Discovering the words or phrases (aka “keywords”) your ideal customers are searching for on Google (and other search platforms) is an essential first-step in the search engine optimization (SEO) process.
Choosing which of these keywords will be most effective and profitable is known as “keyword research”.
Keyword research will help determine which words or phrases you should aim to rank for, on each of your web pages, content, images, and even videos, so you can get in front of potential customers.
Unfortunately, the idea of “picking the best keywords” is a part of SEO that stumps a lot of people right out of the gate.
That’s where a solid strategy combined with a keyword research tool comes in handy. (Luckily, the experts in this post help weigh in on the strategy part.)
How Keyword Research Tools Work
Keyword research tools simply help you discover the data for what actually gets searched and how people type (or speak) their queries into the search engine.
At their core, all keyword research tools will provide data on these primary things:
- Search Volume – How often a specific keyword gets searched (per month)
- Competition or Difficulty – How hard will it be to rank for this keyword (each platform has its own way of measuring this)
- Cost-Per-Click (CPC) – How much would it cost if you were to run ads for this keyword
- Related Keywords – What other words or phrases do people search that you might want to consider
Keyword research tools primarily share data for Google, but many also provide information for Bing, YouTube, Amazon, and more.
There are lots of different tools available — free and paid — each with its own differentiating features. And choosing the best tool can be a challenge in and of itself.
Which Tool Is Best?
Are paid tools better than the free ones? Which tool has the best features for a small business? Should I use one or multiple tools?
That’s why I thought I’d ask some experts for their opinions. I asked 11 search marketing pros this question:
What are your go-to keyword research tools (paid or free)? And why?
Here are the results:
Best Keyword Research Tools (Rated By 11 Experts)
- Semrush – 6 Votes
- Ahrefs – 4 Votes
- Google Ads Keyword Planner – 4 Votes
- Google (the search engine itself) – 3 Votes
- AnswerThePublic – 2 Votes
- Google Trends – 2 Votes
- Keywords Everywhere – 2 Vote
- BuzzSumo – 1 Vote
- Google Search Console – 1 Vote
- Keyword Surfer – 1 Vote
- Keyword Tool – 1 Vote
- Quora – 1 Vote
- SERP App (not publicly available yet) – 1 Vote
- Ubersuggest – 1 Vote
Some of the respondents have only one “go-to” tool, while others use multiple. And some of the resources mentioned aren’t even specifically designed for “keyword research”, but rather tools or websites that can be used to gather ideas.
Next, I’ll break each tool down one-by-one.
I thought I’d separate the tools out into free, freemium (has a free and paid version), and paid.
Free Keyword Research Tools:
I’ll start with the free tools.
Google Ads Keyword Planner (4 Votes)
This is the fundamental resource for keyword data — offered directly from Google itself — and it’s free. This tool is located inside the Google Ads platform and is designed primarily for those running paid ads, but is equally as great for SEO purposes. Discover keyword volume, related keywords, CPC, competition, and historical trends, which can be drilled down to specific geographic areas — all directly from the source!
Expert Tip: Upon first use, you’ll notice the tool only shows a vague range for search volume (eg. 10K-100K) rather than exact monthly data. The workaround is to simply create an ad campaign, enter your billing information, but you never have to launch the campaign — the exact search volumes will appear going forward.
Google Web Search (3 Votes)
The search engine itself can be a great resource to get you started. By simply typing a topic or phrase into the search bar, the “autocomplete” feature will predict and make suggestions based on what’s trending. Moreover, once you’ve entered a query, Google will display ‘People also search for’, ‘People also ask’, ‘Interesting finds’, and ‘Related searches’ amongst the search results.
Google Trends (2 Votes)
Google Trends is another free tool provided by Google that shows rising and falling trends for topics and keywords on Google’s web search, Google Images, Google News, Google Shopping, and YouTube — and interest by specific geographic areas. More importantly, it allows you to find new topics, compare two or more keywords, and capitalize on topics that are trending.
Google Search Console (1 Vote)
Google Search Console (formerly Google Webmaster Tools) is a powerful tool that monitors the performance on your website — clicks, impressions, click-through rates (CTR), and average positions (rankings on Google). Search Console isn’t a keyword research per se, it instead provides valuable insights for how people find your website (pages and posts), which keywords are getting traffic to your website, and how your content appears in the Google search results (pages/post rankings, rich snippets, and devices). All this data is gold for tracking how your SEO is working.
Keyword Surfer (1 Vote)
Keyword Surfer is a free Chrome browser add-on from Surfer that displays keyword data right inside Google’s search results — monthly search volume and keyword ideas.
Secondly, when you do a search on Google, it reveals the monthly traffic, content word count, and number of exact keywords for each of the websites ranking in the search results.
