3 Super-Actionable Keyword Research Tips to Try Right Now


Larry Kim and Will Critchlow from Distilled recently did a great webinar revealing all their personal keyword research strategies. It went pretty in-depth, so if you’re in the mood for digging in, scroll to the bottom to see the slides and video.

Today, I just want to share three quick tips inspired by the webinar. If you’re looking to accomplish something beyond just dumping a seed term into a keyword tool, these clever tricks should jump-start your next keyword research session.

#1: Spark Content Ideas with Google Suggest Wild Cards

In the webinar, Will mentions picking this tip up from Tom Anthony at Distilled. You’ve probably used Google Suggest as a means of keyword research before, but I love this trick because it allows you to mine suggestions that don’t just come at the end of the phrase you’re typing.

Here’s what I mean: normally, when you start typing a search query, Google offers suggestions to complete the phrase:

best keyword research tips

What these Google suggestions are based on is real content that lives on the web. Google is trying to connect searchers with the content they might be looking for. As a marketer, this is helpful to you because it shows you what already exists out there in the niches where you operate, and if you don’t have content on those topics yet, maybe you should.

But what if you want suggestions for terms that come at the beginning or middle of a keyword phrase? That’s where the wild cards come in. You can use an underscore character anywhere in your search query to get suggestions for searches that fill in that blank. For example:

keyword research tricks

If you run a lifestyle blog based in Colorado, this would be a great way to discover new topics to cover.

Here are a few more examples for inspiration:

google keyword research

google keyword research tips

find keyword tips

google suggest keyword research

Pretty neat, eh? (Note that not every wild card search you try will work – sometimes there’s not enough volume and Google defaults to its usual suggestions.)

#2: Steal Keyword Group Ideas from Your Hero’s Home Page

I don’t like to say “steal from your competitors” because that sounds kind of uncool. Instead, think of it as imitating your heroes. Are there sites in your niche that you look up to because they always seem to be killing it? In web marketing, Moz and Buffer are a couple of my blog heroes.

Keyword Planner has a feature that allows you to drop in a URL to see which keywords people are using to arrive at the site. Maybe they expected you to use it for your own site, but guess what? You can put any URL in there! <evil laughter>

Open up Keyword Planner and drop your hero’s URL into the “Your landing page” field, then click “Get ideas”:

keyword planner hack

Usually I focus on the “keyword ideas” tab, but for this exercise, I like to focus on the ad group ideas tab, because I’m not worried about the search volume of any particular keyword, I’m just looking for topic themes.

using keyword planner for research

A lot of these look interesting right off the bat. And if I drill down into one of the groups, I get a better picture of the intent of these searchers. (Intent should always inform the approach of your content.)

keyword planner research tip

Before you get started targeting this topic, don’t forget to Google a few of these keywords and see what’s already ranking on page 1. To rank for a keyword, you should be creating something more valuable that what’s already out there.

#3: Prioritize Keywords with Larry’s Secret Competitive Index Formula

In the webinar, Larry reveals the formula we use to prioritize keyword research and content creation. He calls it “Larry’s Priority.” Here’s how it works: Take the number of monthly searches for the keyword, multiply that by the suggested bid, then divide it by the competition level on that keyword.

What this does is give you an idea of how realistic it is for you to target keywords with high commercial value. You want to go after keywords with some volume, because they’ll have a better return in terms of traffic. But you don’t necessarily want to go after the most competitive keywords, because you’re less likely to be able to rank for them. You’re looking for a sweet spot.

Note that Keyword Planner doesn’t give you a real number value for “competition level” unless you export the keyword plan into a CSV. Instead you’ll just see “high,” “medium,” or “low.” When you download the plan into a spreadsheet, you can see the competition level as a real value between 0 and 1 – see the highlighted column below:

keyword research prioritization

So let’s run the formula on a few keywords. For “using social media for business,” the average monthly search volume is 390, the suggested bid is 26.85, and the competition level is 0.9. So:

390 * 26.85 / 0.9 = 11635

For “how to use social media,” the average monthly search volume is 260, the suggested bid is 7.03, and the competition level is 0.66:

260 * 7.03 / 0.66 = 2769.39

For “using social media,” the average monthly search volume is 170, the suggested bid is 10.98, and the competition level is 0.76:

