A Beginner’s Guide to Ahrefs for Small-Batch Keyword Research

This post was written by Courtney Louie, a student at Washington State University. During her time in the Seattle consulting team, Courtney tried her hand at many tasks that make up the day-to-day workings of an analyst or consultant. One of those was keyword research, and she decided to share here learning process for KW research using Ahrefs...

Keyword Research is a fundamental principle of SEO. As marketers, we know by now that it can help drive traffic to our sites and improve organic search rankings. With the vast amount of tools available, it can be hard to find the right one. While doing keyword research for a client, Distilled Analyst Lydia Gilbertson introduced me to arguably the best tool out there - Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer.

This tutorial will walk you through the keyword research process for a client and show you how to take actionable decisions from the results by using Ahrefs’ tools.

Why Ahrefs?

Time-saving:

Compared to their competitors, Ahrefs ease of use and minimal navigation required to achieve the desired results is what sets it apart.

Data-driven decision

Sure, other industry tools will give you similar data and metrics, but Ahrefs has the most comprehensive set. The variety of tools allows you to handle all your website’s metrics in one place. This is where the competitors fall short.

The client used for our example

An e-commerce site looking to improve keyword targeting on their site’s top 20 product pages. A nice, small batch of URLs that we can dive into finding trends and do competitor research around.

Selecting keywords to research

Start out with what you know

When starting research for the client, look at the product pages and examine the title and H1 tags. These give a good sign of what the page is trying to target and might currently be ranking for (Note: also where the most improvements can be made. We’ll touch on that later). It is helpful to pull this data from a Screaming Frog crawl and have the titles and H1s in a list. Seed keywords can be made by directly using a part of the page’s current title or H1.

Think like a user

Another effective technique is to think like a user or customer of your site would. For example, say a customer is looking to buy an aluminum water bottle. The first searches that come to mind are “best aluminum water bottles” or “aluminum water bottle brands”. Apply this method to some of the pages you are wanting to find keywords for. This technique is especially helpful when trying to find long-tail keywords. As always, put the ones you come up with on a separate sheet list for easy inputting into Ahrefs.

See what your competitors are ranking for

Ahrefs has a great tool for this called Site Explorer. It allows you to insert any URL and automatically generates data on the keywords it currently ranks for. In the case of the client example, one of their main competitors is a major food and gift basket brand. Let’s walk through this:

By pasting the URL into Site Explorer and keeping the “domain” setting as is, you will get keyword data on the whole domain, and not just the particular URL. Ignoring everything else on the Site Explorer page, you should then navigate to the Organic Keywords section.

Below you see a list of all the keywords the competitor is ranking for. By default, this list is sorted by traffic, but clicking any of the metrics you can sort it by that metric; either highest or lowest. There will always be self-referencing (or branded) keywords but you can remove these after exporting the data. Focus on the keywords that apply to your site.

Getting the data

I recommend combining the three methods above to generate a list of keywords. The end goal for most keyword research is to identify and aid with the searcher’s intent. This can be done by making data driven decisions, but first, it’s important to understand what the data means.

Taking the potential keywords, input them into Keyword Explorer to analyze the data. 

Paste keywords into the insert box and kept the search data country the United States. It is important to change this based on where your target audience is located. Notice at the bottom you can also select New List which will add/save these keywords into a unique list for referencing later. These lists are helpful if you want to have different saved sets of keywords for parts of your website, pages or clients in general.

The overview and metrics tabs are equally important. But for the task at hand, let’s focus on the Metrics tab. The overview tab aggregates that data from all the inputted keywords and gives a summary of it. Whereas the metrics tab breaks down the data for each keyword.

Overview

Metrics

Keywords explorer metrics

Looking at the metrics tab, let’s focus on three metrics that are the most helpful and not as self-explanatory:

  1. KD Score

  2. Volume

  3. SERP feature

KD Score

This is an Ahrefs specific score that calculates how hard it will be to rank in the top 10 results for a keyword. The score is calculated by how many referring domains the current top 10 results have for that specific keyword. It’s great for judging if it is worth targeting or not. The lower the KD score, the less difficult it is to rank for it.

Volume

Volume is the amount of searches per month, averaged over the last 12 months. This metric helps you to determine how “popular” the keyword is. Be careful to not solely base your keyword research on volume though. This can cause problems with not accurately reflecting the user’s intent.

SERP Feature

This is a great metric that (at the time of writing this post) is specific to Ahrefs. It shows tiny icons next to the keyword that will explain what appears on the search engine page. For instance a related question, image pack, knowledge panel, shopping result etc.

Using these three metrics for the client’s 20 keyword list, meaningful insights can be gained. The balance between finding a keyword with an achievable KD Score and substantial volume is imperative. Use this combination of this data to your advantage.

Most marketers are so driven to increase volume and clicks, that they don’t realize the keyword they are targeting is nearly impossible to rank for in the top ten since you would need, say, 50 referring domains. They are blinded by the fact that the keyword has the highest volume. There might be a keyword that has 10-20% less volume but only needs five referring domains to rank, which is obviously a more realistic choice.

Helpful results to find additional keywords

After completing the above tasks, look at the list and use the three metrics to determine if your pre-selected keywords are realistically worth targeting. You now want to find additional keywords, based off the ones on your list that have a better balance of metrics.

Here are two results to focus on:

  1. Parent Topic

  2. Keyword Ideas

Both of these can be found by clicking on an individual keyword from your list. This expands the data on that specific keyword.#

Parent topic

Butter toffee is a keyword originally found for the client example. You can see that the parent topic is ‘butter toffee recipe’. You might be thinking why is this the parent topic? It’s longer and more complex. This is because parent topics are found by taking the highest ranking page for your original keyword and taking the ‘best’ keyword that page ranks for. ‘Best’ refers to a combination of volume and traffic potential.

If you click on the parent topic, it will expand the data on that word. It will also show you all the keywords that top page is ranking for.

The additional keywords listed give good ideas for ones that might serve the user intent better and have an equal balance of metrics.

For instance, with ‘butter toffee recipe’, it’s clear that the client’s page (which only targets one keyword) can rank for multiple keywords since there are many relevant ones within this list.

Keyword Ideas

The results from this are broken into three categories:  having same terms, also rank for and search suggestions.

Each category provides you with a different set of keyword ideas that are relevant or an expansion of your original keyword. To find out more about how each one of these categories is populated, check out this article from Ahrefs.

Actionable to-dos after finding keywords

After creating a list of the best keywords (using the practices above) for the client’s product pages, it’s time to begin optimizing for them. Focuse on three main on-page optimizations that can easily be changed with the help of DevOps or the webmaster.

  1. Title Tag

  2. H Tags

  3. Meta Description

Optimize these three HTML elements to specifically target the new keyword that correlated with each product page.

For example; if an old product page has an H1 titled ‘Award-Winning, Champion Butter Toffee’ and the new keyword to target is ‘Butter Toffee’, replace the H1 to become ‘Butter Toffee | [company name] ’ .

Making these on-page optimizations based on your keywords will have a greater potential effect towards your organic search visibility. If you want to test these optimizations on a certain set of pages, split testing has become very popular for gaining further insight. I would highly recommend this article on the subject by Distilled Senior Consultant Tim Allen.

How does this help you or your business?

The tools from Ahrefs aid the keyword research process from beginning to end. Once you get the hang of the best practices above, time spent on keyword research will decrease and you will begin to make better, faster decisions using this research structure. People may say keyword research is a daunting task, but with the tools available presently it will feel less tedious and more about meaningful research. High-quality keyword research can be used to make some of the most impactful targeting changes that will improve your site and drive traffic in the long run.

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