How to Do Keyword Research & Outrank Your Competitors

Fifty marketers share strategies for targeting the right keywords, improving your rankings, and the tactics for outranking the competition.

Avatar Dann Albright on July 25, 2018 (last modified on August 1, 2018) • 13 minute read

Targeting the right keywords isn’t easy.

In fact, as we found out this week, it’s really complicated.

We asked marketers about their best keyword research strategies and got almost 50 responses. There was a lot of disagreement. Just look at the factors deemed most important by marketers:

There’s a nearly even split between high search volume and relevance, and a few others are close behind.

Despite differences in opinion on which factors are the most important in keyword research, we did get some consistency.

For example, 50% of marketers say they check their keyword rankings weekly. [Tweet this stat.]

It’s clear that marketers are concerned about keywords and rankings. But there’s a lot of nuance in how they go about identifying the right keywords.

Here’s a breakdown of what we learned.

Research your competitors

One of the most common things that marketers brought up was starting your keyword research by taking a look at your competitors.

“Your top competitors already have what you want—rankings,” said Kyle Menchaca, SEO manager at WorkWave.

Fortunately, you can start your competitive research with a simple tool: Google. Run a search for a keyword you’re interested in and see who’s ranking. Then, says The Content Factory‘s content writer Natalie Hornyak, “look at their content, and determine how you can do better.”

Write a more thorough response to the search query or run a backlink campaign to get valuable links to your site. “In other words, target keywords you can realistically rank for, then make your content deserving of those rankings,” says Hornyak.

Christine Kilbride, SEO associate at Majux Marketing, recommends figuring out what your competitors are missing. “Try to find content gaps,” Kilbride says. If you can address the questions that your competitors aren’t talking about, you’ll capture traffic that they can’t.

Besides targeting your competition based on the keywords they’re already ranking for, though, it’s important to think realistically. TechJunkie founder Evan Gower shared some words of caution. He doesn’t usually try to take keywords away from the biggest competitors in his space, as they’re likely very entrenched.

“Instead I go after someone just a tier or two above or below the site I’m researching. It’s easier to win those rankings, and you can usually find some hidden gems.” (We’ll talk more about authority and realistic targeting in a moment.)

Growth Hackers‘ co-founder Jonathan Aufray shared his workflow:

  1. Find out which long-tail keywords your closest competitors are ranking for.
  2. Analyze the competitiveness of those keywords, including the pages’ backlinks.
  3. Create better content than your competition.
  4. Optimize that content for search engines.
  5. Promote that content.
  6. Reverse-engineer your competition’s backlink strategy.

It’s not an easy process. But it will help you boost your rankings with competitor research.

A final interesting note: Casey Bryan, founder of Grand Cru Digital, points out that you should research both on desktop and mobile search. You may find some interesting differences.

Pay attention to authority

As Evan Gower pointed out above, you can’t target every competitor and every keyword. You’ll need to prioritize based on which keywords you can reasonably expect to rank for.

How do you know which competitors are worth taking on? Nectafy‘s director of operations, Henry O’Loughlin, recommends using the MozBar Chrome extension to see your domain authority.

When you research keywords, you’ll see the Google competition index or SEMRush keyword difficulty score. Target keywords that have a lower keyword difficulty than your domain authority, suggests O’Loughlin. “You’ll see a big increase in organic results.”

Dave Hermansen, co-founder of Store Coach, encourages marketers to see if major brands like Amazon and Walmart dominate the search results for their keywords. If they do, you may find it difficult to compete.

“If there are some spots open that are not major brands,” Hermansen says, “you may have a chance of ranking as high as the highest non-major brand listed.” And if you don’t see any major brands, “you have an excellent chance of appearing on page one.”

Once you’ve positioned yourself on these results pages, you might have a shot at competing with major brands for your keywords.

Use the right tools

Marketers love tools. And when it comes to keyword research, there’s no shortage of great tools out there.

There was a lot of variety in the tools recommended, but Ahrefs was a popular choice. Mackenzie Thompson, marketing associate at National Health Care Provider Solutions, uses Ahrefs to research “blogs, YouTube videos, search ads, social ads and more.”

And it’s not just for keyword research, either. NHCPS also uses it to “ideate new keywords to target, [and] measure the keyword difficulty, search volume, and clicks.”

Chili Piper‘s director of demand generation, Emil Shour, shared advice on how to get the most useful information out of Ahrefs:

  1. Navigate to Site Explorer and enter your competitor’s URL.
  2. Click on Organic Keywords at the top of the dashboard
  3. Use the Position dropdown to enter “From 1–10” to see which keywords rank on the first page.
  4. Use the KD dropdown to select entering “From 1–10” (this shows you keywords where the number of backlinks required to rank is low).
  5. Change the Volume dropdown to “From 100.”

