eCommerce Keyword Research Explained
Mention Search Engine Optimisation to anyone, even those with very little relevant work experience, and their first response may just be: keywords.
That’s how important they are: they are the very foundation of your SEO work. And yet we can still get this fundamental aspect of SEO completely wrong, really quite easily.
This article aims to guide you through the reasons for which we do keyword research, the types of keywords to target, what tools to use to find keyword ideas and how to choose the keywords you’ll then optimise your eCommerce store with.
What is keyword research?
Well first things first, what is it? It’s the practice of researching what terms your potential customers may be typing into search engines to get to your (or similar) websites, and therefore what terms you’ll presumably want to rank for. Plain and simple.
I’m not into the old school practice of using the EXACT keyword that I find on an online tool and whacking it into all the meta data I can find. Search engines are far cleverer than that and so there’s really no need for this.
However, keyword research is instrumental in finding the types of terms that you can use to organise your online store, see what people are looking for with regard to your products and maybe some other terms that could be used to create useful content that attracts people to your site. But more on this later.
Why do it?
Well because you’re presumably opening an online store or already have one and want pages that people are looking for and that rank when they are looking for them.
However, I think that in 2020, that’s pretty self explanatory to most people, they know that they want to organise their stores with searchable sub categories etc. as they see it on all the online stores that they use themselves.
So keyword research is extremely helpful in getting you to also understand:
- Whether it will be difficult or not to rank for a particular term (as there will be a speculative “keyword difficulty” score of some sort, based on the amount of other pages trying to rank for that term online and the amount of backlinks that that page has pointing to it).
- How much traffic you’d get (more or less, again, these are just indicative numbers) if you were to rank for that term or at least an indication of how popular some of your products / product types may be in comparison to others, you get an early idea of which parts of your site may perform better and what to keep in stock as a priority.
- The type of content that can / should be created to rank for a term.
- Where that page may appear in SERPs (featured snippet, traditional SERP position, people also ask section etc) or you may find that a video would work better etc.
- The intent behind the keyword: are people likely to turn into customers or not?
The Content Funnel
Keywords are all about the content they’re going to appear in. It’s important at this stage to point out that different types of content are useful for different stages of what is called the content conversion funnel.
Essentially, the conversion funnel is a way of visualising the different intents / stages that your website users may go through before converting. It’s described as a funnel as some people will drop off along the way.
That’s completely normal, so don’t feel discouraged if you see this happening on your website.
This is what the conversion funnel can look like:
In layman’s terms, what I’m saying is that some people will come to your site without any inkling of who you are, what you do and what they want from you - they were just looking for an answer to a problem you may have answered.
Some will have some idea, and others will already be certain that they want what you’re selling - broadly speaking, those are the stages of the funnel. So let’s go through these...
The top of the funnel: the awareness stage.
These people have an issue or are asking a question, and arrive on your site (if you’ve written content to target these) looking for a solution to that problem without any previous awareness of you, your brand and what you sell. So it’s safe to say that these are the furthest away from being near to converting out of the other people in the funnel.
The middle of the funnel: the consideration stage.
These people may be aware of you and what you offer, they’re just weighing up their options and comparing you to others, they’re still in the decision making process - it’s your job to convince them with the content that you produce and the signals that you send via your website.
The bottom of the funnel: transactional customers.
These people know what they want, they’ve probably already been on your site, you may have remarketed to them, sent them an email marketing shot etc. They know what they want to buy, now all they need to do is buy it - so the key is to have the right calls to actions on your well organised pages and a purchasing journey that works smoothly and quickly (a broken basket or checkout at this stage would be.
So how do you relate this to keywords?
Keyword intent & types of keywords
Keyword intent is, to me, one of the most important aspects of keyword research.
It gives you a fundamental understanding of:
- the types of keywords that you can target.
- where they would sit on the website.
- how much traffic different types of keywords are likely to get.
- the intention of a user landing on your site depending on the type of keyword searched for and thus what that content needs to include.
This is particularly important for an eCommerce store in my opinion.
