“What is the best keyword research tool for SEO?”

What is the best keyword research tool for SEO? (It’s your brain!)

As you might expect, I conducted some keyword research before I sat down to write this SEO article.  And one of the queries that kept popping up again and again was, “What is the best keyword research tool for SEO?” Now, I also discovered that people were asking other related questions like “Why is keyword research important for SEO?” And I seriously considered writing about this other topic instead.

But, I decided to tackle the query that kept popping up. I’ve heard it before. After my presentation at Search Engine Strategies Chicago 2010, someone in the audience came up and asked me, “What is the best keyword research tool for SEO?” As you can see in the photo above taken by Sage Lewis, my answer back then was, “Are you serious? The best tool for search engine optimization is your brain.”

Now, that was a little brusque. He was asking for advice. He deserved a much more thoughtful answer. And so do all of the people who are still asking this question today.

So, let me show you how to analyze the search intent of the relatively large group of people who’ve made this question relatively popular, which is why it keeps popping up. They are probably using the Google app to ask, “What is the best keyword research tool for SEO?” How can you tell they’re using voice search on a smart phone? Because people type and speak differently. So, a longer query is an indication that they weren’t all typing a nine-word phrase into the Google search box on their laptops.

These people are also looking for the “best” tool, not a “free” one. So, they’re probably young professionals who are planning to make a career in this field, not small business owners who need to optimize their website for the first time and don’t expect to do it again. And these young professionals are searching for a tool “for SEO,” not PPC. This indicates that they’ve learned that Google’s Keyword Planner isn’t well suited for SEO. So, they’re intelligent, but not experienced.

Or, as Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy) says in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, “He is intelligent, but not experienced. His pattern indicates two-dimensional thinking.”

So, why does asking this question indicate two-dimensional thinking? Well, the people asking it appear to believe that finding the right tool is the key to helping their company or clients get higher rankings. They’re searching for a tool that will enable them to strategically target keywords with accurate keyword volume and difficulty metrics. And those are two important dimensions. But, they haven’t learned yet that selecting the top keyword tool is actually less important to their success than learning how to analyze keyword intent to understand the goal and objective of the people conducting the search. That’s the third dimension and it’s strategically more important.

The aspiring SEOs searching for the best keyword research tool are like recent medical school graduates who are preparing to perform their first major surgery. They’re anxiously looking for the vendor who makes the sharpest scalpel instead of an experienced mentor who can provide them with sage advice.

So, instead of giving you a brusque answer that might appear in a Google featured snippet, I’ve decided to write a longer article for aspiring SEOs – because I was one myself back when I attended my first Search Engine Strategies conference in the Spring of 2002. And, I’ll start by answering your question, “What is the best keyword research tool for SEO?” But, then I’ll go beyond just giving you the information you’re looking for. I’ll also share some strategic insights that answer the related question that you may or may not have asked, “Why is keyword research important for SEO?”

What is the best keyword research tool for SEO?

Now, I’ve used a number of keyword research tools over the years. The first one was Overture’s Keyword Selector Tool, which was taken off the market in January 2007. So, a word of warning to all of you aspiring SEOs: Be prepared to replace a tool if it disappears from our very dynamic marketplace. And don’t be afraid to try new tools if your old one gets dull.

Nevertheless, you’ve got to start somewhere. So, how do you find a good SEO tool to use until a better one comes along? I’d recommend reading the review by Rob Marvin and Mike Levin in PCMag.com that’s entitled, “The Best SEO Tools for 2019.”

Now, before I add my subjective analysis to their objective ranking and review of “the premiere SEO tools that will help keep your company’s website on top of Google searches,” let me vouch for the editorial independence of the reviewers.

I worked at Ziff-Davis for more than 10 years. I was the director of marketing at PC/Computing magazine from 1988 to 1991. Then, I became the director of corporations for Ziff-Davis from 1991 to 1998. At Ziff-Davis, I helped launch dozens of new media, including Yahoo! Internet Life magazine in the U.S.; Yahoo! France, Yahoo! Germany, and Yahoo! UK and Ireland; ZDNet; and ZDTV.

During that time, I worked with more than 300 editors, who zealously defended their editorial independence as all serious journalists do. But, Ziff-Davis had also founded PC Labs in 1984 as the premier, independent testing facility for the technology industry. And PCMag.com still uses it today. So, their products reviews are “Objective” with a capital “O.” That’s why I still trust their results.

And, in June 2019, PCMag.com awarded Editors’ Choices to three SEO tools:

  • Moz Pro is the best overall SEO platform of the bunch, with comprehensive tooling across keyword research, position monitoring, and crawling on top of industry-leading metrics incorporated by many of the other tools in this roundup,” they said.
  • SpyFu is the tool with the best user experience (UX) for non-SEO experts and the deepest array of ROI metrics as well as SEO lead management for an integrated digital sales and marketing team,” they added.
  • AWR Cloud, our third Editors’ Choice, is rated slightly lower than Moz Pro and SpyFu as an all-in-one SEO platform. However, AWR Cloud leads the pack in ongoing position monitoring and proactive search rank tracking on top of solid overall functionality,” they concluded.

