A Critical Step in SEM: Keyword Research

A Critical Step in SEM: Keyword Research

Whether your business’ search engine marketing (SEM) goals are to increase your organic search or paid search, knowing what phrases people are putting in search engines to find you is a critical piece of the puzzle.

These search phrases are known as keywords. So if a customer finds your website by typing “cleaning services,” that would be referred to as a keyword or keyphrase that you should take note of.

Why Keyword Research is Important

Let’s say that you are a lawyer in Raleigh, North Carolina, and you would like to get new clients via search engine optimization (SEO) and Google AdWords advertisements.

Some of the phrases a potential new client might be searching for could include:

  • raleigh north carolina lawyer
  • raleigh nc lawyer
  • raleigh lawyer
  • lawyer in raleigh nc

If you are trying to gain new clients from SEO, you would want to know which of those terms is most worth your time to try and optimize your site for. If you are looking to making advertisements on search engine results pages (SERPS), then you would want to find a keyword that isn’t prohibitively expensive to bid on.

Using Google’s Keyword Planner, we can learn how popular a search term is, how many of your competitors are trying to target it as well, and what the average cost per click (CPC) is for an ad placed on that keyword’s SERP:

keyword research for seo and adwords


Average Monthly Searches – on average, how many times that keyword is being searched. So roughly 90 times per month, someone is typing “lawyer in raleigh nc” into their search engine. If a term only has a dash, like “raleigh  north carolina lawyer,” that means it does not get enough search traffic for Google to provide a monthly average. It’s not that it is never searched for, just rarely.

Competition – a general idea of how many other advertisers you will be competing against when trying to place your ad on that keyword’s SERP. This can mean it will be more difficult to have an ad placed on the first page of results – ads that are not on the first page tend not to get much traffic to them, particularly in low-search volume keywords like these.

Suggested Bid – what Google is estimating you will likely have to pay per click in order to have your ad be shown. The legal industry tends to have very high CPC because acquiring a single client can mean tens of thousands in revenue. $29 is not so steep a price next to that.

Using this data, we now know that for SEO purposes, optimizing a page on your site for the keyword “raleigh north carolina lawyer” would not be worth the effort. (Determining which of the other three would be better to target will be addressed in a future post on SEO)

If your budget is limited, you now know that “lawyer in raleigh nc” and “raleigh lawyer” likely are not good bets. “raleigh nc lawyer” may be a better choice – though we will need to dig deeper to decide if it is still budget-friendly, as there was not enough data for Google to determine the likely bid you will need to make.

Without having this information, you would be flying blind while constructing your SEO and AdWords strategies, likely leading to sub-par results.

Keyword Research for AdWords

There are some important differences between keyword research for AdWords and research for SEO. With AdWords, the factors you will need to take into account when researching your keywords are:

Your budget – Our post on budgeting for AdWords covers most of this, but if you have a hard budget to stick to, this will affect what keywords you will be able to target.

Number of competitors – Generally you want to find keywords that have a good mix of high traffic and low competition. Low-competition keywords increase your chances of ranking higher on the SERP.

The goal of your campaign – Is your goal to improve brand recognition? Then you would want to target the highest traffic keywords possible. Is your goal to have high conversion rates? You will want to pick the keywords that describe your product or service as specifically as possible.

Tools we use heavily in this process are:

  • Google Keyword Planner
  • Spyfu

Keyword Research for SEO

When finding appropriate keywords to target in your SEO strategies, you do not need to take the bid or competition columns into account – though your competitors are still a huge factor. There are simply different methods you will need to use to uncover the competition and what it will take to surpass them.

Factors that will influence your keyword choices for SEO are:

Size and strength of a keyword’s competitors – If you need to compete against Macy’s, Banana Republic, and Amazon to rank for the keyword “women’s fashion” you will want to consider choosing a different keyword. Small businesses stand little chance of out-ranking powerhouses like Amazon. The better bet will be to target more specific keywords with smaller audiences, such as “women’s fashion boutique in Durham.”