I say this because the likelihood is that you're going to be competing against some absolutely massive names (Amazon, eBay, “Big store brand A”, “Big store brand B”): so you need to have a keyword strategy in place that will help you to compete.
So, what types of keyword am I likely to want to research for my eCommerce site?
In my opinion, these fall into 5 distinct categories.
1. Generic or “head” terms
You want to sell your products online, so first things first: what products are you selling and how would you categorise them?
Much like an actual physical store, you want to organise everything on your website so that it’s easy to find in a logical structure and this will influence the architecture of the shop.
Of course, you may have already done this and built your shop - that’s fine - SEO is an ongoing process so you can keep building on this if you choose to. Doing a little more research could help you identify new subcategories or niches within which to split your products, or perhaps influence the terms that you target on those pages.
Say you own a bike shop. You sell road bikes, hybrids and mountain bikes as well as the associated accessories for both men and women.
So it stands to reason that you’d organise your shop either by type of bike and gender - or by gender and then type of bike, up to you (or both - it’s your hypothetical site). You’d have a category for each type of product that you sell, including subcategories (say under women’s road biking accessories, you’d have gloves etc).
You want to take a look at what your competitors (and yes, Amazon is one of your competitors unfortunately, so see what they’re doing too and make note of the more long tail terms they’ve created pages for - more on this later).
These terms tend to be very generic and thus quite difficult to rank for such as “road bikes” etc. but there’s no getting away from having to organise your site into these categories.
In fact, the more granular you go and the more commercial intent you add to these, the higher the likelihood of you ranking (so say you’d have much more chance of ranking for “women’s road bikes for sale in Nottingham” than simply “road bikes” - this is what is known as going for “long tail keywords”: be as specific as you can).
Have categories specifically for brands too, such as “Raleigh road bikes for sale”, these pages can help you rank but are also really useful for customers.
After all, when you’re searching, you’re undoubtedly doing this yourself. When people search for these sorts of terms, they know they want a type of product, but they’re probably nowhere near ready to buy - they’re still doing the research, looking for brands, models, price points etc.
A lot of your website’s architecture will be built on these kinds of keywords: how you categorise your products, so you really want to spend some time on this and nail it so that you don’t have to retrospectively change your website structure as this can be a bit of a pain and lead to errors (although if you're diligent, go for it).
In terms of the conversion funnel, these kind of sit outside of it as they’re so generic - there’s also no getting away from the fact that you need these terms on your site: it’d make absolutely no sense to have an eCommerce store for bikes and related equipment that didn’t have pages with these on there.
So for me, they’re purely navigational terms.
On the one hand, people may just be researching types of bike (“women’s road bikes for sale”) to have a look at different models. On the other hand, they could see that list and just buy one - but it’s hard to say, which is why I leave the head terms out of the conversion funnel - but by all means look at what experts say and make your own decision.
2. Informational terms: top of the funnel
Whatever you’re selling, people are bound to have questions around the topic that you can answer and create some content about. These types of content tend to be created for what is known as “top of the funnel” users: they don’t know what they want, and they don’t necessarily even want to buy anything.
They simply have a problem, or a question, around a specific topic that you have some knowledge on, and which is related to your products or niche.
These people are looking for guides, how to’s, informational videos with instructions, some sort of resource, which you can create with ease. A lot of people fall into the trap of writing irrelevant content for their websites, and this is the easiest way of all to get around that.
Being “top of the funnel” means that they are much less likely to convert into customers (at least immediately, these are your long term wins) and it also means that search volumes will be much lower typically.
You can capture these prospects and use strategies such as remarketing (via Google Ads) or retargeting via various other platforms (Facebook, Google/Bing Ads etc), get their details in email format to send them some tailored offers etc. Or simply hope that your content was so unbelievable that you’ll definitely stick in their mind.
I'll admit that that last one is somewhat ambitious, I can definitely think of instances where I’ve read a piece of content that stuck in my mind and later turned me into a customer - but I really wouldn’t leave it to chance.
