keyword research

How To Do Keyword Research And What To Do With It

keyword research

In this podcast, John McDougall explains keyword research, why it’s still an important part of internet marketing and search engine optimization, and he discusses specific tools to use for gathering keywords, and what to do with the keywords once you’ve found them.

John Maher:  Hi, I’m John Maher and this is “Digital Marketing Madness.” This podcast is brought to you by McDougall Interactive. We’re a digital marketing agency in Danvers, Massachusetts.

Today my guest is John McDougall, the president of McDougall Interactive. We’ll be discussing how to do keyword research and what to do with it.

Welcome, John.

John McDougall:  How you doing, John?

John Maher:  Good. John, this is a little bit back to basics but it’s one of the key fundamentals of doing SEO, or search engine optimization ‑‑ what is keyword research?

What Is Keyword Research?


John McDougall:  Keyword research is using software to figure out how people search in search engines. Instead of writing a blog post, say, with whatever headline or topics that you think are appropriate, you want to get the search volumes into it, if you can, on exactly how many people search for your topic.

This podcast, for example, is “How to do Keyword Research and What to Do With It,” and “How to do keyword research” gets 880 searches a month. “Keyword research” gets 12,100 searches a month.

If you just did “keyword research,” it has 12,000 plus searches a month, so it’s fairly competitive, fairly high search volume, so you might be a little less likely to rank for that.

John Maher:  Right. You’re probably not going to rank for that two word phrase, “Keyword research,” by itself unless you have a lot of content on your website.

John McDougall:  Maybe eventually, you want to shoot for that. But if you add in something like, “How to do keyword research,” as part of the title, that’s a little bit more long-tail. And 880 a month is pretty good. Sometimes long tail, even 100 or 200 searches or so a month. “How to do keyword research for SEO,” or what other ways you might phrase that that might make it less than 880 a month but are good things to put in the title.

You don’t want to go so far that you’re just really spammy and you just focus on keywords but the idea is to use software to figure out how people search and combine keywords the way people are actually searching with your crafty headline.

John Maher:  What’s the disadvantage if you don’t do the keyword research? Is it just that you’re taking a guess as to what people are searching for and you might have a piece of content on your website that’s out there but it’s not really targeted toward anything that people actually search for? Is that it?

John McDougall:  I haven’t looked this up but let’s say that, “How to pick keywords for SEO” doesn’t get much, if any, searches, whereas “How to do keyword research” does. Then, yeah, you’re much better off targeting things that will drive actual, real visitors for real keywords to your site.

You’re really missing the boat if you don’t use keyword research on a regular basis.

With that said, sometimes there are bloggers that are so good at spreading their content socially, getting in front of people in other ways than the search engines that they don’t even do much with keyword research. But why not combine the best of both worlds? Think through your keywords, also write an amazing, interesting headline, and share it on social.

But if you can get both the search engines, and social media, and visitors, then that’s a more complete way to blog and write website pages.

Keyword Research Tools


John Maher:  What are some of the tools that are available to do keyword research?

Google Adwords Keyword Planner


John McDougall:  The first tool that we usually go to is the Google AdWords keyword tool. You have to have a Google account, but you can get an account very quickly. There are a lot of $100 coupons kicking around for some free AdWords clicks. That’s a good way to get your feet wet, maybe even test a little paid ads, and even use up the coupon.

But once you have that account you don’t have to go into the tool thinking you’re going to be doing paid advertisements in Google. We use that tool for organic blog keywords and website keywords.

John Maher:  You don’t actually have to have an active, running, paid campaign in order to use the keyword tool?

John McDougall:  Yeah, once you have the account you can log in and use it. I do that on an almost daily basis, if not every week when I’m writing blog posts.

Sometimes I do a lot of keyword research in advance but I like to redo it when I’m sitting down to write a post. It helps to log into the Google keyword tool, throw your top things that you’re thinking about writing about into it, and get an idea of how people are searching.

Some of those ways might be a little different than you were going to phrase it but it will nudge you in the direction of what’s popular to, again, get more people to your site.

John Maher:  What else besides the Google AdWords keyword tool?

John McDougall:  I’ll list a few real quick and then go down a tiny bit about each.,, Long Tail Pro, and MarketMuse. Mostly I use the AdWords tool and SEMrush. Those are my two favorite. The others are awesome, as well, for certain things.



SEMrush allows you to look at what keywords your competitors are ranking for. I was working with a beach body coach the other day and their parent company,, has 143,000 keywords driving traffic to their website.

They’re a beach body coach. They’re trying to pick keywords for their website. Instead of starting from scratch and go into the Google tool — which is great, we definitely recommend that — but one really time‑saving tactic is to go right to SEMrush, throw in, ideally, the biggest competitor you can find, that’s ranking well, because that’s going to cough up a lot of good information.

