The Ultimate Keyword Research Checklist


Keyword Research

Whether you do SEO, PPC, or both, you’re going to need keyword research.

Without research, a campaign is basically just guesswork. But with a calculated approach, you can discover your potential customers’ top questions, preferences, and pain points.

This checklist offers a straightforward process that anyone can use to start building master lists of target keywords in any market or niche.

All you need is:

  • An SEMrush account (Free Version works)
  • Microsoft Excel or another similar program

After some practice, you’ll be generating master lists in less than thirty minutes.

In the body of this post, I’ll go into details on how each step works. To save the checklist for your reference, download the PDF version at the bottom of this blog post.

Keyword Research

1. Search Your Main Keyword in the Search Bar


First things first. Think about the single word or phrase that you think people would type into Google before visiting your home page.

Maybe it’s a product that your site sells, a common problem that your customers face or a question that your website answers. Decide the keyword that best represents the benefit of going to your website and use it to start this process. Ultimately, a 1-2 word phrase will work best.

Keep in mind that keyword research should be flexible and creative, so you can always start the process over with a different keyword.

When you enter your keyword into the SEMrush search bar, the interface presents a Keyword Overview report.

For the sake of example, let’s pretend we operate a website that offers gardening advice and products. I’ll go through the research process starting with “tomato plant.”

2. Use the Phrase Match Report to Find Long Tail Keywords


SEO and PPC professionals classify keywords into three main buckets based on their length and specificity; the “head,” the “body,” and the “long tail.” Head terms, also be referred to as “short tail,” are one or two word phrases and are general. Body phrases are slightly more specific and usually contain more words. Long tail keywords generally contain three or more words and illustrate a specific situation or intention from the searcher. The easiest way to think about these keywords is with the following graph.


In this example, “tomato plant” is the head phrase (or short tail), “when to plant tomatoes” and “tomato plants for sale” are body phrases, and “why are my tomato plants turning yellow” is the long tail.

Generally speaking, as search volume decreases, more long tail keywords appear and the conversion rate increases. The conversion rate for long tail keywords can be higher because longer search phrases show more specific intent, allowing marketers to offer more relevant and specific solutions that a searcher will find helpful.

The best way to find long tail keywords on SEMrush is with the Phrase Match report. This report generates a list of extended search phrases based on the keyword entered. For example, let’s look at a Phrase Match report for the keyword “tomato plant.”

phrase-match-tomato-plantPhrase Match report for “tomato plant”

From here we can see a long list of keywords based around the phrase “tomato plant,” ranked in order of search volume. That means that as you scroll down the report, you find the less popular and more specific keywords. It will be easy to scan for long tail keywords by identifying the longest phrases in the keyword column.

The long tail phrase, “why are my tomato plants turning yellow,” has less volume (390) compared to the body phrase “when to plant tomatoes” (3,600) or even the head phrase, “tomato plant” (12,100).

While the long tail phrase has the least volume, it will be an easier keyword to target because of how specific the situation is.

To explain, users that search “why are my tomato plants turning yellow” have a specific question that they’re looking to answer.Meanwhile, users that search “tomato plants for sale,” could be looking for all different types of tomatoes.

Maybe some of the “tomato plants for sale” searchers want to buy tomato seeds, and others want to buy a transplant. Some might want tomatoes to plant outside, while others may want to plant tomatoes indoors. The point is that without clearly defined intentions behind a keyword, it gets harder to know what people want.

On the other hand, the keyword “why are my tomato plants turning yellow,” illustrates a specific issue that can be directly addressed and answered with a web page. To target this keyword with our gardening site, we could write a blog post or landing page listing every possible reason why tomato plants might turn yellow.

To convert visitors, we’d inform them that one possible reason for yellow plants would be having low levels of nitrogen in the soil. Then, we offer a solution, like a test kit to check the nitrogen levels of your soil.

See how that works? The more clear the user intent, the easier it will be for you to target a keyword, and the easier it will be to offer a relevant solution to the user’s problem. I’ll explain how user intent fits into your marketing funnel in step 8 of this checklist.

3. Apply Filters for Keyword Difficulty (SEO) or Competitive Density (PPC)


Maybe you’re having trouble going through this long list of keywords to find the most realistic targets. Luckily, SEMrush provides filters that let you weed out the highly competitive keywords that aren’t worth your time. In every keyword report, there are two helpful metrics that measure competition: Keyword Difficulty for SEO and Competitive Density for PPC. Keyword Difficulty is measured from 0-100, and Competitive Density is measured from 0-1.00.

A higher Keyword Difficulty score means that there are authoritative domains ranking on the first page of results, and it will be hard to outrank the sites in the organic results. A higher Competitive Density score tells you that there are a high number of domains bidding on the keyword.

To attempt to rank a PPC ad for a keyword with high cost-per-click and high Competitive Density, you would need to place an expensive bid and set up a perfectly optimized landing page. Instead, you should focus on targeting keywords with low Competitive Density to start.

For SEO, you should focus on targeting keywords with low Keyword Difficulty. Oftentimes there’s a correlation between longer keywords and lower keyword difficulty and competition levels.

In our example, there’s a clear correlation between the length of the phrases, search volume, along with their difficulty and competition levels:

As the length of the phrase increases, the Keyword Difficulty and Competitive Density decrease. To export only the most targetable keywords, apply filters to weed out keywords with high Keyword Difficulty and Competitive Density scores.

Filters for both metrics can be applied at the same time to a report. See the example below where to find the filtering options.

