Whether you love it or hate it, good keyword research is one of the first and most important steps in overall optimization to ensure your success online. You need refined keyword lists whether you manage SEO and content for your sites or your clients’ sites, and you need even larger keyword lists for PPC campaigns, such as AdWords (your success may be hidden in the thousands of long-tail keywords) and link-building campaigns.
The list below presents you with various options for keyword research. Many of the tools are completely or partially free, but there are also some powerful paid services.
Some sources will provide you only with keywords, with no further statistics – they will mainly help you during brainstorming and mapping out your niche.
Other tools provide detailed (sometimes very detailed) information about individual keywords and phrases – search counts, competition, number of advertisers, prices per click, trends (some keywords are very seasonal), allowing you to target your niche precisely.
Recommended keyword research tools – summary
If you’re on a zero budget:
If you can spend money on keyword research:
Below, you will find my detailed explanation of strengths and weaknesses of each tool. If you’re looking for a perfect tool-set, I guess it’s worth reading.
1. Google Keyword Tool (free)
This is a tool no. 1 for many site owners, and for a good reason. First of all, it’s free. You cannot beat that. Secondly, data comes from the best source possible – Google itself. At least in theory, it should make it more reliable than any other source.
Without an account, you can get up to 100 related keywords and phrases for any root keyword. Results can be generated either in a strict mode, where your root keyword is always included in any derivative keyword phrase, or GKT can generate additional keywords it deems related.
Google reports global and local search counts and shows strength of AdWords competition.
You can easily export all or some results and filter them by adding negative or positive keywords. You can also compare search counts for broad match, phrase match and exact match.
If you have a Google AdWords account, the tool becomes even more usable, as you can generate up to 800 keywords in one run, an eightfold increase over the default option for non-Adwords users.
However, not all is rosy.
GKT will quite often miss important keywords, even though it apparently knows about them. I’ve confirmed it many times, using a simple experiment. I get a root keyword and run it through GKT and some competing keyword services. I almost always find high volume keywords which other services report, while Google does not mention them. And yet, when I input them directly into GTK, it does indeed shows respective search counts for those keywords.
GKT also sometimes reports phrases in awkward word order. It will for example show “car maintanance cheap” and a respectable search volume, whether in reality the search count is valid for “cheap car maintenance”. It is especially important if you’re looking for keywords to register exact match domains.
All in all, GKT is a very important tool in our arsenal.
2. WordStream (free and paid plans)
I have mixed feelings about this service.
On the one hand, the free tools it offers are very useful. There is a a niche finder where you enter a general keyword and the tool finds several relevant subniches. After you click on any subniche, you will get a long list of keywords related to each subniche. Frankly, a quite fantastic way to quickly test any large niche for available subniches suitable for a mini-authority site or an autoblog.
There is also a keyword grouper – similar in a way to niche finder, but here you can paste your own list of keywords from any source, up to 10,000 per one run, and the tool will automatically discover any logical subniches in your list and organize your keywords accordingly – a great organizational aid.
And now the best part – with the free keyword tool you can generate up to 10,000 keywords per each seed keyword, and have the list emailed to you. This is pretty incredible, compared to the 100 limit for free version of WordTracker or the Google Keyword Tool (without an AdWords accounts).
I got so excited about WordStream that I’ve signed up for a trial of their paid plan. And here’s where I was left disappointed. At first, it looks really professional – there’s even a setup wizard which offers you to integrate WordStream directly with your analytics to immediately generate some keyword ideas, there is a Firefox plugin optimized for several CMS platforms, etc. However, I skipped through all those steps initially, to get to the research engine itself. And here’s the problem – the entire application is written in Flash, and it’s terribly slow to use (mind you, I’m on a Core i7 laptop with 8GB RAM). In fact, it was so unbearably slow that I had no desire to use it any more.
All in all, the free tools are very exciting. As for the paid service, it may be interesting, but I need a tool which can work as quickly as I do. This is not the case with WordStream.
Paid plans for WordStream SEO start from $49 per month, up to $399 per month, depending on keyword limits. There are also special plans for PPC users which are more expensive.
3. Keyword Country (free and paid plan)
Keyword Country is mostly a paid service with a rather limited free keyword tool. If you’re looking for a free keyword, you should rather consider Google Keyword Tool or WordStream as more powerful options.
However, when it comes to paid offers, Keyword Country strikes me as one of the most attractive and versatile options around.
Unlike the other services listed here, you actually have to download a desktop application to access the Keyword Country database. However, as I discovered to my surprise, Keyword Country has actually evolved into a multi-functional powerhouse and as such, merits a separate review. It consists of several modules, and keyword research is only one of them, although a very good one. I like it for a number of reasons – it can combine keywords from different sources (its own database, Google, Yahoo etc.) in one list, it has a very nice keyword grouping mechanism, it can also discover related and LSI keywords or misspellings.
