How many articles have you written that have never found the audience they deserved? Even the best-written content can fall flat if you don’t know how to do keyword research and optimize that content for Google and other search engines.

Anyone doing content marketing should know how to do keyword research because keywords are the basis for all organic searches—the single largest source of traffic on the internet. To tap into that search traffic, you need to learn how to find the best keywords with the highest chances of bringing in the traffic your website needs.

Too many beginners don’t understand that picking the right keyword is so much more than just looking at volume and keyword difficulty (KD) stats. If you want the best keywords for your pages, you’ll also need to find keywords that are backed up by search intent and topically relevant secondary keywords. Do it all perfectly, and you’ll be set up to write article after article, primed to find an audience and return the time investment you put into creating them.

1. Understand the Basic Keyword Categories

For content marketers, keywords are sorted into different categories based on how we can use them to serve our SEO strategies. These categories are not mutually exclusive, so a keyword could be in multiple categories, like long tail and primary, at the same time.  If you understand what kinds of keywords serve which purposes, you can focus your keyword research from the get-go and find the right keywords to help your new content succeed.

Primary and Secondary Keywords

Primary keywords are the keywords that you intend to rank for with a page. Secondary keywords are keywords that are related to the primary keyword. When optimizing your content, your primary keyword should be mentioned naturally throughout the body, headers, or title, while secondary keywords should be scattered throughout the page to help you rank for your primary keyword.

For example, if you are writing an article that has “best spaghetti recipe” as its primary keyword, Google might expect to see mentions of secondary keywords like “pasta,” “tomato sauce,” or “Italian food.”

As you progress through the keyword research process, one of your main goals will be to identify a primary keyword that will be the centerpiece of your article. The right primary keyword for your article should be a perfect connection between what your piece will offer and the intent of searchers who use that query when they use Google.

By the time you are done with your keyword research, you’ll be left with content outlines, each with a primary keyword and multiple secondary keywords that will support the primary. With your primary and secondary keywords clearly defined, it will be easier to optimize your new content so that you have the highest chances of bringing in the right organic traffic for your article. You can learn more about how to use primary and secondary keywords when writing content in our article that explores how to optimize your on-page SEO.

Short Tail Keywords and Long Tail Keywords

Short tail keywords and long tail keywords are differentiated by the number of words they contain and how specific they are. Short tail keywords usually use only one or two words to describe a general idea. Long tail keywords contain words that modify a general concept to make that keyword more specific. Because short tail keywords are more general, they’re often more competitive and have higher traffic volumes than long tail keywords.

Short tail keywords are used in your SEO strategy as long-term, high-value SEO targets for you to work toward. Since these keywords are usually competitive, you’ll probably need to do more than just write a single article on the topic and wait for the views to roll in. To win competitive short tail keywords, you will need to build up your content into a topic cluster, multiple articles that show your authority on the many aspects that make up the general short tail keyword you want to rank for.

Long tail keywords are the key to eventually winning short tail keywords. Long tail keywords can be the primary keyword for the articles that make up your topic clusters. Topping the search engine results pages (SERP) for long tail keywords like “best Japanese green teas,” “green tea health benefits,” and “how to make green tea” will show Google you are an expert on green tea, helping you rank for the short tail keyword “green tea.”

Local Keyword Variants

Local keywords are simply keywords that are specific to a local region. They are usually created by adding a geo-modifier like “in New York” or “near Guildford Park” to an existing short tail keyword. Depending on the business you run, targeting specific local keywords could be the most important SEO work that you do.  

Local SEO works slightly differently than regular SEO as Google weighs local ranking factors like local backlinks, mentions, and authority far higher than they would otherwise. If local keywords are what your business needs, take a look at our Local SEO Audit Guide to get started winning local keywords from competitors.

Search Intent Keyword Types

Keywords can also be classified by the search intent behind them. Generally, we divide keywords into four main search intent categories:

  • Informational: Searches that intend to ask a question or learn something
  • Transactional: Searches that intend to buy something
  • Navigational: Searches that intend to move to a specific site on the web
  • Commercial Investigation: Searches that intend to learn more about a product or service before purchasing

Identifying the search intent behind each keyword you research is crucial because you need the searcher’s intent to match what you are creating. You might find a great keyword that has a low difficulty and high volume, but if you’re offering the wrong kind of content for that keyword's intent, people will bounce from your site, and your rankings will suffer.

