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Since you’ve landed on this page, you already know that SEO traffic is the holy grail of traffic and you want more of it. You also know it’s all about choosing and using keyword phrases strategically and using them correctly in your (high-quality) content.
Using keyword research tools is a vital part of that process when you start to get serious about SEO. The pros and big-league bloggers use tools like Ahrefs or SEMRush which start at around $99/month — *cough* — a bit steep for most small businesses and bloggers. So I thought it might be fun to show you the free & cheap tools I use to get very similar results when used in combination.
Note: I do recommend signing up for Ahref’s “7 days for $7” trial and using the heck out of it for 7 days. I recently did this and found dozens of keywords on topics in my niche that I know my audience will love. Don’t forget to cancel it before the 7 days is up though unless you want to pay the premium fee!
Before we dive in, a warning…
Use Keyword Research Tools To Guide & Inspire You Only
I want to say right up front that I think keyword research tools are great and everyone with a blog should be using them. I’ve seen a HUGE increase in traffic from organic search since I started using them as part of my workflow.
But, what’s not talked about nearly enough is that the data you discover in these tools isn’t going to be 100% accurate. I’ve used more than a dozen tools and I find different information in each of them… so what gives? I honestly don’t know.
What I do know is that if you trust what you find and you don’t allow any flexibility in choosing topics to write about, you may be leaving big traffic (and money and opportunities) on the table.
Let me give you an example of what I mean…
Sometimes when doing keyword research I’ll find that the search volume is “0” — that means nobody’s searching for that term so I probably shouldn’t be writing about it.
In many cases, this has proven to be true for me. When I look back at the earlier posts I wrote on this blog (without any strategy or keyword research), I found that I was ranking #1 for keywords on those pages but guess why… because literally nobody was searching for information on those topics.
Checking with a keyword research tool showed me that the search volume was indeed “0.” I could have saved MONTHS of my life by not writing blog posts nobody was interested in reading.
On the other hand, sometimes the “0 volume” result can trip you up. If there’s something you really want to write about and you feel like it’s an interesting topic, I encourage you to explore a bit deeper because this is what can happen…
A while ago I wrote a blog post called How To Stop Working For Shitty Clients
I’m currently ranking #1 for the keyword phrase “shitty clients” — other ranking pages come from the likes of Forbes, Search Engine Journal, and Entrepreneur.
They’re all polite so they wrote about “bad clients” and “bad customer experiences” but the day I wrote that post, I just wanted to write about what we all feel — sometimes clients are shitty. So I did.
And here’s what happened…
The tool tells me nobody’s searching for this and if I had said “welp, I’ll move on to some other topic” I would have left a great post on the cutting room floor.
That post has not only attracted traffic, but it has converted coaching clients and email subscribers too. Because it solved a painful problem, one woman reached out to me after reading it and said, “I need to work with you.” Someone even connected with me on LinkedIn just to thank me for writing that post, it made him feel better on the day he was having a “shitty client” experience.
Google is smart. It knows that ‘shitty client’ means “bad client” but the keyword research tool is being completely literal about it.
THIS is what you want to be mindful of as you do your research.
Here’s what to do when your intuition is telling you, “Huh, this doesn’t seem right” … go to the Google SERP (search engine results page) and see what’s there. Does it seem to make sense that people would be searching for this information? Is there an “auto suggest” for this topic? (That means people have searched for it.)
Let common sense guide you and if you have something to say on your blog, go ahead and say it. Don’t let a keyword research tool prevent you from writing about a topic you think your audience will love.
Right then, you’ve been warned. Now let’s get to the good stuff and talk about super useful free & affordable keyword research tools and how to use them.
But first, I want to give you a crash course on some of the terms you’ll need to understand before you look at the information on these reports…
Understanding Keyword Research Tool Terms
Here are some of the things keyword research tools can provide for you, but it’s important to understand what the heck to do with this information, so here’s the scoop…
Domain authority is something that’s oft-misunderstood. First, here’s the definition:
Domain Authority (DA) is a search engine ranking score developed by Moz that predicts how well a website will rank on search engine result pages (SERPs). A Domain Authority score ranges from one to 100, with higher scores corresponding to a greater ability to rank.
Here’s the key point: it’s a score that helps predict how a website will rank, it is NOT a ranking signal for Google. In other words, it’s something SEO experts developed to get an overall sense of whether or not a website has a chance to rank, but that’s it. Google doesn’t take your domain authority score and say “hey, I see your score is 75, I’m going to put all your content above everyone from 74 on down!”
