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The Ultimate Guide To Keyword Research

Several months ago, I attended a conference that featured a session with highlights from the latest version of the e-expectations report. The E-expectations report is, of course, a fantastic study done each year by Ruffalo Noel Lovitz that documents how digital engagement shapes the way prospective college students choose a college.

Well, at some point in the session, the presenter arrived at the topic of online search and search engine optimization (SEO).

And that’s when I heard the worst SEO advice I’ve ever heard.

I won’t share the advice word for word, but to paraphrase, this presenter recommended to marketers looking to boost their SEO efforts to make sure their pages ranked for misspelled branded keywords.


Understanding Modern Keyword Research

What made the comment so painful is that keyword research, as unsexy as it is, is a foundational element of SEO. Google, which owns roughly 75% of the search market, processes 3.5 billion searches per day — that’s a whopping 1.2 trillion searches per year worldwide. But capitalizing on misspelled branded keywords shouldn’t be part of your SEO strategy. Search engines, even Yahoo!, progressed beyond keyword misspellings years ago.

Search engines, like Google, automatically fix your spelling mistakes.

But if this post is about nothing but slamming bad keyword advice, I’m not delivering any value to you. So instead, let’s talk about how to actually do keyword research for SEO.

Keyword research is a blend of art and science. It’s about finding realistic yet fruitful keywords and keyphrases that will drive relevant organic search traffic to your website. That starts with understanding the various types of keywords, including branded vs non-branded keywords and short-tail vs long-tail keywords. But it also involves the evaluation of search volume and competition, as well as an educated guess of how technology — hello, voice assistants — will impact the types of keywords and phrases used by prospects in years to come.

Understanding Different Types of Keywords

Branded Keywords

Branded keywords are keywords that include the name of your college or university. For example: “Temple University” or “Colorado State Tuition.” Branded searches are, unsurprisingly, easier to rank for than non-branded searches, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore them. Instead, your strategy related to branded keywords should focus on making sure the right webpage shows up for the right branded keyword. For example, if I search for “Stonehill College Tuition” — class of ‘07 y’all — I get two competing pages. “Cost of Attendance” and “Tuition and Fees.”

One of those pages, “Tuition and Fees,” is actually a page nested under the Controller’s Office and much less helpful than “Cost of Attendance.” Making sure the right page shows up as the primary search result can save your prospective students a lot of frustration.

Non-Branded Keywords

Non-branded keywords, as you can probably guess, are keyphrases that don’t include your brand name or a variation of your brand name (like misspellings) in them. For example, “top ranked nursing programs” or “best state schools in Florida.” Ranking for non-branded keywords is much harder than branded keywords, since search engines will pull results to these queries from a much wider range of sites, but they absolutely need to be on your radar.

Short-Tail Keywords

Short-tail keywords are 1-2 word phrases, like “college” or “FAFSA.” These keywords can seem appealing because they receive thousands of searches per month, but ranking or trying to rank for these keywords can be challenging and oftentimes not worth the effort. That’s because short-tail keywords have high competition levels and are typically used by prospective students who are educating themselves and less ready to convert on your website.

Long-Tail Keywords

Long-tail keywords, as you may have already guessed, are keyphrases that involve 3+ words. Long-tail keywords often seem less appealing, because their search volume is much lower than their short-tail counterparts. But in reality, long-tail keywords make up around 70% of search volume.

Ranking for long-tail keywords also improves your chances to convert an anonymous internet searcher into an identifiable prospect. That’s because long-tail searches often come later in a prospect’s college search, at the point when he or she has identified what they are looking for in a school. For example, would you rather rank for the phrase, “graduate programs” or “online, asynchronous MS in Market Research program”? The answer should be clear.

The Search Demand Curve
Long-tail keywords often have low search volume, but they make up around 70% of search volume. (Image Source:


Questions aren’t exactly an independent category of keywords, but they should be considered a unique aspect of your keyword strategy. That’s especially true if your institution has a blog, which can more easily rank for question-based search queries than an alternative webpage, such as an academic program page. Questions currently only make up roughly 8% of searches, but I expect that number to climb thanks to the rise of voice assistants, which we’ll talk about in more detail later.

Ranking highly for question keyphrases is important, since questions shift in nature as a prospect advances through the student journey. For example, the questions, “where is Elon University located?”, “what is the tuition at Elon University?”, and “how do I apply to Elon University?” are likely to be used at different levels of the admissions funnel; your site should be prepared to handle those inquiries accordingly.


Local searches are searches that typically end in the phrase “near me.” As in, “ATM near me.” Local searches are huge for retail locations and small businesses, who need to capitalize on spontaneous queries that may be taking place in close proximity to their location.

