This has made it an elusive marketing channel, a mix of art and science that refuses concrete definition.
Marketers have not been deterred, however; SEO is big business and it only looks set to get bigger. A recent forecast estimates that almost $80 billion will be spent annually on SEO services by 2020 in the US alone.
Yes, the industry has changed, but it has changed for the better. Investment is rising, space for listings is decreasing; competition inevitably goes up. SEO professionals know that only the best content will get in front of a sizable audience.
Google is constantly tweaking its algorithms, too. Since the launch of RankBrain, the changes are continuous; endless, infinitesimal tweaks in the search for the elusive, perfect result.
Upon announcing Penguin 4.0 , Google also stated that they would no longer make public announcements about significant algorithm updates. This means we may not know exactly what the next big change will be, but we know it will be driven by the aim of rewarding results that satiate searcher demand.
Amidst so much uncertainty, we have a host of keyword research tools. These software packages sell the promise of cutting through the clutter, separating signal from noise to tell you which keywords to focus on.
It has never been more important to stay one step ahead, and getting things right at the keyword research stage will likely provide a nice head start. Nonetheless, some methods of sourcing keywords are more accurate than others.
In this article, we will aim to answer the following question: Which factors should marketers assess as they explore the many options for keyword research tools?
Keyword suggestion capabilities
Keyword research, at its very essence, is a very difficult task to master. We know what our business does, but we don’t know how our audience searches for our products or services. As consumers make increasing use of voice search  and digital assistants, those trends are harder than ever to pin down.
A good keyword research tool will take our seed list of product terms and look to find semantically-related terms that customers search for frequently. Moz’s Keyword Explorer tapped into the need for such a tool very well, with its ability to suggest popular questions and group keywords together by their degree of lexical similarity.
The best-known keyword research tool is also the weakest in this regard. Google’s Keyword Planner suggests some additional queries, but it is very limited in scope. It is a tool for advertisers, essentially, so it keeps its focus narrow.
Other tools reverse-source keywords by matching the domain to search results in its index. This is a useful capability, but best reserved for competitor research. When used to find keywords, they will only show you what you already rank for. That’s useful, but it limits your horizons significantly.
Sites like Answer The Public and Quora can also be invaluable when researching keywords. You can take the ideas you get from here and plug them into your keyword research tool to compile a much larger list. As long as your chosen software is capable of making intelligent suggestions, you will have a good chance of obtaining accurate keyword research.
Search volume calculation methodology
As is well known by now, Google cloaks query-level data for organic searches. Even in their hey-day, these were normalized and aggregated, but they at least gave us something to work with.
AdWords does provide insights into query-level data, of course, and we can use small paid campaigns to get a sense of what drives volume.
Moreover, keyword research tools provide a range of proposed solutions to this seemingly insoluble riddle.
As such, clients should be asking the following questions of their keyword research technology provider:
- Where do you source your search volume data?
- Have you conducted tests to ensure your reported volumes are within a reasonable margin of error?
- Are search volumes double-counted across different queries?
- How do you account for seasonal trends?
- Can you split search volumes out by device and by territory?
These are very probing questions and there may be no one correct answer to each, so we need to bear that in mind. However, business decisions are taken based on the search volumes we see and we need to make sure the data is reliable.
A defining factor in the decision-making process of keyword research is our current ranking position for each search query. If we rank in 45th position for a query with 1,000 searches but in 12th position for a query with 2,000 searches, our efforts will naturally focus on the latter.
But what does 12th position really mean? If we consider the impact of personalization and local search on SEO, we can start to see just how fluid ranking positions are. We know Google will continue to focus on these two areas; personalization, in particular, remains a largely untapped opportunity.
It is an unenviable task for keyword tools, but it is one they need to tackle. Knowing where we rank for search queries is just as important as knowing how frequently each term is searched.
As such, marketers should be looking for the following in a keyword research tool if they want to stay ahead of the curve:
- Clear methodology on the calculation of search positions
- Understanding of where the ranking tool takes snapshots from and how they are weighted
- Positions listed locally by metropolitan area and state
Search Results Page analysis
The interfaces used to make a search have changed dramatically and Google’s upcoming updates will reflect this new landscape. We moved from desktop to mobile and then, rather swiftly, to digital assistants. Soon, search will be all around us, embedded in Internet-enabled objects .
The impact on keyword research is self-evident; but its obvious presence does not make its significance any easier to decipher.
The notion of ‘ranking first in SEO’ now means any number of things. It could be a quick answer on mobile, it could be a video result , and soon it could even be a response provided in a driver-less car.
Moreover, Google’s paid listings continue to encroach further on organic search space, with camouflaged ‘Ad’ labels that make the encroachment ever stealthier.
Factor in the local results that so often reside above ‘traditional’ SEO listings and it is clear that old-fashioned keyword trackers just won’t cut it.
An effective keyword research tool will do the following:
- Calculate universal ranking positions that take into account images, videos, and Knowledge Graph results
- Highlight which queries trigger Quick Answers 
- Show how much real estate is taken above the fold by paid listings
- Provide an assumed click-through rate for your listing based on the future position your site may attain
- Integrate with other data sources so you can see how the search landscape is directly affecting performance
It’s essential to have a keyword research tool that shows you the opportunity for your brand and shows you where you stand today. However, as highlighted earlier this is an industry predicted to attract $80 billion of investment in 2020.
If your company is undertaking the exercise of keyword research, rest assured that your competitors are doing it too. Nothing will stand still; as you implement your strategy, they implement theirs.
Google’s next updates will reward great customer experiences that satisfy searcher needs. That means the metrics used to decide who ranks on page one will continue to change, too.
The best keyword research tools know this and will be able to steer your SEO efforts in the right direction. By analyzing the sites that rank well for each query and cross-referencing the metrics that we believe improve performance, they can start to understand what works and what doesn’t.
Marketers should scrutinize the competition scores they see very closely and ask a lot of questions about their provenance. It is also worth asking how frequently these are refreshed to account for any new activities your competitors have undertaken.
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