Learning Hub Blog Post

Keywords 101: A Beginners Guide

By Manick Bhan
Mar 28, 2019

Keyword can be a bit of a misnomer in SEO. In SEO keyword really means search term. Search terms CAN be individual words (i.e. car), but are often phrases (i.e. used car). The longer the search term, the more specific a user’s search tends to be.

For example, used toyota camry is a much more specific search than used car. Specific searches usually indicate clearer search intent. Search intent refers to a user’s goal when they perform a search – the more specific a search, the closer a user is to completing their goal.

Search Intent

Let’s take a look at purchase-oriented search intent, a typical purchase decision process goes as follows:

  • Establish Need
  • Research Options
  • Evaluate Options
  • Make Purchase

Users will perform searches at each stage in this decision process, let’s use an example to look at how a user’s searches can reflect this process.

Micaela has just been hired at a new job and needs to start commuting to work. Let’s see how her searches map to the purchase decision process.

Establish Need
(Keywords are often questions, or broad open-ended searches)

What is the best way to get from Kearny to Newark?

Is Newark train station safe?

Parking in Newark

Research Options
(Keywords are information gathering, but more targeted)

Used cars

Best Used Car Models

Cheapest Used Car Models

Evaluate Options
(Keywords get more specific, compare options, or add criteria)

Used toyota vs. used honda

Used toyota camry under $2,000

Used toyota camry LE

Make Purchase
(Keyword is super specific, or purchase-oriented)

2003 toyota camry LE

2003 toyota camry LE kearny nj


In this example, Micaela realized she needed a car to get to work, looked into options for a used car, got more specific with brands and budget, and finally narrowed in on a specific model.

As a user gets closer to the point of purchase, their searches become more specific because they have a better idea of exactly what they want.

Specific searches tend to be LONGER (because they include more criteria), we call these more specific search phrases long-tailed keywords.

More specific searches tend to indicate greater search intent. Section vocabulary: Search Intent, Search Term, Keyword, Long-Tailed Keyword

Using Keywords

When a user performs a search relevant to your business, we want that user to see your website listed in the search results. It doesn’t matter if you have the best products/services on the planet if a potential customer can’t find you.

There are two ways to use keywords to show up in searches:

  • Buy Search Ads (Google Ads, Bing Ads)
  • Optimize for Organic Search

Method for Using Keywords #1: Buying Search Ads

You can show up in the search results for various keywords by creating search ads that will display whenever a user searches for the keywords you’ve selected.

After you create an ad or ad campaign, the platform you are using (ex: Google Ads) will ask you to enter your target keywords. Pro tip: if you’re just getting started with ads, less is more when it comes to keyword targeting, it’s best to start with just a handful of high-value terms.

Method for Using Keywords #2: Optimize for Organic Search

The other way to show up in the search results for a keyword, is to optimize your site for that keyword. This is a two part approach: you first have to make sure your site has content relevant to that keyword, and then second you have to get some other sites linking back to yours referencing that content.

Buying ads costs direct money (you pay per click), and optimizing for organic search costs indirect money (time and effort to create content and optimize pages). So we want to narrow down our focus to just the keywords that are likely to provide your business the most value.

Remember: Ads can be quick wins, but will cost you more over time, they’re like renting space in the search results where SEO investments may take slightly more time, but you’re building search equity and earning your spot more permanently.


Ads are like RENTING space in the search results where SEO improvements are building you search EQUITY.

Keyword Metrics

Let’s put search intent aside for a moment, and look at the other ways we can establish which keywords are good targets for your business. Let’s use some of the searches our Micaela did while looking for a car as examples.

These are metrics we can pull via the keyword explorer on Ahrefs.com. Let’s walk through each of these and what they mean.

Example Keyword Metrics from Ahrefs


Keyword Difficulty (KD)

This is a metric that measures how difficult it is to show up in the search results for this term with SEO. The scale goes from 1-100 with 100 being incredibly difficult.

What does Keyword Difficulty tell me?

It basically tells you how much organic competition you’ll have for this term – how many other businesses have already optimized their site(s) for the keyword.

How do I use this info?

Use it as part of your decision for whether or not you’re going to target the keyword with organic optimization.

  • Terms with a keyword difficulty of 35 or less are usually relatively easy to move with onsite and offsite SEO improvements.
  • Terms with a keyword difficulty of 60 or more are going to take a LOT of SEO investment if you want your site to show up on the first page of search results.

If the KD is really high, but the CPC is really low, you may be better off buying ads than trying to rank organically. Remember though, CPC is typically an indication of how much buying intent there is for the keyword, so before bidding on a keyword with low CPC make sure it’s one that you believe will result in conversions on your site.