So, you now have three objective answers to your question, “What is the best keyword research tool for SEO?” All three SEO tools handle pricing in a relatively similar way: prices range from $33 to $79 a month with discounts for annual subscriptions. So, pick one and get started. But, check back again next year to see if the rankings change. Why would they? Well, SEO tools get updated all the time.

Why is keyword research important for SEO?

Now, that I’ve given you the information you were looking for, let me share some strategic insights that answer a question that you may or may not have asked, “Why is keyword research important for SEO?”

The honest answer is that it is somewhat important. As Marvin and Levin acknowledge in their review, “When deciding what search topics to target and how best to focus your SEO efforts, treating keyword querying like an investigative tool is where you’ll likely get the best results.”

But, analyzing search intent, which is also known as keyword intent, is more important to understanding the ultimate goal of the person who is behind the query. And even the best SEO tools on the market still can’t analyze search intent. Only an experienced search engine optimizer can do that. Why? Because only someone who understands your company’s or your client’s goals and estimated goal values can determine which keywords, search terms, and long-tail phrases are worth the candle.

Let me share an analogy that I often use when I teach on-site workshops on “SEO Strategy and Keyword Research” and online webinars on “How to conduct keyword research to find the search terms people use on Google & YouTube.”

David Ogilvy, who was the most sought-after wizard in the advertising business, once said, “Even a blind pig can sometimes find truffles, but it helps to know that they grow in oak forests.” Now, keyword research tools can help you find oak forests. But, you still need to analyze each of the thousands of trees in the forest to discover the truffles – i.e. the keywords, search terms, and long-tail phrases that are used by your company’s or client’s prospects.

Let me illustrate the importance of analyzing search intent with a couple of case studies.

In early 2004, I conducted some keyword research before optimizing a press release for Southwest Airlines. Back then, I used tools like Wordtracker and Overture’s Keyword Selector Tool to discover that “cheap airfare”, “cheap airfares”, “cheap air fare”, “cheap air fares”, “cheap airline ticket”, “cheap airline tickets”, “cheap flight”, and “cheap flights” were all relevant and popular search terms.

But, Linda Rutherford, who was the Director of Public Relations of Southwest Airlines back then, told me an important story that saved my bacon. She explained that Herb Kelleher, the co-founder and CEO, had to approve any press release before it was distributed. And when he’d seen the word “cheap” in the subhead of one of “his press releases” a month earlier, he’d gone “Nuts!” And he reportedly shouted something like, “Southwest is not cheap! We offer low fares!”

Now, instead of throwing her consultant (me) under the bus for inserting that keyword into the draft of his press release, Rutherford calmly explained that “cheap” was a popular search term that a lot of the airline’s prospective customers used. And, if Southwest didn’t optimize content that addressed their search intent, then one of their competitor’s probably would. And that meant, “We’d be leaving money on the table.”

Kelleher asked, “How much money?”

And since no one knew the answer to that question back then, Rutherford proposed conducting a series of tests to find out. By the way, this story also explains why she is now Senior Vice President and Chief Communications Officer at Southwest Airlines.

Well, for our first test, we optimized a press release announcing the launch of Southwest’s service to Philadelphia.  It was their first new city launch since September 11, 2001. Philadelphia is a huge city and the airline wanted to get the word out and get high visibility. And, as you can see from the screenshot below, the headline of our optimized press release read: “Southwest Airlines Offers Low Fares to Philadelphia; Airfare to Philadelphia as Low as $29 to $99 One-Way.”

Now, you’ll see that we used “low fares” in our headline. How low were they? Well, you’ll also see in the headline that they were “as low as $29 to $99 one-way.” Why? Although “$29” and “$99 one-way” aren’t search terms, they address the search intent of Southwest’s prospects. And, I knew that Yahoo! News displayed headlines that were up to 120 characters long back then. So, anyone who searched for “Southwest Airlines”, “low fares to Philadelphia”, or “airfare to Philadelphia” would also see exactly what Southwest meant by “low”. And, we couldn’t be blamed if lots of the airline’s prospects thought to themselves, “$29 to $99 one-way is cheap!”

So, how many prospects had that epiphany when they saw our headline? Well, our first optimized press release about the Philadelphia launch directly resulted in $80,000 in ticket sales, plus stories in more than a dozen media outlets, including The New York Times, Washington Post, Dallas Morning News, and Philadelphia Business Journal.

In July, we optimized another press release. Its headline read, “Southwest Airlines Treats Customers to 22 New Daily Nonstop Flights With Low Fares Starting at $29 One-Way.” It generated more than $1 million in airline ticket sales. In fact, from February 2004 to April 2005, Southwest Airlines was able to directly track more than $2.5 million in online ticket sales to a series of optimized press releases.

That’s how you harness search intent even if you can’t use a relevant and popular keyword.

