A while back, we made a major mindset shift—not to mention a major strategy shift in our business. We started moving away from creating lots of smaller niche sites and started focusing on one bigger “authority” site.
A lot of you guys started making that change, too. Some of you, like me, were hit with the PBN penalties that have been floating around, and you now want to create sites the “right” way. Many of you also realized that the profit potential is just much, much higher with authority sites than it is with smaller sites, and, to be honest, this was our primary motivation (we’re in it to win it after all!).
However, building an authority site is different than churning out dozens of niche sites. I’m not trying to scare you off here; in fact, Spencer mentioned in a recent post, “Welcome to the Authority Site Project!” that lot of stuff you’ll be doing if you build an authority site will be exactly the same.
That said, most activities will need to be tweaked. Most of the time, at the very least, the activities will need to be scaled. And nowhere is that more true than in keyword research.
In fact, I’d wager that since we’ve started focusing on one large site, the most common question we get is: How do I do keyword research for an authority site?
So today I’m going to show you. Ready?
How is keyword research different for authority sites?
I think the best way to describe keyword research for authority sites v.s. niche sites is that it’s both exactly the same and totally different.
It’s exactly the same because you’re going to be looking for all of the same data points (most of the time). But it’s different because you have to have a much more robust content strategy, and you’ll have to use a few more tools instead of just slapping some seed keywords into Long Tail Pro, grabbing the first 15 decent keywords you see, and writing articles around them.
In other words, here’s what you’re probably going to need to change when doing keyword research for an authority site:
- You’ll need many, many more keywords. Before we ever started writing for our authority site, we had nearly 1,000 keywords. You should at least have 100.
- You’ll have to have a much, much deeper understanding of your competitor’s keyword research and content strategies. And you’ll probably end up appropriating a lot of it.
- A few bigger keywords. With a larger site, in the long term, you’ll be able to go after a few big targets. You’ll want to identify those targets early and write the articles as part of your launch, so they can have a year or two to age.
- Content strategy. You’ll need to drastically expand your content strategy to incorporate different categories, types of content, linkable assets and social content. You’ll need to keep this in mind while researching, and your keywords and content strategy should be shaping each other.
- Different tools. As much of a Long Tail Pro fanboy as I am, it’s not a Swiss army knife. You’ll need to combine Long Tail Pro with some other tools if you want to do truly authoritative keyword research. Mostly, we’ll be using SEM Rush.
The Basic Strategy
This is my basic strategy for finding 100+ keywords for an authority site. And I mean really basic. There's obviously a lot that goes into keyword research at this level, but this should give you a rough idea. I really hope this section isn't too boring, since a lot of this stuff is going to be rehashing a few of the keyword research techniques you already know. So, as much as I’m able, I’m going to avoid that. Here goes.
1. Draft rough categories for your site.
Before you start researching, you’ll want to draft some rough categories for your authority site. The number of categories you’ll have will likely be a derivative of how big your market is. Our market happens to be huge, so we only have two main categories (for money articles, anyway). In fact, we started with three “money” categories, but we had to trim it down because the first two were just yielding too many keywords.
If, say, you want to create an authority site about dogs, you might have categories on training, breeds, toys and veterinary care. Or whatever. You get the idea.
If you’re having trouble coming up with different categories, it may be an indication that you need to think a bit broader. For example, if your idea is to create a site around Smith Corona typewriters, you might have trouble coming up with a bunch of sub-categories. In that case, you could expand your site to cover all vintage typewriters and include categories on typewriter brands, typewriter repair, typewriter parts and typing technique.
I also want to note here that your categories might change as you dig into your keyword research and see what people are actually searching for, ranking for, and making money off of. In fact, it almost certainly will. Our authority site is structured totally different than I thought it would be.
These categories will be the beginning of your content strategy (which I’ll probably cover in another blog post).
And, listen: they don’t have to be super tight. They just have to roughly make sense. Here’s an example from Field & Stream, who has categories on hunting, fishing, survival, guns & gear.
If you want to see a successful site that uses categories that make even less sense, look at this old school site, which has categories for guns, motorcycles, military history, fishing, and astronomy. Oh, and SEM Reports that this site gets a few hundred thousand organic visits per day.
To be clear, I think your categories should make a lot more sense than that. I just wanted to illustrate that your categories won’t make or break your success, so you shouldn’t be afraid to cast your net a little wider than you think.
