Here’s how most companies do keyword research:
- They fire up Google Keyword Planner or some other SEO keyword research tool. Maybe they check Google Trends for keyword data.
- They compare search volumes and keyword difficulty scores, looking for an easy, untapped opportunity.
- They pick the one with the highest monthly search volume and review competitor articles.
- They rehash the same content with slight tweaks and publish it, hoping to rank higher in search engine results.
This approach to keyword analysis is problematic for several reasons, which I’ll outline below, followed by how we do it at Column.
Why the old way of doing keyword research doesn’t work
The old approach might have worked in the past, and every keyword tool certainly encourages such behavior.
But it’s harder today to rank for a search term with copycat content. Firstly, Google’s updates over the years have penalized this behavior.
You now need to show E-E-A-T (Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness) to stand a chance of ranking for tough keywords.
Secondly, a search volume-driven approach incentivizes high-volume, low-intent keywords, such as “what is crm software,” and writing long guides on broad topics far from the bottom line (i.e., conversion event).
Someone searching for “what is crm” likely isn’t interested in buying one yet. Likewise, someone reading an “Ultimate Guide to Observability” is still trying to understand the topic before buying any such tool.
Thirdly, relying solely on a keyword research tool to choose what to write next blinds you to high-intent, long-tail keywords that might show up as “zero search volume” keywords.
For example, “how to reduce facebook cpm” reports zero monthly searches according to Keywords Everywhere, a free keyword research tool I use with Chrome.
If your product or service was geared toward this audience, and you based your content strategy solely on keyword tools, you’d miss out on this relevant keyword.
Fourthly, using an SEO keyword tool to find content ideas keeps you in the past. New keywords might not show up in such tools until months or years later, by which time your competitors are already ranking for them.
So as a tool for “focus keyword” suggestion, the current approach comes up short. We feel there’s a better way.
How to do website keyword research: The JTBD approach
At Column, our keyword research process starts before keyword tools come into play. It starts not on Ahrefs or SEMrush, but on LinkedIn.
We specialize in B2B content marketing, so we think a lot about what keeps different audiences up at night.
But it’s not always feasible to talk to members of a given audience on short notice. A useful proxy is their job description.
The Jobs To Be Done approach suggests that people seek to “hire” products and services to get a job done.
They want a quarter-inch hole, not a quarter-inch drill (so it goes), and any product or service that achieves that goal will do.
There’s a gulf between what they want and what you sell, and your content’s role is to bridge that gap.
To show you understand their pain points, you must first understand what they’re paid to care about. That’s where their job description comes in.
Say we’re promoting a fintech product that offers online banking services to small business owners and their accountants.
If targeting those accountants is part of our SEO strategy, we’d first seek to understand what a typical company bookkeeper is hired to do.
A quick LinkedIn job search turns up the following duties:
- Maintaining financial records, including purchases, sales, receipts, and payments.
- Working on Xero and similar software for accounting tasks.
- Analyzing financial trends, variations, and forecasts.
- Assisting in budgeting and financial planning.
- Collaborating closely with management and account managers to provide accurate financial reports.
- Ensuring confidentiality and secure handling of all financial information.
- Managing files on Microsoft Office and shared drives.
- Handling tasks that require international exposure and understanding.
This gives us ideas for seed keyword research:
- financial forecasting
- manage cash flow
- double entry bookkeeping
And so on. We generate a long list of related keywords, often with keyword generator tools like Keyword Sheeter, and boil them down to the most relevant.
Search intent matters in keyword research
Not all keywords are created equal.
A search query like “what is financial forecasting” may get thousands of monthly searches but be hard to monetize, as people may just be searching for information.
By contrast, a search query like “financial forecasting app” is closer to the bottom line, because a search with the “app” modifier usually indicates someone in acquisition mode.
This helps us refine our keyword phrase list:
- financial forecasting app
- [app] quickbooks integration
- [app] xero integration
- double entry bookkeeping template
These are more MoFU/BoFU keywords with a small number of monthly searches but high intent. Ranking for these keywords would put our client in a better position to get signups.
Remember, you always start from the bottom of the content marketing funnel and move up.
Search volume comes last in keyword research
We have a love-hate relationship with monthly search volume only because it leads so many content teams astray.
As we’ve seen, relevance and intent are much better signals of what to write about.
Those two factors draw a somewhat straighter line from what the reader gets paid to care about, to what they’re currently dealing with and what mind-state they’re in, to what they might search for.
You then overlay search volume data on these two factors to determine which articles to prioritize.
Let’s say ‘financial tips for small businesses’ has a lower number of searches but is really important and directly relevant to your audience.
It’s better to focus on this topic than a general ‘financial advice’ topic that might have more searches but isn’t as closely related to what your audience needs or what your product solves.
Why the JTBD approach works better
The JTBD approach to keyword research solves for the most important problem in content marketing: relevance.
A 2,000-word piece that doesn’t speak to the reader’s pain points won’t convert, no matter how optimized it is with the right keyword.
Meanwhile, a highly relevant article will rank for months even without A-grade SEO because it ticks Google’s E-E-A-T boxes.
You can fix typos and add keywords after publishing, but it’s harder to rewrite an irrelevant article.
Start with the keywords you’re already ranking for
If you’ve connected Google Search Console or Google Analytics to your site, you likely already show up in search results for a few search terms. You just have to write about them more.
This is an even stronger signal if you haven’t published much or have only done random acts of content.
It’s Google showing you your edge — the one thing you’ve probably covered better than most other websites in your niche.
This can provide an easy starting point for your content marketing strategy while you build out your personas and product(s).
A free keyword tool can then suggest the right keyword ideas to round out your content calendar.
For example, while working on Malik’s website (he’s a CFA), I connected Search Console and discovered he was already ranking for the search term ‘motshelo‘ (a pooled fund popular in Southern Africa).
I encouraged him to write a longer article on the topic, and he now ranks on page 1 for it. It was low-hanging fruit.
You likely have similar opportunities you can link to your product or service pages.
There are a few limitations of the JTBD approach to content marketing. Firstly, it’s not easily transferable to B2C niches.
You won’t find a job description for “mom” or “dad” on LinkedIn, even though the parenting market is on track to become a trillion dollar market.
Another limitation is that online job descriptions might not tell us everything about a person’s job, like the special problems or day-to-day tasks they might face.
For example, a job description for an accountant might omit challenges like struggling to adapt to new accounting software, or dealing with the complexities of tax compliance for a multinational corporation.
It may also leave out the complex social dynamics that define every workplace, some of which might prevent your app from being adopted in the first place.
These issues are critical to an accountant’s day-to-day work but won’t show up on a LinkedIn job ad.
You’d still need direct feedback from accountants to make the content more precise and valuable.
Do better keyword research
The old way of doing keyword research uses search volume and keyword difficulty as signals of what to write about.
While useful, this method is incomplete at best and misleading at worst.
The JTBD way of doing keyword research is about understanding your audience’s jobs and creating content that tackles their issues directly.
This new approach emphasizes relevance, search intent, then search volume — in that order.
And while an SEO tool can help you decide which keyphrase to focus on, it can’t substitute for deep customer understanding.