How to Choose Keywords for SEO: My 4-Step Process

Are you wondering how to choose keywords for SEO? This four-step guide will explain everything you need to know to rank for key phrases in your industry.

April 22, 2024
Written by
Christy Bieber
Reviewed by
Nate Matherson

Join 1,850+ SEO and marketing professionals staying up-to-date with Positional's weekly newsletter.

* indicates required

Keywords are the key to an effective SEO strategy. They’re the terms or phrases that people type into Google (and other search engines) when they're trying to find something on the internet, and the content you create should be targeting keywords relevant to your business.

So, picking the right keywords when developing your content strategy is crucial — it’s how you help potential customers find you. If your SEO efforts are successful, your site’s webpages will show up near the top of search engine results pages (SERPs) when people search for the keywords you’ve targeted.

But choosing keywords can be more challenging than it might seem. You don't want to target terms and phrases with too much competition, nor do you want to optimize your site for keywords that too few people are searching for.

The good news is, taking just four simple steps can maximize your chances of ranking for the search terms and phrases that are most beneficial to your business.

Your 4-Step Guide to Choosing Keywords for SEO

Whether you're targeting keywords with a blog post, a landing page, or other web content, these simple steps will make the process of finding the right keywords easy.

  1. Create a Website Content Inventory
  2. Do Keyword Research
  3. Prioritize Keywords
  4. Cluster or Group Keywords

Step 1: Create a Website Content Inventory

Note: You can skip this step if you don’t yet have a significant number of pages on your website.

Before you dig into new keyword research, a helpful first step is to put together an inventory of all the pages that already exist on your website, including which primary keywords you’re trying to rank for with each page.

Your content inventory should be a list of all the content on your site — including blog posts, landing pages, press releases, forms, images, case studies, product descriptions, and download pages. If it's on your site, it should be in the inventory. You could also add supplemental information like publish date, number of page views, and page type.

As we’ve mentioned, it’s important to clearly define the keywords that you’re targeting with each page — because you’ll want to avoid creating new webpages that target the same keywords as pages that already exist on your website.

Creating as many pages as possible to target certain keywords may seem like a smart thing to do. But it's not.

If you have too many pages targeting the same exact keyword, Google won't know which page to rank. Your pages will compete against one another, creating an SEO issue called keyword cannibalization.

Your inventory will help you to see at a glance what keywords you're ranking for, which optimized pages are doing well in terms of page views, and the content gaps you need to fill.

Step 2: Do Keyword Research

There are a lot of tools that can help you conduct keyword research. But often the best place to start with SEO keyword selection involves focusing on the people you're serving and the needs you're hoping to meet.

Discovering Key Phrases

Here are a few ways to start the discovery process and identify key phrases that could become part of your SEO strategy.  

  • Listen to the questions current or potential customers are asking you. If your customer support team or sales staff repeatedly hears the same questions, the terms that people use when asking those questions are a good place to start your keyword research. For example, salespeople at a business that offers SEO tools might hear questions like "How do internally link webpages for SEO?" So, a good keyword to target might be "internal linking SEO"
  • Analyze what keywords your competitors are ranking for. If they're ranking for a keyword that you aren't, that might be a new phrase to target.
  • Analyze what keywords you're already ranking for. If you have a keyword that you rank — but not well — for, you can create a standalone piece of content to better target it.  
  • Search from a seed keyword. A seed keyword is a broad term or short phrase relevant to your industry that you can use as a starting point to find similar terms. When you input the seed keyword into a keyword research tool, you can see related keywords that people are searching for.

Incorporating Keyword Research Tools in Your SEO Strategy

While you can start by doing research on your own, you'll ultimately need to use SEO keyword research tools that provide you with hard data. You can use these tools to determine:

  1. Whether a keyword has a high enough search volume to be worth targeting.
  2. The level of competition or keyword difficulty attached to a keyword.

Hard data matters because slightly different keywords can have very different numbers of monthly searches. For example, the free Keyword Planner tool offered by Google shows the difference in search volume between these two similar keywords:

  • “How to pick keywords for SEO”: 100 to 1,000 average monthly searches.
  • “How to find the best keywords for your website”: 10 to 100 average monthly searches.

The good news is, there are many keyword tools out there that provide detailed information about what people are looking for on search engines. Each of them can help you devise an effective strategy for meeting your SEO goals.

Free and Paid Keyword Research Tools

The free tool mentioned above, Google’s Keyword Planner, will show you average monthly searches over time, but it will give you only a range unless you're paying for ads. Here's what this looks like:

Google Search Console is another free tool you can use to analyze the keywords your site is currently ranking for and identify opportunities where you can improve.

