If you’re new to the world of ecommerce or digital marketing in general, you’ve likely heard about search engine optimization (SEO). In a world where the majority of online traffic stems from a string of text typed into a search box, search engine optimization can be a deciding factor in the fate of your ecommerce business.
SEO encompasses many tactics, but the underlying principle is that you’re helping Google and other search engines better understand what your ecommerce site is about and what it sells. This, in return, increases your visibility by increasing the chance search engines will list your site in the search results when potential customers are looking for the products you sell.
One of the foundational tactics of SEO is keyword research. SEO keyword research is the simple art of better understanding the terminology your potential customers are using to find the products you’re selling, then matching your website and marketing terminology.
In this article, we’ll cover the basics of keyword research for ecommerce. The ultimate goal is to build a relevant list of keywords that you can refer back to and use as you build and optimize your site, write your product descriptions, and craft your blog posts.
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Why is keyword research for ecommerce important?
Every time someone does a search, the search engine must decide which handful of results to display from hundreds of thousands of possible pages. It’s up to the search engine algorithms to determine the best and most relevant matches for every single search. This is why it's so important to choose your keywords carefully, so that the search engines can match and display your site in the search results to the most relevant keywords searches.
Not only is it important to rank on the first page of a search engine results page for relevant search terms, but it’s equally important to rank in the top positions of the first page. To understand how big of a difference position can make, consider the graph below, which shows search result position and average traffic share:
From the graph we learn that the first three search results receive over 58% of the traffic.
Keyword research helps you:
- Understand search demand so you can create an optimal SEO strategy
- Create a list of relevant phrases that match your marketing goals
- Prioritize your keyword investments to target high ROI keywords first
- Close keyword gaps in your store
In short, the closer you are to the top of Google Search for relevant terms, the more traffic (and potential sales) you’ll receive. Depending on the search term and the volume of searches per month being made for that search term, the difference in just a few positions can represent significant revenue loss in the long term.
Ecommerce keyword research: the basics
Before you jump into doing keyword research for your online store, there are a few basic terms you’ll come across that are important to know and understand.
These terms include:
A keyword, in the context of search engine optimization, is a particular word or phrase that acts as a shortcut to sum up the content of a page or site. Keywords are part of a webpage’s metadata, and helps search engines match a page to an appropriate search query.
Long-tail keywords are simply keywords that contain three or more words. Long-tail keywords are important (hence them having their own name) because they catch people further along in the buying cycle and, thus, tend to have higher conversion rates.
Someone searching for “hair extensions” is likely in the early information gathering stage. However, someone searching for “20 inch brown hair extensions price” is likely further along the buying cycle and much closer to purchasing. These keywords are referred to as “high purchase intent” or “high commercial intent.” SEO often assigns one of three search intents to a keyword:
- Navigational: when searchers are looking for a specific website
- Informational: when searchers want to know or do something, like create a homemade recipe
- Transactional: when a searcher wants to buy something
Search volume (average monthly searches)
Search volume is usually measured in average monthly searches. This is the total number of searches each month for each particular search phrase (keyword). Ideally, you’re looking for the keywords with the highest search volume. Ranking highly for search terms with higher search volumes means more potential traffic and conversion potential for you and your store.
Unfortunately, there is not a magic number that represents the perfect search volume for everyone. What constitutes the “right” search volume is going to be different for every site.
Search volume isn’t the only thing you need to consider. Competition is equally important, if not more. There’s no point trying to rank for specific keywords you have no chance of ranking for. Competition refers to the difficulty of ranking for each particular keyword.
In an ideal situation, your strategy will have high search volume and low competition keywords. However, these gold nuggets are difficult to find and will require some hard work, patience, and maybe a little luck to find.
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How to research keywords for your ecommerce SEO strategy
- Identify your keyword universe
- Find niche keywords to win
- Create a keyword research process
- Build a topic map
- Map the different content types
- Develop a content calendar
1. Identify your keyword universe
There are a lot of nuances between new stores and existing stores, so for the sake of brevity, I’ll assume you’re working on a brand new website.
If your store is more established, you’ll likely already have a nice baseline of data from which you can pull to help determine the direction you want to take with your research. But for a new site, you’re going to need to lean on competitor research.
The right way to do this is to find the major players in the space that aren’t colossal brands—steer clear of Amazon, eBay, Walmart, and other established, generalist ecommerce websites. Don’t be too dismissive, however, because you don’t want to necessarily stay away from the big informational brands like Wikipedia or Quora. These sites can actually be treasure troves of keyword terms and topics.
