Real best practices for keyword research are tricky to pinpoint for the very simple reason that nobody really knows how Google actually ranks pages. We do know it uses over 200 different factors, of which the three most important are links, content and RankBrain. Not necessarily in that order.
What we also know is that Google is experimenting with machine learning and AI-algorithms, which are likely to revolutionise its search engine in the next few years. Effectively doing away with the few certainties we have right now.
There’s also no third party tool that has access to Google algorithms. Which means no keyword planner is 100% accurate, whatever they’re trying to make you believe.
Still, we can go for estimation. Shouldn’t be too far from the truth, right? Let’s have a look at what you can do.
How to find out the ranking difficulty of a keyword
You’re gonna want to find out the top ranking pages for your chosen keyword and, more importantly, the number of backlinks they have.
Let’s use dire wolf (yes, I like Game of Thrones) in this example. One way to do this – the way I do it – is by usingKeyword Explorer and check out the SERP results (all the way down). Ahrefs is not free, it is quite awesome though and you can get a free trial to get started with. I believe also has a Keyword Explorer. It’s also not free but it also has a free trial. I like Ahrefs better though. Another reportedly great source for SEO tools is . I have not tried that one out though.
Let’s have a look at the results
‘Domains’ indicate how many unique websites link to the given page. The pattern is clear: the more links, the more likely the page will be higher in the ranking.
It’s not all quantity over quality though. In fact, 10 links from a high quality website will rank the page higher than 100 links from a low quality website. That’s why the number of domain links does not linearly descend from positions 1 tot 10. The quality of the domain is where URL rating or UR comes in.
As you can see, UR has more influence on the Google ranking then the raw number of linking domains. That’s because UR takes into account the quality of the backlinks.
These are just two indicators determining the rank of a page on a certain keyword, but they are important ones.
You can outrank pages with more backlinks if they’re not as relevant to the search query as you are. Let’s take chocolate lab as an example.
Wikipedia gets ranked out here by several pages with a lot less backlinks and a lower UR. Why? Well, look at the title ‘Labrador Retriever’. The part of the page that is actually about your keyword is likely to just be a small part, whereas the other pages are way more on-topic.
There’s a common misconception that when you use a keyword in your actual title you’ll be likely to outrank pages that don’t use the keyword in their title. That used to be true, back in 2010. Today in 2017, Google is smart enough to know about the relevance of certain keywords. This means you won’t be able to outrank a page that uses ‘guest blogging’ in their title for the keyword ‘guest writing’ by simply putting that in your title (given that other page has more backlinks, higher UR or both). Google knows the two keywords are family.
Make your page relevant
‘So, if I just make my content more relevant to a certain keyword, I will rank higher on that keyword?’ Not so fast.
Making your page relevant to Google implies you understanding how Google works, how it matches search queries to content it gets from web pages.
To outsmart everyone, you should therefore start learning how Google’s algorithms work and adjust your page accordingly. However, this is wildly complex and difficult stuff. Stuff I haven’t had the courage to deal with yet. I’d also rather have a part of me still writing content for actual humans than to please some kind of machine.
You can come close though. You can for example check out the top ranking page for a given keyword and list up what other keywords they rank highly for. These keywords are likely associated with your target keyword by Google. Read the pages, use your brain and produce logical, coherent content on your topic. This should suffice. Avoid losing touch with what your target audience wants to read by wanting to craft a Google-perfect piece of words.
A good way to gauge the progress of your page’s relevance to a certain keyword is to check out the SERP history – you can also do this in Ahrefs’ Keyword Explorer. It will show you a graph for how high your page ranks for a given keyword over a certain period of time. It does indicates Google’s level of satisfaction with your page’s content for a certain keyword.
Here’s where you paying for Ahrefs, Moz or SEMrush will really pay off. All three of them have metrics that will show you how ‘difficult’ it is to rank highly (top ten) on a given keyword. Ahrefs says it calculates these metrics from the assumption that Google heavily relies on backlinks to determine which pages should rank in the top 10. It’s supposedly a whole other story once you make into the top 10. That’s when clicks and some behavioural factors only Google knows about come into play.
Let’s have a look at the Keyword Difficult for dire wolf according to Ahrefs.
Ahrefs says it considers 0–10 easy, 11–30 medium, 31–70 hard and 70–100 super hard.
You can combine KD difficulty with data about keywords your page currently ranks pretty good for. You can do this in Ahrefs’ (or Moz or SEMrush) Site Explorer, clicking to Organic Search.
What do you do now?
The very first thing you should do is brainstorm with your team and come up with a list with keywords that are related, associated to what your core message is. Think of sort of thesaurus of just words that contribute to what you want to stand for. Don’t look at Google at all at this particular stage. Then, screen all of these keywords using the tips in this post and some solid SEO tools and pick the ones that are most easily to rank highly for, yet are very relevant to your site’s identity. Don’t make the mistake of redirecting all of your strategy and content to fully optimise for Google. People know quality and unique content when they see it and will be coming back for it.