So as an example of this, if you had an online bike store, selling mountain, road and hybrid bikes, it stands to reason that you’d create some really useful information around these topics that you know people are looking for (from your keyword research).
So for example, someone may be looking for “the best mountain biking trails in the midlands”, “how to fix the spokes on my mountain bike” etc.
If you write these guides and they rank, you may not be in front of an immediate customer, but you are appearing in front of someone who is definitely interested in your niche.
Keep appearing in front of them with amazing, really useful content and they may remember you in future - and they’ll probably recommend you to other hobbyists too.
Later down the line, they may be interested in the products that you sell, especially if you’ve been very gently showing them in your posts - either way, you’ll have people who are actively interested in your brand and what you have to say: engaging a community is no easy feat today, but doing so without the usual hard sell is absolutely invaluable to brands.
Look at Gymshark these days, it’s not a brand anymore, it’s a certifiable lifestyle. Indeed, it’s quite difficult to get someone to your site and immediately turn them into a customer, this methodology enables you to get in front of potential customers multiple times via a number of touch points before they commit and purchase.
The really cool thing about these sorts of informational content, is that they’re usually great at triggering featured snippets. You’ve definitely seen these before:
These are pretty valuable bits of search engine real estate: they take up more room and so are more prominent, have much higher click through rates and are literally deemed by Google to be the best answer for a particular query, so it’s a great bonus if you’re targeting informational terms.
Another great tool for finding some of these informational terms is a freebie called Answer the public. Add in any theme and it’ll spit out a whole bunch of questions people have been asking about this online:
There’s also, excuse the French, Keyword Shitter - which will “shit out” a tonne of related keywords. We’ll also reference Ahrefs for this further down in the article in more depth.
3. Consideration terms: mid way in the sales funnel
These terms lie somewhere in between transactional and informational terms - people know they want to buy a mountain bike - just not necessarily that they want to buy it from you.
You want to convince them that you’re the store to buy from: you have the awesome products which feature in the lists you’ve created, have review pages for these that you can link to, and oh look at that, a testimonial on how absolutely mind-blowing your customer service is and the fact that you have a free servicing package for the first six months (or whatever your deals or USPs are) in the footer or side of the website that just happen to be there.
So create content such as “the top 10 mountain bikes in 2020”, “the best mountain bike brands”, “most popular mountain bike reviews” etc. These can take the following sorts of format:
- Top 10 “mountain bikes”
- The best type of “mountain bike”
- Tips when buying mountain bikes
- Which mountain bike is best for me
- “Mountain bike” reviews (specific brand or type)
- Best brand of “mountain bike”
- Affordable “mountain bike” brands
- Best quality “mountain bike"
And obviously, sneak in one of your own products and deals in there and you might just turn someone who was simply doing some research on mountain bikes and which one may be best for them into a customer.
Again, some of these can trigger featured snippets too, really good for click through rates.
4. Comparison terms: middle of the funnel
Arguably, these could fall into the consideration keyword type but I think they’re quite specific so I’m going to give them a category of their own. These customers are at the bottom of the funnel (about to purchase), they know what product they want, they’re just comparing specific brands or models (that you sell) before they make a final decision and take the plunge. So at this point, you want to:
- Attract these people to your site via product comparisons (popular industry products, products with lots of search volume as found by keyword research, products you know that your customers typically um and ah about).
- Add in your bestsellers (that fall within the parameters of this comparison - so specific types of mountain bikes with similar specs for example, some you sell, some you don’t perhaps).
- Insert within the copy reasons why the specific model that you offer is better, or reasons to buy it, why it's a better fit for them (or an add on that you can’t get anywhere else like free servicing etc).
These keywords typically take on this sort of format: comparisons ( X mountain bike VS Y mountain bike).
5. Transactional terms: bottom of the funnel
These terms will tend to be transactional in nature, such as “women’s black waterproof road biking gloves size s for sale” etc. or in fact specific types of product like “XLC Winter Bike Gloves” - people know what they’re looking for and want, so they’re pretty close to buying - so these can be product pages or extremely granular subcategories or popular landing pages that you create (if you know that there’s enough search volume to warrant it).