170 * 10.98 / 0.76 = 2456.05

To use an example outside this ad group, “social media monitoring tools,” with a volume of 880, a suggested bid of 25.79, and competition level of 0.98, gets a final “Larry’s Priority” score of 23158.37. So if you rank these keywords from high to low by Larry’s number, you get:

  1. social media monitoring tools
  2. using social media for business
  3. how to use social media
  4. using social media

The highest number is the one that would give you the most potential return. If you have a big-time domain and can rank pretty easily on competitive keywords, start at the top. If you’re a newer, smaller site and can’t really play with the big guns yet, it might make more sense to start in the middle of the sorted keyword research list – these aren’t the “monster” keywords in your niche, but they’re also less competitive, and therefore easier to rank on.

You might also like: 5 Tips for E-Commerce Keyword Research

Watch the Whole Keyword Research Webinar

Hungry for more, grasshoppers? You can view all the slides from the webinar here:


Or watch the video below:

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Andrew Solomon
Aug 06, 2014

Awesome tips! thank you for sharing! these are very creative and useful research ideas. Obviously these tips are drawn from the webinar but I will share that scrolling to the bottom of Google's SERPS and using the "Searches Related To" box is another cool place for keyword ideas. Thanks again!

Elisa Gabbert
Aug 06, 2014

Hi Andrew, I second that -- those related searches are great to include in your content to help with ranking. Thanks for reading!

Nov 03, 2014

Thanks - I have been looking for a formula to help quanitfy search volume vs. competitiveness.I am not sure I am thinking about the competitive value correctly.As I would have also assumed that it should go in the numerator, not the denominator. Am I right to assume the competition value is the value google assigns a keyword in regards to how many peopleare currently targetting that word, or group of words? Anyone have any light to shed on this? Thanks Kevin 

Dave Schneider
Aug 06, 2014

Hey Elisa,There's nothing I love more than actionable advice - except I guess super actionable lol. Thanks for these.Thanks again,Dave at NinjaOutreach

Elisa Gabbert
Aug 07, 2014

Thanks Dave :)

Jyoti Chauhan
Aug 07, 2014

Hi Elisa, It was really very informative post to search some good long tail keyword, I love your underscore idea. I have searches some cool keywords using this tricks. I am gona to share this with all of my firends. I wana to say thank you to share this fantastic post :) Thanks Jyoti 

Elisa Gabbert
Aug 07, 2014

Thanks Jyoti! The wild card trick is neat, huh?

Colm Barry
Aug 07, 2014

Thank you SOOO much for sharing "Larry's Priority". While looking at it now it seems pretty obvious of course lazy me i never connected the dots. And since not all people bidding may actually be getting it right it may pay to experiment a little with the figures to find niche material.

Elisa Gabbert
Aug 07, 2014

Hi Colm, yes, it's always good to check out what's ranking on page 1 in addition to assessing the competition levels. This can also help ensure that you get the intent of the keyword right.

Adam Lundquist
Aug 07, 2014

Hi Elisa,Great article (it actually convinced me to watch the webinar). I didn’t know about the wildcard trick and am enjoying playing around with it today – I will probably use it on a couple of my clients:-). I did want to make a point though, when you make your keywords too long tail (such as in the example with the “special kitty can cat food”) Google will simply not show them in AdWords. You will get penalized with their low search volume – which I hate! Do you have any tips for finding the right balance between long tail keywords that you can use for PPC, but are not so long tail that you get the low search volume?Thanks,Adam

Elisa Gabbert
Aug 07, 2014

Hey Adam, that's a great question! I will see if one of our customer success reps can write a post on how to find keywords that aren't TOO long-tail. I'd personally avoid adding random modifiers like "special" and "awesome" because they are general and not specific to any one product or service -- better to use broad match or modified broad match on a base keyword (like "canned cat food") than try to bid on something like "delicious canned cat food" which, as you note, isn't going to have high search volume. But note that "canned cat food" is already longer-tail and shows more intent than just "cat food" or "pet food" or "cat."

Julien Rio
Aug 10, 2014

I use the Google suggestions tool a lot for keywords searching but I had never used the wild card... thanks for that awesome input!