One of Keyword Surfer’s most valuable features is its Content Editor which allows you to begin drafting your content directly inside the search engine and provides your rolling word count, related keywords to use, and the amount of times your content includes specific keywords (and missing keywords).
I am keeping Keyword Surfer under the list of “Free” tools because its keyword research features are 100% free. However, to get additional features for the Content Editor (content score, headings, paragraphs, and images), you will have to upgrade your plan (starting at $59/month).
Quora (1 Vote)
This is a popular website where questions on any topic are asked, answered, and voted on. Quora can be a great resource to find and validate your topic ideas.
Freemium Keyword Research Tools:
These are tools that can be used for free (often with limitations), but also have paid versions for upgraded features.
AnswerThePublic (2 Votes)
AnswerThePublic is a website that allows you to discover specific questions people ask about a certain topic (eg. “how do keyword research tools work”) and visually organizes them by type – “are”, “can”, “how”, “when”, “where”, “which”, “who”, “why”, and “will”. From a keyword research standpoint, this allows you to target specific questions in your content and answer those questions as closely as possible to the way they were searched.
Price: The free version of this tool allows for up to three searches per day and allows you to export a CSV spreadsheet of the keywords. It also provides additional information on prepositions, comparisons, and other related keywords. Upgrade to the Pro version (starting at $99/month) for unlimited searches and more reporting options.
BuzzSumo (1 Vote)
BuzzSumo is a website that allows you to find out what content is popular by topic or on a particular website. To start, it reveals which web pages or blog posts have received the most engagement (social media shares) for a specific keyword and ranks them by such. This allows you to compare which content is performing well and how you can improve upon yours. Secondly, it allows you to discover the latest trending articles across the web for various categories (news, sports, business, etc).
Price: The free plan only allows for 10 searches per month and 1 custom trending feed per month which you can very easily use up on your first attempt at using the site.
Some of BuzzSumo’s most valuable features (starting at $99/month) allow you to discover top performing Facebook and YouTube content, find influencers by topic, and uncover backlinks to a specific website, page, or article (great for competitor research or for your own website).
Keyword Tool (1 Vote)
Keyword Tool leverages Google’s “autocomplete” feature to reveal dozens of related keywords — and additionally questions and prepositions — not readily available when simply searching on Google. The tool also provides keyword suggestions for YouTube, Bing, Amazon, eBay, Play Store, Instagram, and Twitter.
Price: To unlock full data for search volume, trends, CPC, competition, and even more keywords, they have “Pro” versions of the tool starting at $89/month.
Ubersuggest (1 Vote)
Ubersuggest is a tool developed by Neil Patel. It is perhaps one the easiest keyword research tools to use because it provides all the data a beginner will need in a super easy-to-use interface — search volume, keyword ideas, and it uses a practical color-coated “SEO Difficulty (SD)” score. Ubersuggest also reveals content (web pages or articles) that ranks for the keyword you search and that content’s estimated visits, backlinks, and social media shares (Facebook and Pinterest).
Price: The free version allows for three searches per day. Additional searches and features are available starting at $29/month.
Paid Keyword Research Tools:
Here is a look at the paid tools.
Semrush (6 Votes)
Semrush is a robust SEO platform that offers a wide-ranging suite of tools — and the #1 most popular for keyword research amongst the experts in this article. Here are a few of Semrush’s most popular and unique keyword research features.
- Keyword Overview – This provides an in-depth overview of monthly search volume (by country), global volume (ranked by country), and a “Keyword Difficulty (KD)” score for any keyword you enter. This overview also provides keyword variations, question-based keywords that contain your seed keyword, and related keywords.
- Keyword Magic Tool – This tool allows you to dive much deeper by providing more detailed statistics about the top 10 related keywords.
- Keyword Gap – Compare your site against your competitors (up to 5) and see which keywords you “share” with them, are “weak” (you could improve upon), or are altogether “missing” from your site. This, along with the “Organic Research” tool, are a great way to see who is ranking best for specific keywords and discover which keywords your competitors are ranking for.
- Filters – Much of the premium value of Semrush is in its filters, which not only let you search for related keywords by keyword difficulty, search volume, and word count, but also by featured snippets, videos, images, and reviews.
Price: You can actually use some of Semrush’s tools for free, but with limited functionality. For example, you get 10 searches per day for the Keyword Overview, Keyword Magic Tool, and Domain Overview — and they will give you a taste of some of their other tools. A free account is a great solution for a beginner or to get familiar with the tool.
I am keeping Semrush in the “paid” category because most of their features will require a subscription (starting at $119.95/month).
Ahrefs (4 Votes)
Ahrefs is one of the most popular SEO platforms on the market. This platform offers a wide-ranging suite of tools, but I’ll specifically highlight a few of the unique features on their “Keywords Explorer” tool.
- Search Engines – Ahrefs provides data from Google, YouTube, Amazon, Bing, Yahoo, Yandex, and more.