Again, search volumes may be lower, but if you’re ranking for it, you’re probably quite likely to get a customer out of it, unless your prices are really high or your checkout is broken - but that’s another story. If you’re trying to target these terms via Google Ads or some other paid advertising, these may be quite pricey in terms of cost per click, so it’s always worth optimising your site for them too.
Now you know the types of keywords that you’re likely to want to target on your website - so how do you find them and decide on which ones you want to rank for?
Commercial Value of Keywords
Now it’s all well and good to look at all of these different types of keywords and their intent. Depending on the amount of resource and time that you have spare to dedicate to SEO, you want to know that whatever you are doing is likely to bring in money to your business. So, how would you determine the value of the keywords you’re aiming to target?
As mentioned above, certain keywords are much longer tail, targeting people who are at the top of the funnel as it were: they are not buying, they are simply researching. If you’re aiming to make money now, this is obviously not the strategy for you - but it could be in future.
However, consideration or transactional type keywords? Absolutely!
You’re much more likely to get customers from these - however, it is more difficult to rank for these (typically speaking, depending on your niche, the number of competitors out there, whether you’re aiming to rank locally, nationally or internationally etc).
But this is where you’d tailor an entire digital strategy around this, with paid ads, social media etc - rather than solely relying on SEO, as SEO is all about the long term.
If your goal is to make money now though, from a commercial point of view, it makes sense to start from the bottom of the funnel to get better ROI and work your way up - particularly if you’re trying to convince a board of directors or such to invest more into your SEO efforts - top of the funnel terms are much more difficult to use as a convincing argument to get bigger budgets.
How to do keyword research for an eCommerce website
Thought Mapping core terms
First of all you’ll want to get together with some of your team members and map out all of the areas / products of your business into themed categories. These will be your “seed” keywords (so in this instance they would be, road bikes, mountain bikes, BMX bikes, hybrid bikes, electric bikes, bike accessories etc.) Deconstruct these into all the specific types of items.
So say bike accessories, one seed keyword from this category could be handlebars - you can further break these down it into all the various products you have: mountain bike handlebars, BMX handlebars, Tri bars, road bike handlebars etc. All of these are things that a person might look for - deconstruct all of these as much as you can and you’ll come up with a pretty decent starting point. This is extremely helpful when building a site to figure out site architecture - but can also be very useful to then use as the foundation for finding informational queries around all of your subcategories.
Seeing what your competitors are ranking for is also an essential part of this research.
To figure out which competitors, type in some of your top seed keywords and make a list of the top 10 websites (if they’re Amazon or eBay don’t worry about adding these in as we can do specific research with these - just add any other eCommerce shops). You can then use tools such as Ahrefs or SEMrush (there are loads more but these are by far my favourite) to add in these domains and see all the terms that they may be ranking for (I’ve done this here in SEMrush and deleted the Tredz branded terms):
Compile this list for all main core terms and competitors, remove all duplicates (and products/services that you don’t and won’t sell / provide). This will honestly be plenty of data - although if you feel compelled to, check out the “competing domains” tab and you can find even more sites with even more terms that you can download into a spreadsheet.
Now, how to find helpful terms from Amazon. So when you search in Amazon, it’ll come up naturally with auto suggestions and some subcategories as you’re typing into the search box:
This tool is free, and allows you to see a myriad of the different things people are searching into Amazon and the subcategories that they have on their site (which saves you from doing the above manually for each type of product category):
This can serve as more inspiration for any more subcategories that warrant it.
For informational and consideration terms, both Ahrefs and SEMrush have a “questions” tab:
So you’ll have an indication of the sorts of things people are looking for and what types of blog posts you can write - also getting inspiration from the previous list of keywords which will literally tell you what blog posts your competitors have written and what keywords they rank for.
You can also use the Answer the Public tool previously mentioned (as well as any other tools you find, there’s no shortage of them, these are just my favourites).
Keyword Research Data & what to do with it
Once you’ve added them in Ahrefs, you can create lists for terms that you’re interested in.