Elisa Gabbert
Aug 11, 2014

Thanks, Julien!

A. Smith
Aug 12, 2014

Good info that is often overlooked.  I'll use it for sure! Thaks!

Aug 14, 2014

Awesome post, I took away to some of really good stuff from reading this. Was not aware of the statistic: 

David Rohl
Jul 11, 2015

Keep on working, great job!

Aug 14, 2014

Just to clarify for "Larry's Priority",If you divide by the competitive score between 0 - 1 (1 being most competitive), that skew your score lower for more competition.This is because dividing by partial number increases the amount. So shouldn't you target those on the list with lower scores?Don't know if I'm making sense here, but do you have any thoughts?

Shlomi Ben Simon
Aug 20, 2014

Hi Elisa,Great tips, about "Larry's Priority" there's a missing  peace you'll have to consider - the weight of the number of monthly searches.The complete formula should be something like this:Take the number of monthly searches for the keyword divide by the Sum of all monthly searches,multiply that by the suggested bid, then divide it by the competition level on that keyword.Using the table above the total of all searches is 2130 so (in my opinion) here's the complete formula For “using social media for business": (390 / 2130) * 26.85 / 0.9 = 5.46I would love to hear your thoughts (or Larry's) about this.    

Aug 31, 2014

Nice informative post.

Sep 04, 2014

Hi Elisa,Thanks for sharing these great tips.Do you think we can always trust the figures from the keyword planner? 

Elisa Gabbert
Sep 04, 2014

well, I wouldn't bet your business on them -- just use them as a rough guide!

Dave Newman
Apr 04, 2015

Wow, this is great. I really like that formula, and I've already tried out some keywords.

Feb 07, 2016

This maximizes their results much more than the one-size-fits-all" method of so many various other on-line instructors.

Sherman Smith
May 11, 2015

Hey Elisa,

Great tips here. I've only heard of the tip about finding out what keywords a specific site uses, but the other two I've never heard of. I have a couple of strategies of my own and thought about using a keyword tool, but I can add these strategies to my arsenal! Thanks for sharing and I hope you have a great rest of the week!

Jun 01, 2015

Hi Elisa,
The idea of researching keywords from competition is not new but the fact remains that many marketers never really get to follow the basic rules.

Using Google Suggest Wild Cards to enforce keyword research is actionable. I found the tactics as one of the most revealing to me!

Elisa Gabbert
Jun 01, 2015

Thanks, Sunday, glad you found the article helpful!

David Cohn
Jun 08, 2015

I already use the auto suggest/complete feature a bunch when doing research. I also scroll down to the bottom of the SERP and grab the 'suggested' searches, too. However, I've never seen the trick with the underscore in the middle of a phrase to get suggested keywords! That's great and actionable and yes, I will be using that this afternoon. Thank you.

Oh, and you just earned a new blog subscriber! Keep it up.

Jun 15, 2015

Hello Elisa,

You had shared awesome tips for keyword research, really informative and valuable for the newbies. These tips are really creative and useful to do keyword research.

Thanks for sharing :)

arsitek rumahan
Oct 03, 2015

Superb info, much thanks

Leemar Rosauro
Oct 12, 2015

Glad that I found your article. All of these are very useful. Effective tactics that I can really apply. Also the wild card and that Larry formula is a great addition in my research tactics.

Feb 23, 2016

Hi Elisa, It was really very informative post to search some good long tail keyword, I love your underscore idea. I have searches some cool keywords using this tricks. I am gona to share this with all of my firends. I wana to say thank you to share this fantastic post :) 

Aug 16, 2016

thanks for posting such an wonderful tips.I was looking for it.Thanks a lot.

Sep 06, 2016

Hi Elisa,

May i know the logic behind Larry's formula.Because according to the formula the competition is inversely proportional to final value,so if competition is high the final value is low.Then how come small companies can target those keywords?

Elisa Gabbert
Sep 06, 2016

The final value is a combination of competition and expected return (search volume). Small companies should look for keywords that are low competition as well as low (to medium) search volume, rather than high volume and low competition. Make sense?

M Ejaz
May 22, 2017

Good article worth reading. I've learned new things. Thank you for your great knowledge sharing.

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