Paid services, such as those offered by Positional, Ahrefs, and Semrush, provide much more specific information. They’re often worth investing in if you're serious about your SEO efforts.

For example, here's what Positional’s Keyword Research tool will show you if you enter the keyword "email marketing platform."

With this tool, it's easy to determine at a glance that ranking for this keyword would be challenging. You may decide to generate other related keywords that will likely be easier to rank for.

Positional also has tools to help you spot keyword gaps by inputting your domain and a competitor's. Here's what our Competitor Research toolset looks like:

By making effective use of these tools, you can come up with a long list of potential keywords to target.

Step 3: Prioritize Keywords

No matter how good your SEO techniques are, you're not going to rank for every relevant phrase immediately. So you'll need to prioritize which keywords to target first. Typically, you’ll want to first focus on ranking highly for the keywords most relevant to your business, and then you can work on expanding your content library from there.

There are a number of techniques you can use to prioritize phrases to target:

Evaluate Monthly Search Volume and Competition

A high volume of searches for a keyword likely means that a lot of websites are competing for it. For example, it's going to be harder to rank for the term "SEO" than to rank for the term "how to choose SEO keywords."

Longer, more specific phrases are called long-tail keywords; shorter, broader phrases are called head terms. Even if you're choosing long-tail keywords — which tend to be three- to five-word phrases — you still want to make sure there's enough search volume to make your SEO efforts worthwhile.

Tools like Positional, Ahrefs, and Semrush show you both monthly search volume and competition, so you can make an informed choice about which head and long-tail keywords are worth trying to rank for.

Consider the Stage of the Funnel You're Targeting

A business’s potential customers are often described as being at one of these stages in the sales funnel:

  • Awareness of a problem or need — this is referred to as the top of the funnel (ToFu).
  • Researching solutions — the middle of the funnel (MoFu).
  • Deciding on a solution and becoming a customer — the bottom of the funnel (BoFu).

ToFu keywords have much more competition and can be harder to rank for. BoFu keywords tend to be much more specific and, as a result, have lower competition. They can be easier to rank for. It can also be easier to turn someone at the BoFu stage into a customer because they are ready to take action.

For example, a ToFu search like "what is SEO" has a very different intent than a BoFu search like "best SEO tools." Someone searching for the latter keyword would probably be readier to sign up for a service offering an optimization toolkit than a person who’s just trying to understand what SEO is.

You'll likely want to create a mix of ToFu, MoFu, and BoFu content when setting your SEO goals.

Step #4: Cluster or Group Keywords

Many keywords have a similar intent and can be targeted by the same piece of content. For example, someone searching for "best SEO tools," and someone searching for "best SEO tools 2024," likely have the same intent. So you can group those two terms together and target them with the same piece of content.

Keyword clustering tools like Positional and Keyword Insights can help you identify long-tail or supporting keywords that should be clustered. Positional's keyword clustering tool uses SERP data to quickly group a list of current keywords or identify new keyword groups based on seed keywords.

You can also cluster keywords manually using a SERP-based approach. To do this, Google both of the keywords you're interested in targeting. If the results are substantially the same — which is the case when you search "best SEO tools" and "best SEO tools 2024" — then you'll know those keywords are part of the same group.

When you cluster keywords, the phrase with the most search volume should be your primary keyword. That's the one you optimize for by including it in your:

  • H1 (primary heading)
  • Title tag (page title that appears in search results)
  • Slug (the end of your URL)
  • Meta description (a brief summary of the page's content that shows up on the SERP page)

You'll then include the other supporting keywords in the cluster elsewhere on your page.

Final Thoughts

Selecting the right keywords and targeting them with high-quality content are critical components of any SEO strategy.

Diligent keyword research will help you choose which keywords to target before you begin writing — both your primary keywords and long-tail or secondary keywords within the same keyword cluster.

And remember, you never want to target the same keyword with more than one page on your site, as keyword cannibalization can have an adverse impact on your search engine rankings.

With the right tools, you can drive organic search traffic by researching keywords, making a comprehensive list of keywords to target, and creating an effective content calendar. You can also assess the level of competition for each keyword you're considering targeting and make sure that it has enough search volume to be worth ranking for. And Positional has tools that can help with all of these steps, to make choosing keywords for SEO simpler.

Christy Bieber
Freelance Writer

Christy is a freelance writer with over a decade of experience. She has a Juris Doctor (JD) from the University of California, Los Angeles, as well as a degree in English, Media, and Communications with a Certificate in Business Management from the University of Rochester. Her work has been published on websites such as Fox Business, New York Post, and Forbes.

Read More

Looking to learn more? The below posts may be helpful for you to learn more about content marketing & SEO.