Here’s a second, much more recent case study: In January 2019, the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations (SMLR) launched a new Online Professional Master’s in Human Resource Management (MHRM) program. Debbie Vogel, the Director of Marketing and Communications for Rutgers SMLR, hired my firm to create and manage the launch campaign. Our objective was to generate 30 applications for the Fall 2019 semester by August 1, 2019.

Now, the tuition for SMLR’s online professional MHRM program is $3,174 per 3-credit course and students need 36 credits to graduate. So, each application represents up to $38,016 in tuition. Full-time students can complete the online MHRM program in as few as 18 months and part-time students can take as long as 5 years. In other words, this was a considered purchase that often required prospective graduate students to find out if their employer provided tuition reimbursement.

Now, our initial keyword research quickly identified that one of our important search terms would be “online masters in human resource management.” But, there was a small problem. SMLR’s target audiences were Human Resource professionals, managers, and supervisors with 4 or more years of experience who wanted to advance their careers to senior HR or management positions. But, there were a lot of HR people with less than 4 years of experience who were also likely to pursue an online Master’s degree in Human Resources Management. And SMLR had a limited number of people who could answer questions about the new online MHRM program. So, we didn’t want to flood them with unqualified leads.

So, instead of guessing about our target audience’s search intent, we used Google Surveys to discover that professionals in personnel, staffing & recruiting, and talent acquisition should be targeted, too. This more than doubled the size of our initial target audience.

Then, our survey identified the most important factor when respondents with 4 or more years of HR experience selected a university that offered an online Master’s degree in Human Resources Management was “no GRE/GMAT required”.

Although focusing on professionals and managers with 4 or more years of experience in human resources, personnel, staffing & recruiting, or talent acquisition cut the size of our target audience by more than half, we ended up targeting about the same number of overall prospects as we had initially planned to target. Plus, we had identified a way to address the search intent of these more qualified target audiences in a more efficient and effective way.

And as you can see from the screenshot below, we emphasized our primary search term in the headline of our optimized press release, which read, “Rutgers Launches Online Master’s in Human Resource Management Program.” And we used our secondary long-tail phrase, “No GRE or GMAT required,” in the subhead.

We also optimized the landing page on SMLR’s website with our primary search term and secondary long-tail phrase. We even used the search intent that we’d uncovered by using Google Surveys when writing the copy for our pay-per-click ads on Google and display ads on LinkedIn.

So, was all this extra effort really worth the candle? Well, our combination of keyword research and Google Surveys cost SMLR less than $600. Distributing the optimized press release and launching ad campaigns on Google and LinkedIn cost a lot more, of course, but at least our integrated digital marketing campaign addressed the search intent of our redefined target audiences.

And in late June, we used Google Surveys a second time to measure the impact of our integrated digital marketing campaign on brand lift. The percentage of respondents who said they were “familiar with” Rutgers University had increased from 13.8% pre-launch to 18.5% post-launch. In addition, the percentage of respondents who said they were “very likely” to recommend Rutgers University to a friend or colleague who was interested in getting an online Master’s degree in Human Resources Management had increased from 16.7% in early January to 19.0% in late June. So, our more targeted message was resonating.

And, as of August 1, 2019, the integrated digital marketing campaign had driven 8,332 new users to SMLR’s landing page. Plus, we’d had generated 694 leads (e.g. users who clicked on the Apply Now outbound link to a tailored Admissions page about the program).

We evaluated the source/medium of the new users and leads in Google Analytics and found:

  • Our optimized press release had generated 1% of the new users, but 8% of the leads.
  • Google organic search had generated 3% of the new users, but 19% of the leads.
  • Google Ads had generated 11% of the new users, but 18% of the leads.
  • LinkedIn display ads had generated 81% of the new users, but 37% of the leads.

More importantly, the integrated digital marketing campaign had generated 38 applications, which represented up to $1,444,608 in tuition over the next 18 months to 5 years.

So, keyword research tools were important to getting optimized press releases found in news search engine results. But, our analysis of the search intent of the keywords that we’d discovered were significantly more important and considerably more valuable.

Don’t become the tool of your tools

Now, I realize that these old war stories may seem like they’re from either “a long time ago” or “a galaxy far, far away.” But, let me conclude with a strategic insight that has also passed the test of time.

In Chapter 1 of Walden, which was first published in 1854, Henry David Thoreau observed: “Men have become the tools of their tools.” And, unfortunately, it looks like far too many aspiring SEOs have become the tools of their tools today.

Base on my analysis of their search intent, most aspiring SEOs haven’t learned yet that the best keyword research tool for SEO is their brain. And they don’t know yet that their expert and experienced analysis of search intent will be even more important and valuable in an era when mobile, voice search, and machine learning are radically reshaping the best practices that I learned back in the old days when I was in their shoes.

So, your best course of action is to stop acting like a recent medical school graduate who is preparing to perform his or her first major surgery. Don’t look anxiously for the vendor who makes the sharpest scalpel. Instead, find an experienced mentor who can provide you with sage advice.


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