By Ann Smarty published January 14, 2015

6 Free Tools to Help Keyword Research

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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:

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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 KeywordTool.io. (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.

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

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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 MyBlogU.com 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.

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