When doing your keyword research, spend some time considering what intent your page is looking to satisfy and then find primary and secondary keywords that match that intent. The better you can do this, the higher the chance you’ll rank well with that keyword and page.

2. Do Background Research

Background keyword research is all about getting the lay of the land—understanding what keyword opportunities exist that you could tap for your article. By the end of this step, we should be left with two or three promising primary keyword candidates that could be spun into a single article or a larger topic cluster.

There are plenty of SEO tools for doing keyword research, including Ahrefs, Ubersuggest, and Moz. We’ll use Google Keyword Planner and SpyFu to show you how to find and analyze keywords quickly.

Create a List of Keyword Ideas With Google Keyword Planner

Google Keyword Planner is a basic keyword research tool that anyone can use to find potential keywords to research and expand on later. The advantage of using Keyword Planner is that it is free, and it is second-to-none in terms of geographic filters. You can use these filters to narrow your search to the countries and cities that matter to your business.

To start making a list of potential keyword ideas, open up Keyword Planner and type in a short tail keyword idea. If you already have an idea of the topic you want to write about, use that as your search term. Otherwise, plug in keywords that relate to your product, services, or business.

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You can also add a geographic filter by clicking on the location pin icon below the search bar, so you only get the most relevant data for your target market.

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Next, click on “Get Results,” and you’ll be left with a list of keyword ideas. Consider which short tail keyword ideas here would fit with your future project. Don’t be too concerned with the Average Monthly Searches or Competition metrics at this point, as you can get more detailed versions of this information later on with SpyFu.

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Go through the list and start creating a spreadsheet with any short tail keywords that you want to look at more closely. The keywords you add to your list should be closely related to what you will be writing about. For example, if you were writing articles on different kinds of green tea, you could enter “green tea” and “kinds of green tea” and then pick out keywords like “sencha” or “matcha” as potential keywords to research further.

Depending on how your future research goes, “sencha” or “matcha” could be primary keywords in an article like “What is Sencha Green Tea,” or they could become headers in a larger article like “Top 10 Green Teas You Need to Try.” Continue this process until you have 10 or so good short tail keywords ideas that you can continue your research with.

If other keywords catch your eye but aren’t as related as you’d like, consider adding them to a keyword ideas list that you can draw inspiration from for future content. For instance, the keyword “how to use matcha powder” doesn’t fit with your current ideation, but it could make a great article in the future.

Use SpyFu for competitive keyword ideas

SpyFu offers flexible approaches to finding new keyword ideas. You can start keyword research that grows into a longer, well-crafted list of short and long-tail keywords and questions people ask to cover in your content.

All of those keywords will come with details about the domains that compete on those searches in SEO and PPC advertising. Here are some of the tools built into SpyFu that help with your keyword research.

Keyword Search: Type a keyword into the SpyFu search bar and get back helpful stats and metrics about how search engine users interact with it.

Related Keywords: Find keywords and questions that are related to a starting topic.

Advertiser History: Research the current and past ads that have run on this keyword, listed by advertiser.

Ranking History: Track top-ranked domains on a keyword and how their ranks have changed over time.

Backlinks: Start with a keyword and research the most helpful backlinks that help domains rank for it.

Bulk Upload: Supports any keyword research that started offline or in other tools. You can get search data for keywords, even if you didn't find them through SpyFu.

SERP Analysis: Breaks down the micro-details of a search engine results page (SERP) to help you find insights and patterns about which domains rank highest for a keyword.

Google Ads Advisor: This supports keyword research for paid ads, especially those in Google Ads. It offers recommendations of keywords to buy based on what competing domains are advertising on.

Look Up Keyword Difficulty and Keyword Volume

Once you have a keyword ideas list, use SpyFu to look up basic metrics that will help you figure out how useful these keywords are and whether they are worth your time to explore further.

