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Five Kinds of SEO Keyword and Topic Research

One of the easier to solve marketing mistakes I hear is when someone says they need to do just a bit of keyword research for their search engine optimization. When you hear keyword research, what does that phrase mean to you?

AHREFS defines keyword research like this: “Keyword research is the process of understanding the language your target customers use when searching for your products, services, and content. It then involves analyzing, comparing, and prioritizing the best keyword opportunities for your website.

This isn’t a bad definition, but it lacks some nuance. Keyword and topic research is all about intent. What is the customer trying to do, and how does our content align with that intent?

Most marketers start from the most logical point – a keyword or phrase that reflects the broadest possible obvious search. A coffee shop owner starting out with SEO would plug the search term “coffee shop” into the SEO keyword planner tool of their choice. An auto executive might put in a vehicle model or the brand name as their preferred search terms to start the keyword research process.

The challenge is, these starting points are based on assumptions that may or may not reflect the different kinds of customer intent. Keyword planner tools are like genies of fairy tales – they give you exactly what you ask for. If you ask for the wrong thing, you’ll get the wrong thing.

So, how should we be thinking about keyword research?

Five Kinds of SEO Keyword Research

We should think about keyword research based on five kinds of search intent. Let’s explore each:

Five kinds of SEO search intent

Branded keyword searches and branded keywords are very straightforward: these are searches for you by name. Whether it’s you personally, the company, individual executives, products and services – as long as someone is searching for you by name, it’s a branded keyword search. Branded keyword searches indicate strong intent – someone wants to learn more about you specifically. An example here would be someone searching for Google Analytics.

Competitive keyword searches are identical to branded keyword searches, save for the fact that they’re about a competitor. We don’t pay enough attention to competitive keyword searches, except when we’re running search marketing ads like Google Ads. Competitive keyword searches are vitally important to understand how much competition you face in the minds of customers. If you have 100 searches a month for your brand, and your competitor has 100,000 searches a month for their brand, you’ve got a tall hill to climb. An example here would be someone searching for Adobe Analytics, a competitor of Google Analytics.

Unbranded keyword searches are category searches, searches where a customer hasn’t learned enough about the category to start searching for individual brands. The customer knows they have a problem or something they need to know more about, but not who the biggest brands are that would solve that problem. Unbranded keyword searches still indicate intent, but they indicate intent a little earlier in the buyer’s journey (the first half of the customer journey). An example here would be someone searching for web analytics, the general category.

Adjacent keyword searches are searches that occur prior to, or adjacent to, a customer searching for the category. They’re the earliest searches in the buyer’s journey, when a customer is just becoming aware of a problem, or a customer has embarked on a process that will eventually lead them to an unbranded search. An example here would be someone searching for marketing analytics, or even business analytics – they’re just starting out learning about the problem they have, and haven’t gotten as granular as web analytics yet in their searches.

Novel keyword searches are a special type of branded keyword search, where the customer is searching for something that doesn’t exist, save for what you’ve created. Novel keyword searches are part of a bigger program to create a new, unique brand that others haven’t copied or even figured out exist yet. Fifteen years ago, Hubspot embarked on the process of creating the new category of inbound marketing, something that didn’t exist and had no traction at all, no mindshare. After many years and millions of dollars of marketing, they created a novel space that others would struggle to compete in.

What’s the Difference in Keyword Searches?

The difference among the 5 types of keyword searches is what kinds of content you need to create, along what themes and topics. Depending on what’s most broken in your SEO content strategy, you’ll need different keyword research for each.

This is the key takeaway: a one-size-fits-all topic and keyword list isn’t going to do as well as keyword and topic research for the specific kind of SEO need you have.

Let’s look at some practical examples. Suppose you were the person in charge of SEO at Google Analytics. What would the five types of keyword research look like for each? Using nearly any SEO tool, let’s pull the top ranking content for our search terms and see what terms co-occur in each of the categories.

Here’s a sample of what would turn up for your branded keyword searches:

  • google analytics
  • tracking code
  • analytics account
  • social media
  • google analytics account
  • analytics tracking
  • real time
  • google analytics tracking
  • google tag manager

This seems fairly sensible, right? Now suppose you wanted to look at your competitor, Adobe Analytics.

  • adobe analytics
  • mobile services
  • analytics market
  • customer journey
  • web analytics
  • adobe experience
  • google analytics
  • personal data
  • mobile analytics software

There isn’t a ton of overlap here between this and your site. These are different search intents. It’s a positive, by the way, to see your brand mixed in with a competitor’s when the focus is on a competitor.

Let’s take a look at our third category, unbranded keyword searches.

  • web analytics
  • google analytics
  • analytics tools
  • web analytics tools
  • real time
  • website analytics
  • bounce rate
  • social media
  • search engine
  • website traffic

Note the prominence of Google Analytics showing up even in the unbranded search terms. Good news if you’re Google’s search manager. You’ll notice as well that there’s a bit more overlap with Google’s branded searches and the unbranded list, hinting at the fact that they’re more aligned with the big unbranded search category and themes.

Now our fourth category, adjacent keyword searches.

  • marketing analytics
  • digital marketing
  • social media
  • data analytics
  • marketing data
  • marketing efforts
  • google analytics
  • data driven
  • marketing campaigns
  • digital marketing analytics

Even here, a step away from the unbranded problem and two steps away from competitors and the brand, Google Analytics still makes its mark. However, we see that the broad, adjacent category searches are much more diverse in terms of the type of content we want to create to earn awareness at the broadest levels.

Finally, using Hubspot as an example, let’s look at inbound marketing, their novel term:

  • inbound marketing
  • social media
  • marketing strategy
  • outbound marketing
  • content marketing
  • inbound marketing strategy
  • buyer journey
  • digital marketing
  • search engine
  • marketing automation

This is the power of a novel strategy, if you have the time and reosurces to invest in it. You not only own the category, but you drag other topics into it, associating your novel idea with those bigger, more broad ideas.

So What?

So, what would you do with this information? The types of searches very much mirror the buyer’s journey from bottom to top.

Trust Insights Customer Journey

Branded searches – and competitive searches – are a focus for people who are more intent on acquiring a specific solution, in the evaluation part of the buyer’s journey.

Unbranded searches are for people who are in the consideration phase, trying to understand the problem.

Adjacent searches are for people who are just becoming aware of the problem and its parameters, and may not even know they need our help.

The question then becomes, which part of the buyer’s journey needs the most help at your organization? Once you establish that, map that problem area to which kind of organic keyword searches you need to focus on, and tune up your topic and keyword lists to fix that problem. That’s how you make keyword research a strategic part of your marketing, rather than a random tactic.

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