago, they would have been the smart keywords to target.
But as noted above, the way people shop for B2B SaaS products has changed dramatically over the last decade.
Spend some time with the people that sit down to purchase asset management for their organisations and you’ll discover that they spend most of their time googling things like “best asset management software for the energy sector”, “customisable asset management software for FPSOs” or “should my asset management software interface with my permit to work system”
Drilling down into people’s buying behaviour (or talking to some CTOs), we quickly discover that their primary concerns are adaptability, ease-of-use and scalability. Secondary concerns include dashboard quality (for reporting) and the ability to interface with 3D modelling software and the ancillary tools that are used to book maintenance jobs.
Critically, we discover that they simply will not use tools that don’t allow you to quickly audit the performance of multiple assets across their catalogue.
This is all incredibly valuable information that we can use to shape our on-page messaging, but it’s also directly relevant to our attempts to build a list of the right keywords because it allows us to sidestep the high-volume, low-intent phrases people normally get hung up on – and hone in on the terms that genuine prospects are using to build their shortlist.
2. Identify Seed Keywords
Profiles built, it’s time to pick the seed phrases that we’ll use to generate our master list of good keywords. To be clear, the idea here is to use all the information that we’ve gathered above to brainstorm some sample keywords/search terms.
We’ll then plug these seed keywords into several keyword tools that are designed to spit out semantically-related phrases alongside a load of useful information like monthly search volumes and competitiveness.
We won’t be led by this data; as we mentioned at the beginning of this article, the idea of this methodology is to go beyond the simplistic keyword research that most brands engage with, but it’s still important to qualify our potential keywords with hard data about their popularity and the cost of targeting them.
After all, you want to avoid spending hours of your time (or hundreds of pounds) targeting a keyword only to find that your competitors have invested twice as much time and energy securing top-spot visibility – or discover that your
To generate seed keywords, take a look at the data gathered during the profiling exercise you’ve just completed: Are there any obvious surface-level questions that you can use as a jumping off point? Any specific search behaviour that you want to explore because you think it speaks to a mindset that’s particularly sympathetic to your offering?
You could also try using a tool like Seed Keywords to poll members of your extended network. A hard-serve from the typical crop of algorithmic tools that your competitors rely on, Seed Keywords and similar websites allow you to leverage human intelligence and get real insights from the people you’re trying to target.
Yes, the search behaviour they uncover is anecdotal at best but at this stage of the process, we’re looking for ideas that spark or accelerate discussion and allow us to uncover brand new ways of thinking about the search process so don’t be afraid to try new things.
Linkedin polls can also be tremendously helpful and powerful here. Assuming that you’ve got the time and money, you could also assemble your own focus group of industry insiders – running a session that lets you ask questions about search behaviour and actually record your target audience talking through the way they search for products or services like yours can be incredibly fruitful.
Zoom, Teams and the like make it much more affordable too and if anyone kicks back on the expenditure, just remind them that the only way to uncover novel insights and outmanoeuvre your competitors is to get off the beaten track and stop relying on the same tactics.
3. Gather Keyword Data
Once you have a list of 20-30 seed keywords, you can start plugging them into keyword research tools that are designed to flag up related searches. This bit of the process is fairly straightforward but it’s important to remember that you’ll need to use several different tools.
Speaking from experience, each keyword research tool uses a slightly different methodology to identify related searches. As such, one tool will often find opportunities that other - ostensibly comparable - tools miss completely. And no, there is no clear winner. Google’s own Keyword Planner is a goldmine, but is very focused on PPC data and often misses lower volume, long tail search terms.
Conversely, Answer The Public is much more focused on those low volume, long tail search terms but doesn’t provide dependable data on avg. monthly searches etc, and tools like AHrefs, SEMRush and Moz sit somewhere in between.
If you’re looking for a complete list, this article by Backlinko is pretty comprehensive. But if you just want a quick list of our favourites, check out:
- Moz Keyword Explorer - This tool provides reliable search data for millions of searches. It’s free for your first 10 queries, but requires a subscription after that.
- SEMRush - A fantastic platform for keyword research. It requires a subscription but provides in-depth competitive metrics that are very useful (more on this later!)
- Google Keyword Planner - Google’s own keyword research tool. Provides accurate search volumes for countless phrases if you are an Adwords customer, but results are obfuscated for people who aren’t paying Google to run ads.
- RankIQ - a simple and straightforward keyword research tool that uses an AI algorithm to provide keyword recommendations. Less granular than the other options listed here, but useful if you’re in a rush and want accessible data.
- Answer The Public - The free version of this tool doesn’t provide search volumes, but it does provide useful information about related search terms, including some of the ‘long tail’ or less popular, more specific phrases real people use when browsing a particular topic.
Remember, the idea here is to paint in broad strokes. Grab any and all prospective keywords, stick them in a spreadsheet and we’ll show you how to comb through the results. The 80/20 principle definitely applies here, although it’s probably more like the 99.9/0.1 principle if we’re being totally honest.
