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A quick guide to keyword research (if you’re not saying it, you’re not ranking for it)

Gareth Cartman

Back when I was a kid in Blackpool, we always had the same milkman. He had a very square head, so I called him Blockhead.

He didn’t call himself Blockhead. He called himself “the milkman” - which is probably how he got business. He put a card in the local newsagents and people would see “milkman” and think - “I need milk delivering on a regular basis, I’ll use him.”

Then, one day, Blockhead decided that milkman wasn’t good enough for him. He became a “Dairy Sales Executive”. 

It’s quite possible that Blockhead sat down one night and mused on his competition. “They’re all selling yoghurt”, he may have moaned. “How do I compete with my rather restrictive moniker of Milkman? I need to sell more yoghurt.”

So he became a Dairy Sales Executive, and that was that. If you were looking for a milkman, you’d have to decipher Blockhead’s fancy new job title first, and that’s quite a step. Some people don’t want to decipher things, they just want a milkman.

What you say about yourself not always what people think of you. For me, Blockhead was always the milkman, but he made the decision to move away from the simple, descriptive job title of old. I have no idea if it worked - Tesco was just moving in anyway, and putting everyone out of business anyway.

I always think of Blockhead when I’m doing my keyword research. Blockhead, you see, forgot the cardinal rule - if you’re not saying it, you’re not going to be found for it. Nobody wants a Dairy Sales Executive - or at least, they don’t think they do. They want someone to deliver milk to their doorstep every morning.

It’s that gap between “what you think you do” and “what everyone wants” that you’re trying to bridge. So, the very first step of any keyword research analysis is getting past those preconceptions - those fixed ideas that “this is what we do” and wandering out into the world of customers, prospects and those who don’t even know what they need.

And then Google unveiled the Keyword Planner

Oh Keyword Planner, let me count the ways I hate you.

Not so long ago, we had the Keyword Tool - a handy, simple little thing from Google that told you search volumes of keywords. Oh, the halcyon days.

Today, we’ve got this mess called the Keyword Planner, a mish-mash of a tool designed to obfuscate data volumes, confuse everyone, and sell more Pay Per Click advertising to small businesses. I exaggerate only a little bit, it’s not that bad - at least you can define local search volumes, but to what extent can you trust Google’s keyword volumes? Not much.

The only consolation is that everything is relative, so you can prioritise.

However, the Keyword Planner is highly erratic. On the searches we’ve tried, we have witnessed varying volumes of ‘keyword ideas’, and varying quality, too.

Talking’s underrated

I always love to see what prospects & customers are writing to a client. If they’ve sent e-mails, if they’ve sent enquiries already through the website - what are they saying?

You may think that you sell products & services, but prospects might be talking about solutions. They might be talking about something completely different. Here’s a great starting point for your keyword research. Listen to customers, listen to the people on the ground, and Google That.

You may find, in your search results, a bunch of competitors who have done their research. Follow that thread - have a look at what they’re saying on their site, and go looking for those keywords. Google them, follow the thread, see where you land.

Using other tools

I started using SEMRush last week. And yes, the data volumes are much more conservative than the Google Keyword Planner (well, who’d have guessed that Google might inflate volumes). The list of suggested keywords - those related to your query, and those containing your query - keeps you following threads and going down dark, keyword-rich alleys.

What you’re trying to do here is find groups of keywords that people are really using. The groups are often clustered around a ‘trophy keyword’, or an idea. The more you branch out from that central keyword or idea, the more you start to see the vast potential of the long-tail - i.e. the long search queries that receive very low volumes, but convert at a high rate.

Export your lists of keywords - from whatever tool you’re using - into a CSV file and filter your data so that you always contain that trophy keyword.

For Blockhead, it may have been milk.

Google Keyword Planner tells me that 480 people every month search for “milk man”. It also tells me that 170 people are searching for the phrase “how to milk a man”, which is admittedly irrelevant, but disturbing.

Only 10 a month are searching for “milk man” in Blackpool, though - which implies that perhaps he was right to become a Dairy Sales Executive. However, broadening this out, we see that “milk deliveries” and “milk delivery” has quite a lot of potential. Some people are looking for “fresh milk delivery” and others are looking for “raw milk delivery”. They’ll also be refining down into their location - and if not, Google will be enforcing local searches anyway.

So, if I were after a milkman these days in Blackpool, I’d be googling “fresh milk delivery in Blackpool”.

What’s Google saying?

You know when you type something into the URL bar and Google handily completes your query for you? And you furiously shout at the computer “no that’s not what I wanted you idiot” and delete delete delete delete.

It also suggests a bunch of other keywords as you drop down. is a handy little tool for seeing what potential drop-down queries Google is suggesting - and it offers you other little avenues of research to explore. It will tell you what Google would suggest if you carried on typing, with every letter of the alphabet - and you can export the keywords you’re interested in, too. Test those in the keyword planner, or the tool of your choice.

Make the data real

There’s no point in collating data if you’re not going to use it. Bring it to life. We use Keyword Clouds at Clever Little Design - they’re a visual representation of the long tail potential around a trophy keyword.

Here’s a quick one I did for Blockhead, gratis:

Obviously, not everyone is searching for “Lactose-free milkman in glass bottles”, but the keyword cloud gives us a nice, spreadsheet-free overview of the many combinations of keywords that we can use on our website. Obviously, you’d want to get your trophy keyword into the H1 and the page title, and you may want to start creating new pages that hang off your main service page - such as “Local farm-fresh milk delivered to Blackpool”.

You might want to start a blog, and a great first article might be “how to get a milk man” or “why is milk delivered in glass bottles?”

The deeper you go into the keyword research, the more you can build out these clouds, back them up with solid data in your spreadsheets, and start building your website around what people are actually saying, not what you think you do. The reality is that you’re going to have to meet your clients somewhere in between: say what they say, and you’ll have a greater chance of attracting more of them to your website.