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Keyword Research: A Real-World Guide for Content Marketing

Updated on January 12, 2017

What is Long Tail Keyword Research?

If you haven't heard this term before then it relates to identifying keywords which are:

  • specific;
  • valuable;
  • low-competition.

This last isn't a condition, but is a desire. Many people who think they are familiar with the term associate it merely with keyword phrases that are longer than the root keyword phrase.

The trouble with this kind of definition is that it can lead to phrases that are so specific, they're not valuable (i.e. have no search volume or are very expensive to target) and can be so long that they contain essentially two keyword phrases glued together: meaning you're fighting the SEO battle on two fronts with your competition.

It urns out, though, that long tail keywords have a few more features.

For example, in the article "Rethinking Long Tail Keywords" on the AHrefs.com web site, Blog Editor David McSweeney points out that they should have "clearly identifiable intent".

So, when conducting long tail keyword research, prioritise phrases that contain words that carry the intent that you trying to tap into:

  • where, what, how, why, etc.
  • buy, sell, best, low-cost, value, etc.
  • brand names, locations, etc.

By way of example:

  • telescope - head (top 20% or so of traffic)
  • refractor telescope - middle (next 12-15%)
  • best refracting telescope - tail (70%+ of search volume)

It is merely a coincidence that these are increasing in length. Specific branded keywords such as "meade telescope" might well be in the long tail, as might "astronomical telescopes". Unless you plot them on the graph of all possible keywords, you'll never know...

Which is why the research method used needs to take account of all possible keyword phrases, if only to be able to ditch the 30% that are neither specific, nor particularly valuable and look for examples from the 70% that are more likely to generate returns.

Now, Tim Soulo (AHrefs Head of Marketing) argues that the specificity of a long tail keyword phrase isn't a defining feature, and that the sole defining feature by which you can group keyword phrases is:

few keywords with insanely high search demand and the long "tail" represents a huge amount of keywords with very low search demand

While I don't like to contradict Soulo or McSweeney, I have found during my own research that it's also a function of competition (i.e. supply-demand). That is, the more long tail a keyword gets, the less it's being competed for.

(They would argue that this isn't technically true, but I would counter that it saves time to factor it in early, so you don't waste time later on throwing out all the phrases for which you would have a hard time competing...)

Long tail keyword research for content marketing, then, is the practice of trying to uncover highly specific keyword phrases, that have low competition, high value, and demonstrable intent.


Long Tail Example - Root Keyword: "telescope"
Long Tail Example - Root Keyword: "telescope"

How Does Keyword Research Relate to Content Marketing?

Content marketing relies on using information to drive demand, as well as answer demand for information in the hope of attracting business towards your product.

While a lot of people understand the first aspect -- after all, it's a lot like regular marketing -- they slightly miss the point on the second part. That's because (in my opinion) they miss the point of marketing itself.

There's a great diagram in "The Marketing Book" (by Micheal J. Hart and Susan Baker, 2016 edition) called "The Marketing Iceberg" which illustrates the issue that the most important part of the marketing mix lies under the water -- all you see is PR, Advertising and Promotion.

But, marketing (and, by extension content marketing) also covers:

  • Selling;
  • Market Testing;
  • Product Development (& Innovation);
  • Identification of Marketing Opportunities;
  • Market Intelligence & Customer Needs Research.

Your content needs to be found in order to be effective. That implies using keyword research in an SEO context, which hits Advertising, probably PR and Promotion, and maybe a bit of Selling.

But what of the rest?

Keyword research is fundamental in Product Development, for example, as it can help to illustrate demand for product variations, as well as listing keywords that are associated with rival product lines.

(As an aside, think of a keyword as a means of communication by shared meaning: we all know what we think we mean by a 'good book' or a 'bad book', or even a 'cheap book'!)

Likewise, keyword research is instrumental in finding out about customer's needs, identifying joint venture partners and even market testing; all of which can be addressed through creating and publishing content.

Content can be text, videos, images, or anything that communicates meaning.

Asking customers to vote for their favourite book title, for example, is a kind of content marketing. The keywords that appear in that title will give away much about what the market's needs and desires are.

Baker and Hart use a quotation from Peter Drucker to summarise the point of marketing as being "essential to the long-term success of the organisation", and I would add that modern marketing requires the study of keyword research and content marketing as two central tenets to that theme.

Which is the Best Keyword Research Tool?

Different tools are used at different phases of the keyword research process:

  • Discovery - what are the available root keyword phrases;
  • Elaboration - how can we get from root keyword phrases to long tail phrases;
  • Evaluation - which of the set of long tail keyword phrases is the most valuable?

The Discovery phase combines the human brain (as in brainstorming) as well as a search engine like Google, that allows for "guided search". In other words, you type in a word, and see what others have been looking for, and use that to guide your root keyword phrases selection.

During the Elaboration phase, I would use a tool like KeywordTool.io, or, if you want to emphasise your market's needs in the form of questions, AnswerThePublic.com.

During the Evaluation phase, many people resort to the AdWords Keyword Planner, which has the virtue of being free. But if you're going to pay for a tool, I'd say that the Evaluation phase is the best place to do it, and go for a suite of tools such as those provided by AHref or SEMRush.

The point of buying into a tool suite is that keyword research doesn't end with the identification of a set of keyword phrases. In the same way that marketing, as seen through the lens of Baker and Hart's Iceberg, or Drucker's work in the area, is a constant process to deliver competitive advantage, so is keyword research.

Having a tool that measures and tracks performance, as well as identifying potential, is a very powerful addition to your content marketing weaponry, and I'd plump for something that covers all bases.

What to do After Keyword Research...

The answer: more keyword research!

It's an ongoing process.

Research isn't just about discovering new things, it's about evaluating theories (i.e. keywords) and measuring their effectiveness and performance.

Likewise, keyword research for content marketing is also all about seeing what has worked, duplicating the results, and using feedback from Google Analytics and Search Console to derive new theories (keywords) to perhaps get better results (through testing).

Using the keywords that you uncover to create content is also part of the equation, but it's a relatively minor percentage in terms of ongoing work, and something that can be more easily outsourced than, say, determining an apt keyword phrase to define your business.

Why Keyword Research is So Important

As Liao et al point out in "Characterising Long-Tail SEO Spam on Cloud Web Hosting Services" (see links):

"With long-tail keywords, a doorway page can attract exactly the audience looking for that specific product, and as a result, that audience will be far closer to point-of-purchase."

The point of content marketing is to drive sales. A doorway page is a form of content used primarily for the advertising and sales part of marketing (what we might term conversion), but also part of all other aspects of the marketing iceberg.

The specificity of long tail keywords drives into the performance of the doorway page, and the distance between the point of purchase and the prospect can be measured in terms of its conversion rate.

Making subtle changes, playing one piece of content against others, and reading pages of keyword statistics generated by your favourite search engine are all vital parts of the keyword research process.

Helping customers find, understand, and buy products that will enrich their lives is the result that all marketers should be aiming for.

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