You can also start your search using an SEO tool like:
- Google Keyword Planner
For this tutorial, we’ll use Ahrefs. Let’s say you’re an organic pet supplies brand and your main competitor is Only Natural Pet. You can enter its website URL into the Ahrefs search bar and pull up a list of organic keywords the brand ranks for.
You can also browse by Top Pages to see which webpages get the most traffic, and the top keyword for each URL.
Open a Google Sheet and start writing down the keywords you want to rank for. Logging each keyword is how you begin to build your keyword universe.
2. Find niche keywords to win
To compete against the 800-pound ecommerce gorillas these days, especially if you’re just getting started, you need to begin with a hyper-niche—a niche within a niche, and sometimes even a niche in that niche (it’s niches all the way down).
Highlighting the importance of specialization, let’s run through the entire keyword research process from start to finish with a real example. Examining something tangible is a good way to make the concepts we’ll cover easier to understand and apply.
Continuing with the pet supplies example above, let’s look at how we can find the right keywords to rank your store for.
Our first step is going to Google and doing some basic searching, starting with good old common sense. All we’re looking to do right now is see what Google comes back with from auto-suggest. For this search, I typed in “dog food,” just to kick things off.
Many commercial terms are more competitive than ever. At the time of this writing, Chewy was ranking in position one, and Petco ranked in position 2, followed by Amazon in position 3. You can view search volume and CPC right in Chrome and FireFox with Keywords Everywhere.
Next, let’s see what all the Google suggestion keywords look like. To do this, we can use a keyword research tool called Ahrefs. Let's start by entering our main keyword, “dog food,” and looking at the potential keyword ideas.
Immediately we see that supplies (containers) and type of food (raw, fresh, homemade) are common terms used to specify what these searchers are looking for. Not all of these terms are going to be relevant though. We’ll want to scan the terms and look for modifiers that we can remove using the “Exclude” keywords function.
For example, I’m noticing that some searches have brand modifiers like Royal Canin and Purina. We want to add as many of those to our negative keywords list as possible to further clean up the results. It’s OK if you don’t get every branded term in. You’ll see we included 60 of the top brands in the space. The goal is to get your list down to something more manageable.
This leaves us with 342,384 unique keywords, so from here you want to sort by monthly search volume to get a sense of how popular these keywords are.
Before going any further, let’s look at what each of these columns means in terms of the metrics they’re showing.
- Keyword: the actual phrase that is being typed into Google.
- Keyword difficulty (KD): an estimation of how hard it is to rank in the top 10 organic search results for a keyword on a 100-point scale
- Volume: the average monthly number of searches for a keyword over the latest known 12 months of data (specifically targets users in the US).
- Global volume (GV): global search volume shows how many times per month, on average, people search for the target keyword across all countries in the Ahrefs database.
- Traffic potential (TP): this shows the sum of organic traffic that the #1 ranking page for your target keyword receives from all the keywords that it ranks for.
- Cost per click (CPC): the average price advertisers pay for each ad click in paid search results for a keyword.
- Clicks per search (CPS): the ratio of clicks to keyword search volume. It shows how many different search results get clicked, on average, when people search for the target keyword in a given country.
- Parent topic: determines if you can rank for your target keyword while targeting a more general topic on your page instead.
- Snippet Features (SF): the number of enriched results on a search engine results page that are not traditional organic results.
- Updated: the date when Ahrefs last checked search engine results for a keyword.
When looking at keyword data as part of your overall research process, it’s important to recognize that the keywords you identify based on your initial run and first attempts at filtering are just the tip of the iceberg. Understanding how your users think with research like a contextual inquiry will help you identify new keywords.
Any of these terms with a search volume over, say 100 per month, is likely to have a whole universe of related terms around it. For example, let’s look at some of the related terms that come back for a few of the terms in my current list.
💡 Note: I’m using the same list of negative keywords, with a filter set to only show keywords that receive more than 100 searches per month, on just Google.com.
Topic: best dog food
Topic: dog food container
Topic: raw dog food
Topic: natural dog food
This exercise is exactly why you always pull the data and don’t make guesses when it comes to defining your content map and best keyword priorities.
Looking back over the terms generated from the four keywords above as seed terms:
- “Best dog food” comes back with relevant suggestions including 29,494 other terms.
- “Dog food container” comes back with relevant suggestions including 2,164 other terms.
