Building Your Keyword Universe

September 6, 2022
Michael Taylor

This post is one of a series on my content production system, developed over 10 years and designed to scale content end-to-end in 6 months as an acquisition channel.

Here are the other posts in the series:

  1. Why the winner takes all in Content Marketing
  2. What everyone gets wrong about Content Strategy
  3. Building Your Keyword Universe (this post)
  4. Minimum Viable Technical SEO Audit
  5. Recruiting good Freelance Writers
  6. How to write blog content at scale
  7. Growth engineering for SEO
  8. Link building for authority
  9. Content Repurposing for Social Promotion


If you want to be successful on search, you need to know what people are searching for. Buy access to a keyword research tool like Ahrefs, SEMRush or SpyFu - you'll use one of these tools almost every day if you're serious about focusing on content as a channel. You can also use Google Keyword Planner for free if you set up a Google Ads account, at least to start with. The goal is to understand what keywords exist in the space and categorize them into buckets, so you know what to go after and in which order. 

If you want to scope out the size of the opportunity in SEO, you can get estimated traffic for competitors’ keywords, from which you can assume a conversion rate. If your industry just doesn’t have a lot of search volume it might make sense to bet on a different channel. However don’t plan on just doing keyword research once: this is something you’ll be doing on demand each week, adding a few keywords at a time, increasing your TAM as you dominate your initial niche and expand. 

A. Owned Keywords

Choose one or two keywords to own. This has to be a keyword that’s unique enough to your product that you can reliably claim a thought leadership position. That means it’ll probably be low volume and that’s ok: this is a keyword you’re going to build demand for with the rest of your marketing, and when it gets big, the rising tide will lift your boat. 

For Ladder this was “growth hacking” because at the time there weren’t many agencies that offered it. Eventually it outgrew us, but we rode that keyword all the way up. It can help to actually coin a term (e.g. Bryan Dean’s “skyscraper technique”), or take something you’re better than competitors at ( or modify an existing phrase (e.g. for Vexpower it’s “simulator-based courses”). You want to write thought leadership content primarily here: an opinion piece, beginners guide or overview of the topic will work well. 

B. Trending Keywords

These are keywords that cover interesting topics that are trending or have the potential to trend. For inspiration here it's better to look to social media more than traditional keyword tools — by the time they show up the trend is over. Also look at Reddit and any niche forums: one memorable example was using Google translate to read Chinese forum posts about working in Silicon Valley. Remember the goal of creating content for these keywords is to quickly ride the wave so you get shares and hopefully backlinks. 

You don’t have to create the trend but these things grow up unexpectedly, and by being the first serious source on the trend you’ll get all the references. The content you write here should start off as social posts: most trends flop, so only graduate the keyword to a blog post if it starts to take off.

In some cases you can find a keyword that will reliably trend at predictable intervals: news organizations take full advantage of these types of keywords: for example they have pre-written obituaries for all major celebrities ready to publish in the event of their death.

C. Target Keywords

Most people in your industry don’t regularly look at SERP rankings, so there are usually keywords with a low difficulty / competition and high enough traffic. On Ahrefs (or similar tools) if you search for a keyword then select ‘related keywords’, you get a big list of relevant terms. Filter it down by selecting a keyword difficulty of less than 40, and at least 1,000 searches per month (less if you’re B2B), and you’ll find plenty of hidden gems.

These numbers flex as you grow: there’s no shame in targeting keywords with 100 searches and <10 difficulty when you’re a new site: everything makes a difference! For example at ShopStyle, we made lots of money on ‘Flapper dresses’ (think Great Gatsby), while most of the big fashion publications were writing about what celebrities wore to the Oscars. The content format that works best here is an atomic essay: 500 words on the topic, with a single shareable asset: a template, image or insight.

D. Head Keywords

There are keywords that everyone in the market wants to own. There’s a power law to keyword traffic so 90% of your traffic will come from 10% of your keywords. At Travelzoo we had 25% of our revenue coming from a single keyword: “cheap flights” — we weren’t even ranked number 1: we were 4th! You can find these keywords quickly by using a keyword research tool (Ahrefs, SEMRush, SpyFu) to see the biggest terms sending your competitors traffic. It’s not worth going after these keywords until you’ve written something good on your owned term, and hit all the low hanging fruit with targeted keywords: head terms are very hard to rank for. When you do go after them, build a comprehensive ‘hub’ page, with your atomic essays on relevant targeted keywords acting as the ‘spokes’ all interconnected with internal links to show relations.

E. Long Tail Keywords

This should be the final bucket you optimize for, because it’s hard to do it right. Of course you will be ranking for some long tail keywords at this point, because every page ranks for multiple keywords, not just the ones you targeted. But to really hit long tail keywords at scale, you’re going to need to build products. This is very difficult to do as an SEO team, because usually you don’t get developer resource. That means when you pull it off, it can be a great moat that’s hard for competitors to replicate.

August 18, 2020
September 6, 2022

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