By Ann Smarty published January 14, 2015

6 Free Tools to Help Keyword Research


Keyword research historically has been the initial content planning task: We would identify which keywords we wanted to rank and what kind of organic search competition we faced.

Nowadays, it’s not only risky to focus on certain keywords (remember the notorious over-optimization penalties?), but it’s counterproductive: In the Hummingbird era, Google is trying to understand your content beyond keywords. It wants to understand “things (concepts) instead of strings (the exact sequence of words you type).”

Further reading: If you are not sure what the “things, not strings” concept means for content creation, read this great article by Bill Slawski.

In this era, expanding your keyword research to social media also is a great idea because it:

  • Lets you brainstorm more interesting content
  • Improves your chances to do better on social media (since you are basing your content on what the social media crowd is currently interested in)
  • Lets you target both search and social media making your traffic sources more varied

In most cases, I don’t even do traditional keyword research any more when writing articles. I mean I don’t do it to optimize my content. I feel like keyword optimization is limiting me and holding me back as a writer.

3 brainstorm tools

Running keyword tools is a great way to explore the topic, brainstorm, and get inspired. Knowing what people search for is useful for creating content that covers the need or answers the questions.

I usually start with SEO Chat’s free Bulk Search Suggest keyword tool to expand my topics and to brainstorm. It shows you what users type in Google, Bing, YouTube, and Amazon when starting with your base word:

keyword-research tool image 1

The beauty of seeing those search engines side by side lies in the ability to see people searching for your base term with different intent: People usually search YouTube for entertainment purposes, Amazon to buy, and Google or Bing for mixed reasons.

In addition to SEO Chat’s tool, I like SerpStat and (All of them are slightly different and fun to play with.) I really like the idea behind SerpStat: It filters search suggestions to keep only questions people tend to type into the search box.

keyword-research tool-image 2

It also pulls some of the most frequent words that people tend to type in the same phrase with your base term:

keyword-research tool-image 3

This is a great way to look at neighboring concepts (and if needed, expand any of them).

3 hashtag revelations

I am an old-time hashtag fan. I’ve always loved using hashtags on Twitter. I love Google Plus hashtags now as well. The two are different though:

  • Twitter hashtags are 100% user-created and results are limited to that word mentioned in the tweet (Twitter ads may be the only exception).
  • Google+ hashtags are auto-added (unless the users add their own) and hashtag search results in its /Explore section include results from all or any related hashtags. Please read more on how Google+ hashtags work here.

This graphic reflects how I use Twitter vs. Google+ hashtags:

google-plus-twitter-hashtags_image 4

Twitter search

I use Twitter hashtags to track trending topics and to search for real conversations to get inspired. I love using this trick to filter real Twitter conversations: [#hashtag -filter:links]. It removes any tweets that contain links and leaves only people actually discussing your hashtag in real time.

Using our iPhone 6 example, let’s see what this search looks like on Twitter:

twitter-hashtags_image 5

Keep in mind that Twitter search is even more flexible than that. You can target search to a location, enable emotion search, etc. It all comes down to your topic and objective.

Google Plus

I use Google+ hashtags to discover related topics, those “things, not strings” that may make my content more complete by including more related concepts, news, or resources.

Any time you are searching Google+ for a hashtag, it will take you to its /Explore section allowing you to explore related hashtags (concepts) that you would want to mention in your article:

google-plus-hashtags_image 6

Since there are quite a few hashtags to track I use the free, gated service Cyfe to create a whole separate dashboard to monitor (and archive) social media context for all of my relevant key terms.

cyfe_image 7

You can add an unlimited number of widgets within one dashboard to track your main hashtag search results on Twitter and Google+. It’s also easy to download Excel archives of any widget or the whole dashboard to search through your key term social media context.

How does social media help you in your keyword research? Please share your tips.

Want more expert advice on how to improve your SEO and keyword research? Check out the fantastic 2014 CMW sessions that are available through our Video on Demand portal and make plans today to attend 2015 CMW.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Please note:  All tools included in our blog posts are suggested by authors, not the CMI editorial team.  No one post can provide all relevant tools in the space. Feel free to include additional tools in the comments (from your company or ones that you have used).

Author: Ann Smarty

Ann Smarty is the brand and community manager at Internet Marketing Ninjas, founder of and co-founder of Viral Content Buzz . Ann is the regular contributor at Entrepreneur, Small Biz Trends, and other huge publications. Ann blogs about search and social media industry trends and content marketing tools. Please follow Ann on Twitter @seosmarty.

Other posts by Ann Smarty

  • Mihaela Lica Butler

    Very useful, Ann! I am also using SEMrush – they have a free “preview,” with reasonable data. You can use it to see what strategies are implemented by competitors to rank. 😉

    • Ann Smarty

      Thanks for stopping by, Mig! There are a few more advanced keyword research tools. For brainstorming I usually go a simpler route but I certainly love SEMrush!

  • Joe Morecroft is by far the best keyword tool out there. It gives you relevant semantic terms based on TF-IDF & charts on how often they are used in the top 10 SERP results.

    • Ann Smarty

      Great one, Joe! Thanks for adding it here!

  • Ace Rich

    Very helpful ideas thank you for sharing!

    • Ann Smarty

      Thanks for taking your time to comment, Ace! Thanks for the great feedback!

  • Josh Agusti

    Great tools Ann! Thank you for putting this together and sharing.

    • Ann Smarty

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Josh!

  • Gayane Dallakyan

    I’ve never used hashtags in Twitter and Google plus for keyword research. Did you also do anything in Facebook as well?

    • Ann Smarty

      I’ve never learned to use or analyze hashtags on Facebook 🙂

      • Gayane Dallakyan

        Maybe it is still early. I know there is a hashtag’s feed and we also used hashtags in our FB pages, but not consistently.

