There Are Four Kinds of Keyword Research; Make Sure You’re Doing the Right One(s)

Keyword research is broader than you might think, friends. If you’re in a rush, just click below to jump to that section:

  1. Keyword research for SEO/PPC
    (to learn which terms have search volume in Google and how much)
  2. Keyword research for social media marketing
    (to uncover hashtags, topics, phrases that get used/earn visibility on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, et al.)
  3. Keyword research for content creation
    (to find topics that are likely to earn interest from and resonance with your target audience beyond just search, e.g. what will get email newsletter clicks, what will earn social shares and links, what will earn PR coverage, etc)
  4. Keyword research for market/audience research
    (to learn more about a group’s online behavior, language-use, interests, and preferences)

Here’s the sauce: I spent many years in the SEO field, myopically focused on precisely one output—more traffic from Google. And one tactic: ranking higher for keywords people type into Google’s search engine. Today, that classic Google-focused process is still effective, but it’s ludicrously competitive and the vast majority of benefit accrues to Google themselves.

If you’ve been addicted to Google search traffic, everything else can feel inferior. Google is responsible for a majority of referral traffic on the web. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and LinkedIn combine for <10% of what Google Search sends to the open web, and no surprise. Google may be getting more greedy about keeping traffic on its site, but those other platforms were, from day one, built around retaining visitors, not sending them somewhere else.

But there are traffic opportunities beyond Google. The open web itself, dozens of social media sites, hundreds of content platforms, publishers of every variety, podcasts, blogs, news sites, webinars, email and loads more can all send quality traffic.

The truth is that the better you do in those other channels, the more rankings and traffic you’ll earn from Google themselves. That’s because Google’s search ranking system relies on signals like engagement, links, traffic, brand, referrals, and the digital equivalents of word-of-mouth. Earn those signals from all those other places, and Google will reward you with greater visibility and traffic.

But to break out of a nothing-but-SEO rut, you’ll need to know where to get this multi-platform keyword data, how to properly search for it, and how to apply it. Don’t worry, I’ve got your back 😉

Keyword Research for SEO/PPC

Classic keyword research starts and ends with Google (and Google’s broader search family – Google Images, Google News, YouTube, etc). No matter the tool, the data comes from a single source: what people type (or speak) into Google’s search engine when seeking information.

Google’s Search Suggest

This data can be immensely valuable if your exclusive goal is to rank in Google’s results for search terms. But, if you want to earn traction with your content in other ways, find topics that might be of interest that aren’t necessarily searched-for, or amplify your marketing reach outside of Google rankings, it’s not ideal.

FYI – there’s lots of other complications and limitations on Google keyword research, including serious biases in most datasets around which terms/phrases are shown, volume estimations, the value and accuracy of metrics like difficulty and competition, etc. But since this post is all about breaking out of the Google-only mindset, I’ll let the vast world of search marketing blogs tackle those problems 😉

Keyword Research for Social Media Marketing

Social is a broad field, and while the goals of most campaigns are similar (earn awareness, followers, traffic), the platforms vary widely. The same photos that work wonders on Instagram won’t necessarily resonate on Pinterest. That insight-fully humorous Tweet may fall entirely flat on LinkedIn. The keyword research process is meant to help.

SparkToro’s Text Insights

  • Goal: Uncover the topics of discussion and engagement plus the hashtags that earn attention so you can answer key questions like,
    • Which hashtags should I employ in posts?
    • Which topics should I follow and post about?
    • What words/phrases should I use in my posts to gain greater visibility?
    • Which of the above should I run targeted advertising against (and on which platforms)?
  • Process:
    • Step 1: Start with a topic, keyword, hashtag or audience
    • Step 2a: If using a manual process, visit the networks of interest, enter the terms/hashtags, and sort/filter through the list of recent and/or recently popular matching posts
    • Step 2b: If using a tool like SparkToro (or other audience intelligence / social monitoring tools), enter the search term and navigate to the Text Insights section (labels may be different in other products, but most have a section for hashtag and text results)
    • Step 3: Identify text and hashtags that match with your marketing goals on a platform. It’s a manual process, and you’ll need to rely on intuition to determine if a particular phrase or hashtag is indeed relevant and useful. I’d also advise doing a manual search on the platform you’re targeting (e.g. if you want to know if folks in the landscaping world on Instagram are using the hashtag #gardendesign, or if there’s too much noise/irrelevant content, search!)
    • Step 4: Apply those text insights to your campaign. Use them in your social posts, or your ad targeting. Follow them to identify content trends you might wish to emulate. Uncover the accounts that have the most influence among users who employ them. Or, integrate them into your social media monitoring if your goal right now is just to learn.
  • Sources/Tools:
    • SparkToro (apologies for the self-promotion, but even the free version offers quite a bit here)
    • Brandwatch (warning: it’s pricey, but very full featured)
    • Sprout Social (more social listening-focused, but its data can certainly be applied to this problem)
    • Audiense (with a robust free version and unique interface, this is the closest alternative for affordable data of this type)

Not every social media marketing activity demands this data, but I’ve been unnerved to see how folks who could make excellent use of these insights ignore them entirely and rely on intuition or past experience. Those traits are valuable, but much like SEO and PPC, there’s simply no substitute for real data when prioritizing efforts and solving business problems at scale.