- Keyword Difficulty (KD) – This score estimates how hard it will be to rank in the top 10 Google search results, and, more importantly, how many backlinks you’ll need too.
- Search Volume – Average monthly search volume is a staple of all keyword research tools, but Ahrefs takes it a step further by showing how many average clicks a keyword gets (eg. 51%) along with historical trends in the number of searches and clicks.
- Parent Topic – This unique feature suggests a more popular version of the keyword to potentially get more traffic.
- SERP Position Overview – Shows the ranking history of the top five web pages.
- SERP Overview – Shows the top 10 ranking pages for a keyword, their number of backlinks, estimated traffic, and total amount of other keywords each also ranks for.
- Filters – Much of Ahrefs’ added value is in its filters, which let you search for related keywords by keyword difficulty, search volume, and more. You can also search for, and compare, multiple keywords at once.
Price: Unlike many other tools that offer a free trial, Ahrefs only offers a 7-day for $7 trial. Their subscription plans start at $99/month.
Keywords Everywhere (2 Votes)
Keywords Everywhere is a browser add-on available for Chrome and Firefox that displays keyword data right inside Google’s search results — monthly search volume, competition, and historical trend data — for the keyword you searched and for related keywords, ‘people also search for’, and long-tail keywords.
Not only does Keywords Everywhere work on Google, it also works directly on Bing, YouTube, Amazon, eBay, Etsy, and AnswerThePublic.
Price: While this is a paid tool, its costs are substantially affordable starting at $10 for 100,000 credits (1 credit = 1 keyword search) which expire after one year.
Expert Tip: The $10 for 100,000 credits will be more than enough for the average Joe. I’ve used Keywords Everywhere on a daily basis and never even come close to using the full 100,000 credits in one year.
Meet The Experts
For this article, I specifically chose experts in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom that work directly with small business marketing, specialize in local SEO, and/or work in or operate SEO agencies.
Important note: I recognize all the experts featured here are men. This was not intentional. I did invite several female experts to participate, but unfortunately did not receive any responses from them. My Site Ranked will continue to reach out to women in SEO for future posts.
Here’s what the experts answered and how they use each tool.
Ahrefs is by far the top keyword research tool. Compared to other tools like Semrush and the Google Keyword Planner, Ahrefs seems to show more realistic volume. Additionally, Ahrefs provides keywords in topics so you can easily research the parent topic and related phrase-match searches. Finally, we can quickly perform keyword research with Ahrefs for any source (Google, Bing, YouTube, etc.) and for any location (United States, Canada, UK, etc.).
Depending on what I am working on there are a few keyword research tools I like to use. For competitive keyword research I love Semrush. It has unveiled countless opportunities for me doing competitive research using their Organic Research tool and Keyword Gap tool, it is a quick and easy way to identify the keywords your competitor is ranking for. I also love their Keyword Magic tool, the way that it can group keywords together is great for finding easily overlooked opportunities.
If I am trying to target a featured snippet or answer a question in a blog post, I love AnswerThePublic. They do a great job identifying questions people are asking around a topic or keyword.
Last but not least, for local campaigns the free Google Keyword Planner is still a great resource. It is invaluable to be able to pull search metrics refined by city, postal code, state, or country as well as being able to specify the time-frame that the average search volume is based upon.
SERP App – We developed a tool in-house that gives me more granularity and strategic decision making for finding, grouping/siloing, and selecting keywords based on potential opportunity and difficulty to rank. SERP App, which will be open to the public very soon, allows you to target keywords holistically instead of independently, and find the best targets for your website based on competition, time to rank, and revenue.
Ahrefs – I use Ahrefs for most of my keyword research simply because I’m used to it. I’ve put in enough hours on the tool that I know where everything is.
Key takeaway for people to understand: All tools will have different metrics for volume, difficulty, etc. It doesn’t matter. What matters is choosing one and getting used to it. Once you do that you can build a process around research and planning that fits what data that the tool gives you.
Pro Tip: Don’t look at keyword search volume. Look at the top 10 results ranking, and focus on the traffic to those URLs. A keyword with 50 SV (search volume) might seem like a loser, but when you see that the traffic to the ranking URL is 500+ (because of all the variations and long tails) then that 50 volume keyword just got a lot juicier.
Google Trends (free) is great to see if there are any sudden shifts in audience behaviours around certain topics and keywords, and this can help dictate if there’s a shift in user intent or to see if there are rising opportunities to target.
Semrush (paid) has many different neat features within its Keyword Magic Tool. I especially like the filtering they do so I can find a bunch of related keywords that include a certain word. Also, their functionality to see questions that people ask around a searched keyword is great to find opportunities for more content to add.
Chris M. Walker
Keywords Everywhere – Good for at glance keyword info.
Keywordtool.io – Diverse and has a good ‘questions’ feature.
