Southern Creative Owner, Steph O'Keefe working on Keyword Research for beginners on phone wearing a white shirt and blue jeans at home office in Raleigh, NC.

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Guide to Keyword Research for Beginners

Keywords are the first step in any SEO strategy, but they’re also the piece that stops so many people in their tracks before they even get started. PSA: keyword research doesn’t have to be hard! In this guide to keyword research basics, we’ll cover what keyword research is, why it’s important, and how to research keywords.

What is keyword research?


Keywords are the words and phrases that people use to search for information on the internet. In short, keywords are the secret sauce to getting found online.

As a website owner, it’s up to you (or your SEO strategy team – like Southern Creative!) to research the keywords your audience is using and start placing them on your site. This tells Google that your site has the information that people are looking for whenever they type those same words into the search bar. 

Whether you’re writing a travel guide for families headed to France or a blog on minimal modern living room decor, keywords are the bridge that will get people who are looking for that information from a Google search to your website.

At first, keyword research can seem kind of mysterious with a dash of intimidating. But once you have a good system and strategy in place, it’s far less overwhelming! 

Why keyword research is important

It comes down to this: Google wants to connect its users to the most useful information based on their questions. Keyword research is the first step in positioning yourself as a relevant, helpful authority on topics that matter to your ideal client.

By doing keyword research, you’re taking the first steps of a strong SEO strategy that will bring traffic to your website for months and years to come, build trust with website visitors, and help you stand out in a sea of competition. 


Keyword terms to know

Whenever we discuss keywords, common terms and phrases come up. Let’s review the important keyword vocabulary that you need to know.


Monthly search volume


You might also just see this called “search volume.” Either way, it refers to how many people search for a keyword every month. Plenty of people only look for keywords with lots of search volume, but higher numbers don’t always mean better! 


Usually, more general topics and “how to”-type posts have higher search volumes. While they offer more opportunities for potential traffic, they’re usually more competitive, and it’s harder to show up in searches. That’s especially true if you’re competing for high-volume search traffic against well-known websites like Better Homes and Gardens or Apartment Therapy. 


User intent


User intent refers to the information people are actually looking for whenever they type a phrase into Google. Google rates your content on how well it meets user intent for certain keywords – not just the keywords themselves. 


For example, I could write a blog on “Disney Vacation Packing Tips.” But if my blog is about Tokyo Disney and most people who search for that keyword are looking for information about what they should bring to Disney World in Orlando, my blog probably won’t rank very well. That’s because it doesn’t meet user intent. The better your content meets user intent, the better it will rank.


Types of user intent


There are four main types of user intent, depending on the person who’s looking for information. Designing your website pages with these searchers in mind can help you move up the search engine rankings.


Navigational intent refers to people who already know about your company but want to get to a specific page on your website. So, they might search for “Southern Creative SEO services” or “Sally Smith interior designer.”


Informational keyword intent is the term for people who are looking for answers to questions and general information. Typically, these people are in the first phase of researching potential solutions to their problem, but they’re not ready to purchase. Informational searchers might Google “should I go to Disney World or Disneyland?” or “Visiting Paris with Kids.”


Commercial intent refers to the search terms people use to research a brand, product, or service before they make a purchase decision. These terms usually include words like “vs., best, and review.” These searchers might use terms like “Princess vs. Royal Caribbean” or “best affordable modern couches.”


Transactional intent describes the type of search people perform when they are ready to inquire about or purchase services. They’re looking to take immediate action. So, they might use “book flights to Italy” or “travel agents near me.”


Pro Tip! I recommend working on informational and commercial keyword intent on your blog and navigational and transactional intent for your other core website pages.


Pro tip! User intent and website conversion are also about which types of people are searching for which terms. High-volume search terms are usually used by people looking for general education, how-tos, and other beginner-level content. These visitors are usually positioned at the top of a sales funnel. In other words, they’re looking for more information on a topic. They might not be ready to make a purchase or book a call with you, but you will build trust with them as they read your content. 


On the other hand, lower-volume keywords are less competitive and will bring in more people who are close to making a purchase. They’re searching for something very specific, so they’ve probably already done their research and have narrowed down their options. 



Relevance is very similar to user intent. The main difference is that relevance is all about how your page stacks up to the other content that people click on when they search for a keyword. For example, if people Google the phrase “modern furniture,” what types of sites do they click on the most? Furniture stores, interior design blogs, or instructions on how to make a midcentury chair?

Checking out what already ranks for a keyword can give you an idea of which pages are considered relevant.


Short-tail keyword

Short-tail keywords are one to three words long and cover a broad topic. They usually get a lot of traffic and can be more difficult to rank for. However, they can be useful for your main website pages—think short, descriptive terms that will draw a lot of people in, like “Denver wedding photographer” or “virtual interior designer.”


Long-tail keyword

Long-tail keywords are longer phrases made up of a handful of words. They’re more focused terms that appeal to people who are looking for specific information, which makes them less competitive (aka easier to rank for). Long-tail keywords are especially helpful when it comes to writing blogs or other online content because you can create many different pages to rank for multiple long-tail keywords. That adds up to quite a bit of targeted traffic over a long period of time!  When it comes to long-tail keywords, think up descriptive, specific terms, like “luxury coastal home interior decor tips” or “eco-friendly sustainable furniture for small apartments.”


Keyword difficulty

Different SEO tools and websites will give keywords a score based on how difficult it will be to rank on the first page of Google. The higher the score, the more difficult it will be to rank. 


How to research keywords

What is the first step in keyword research? Think about your audience and what they would want to read. Ask yourself:

  • Who is in my audience?
  • What do they want to know?
  • What kinds of questions are they asking that I can answer?
  • What are they struggling with?
  • What do they need to know before they work with me?
  • What could solve their problems?


My favorite keyword research tools

I love Ubersuggest and Answer the Public! Type general topics into Ubersuggest to find keyword ideas. Once you’ve pinpointed some higher-volume, lower-competition phrases around your topic, head over to Answer the Public. Type your keywords in to see which questions people ask about that topic. Now, you can create content that meets user search intent and will help you rank higher! 

Where to use keyword research on your website

Once you’ve figured out your target keywords, here’s where you should use them to boost SEO rankings:

  • Blogs and on-page content
  • Headers (definitely in the H1 and at least one H2)
  • Title tags
  • Meta descriptions
  • Image descriptions & file names


Looking for a guide to keyword research?

I’ve created a course that will walk you through every step of the keyword process. Sign up here! 

Steph O'Keefe, SEO strategist and WordPress designer sitting at desk wearing a white shirt in Raleigh, NC.

I'm Steph!

I'm the Founder and creative Director behind Southern Creative, a.k.a. your SEO strategist and web designer.

My passion is crafting websites rooted in strategy so you can put your focus where your heart is while we launch your dream website that shows up online.