Keyword Research for Content Creation

Content marketing too often overlaps exclusively with SEO, and while the two can share goals and outcomes, they don’t have to! You can make content for reasons beyond simply ranking for a keyword 🙂 Some of those non-search-ranking goals include:

  • Grow an email subscription list
  • Build thought leadership and following in a space
  • Attract opportunities for consulting
  • Influence a social, political, or business topic
  • Amass a following on social media, or amplify an existing one
  • Build relationships with other content creators or consumers
  • Attract links that can help your website’s authority earn rankings on other pages

But, that’s far from a comprehensive list. Content has become a staple of modern digital marketing precisely because it serves so many use-cases. Many of the most well-regarded content marketers do far more of the above than they do content purely for search.

Regardless of your use-case, data is critical. If you’re focused on search traffic, refer to the that section, but if you’re looking for anything else, search keyword data isn’t what you need. Instead, you’re after information about what content has previously performed well on social, or what’s worked with a particular audience, language employed in headlines and titles, or hashtags and phrasing formulae that have familiarity among your customer targets. To access that information, you’ll need a different suite of tools.

Buzzsumo in Action

  • Goal: Reach and influence a group of people with your publishing by understanding their interests, what’s worked to reach them previously, what they pay attention-to in the space, and proven formulae.
  • Process:
    • Step 1: Start with a topic, area of interest, existing piece of content, hashtag, website, or social account (often a competitor or a competitive piece of content that’s worked well can be a good catalyst)
    • Step 2: Enter the word/phrase/website/account into a social network, content network (like Reddit, YouTube, Google Discover), or Google News
    • Step 3: Find websites, posts, coverage, and content (of any relevant kind) that have earned significant traction and collate a list of these
    • Step 4: Add metrics to your list where possible (e.g. Buzzsumo can provide a count of social shares for various content pieces, SparkToro can provide data about audiences, Reddit and YouTube themselves offers upvote/view counts, etc)
    • Step 5: Use this data to inform your content creation, promotion strategy, and formulate a great answer to the question Who Will Amplify This and Why?
  • Sources/Tools:
    • Content Networks like Reddit, YouTube, Quora, Google Discover, Google News
    • Buzzsumo (the gold standard for competitive content analysis)
    • SparkToro (particularly for seeing words, phrases, hashtags, and sources of influence that work with an audience)
    • Ahrefs & SEMRush (both of which have Buzzsumo-like clones in their product suites, though these may be more SEO-use-case focused)

Before you create content, aim it at something and someone you know is likely to work. I can speak from experience when I tell you it’s no fun to work hard to make a video, a presentation, a research report, or even a blog post and have it fall flat because you didn’t focus on how it would earn engagement and amplification.

Keyword Research for Market/Audience Research

When you’re looking to learn more about a group of people, data about topics they follow, words and phrases they employ in their public posts and writing, hashtags they’re using, and how they describe themselves and their interests are invaluable. Market research firms often spend months of work and tens of thousands of dollars to extract these insights via surveys and interviews (which have a great deal of value for other applications, but often inaccurately represent lexical use at scale).

If you get this information, you can tackle thorny problems around positioning, product descriptions, ad copy, landing page creation, branding, and, of course, ad targeting. But, you’re not gonna get the right information from search keyword data because keyword research tools A) can’t tell you who is performing those searches and B) can’t tell you anything beyond what was entered into the Google search box.

SparkToro’s Profile Text Data

  • Goal: Learn more about an audience’s preferences, behaviors, and self-descriptions so you can answer questions like:
    • What professions, titles, job roles, and descriptions should I be speaking to in my marketing copy and targeting?
    • What topics of interest do I need to be serving and relating to my products/services?
    • Where can I reach my target customers online (that isn’t just Facebook & Google ads)?
    • What language can I confidently use because I know my customers/audience use it?
  • Process:
    • Step 1: Search for the audience(s) you’re trying to reach (if you’re struggling to describe or uncover them, this method works pretty well)
    • Step 2: Build a list of relevant attributes that directly tie to whatever problem you’re trying to solve (I favor a Jobs-to-Be-Done approach > Persona Building, but if personas are your jam, go for it)
    • Step 3: Apply the keyword data to your use-case on an as-needed basis, just don’t go months without refreshing it as profiles, behaviors, and attributes can change rapidly
  • Sources/Tools:

Most everyone in market research world is already bringing data to the table, but the emergence of public social profile information at scale, with coverage of such a high percent of the global population means you probably shouldn’t be ignoring sources that can provide it. Surveys and interviews are definitely also useful here, just not in the same ways, or with the same accuracy around groups of thousands or more.

With these tools and this knowledge, you’ve got a great start on expanding your marketing opportunities. Bringing research to the conversation is expected in search, but in these other fields, it’s a way that agencies, consultants, and in-house marketers can stand out from the crowd. Data-informed marketing is powerful, especially when it can be backed up by trustworthy, replicable sources.

p.s. Those of you who are already doing this work, I’d love to hear in the comments other tools/data sources you might be using, and any results or tips you can share, too.