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A creative guide to forming keyword lists

A creative guide to forming keyword lists Jessica Bowman

Online marketers intimately understand the importance of keyword research. There are any number of reasons to build keyword lists, including for SEO and PPC, but we are not going to dive into those reasons here. This is a guide to help you build a keyword list for any project you have been assigned. These six down and dirty techniques and tools will help you find new keywords as well as important themes within the keywords.

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This is typically the starting point in creating keyword lists. Allow creative juices to flow by listing elements rather than every possible combination of keywords -- creativity can be stifled when list building becomes too mundane and mechanical. Use Excel to list relevant, yet different keyword types into columns. For example: City names, product categories, adjectives, etc. This list will create the seed list and can be expanded later.

Competitor websites

Competitor sites are a great place to look when generating keyword lists. Gather keywords from title tags, Meta descriptions, keyword tags, and on-page content. Consider both direct and indirect competitors -- most importantly, consider those sites competing in the search results.

There are a number of tools available that will help speed this process up, including Xenu Link Sleuth (free) and Screaming Frog (paid subscription). Both tools crawl a site and gather title tags and meta descriptions for the site's pages. The nice thing about Screaming Frog is that it also gives details on header tags, which typically contain keywords. Run either tool on a competitor's site and export the results into Excel. Hide unnecessary columns so that you focus on the title (the page title tag) and description (the meta description tag) columns. Then sort the title and meta description columns so that it is easier to sort through the content.

Finding keywords from competitor's pages using Xenu Link Sleuth (free tool)

Source: Data from Xenu crawl on www.unitedvanlines.com

In addition to keyword ideas, title tags provide a sign of the relative importance competitors have assigned keywords, especially if they have an SEO program. You can identify this by which keywords are in the title tag, usually the most important keyword will be listed.

When you find a row in the Xenu export that looks interesting, then go to the web page (the URL is in the address column). Look at the page for additional keyword ideas in the body copy. A tool such as SEO Quake's Keyword Density Tool is sometimes useful for drawing out interesting new keywords in longer bodies of text. (However, you have to sift through a lot of junk to find a few gems in the keyword density list. Plus, since most keyword density tools strip words such as "the," "and," and "if," the terms can sometimes be confusing and not reflect the actual terms used.) Some marketers find it easier to manually skim the body content and look for interesting keywords. Give SEO quake a try and if it doesn't work for you, then do a manual review of pages.

Analytics and internal search

Look at your site's analytics data for organic keywords that are driving traffic. Also look at keywords that drove traffic from search engines (both paid search and organic search). Internal search data logs can produce interesting keyword opportunities. Plus, the demand is often inherent making the keywords more likely relevant even though they may not be obvious to people working within your industry. 

Online text analyzers such textalyser.net will list the frequency of two to five word phrases. These recurring phrases that are driving search traffic are good sources of keywords and excellent sources of inspiration for content.

Google Adwords Keyword Tool

When working on client projects we commit to items one through three first, and then turn to the Google Adwords Keyword Tool. The Google Adwords Keyword Tool does a fairly good job of covering the most important search terms, but the long tail of search is not always available. Sign in and run small groups of keywords through the tool to generate other keywords. There can be a wide range of relevancy already, so be sure that groups of keywords are small and very closely related around a theme. Using the United Van Lines example, "corporate moving," "corporate movers," and "business movers" might be searched together, but "military moving" should be done in a separate group.

If using the Google Adwords Keyword Tool for SEO, be sure that you are searching for "exact match" search volumes, and not "broad match" search volumes. There are checkbox selectors on the left.
Select "Exact Match" for SEO

Source: Google Adwords Keyword Research Tool

The tool returns search volumes which may seem off based on intuition and your analytics data. This is because it's a data sample and not an accurate count. When looking at search volumes, think of them in relation to eachother -- for example, keyword A has five times the volume as keyword B.

SEM rush

This tool is adored by many search marketers. The free version is interesting, but does not have the recommended depth for a proper keyword research project. It does give interesting competitive intelligence on which keywords are driving traffic from search engines to your competition.


Excel will be integral to the management of keyword lists, but can also help generate additional lists. Using keyword elements (city names, product categories, adjectives, etc.) discovered in the other methods, keyword lists can be expanded using formulas that pull individual keywords together into keyword phrases, for example, "cheap Austin moving companies" and "cheap San Francisco moving companies."

An online thesaurus can also come in handy when expanding lists of adjectives that can be merged in Excel to create additional keywords.

There are many other keyword tools we use on a given keyword research project, both paid and free, but these are our first go-to tools for keyword list building. Now get busy building those lists!

Jessica Bowman is CEO of SEOinhouse.

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Creator of ah-ha moments, initiator of paradigm shifts and a driver of organizational change. Jessica is an in-house SEO consultant that makes things happen - process improvement is Jessica's an innate skill. Jessica is the CEO of SEOinouse.com, an...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Marty DeWitt

2012, January 19


Great suggestions! I will pass this along to some of my clients developing keyword lists.

By far the most underused source of keywords are the search results (internal and external searches) is right in Google Analytics. This is where businesses will find the keywords already starting to generate traffic to their site. You can easily determine the quality of the traffic -- which keywords attract buyers to your site? And you can identify opportunities to increase traffic quickly. In your Google Analyitcs is where you'll find the "low hanging fruit" of keywords.


Commenter: Nick Stamoulis

2012, January 19

Checking out competitor sites is a good idea, to see what they are targeting but also to see what they aren't targeting. It's possible that they aren't targeting some good keywords, maybe some long tail or niche keywords, and it provides you with an opportunity.