BuzzSumo – Helps you find proven content that works.
Google itself with ‘People also searched for’.
President & Founder
Google Search Console > BigQuery > Google Data Studio.
A good friend of mine, Noah Learner, built this automated tool that downloads the previous 16 months worth of Google Search Console Data and puts it into BigQuery. Then, each day, an automation downloads each previous day’s records and adds it to the BigQuery database. We have a 6 page Google Data Studio Report that populates all of this data, fast.
We can run query filters, page filters, date ranges, questions, etc. in a matter of seconds. The insights that this build has shown us has far outpaced any third-party tool.
Getting accurate keyword data is crucial to build campaigns around them and relying solely on a client’s Google Search Console data has been highly beneficial for us and our clients.
CEO & Digital Marketing Consultant
Semrush – In a nutshell it’s powerful, fast, and easy to use. The Keyword Magic Tool is very easy to find search volume and ranking difficulty for your primary keyword, variants, and related search terms, and questions. Filtering is comprehensive and flexible making it easy to narrow focus to priority keywords.
Director of Operations
When doing our initial keyword research for an audit or campaign, we usually start with either Semrush or Ahrefs. Both tools do a pretty good job at organizing and segmenting keywords into thematic categories. Sometimes I find discrepancies across their metrics, so it’s always a good idea to make a quick comparison.
As far as browser-based tools, Keyword Surfer is a handy chrome plugin, and it works well as a daily driver for keyword examination.
When it comes to content and blog posts, we like to build out topic clusters. Tools like AnswerThePublic and Quora are great for this.
I use Semrush (paid tool) for much of my keyword research activities. My reasons are simple — it gets the job done quickly and is pretty simple to use. It allows competitor-based keyword research and analyzes your competitor’s top keywords. From tracking keyword performance, to having the access to various advanced keyword research solutions, I can rely on Semrush.
- Google Ads Keyword Planner
- Google (running searches and looking at suggested words etc.)
- Google Trends
Semrush has become our go-to keyword research tool as it aggregates the most important information that we need.
It enables easy competitive keyword/ranking research, and one of the often overlooked features that I love is that it shows on the charts when Google Algorithm changes took place and also highlights times of overall ranking volatility across all rankings. This is super helpful to understand why we may have gained or lost position on keywords.
Semrush also has fantastic ongoing keyword ranking reporting, the visibility report is especially helpful in showing how your website is performing against your competition over a period of time (weeks, months, years).
Ubersuggest is a fantastic free tool that I highly recommend to anyone who doesn’t wish to invest in a paid tool. Although it doesn’t have the same depth of insights as Semrush, you can glean a wealth of information from this tool at no cost.
There are two tools I primarily use. The first would be Google’s free Keyword Planner tool. I like this tool, because you’re getting data straight from the primary source. I typically start with Keyword Planner before moving to other tools.
The next tool I use is the keyword research tool from Ahrefs. I bought Ahrefs, because I find them to be one of the best at scraping and finding links to track backlink building efforts and find competitor links to steal. However, I think their keyword tool is also pretty darn good. I think it gauges competition better than Google’s keyword tool. Google also filters out and won’t provide data for certain searches. For instance, Google will not provide data for any keywords including “CBD” or “injury”. If you’re doing research around either of these two topics, you need a different keyword tool and that’s where Ahrefs is invaluable for me.
BONUS EXPERT – That’s Me!
I like to keep things simple and cheap. I work primarily with small local businesses, and they too are typically looking for less-complicated, non-technical options and want to keep costs low.
Keywords Everywhere – I like this tool because it allows me to do keyword research fast. I can find everything I need right inside the Google search results page and don’t need to bounce back and forth to another website. Heck, even the time saved not having to log into another website or tool is precious to me.
Keywords Everywhere also has some great (overlooked) features, similar to more expensive tools, such as the ability to analyze the content on a specific page, get the top rankings pages for any website, and find which keywords a specific website is ranking for.
Google Ads Keyword Planner – When I need to dive deeper, this is my solution. This tool is robust, free, and you get the data straight from the source – Google!
For competitive research, I will often do a simple Google search and compare the top ranking websites by their URL, title of the page/post, and what they used for their title tag (SEO title). It’s nothing fancy, but it works for me.
Choosing Your Tool
At the end of the day, most keyword research tools provide data of these four things — monthly search volume, competition/difficulty, related keyword ideas, and CPC — they each just have their own spin on how they collect this data and how they present it to the user.
The question is not so much which tool is better, but rather which tool is best for you — based on your needs, your level of expertise, how the tool functions, and how much you want to spend.
As Devin Schumacher of SERP Co says,
What matters is choosing one and getting used to it.
And I couldn’t agree more.
Test a few of these tools. Find one that you’re comfortable with, whose features and interface you like, and that fits your budget — then get started!