by Benjamin Brandall (@benjbrandall) Ranking is about on-page SEO and getting backlinks but, for that to mean anything, you need to start with a solid keyword research process.

Google is excellent at determining whether or not you deserve to rank for your target keyword, so much so, that 90% of users will find exactly what they need on the first page of results. This means that, if you’re on the second page, you may as well not exist. In fact, the differences between third and eighth on the first page are staggering. Check this out:

Graph 01


That’s real data from a Process Street blog post that fell down to #8 before climbing back up to #3.

Whether it’s an export from Ahrefs or Google Keyword Planner, you’ll always have to make tough choices when you’re choosing one keyword from a huge list of possibilities. This article explains what makes a keyword stand out from the crowd by looking at it from three different angles:

  1. Volume
  2. Difficulty
  3. Intent

Volume: how many people search for this term every month?

Volume data is gathered by Google from counting how many times every month someone searches for a keyword. While it’s only one piece of the puzzle, if a keyword doesn’t have significant volume, it’s not worth going after.

Here’s volume data displayed in Google Keyword Planner:

Graph 02

Whether or not the volume is significant is something we can work out in a moment, but think of it this way:

If you rank #1 for a keyword that gets 1000 searches per month, you’re driving around 300 people directly to your site every month. The higher the volume of the keyword you rank for, the more traffic you scoop up.

Sounds easy. You just go after high volume keywords, say… the ones with a few hundred thousand searches every month, and then you get a ton of traffic, right? Very rarely. This tactic overlooks two key puzzle pieces.

Let’s dive into difficulty next.

Difficulty: how many other pages are going after this keyword, and how strong are they?

Keyword difficulty — a metric available with Moz or Ahrefs — tells you how hard it would be to rank for a keyword. It looks at the page and domain authority, and returns a number between 1 and 100.

Keywords with 100 difficulty are dominated by pages from domains with extremely high numbers of backlinks, or inherent domain authority such as .gov or .edu. They’re often money keywords, which is why everyone wants them. Examples include project management tools (KD: 98) and brand names such as nike usa official site (KD: 97).

Keywords with easy difficulty are the low-hanging fruit of the SEO world. When you Google them, you’ll see the results are patchy, don’t have many backlinks and are from low-authority domains. It’s way easier to check this when you have something such as SEO Quake or Mozbar installed:

Graph 03

So, if I wanted to rank for excel checklist, I may see straight away I have a good chance of knocking #8 off if I have anything but a minimal domain authority and more than one backlink.

Also notice that the result doesn’t even contain the keyword. That’s a strong indication that Google is scrambling to rank relevant content because it doesn’t have enough that match the keyword.

To check keyword difficulty in bulk, use something such as Moz’s keyword difficulty tool or Ahrefs’ keyword explorer.

Volume vs difficulty

It’s simple. Great keywords have a high volume and a low difficulty. With a big-enough export, you can quickly sort high-volume/low-difficulty keywords using a database tool such as Airtable or a spreadsheet tool such as Google Sheets or Excel.

You’ll want to apply two sorts:

  • Volume: high to low
  • Difficulty: low to high

In Excel, you can do that like this:

Graph 04

When you’re done sorting, you’ll notice some extremely low difficulty keywords with great volume, like these, highlighted in green. Behold the hidden gems:

Graph 05

Don’t settle on a keyword just yet. There’s still one more thing to examine.

Intent: if someone is searching this keyword, will they care about my page?

There’s no solid metric for intent; it’s more of a common-sense thing. I’ll give you an example:

If someone searches what is customer success, and finds your sales page trying to sell them customer success software, they won’t be satisfied. They don’t know what it is, so why would they want software for it? You’ve just wasted someone’s time and increased your bounce rate, negatively impacting your SEO.

If, however, you target that keyword with a definition of customer success, they’re going to find your resource helpful. They’ll read all of it, share it and link back to it, and that tells Google it did a good job placing your page high up.

It’s not always clear what a searcher’s intent is, but you can look at it this way:

On the one hand, a searcher typing workflow automation is probably looking for an explanation of what that is. They want examples, explanations and generally to find out more. They might have just heard it somewhere and they’re curious. It has a volume of 590, and a KD of 52.

On the other hand, if someone is looking for workflow automation software, they have a much higher intent. They know what it is and why they want it, and they’re looking right now to get it. That keyword has a volume of 210 but a higher KD of 69 because of the intent.

A good way to figure out intent is just to Google the keyword. Do you see pages similar to yours? If not, people searching that keyword don’t match the intent of your page.

Volume vs difficulty vs intent: the golden ratio

As you might have gathered by now, figuring out the best keyword is a balancing act. Sometimes you can’t get a high-volume keyword without it being dominated by entrenched, high-authority pages. Other times, you might find an easy keyword but the volume is poor and the intent doesn’t match your page.

As I’ve said, intent is something you look at only when you’ve narrowed your options down considerably because it’s done on a bit-by-bit basis.

Graph 06

Now you have that part figured out, there probably won’t be too many keywords left over. Take some time to think about the intent of the searcher using that keyword before you choose to pour time and money into ranking for it.


Benjamin BrandallBenjamin Brandall (@benjbrandall) is a British writer and the head of content marketing at workflow automator Process Street, where he writes on productivity, SaaS, startups and design. In his spare time, he maintains a personal blog about writing and UX.

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