Head to SpyFu’s Keyword Research tool and plug in your keyword ideas one at a time. From the Overview page, note the monthly volume and difficulty metrics.

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Volume measures the number of times a keyword gets searched in a month. Keyword difficulty tells you how difficult it will be to rank for this keyword. Ideally, you want keywords that have a high volume and a low difficulty.

If your website is relatively new, you want to focus more on lower difficulty scores as these will be easier to rank for in the near term. For volume, even numbers as low as 50 a month can be useful if all of those searchers are part of your target market. If you can get five or six low-volume, low-competition keywords, that traffic can add up quickly into hundreds of relevant visitors a month.

If you are intent on going after a highly competitive keyword, you will need to consider creating multiple articles to prove to Google that you are an authority on this topic. You can learn about how to rank for these kinds of keywords, even against larger websites, by reading our guide to topic clusters and pillar pages.

Although volume and difficulty are important metrics, they are only two pieces of the puzzle. Use these metrics as a starting point by taking the two or three keywords with the highest volume and lowest difficulty and continuing with them through the keyword research process.


In fact, most keyword lists in SpyFu are able to be filtered down to the criteria that fit your needs.

Search volume: Much of your basic, straightforward keyword research starts with confirming that your target keywords get the right amount of searches to match your goals or budget.

Word count: this is your short tail vs long tail break. Shorter terms (short-tail) tend to bring in more traffic, but longer terms often convert at a higher rate.

Keyword difficulty: This metric helps you gut check how out-of-reach a term might be. Further, you can use it to prioritize your work and your resources.

Include or Exclude keywords: These filters act as shortcuts to build a very specific, narrow list of similar terms or to cut out ones you know to avoid.

Clicks: Search volume measures the people looking for this term, but Clicks measures how many actually found a result to click.

Cost per click: This estimated stat is a must in PPC keyword research, but its competition-measuring quality makes it helpful in SEO, too.
Adult filters: This toggle can leave out NSFW terms that would not make it to the final list.

The tools offer more keyword filters that you can combine to reach the perfect list for your needs. Browse through the comprehensive list here.

3. Dig Deeper into Your Keywords

No matter how good a keyword may look on paper, it’s important to do some more research to see how using that keyword will help your content marketing efforts. Refining your keyword research will involve looking closer at the SERP, understanding what people want from this keyword, and making content plans to put you on the path to success.

Understand the Search Intent

Before you can go any further, it is important to analyze the search intent of your keywords to understand what people and Google want out of this search query. You will want to learn:

  • Whether the keyword’s search intent matches your content goals
  • What kind of content is successful on the SERP
  • Whether you will be creating a page aimed at a short tail keyword or a long tail keyword

Type your keyword into Google, and analyze the results you find there.

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The first thing to determine is what kind of search intent keyword types are on this SERP. For example, on the SERP for “sencha,” you can see that six out of the ten pages are informational, while three out of ten are transactional. If you want to create a high-level page that explains what sencha is or a more targeted selling page for your sencha tea products, then this might be the keyword for you.

On the other hand, if you had hoped to write a commercial investigation-style article that compared different sencha brands, then you may want to find a better keyword that fits that search intent. For instance, “best sencha teas” offers a search intent that more closely aligns with your goals.

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If the search intent of your keyword matches your goals, then the next step is to go deeper into the search intent by seeing whether this SERP favors broad short tail keywords or more precise long tail keywords.

If you look through the pages from the “sencha” example, all of the informational pages are broad overview articles that favor short tail variations on sencha as the primary keyword over more precise long tail keywords like “how to brew sencha” or “what does sencha taste like.”

An easy way to check for this is to look at the titles, as most content creators put their primary keywords in the title. In this SERP, the two primary keywords that stick out are “sencha” and “what is sencha green tea.” Both of these terms appear in multiple titles on the SERP, and they both lend themselves to all-encompassing posts that provide an overview of everything people would want to know about sencha green tea.

This tells us that if you wanted to compete for “sencha,” you could use “sencha,” “sencha tea,” or “what is sencha green tea” as your primary keyword and create a broad overview page that uses long tails as headers in your article and as secondary keywords.

