Gavin Hirst - Thursday 17th June 2021

2021 guide to keyword research for small businesses

Keyword research is a core element of any successful SEO strategy. It’s an ongoing process that impacts on all aspects of your business, not just SEO.

Using the keywords that people use to find your products, services and business throughout all of your marketing channels, including your website, social platforms and paid advertising, ensures you have a consistent voice, and you are reaching out to people using keywords they are familiar with.

If you’re a small business, thinking about keyword research can be daunting, however, it doesn’t have to be. A lot of keyword research is common sense. If you sell blue widgets, then a lot of relevant keywords are going to relate to blue widgets. The key to successful keyword research is to go beyond the head terms like ‘blue widgets’ and uncover all the topically relevant keywords that will make you the authority on blue widgets.

What is keyword research?

First, let’s take a quick step back and talk about what keyword research actually is. According to industry leaders Moz, keyword research can be defined as:

“Exploring the many varied ways that people use language to research an idea or topic.”

Brian Deans of Backlinko says:

“Keyword research is the process of discovering words and phrases (aka “keywords”) that people use in search engines, like Google, Bing and YouTube.”

Keyword research underpins a lot of your work in the online and offline space. It can help you to uncover ideas for your next blog post, learn more about the needs of your audience, and ensure you are using the same words and phrases that your audience are using on your social media platforms.

The key to successful keyword research is identifying the words and phrases that are the most relevant to your audience and the ones you are likely to be able to rank for.

Don’t just dive right in

You don’t need to be an SEO professional or digital marketing expert to carry out keyword research. There is a range of free tools available that can provide you with all the information you need to carry out effective keyword research, however, this doesn’t mean you should just dive right in.

You need to ensure you structure your keyword research in a way that aligns with your overall business goals.

What do you hope to achieve by optimising a page for a specific group of keywords? Do you want to simply drive more traffic or is your focus on conversions?

Your main product or service pages are likely to have a more commercial focus and your keyword research should reflect this. Keywords like ‘blue widgets near me’ or ‘best blue widgets’ or ‘cheap blue widgets’ may be relevant for these types of pages.

If you are researching content for a new blog post, your keywords may have more of an instructional or helpful focus. Keywords like ‘best ways to use blue widgets’ or ’10 of the best blue widgets for 2021’ might be more relevant for your blog content.

Once you have a clear understanding of the type of keyword you want to target, then you can start the process of identifying those keywords and related keywords using the available keyword research tools listed below.

Doing the legwork – free keyword research tools for small businesses

When starting out, most small businesses simply can’t justify paying for keyword research or paying an agency to do it for them. That’s why you need to get down and dirty and do the legwork yourself.

This might not be something you have done before, but don’t worry, it’s a pretty straightforward process that will just take time.

We’ve written in-depth about keyword research and delivering a winning keyword research strategy and there are lots of great tips in that post that are absolutely relevant to small businesses.

The first thing we do and the first thing any business should do is identify their seed keywords. These are the main head keywords that will help you to dig deeper into the opportunities that exist. In the case of our business, seed keywords might include things like:

  • SEO
  • Search engine optimisation
  • Digital marketing
  • Adwords
  • Google Ads
  • Social Media marketing
  • Content marketing
  • Google Analytics agency
  • Website design

We use a variety of methods to identify these seed keywords including reviewing the main content on our website, reviewing competitor sites and reviewing the keywords we already rank for.

From here, we can plug these keywords into keyword research tools that will help us to expand our keyword list. Free tools include:

You can find out more about each of these free tools in this in-depth Ahrefs post.

After identifying your seed keywords and plugging them into one of the tools above, you will soon find you have a huge list of suggested keywords. At this point, your main job is to sort and filter those keywords in order to refine your list down to the most relevant keywords that you are most likely to be able to rank for.

Prioritise your keywords

Not all keywords are created equal. Just because keywords have the same volume doesn’t mean you have the same opportunities to rank for them. It’s really important to understand the potential click-through rate, competition and relevance of a keyword as well as knowing the monthly search volume.

Moz developed a very handy keyword research matrix that can help you to prioritise the keywords that matter the most to you and your business:

Moz Keyword Research Matrix

Moz has produced an excellent guide to Keyword Research which takes a much more in-depth look at how to prioritise your keywords – make sure you check out the chapter on Prioritising Keywords.

Taking a lead from their guide, we prioritise our keywords based on the following five factors:

Relevance – the keywords you are targeting must be highly relevant to your business

Volume – depending on the niche you are in, volume is not always the most important factor, however, if no one is searching for the keywords you are targeting, there is no point in wasting time and resources creating content to target those keywords. Volume prioritising will be dictated by the niche you are in but should still be a key guiding factor

Difficulty – all of the keyword tools out there now provide a keyword difficulty score (often separated by organic vs paid). Typically, the lower the difficulty score, the easier it is to rank for that particular keyword.

Organic CTR – Some keywords generate a lot of clicks in Google SERPs. Others, not so much. The introduction of SERP features has had a huge impact on organic CTR and this needs to be factored into your prioritisation.

Priority – if you do you Moz Keyword Explorer, then Priority is an aggregation of the other metrics and presents a quick overview of the keywords they believe you should prioritise based on those metrics – always best to manually review these to make sure you are not missing any opportunities but it provides a good guide.

Topic clusters

Historically, keyword researched focussed on identifying a relevant keyword and then optimising a single page for that keyword. We’ve come a long way over the past decade and now, it’s much more important to identify a topical cluster of keywords that you should optimise your content for.

Typically, a topical cluster will feature a pillar page – a page that focuses on the primary keyword(s) for a particular topic – those with the highest volume, lowest competition, and highest relevance. From here, you will link out to supporting cluster pages that focus on the other topically relevant keywords and which all link back to the main pillar page, creating a very strong, internally linked network of topically relevant pages on your site.

This approach provides Google with some extremely strong signals about your business and your authority on a particular topic, making it far more likely that you will rank well for all of the keywords you are targeting.

If you simply approached each area in isolation, with no internal linking between each of the topically relevant pages, you would have a much harder time ranking as they would all be seen as standalone pages by Google.

Write for your audience, not for Google

One thing that has really changed over the past ten years is Google’s ability to understand semantic search. The launch of RankBrain in 2015 was Google’s latest step in gaining a better understanding of the user intent behind search queries and followed on from the Knowledge Graph in 2012 and Hummingbird in 2013.

RankBrain is a machine learning system that’s both a ranking factor and a smart query analysis AI. RankBrain is always learning, analysing the best-performing search results, and looking for similarities between the pages that users find valuable.

This means that content writers should now place more emphasis on writing for their audience – for real people – rather than writing for Google.

Whilst it’s important to optimise your copy for the keywords you identify in your keyword research, it’s perhaps even more important to use those keywords in a way that makes sense to your audience.

You need to ensure you are using those keywords in the right places. A keyword stuffed in the wrong part of your copy can throw up some immediate warning signs to your audience about the quality of the content on your website.

Neither your audience nor Google wants to see copy stuffed with keywords.

It looks unnatural to both.

Make sure you check out our recent post about optimising your copy for keywords and keeping Google happy.


Keyword research for small businesses does not have to be daunting. By following a few simple steps, you can easily identify the most relevant keywords for your business and then devise a content strategy that allows you to optimise for those keywords, taking a pillar and cluster approach.

If all this sounds too much, you can always get in touch and we would be happy to talk through your best options moving forward including keyword research for SEO and content strategy.

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