Your Keyword Research Sucks - Here's Why

Most people think of keyword research as just pulling a list of keywords out of the AdWords keyword planner and slapping those terms inside the meta titles of various pages on the website.

Creating a list of terms with search volumes and competitive metrics is certainly a good place to start, but it's not enough.

The purpose of keyword research is not to determine what your meta titles should be. I can tell you that after looking at your page for 30 seconds – no need to waste a bunch of time on "research."

KW research should be used to drive content decisions. Not just meta titles, but every part of content – the content itself, meta titles, descriptions, images, layout, etc.

So building a list of keywords with accompanying search volumes and competitive metrics is the start of our research, but if we stopped there we'd just be wasting our time.

Instead of keyword research we do something that might more appropriately be called, "keyword, intent, and content research." I haven't come up with a cool name for it yet so we still call it keyword research…lame, I know.

Anyway, let's use an example to illustrate why traditional keyword research is so useless.

Let's say we have a real estate agent here in Cincinnati. She wants to improve organic visibility for a handful of real estate terms – for our purposes let's look at just these three. I've added Google's search volume and suggested AdWords bids as well:

Keyword Avg. Monthly Searches Suggested Bid Competition
Real estate agent Cincinnati 10 $3.90 High
Condos for sale in Cincinnati 390 $2.52 High
Things to do in Cincinnati 6,600 $0.88 Low

The old-school way would be to look at this list, find a page on the site that most closely matched up with each keyword, and put that keyword in the meta title for that page. Then maybe make sure the keyword shows up in the content of that page.

This won't work for anything but the least competitive keywords – and probably not even for those much anymore.

The reason is because this approach completely ignores the entire purpose of the search engines: To allow people to find as much of the information they're looking for as quickly as possible. We call this searcher intent, and we've written about it pretty extensively in the past.

Instead, keyword research needs to include at least the following components.

Topical grouping

We took on a new client a while back who was working with your typical low-budget SEO firm before hiring us.

Part of the package that firm sold this client included optimization for 10 keywords.

This is pretty common but it doesn't make sense. Search engines understand a lot of the relationships between words and the meaning behind those searches much better now – and they're getting better every day.

In the past we'd target search queries at the keyword level, for example, creating separate pages for "Auto Glass Companies" and "Cincinnati Auto Glass."

Those days are over. Google gets that those terms are basically the same.

Because of that, it's important to break up keywords into topical groups based on searcher intent.

Intent of a search

Why does someone search "real estate agents in Cincinnati?" In most cases, the purpose is to find a list of real estate agents in the Cincinnati area.

Note: Figuring out intent is not always easy – I'll write about it sometime but it's beyond the scope of this post.

But that might not be the only intent of that search. Think of all the other information someone might want to know about agents in Cincinnati.

  • What neighborhoods is the agent most knowledgable about?
  • What price ranges does the agent focus on?
  • What type of properties do they focus on (single family, condos, townhomes, commercial)?
  • How long have they been practicing?
  • Are there any third-party reviews / ratings?
  • How many properties do they sell each month?
  • What are some of their recent listings?

Obviously, you could take this really far. How far you go with it depends on the competition.


When it comes to competition, way too much focus is put on the automated metrics spit out by tools like Google's keyword planner or Moz's keyword difficulty.

These numbers aren't terribly useful because they don't take into account what is probably the most important detail about the competition: How well and how completely does the competition match the searcher's intent?

Back to the real estate agent example, all those other bits of information I mentioned above are likely part of the searcher's intent for this particular query.

The better and more completely we match this intent, the more likely we'll outrank the competition.

Metrics are an okay starting point, but you really need to go through each topical group manually to determine how stiff the competition truly is.

For example, take a look at the results for "things to do in Cincinnati." The #1 result is this page from Trip Advisor. Go ahead and take a look at that page. It's incredibly in-depth and incredibly useful. It also took a lot of work to put together. You will not beat that page without a lot of work.

If the cost of beating the competition is higher than the expected benefit, you can get more specific. Instead of going after "things to do in Cincinnati," you might start with "the top 20 family-friendly activities in Cincinnati" and expand from there.

But in the end, you can't just look at a number to determine competition. You must also determine how well the competition is matching the searcher's intent and how easy it will be to do it better.

Because of this, you need find a balance – you don't want to go overkill and do all this work if the competition isn't that stiff. On the other hand, if you're competing against sites like Zillow and Trulia, you better be pretty freaking awesome.

So while pulling a list of keywords related to your industry along with search volumes and competitive metrics is a great starting point, if you leave it at that you won't get the best results.

Take the time to understand the true intent behind those search queries, how well the competition is matching that intent, and whether it's worth it to try and do it better.

In the end, the purpose of keyword research shouldn't be to just lazily slap some keywords in our meta titles, it should be to better understand the searcher's intent, the competition, and to guide us in making better, more effective content decisions.

John Crenshaw
John Crenshaw
UFO company founder. 15+ years experience in performance marketing.
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