12.01.201511 min read

Top Keyword Research Tools to Find the Most Effective Keywords

Keyword research sets the foundation for any successful SEO campaign. Knowing what your target audience is searching for and creating optimized content for those keywords is the basis of SEO.

I’ve been asked a lot of times by clients and business owners, “So what exactly makes for a good keyword?” Well, it’s actually quite simple. The best keywords have three main ingredients:

  • Searched often by users
  • Aren’t very competitive
  • Relevant to the website and business

I’ve found one of the most effective strategies for keyword research is to first find relevant keywords that are frequently searched and secondly, prioritize the keywords based on how competitive they are. Let’s start with the first part.

Tools to find relevant keywords with high search volume

Luckily there are plenty of powerful tools to identify relevant keywords that are frequently searched. Some are free while others come with a price tag. Let’s take a look at some of the most effective tools so you’re equipped for battle and ready to go keyword hunting. For these examples, I will use Groovy Groomsmen Gifts, an online shop that sells gifts for groomsmen.

Google Keyword Planner—free

 google keyword planner.png

Google’s Keyword Planner is one of the most popular and effective tools for identifying relevant keywords. Best of all, it’s completely free. It has search query data straight from Google, which shows just how many times a keyword is searched. Just enter a keyword related to your business and let Google’s Keyword Planner do the rest. Entering “groomsmen gifts” gives us the following results:

 google keyword results.png

As you can see, Google does all the heavy lifting for us and automatically shows relevant keywords with a large number of monthly searches. It also allows you to filter by average monthly searches to see the most searched keywords related to your business. One thing to note, the competition column refers to how competitive a keyword is to bid on within Google AdWords and doesn’t apply to how difficult a keyword is to rank for in organic search.

Bing Keyword Research—free

Bing keyword research.pngBing’s Keyword Research tool is very similar to Google’s Keyword Planner; the only difference is that the search query data comes from Bing instead of Google. Inputting our example keyword “groomsmen gifts” results in the following data:

bing keyword search results.png


You might have noticed that the search volume values are much lower in Bing’s Keyword Research Tool than Google’s Keyword Planner. This is because Bing only has about 21 percent search engine market share. Both tools are great, but many SEOs and business owners prefer to use Google’s Keyword Planner since it has more search query data and better filtering options.

SEM Rush—free (limited functionality) or $69.95/mo

SEM rush.png

SEM Rush is a very powerful tool that also provides keyword suggestions, but it has another trick up its sleeve. It tracks over 120,000,000 keywords and shows the number of keywords any website ranks for. Just imagine being able to see exactly what keywords your competitors are targeting and ranking for. Well, SEM Rush makes this very easy. Just enter a competitor (or a few) and you’ll get a long list of relevant keywords that looks something like this:

 sem rush keywords.png

As you can see, SEM Rush provides a lot of other useful data such as cost per click, estimated traffic percentage, and keyword trends. The data can be easily exported into a spreadsheet, which makes keyword research even easier. Just run a few of your competitors through the tool, export the data, and start building your list of keywords.

Ahrefs—free (limited functionality) or $79/mo


Ahrefs is one of the newer kids on the block but has exploded with popularity in the past few years, and for good reason. Ahrefs provides a complete powerhouse of tools not just for keyword research, but for backlink analysis and content ideation, as well. It’s definitely one of the more advanced tools and is geared more for SEO professionals. However, it also includes lots of valuable data that is helpful for any business owner or marketing manager.

Ahrefs actually has two separate tools, which can be used for keyword research, the Keyword Explorer and Positions Explorer.

Keyword Explorer

The Keyword Explorer is very similar to Google and Bing’s keyword research tools. Simply enter a keyword and ahrefs will suggest related keywords. Sticking with our groomsmen gifts example, here’s what the results look like:

 ahrefs keyword explorer.png

Not only does ahrefs’ Keyword Explorer display suggested keywords, it also identifies keyword trends and groups, displayed on the left sidebar. This can be very helpful for quickly identifying new content topics, product categories, and more.

Positions Explorer

This component of ahrefs functions very similar to SEM Rush. Enter your website or a competitor’s website to see all the keywords they are ranking for.

ahrefs positions explorer.png 

You might have noticed that the results are similar to SEM Rush. That’s because these two tools are very closely related. So which one should you go with? Both SEM Rush and ahrefs are powerful and great for keyword research and have their advantages. Many feel SEM Rush is more user friendly and better for those who are less technical while ahrefs is more advanced but offers more powerful tools and data.

Tools for keyword competition

So far we’ve reviewed a lot of great tools that will help you find relevant keywords that are searched often by users. But now it’s time to prioritize which keywords we should focus on by looking at the competition of each keyword. Keyword competition is a score that gives us an idea of how difficult the keyword is to rank for. Some keywords are extremely competitive and require a lot of time and resources while other keywords are much less competitive and easier to rank. The following tools assess just how competitive a keyword is.

Moz ($99/mo)


Moz is a full-service SEO solution that offers everything an SEO manager or business owner would need for a successful campaign. They have many easy-to-use tools including rank tracking, competitive link data, and even an on-page grader to help you optimize and improve your website. For now, we’ll just be looking at their Keyword Difficulty tool, which is a powerful tool for analyzing keyword competition.

 keyword difficult tool.png

Moz’s Keyword Difficulty tools analyze the webpages ranking on page one of Google to assess just how competitive the keyword is. The more authoritative the websites ranking on page one are, the higher the keyword competition. It looks like our target keyword “groomsmen gifts” has a Difficulty Score of 43 percent, which is moderately competitive. By entering a few other target keywords we can start to get an idea of which keywords are easier to rank. If a keyword’s difficulty score is too high it’s probably a good idea to focus on less competitive keywords, especially for a newer website.

The tool also provides additional data such as keyword usage and social signals to hint at why some competitors might be ranking so high.

 Moz keyword usage and difficulty.png

This information is very valuable when looking for opportunities to improve your webpages as well as your rankings. Does a competitor in the No. 1 position have a similar number links but better keyword usage? Then it might be worth re-optimizing the webpage.

SEM Rush—free (limited functionality) or $69.95/mo

 sem rush 2.png

SEM Rush again? Didn’t we already cover that? Sure did, but SEM Rush also includes great tools for analyzing keyword competition. Just like Moz’s Keyword Difficulty tool, SEM Rush will easily assess how competitive a keyword is and provide a score. Entering in a few groomsmen keywords gives us the following data.

 sem rush keyword difficulty.png

The results aren’t as detailed as Moz’s Keyword Difficulty tool but that’s OK; all we needs is the difficulty score. One downside with SEM Rush is that it can only show the difficulty score for keywords in their database. They track over 120,000,000 keywords and should provide the difficult score for the vast majority of your target keywords. However, SEM Rush may not be able to provide any competitive data for some keywords with low search volume.

Final thoughts

While there are many other tools out available for keyword research, these are some of the most effective and widely used. They have been tested and proven to be highly effective for keyword research and analysis. Having the right keywords can make or break an SEO campaign, so it’s important to have the right tools for the right job. But which of these tools are best for you? Give them a try and find the best keyword research solution for your needs. Luckily these tools are either free or offer a free trial.

Is there a keyword research tool you like to use but wasn’t included? Let us know what it is and why you like it in the comments.


Jeff Oxford is the founder of 180 Marketing, an SEO agency specializing in SEO for eCommerce businesses. He has managed SEO campaigns for over 150 national and international brands. He has also served as an SEO expert witness in civil trial cases, authored SEO articles for many large publications, and has given speaking presentations at the world’s largest eCommerce conference, the Internet Retailer Conference & Expo.

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