However, Keyword Country is much more than that. It has modules to analyze SEO competition, to submit articles, to submit websites to directories, find blogs and forums to comment on, discover Twitter “celebrities” in your niche and many more. I will provide a full overview and a review in a few days in a separate article.
However, in my opinion, at $49 per month or $99 per three months, it is a steal.
4. Spyfu (free and paid plan)
SpyFu is another long-standing player among paid services with some limited free functionality. Without a subscription, its best use is to verify whether there are advertisers for your selected keyword, and what the average CPC rates are. It is a useful litmus test to quickly eliminate niches without any money changing hands.
However, with a subscription, SpyFu is a very powerful tool that I’ve used for some months now. A full review is pending, but let me just walk you through some of the highlights.
First of all, it allows for many ingenious uses which many other keyword services would charge thousands of dollars for. For example, I can download thousands of keywords (close to one hundred thousands in many cases) driving traffic to any domain I choose, including some of largest web properties. This in itself presents a fantastic opportunity for any niche researchers. Take any popular website, download its keywords and drill down until you find a slice for yourself. With search volume and CPC prices for any keyword in the list, you’ve got a goldmine of data.
Another fantastic way to build keyword lists is by spying on keywords that top competitors in a niche are bidding on. Take any root keyword, find top competitors and download their lists of keywords in a few clicks. This way, I can create targeted lists of thousands of keywords in a few minutes.
Even better, Spyfu tracks advertising activity over time for each keyword. You can immediately spot winners (keywords where advertisers remain active month after month) and losers (where advertisers stop their campaigns after a while).
Spyfu is $79 per month.
5. SEMRush (free and paid plan)
SEMRush seems to be one of the most popular option today among both SEOs and SEMs. After using the service for a while, I understand why - it combines a well balanced set of features, good keyword database and a reasonable pricing strategy.
People behind SEMRush are responsible for one of the most popular SEO extensions for FireFox - SeoQuake - used by thousands of internet marketers, including yours truly. This fact only reinforces their qualifications to run a keyword research service.
Without a paid subscription, SEMRush is of limited use – you can get no more than 10 results per query, and the number of queries is limited to 10 per day. If you’re looking for keyword research without spending any money, there are much better options.
With a subscription, it’s a different matter. SEMRush can be used to run a typical keyword research (enter seed keyword, get a list of related keywords), but also to spy on competitors and their rankings, both organic and PPC. You can enter any domain and discover its keywords – both paid and organic. Or you can enter your own domain and discover the top competitors – other domains with the most keyword overlap with you own website. SEMRush provides search volume data, strength of AdWords competition and CPC rates, so it can be used for virtually any type of research.
The Pro subscription is offered at $49.95 per month, so it’s less expensive than Spyfu. However, there is a limit of 10,000 keywords per query, whether SpyFu allows its users to generate reports with even a multiple of that limit. For this reason, I stick to SpyFu, but SEMRush is definitely a strong contender.
6. Wordtracker (free and paid plan)
A grand-daddy of all keyword research tools. Primarily a paid service, but it offers a limited free keyword research tool which may be useful to compare results from other sources.
A few years ago, Wordtracker used to be only option for any serious marketers – I still remember logging to Wordtracker religiously every day to perform my keyword research. Wordtracker was a true pioneer with such metrics as KEI and various ways to slice keywords. However, its development has stalled compared to some competitors.
You can use the free version to get up to 100 keywords, but you still have to sign up for a free account. Otherwise, you will only be allowed to perform a single query to the database.
While it remains somewhat useful, I find that the results contain some garbage more often than I would like. I mainly use it to add some high-volume keywords which Google Keyword Tool might have missed for any reason.
I’ve recently tried the paid version again, but I was flat-out disappointed and would not recommend paying for Wordtracker at the moment. First of all, the functionality is really limited. Yes, you can generate more keywords, but it is still only 1000 per one run. Compared to even of some of the free competitors – nothing to brag about. There is also the related keywords functionality – nice, but nothing unique. Plus some simple project management to allow you to save projects in lists – and that would be it. No tracking of advertisers, no PPC rates, no tracking of organic results.
At $69 per month, you can definitely get more for your money from other services.
7. Google WonderWheel (free)
To access Google Wonder Wheel, just make a regular query to Google as for any other search, and then click “Wonder wheel” on the left toolbar.
It will instantly generate a diagram with your original query in the center and related searches around it. It will a hub and spoke type of structure. You can link on any of the new keywords to add a new hub and even more spokes.