This will help you find the best keywords to target for taking on your competition.

Google Ads’ Keyword Planner was another tool mentioned a few times. Stacy Caprio, search marketing manager at Case Covering, has found other tools to provide inaccurate data, while Keyword Planner has produced reliable results.

(Then again, North Coast Financial broker associate Jeffrey Hensel calls the results from Keyword Planner “vague and disappointing.” So your mileage may vary.)

Sarah Hancock, content marketing manager at, recommends the Keywords Everywhere browser extension. The extension, she says, shows keyword data “right there in the interface while you are on Google, Google Keyword Planner, Google Search Console, Google Analytics, Google Trends, YouTube, Amazon, eBay, AnswerThePublic, and a number of other platforms.”

And sometimes it’s best to just keep it simple.

“The best tip I have for keyword research is actually searching for the term in Google,” said Juli Durante of SmartBug Media. “Sometimes, we get wrapped up in tools and data and forget what people see when they enter a word, phrase, or question in that little box. By actually searching, you can find out what the featured snippet on that page looks like, if it links to other related snippets, if they search term means to Google what we think it means, and the terms and queries that Google thinks are related to that term – sometimes, these don’t come up when you’re following a traditional keyword research method.”

Author’s note: this is my favorite keyword research tool as well. Great suggestion, Sarah!

Google Trends

A few marketers recommend using Google Trends for your keyword research. “No keyword research strategy is complete without determining the potential and longevity of a selected keyword,” said Stuart Ridge, chief marketing officer of VitaMedica.

He suggests using Google Trends to ensure that your keywords’ volume is increasing, instead of decreasing, and to capitalize on trending topics and keywords. The site can also be instructive in highlighting seasonal trends, he says.

Ashleigh Peregoy, marketing magician at Box Marketing, also suggests using Google Trends for ads.

Google Search Suggestions

Every Google search gives you additional information beyond your results. Freelance website optimizer Matthew Post recommends using the “People Also Ask” and “Related Searches” fields to expand your list of keywords.

These are the things that people care about and are searching for, so they’re valuable resources.

Another useful resource is Google’s search suggestions that are displayed when you’re typing your search query. These suggestions are updated every two to three weeks, says Kim Smith, content consultant at GoodFirms.

“[C]reating curated content around these long-tail keywords will definitely gain you traffic.”

These long-tail keywords are called “latent semantic indexing” keywords, says George Schildge, CEO of Matrix Marketing Group. And they’re an important part of Google’s algorithm.

Search outside of Google

While Google is the gold standard in the SEO world, there are, in fact, other places to get keyword ideas. Aneesh Babu, founder of Backlinkminds, recommends Reddit and Quora. Srajan Mishra, CEO of TSI Apparel, also suggests Reddit and relevant forums. BBazaar‘s Ramesh Singh adds AnswerThePublic to the list.

Trailblaze Marketing‘s search engine marketing lead Brian Schofield also suggests using Amazon for ecommerce keyword research. By entering your primary term and looking at the most common searches, you can get information on primary, secondary, semantically related, and other kinds of terms.

Balance competition and Cost Per Click (CPC)

When you’re researching keywords, one of the first pieces of information you probably look at is search volume. If a keyword gets a lot of searches, it seems like a valuable one. So you should target it. Right?

Not so fast, said some of our respondents. You’ll be facing tough competition on many of those keywords.

“You can’t go after the highest volume and the highest difficulty word right out of the gate,” says ClickUp‘s content manager Josh Spilker. “You’ve got to find some easier targets that still interest your target audience.”

David Barbour, co-founder of Vivio Life Sciences, concurs. “The appropriate goal is to place on page one for a myriad of medium search volume keywords, rather than exclusively focusing on a few big shot words.”

“Nowadays I would advise any content marketer to focus on targeting the keywords with the weakest competition first,” says Jason Lavis, founder of Out of the Box Innovations. “You can target the harder keywords later once you’ve got traction.”

He also made sure to point out that you should be targeting keywords for which your site matches the search intent. If you’re not answering readers’ questions, it doesn’t matter how weak the competition is. You’re not going to do well.

You can also take your current keyword rankings into account when you’re planning your SEO strategy. Syed Irfan Ajmal, growth marketing manager at Ridester, recommends prioritizing keywords that you’re already ranking for.

Imagine you’re ranked 100th for a keyword that gets 5,000 searches per month, he says. And 5th for a keyword that gets 1,000 per month. He recommends emphasizing the second keyword, even if it’s quite difficult to improve your rankings. Assuming they both have the same ROI, that is.

Consider high-CPC keywords

A few marketers broke from the crowd and suggested going after high-CPC keywords. It runs counter to what marketers above say, but JC Matthews from eLifeTools makes a good point: “if people are paying a high amount for a keyword in Google, then they must be getting a solid ROI from that keyword.”

