What is Keyword Research in SEO? – The Basics

What is keyword research banner

Keyword research is a vital part of both your SEO strategy and broader content strategy. It not only helps you find the best keywords for a page to target, but it also improves your knowledge of your industry, competitors, and target audience.

Even though it might seem simple enough at first, good keyword research encompasses a lot more than you might think.

Keyword research spans various disciplines, from semantics and consumer behavior to data analysis, and the deeper you dive into the topic the more complex it gets.

In this post, we’re not going to dive all too deep into the complexities of SEO keyword research. I will cover some of the basics, however, including what keyword research is and why it’s so important.

If you have any questions after reading this post or you’d like some support setting up a keyword research process for your website, feel free to reach out to me or check out my on-page SEO services

What is keyword research in SEO?

Keyword research is the process of searching for popular, relevant terms that your target audience searches online, and then analyzing these terms to find the best one(s) for a web page to target.

Put simply, you’re looking for the best keywords/phrases for your page to show up for when someone searches them on a search engine. Some of the questions your keyword research process should answer are:

What words/phrases are my target audience searching for on this search engine?

What terminology do they use?

What is their intent behind the keywords/phrases they search for?

How often are these keywords/phrases searched per month?

Can I compete for this search term/phrase?

What do the SERPs look like for this keyword/phrase?

A good keyword research process can prevent you from spending time/resources trying to rank for irrelevant search terms and help you focus your efforts on those keywords that are most likely to get you results.

The process used to find these keywords can be relatively simple, but it can also get very technical depending on the level of detail required. Although there are potentially hundreds of factors that can be used to analyze keywords, some of the most important ones include:

Search volume

The search volume is the number of times a search term is searched per month. All other things being equal, ranking for a keyword with a high search volume will result in more visits than ranking for a keyword with a lower search volume.

An image of Seobility's keyword research tool displaying the estimated search volume for various keywords

Screenshot taken from Seobility’s keyword research tool

Search intent

A keyword’s search intent refers to the intent that a searcher has when searching for a keyword. If the searcher’s intent is to buy something, then e-commerce stores and sales pages will rank above purely informational web pages. On the flip-side, the SERPs for informational-intent search terms will feature blog posts or other informational pages.

An image of a Google search for the term buy iPhone returning various Google Shopping results, indication a transactional search intent.

As you can see, the Google search results for “buy iPhone” show sales pages, indicating that people searching for this keyword are looking to buy something.


The level of competition can vary a lot depending on the keyword you target. If there are a lot of high-quality web pages with many high-quality backlinks ranking for a certain keyword, it’s going to be far more difficult to compete than if there are just a few low-quality pages.

Image of Seobility's keyword research tool highlighting the competition level for each keyword.

Although these three factors are taken into account in all keyword research processes, there are many other factors that can be taken into account too depending on the level of detail required.

To really understand what keyword research is it’s important to get a better understanding of how search engines work and how people interact with them…

How people interact with search engines

People search the web using keywords and phrases. These could be words and phrases typed into a search bar, or they could be spoken words and phrases in the form of a voice search.

It’s a search engine’s job to understand what you mean by the word/phrase you search, as well as to understand what you are looking for. This is a lot more challenging than you may think since a single word or phrase often doesn’t provide a lot of information/context.

Over the past twenty-plus years, search engines have been constantly tweaking their algorithm to better understand the intent behind a search. This has resulted in search engines displaying fewer irrelevant pages and it becoming more challenging to rank pages that don’t meet the search intent.

This has led to modern keyword research processes placing more focus on understanding the intent behind a search term.

Finding relevant pages

As if the process of figuring out what a searcher is looking for based on a few words isn’t complicated enough, search engines then have to return the ten most relevant pages from hundreds of millions of potentially relevant pages….

Image of the Google search results showing there are about 305.000.000 search results for the search term SEO tools

There are countless factors that search engine algorithms use to understand the relevance of web pages, some of the major ones being the content on the page and the topic of the website.

If the content on a page is clearly on the same topic, then there’s a good chance that the page is relevant to the search term/phrase.

Relevance is another important part of keyword research, as it helps you to focus on keywords that are most relevant to the page you want to create.

Ordering the SERPs

Search engines also have to order the SERPs, providing their users with just a small number of the most relevant and trustworthy pages.

Search engines don’t disclose their algorithm, so nobody knows exactly how they do this. However, major search engines like Google have disclosed various ranking factors their algorithms use over the past few years. Various factors have also been tested by SEOs, either through correlation studies or single-variable tests.

This gives us a reasonable insight into many of the most important ranking factors.

It is this part of the search process where the majority of search engine optimization focuses on, namely optimizing a page to rank as high as possible. Most of these factors are more relevant to optimizing your web pages than to keyword research, so I’m not going to go into this too much here.

That being said, how difficult it is to rank for a keyword does have a lot to do with this part of the search process.

If a keyword already returns many high-quality, relevant web pages that cover the topic in great detail, then it’s going to be more challenging to rank for that keyword.

After all, if all the pages are highly relevant and optimized well, then it will require more time/resources to compete for a search term.

Once you understand the search process, it’s easy to see how different aspects of keyword research focus on different steps in this process. Understanding this will help give you a better understanding of what keyword research is and what you’re actually doing in your keyword research process.

Why is keyword research important?

Keyword research is an important part of SEO because it forms the basis of the rest of your SEO strategy. It not only ensures that the web pages you create are on topics your target audience is searching for, but it also helps you drive more (and more targeted) traffic to your pages.

As we’ve discussed in the previous section, keywords differ in search volume and search intent, and result in different SERPs, with different levels of competition.

1. By targeting a keyword with the right search intent, you can improve your page’s chances of ranking for that specific keyword. Also, the page will generally convert/perform better since the traffic that your page receives is more relevant.

For example, a page selling colored pencils for professional artists may find that the page matches the search intent for the keyword “colored pencils for artists” but not for “what are colored pencils.” Ranking for the first keyword will be easier and will also result in higher quality traffic since the keyword indicates that people are looking to buy colored pencils, as opposed to general information about them.

2. Focusing on keywords with a decent search volume will result in more traffic to your page. That being said, it’s important to keep in mind that this is a generalization. There are a lot of other factors that can impact the number of clicks that organic search results get, for example, the number of rich results on a particular SERP.

3. By finding keywords that you can compete for, you improve your chances of ranking for a keyword. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you should only target easy keywords though. If you have a large authoritative website, competing for more challenging keywords might be beneficial.

So, in short…

A good keyword research process will help you meet these criteria and improve a page’s performance. It can:

  • Improve your page’s chance of ranking
  • Improve the quality of traffic the page receives from search engines
  • Improve the amount of traffic the page receives from search engines

Sounds good, right?


There is a lot more to be said about keyword research, and I’ll make sure to add some links to the bottom of this post as I upload new posts on the topic. That being said, hopefully, this post has helped you gain a better understanding of what keyword research is.

In the meantime, if you have any questions or would like some help developing your own keyword research process, feel free to leave a comment or send me an email!


Image of the author, Bram V


Freelance SEO Expert and Digital Marketing Freelancer

With over 6 years of experience in freelance SEO and digital marketing, my primary goal is to assist business owners in attaining their marketing objectives and achieving the results they want online.

Should you have any questions about this post or any of my services, please don't hesitate to reach out to me at any time!