2. Get a first batch of keywords from Long Tail Pro.
I’m not going to dive into this too much. We’ve covered Long Tail Pro keyword research in detail a bunch in the past, so if you’re curious about that, feel free to check out a few of our old posts:
- How to Perform Keyword Research: NSP 2, Coaching Call 2
- Good and Bad Examples of Low Competition Keywords: Niche Site Project 2 Update!
- How to Analyze the Google Competition for 5 Example Keywords: Coaching Call 3 for NSP 2!
- 9 Common Mistakes to Avoid for SEO and Niche Sites
- Long Tail Platinum Webinar Re-play
I do want to add, however, that you’ll want to adjust your data thresholds here. By that, I mean that if you’re going to build a large site, it’s much more okay to go for keywords with higher competition or lower search volume. Of course, you want to find as many great keywords as you can, but you can give yourself a little more leeway with a big site.
To illustrate, if I was building a laser-focused, 15-page niche site, like we used to do in the old days, I’d try to find keywords that hit these minimum metrics:
- Local monthly search volume (LMS): 200-800
- Keyword competitiveness (KC): 30 or below
- CPC: $0.50
- Advertiser competition: High
- One primary keyword with: KC15-30, 4000+ LMS, etc.
I’d also be generally checking to make sure there weren’t too many root domains or exact-match titles in the SERPs, and I’d probably shy away from keywords that showed a lot of high-PA pages or a lot of old pages.
With an authority site, you can usually be a lot more lenient because (1) you’re going to be going after a lot more keywords, so you’ll snag a much higher volume of “accidental” long-tails, and (2) your site’s going to have a lot more authority, so you’ll be much more likely to rank for bigger keywords.
Here are the metrics I look for in keywords for an authority site:
- LMS: Anything over 100
- KC: Anything under 40
And that’s it! Of course, when I sit down to actually hammer out my content strategy and editorial calendar, you can bet I’ll be prioritizing the best keywords and writing those first. However, you shouldn’t be scared of slightly more difficult keywords. Your site should be able to handle it in the long run.
As for the number of keywords you should be looking for, just get as many as you can based on whatever search modifiers (e.g. “Best [X],” “Where to buy [X]”) work for your market. I’d wage most sites can easily find a few hundred keywords with Long Tail Pro alone.
3. Combine SEM Rush with Long Tail Pro to find keywords that are working well for your competition.
This is probably the single most important keyword research technique in building authority sites. Here’s why.
SEM Rush is a tool that allows you to access a bunch of data on virtually any website. You can see paid traffic, organic traffic, backlinks, and a whole host of other stuff, including… the keywords they rank for! Currently, SEM Rush is the only tool (that I know of) that can do this.
And it’s very, very valuable.
Why? Well, when you set out the build an authority site, you’re not just throwing up some content and hoping to attract some Google traffic. You are trying to be a player in a market. And if you’re going to be a player in any market, the first and most valuable step is to understand the competition.
And that’s even more important with keyword research. Why? Because if you understand your competitions keywords and content strategy, you’ll have a never-ending supply of keywords and content ideas that you know are already making money for someone else.
Looking at your competition’s keywords can also sometimes be more accurate that looking at the data from Long Tail Pro only, since some keywords that might look hard might actually not be too difficult when you really start slugging it out in the SERPs. And some of those can be pretty profitable.
If you outline good categories, find a good batch of initial keywords in Long Tail Pro, and then combine SEM Rush with Long Tail Pro to find your competition’s profitable keywords, it should be relatively easy to come up with 500+ keywords for your authority site and organize them according to their projected profitability.
How to use SEM Rush & Long Tail Pro to siphon your competition’s best keywords
Alright, folks. Let’s dive into this amazing keyword research tool combo, which, if you wield it correctly, is basically like having a keyword research super power. Of course, if you’re tired of reading, you can just watch the video below.
Here’s what you do.
1. Find a few “seed” competitors.
The first thing you’ll want to do is find a few “seed” competitors, since you have to plug something into SEM Rush to get any use out of it.
There are a lot of ways to find competitors, and, ideally, you’ll know your niche well enough to just rattle a few off the top of your head. If you don’t know, here’s one way of finding them.
Usually, you’ll want to look for about 3-5 medium-sized competitors and 3-5 large competitors.
To find medium-sized competitors, take some seed keyword that blogs in your niche would be likely to rank for and type it into google (it usually doesn’t even have to be that well-researched). Turn on MozBar. Scroll through the results and look for any blog that has a domain authority (DA) between 40 and 50. Open five or six of them. Then, look for a few sites that have really high DA (over 60), and open them.
