Discover what the process of researching keywords for a SaaS site looks like. Learn the four ways to find profitable keywords for your SaaS.
What you're going to learn:
FACT: Keywords are the driving force of your SEO success.
They are what your potential users type into Google, after all. By ranking for those search terms, you can connect with them as they progress from learning more about their problem, evaluating available solutions, researching your product to getting back to your website to sign up.
Well, that’s what SHOULD be happening, at least.
But as many SaaS marketers have told me over and over again – They often miss the mark when choosing the right keywords.
Sure, they conduct some keyword research. In the process, they find phrases they’d consider valuable and publish a piece of content they hope could rank well for them.
But in the end, they typically watch those pages never moving past some obscure rankings. Ever.
In this guide, you’ll find out why it happens – through the poor topic and keyword targeting – and what you must do never to experience such a problem again.
But let’s start by clearing some misconceptions, briefly.
When I started in SEO – more than ten years ago – the concept of a keyword seemed simple. The term described any particular (and well-defined) phrase a person would use to find specific information.
We considered words and phrases like “accounting,” “sales tax management,” “keyword stuffing” for example, as keywords.
Sure, we’d assign a different value to them, based on many factors – search volume, competition and others (many of such data we’d got from the Google Keyword Planner, for example.)
But overall, they were all keywords.
Today, we’d classify some of those phrases as topics; others are keywords and some of those we’d call long-tail keywords.
That seemingly small change – breaking search queries into different types – points to one of the most prominent challenges marketers find with keyword research.
Understanding what keywords are, and that they are not is the starting point of the keyword research process.
Keywords are words or phrases that define specific information.
From the searcher’s point of view, they are whatever keywords they use to explain what information they need. In this context, we refer to those as search queries.
For you, the SaaS marketer, however, those phrases describe what your content is about.
And when the two – the search query and your content’s keyword – match, your page appears in the search result listings for that phrase or its variations.
(Now, where the SERPs it appears is another matter. This is also influenced by factors like your domain authority, link strength, content’s authority, relevance and much more.)
They are not the ultimate entity that describes how people look for information anymore.
Which brings us back to the division into different search query types, and the biggest obstacle in SaaS keyword research.
Today’s software users (and pretty much everyone else, of course) no longer think in keywords.
In the past, we had to use specific, highly-defined phrases to find information. This happened because Google wasn’t able to interpret unique queries well enough.
As a result, Google search often took the form of a keyword trial and error. You’d type one phrase into the search box, checked the results and noticed that they don’t provide the information you seek. So, you tried again, this time, fine-tuning your search query and making your request more precise.
The process would continue, typically, until you’ve hit a query Google understood. That’s how you got to your information.
This made SEOs lives so much easier; I have to say. When researching keywords, for example, you just had to uncover ONE target phrase, create content to match it, and you stood a great chance at ranking well.
Today, however, Google has the RankBrain, among other algorithm elements. The search engine’s AI is capable of analyzing even the most complex queries and matching them with the right content.
And that’s even if the two contain entirely different sets of phrases!
As a result, as searchers, we can type any information we have about what we’re looking for. Google, in turn, will be able to match that with relevant pages and deliver the right ones to us at a snap.
Which is what is causing the challenge, exactly! Because today, to rank, we can’t think in terms of a single keyword anymore.
Our keyword research and content marketing have to cover broad topics first. Sure, specific keywords play a role in the process too. However, they come into play later on, as a way to nail down on the specific aspect of a topic.
(And even then, we have to research and use them differently, too.)
Changes to the Google algorithm and the subsequent new ways in which we can search for information aren’t the only new factor affecting keyword research.
The user intent (also knowns as the search intent) is another. Although, I have to admit that both are related closely.
With all the new updates and the evolution of Google’s capabilities came another critical aspect of searching – Why we do it? The search engine began paying attention to the reason we have for searching.
It wasn’t able to do it in the past, as you have seen above. But the smarter it got, the better it became at determining the user intent.
The above came to light in 2013, with the (quiet) release of the Google Hummingbird algorithm. Its focus on semantic search enabled the search engine to understand words and their relationships to match the context behind the search with relevant results.
As Moz pointed out wonderfully:
“While it’s believed that many pre-existing components of the core algorithm remained intact, Hummingbird signaled Google’s commitment to an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the intent of searchers’ queries with the goal of matching them to more relevant results.”
As a result, Google began evaluating content for rankings slightly differently – paying attention to its relevance to the topic, rather than a single keyword. And it promotes pages that a.) focus on a specific, defined topic (not necessarily a keyword, though,) b.) provide in-depth information about it, and c.) deliver the information matching a person’s intent when looking for it.
How do you navigate in all this? How do you find the right keywords to target?
Let’s get to that now.
Bad news first, sorry! – There is no single, uniform keyword research process.
There are no predefined steps you could take to end up with a ton of target keywords people are searching for either.
Luckily, there’s good news too – There are different ways to research and find relevant keywords. And there is a sort-of, kind-of, more or less complete set of methods to achieve it. (Note, I don’t want to call it a process as you can conduct each step in so many ways.)
Let’s go through some of my favorite strategies for each of those three steps.
Topics, as you know already, define a key problem or area of interest of your potential users. “SEO” is a good example. So are “keyword research,” “accounting,” “lead scoring” or “sales pipeline.”