Example from Micaela’s Searches

The keyword used cars has a KD of 58, but a CPC of only $2.00. It would take tens of thousands of dollars to get a new site ranking on the first page of the search results for used cars. In this instance if you really wanted to target the term, you’d probably be better off targeting the term with CPC*.

*LinkGraph’s formal recommendation would actually be to select a different term to target altogether, one with higher search intent rather than spending money here on CPC.


Cost Per Click (CPC)

This is literally how much you’ll pay per click for search ads targeting this keyword.

What does CPC tell me?

A high CPC tells you that other businesses think searches using this keyword will result in a sale. The higher the CPC, the more valuable the sale is to other businesses.

How do I use this info?

A term that has low keyword difficulty but high CPC is a good candidate for organic optimization.

Example from Micaela’s Searches

The keyword used toyota camry le has a very low keyword difficulty, but the highest CPC on this list. You could probably optimize a single webpage, and do some light offsite SEO work and be ranking on the first page of search results for this term within a month or so. That might be more cost effective than paying $5 per click, especially over time.


Search Volume

This tells you how many users are performing searches with that term each month.

What does search volume tell me?

A high search volume tells you that if you rank on the first page of the search results for the keyword, you are likely to get a lot of users hitting your site.

How do I use this info?

If you’re looking at two keywords, they have similar keyword difficulties, similar CPCs, similar search intent, but one has higher search volume – that’s the one you should target with organic search optimizations (i.e. improving your onsite content to target that term).

Example from Micaela’s Searches

2003 toyota camry LE and used toyota camry le are both very low difficulty keywords, but one has 2,000 searches a month and the other has only 50.

If you’re in the first position in the search results you will capture roughly 33% of the traffic for that organic search. For 2003 toyota camry le that translates into 660 new users, for used toyota camry le that translates into roughly 16 users. Which term would you want to invest in given the potential return?


The VALUE of a keyword is the number of converting users that keyword can draw into your site. The number of users is measured by search volume, conversion likelihood is measured by CPC and search intent.

Remember – don’t get lost in the data! A keyword could have great volume, high CPC, low difficulty, and STILL be a bad choice for your specific business if the term has nothing to do with what you sell or offer.


High-value keywords are ones that bring CONVERTING users to your site.

Actionable Take-Aways

Rule #1: Always try to target keywords that are likely to bring users to your site who convert.

Indicators that a keyword is likely to convert:

  • High CPC
  • Very specific (long-tailed)
  • Aligns with your products/services
  • Clear search intent
  • You’ve seen the term convert for your site already (through your Google Analytics, Google Ads, or Google Search console)


Rule #2: Try to pick keywords that will pull the MOST converting users into your site.

500 conversions is better than 50 conversions (remember best case scenario, in position 1 of the search results you’re only capturing 33% of the traffic). You can check the volume of keywords using our tool here.

Rule #3: Always do your keyword research before you start buying ads or investing in organic optimizations.

You can use keyword research tools like google keywords planner, Ahrefs keyword explorer, moz keyword explorer, or LinkGraph’s Top Keywords tool.

Rule #4: Spend wisely – know when to invest in SEO improvements vs. paid ads.

Invest in SEO Improvements in the following scenarios:

Low-Hanging Fruit
Quick win.

  • CPC is high
  • Search volume is high
  • Keyword difficulty is low
  • Search intent is clear

Precision Strikes
Quick win.

  • CPC is very high
  • Search intent is clear
  • Keyword difficulty is low
  • Search volume is low

High Return Investments

These are terms that will take you longer to rank for, but will have a huge impact on your business.

  • CPC is High
  • Search Intent is Very Clear
  • Keyword difficulty is Medium or High
  • Search volume is high


Consider buying Ads in the following scenarios:

Work Smarter Not Harder**

  • Keyword difficulty is high
  • CPC is low
  • Search Intent is Clear
  • Note: volume doesn’t matter as much with PPC ads

While We Wait

  • CPC is High
  • Search Intent is Very Clear
  • Keyword difficulty is Medium or High
  • Search volume is high
  • You’ve decided to make an SEO investment in the term, but it’s going to be a while before you’re ranking on the first page of the search results.


Linkgraph’s Top Keywords Tool

If you’re interested in learning more about the best keywords to target for your site, sign up for a free account and check out our Top Keywords tool which will show you all your organic keyword metrics in one place, and even display the best keyword opportunities for your domain (DO – Domain Opportunity Score).


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