In this example, I used the seed keyword “best hunting rifle.” I have no idea how competitive that keyword is; I just figured hunting blogs might want to rank for it.
P.S. If you’re wondering why I’m using hunting rifles, it’s because you can’t buy them on Amazon! Hopefully, I’ll avoid the inevitable tsunami of enterprising Niche Pursuits readers “leveraging” my keyword research for their benefit!
You’ll want to look for sites that have blogs and have a lot of content. You’re going to be looking for keywords, after all. So bigger is better.
However, you want to stay away from blogs that are going to be ranking for a lot of eCommerce keywords, so, as a general rule, steer clear of ecommerce stores. I’ll sometimes use an eCommerce store as a seed competitor if it has a very large blog; you just want to be sure you’re not skewing your own results by looking at eCommerce pages.
2. Start plugging those sites into SEM Rush to find more competitors.
Now that you have a few seed competitors, you can plug them into SEM Rush to find even more competitors. Really, the competitor maps are one of my favorite features of SEM Rush. If you have a market and a few seed competitors, it does basically all of the heavy lifting for you.
Check out this example. Here, I plugged in American Hunter, a medium-to-large-sized blog with a DA of 43 and about 15,000 visits/day.
To find their competitors, I first made sure I clicked “Overview” on the left-hand column.
And then I scrolled down to the bottom, where you’ll find a list of the site’s main competitors and the competition map.
How cool is that? I love, love, love this feature in SEM Rush. It just makes it so easy to find a really robust list of competitors. You’ll also notice that in the competitor map, you can see the relative sizes of the competitors according to how much traffic they have, which is super useful, since, if you’re having trouble finding keywords, you’ll want to know which blogs are bigger (and will thus be ranking for more keywords).
Here’s what you want to end up with: a list of five medium sized competitors and a few large competitors. However, and this is really important, you’ll want to start with the medium-sized folks first. Why? Because you'll hopefully be able to achieve a similar authority as the medium competitors, so you'll have about the same shot of ranking for those keywords. Big players rank for tougher keywords easier, so you'll want to keep them in your back pocket until you have more authority.
Ideally, the competitors you find will be ranking for some different keywords, but they’ll have some overlap, too (you can see the overlap in the main competitors section under “Common Keywords”; see the screenshot above). This is a good sign, since you want to be sure these sites really are succeeding in the same market, but you want to maximize your potential keyword list.
When you have a list of competitors, you can go ahead and start sifting through their keywords!
3. Start digging through your competition’s keywords!
To me, this is the fun part. In SEM Rush, you’ll be able to see a huge list of all the keywords your competitor is ranking for. Even cooler, you’ll be able to see which keywords are bringing them the most traffic!
And that is incredibly useful, since you’ll almost certainly see that some of the keywords they’re ranking “poorly” for will still be generating great traffic. Those are the ones you may have passed on in Long Tail Pro because they looked too tough but are actually pretty profitable.
Here’s how you do it.
First, click on “Organic Research” in the left sidebar. Then, click on “Positions.” This will show you a list of all the keywords.
This is what you'll see…
There are a few things to note here. First, with a site of this size (and it isn’t even a huge site, really), you probably get thousands of keywords. Here, there are 3,822 keywords you could analyze. You’ll almost never need to go through all of them. The point is that finding 100 keywords should seem a lot easier about now!
However, I also understand that looking at that many keywords can seem daunting. Don’ sweat it. It’s typically pretty easy to sort out the good from the bad.
Here’s what I look for:
Keywords with good metrics in Long Tail Pro. If a site is ranking decently for a keyword, pop it into the “Competition Analysis” section of Long Tail Pro and take a look at the detailed data for that keyword. Remember, you can be a lot more lenient with keywords for an authority site, so you mostly just want to check to see if the KC looks good and there’s not a ton of eCommerce stores in the results. If you don’t want to do this with every keyword, since that is extremely time consuming, just focus on the keywords your competitor is ranking very well for (in the top three or so).
Any keyword they are ranking #1 for (especially for small-to-medium sites). If a site is a smaller (has a DA you could achieve yourself in a year’s time), and they are ranking #1 for a keyword, it’s probably a good keyword to go for. I still usually pop these into Long Tail Pro just to be prudent.