Your website’s current structure – Play to the strengths of your website’s pages as they are. For instance, if you have a page dedicated to your services as a worker’s compensation lawyer, you will likely want to optimize that page for a keyword like “workers comp lawyer raleigh nc.” Research that term and ones similar to it in order to determine the best iteration to target.

The goal of your SEO strategies – If your main goal is to drive new traffic to your site and increase brand awareness, you will want to concentrate on creating great content around topics users are searching for, but aren’t necessarily searches made by users ready to buy. Keep in mind that SEO is a long-term strategy – while the users may not be ready to buy now, they may be later, and remember the excellent advice your content gave them previously.

For the worker’s compensation lawyer, you may want to research keywords like “do i qualify for workers comp,” or “what is workers comp” and see which get a high amount of traffic, without having to compete against powerhouse competitors.

A list of basic tools often used for SEO keyword research include:

Using Google Keyword Planner

This is the primary tool you will be utilizing if you are just getting started with SEM. The first step of any good SEO or AdWords strategy is to research your desired keywords.


Click on the top line, and several new options will appear:


Your Product or Service –  Type in the keywords you think you would like to rank for, or have your ad placed on.

The next options are mostly applicable to AdWords Keyword Research:

Your Landing Page – Enter the landing page associated with the advertisement you wish to place on these keywords.

Your Product Category – Only important if you are looking to show your ad on Google’s Display Network – the millions of websites affiliated with AdWords. The category tells Google what kinds of sites to place your ad on – this way someone doesn’t come across your workers comp ad when searching for dog walkers.

Targeting – Allows you to hone in on your target market. This will filter out searches from users outside of your specifications. Here, you will only see search data from North Carolina residents who speak English.

You can also select whether you want to show your ad only in search engines, or if you want it to show on Google’s Display Network. Lastly, you can remove any searches that contain certain words. If you sell an expensive product or service, you may want to filter out “free,” “cheap,” or “bargain.”

Date Range – How many months you want to see data for.

Keyword Filters – Here you can filter out keywords by level of competition, number of searches per months, price to bid, and how many impressions you are estimated to get.

Keyword Options – Specify if you only want to include keywords that are closely related to the ones you provided in “your product or service,” whether you want to show keywords that you already have placed ads on, and if you want to include adult content.

Keywords to Include – Specify if there are certain words that you want to require be included in your keywords.

After all this, click “Get Ideas” and you will be taken to a new screen.



You will being on the “Ad group ideas” tab, but for just doing your initial research, you will only want to focus on the “keyword ideas” tab.

The leftmost column on the page show the specifications made in the previous section. The rightmost column is for planning out a potential AdWords campaign based around the keywords shown. For details on how to do so, and more on AdWords campaigns in general, see our post on managing your Google AdWords campaigns.

For keyword research purposes, we are mainly concerned with the middle column of the page.

The bar graph shows how many searches were done for the groups of keywords displayed per month. This is helpful to know – if you discovered these keywords had a surge in traffic during the summer months, you would want to focus on pushing ads for them between May and August.

The first box of keywords are the ones we specified previously.

The second Keyword box is a very useful tool for your keyword research: Google finds related keywords based on the constraints you provided in the previous section. This is incredibly useful, as you often find search terms you would have never thought of, and can simply browse hundreds of keywords to find which have a good mix of traffic and competition.

As is evident, worker’s compensation law is a highly competitive and expensive group of keywords to try and place ads on. We would try to search for more options by loosening our filter restrictions: allowing Google to include broader keyword matches, getting rid of the required terms we wanted in our keywords, and perhaps extending the location to nearby states as well.

A good step to take at this point is to download your keyword ideas as an excel spreadsheet, given as an option on the “download” button. Once you have done so, go through and highlight terms you want to consider more closely.

This article only scratches the surface. There are many additional steps we take when finding the perfect combination of keywords to target for client’s AdWords campaigns or SEO. But simply utilize the above tips, you will be ahead of many of your competitors.


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