        Really interesting using hashtags for keyword research though. Thanks for the idea 🙂

        • Ann Smarty

          For some reason hashtags work for me everywhere (G+, Twitter, Instagram, even Tumblr!) but not Facebook 🙁 Just don’t see anyone care there (except for hashtags may result in irritation on FB:))

          • Gayane Dallakyan

            🙂 Agree. We’ll see how it goes with FB.

  • Dan Davis

    Bless your heart, Ann!

    Your article summarizes some tools that–frankly–I wasn’t even aware of. I expect to hang out for a bit with my new keyword pals now! You’re now officially my favorite article writer of the day.


    • Ann Smarty

      “Your article summarizes some tools that–frankly–I wasn’t even aware of” -> Thanks, Dan! That was kinda of a goal 🙂 I wanted to feature the tools which are not so widely discussed!

  • Shai Geoola

    Wow! Truly Amazing. Thank You Ann!

    • Ann Smarty

      Thanks for the great feedback!

  • Advertising Agency

    Great article, Ann. I’m definitely passing on to my Phoenix SEO team. It really can be dangerous to find keywords and only focus on those; sure, you can have a core group of keywords to use but one should always be adaptable and use keywords fitting for the situation.

  • rogercparker

    Dear Ann:
    Significant article of long-term relevance.

    I’m off to explore the links you’ve included.

    • Ann Smarty

      Glad you liked it! Hopefully you’ll like playing with tools!

  • MixStrix

    Thanks, Ann Smarty, living up to the legend! I forgot about the multiple sources on SEOchat’s tool – great insights there!
    Hashtags can be investigated on (Free, limited); (30-day Trial, limited); I prefer Topsy Social Analytics tab, Free.

  • daniel

    Fantastic Read! Thanks Again! Have you found YouTube Search to be of benefit? For a user looking for product comparison it might be interesting, just wondering if it is the most limited for a B2B or B2C.

    • Ann Smarty

      I like Youtube search as well as Youtube Suggest results. That SEOchat tool I mentioned has a Youtube tab as well, so you can play with it while still seeing results from Google and Bing!

      • daniel

        Thanks Again! Great Article.

  • Ram Babu SEO

    Thanks @annsmarty:disqus I love this getting to know many different varieties of keywords

    • Ann Smarty

      Glad you liked it!

  • Yepi 2

    it’s great to see that

  • Cathy Mayhue

    After Google keywords tool was taken away, it felt like a part of my life went away, saying so at the risk of sounding dramatic. But I wish that tool still was there, as I have started my own business and set up a freshly minted website, I hope these tools are as good as Google’s, if not better because they will solve a huge problem of mine.

  • Nichole Smith

    I tried SEO Chat’s free bulk keyword tool but when I put in my keyword it only brought back Bing results. I know the term is widely searched via Google but all I got was the keyword and then each letter of the alphabet after it. I even tried your screenshot example of iphone 6. However, I really like the Twitter hashtag suggestion. I often search hashtags but I hate weeding through the links. This makes the job tons easier.

    • Ann Smarty

      Weird! It worked for me! Maybe too many calls? I’ll tweet to the to see if they can fix it..

  • Marsha Mann

    Great article. Thank-you so much for the share!

    • Ann Smarty

      Thanks for reading, Marsha! Great to know it may have turned useful!

      • Marsha Mann

        Glad you liked it I LOVE tools! Especially if they are free!!

  • Alejandro Barquero Payo

    Thank you so much. I found this very useful in my keywords researchs. Best, Alex

    • Ann Smarty

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Alex!

  • Marta Stelmaszak

    While I believe the keyword tools might be a little too rigid for me personally to use the keyword tools to brainstorm, it will definitely be useful to organise brainstormed ideas. It’s a great organising tool I didn’t think about!

    • Ann Smarty

      Exactly, Marta. These tools are multi-purpose! They are as useful for brainstorming and feeling inspired!

  • Gates S.

    Thanks so much Anne. Really love the concept of –
    And for its YouTube features

  • Jeanne Melanson

    Wonderful, informative article, Ann! I’ve got 4 other windows open now from links in this post alone to read later on today. Thanks for sharing your expertise with us! All the very best.

    • Ann Smarty

      Thanks a lot, Jeanne! That’s so awesome to know there were some new tools for you!

  • Faisal Jamal

    perfect info … thanks Ann for great article

    • Ann Smarty

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Faisal!

  • Tara Geissinger

    I really love this article and I’ve discovered some new tools thanks to you! I’m sure it’s just my over-analytical self, but I tend to have more trouble in this post-hummingbird landscape. I have to let go a bit and forget about the KEYWORDS and write based on what makes sense for my audience. It’s a different skill! 🙂 These tools seem great at pointing me in the direction of TOPICS rather than specific phrases, so I’m excited.

    • Ann Smarty

      Yes, you summarized the point of this article perfectly! Thanks for the comment, Tara!

  • Cameron Archibald

    great list of tools but seo chat and serpstat got me 0 results for the keyword I was looking for. I will have to come back and try again with a different keyword.

    • Austin C. Ahamba

      Maybe you should try those keywords now.

  • jim esin

    I’ve been using some of those tools while doing keyword research for my blog and they worked for me just fine, no need to use paid tools.

  • SoZialia

    Awesome list of tools for keywords research. We’ll include them in our content planning.

  • Gra Vity

    Thanks Ann for the tools. May I suggest another new Keyword Research Tool
    This tool find larger variation of keyword using all possible variations available in Options

  • Unpredictable Soul


  • deepika A

    Nice list. I am using keyword planner of adwords to find best niche keywords.