- “Raw dog food” comes back with 10,567 other keywords.
- “Natural dog food” includes 9,182 additional terms and makes a strong case for creating a content page targeting these keywords.
3. Create a research process
You can run through the above process around 10 to 15 times to build substantial lists of relevant terms to work with. Even easier, you can manage most of these steps right in Ahrefs.
Here’s what my list looks like, including terms throughout the shopping funnel, i.e., specific pet food terms, container sizes, calculators, and top-of-the-funnel terms like “how to” and others.
Armed with a solid list of terms to target, the question remains: Now what? Answer: It’s time to group these into topics.
4. Build a topic map
A topic map is a spreadsheet where you group related keywords together into smaller lists that all roll up under a representative topic.
For example, some of the topic maps from my data set are:
Topic: "Best dog food"
Best dog food for puppies
Best dog food for pitbulls
Best dog food for picky eaters
How to choose the best dog food
Topic: “dog food container”
Dog food container 50lbs
Dog food metal container
Ceramic dog food container
Dog food container with wheels
How to keep ants out of dog food container
In both of the examples above, I’m taking general swings at grouping together the keywords from my list into topics. But this isn’t the end of our research process. From here, it’s important to determine if these groupings make sense based on content type.
Google has shown time and time again that it prefers to rank specific kinds of content for specific queries. If you want to rank for a particular term or a set of terms, you need to build out the type of content that Google is showing you it wants to see.
The most common types of content are:
- Informational pages (think Wikipedia)
- Product catalog pages (Category, Sub-Category, Product Detail)
- Blog posts (even these can vary in form, but for the purposes of this post I’m going to lump them all together)
5. Map the different content types
It’s helpful to deliberately plan the types of content you need to create to best target your keywords. The most straightforward way to do this is through some old-fashioned Googling. Create a spreadsheet for yourself using the exported lists of keywords from Ahrefs as a starting point.
Within that sheet, you can create a new tab with the following columns:
- Content Type
The two highlighted rows above will need to be entered manually. Admittedly, this is going to be a bit tedious, but it’s worth the effort! Here’s an example of mapping the different types of content for my dog food container example.
This one is a great example of a mixed search engine results page.
It looks like the easiest path to break onto this SERP is to invest content and link resources into ranking a product category page. Second easiest is a list-form article. However, if you’re selling direct on Amazon, you’re going to need to amass a few thousand reviews.
We can immediately see the results skew toward pages with high commercial intent. There’s the product listing ads (PLA) carousel at the very top (before the text ads), and then we’re greeted with a variety of product category pages.
Now that you’ve gone through your priority terms and mapped all the content types, it’s time to create a plan for how to build out this content. A smart first step is designing a deliberate “content map.” This asset outlines your requirements (your ideal keywords), your blueprint (what content needs to be produced), and your structures (a roadmap for content production).
6. Develop a content calendar
You have your priority keyword list in hand, you know what types of content you need to create, and you’ve mapped these across your site.
Now it’s time to build a calendar so you can put rubber to road and start getting this content live and ranking for your target keywords. To do this, it’s helpful to create additional sheets in my overall keyword file and lay them out by funnel stage (based on search intent).View the full image
You’ll also want to bring together all of the other components of this process:
- Topic focus
- Content type
- Test title 1
- Test title 2
- Test title 3
- Target keyword
- Additional keywords
- Target length
Here’s an active example, including all of the parameters above.View the full image
Then, build a sheet specifically for the schedule with the following columns:
- Draft completed by date [ACTUAL]
- Publish date [ACTUAL]
- Draft needed by date [ESTIMATED]
- Expected publish date [ESTIMATED]
- Status [Not started, Assigned, In progress, Pending, Published]
- Blog post type [If post, Category of Post]
- Post topic and description
- Example site
- Recommended URL
- Recommended title
- Recommended H1
- Recommended meta description
- Target keywords
You can then bring in your content creation and management resources into this sheet and filter each of these columns to get visibility into your ecommerce SEO efforts from a content and keywords perspective.
Your keyword research process determines your progress
Your search engine optimization efforts are only ever going to be as effective as your process. Most ecommerce store owners, especially when they’re starting out and are strapped for time, don’t have a process in place and aren’t sure how to create one.
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Ecommerce keyword research FAQ
How do you do keyword research for ecommerce?
- Identify your keyword universe.
- Find niche keywords to win.
- Create a keyword research process.
- Build a topic map.
- Map the different content types.
- Develop a content calendar.