But there are opportunities for higher education with local search queries as well. You don’t necessarily need to rank for “nursing programs near me.” Rather, the key to winning local searches is to make sure your location is known to Google, through an address in your global website footer or even better, by registering your institution with Google My Business.

Evaluating Keyword Opportunities

When you’re ready to search for and evaluate keywords, there are three key areas on which to focus:

  1. How popular is the keyword? (Search Volume)
  2. Do you have a realistic chance of ranking for the keyword? (Competition)
  3. Is the keyword or phrase related to your business?

Let’s assume you’re able to determine if a keyword is related to your brand strategy for the moment. That leaves us with two key criteria for determining if a keyword is right for your SEO strategy: search volume and competition.

Search Volume

It goes without saying that you don’t want to target keywords that aren’t being searched for. 15% of daily searches on Google are new, never before seen searches, which is a staggering number, but you want to focus on keywords that are being searched for regularly.

What does that number look like, exactly? While there’s no hard or fast rule here, the good people at Orbit Media break down search volume this way (adapted for higher education):

  • Your main keyphrase for your site should have thousands of searches per month. Your homepage should be optimized for the most popular, most competitive phrase, since it’s your strongest competitor with the most authority and the best chance of ranking.
  • Your interior pages, such as academic program pages, should be optimized for more specific phrases. These phrases may have hundreds of searches per month, rather than thousands.
  • If you are searching for target keywords and phrases for a blog post, the ideal search volume may be even lower, with fewer than 100 searches per month.

In some cases, it can seem as if nobody is searching for a keyword. Google often places a “–” in place of keyword search volume in these instances. Does that really mean that nobody is searching for your keyword? Not necessarily. Rather, it means that only a handful of searches are taking place for that keyword each month.

Don’t disregard keywords just because they don’t have high, or even reported search volume. If a keyword or keyphrase relates to a topic that you care about or have heard discussed by your target audience, address it clearly and thoroughly. Your audience will thank you.


Competition is the reality check to the excitement about search volume. In many respects, as search volume increases, so does competition. To fully understand the competitiveness of a keyword, however, you need to understand not just the competitive score assigned to a keyword by Google or an SEM tool, but who the competition is. In particular, you want to know the PageRank of your competition.

What is PageRank? PageRank was created by Google several years ago as a metric of domain authority. Basically, PageRank seeks to answer the question, how credible is a website? The more credible, the more often Google will send users to that domain. Google stopped making that information public years ago, so today, we use proxy metrics created by SEO companies like Moz, SEMrush, and Ahrefs.

For this particular example we’ll use domain score, which was created by SEMrush. domain score, according to SEMrush, measures the importance of a domain on a 100-point scale based on the quality and volume of links pointing back to the domain. For context, Amazon has a domain score of 79. The New York Times has a domain score of 73. Harvard University has a domain score of 66. Southern New Hampshire University has a domain score of 34.

Domain score comes into play when we evaluate keyword competitiveness because you want to know if you have a realistic chance of ranking for a keyword.

For example, let’s imagine you’re considering the keywords, “law school” and “best law schools in Pennsylvania.”

A quick glimpse at the short-tail keyword reveals that you’ll have to outrank,,,, The Atlantic, and The New York Times. That’s stiff competition! But by lengthening the keyword, your competition diminishes. As you can see in the chart below, the keyword “law school” only features one top-5 ranking domain with a domain score under 50. But for the keyword, “best law schools in Pennsylvania,” only one of the top-5 domain scores is above 50. That’s much more realistic.

KW: “Law School”KW: “best law schools in Pennsylvania”
DomainDomain ScoreDomainDomain Score


Generally, with competition, you need to check your own domain score or similar metric first before checking the competition. That’s the only way you’ll know if you have a chance at ranking for a targeted keyword.

How to Research Keywords

Once you understand the different types of keywords and how to evaluate whether or not a keyword is a good fit for your organization, it’s time to transform your insights into action by finding keywords for SEO. There are a number of keyword research tools that can help you in your search, including tools at the free, freemium, and paid levels.


Google Keyword Planner

Google Keyword Planner is the place that most marketers without a research budget turn to. That’s largely because it’s 100% free and it’s run by Google, which generally makes marketers feels pretty darn good about the data provided. There are two key things you need to know about Google Keyword Planner:

  • While the Google Keyword Planner is a part of the Google Ads suite, you don’t need to pay for ads in order to use it; you just need to sign up for an account.
  • Keyword Planner’s “competition” column only shows the competition of a keyword among advertisers in Google Ads. So you may get a false sense of security in thinking a keyword is easy to rank for, when in reality, the organic competition level may be much higher.