On the other hand, some SERPs favor more specific long tail keywords. For example, in the SERP for “best teas,” we don’t see best teas of all-time articles; instead, we get more specific articles like “The 10 Best Teas in 2021,” “11 Best Tea Brands in the World,” and  “The top 5 teas for health.”

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In this case, based on the search intent, you would be better served to create multiple long tail listicle articles that give you the X best teas in Y category. You would rank for that specific long tail keyword, and if you top those SERPs, you may also be included in this “best teas” SERP. By the end of your search intent analysis, you should have a good idea of what kind of search intent is behind your keyword and whether you will be creating an article based on a short tail or long tail keyword. When you know this, you can move on to researching the long tail keywords that will support your short tail or become the primary keyword of your article.

Research Long Tail Keywords

Regardless of whether you will be writing an article based on a short tail keyword or a series of articles based on long tail keywords, your next step in keyword research will be to find the best possible long tail keywords for your content.

To find long tail keywords, use a keyword tool like SpyFu’s Related Keywords. Type in your short tail keyword idea and then scroll through the related keywords looking for long tail keywords that look promising based on KD, volume, and relevancy to your topic.

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For the hypothetical sencha article, you might include “what is sencha?” and “sencha vs matcha” as they have good traffic numbers, fairly average difficulty, and they could fit nicely as subtopic headers.

You can also look up some of the keywords on the “People also ask” and the “Related searches” sections on the SERP. As you work, mark down the volume and keyword difficulty on your spreadsheet. It will also help to loosely group your long tail keywords by related search intent. For instance, “what is sencha tea?” and “what is sencha?” are unique long tail keywords, but they satisfy identical search intents.

With your short tail keyword goals determined and your long tails researched, all you will now need to do is put the pieces together to form content outlines that can be turned into articles.

Evaluate and Group Your List of Keywords

The last part of learning how to do keyword research is seeing how to bring it all together by grouping your keyword ideas into future content outlines. These content outlines can then be slotted into your content calendar to be published over the next quarter.

The grouping process involves two steps:

  1. Choose a primary keyword based on its monthly search volume, keyword difficulty, and how well it satisfies search intent.
  2. Under your primary keyword, list all of the secondary keywords that you want to include in your article because they are identical as far as search intent or can act as useful subtopics to address.

For example, a content outline could like this:

Primary Keyword

  • Sencha tea (KD: 69, Volume: 7900)

Secondary Keywords

  • Sencha (KD: 72, Volume: 5800)
  • what is sencha? (KD: 44, Volume: 900)
  • sencha vs matcha (KD: 40, Volume: 750)
  • how to brew sencha (KD: 22, Volume: 320)
  • sencha green tea benefits (KD: 54, Volume 320)

“Sencha tea” was chosen as the primary keyword because, in the search intent analysis stage, we saw that the SERP favored general short tail keyword posts over more specific long tail keywords. We chose “sencha tea” over “sencha” because it has identical search intent, but it also has better volume and KD numbers.

Besides “sencha,” our secondary keywords also include long tail keywords like “how to brew sencha” These secondary keywords can make up the topics we discuss and the headers we use throughout our article when we flesh out this piece.

When you are done, you should be left with a list of keywords that are a perfect outline for a future article explicitly designed for your target audience and their search needs. You can now start to turn this into an article by researching what topics users want to read about and what unique perspectives you can take to stand out. You can learn more about how to create content that tops the SERP by reading our guide to beating your organic competitors. With the research done, now all that is left is to write the best article you possibly can.

Going Beyond Basic Keyword SEO Strategies

Keyword research is your first step into SEO, and these fundamentals will be something you use every time you start to write a new piece of content. However, there is so much more you can learn when it comes to keywords and on-page optimizations.

To upgrade your keyword research skills, consider reading more about using content gaps and search intent analysis to find keywords that your audience is yearning to read about.

Keyword research is only valuable when you can create content that beats out the competition. To help you outhustle other websites, our experts have put together guides on analyzing your competitors and improving your page ranking so your content can be at the top of the SERP no matter who you go up against.