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If you spend any time researching the various methods people use to build niche sites, you’ve probably noticed that there are two strong camps when it comes to keyword tools: those who think they’re crucial, and those who say you shouldn’t use them at all.
Both sides of the fence have good arguments, but does it really have to be one or the other? Is there really only one good way to find keywords that will help you grow your site?
I’ve spent plenty of time doing keyword research with and without tools, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a middle ground, and that middle ground can work to your advantage to find keywords that others will either never see or will simply ignore.
In this post, I’ll list some of the benefits to taking each approach, then show you the method that I’ve used to grow our sites to tens of thousands of dollars per month.
Why Keyword Tools Are So Appealing
When it comes to content marketing, keyword tools have become really popular, and for good reason. They provide a lot of benefits that can potentially help you grow your business more quickly.
One of the biggest benefits of using a tool over finding keywords manually is that you can find keywords in bulk. You simply set up a filter to drill down into what you’re looking for, and the tool will return hundreds to thousands of results in a matter of seconds.
Many of these tools will also show you the level of competition you’re up against for each keyword, saving you time on yet another aspect of building a keyword target list. I’ll dive deeper into analyzing competition in another article, but again, that is something that can be done with or without tools.
These tools can also be as simple or complex as you want them to be. Most of them can be picked up and used in minutes, but can also be configured to get as granular as you’d like.
One last benefit of many keyword tools, like ahrefs and Semrush, is that they come packaged with a ton of other useful feature, like the ability to track your rankings and visibility into your site’s backlinks.
The Benefits of Not Using a Tool
On the other side of the coin, you absolutely can find good keywords without using any tools at all. Granted, this will take you significantly more time, but there are definitely some strong benefits to this approach.
One of the biggest benefits is that you can find keywords that most tools are unlikely to uncover. A big reason for this is that with a keyword tool, you need to enter a “seed” keyword or phrase to generate a list of keywords.
When finding keywords manually, you’re likely going to go down rabbit holes that lead to much longer and more unique phrases than you would ever enter into a tool. As a result, you will come up with keywords that you would never have found using a tool.
Another big benefit of finding keywords manually is that you don’t know what the search volume of a keyword actually is. While that might sound like a drawback at first, you have to understand that none of the tools can produce accurate volumes either.
At best, the tools are giving you an estimated volume that may or may not be close to the actual volume. As a result, if you use a tool, you might avoid going after a keyword because the reported volume is too low for your tastes, when in reality, that keyword (and its multiple variations) have plenty of search volume.
Along the same lines, many keyword tools report a competition level for each keyword. Each tool has a different way to determine this, but many of them use the number of backlinks to a site as a factor in their scores.
When you consider that many large sites like Pinterest or Reddit have a ton of backlinks, but can typically be easily outranked, the competition score might not be as accurate as you’d think.
Also, just based on experience, I’ve had plenty of articles outrank large sites, simply because my articles were more on point. Just because your competitors are large authority sites doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t outrank them.
Lastly, keyword tools tend to cost quite a bit of money. That’s not such a big deal once you’ve created a nice income stream from your site, but early on, the cost can be a large barrier to entry.
For this reason alone, I recommend starting out without using any keyword research tools. If you want to test them after you have the cashflow, then by all means, go for it.
My Approach to Using Keyword Tools
As I mentioned early on in this post, you don’t see much middle ground when it comes to using or not using a keyword tool. However, I think there is a middle ground to explore, and based on my experience, it’s the best approach to finding great keywords.
Aside from briefly mentioning a couple of well-known tools earlier, I haven’t really touched on any specific tools that you might consider. Up until recently, the one and only keyword tool that I used was Keywords Everywhere.
I’ve recently started using another tool, called Keyword Chef, which is providing great results as well, but I’ll touch on that further down below.
While Keywords Everywhere does have some bells and whistles, it is a much more basic tool than the more expensive tools like ahrefs and Semrush. Speaking of cost, it is very inexpensive.
The way this tool works is that it’s a Chrome or Firefox extension, which when enabled, will show you the search volume right in Google Search, YouTube, etc., right as you type. The pricing is based on the number of keywords that the tool pulls information for.
This tool works similarly to the others in that it provides you with an estimated volume for each keyword, but instead of providing it based on a “seed” keyword that you entered, it provides it for the specific phrase that you search for, as well as any related searched that appear.
Because of this, you will end up taking a more manual approach to finding keywords (which I definitely think is better than using a tool), but at the same time, you can get an idea of what the volume of each keyword is as you type.
Now, the key to using Keywords Everywhere along with a manual approach to finding keywords is to understand that the volume for each keyword corresponds to the specific phrase that you’re typing. If you want to have a much better idea of the volume of a keyword, you need to search for the variations of that keyword.
For example, if you type “tips to catch fish” into Google Search, the tool will provide a volume of 170 searches per month. However, if you type a variation of that phrase, “how to catch fish,” you will get a result of 9,900 searches per month.
You could also drill down further for very similar results and see 480 searches/month for “how to catch fish in a lake,” etc. As you can see, you can’t simply assume that the volume listed next to a specific keyword truly represents the volume of that keyword.
To use Keywords Everywhere to full effect, you need to use the tool as a general guideline and combine it with some common sense. Search for the various phrases you think might be entered for a given keyword, then use that total volume as a general guideline for the volume of that keyword.
When approaching your keyword research in this way, you can have more confidence in the estimated volumes of your search terms and combine them with a manual approach to finding keywords, which well help you uncover those hidden gems.
On the flip side, you can also use this method to avoid going after keywords that are too low in volume. If your search phrase and all the variations that you can think of return 0-10 searches/month, it might not make sense to target that keyword at all.
Again, if you simply use the search volumes provided by Keywords Everywhere as a general guide and combine it with some common sense while using a manual keyword research approach, you can get the benefits of both using a tool and not using a tool at the same time.
Using Keyword Chef as a Safety Check
I mentioned above that I recently started using another keyword research tool called Keyword Chef. This tool works more like a traditional one, where you simply enter a term or phrase, then let it produce a list of keywords for you.
While I tend to stay away from these types of tools, I’ve been very impressed with the results that Keyword Chef spits out. The best feature though (in my opinion), is that you can set it to only give you question-based keywords, which is what we target the most.
However, at this point in time, I don’t recommend relying on this tool for 100% of your keyword research. Instead, use it as a safety check.
What I mean by that, is to use it as a way to fill any content gaps that you might have missed when finding keywords with your preferred method of choice. No matter what method you use, you’re bound to miss at least a few great keywords, and I’ve found that Keyword Chef is good at finding those missed opportunities.
If you’ve already finished your keyword research for a bicycling site, simply run all of your bicycling terms through Keyword Chef to see what kind of results it gives you. Set it to only give you question-based keywords, then enter words like bike, kickstand, handlebars, spokes, etc. to see what you’ve missed.
Surprisingly, when using Keyword Chef in this way, I’ve been able to identify quite a few good keywords that I missed initially. At the same time, I have plenty of keywords on my list that the tool is not spitting out. That’s why it’s important to tackle keyword research from multiple angles.
In my opinion, keyword tools can be used to great effect when building a niche website. The key is to understand what those tools are providing, instead of making assumptions that many times turn out to be incorrect.
By using a keyword tool as a general guideline and combining that information with some manual work, you can unearth a ton of great keywords that others will never come across.