I find this visual tool to be very useful while mapping out the general idea for my site, its categories and subcategories. It is an easy way to discover concepts which Google considers related to your primary niche. As it is an accepted knowledge that well-themed sites rank better, the Wonder Wheel may help you design an excellent silo-like structure.
8. Google Insights (free)
A surprisingly powerful and versatile tool which may have many different applications. I like to use it to spot break-through trends which can be monetized before competition becomes really strong, but it is useful in many other scenarios as well.
Part of its power comes from how granular you can get. Do you want to see rising searches in the “Celebrities” category from the last 7 days, and only from users in Colorado? You get it, no problem.
The part that I usually pay most attention to, is the “rising searches” section. It is where you can spot the real golden nuggets.
I also use it a lot to discover what images people are looking for, as I generally believe that it is a lot easier to rank in the Google Images search than in regular search, and it can bring serious traffic.
9. Keyword Spy (free and paid plan)
Keyword Spy is yet another paid service with a free version. Luckily for us, the free version turn out to be pretty useful. Without registering for an account, we can generate related keywords (may not include our root keyword, but are somehow related), similar keywords (they include the root keyword), but also find the number of advertisers, cost per click and discover the top PPC and organic competitors for the keywords and phrases.
What I like is that the results are generally of decent quality – trash seems to be filtered out quite effectively and the actual results can be useful “as they are” most of the time.
I find the “Related” keywords tab especially useful when working in a niche that I’m not too familiar with. It allows me to get a feeling for what might be related concepts that I would not have thought about otherwise.
I also appreciate the data on the number of advertisers and profitable campaigns. It is a quick test of whether there is money to be made in a niche or not, although I would not rely solely on this statistic to make a decision.
I’ve never used the paid plan of Keyword Spy, although it does seem to offer a number of interesting features. Obviously, it lifts most of the limitations of the free version in terms of number of results returned, but also adds a number of new tools. One that really draws my attention, and that I may eventually try, is tracking affiliate ads. Keyword Spy claims that it can detect ads with affiliate codes from many of the most popular networks. Finding affiliate ads which have been running for months would be a great indicator of profitable niches.
Plans start from $89 per month (withouth access to the affiliate tracking module) to $139 per month.
10. Keyword Discovery (free and paid plan)
I’ve never had a full Keyword Discovery account, so I cannot make a complete judgement of their quality, but I’ve not been impressed by the free keyword tool and the free trial account they are offering.
First of all, the interface looks as if it had not been updated in ages. I know it’s not the most important part, but still, I remember Keyword Discovery looking exactly the same some 5 years ago. Almost every other keyword tool has significantly evolved and improved visually over the years, just not Keyword Discovery. Forget any fancy ajax, smooth navigation etc. Even their description at the free keyword tool is striking: “For many years the Overture Keyword Suggestion was the only free, publicly available keyword research tool. Now, due to its recent outages we are pleased to offer an alternative.” Come on, it’s been some years now since the Overture shut-down.
Even worse, the results it returns are, frankly speaking, garbage, and could lead to some very poor decisions. For example, with “marketing” as the seed keyword, the third most-searched keyword, according to Keyword Discovery, is “facilities building maintenance manager marketing”. Right, sure. I guess exact-match domains might still be available for that, fancy one?
To make things even worse, the paid plans are seriously expensive. Standard subscription at $69.95 is far too limited in terms of number of projects and other quotas, while the next level, the Professional plan, would set you back $199.95. As you can guess, I cannot recommend Keyword Discovery at the moment.
11. Google, Bing, Yahoo, Ask related searches and suggestions
Every leading search engine has some features to make searching easier for its end-users. These features usually include autocomplete suggestions or some related searches which appear after you perform a query.
With a proper tool, it is possible to scrape these suggestions to build a nice list of keywords and phrases. While it is not a way to get other details about such keywords (like volume, advertisers, etc.), it remains a good source of fresh, relevant keywords because such suggestions are based on what people are statistically looking for.
For scraping these sources, I would recommend a free version of Rank Tracker, a truly excellent piece of software. While its primary purpose is to check ranking of pages in the search engines, it is also equipped with a powerful scraper which can generate lists of keywords from every search engine listed above, plus some additional ones, like Yandex.
12. Wordze (paid with a free trial)
I have no personal experience with this service, so I cannot either recommend it or criticize it. It boasts a decent set of features on its sales page, and the price is about right, but there is no free service to test the quality of keywords it returns.
There is however a free 30-day trial, so I may try it in the future. Still, you have to provide your PayPal or credit card details to access it, so not anyone may be willing to take Wordze for a ride.
Wordze is $38.98 per month.