If you can get some small competitor that has nothing going for them and they have three keywords driving traffic it’s not going to be that helpful. In this case, it was certainly fascinating because is the motherlode.

John Maher:  They’re ranking for everything that has to do with beach body.

John McDougall:  Yeah, so I downloaded the spreadsheet. It literally takes minutes. You go to There’s a little box where you can put in the URL. You hit, “Go,” and even if you don’t pay you’ll be able to get the top keywords driving traffic, the number, and the amount of traffic, etc., and the cost that it would have cost you if you had to buy those keywords in Google ads because every Google ad has an associated cost per click.

SEMrush will give you that estimate. It will show you where, for example, is ranking for each of these 143,000 keywords and then the estimated cost per click. And it gives you the search volume.

“Shakeology drinks” or whatever might get 20,000 searches a month but, “Is Shakeology gluten‑free?” might get less, but now you know. You’re just looking at this laundry list of awesome keywords from your competitor.

John Maher:  You can look at that estimate cost per click, as well, and get an idea of what the best keywords are to target, the ones that are really converting well. If somebody is spending money to rank for that keyword, chances are they’ve done some stats. They’ve gotten some clicks for that. They’ve gotten conversions on it. They’re willing to pay more to get a click for that keyword because they know it converts well.

So some of those ones that are higher cost per click can be the highest‑converting keywords, as well.

John McDougall:  Yeah, absolutely. Sometimes I click the little arrow to show me sorted by highest cost per click. Other times I sort by highest volume. Then you can see what gets the most searches. What’s the most expensive?

A little, unusual thing with Beach Body — I think they don’t allow their affiliates to buy their brand name things, like Shakeology, in pay‑per‑click ads. That screws up a little bit of that theory where you’re trying to look at what people are trying to outbid each other on.

In this case, some of those brand name products like Shakeology ‑‑ that’s a little wrinkle.

John Maher:  So you have to take it with a grain of salt and look it over, understand for your business what keywords you can use and which ones you can’t.

John McDougall:  Exactly. But in general, you’re right. The highest cost per click keywords usually means those are pretty valuable to rank for. And the highest volume are good, too. But if you only go at the highest volume, again, it’s not as realistic to rank for “Beach Body” type of thing.

Obviously, that will get a lot of searches, or just “Shakeology,” but “Is Shakeology gluten‑free?” “What are the best Shakeology recipes?” Long tail things like that with a little less search volume and less competition are going to be some of the things you’ll pick.


That’s SEMrush. is interesting to find related keywords. Google appreciates it if you not only put in your keyword like, “Shakeology recipes,” but if you mix it up a little. I’m trying to think of a synonym of recipes. “Shakeology drinks,” or “Shakeology protein shake,” or something like that.

What are the different ways that things get phrased? When you’re using your main keywords in your headline, know that it’s a good thing to flesh out the copy with some synonyms and related things. Later you can write entire posts on those related things but if you try and jam your keywords 50 times in your post you’re going to go backwards and trip a filter where Google will, in a sense, penalize you for over‑optimizing.

You want to add your exact keyword a few times but don’t go way overboard. is something that I like to use to throw in my keyword and then get some various other ways people are saying the same thing or related things and throw those into the post, as well. It makes a more rounded post.

Long Tail Pro


Long Tail Pro is good for really specific, longer tail keywords. I don’t use it much but I did buy it and we’ve used it a bit here. Frankly, I want to get back around to trying it more. It’s a nice tool. A lot of people like it.



MarketMuse is another tool that you can use to go beyond traditional keyword research and look at gaps in your content. Google is moving away from just focusing on keywords. They need to look at how comprehensively you’ve covered topics.

If you have Shakeology recipes on your site, and really you only have one and you try and just keep cramming the keywords into that page, it’s not scalable. Google’s not going to appreciate that.

Aki Balogh of MarketMuse has come up with this interesting system where you can plug in a keyword and some competitors and figure out how many pages on their site they have for that keyword. Then you’ll have to ask yourself, “Geez, we have one page or three Shakeology recipes whereas our competitors have 1,500 Shakeology recipes. Why would Google rank one or two or three pages about that keyword when someone else is really covering the topic and getting it socially shared and things like that?”

MarketMuse is a little more far out, more modern keyword tool that can add to the mix.

Combining Keyword Research Tools


John Maher:  Can you use these tools in combination? Could I take the keywords that I find from SEMrush and then throw them back into the Google AdWords keyword planner in order to find out what Google says is the monthly search volume, etc.?

John McDougall:  Rand Fishkin, when I first heard about, he said that he was using it to find various keywords and related terms that, for some reason, Google wasn’t showing in their tool. He would find these unusual new terms, throw them into the Google tool, and sure enough, Google would say, “We know that keyword. Here’s the search volume on it.”