[TOP SECRET: This my best keyword research secret] Any keyword they’re NOT ranking well for that is still bringing in good traffic. By default, SEM Rush sorts keywords by % of traffic that keyword is bringing in. And this is where you can find some real gems. If you see a keyword that your competitor is ranking, like, #18 for, and it’s still bringing in a significant portion of their traffic, it’s usually a great keyword. These are often keywords that look super, super competitive in Long Tail Pro and have extremely high search volume.
However, ranking on p.2 for these keywords usually isn’t too tough, and snagging 2.5% of a 40,000-search keyword is the same as ranking #1 for a 1,000-search keyword. These are typically the keywords you should use for bigger, tastier targets. This is what these keywords typically look like:
- Kind of a weird keyword
- Ranking around p.2
- Major search volume (at least 10,000 LMS)
- Significant traffic (0.75% of the total traffic or more)
For these keywords, try to evaluate the competitiveness of the page on the SERPs your competitor is appearing on (p.2, p.3, etc.). Currently, no keyword research tool does that, but an easy way to get a good idea is to just find the average page authority (PA) of every result on that page. Of course, if you're still a bit scared of a big keyword, you can always look at the title tags, site ages, juice links, etc.–same as normal.
I actually stumbled on this technique by accident. With my first site, aPennyShaved from Niche Site Project 2, I wrote tons of articles on all kinds of stuff. By best article, though–and this happened purely by accident–was an article titled “Cool Beard Styles Guide.” I ended up ranking for the keyword “beard styles,”… but get this: I wasn't even on the first page of Google! I was ranking #17 or something, but that particular keyword has a search volume of 40,500. It ended up producing the most traffic of any article on my site (about 3,000 visits per month), including my super-link-built ones!
Here’s an example of one of these keywords:
Finally, look for pages ranking decently with poor or mediocre content and/or few external links. If you’re on the fence about a keyword, look at the page that is ranking for that keyword. How’s it look? If there’s a boatload of great content, you may want to pass. However, if it’s on a weaker page and it’s still ranking well, you can probably beat it with simple on-page SEO. Here’s an example.
I suspected this keyword might have weak content. How much can you really write about beaver meat?
And it turns out I was right…
However, not all keywords you find are going to be winners.
Here’s what you should avoid:
- Big sites ranking for big keywords. You’re not authoritative yet. So, while you should be looking for those big keywords that are still bringing in traffic, you should typically use that technique for medium-sized sites only.
- Big sites ranking #1 for keywords that still look tough in LTP. Those keywords in the #1 position can be very alluring, but you want to be extra careful if you’re looking at a big site. Very large, very authoritative sites can rank #1 for much more competitive keywords. So, make sure you double-check every single keyword from a big site in Long Tail Pro. You may even want to look at a few more of the metrics instead of just KC and LMS.
A few notes about the TYPE of keywords you should go for…
If you want a serious throwback, check out Spencer's first SEM Rush video. I think this video is from 1960. You can see that a lot has changed. One of the things Spencer mentioned in that video is that when you're checking out your competition's keywords, you should be looking mostly at the more commercial keywords–the keywords that are going to attract buyers and generate revenue.
Nowadays, though, I prefer to look at all types of keywords. Why? Because the reality is that true authority sites don't just write money content. They write for a real, human audience. They write about whatever their readers want to read. They focus on their customers and creating an engaging overall experience. That's why you'll see articles about beaver meat! True authority sites do not only write product reviews. You get the idea.
Also, as I'm sure many of you know, Google has been cracking down on “thin” affiliate content, so you'll probably want to hedge your bets by creating lots of different types of content, anyway (not to mention higher-value affiliate content).
If you need even more reasons to write non-commercial articles, remember that most authority sites are going to be trying to get readers on an email list, and all traffic creates an opportunity to do that. Traffic also generates social shares and residual, natural links. Traffic is good, and it's good to diversify.
So don't be scared off by non-commercial keywords. Instead, aim to build yourself an audience.
I really want to help you guys knock your keyword research out of the park, so I also put the techniques in this blog post on video. Hope it helps!
Conclusion and your thoughts…
Using SEM Rush to find your best, most relevant competitors—and then combining it with Long Tail Pro to siphon their best keywords—is probably the most powerful keyword research technique you can employ. Using this technique, it should be fairly easy to find 100+ keywords, and you really shouldn’t have any real trouble getting around 500.
And it’s especially true for authority sites. You need lots and lots of content for an authority site, and you really have to understand your market. SEM Rush lets you do that.
I know this is a huge topic, so if you have any questions, please shout it out in the comments!