You can also go through the following tabs in Ahrefs:
This is what each of these means:
All keyword ideas: any keywords that Ahrefs may deem to be relevant.
Phrase match: say you added “mountain bikes” as one of your keywords to get data on, the phrase match section will give you a whole list of keywords that contain “mountain bikes” such as “mountain bikes for sale”, “where to buy mountain bikes” etc.
Having same terms: very similar to phrase match, the new phrases will have to include both mountain and bikes but not in that order or together.
Also rank for: the top ten pages ranking for the term(s) you entered and a list of all the associated keywords they rank for.
Search Suggestions: Google’s autocomplete suggestions for the root keyword you entered.
Newly discovered: terms that have just recently been added to the Ahrefs database.
Questions: as previously stated these are popular questions that people are asking around your subject area - great for blog ideas and ways to target featured snippets.
Each of these areas will give you a bunch of terms that can add to lists or export to spreadsheets for each given topic / area of your website.
In SEMrush it looks like this:
Grouping your Keywords
Once you’ve compiled this master list of all the potential terms you’d be interested in ranking for, add them (I’d recommend doing so thematically based on the landing pages that you’re likely to create, this will just make your life a lot easier) in Ahrefs or SEMrush keyword explorers.
This will then give you a list of all of these keywords with all of the data that you need for each one. At this point, I’d thoroughly recommend cleansing all of this data of terms you definitely don’t even want to consider ranking for (say terms like “free”, “cheap”, specific locations you’re ignoring etc) so as to have a slightly smaller data set to play with. Here, organise this by type of product/particular landing page (whichever you prefer). So for example, for a bike shop, I’d have a page per type of bike, and within this all of the keywords associated to it, with different sections within that sheet for specific subcategories like handlebars etc.
This is incredibly helpful for creating website architecture or knowing how to organise your content further if your site is already built. Within these separate tabs you can also separate your keywords by intent: which one will be used for category pages with commercial intent, which one can be written as blog posts with informational intent etc. Here’s an example sheet you can copy if it looks like it may work for you.
Obviously, based on the keyword intent of these keywords you’re able to work out more or less how commercially viable they are for you. So if you’re just starting out, focus on the category pages and then work your way down to the blogs you want to produce etc. The long tail is where you’re more likely to rank as previously mentioned, but don’t forget the core terms, these are the priority when you’re just starting out.
Once you’ve added all of them into a table, you’ll see some pretty interesting metrics which you’ll want to pay attention to.
- KD: in Ahrefs, this stands for keyword difficulty and is a score out of 100 (the higher the number, the more difficult it may be to rank for a particular keyword according to the tool. This is based on the number of pages trying to rank for it and how many backlinks they each have pointing to them - the more authoritative the domains targeting this, the harder it will be for you) - so essentially you’re looking for the lowest number you can, while also looking for a decent search volume.
- Volume: this is the search volume per month in the given area that you’ve chosen (UK for example) - of course this number is more or less speculative, but it’s a helpful indication. Also do not think that if you rank number one for this term you’ll get that amount of traffic to your page - according to some studies it’s usually only around 30% of that number - and you really want to look at the clicks tab which I’ll explain shortly. The reason that the search volume and amount of traffic doesn’t necessarily correlate, is due to things like featured snippets. If you ask a question and can see the answer without having to click, why would you go onto that website? Regardless, don’t make the mistake of trying to target only keywords with extremely high volumes, as mentioned these ten to be the most competitive and thus the most difficult to rank for.
- Global: this is the global search volume for this particular keyword (if you don’t want to be tied down to a particular geographic location) - again, don’t just go for the big numbers. Also remember that you’re more likely to rank locally for terms depending on what international SEO set up you've got going on.
- Clicks: although the search volume may be a certain number, you’ll usually see a smaller number in this column, the tool is giving you an indication of how many people it thinks would actually get to your site if you were to rank in position one for this keyword - just because the volume is high, the click throughs won’t necessarily be, as mentioned. Think of featured snippets: if people already have the answer without clicking through, the likelihood of them going on to your site is pretty slim - still an incredibly valuable spot to have though.