Say you have a Domain Authority of 19 and everyone on the first page of Google has a Domain Authority of 95, that tells you that it’s going to be tough for you to beat them unless you feel confident you can deliver content that’s 10x better than what they’ve done. In that scenario, it’s a good idea to look for longtail and easier (less competitive) keyword phrases to target first.
And I’ll be honest… that usually just makes my competitive nature take over and I think, “Well alright then, I’ll make content that’s 10x better.”
Sometimes that works out for me…
My domain authority ranges from 28-40 depending on which tool I’m looking at and I consistently beat high-profile, high-authority sites with a DA of 50+.
But get a load of this… This is one of my posts ranking on page #1 with a rich snippet and image to boot. Notice who I’m beating… these are big, huge authority sites and further down on the page is an article by Forbes, with a DA of 95!
So again, just use this information with a grain of salt. Don’t let it dissuade you from getting in the ring and competing even if larger sites have already done it.
Combined with Domain Authority, finding out estimated “words to rank” has proven to be a VERY effective strategy for me. Many keyword research tools will tell you the estimated word count your blog post needs to rank. And, you can take a look at the word count for every post currently ranking on page one of Google.
Once you know what you’re up against, then KNOCK IT OUT OF THE PARK with a long, detailed, information-packed post and that gives you a shot to play in the big leagues.
It doesn’t guarantee that you’ll rank, but Google prefers long-form content. A famous study by Backlinko, which looked at a million posts ranking on page #1, found that the average word count (average! some were much higher!) was 1,890 words.
Backlinks signal to Google that content is good because other sites are referring to it. This is a whole topic unto its own, but “offsite SEO” and having quality backlinks to your content helps you rank in search.
Research tools will show you how many backlinks your competition has and in some cases, exactly WHO is linking to them. Some people use this strategy to “build backlinks” by reaching out to those websites to ask them to link to their content as well (or instead).
But. Here’s why I don’t think that’s a great use of your time…
I get email requests like this daily and only once has this tactic worked because it was genuinely useful to my audience and worth my time to update the post.
You’ll hear conflicting advice about this one but mostly I don’t worry about this metric. I’ve never done link-building and only rarely do I do any guest posting (and when I do it’s to get visible with a new audience, not for SEO).
I have lots and lots of backlinks that just happened naturally over the years because this domain is 15 years old, but that doesn’t make my site an authority site in the eyes of Google. (I have more backlinks than some HUGE authority sites making millions of dollars).
I’m not saying that backlinks don’t matter, but here’s the biggest reason not to use these tools to do a backlink campaign…
Google doesn’t want you to go out and try to “build links” just to rank in SEO. Anything that even REMOTELY feels like “tricking google” is just not worth it — that goes against their guidelines which in crystal clear terms is: do not do things that make your content seem more helpful than it actually is.
What may work today may be addressed in an algorithm update tomorrow and tank your site.
What I’ve found is that if you’re writing high-quality content that answers the searchers’ questions, Google will reward you. Once Google ranks your content high enough, if your headline and meta descriptions are click-worthy, people will naturally start linking to you without having to do outreach. Then you’ll keep climbing up the charts!
So don’t worry about this too much, my advice is to spend your time making your content the best it can be. I’ve outranked blog posts that have hundreds more backlinks to it than mine.
Important Ranking Factors Keyword Research Tools Can’t Measure
One reason why I’m able to get content ranked on page #1 of Google for certain competitive keyword phrases is that I write about specific topics and I don’t veer too far from them.
Niche sites often outperform generalist websites simply because Google knows that someone who writes a lot about a topic is trustworthy just as is someone randomly popping onto Forbes to write a guest column. If the content from the niche site is 10x better, it can easily beat the site with a larger domain authority.
So my advice is to keep your topic categories pretty tight and focused, that’s really the only chance a small blogger has to compete in SERP and to build authority.
Google can analyze the words in your headlines and meta descriptions and know what it’s about, even if you’re not using the exact keyword term! (Google is smart.)
But what it can’t predict is whether or not someone will actually click on your link. That’s a human thing. You’ll want to put your focus keyword (the keyword phrase you want to rank for) in your titles and your content, but not at the expense of creating a title that’ll stand out in SERP and capture attention.
This is, admittedly, something I’ve not paid nearly enough attention to — focusing instead of crafting the perfect “SEO titles”… but here’s the thing. Google will take a chance on your content and start ranking it and then, if people click on it (if your headline is amazing they will!), that signals to google that it belongs higher in SERP.
Write for humans and be creative, that’s another way for a small blogger to get the advantage on a larger site.