Each of the phrases above defines a concept that the people you’ve identified as ideal customers want to know more about. You have found this page because you’re, most likely interested in keyword research for SaaS (and search engine optimization too, actually.)
But the keyword you’ve used to end up here might have included more words than the two.
In fact, I have optimized this guide for a more specific phrase than “keyword research.”
Before finding it, though, you have to identify the key topics that matter to your audience.
Research topics your main competitor cover. You can do it by analyzing their websites manually:
You can also use software to do it. SEMrush, Ahrefs, and others include various options for competitive research.
Here’s what the report looks like in SEMrush. You access it by typing your competitors’ URL into the main search box in the app, and then, going to the Pages tab.
Another strategy is scouting the web, particularly, any places where your target audience hangs out. It could be Quora, industry publications, forums or social media.
I admit that this step requires some investigative skills. First, you have to figure out where your potential users go to find or discuss information relating to a specific stage of the buying cycle. Then, you need to review those sources, paying attention to a trending or often discussed issue.
The above takes work. It will be worth it in the end. You’ll gain first-hand experience into what topics drive your audience’s buying journey.
The two strategies above focused on finding topics. These, in turn, will help you create content to position your brand along the buyer’s journey.
The next step is to uncover seed keywords from those. This is also where keyword research might get a little tricky. Seed keywords often look just like topics. However, they’re not.
Seed keywords are the foundation of the actual keyword research. Consider them a starting point for finding specific phrases or queries to target with the content.
Topics, as you know already, define the problem. As a result, a topic might contain several seed keywords. Take “SEO,” for example. You can break this topic into several seed phrases – SEO keywords, link building, content audit and so much more.
What’s more, these keywords can have different intents:
Here’s how you can uncover them:
This strategy helps to discover commercial phrases, mostly. It requires nothing more than answering a couple of simple questions:
Look at your answers. Are there any category-like phrases standing out? These will, most likely, be your seed keywords.
Another strategy – start typing your product category into the search box and see what queries Google suggests. You may discover quite a lot of potential categories to use in further research.
If you’re running Google Ads already, you can use that data for keyword research too.
This source might deliver the most potent dataset. Your Ads account will include historical data about phrases that drove the most traffic and conversions signaling what engages your audience the most.
Review those to identify short and long-term phrases to research further.
Once you compile a list of topics and seed keywords, you are ready to start building the keyword set to target. These phrases will help you create new content or update existing pages if you want to improve their rankings.
But you have to identify them first, of course. Here are some of the best strategies to do it.
In this strategy, you research the seed keyword to identify relating or similar phrases. You can do this in any keyword research tool. I use SEMrush. Its incredible Keyword Magic Tool allows me to evaluate any seed term, dig deeper into relevant phrases and even, expand my research by looking at phrases only loosely related to my seed keyword.
Another strategy that I use often is researching keywords the top-ranking content for the seed keyword ranks for already. Most content pieces today will rank for more than their main phrase, after all. So, by reverse engineering their success, you can uncover many new keywords to target with the content.
Many SaaS platforms offer this ability too. In SEMrush, you have to paste the ranking URL into the search box to get the list of keywords for which that page is ranking.
The final step in the process is keyword evaluation. In this step, your goal is to use available data to figure out which keywords to focus on first. Because, let’s face it, if you’ve gone through this process for each of your topics and seed keywords, you might end up with hundreds of potential opportunities.
But which ones would deliver the highest return – drive the most traffic and signups?
There are many ways to find that out, and you might have to tailor yours to the data in the industry. In general, however, look at three metrics:
Once again, whichever SEO tool you use, will deliver the above data. It might tell you more. SEMrush, among others, indicates the keyword difficulty as well, suggesting how difficult it might be to rank for this phrase overall.
Here’s the biggest secret to ranking for your desired keywords – You MUST match their intent with relevant content.
I’ve mentioned the two primary intents – commercial and informational – already. They are on the opposite spectrum of what your potential user wants.
One the one end, you have the actual transaction – signing up for a trial, requesting a demo, etc.
On the other are all the phrases those people would use when trying to learn more about their problem or evaluate potential solutions (yes, that includes your product too.)
Here’s the trick, your content MUST match the intent a person has when using a specific keyword.
So, split your top keywords into those two buckets – commercial or informational. Unfortunately, there is no automated way to do this. If you’re not sure which bucket a keyword belongs to, paste it into Google’s search box and look at the ranking pages.
Are they blog posts offering advice or product or feature pages promoting specific solutions? It’s rarely both, so you should know which bucket to assign the keyword to at a glance.
That’s also where keyword mapping comes into play. In this step, you assign keywords to relevant pages. This step is particularly useful if you’re planning to expand the existing content or seek keywords to optimize a website for SEO.
Create a spreadsheet with your target keywords in one column and a target page on the other. I expand it further, usually, adding columns for meta title and meta description. This helps me keep relevant information in one place. But you can use a different system, of course.
The key in this step is to identify the most relevant existing content that provides the right information and satisfies the user’s intent for the keyword.
With that done, you’re ready to start optimizing your SaaS website, creating new content and increasing your rankings, traffic, and signups.
About the Author
Pawel Grabowski is a freelance SEO consultant helping SaaS businesses get found online and connect with new customers with SEO and content.