Using keyword research for market research

For the past couple of months, I've been using keyword research as a type of cheap and easy market research. Here's why:

  • Keyword research is a systematic method for identifying popular search terms.
  • A search term is popular if it has between 2000 and 5000 monthly average searches. An average of 3000 monthly searches represents approximately 100 daily searches.  
  • Popular search terms shed light on the ideas, questions, or needs of a sizable group of people. Therefore, knowledge of these terms provides a window on how a market thinks about a topic - and by extension, your offering.

These insights are highly relevant if you're contributing content for the web. Search engines are still the main way people find new content. What may be surprising is that keyword research is also useful for testing an assumption, thinking of a product name, identifying a target market, competitor analysis, and more. Search terms give you a view into how people think, which is almost always valuable.

Free Keyword Research

It’s interesting (and a bonus for researchers) that the two biggest search engines, Google and Bing, give this search data away for free to advertisers. They do this because they make their money selling ads, they make more money on ads for high volume search terms because the ads are correspondingly displayed more frequently, and they make the most money when there's high competition for search terms (again, search terms with higher volumes are desirable, as they represent higher search traffic).

Long Tail Keyword Research

Long-tail keyword research is the process of identifying longer search terms (usually four to five words) that generate enough search traffic (around 300 searches monthly) to be desirable. Long-tail keywords are useful when you’re publishing web content, mainly because shorter phrases are dominated by sites with a higher search rank. The longer keyword terms provide more specificity; synonymous with targeting a specific or niche topic.

More and more, web users are using longer search terms as a way to extract the information they want from an online environment that has an ever-increasing wealth of it. The advantage to researchers is that these longer terms provide more context and insight into people and their motivations.

How to do keyword research in four steps

Create a Google Adwords account

The first step is to create an Adwords account (https://adwords.google.com) or a Bing Webmaster account (http://webmaster.bing.com). Over the past few years, Google has continued to hold 68% of all web searches. Bing (the search engine behind both Microsoft and Yahoo) gets 29% of the remaining searches. (Source: Search Engine Land). With these two, you’re covering it all.

Using your Google Adwords account, log in and find the Tools menu. From there, choose Keyword Planner, then “Search for new keyword and ad group ideas”. Then type in the keywords you’re targeting. Leave all the defaults as they are. Next, click the button at the bottom labeled “Get ideas”. The analytics engine will then return two tabs titled “Ad group ideas” and “Keyword ideas”. Choose the second tab. When the page updates, the search terms you requested will appear at the top. “Competition” is an indication of the competitiveness of a term for advertisers (more competition means a higher cost). “Suggested bid” gives you a more quantitative perspective on the importance other advertisers place on each search term. Keep this in mind as you consider competitor analysis.

Example

We’re building an application to provide peer feedback in the workplace, so the terms we’ll start with are “employee peer feedback app” and “employee peer feedback application”.

What we know from this is that almost no one is searching for an app that provides peer feedback. This could be a signal that no one really wants an app that does this, though it’s too early to say. At the same time, Google has helpfully suggested more than 800 alternative search terms for us to research further.

Analyze the search term data

Next, download the data into a spreadsheet. Click “Download”, and on the next dialog choose “Excel CSV”, then “Save File”. On Windows, I believe you can just open the file directly into Excel. On the Mac, we must take an intermediate step. First, open the newly downloaded .csv file with TextEdit. Then highlight and copy everything. Next, on the Mac, open Numbers, click the top-most left cell, then paste in the data. The result should be a nicely formatted spreadsheet with several hundred (up to just over 800) search terms. Now sort, in descending order, by Avg. Monthly Searches. You can optionally sort secondarily on Competition. Another useful tip is to sort by the number of words in the search term, with the goal of having longer terms with the highest average monthly searches show up at the top.

Example

As noted, we’re building an application for employee peer feedback. In reviewing the search terms, a couple of better candidates are, apparently, “360 degree feedback” with 2900 searches and a suggested bid of $26.37, and “employee evaluation form” with 3600 searches. “Dashboard software” also features high on the search list and reminds me that “software” is a more typical plain-language search term than “application”.

Broaden your search

The data, sorted accordingly, and your knowledge of your product should enable you to identify several top search-term prospects to continue with. Hopefully, these first few steps have already taught you something new about your problem domain.

Next, we replicate the first two steps using three to seven of the best keyword prospects as input. The result should be another tab in your spreadsheet with a broader and more interesting set of keywords.

Example

Continuing with our previous example, we’ll search again using “360 degree feedback, 360 degree feedback software, employee evaluation form, employee evaluation software.” We’ll then get that back into Numbers. Interestingly enough, “human resources” hits the top, with a staggering 60500 monthly searches. Maybe not useful for our example yet, but keep note of it in case it comes up in future research.

This time, “performance management software” is notable. From our original seed, we’ll keep “employee evaluation form” and “employee evaluation software”. And we’ll add, “hr software”, “hris systems”, “employee performance evaluation”, and “360 evaluation questions”.

Broaden your search - an alternative

Ubersuggest is a terrific tool to help you expand your search terms. It uses Google’s suggested terms (the ones at the bottom of the first search page) and retrieves those for your search term. It additionally does this for each letter of the alphabet, appending that letter to your original search term.

Example

Unfortunately, you can only search one term at a time. We’ll use “employee evaluation software”. From the results, we can make some assumptions: lots of people want free software for this; “360 employee evaluation software”, “employee evaluation tracking software”, and “performance appraisal tracking software" look interesting; and since this is a product, appending “cost” and “comparison” should give us a feel for the competition.

Search the web with your terms

The last step is to go back to the search engines with your top search terms. The goal is to identify the top competitors, content articles, and new insights. This can often be the most useful step, as it helps you move past more limited search terms.

Is there an even faster way?

Maybe. There are many tools that purport to automate this process. However, these tools can be quite expensive – often $50 to $100 per month. If what you’re contemplating building or creating involves a large time investment, then spending 30 minutes following this more manual process can be extremely useful in rounding out your knowledge and understanding. 


Please share in the comments if you have your own technique for keyword or market research.