- SF: Search Features. This tells you which search features appear on this particular results page for this term on top of the usual 10 results (featured snippets, people also ask section, Google shopping feeds, images, videos etc). Looking at this can be quite useful to know what format your content may need to take to get in a top position or what you can do to market the specific topic you’re looking to add to the site.
So at this point, you have compiled all of your lists of topical keywords, grouped them by section of the site and keyword intent.
Now it’s up to you to pick the keyword that you’d like to try to rank for based on perceived Keyword Difficulty and Volume (and whichever other metrics matter to you). Also remember the commercial value of a keyword to you - again, if you’re looking for immediate ROI, some of these may not work in your favour yet.
Remember what I said previously: you do not need to go for “exact keywords” anymore and repeat them endlessly within your copy.
Choose a core keyword that you’d optimise your title tag and page for, and a bunch of secondary LSI (latent semantic indexing: basically a fancy way of saying synonyms) keywords to also add into your copy that are related. No page ranks for just one keyword these days. Don’t believe me? Go into the search performance section of Google Search Console and look at all the search terms that your page has appeared for.
If you need help with what to do once you’ve mapped out and chosen your keywords, take a look at this blog from Moz on how to optimise your pages according to best practice on page SEO.
Google Search Console & Google Ads: a Special Mention
Although not typically regarded as keyword research tools, they can also be super handy when doing keyword research.
Google Search Console
This tool is fantastic for a number of reasons - it’s free, can show you technical issues on a site that other tools may not, and can show you the search terms that your pages have appeared for etc.
For keyword research purposes, it’s pretty handy as you can look at each page of your site in isolation and see what terms have triggered your page to appear in SERPs when people have searched for them, the click through rates to the site for that term and the approximate position that your site appears in when people search for it.
Even though you’ve already optimised your pages, looking through this data could lead you to decide on a term that actually has higher click through rates (another ranking signal to Google), or maybe you’ve been banking on a term that only currently ranks on page 3 - but there's a term teetering between pages 2 and 1 that you could optimise that page for that might be more favourable.
Another cool aspect of Search Console, in my opinion, is the fact that if you have a site search functionality on your website, you can configure Search Console to store the terms that people are looking for.
So for example, if you see that a lot of people are looking for a particular subset of items that you don’t currently have a subcategory or landing page for, you could create one to make it easier for them to find it.
Conversely, if you have one but lots of people are still searching for it, it can help you decide to make it more prominent within your website's navigation.
People may also be searching for delivery information or asking particular questions about your services - again, this could spur you to make this information more prominent or create a specific FAQ around that topic to make the use of your site easier for users.
But that’s a tool for PPC?! Yep, still useful for some SEO data though and working in silos is overrated, familiarise yourself with this tool and you’ll be a better marketer for it.
Using Google Ads keyword planner can help you determine how many people are looking for particular products or services via ads alone (and how expensive it’d be to advertise for them) and can help you decide whether some landing pages would be worth creating to then drive ads towards as well as trying to rank for them organically.
More than this, if you already have campaigns running, I find Google Ads to be incredibly useful due to the sheer amount of data that it can give you. Particularly when it comes to terms that actually convert.
When looking at the terms that you rank for (both organically and via ads), you can then see which ones are leading to actual sales. So you may decide to re-optimise a page for a term that you know has a proven track record of actually bringing money to the table.
A great way to do this is through A/B testing - but if you don’t have the resource for this, try experimenting with pages that are perhaps not the number one priority, but say priority items 2 or 3, optimise them with terms that have a proven track record of bringing in sales via paid ads, and see if this works organically too.
I’d previously have said that the Search terms report was also really useful for seeing all the variations of keywords that people are searching for, again useful for producing content. Unfortunately though, the search term report is going to be removed from Google Ads - but may be one that could be reinstated in the future.
So there we have it, what keyword research is, why to do it, what types of keywords you can target, how to do the actual research and how to decide on the terms that you’ll optimise your site for.