Pro-tip: make sure your user experience matches their expectation once they click. Be helpful and put them first, deliver on the promise you made with your headline and description. If you put your own goals first (buy this thing! look over here at this ad!) then your site visitors are going to consider it spammy and they won’t click deeper into your site or stay for long. Google knows when you’re providing a bad user experience and they won’t be recommending you to all their searching friends.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Google rewards websites that answer the questions their customers are searching for best. That’s it, that’s the bottom line. Focus on that and you’ll do fine.
That said, being smart with your keyword strategy can pay off massively. I wasted SO much time in the early days when research wasn’t a part of my workflow, and momentum started to happen when I made it a priority…
Free & Cheap Keyword Research Tools Overview
Now I’m going to give you a broad-strokes overview of each of the tools I use and the information I hunt for on each one.
SEMScoop is my ride-or-die tool that I use just about daily. Formerly, I was using KWFinder.com and LOVED it, but they put the kibosh on allowing you to use it for free so I started scouting out alternatives. SEMScoop offered the same information but, I much preferred the way they lay out the information. It’s quick, easy, and intuitive.
You can test-drive it for free (I think 5 free searches per day?), but… I find the process of ‘pausing’ keyword research to save a few bucks entirely inefficient. What I like to do instead is to “batch” my research time, brainstorm a whole bunch of stuff and find keywords I have a shot to rank for, and then store them in a spreadsheet I can refer to later when I’m planning my editorial calendar.
When you sign up for the yearly plan, it’s only $12-$17 bucks per month… MUCH more affordable than most of the other tools out there.
Of course, it doesn’t give you everything they do, though, that’s where I supplement my research with free tools… when combined with the following, I come pretty close to getting the same kind of information you’ll get with an AHrefs subscription.
HOW TO USE IT:
When you have keyword ideas, run it though SEMScoop to see how competitive it is (do you have a chance?) and how many words you’ll want to write to make it worth Google’s while to rank you. If you don’t think you have a shot, use their filters to find related long-tail keyword phrases.
Stick the information you find in SEMScoop in a spreadsheet you can pull from when creating your editorial calendar including difficulty score, words to rank, and search volume. Even if the difficulty score is too high now, it may not always be, so save it for later!
WHAT TO LOOK FOR:
- The domain authority of pages that rank on page #1
- Estimated word count to rank
- Search volume
- Overall difficulty score to rank
- Related longtail keyword phrases
- Keyword suggestions
Take it for a test drive. If you want to sign up for an SEMScoop account, you can use my code SAVE20LT to get a monthly or annual subscription 20% off lifetime.
2. Ubersuggest by Neil Patel
One of the things I LOVE about Ahrefs is you can really dig into what your competitors are ranking for and this gives you a treasure trove of ideas for you to steal borrow for your own content. You can also see the estimated number of clicks they get each month for that keyword phrase.
After doing the 7 day trial for $7 on Ahrefs.com, I discovered — much to my delight! — that Ubersuggest provides the same information. FOR FREE.
HOW TO USE IT:
Use Ubersuggest to analyze your competition and get more detailed information on which keywords people in your niche are ranking for, their ranking position, and the estimated number of clicks they get per month.
Steal those keywords if it’s a winning topic for your audience.
(All is fair in love an SEO! That’s why I am transparent about my strategies and even the keywords I target — I know you can find out anyway and if you can make better content and beat me in SERP, I’ll buy you a beer, congratulate you on a job well done, and then get to work making my content even better.)
Here’s an off-the-cuff example. I know that the 99Designs.com blog writes about a lot of similar topics than I do. (A side note: they once wanted to hire me to create content for them but I decided I’d rather keep that content on my own site!)
Just typing in their domain, I can look at all the keywords they rank for. Now, most of them are WAY out of my league but some of them are not. Just a cursory glance and I see a keyword that looks interesting as a potential topic I can write about. It shows you the difficulty score on the right-hand side.
Once I collect competitor keywords I find interesting, I run them through SEMScoop to get the brass tacks I use in my spreadsheet — difficulty score, words to rank, and search volume. (I like using Google Sheets because I can just keep a bookmark right on my browser and keep a tab open as I’m collecting info.)
The reason why I do it this way is that as I said before, every research tool will have completely different data. UberSuggest’s “difficulty score” is going to look totally different than SEMScoop. I want to be able to compare one topic to another using a consistent measuring stick.