Google Trends

Google Trends is a free, fun, and fast way to compare the popularity of several keywords side-by-side. Google Trends is especially helpful at viewing the popularity of keywords over a long period of time, examining keyword popularity by subregion, viewing related phrases, and spotting seasonal upticks in popularity, which can be especially helpful for planning purposes. After all, higher education is very cyclical, and ranking for a particular keyword takes time. If you wait until a keyword is at peak popularity to try and rank for it, you’re going to be too late.


Soovle is a free tool that pulls top keywords as you type from a variety of sources, including Google, Yahoo!, Bing, Wikipedia,, YouTube, and Amazon. Once you’ve put in a keyword, you can toggle between sources and save your search into an exported CSV file with the click of an icon. That last feature is something you’ll likely want to take advantage of, as Soovle can quickly get overwhelming from a visual standpoint. Also, it should be noted that while Soovle is a great tool for discovering new or related keywords, you’ll need to use another mechanism for finding the search volume and competitiveness of those keywords. Of course, while these tools can help you understand search volume and competition, you don’t necessarily need them to discover related keywords. Here, again, Google can be a huge help. As you type in a keyword, Google will show a list of related keywords, which can be useful to note and stash for follow up. Even after your search, Google can help. Scroll to the bottom of the search results page and Google will show you a list of related searches. Again, these keywords can include valuable phrases you haven’t thought of before.

Google Autocomplete Keyword Research

Related Keywords Google


Freemium tools can be frustrating in that each piece of software seemingly offers a different data point for free, and every piece of software has its own proprietary algorithm for creating search volume and competition values.

Still, there’s loads of value to be found in the tools below. My advice: explore them all and find what you’re comfortable with. Then mix and match to find a process that works for you.

Moz Keyword Explorer

The Moz Keyword Explorer is easy to get started with; it only requires users to create a (free) Moz account. Once created, users can execute 10 free queries a month. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but the Moz Keyword Explorer packs a punch with each query, providing related keywords as well as a keyword’s feasibility and how much traffic you can expect to receive from Google if you crack the top-10 for results. One caveat here: you can’t pay for Moz’s keyword explorer alone; it’s part of Moz’s entire suite of tools.

Pro Tip: Check out the advanced sorting capability of related keywords, which can help you quickly sort keyword suggestions based on a variety of sources, including:

  • Questions
  • Keywords related to your keyword that have similar results pages
  • Similar queries that exclude your keyword for broader results
  • Keywords based on closely related topics
Moz Keyword Explorer


SEMrush shines in two areas:

  1. Blending insights for SEO and SEM: If you’re performing keyword research with the understanding that you’ll be backing up your SEO efforts with SEM budget, SEMrush is the place for you. From an organic research standpoint, SEMrush shows much of the same data as Moz Keyword Explorer. But SEMrush also includes information like cost-per-click (CPC), as well as sample search ads that are being run for a particular keyword. That can be gold for someone getting an SEM program off the ground.
  2. Competitor Research: If you want to see what keywords a competing school ranks for, you can plug their domain or a particular page into SEMrush and get an instant look at their top-10 organic keywords. You can also enter a particular web page from a competing school and discover the top organic keywords that the page ranks for. This can be a huge help next time a faculty member approaches you and asks why the school down the street always appears in Google when they search for their particular program or academic discipline.

SEMRush Ad Examples

SEMRush Organic Rankings

Pro Tip: On the free plan, skip the top organic keywords report by domain and go straight to the report for individual pages. Top results by domain, limited to 10 on the free plan, tend to be filled with generic keywords used by prospective students searching for the student portal. is more limited than the tools covered thus far, at least from a free perspective, but it should be in your toolkit nonetheless. is about long-tail keywords, and long-tail keywords alone. That makes it incredibly easy to use. Simply create an account, type in a base keyword, and automatically uses Google autocomplete to throw up a variety of options for you to choose from.

Why is more limited than other tools? doesn’t show competition levels or search volume, so while it’s a great source for discovering new keywords, you’ll need to use another tool to examine the feasibility of those keywords. Keywords

Pro Tip: Take advantage of’s ability to create keywords from a variety of sources. While not all sources will apply to you, some, like Google, Bing, and YouTube, will be key discovery hotbeds.

Answer the Public

Answer the Public is similar to in that its primary benefit is discovering long-tail keywords. But Answer the Public stands out in the visual way that it delivers those suggestions. Insert your core keyword into Answer the Public, and the platform will deliver a circular dendrogram chart in a variety of ways:

  • Questions: Questions include keyphrases that start with words like why, how, which, when, what, how, etc.
  • Prepositions: This includes keyphrases that start with words like with, is, near, for, can, etc.
  • Comparisons: This includes keyphrases that start with words like versus, like, or, and, etc.