Which is to say that most of the keywords you’ve identified during this step will be discarded because they’re too broad, speak to the wrong audience or don’t hone in on the search behaviour of your actual customers but that’s fine: We have to start somewhere, and refining your master list is relatively straightforward.
4. Identify Keyword Intent
Understanding intent is the key to winnowing down your list. As mentioned earlier, the whole point of this exercise is to find the keywords that your actual customers are using during the consideration and decision making phases of the buyer journey.
Truth be told, we’re probably looking for a short list of 30-40 highly-specific search terms that are actually worth your time and effort. The question is, how do we separate the wheat from the chaff?
There are two key ways: First, put yourself in the shoes of someone using a given search phrase. What are their expectations and wants? What is their perspective? What are their intentions?
The second (and slightly less ‘fluffy’ way to do this is to go and look at the search engine results page (SERP) for a given keyword.
Google spends a lot of time and money trying to understand the intent behind specific searches, and looking at the type of content that ranks for a given search, the SERP features like snippets or the entries in the “people also ask” boxes can clue you into whether a given search is generally undertaken by people in the prospecting or consideration phase of the buying process.
These techniques, plus the work you’ve done to profile and model your ideal user’s search behaviour should allow you to quickly refine your list of target keywords; leaving you with a small pool of search terms that are likely to be:
- Used by your target audience
- Indicative of intent to engage with or find a vendor
Cull anything that doesn’t fit these criteria. Be brutal. It’s far easier (and cheaper) to target 10 keywords with the intent of repeating this process in six months, than it is to spend a year trying to drive conversions from a list of 80+ keywords that’s littered with duds.
Once that’s done, take a look at the search volumes. Is there enough interest to warrant an SEO or PPC campaign? If so, keep them on the list. If not, chuck them in the bin. Like I said, we’re being brutal here.
A Note On Search Volumes
You may have read the above and heard “bin anything with less than 30 monthly searches”. That’s certainly the advice peddled in most guides to keyword research. But that’s not what we meant at all.
Low-volume search terms are an absolute goldmine for B2B marketing campaigns. We often find that the highly-specific phrases with 20-30 monthly searches are the ones that actually drive conversions, vs. the “obvious” 50-100 pcm searches that drive a bunch of engaged but unprofitable traffic to your site.
It’s also worth noting that most keyword research tools are notoriously inaccurate when it comes to estimating the use of low-volume keywords so don’t cleave too rigorously to their orthodoxy.
Think about how many visits and enquiries you actually need to generate a sale and remember that you only need to sell one or two high-value subscriptions to justify the time and effort you’ve sunk into targeting a niche keyword.
The sweet spot of volume and relevance differs from industry to industry. There’s no simple rule of thumb that’ll allow you to quickly identify the keywords that are worth your time but it’s well worth having a think about
5. Map Keywords To A Specific Stage
Of The Buying Journey
Having uncovered and qualified a list of good keywords, we’re now going to map them to specific stages of the buying journey. There are two reasons for this: First, it’ll inform the next stage of the strategy process – allowing you to work out how what sort of content you’ll use to target those keywords and engage the people using them.
It’ll also help you work out whether to use SEO, PPC or a combination of the two to target a given keyword. But the second and most important reason for mapping keywords to specific stages of the buying process is that doing so affords us another opportunity to winnow down our list.
Returning to the example we gave above, we may now have a list of 30 keywords that buyers regularly use while shopping for O&G asset management software. (That’s oil and gas asset management software for the uninitiated).
This list might include keywords like “how to manage offshore assets” “features of good asset management software” and “can asset management software integrate with my permit to work system”.
All good prospects, but some suggest that the user may have progressed to the consideration stage of the buying journey, while others (Eg. “how to manage offshore assets) suggest that someone is still right at the beginning of the process.
6. Pick Your Battles
In an ideal world, we’d have the time and money to target all prospects. But if we’re operating on a limited budget and need to prioritise, we may have to axe keywords that speak to a complete lack of knowledge.
This is because the people using them need to be guided through the entire process; nurtured via long email campaigns and re-engaged at multiple points lest they skid away and end up buying into a competitor’s mid-funnel marketing efforts.
A viable prospect, but it’s probably better to cut your teeth (and prove your worth) on the keywords that are used by people in the consideration stage of the buying process. This’ll let you report on some sure successes and gather justification for the larger budget needed to hit top-level keywords with the investment needed to generate tangible results.
Really though, this is all discussion that’s best left for the next stage of the process; namely your digital marketing strategy. This is where you’ll decide how to target each keyword (PPC, SEO, video or a combination of the three?), what sort of material people using your keywords expect to find and how you’ll go about producing something that stands out from the noise.
That’s a subject we really can’t get into here – it warrants a blog post or ebook of its own, but we’re also more than happy to discuss the finer points with people who are going through their own digital marketing journey so if you’ve gathered keywords and want to talk next steps, get in touch.
Alternatively, get in touch before you engage with the above methodology. We’re more than happy to answer any questions or help you pick through a list of potential keywords. In our eyes, this is where every good marketing campaign finds its feet.