Context: The New Science of SEO Keyword ResearchIn 2013, Google replaced its open Keyword Tool with the AdWords-connected Keyword Planner, requiring marketers to have a Google Adwords account to do keyword research.

This change in access (and slight change in data results) goes hand in hand with a larger, more comprehensive shift in what Google looks for in search results.

Rather than focus on what users are searching for, Google strives to analyze why people are searching, bringing all SEO keyword research to focus on context.

Google Uses Context, and So Should You

The more sophisticated Google gets, the more it understands context and how different words create different meaning.

For example, the search engine now understands the intent behind a user including words like “in” and “near” in a query. The context of the question affects the results a customer will get when he makes a search.

The biggest lesson here is that marketers and businesses embarking on SEO keyword research need to think of the ideal customer first, not exact keywords.

You can’t open a keyword research tool and hop on whatever is popular or you may make decisions without fully grasping how Google will display those results. If Google acts on the context behind each search, marketers need to understand why and build websites for those circumstances.

(You can read more about how to use the Keyword Planner here).

Modern Day SEO Keyword Research

Fortunately, this doesn’t have to be a total guessing game. Content popularity will give you a clear path to what your customers are interested in, yielding more leads and sales. And you can glean a lot of insight from considering not just what your customer is searching for, but why he is searching for it.

Here are four useful steps for brainstorming effective, modern day SEO keyword research:

1. Start with a detailed persona.

Instead of focusing on keywords anyone might use to access information, you need to take a fresh look at your customer personas.

Who are your customers, and what is their role in the company? What role do they play in the buying process, and what actions do they take?

Asking these questions will allow you to infer where your customer is coming from when they type in the keyword.

2. Zero in on user context.

When you have a clear vision of your customer's situation, you then need to understand the problem they are trying to solve by using the keyword in question.

What event has occurred? What new problem does your customer have? Is there a shift in your market or industry?

Each answer will give you insight into the context in which your customer is asking the question, allowing you to nail the Google search results that focus on context.

3. Consider which questions your target customer will ask.

To meet Google’s expectations for search queries, the results of your SEO keyword research need to be conversational. The content you build needs to be based on words your customers actually use, and then the content needs to be cross referenced with your keyword research.

To identify the best opportunities, consider which questions your target customer will ask and then document those questions as content in a blog, ebook, guide, white paper, webinar, or video. Figure out how can your company’s content be the answer for your ideal customer, and cover the topic so thoroughly that your website becomes a resource.

4. Think in clear topics and categories.

One of our favorite “Whiteboard Friday” episodes is based on the concept that you have to serve topics and people rather than keywords and rankings.

This sound advice is backed up by the fact that Google’s powerful search engine organizes questions into topics and categories. Your content needs to fall into clear topics and categories so that Google can figure out whether or not your website will meet the needs (both in topic and context) of the customer completing the search.

If you can provide information on your product or service and comparisons with alternatives that answer the customer’s question, the more likely it is that your content will appear in your customer’s personalized search results. (Even better? Provide opportunities for customers to express affinity by liking, sharing, essentially “voting” for the helpfulness of your content.)

The most effective SEO keyword research reveals the real words that your customers are using to answer real questions they have about your product or industry. That’s the most efficient way to update your SEO keyword strategy and get the right content to the right customers.

Are you writing down the words that customers and prospects use to describe concepts relating to your products and services? Does your sales team need to make note of these phrases to better inform your marketing team?