But the visuals. Ohhhh, the visuals. The circular dendrogram charts are legit, y’all. While most other platforms deliver results in tables or maybe include a pie chart, Answer the Public gives you charts you’re going to want to embed in presentations and send to your boss.

Answer the Public Keyword Research Chart
Answer The Public stands out from the crowd due to their visually appealing keyword charts.

That doesn’t mean Answer the Public is perfect. Like, this platform is providing ideas only, meaning you’ll have to use another platform to discover search volume and competition. It also only gathers data from the UK for non-subscribers. I personally don’t think that’s a big deal when it comes to idea generation, but it could be a turnoff for some.

Pro Tip: Export your work. Answer the Public offers the ability to download your chart as an image and export the data as a CSV file for future use.


Ahrefs Keyword Explorer

Ahrefs Keyword Explorer, in many respects, feels very much like the freemium tools by Moz and SEMrush described earlier. So why would you pay for this tool when you could use the others for free? For readers looking to conduct their keyword research without a budget, well, you wouldn’t. You can move on to the next section.

ahrefs Keyword Explorer

But for readers who hope to substantially grow their organic website traffic through keyword research, ultimately securing valuable financial resources with which to double down, Ahrefs needs to be on your radar. The Ahrefs Keyword Explorer delivers the metrics you’d expect, like search volume, SERP results, etc. But where it really stands out is in keyword difficulty. As a backlinks-focused company, you won’t be surprised to learn that Ahrefs can tell you exactly how many backlinks you’ll likely need to crack the top-10 results for a particular keyword. That type of clarity can mean the difference between hoping to rank for a keyword and understanding when your time will be better spent focusing on a long-tail variation.

Pro Tip: If you’re unsure about taking the plunge on Ahrefs, take advantage of their $7, 7-day trial. It includes all features and tools for the plan you expect to ultimately use.

Alexa, How is Voice Search Changing Keywords?

You’ve undoubtedly seen the eye-popping numbers and predictions regarding voice search and the use of voice assistants. The most circulated, in all likelihood, is compliments of Comscore research, which predicts that by 2020, there will be 200 billion voice search queries per month and more than half of searches will come from voice search.

Of course, while the future of voice search seems impressive, you don’t need to wait until 2020 to see the impact that voice is having on search. In 2017, 20% of mobile searches were by voice, and we’ve already reached a point at which more than half of U.S. teens and 41% of adults use voice search on a daily basis.

And while higher education has adopted voice technology in an effort to improve the student experience, the move to adapt our web content for search has been slower. So, how will voice search impact how we research and target keywords and keyphrases? For starters, you’re going to want to put a greater emphasis on long-tail keywords and questions.

Why? The average query length for voice is 4.2 words, while the average query length for text is 3.2 words. This is good news, since, as we’ve demonstrated above, long-tail keywords typically possess higher intent and are less competitive.

There has also been a 61% growth in queries starting with who, what, where, and how with the rise of voice search. Today, almost 10% of voice search queries start with who, what, when, where, why, and how. The number for text queries: only 3.7%.

How can you take advantage of these queries?

One option is to build a blogging strategy around long-tail questions, crowdsourcing answers from relevant students, faculty, and administrators. If you go this route, make sure that you answer the question authoritatively; long-form content tends to rank best in Google Home searches, with the average search results sourced from a page with 2,312 words.

Too daunting? Another, quicker option, is your FAQ page.

Long despised by content strategists and marketers (guilty), FAQ pages have found new life with the rise of voice search. Today, 2.68% of voice search results are sourced from FAQ pages, as opposed to only 1.68% of text queries. Why? FAQ pages are naturally structured around conversational questions followed by short, concise answers.

FAQ Pages Voice Search
FAQ Pages are used by voice assistants much more often than they are for desktop results. (Image source:

FAQ pages are also typically exempt from image and feature bloat, which can slow down page load times. That’s a big deal, as voice search tends to prefer pages that load fast. In fact, the average voice search result page loads in 4.6 seconds (52% faster than the average page).

Of course, you can update FAQs, write new blog posts, and optimize your pages for speed, but if you don’t choose the right long-tail, conversational keywords, you’re not going to rank first for voice search. And as the great Ricky Bobby once said, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” 

Look, keywords aren’t sexy, but they remain an integral part of your SEO efforts. After all, if you don’t know what users are searching for, how do you expect them to find you?

Luckily, the process for collecting and filtering best-fit keywords for your school isn’t hard. Start with core keywords; use a suite of free and freemium tools to discover related keyphrases; then whittle down your list based on search volume and competition.

Finally,  remember that keyword research is a process, not an event. You need to be in this for the long haul. But trust the process, and you will see results. Happy hunting!


This article was originally posted on Volt.