He was like, “OK, why didn’t you give me that as an example?”

John Maher:  Why wasn’t that a related keyword?

John McDougall:  Yeah, I don’t know. Google has some means of…I don’t know, are they hiding certain things or it’s just the way their tool works? I forget the exact…

John Maher:  There’s a little algorithm for coming up with the related terms that’s just a little different.

John McDougall:  There are some even conspiracy theories around that we won’t get into but yes, you can use various tools and use them together, and it makes for more complete keyword research.

Using Keyword Research


John Maher:  Once you’ve done that keyword research, then what’s the next step? What do you do with that keyword research when it’s done?

John McDougall:  Largely you’re going to be putting those on either pages or blog posts on your site. Pages, for example, if you’re a law firm you would have practice area pages. If you’re an advertising agency, you would have services.

We do SEO. We do social media. We do conversion rate optimization. Each of those would be a page on your website where you’re intending to sell something.

Those are your money pages. You want to get people there but they’re a little bit more like brochure ware. You do want to pick keywords and put them into those pages, of course. We call it a phrases per page map, keyword targeting. Make a list in Excel of the pages that you have or intend to have on your website, pick keywords that seem to match, topically, the concept of that page, and stick to it.

Put it in the headline. Put it in the first sentence. Put it in the title tag, the meta description. The meta description doesn’t help for SEO but it is helpful to increase click through rate. If they see the keyword in there with a good, enticing meta description…

John Maher:  Because it shows up in the Google search results. It highlights that keyword in bold when somebody’s searching for it, and it can increase the click‑through rate.

John McDougall:  Yes, which people now believe, more than ever, that that’s influencing organic rankings with Google to some degree.

John Maher:  So it’s an indirect factor.

John Maher:  Indirect factor, yes.

John McDougall:  So starting at the highest level in the code, the title tag, the meta description. Those are the hidden things, and then the headline of the page, potentially an H1, putting it preferably in the first sentence. The higher up on the page, the more likely Google will see it as relevant.

Potentially a couple other times throughout the site. Maybe in an H2 on the page with a related keyword but not the main keyword so you’re varying it up and showing related concepts.

And you could put it in an alt tag, alternative text, when you have a picture so when someone mouses over the picture they can see the alt tag come up or a screen reader will read down the code of the page and when it gets to the picture instead of saying, “DSC6234,” it says, “How‑to‑do‑keyword‑research.”

Those are some of the basics. You can also put keywords in the interlinks throughout your site. Don’t put the keyword that you chose for the page in a link on that page to another page. You want to put the keyword that you’re targeting on that page in a link from a different page to that page if that makes sense.

John Maher:  Right, because otherwise what you’re doing is you’re telling Google, “I think there’s another page that’s more relevant than this page for my keyword”, and that’s kind of counteractive.

John McDougall:  Right, so you might think, “Oh, it’s good to put keywords in links to other pages on my site for good interlinking structures.” That’s true, but, again, get the other pages on your site to link to that page that wants to rank for that keyword, using that keyword in the link, and then get other websites off‑site to link to you.

Be very careful with that one because Google’s very critical now if you over‑optimize anchor text of links from other websites to you using the same keyword over and over, you’ll actually get penalized for that, so just tread extremely lightly on that.

John Maher:  Because it looks like it’s not natural.

John McDougall:  Yeah, a modicum of that could be good but more often than not we don’t manipulate that now because it’s too risky. Stay away from that.

You’re basically doing the keyword research so that you can find the pages on your site that need keywords inserted. Really, every page should have keyword targeting.

Then, you’re going to be writing new content, usually blog posts or resource pages, to increase the regular amount of content on your site all using keywords. You don’t want to start blogging for show and pick random headlines that don’t have keywords if you want to increase your search engine optimization.

You can always go back to as you’re growing your site. Even if you don’t have a ranking report software to see where you’re ranking for various keywords, go to SEMrush and throw in your own domain. You can see how many keywords are now driving traffic to your site.

John Maher:  You can get a little month‑by‑month or year‑by‑year look at how you’re increasing the amount of traffic to your site and then the number of keywords that are showing up.

John McDougall:  Yep. SEMrush actually has the amount of traffic you’re getting, which is wrong because SEMrush and Compete don’t really have your analytics and exact data but it’s an estimate of how much traffic you versus your competitors get.

But right next to that tab where you can see the amount of traffic to your site you can click “Keywords.” You can look back a couple of years and show the amount of growth of keywords driving traffic to your site.

John Maher:  That’s really great information. John McDougall, thanks for speaking with me today.

John McDougall:  Absolutely.

John Maher:  For more information about digital marketing, visit and subscribe to this podcast on iTunes.

Thanks for listening. I’m John Maher. See you next time on Digital Marketing Madness.

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