Apply filters to narrow the focus of your reports

4. Export the Filtered List to CSV or XLS


This step is pretty straightforward, but necessary. Every time you generate a filtered list of terms, make sure you export it to a CSV or XLS. Later we’ll combine all of the exports into a master file. When exporting a Phrase Match report, you can choose to select all of the keywords, the first 100, the first 500, or on an individual basis using the checkboxes in the far left column.



After finding Phrase Matches based on your original keyword, you’re going to want to identify more closely related searches. While keeping your main keyword in the search bar, change from viewing a Phrase Match report to a Related Keywords report.

The keywords in this list will be based on their relevancy to the queried keyword or how similar the search results of these keywords are to the search results of the queried keyword. You’ll probably notice a lot of typos and alternative spellings of your keyword in this report. These can be good targets for a PPC campaign if you want to appear when searchers accidentally mistype your target keyword.

related-keywords-semrushRelated Keywords report for “tomato plant”

Just like the Phrase Match report, a Related Keywords report can be filtered by Keyword Difficulty and Competitive Density. Pick out every related keyword in this list that sticks out to you and save the list as another excel or .csv file.

6. Repeat Steps 2-5 for Any Additional Keywords

Repeat the process that you went through with your original keyword but with additional topics that you think your site should target.

Enter your first new topic into the search bar and pull another Phrase Match report with any desired filters.

Once you gather another list of target keywords, export the list and repeat for every related topic you want to target. Save all of your exports as the same file type (all .xls or all .csv) to make the next step easier.

7. Combine Exports into a Master List

The next step is combining all of your exports into a single document. This will be your master list and a valuable reference document as you go through your SEO or PPC campaign. If all of your exports were the same file type (.xls works easy with Microsoft Excel), then it should be a matter of copy-and-paste to combine everything into a single spreadsheet.

There will be columns for keyword, search volume, keyword difficulty index, CPC, competition level, number of results, and trend. Number of results and trend won’t matter too much in this process, so you can either ignore those columns or delete them from your spreadsheet.

Depending on how many rows you exported from your reports and how many times you repeated the process, your excel file could be anywhere from under 100 to over a few thousand rows. As long as you keep your spreadsheets organized, it won’t be a bad thing to have a lot of rows. If you find duplicates, use the Data tab and select Remove Duplicates to clean out your list.

remove duplicates in Excel

A simple trick to help organize your spreadsheet is adding Conditional Formatting to colorize the metric columns. First, add filters to your document and highlight the column you want to format. Then, make sure you’re under the “Home” tab and select Conditional Formatting to add a color scale to each column that measures value (volume, KW difficulty, CPC, and Competitive density).

conditional-formattingUse conditional formatting to add color to your spreadsheet

Volume – green for high, red for low
KW Difficulty – green for low, red for high
CPC – green for low, red for high
Competitive Density – green for low, red for high

Adding color to these metrics will go a long way in helping you visualize and pick out the most realistic and rewarding keywords to target. Now you can scan for the most “green” keywords, signifying the most volume and least competition. The next step will be more tedious if you have a huge amount of keywords, but will prove to be rewarding over time.

8. Classify by Searcher Intent

This last step uses a bit of critical thinking, but will be essential for maximizing the use of your research. In addition to knowing what your audience searches (keywords), you’ll be able to know why they make these searches (intent).

Searcher intent is essentially the goal of the person searching on Google. They could be looking for general information, product research, or a website to make a purchase.

Most experts group keywords into four categories of intent:

  • Informational – Questions using who, what, where, why, and how. Single word keywords like “tomatoes” or “gardening” fit in this bucket.
  • Navigational – Searches with brand names or the name of a product or service the searcher is looking for. “San marzano tomatoes” would fit in this bucket because the searcher wants to navigate to a specific brand.
  • Commercial Investigation – Keywords that include location, “best,” “mens,” “womens” or other common product modifiers fit here. “Where to get tomatoes in yolo county” is an example.
  • Transactional – Keywords asking about price, coupons, shipping costs, and the transaction process make up this bucket. “Buy cheap tomatoes,” for example.

The more specific the intent is for a keyword, the easier it is to provide searchers with what they are looking for.To go one step further, explains how searcher intent can line up nicely with your marketing funnel. The easiest way to do this is by mapping the intent buckets to the AIDA (Awareness, Interest, Desire, Action) model. Like searcher intent buckets, AIDA has four stages.

AIDA marketing conversion funnel

Awareness (general knowledge of information) is the first step of the funnel, leading into Interest (curiosity in the subject), then Desire (wanting something to solve a problem), and finally, Action (buying a product, signing up for a subscription, etc).

Once you identify a keyword’s searcher intent, you can classify where in the conversion funnel it lies. Every keyword in your strategy also has a place in your marketing funnel.

AIDA + User Intent = Strategy

Go back into your spreadsheet and add another column to tag your keywords with these four types of intent to categorize your keywords by where they are in your conversion funnel. After you’ve tagged all of your keywords, you can filter your spreadsheet to show the keywords with each group of intent. Depending on how you format everything, it could look something like this:

Keywords tagged by intent

The four different stages of conversion should be targeted with different areas of your site, and by identifying the keywords that fit each step of the conversion funnel, you can conduct an optimized marketing campaign.

Ending Thoughts & Downloads

Hopefully this checklist can help you build your first master keyword list and learn more about your specific search market. Research the best keywords in your market and create a master list to plan your SEO and PPC around. A thorough target keyword list is an invaluable resource to any SEO or PPC plan. If you can master this process, you’ll be developing a great skill that can help you in all areas of digital marketing.

To download the 8 step checklist, click here.

By: Luke Harsel via SEMRush