He points out the value of using words like “review,” “buy,” “purchase,” and “vs” to capture high-buying-intent leads. These are the words that people use when they’re considering buying.

Prathamesh Yeotekar, SEO specialist at Valasys Business Solution, recommends looking for words with low search volume yet very high CPC.

Of course, if you target keywords with high CPC, you’re likely to face significant competition for ranking. It’s going to be a battle—but if you win, you’ll get a lot of high-converting traffic.

Target your niche

While niching down is a well-known business tactic, it works just as well when you’re selecting keywords to target with your SEO campaign. It’s especially crucial when you’re just starting out. “Keyword research can be sometimes daunting, especially if you see your competitors ranking high for a specific term or words,” says Ulysis Cababan, SEO specialist at RapidVisa.

He suggests finding the niche keywords and verticals for targeting your target audience. As you build up your SEO program and start to establish yourself in the search ranks, you might be able to expand. But be sure to start with the targeted, long-tail keywords that people looking for your product might use.

Irayo co-founder Abhinav Sahai gave a concrete example. “If you are a digital marketing agency, don’t just target keywords like ‘digital marketing agency.’ Start with ‘digital marketing agency in Boston.’ Or even more niche; ‘SEO’ or ‘inbound marketing agency in Boston.'”

These keywords might get you less traffic, he says, but your visitors will be interested in your services.

Thierry de Vynck, founder of Great Scott!, however, points out that many companies start creating content for niche keywords that “aren’t really their cup of tea.” Instead, he suggests, “Focus on the most common questions your prospects ask during the sales process. If most prospects ask this question, you can be sure that this is a popular keyword. Focus on people, not on algorithms.”

Make a plan

It’s tempting to jump right in and start picking keywords to target. But there’s more to it than that. You need a plan first.

“The very first keyword research to be done,” says Casper Kraken, founder of Bureau Kraken, is determining “the number one topic you want your business to be known for.” It’s part keyword research, part branding. But it’s essential for a good SEO strategy.

Dakota Williams, SEO specialist at Postali, uses an Excel file to track and plan her keywords. She keeps a list of each keyword, the corresponding search volume and competition, and the category.

In addition to making it easier to track your strategy and successes, Williams says, this document can be useful to show to a client. If they question your strategy, you have the data to back up your decisions. Updated volume and competition data also lets you know when you should change your keyword strategy.

N. Davaine Studio founder Nicholas Davaine recommends starting your plan with a simple brainstorming session. “Using good old human brain power before jumping into technology like Google’s Keyword Planner and other paid services can really help you build a comprehensive strategy.”

It’s low-tech . . . but it works.

And when you’re planning, be sure to take your customer personas into account. “[I]t helps to put a name and a face to the quest for the perfect words of intent,” says Carl Donovan, co-founder of Opus Marketplace.

For every company, a strategy

After sifting through the many responses to our survey, it’s clear that every company needs to develop their own keyword research strategy. There are many tips that apply to just about everyone—but we also saw plenty that apply to specific types of companies.

For example, Online Optimism‘s SEO/SEM specialist Cory Sarrett suggested focusing on keywords that you already rank for (if you’ve already started producing content or even building a site).

Robert Donnell, founder of P5 Marketing, recommends using cornerstone and pillar content to build a stable of related keywords that you target. This, of course, applies primarily to companies who are going to be creating a solid amount of content.

Internet marketing specialist Derek Hines focuses on local keywords for West Coast Self-Storage. He recommends getting down to your specific ZIP code.

As you can see, there are a huge number of factors to take into consideration. And every company will develop their own strategy for choosing and targeting them. But with this extensive list of ideas, you’ll now be better prepared to choose the right keywords for your organization.

If you want to track your improvement in organic traffic, use this free Google Search Console dashboard to monitor the impact of backlinks.

How do you find keyword ideas? What are your favorite tools and strategies? Share them in the comments below so we can chat about them.

About the author
Dann Albright Dann is a freelance writer who helps B2B companies reach their audiences more effectively. With an emphasis on organic traffic and conversion, he takes big ideas and turns them into highly practical content that keeps readers hooked.
You may also like...
Read more

The 8 Most Important Landing Page Metrics (and How to Track Them)

Track these metrics from Google Analytics in real-time to generate more leads and develop the content that your audience craves

Marketing   |  Aug 16

Read more

The 14 Website Engagement Metrics Every Marketing Team Should Be Tracking

Besides traffic, what are the most important website engagement metrics every marketing team should track? We asked 60 marketers to share their thoughts.

Marketing   |  Aug 14

Read more

26 Account Manager Interview Questions for Marketing Agencies

Leaders from more than 30 marketing agencies share their favorite account manager interview questions to ask (and their favorite answers to receive).

Agencies   |  Aug 13