Note: In the spreadsheet above, you may notice I’ve scheduled posts that only have a search volume of 320-720. Generally, I’m looking for a search volume of at least 1,000 (much, much more if possible!) at a difficulty score I have a shot to compete at given my domain authority. But, they’re not always easy to find. If it’s something I want to write about I go for it — I just try to keep posts like that fairly short. (See 3 Blog Post Types To Create A Perfect Content Mix) In these examples, a difficulty score of 29 means the chances are high I’ll get at least a % of this traffic and it’s worth an hour or two of my time.
WHAT TO PAY ATTENTION TO:
- Keywords your competitors are ranking for
- Estimated traffic and clicks for keywords you’re interested in targeting
I’ll admit that I didn’t really “get’ Answer The Public at first. I’ve known about it for a while now but it just spits out a bunch of random questions — what are you supposed to do with that?
I recommend you read 3 Blog Post Types to Create The Perfect Content Mix. When I started blogging more strategically, I took a good look at the TYPES of posts I was creating. I was pretty good at creating “bread and butter” posts (like this one) that are between 2,500-4,000 words and go pretty deep into a subject. But was I lacked were the “short response” posts that you can crank out in an hour or two and build up long tail keywords with Google.
I call them “answer posts” and they answer a specific question and they’re very focused and actually incredibly helpful for people searching for things on Google. These posts are shorter and less detailed at 1,000-1,500 words.
But, like, how do you find out what questions people have? Enter Answer The Public dun dun dun!
HOW TO USE IT/WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Search in any broad term or topic you want to write about and discover a treasure trove of questions people ask about the topic. Answer them with your blog posts for quick & easy “answer posts” as part of your content mix.
Then, you can dig a bit deeper with SEMScoop if you want to.
Pro tip: A nice complement to Answer the Public is the Full Page Screen Capture Chrome extension (free!) – rather than typing or scribbling down the questions, just take a screen capture and save to your hard drive.
4. Google SERP
Yes, the Google search results page is a MAJOR keyword research tool you should be using (and one people who get obsessed with the topic of SEO completely overlook)!
You can learn almost everything you need to know about what content to write by typing in topics you’re interested in to see if the autosuggest feature is triggered. If so, you know people have searched for it in the past and will again.
Even if keyword research tools say these terms are “0” volume — that information is not to be trusted. If Google shows an “auto suggest” it means you can go ahead and write on that topic.
HOW TO USE IT/WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Look at what’s on the search result page and use common sense. Does it seem competitive? (Is it mostly sites you’ve never heard of, old content, forum results, etc.) and does there seem to be a place for your content on page #1? Then go for it!
Those are the big ones I use and it gives me PLENTY of winning topic ideas!
One last tool you might find helpful…
Honorable Mention: Keywords Everywhere
Keywords Everywhere is a Chrome extension that I’ve just started using, it shows you information about search results as you’re browsing the web. I don’t use it as part of my workflow but it is pretty fun.
When I’m using Google’s keyword autosuggest feature to see what’s actually happening with a topic I think my audience would be interested in, I can see the search volume right in the suggestion panel…
In this example, I wondered if anybody would be interested to see a comparison between the Divi theme (the theme I use on this site and for my clients) and other website visual builders. Google autosuggest tells me that the top comparison people want to know about is the difference between Divi and Elementor.
I can see that the search volume is 1,600 monthly searches compared to 20, 30, 50 and 170 for other builders. Now I’ll take that keyword (Divi vs Elementor) and stick it into SEMScoop (which is kind of “home base” for me) to see what’s what …
This is where keyword research proves itself to be an art rather than a science. Even though the difficulty score is “26” (in my lane) and the articles ranking on the first page of Google are not huge authority sites (I can see by their domain authority score)… get a load of the word count. The top two results are monster posts — in the 5k-7k range.
No big deal, I can dig my heels in and write an 8k word post (and I may)… it’ll probably take me the better part of a week to write a post like that, but that’s not an uncommon scenario for competing in SERP for certain keywords.
But now I need to ask myself whether spending the better part of a week creating content for a search volume of 1,600 is worth it. If it was 26,000? I’d be writing it RIGHT NOW. 😉
And, I have to look at the relevancy factor for those top sites. They’re WordPress sites specifically. And while I do write about website issues on this blog, I mostly write about them as they pertain to branding or conversion optimization.
I’m thinking even with an 8,000-word post I’d probably still struggle to rank #1.
But you know what? That still doesn’t mean I shouldn’t write it. Ultimately, that’s a question no keyword research tool can answer for you.
I hope you found this helpful! If you have any questions please hit me up in comments. Happy researching!
Taughnee Stone is an award-winning designer, brand strategist, and location-independent business owner for over 15 years. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, she now lives in Croatia with her husband, energetic Samoyed, and three bossy cats.