How To Build a Keyword Matrix [and Why You Need One]

If built and used properly a keyword matrix can increase your rankings and your keyword spread exponentially. The keyword matrix will help you match the user intent in search queries with the content on your website, thus sending positive signals to Google that you’re relevant for your niche.

Keyword matrices have traditionally been used for paid search, but also have far reaching implications for organic search; essentially using other factors of influence to help qualify and quantify your opportunities.

So, What is a Keyword Matrix?

Unlike the virtual world built by the Wachowski brothers, the idea is relatively simple, a matrix is a 2-dimensional table that enables you to cross reference two aspects, and analyze opportunities – with the potential to slice and layer additional information on top for deeper analysis.

When applied to keywords, it gives you 2 axises from which to gauge different qualitative heuristics.

Michael Martinez discusses passive versus active keyword matrices, putting the emphasis on purpose; a passive matrix records keyword data that other websites are using, where as an active matrix is used as a design template for your website and content.

I am going to be taking a different approach to defining and building keyword matrices for organic search.

I want to look at search intent versus search volume and search volume versus SERP competitiveness. These 2 scenarios are very interesting because the first is an inverse relationship, and the latter is linear.

Here’s a look at the relationship between search volume vs. user intent:

Query complexity tends to also have an inverse relationship with search volume; as complexity decreases (from long-tail to head), search volume tends to increase.

In the graph above you can see how search volume steadily decreases as intent increases (thus the inverse relationship), and again, it is usually the case that the query length (and complexity) increase in relation to intent.

Now look at the relationship between search volume and SERP competitiveness:


Not surprisingly the higher the search volume, the more competitive the SERP. Now let’s overlay intent segments over the search volume versus search intent correlation graph:
Looking at this further – this starts to lay out what your matrix will look like.
With the implications between hummingbird and moving entirely to secure search, a focus on intent at the content level is critical.

We are definitely seeing a move away from the big volumes offered traditionally by “head terms,” into an era where the long-tail is even more important, as Google serves up more personalized results. This means that a simple result for ‘insurance’ will no longer be shown, and instead the results will be more relevant to something such as ‘cheap car insurance quotes for a 33 year old male’.


Simon Penson, Founder of Zazzle Media

Many SEO’s are already gleaning intent from their keyword research:

Keyword research is excellent for understanding user intent, which is one of the main pillars of my content strategies. I focus on crafting content that will meet customer expectations in hopes of creating a better overall experience.


Gisele Navarro, Head of Outreach at NeoMam

One major issue is that getting your head wrapped around intent can be difficult at first

I think initially, understanding keyword intent can be difficult for some people. Once you get past that, I think the challenging part becomes getting the right level of granularity for the topic of a page, and how diverse your set of keywords are to include on a page can be tricky for people.


Geoff Kenyon, SEO Consultant at Distilled

And this is precisely how using keyword matrices can be beneficial; they help categorize your target terms by providing a visual cue to brainstorm and prioritize.

The hardest thing I deal with is how to balance both keyword strategy & UX when you’re trying to cut up your products & categorize them in different ways. i.e. some issues that will come up that are purely judgement calls:


  • Trying to label subcategories as highly searched keywords, but those subs aren’t necessarily the best way to cut them up from a user perspective (they wouldn’t mine down to the products they want that way; i.e. too specific or non-inclusive of what they’re looking for)
  • Trying to create a category for Product Characteristic A, and one for Product Characteristic B (because they’re both big keywords), but a product could possibly have both characteristics, which could confuse the user at the point of entry (even if you have some products in both categories, which would be one possible solution)
  • This is more research oriented, but not knowing enough about your product’s terminology that could give insight into what keywords people are searching to find your products, as well as variations off of that (keyword planner doesn’t give the best related keyword suggestions IMO).

So really what keyword strategy (and research) comes down to for ecommerce sites is A) knowing some general SEO rules of thumb (i.e. an optimal URL structure, what to do when you come across situation X, etc.) B) knowing your products inside & out (this is essential and spells doom for anyone who tries to find shortcuts!).


Jon Cooper, Owner of Point Blank SEO

Why You Need To Be Using Keyword Matrices

To Jon’s point above, you need to take into consideration how keywords are going to shape your content, and how your content needs to be formed to support your user’s intent, both in getting searchers to your site and to help them navigate while they’re there.

Think of this scenario:

You manage an eCommerce website that sells high-end camera’s and camera equipment.

Two visitors come into your site using the search term “SLR camera accessories,” they both searched Google using the same body term with commercial intent.

They are both looking for the exact same product, a Noktor 50mm lens, but here’s where it gets interesting, and where alignment between keywords and your content becomes critical to conversion – one visitors click’s into the category “SLR Accessories,” while the other clicks into “SLR Lens.”

Do they both find the Noktor 50mm lens they’re looking for?

It depends on if you have listed the product in all of the intent-based locations where it’s relevant.

The separation is between product versus function, one user is looking for a product specific attribute, a lens, where the other is looking for a functional attribute, an accessory.

Keyword research is one of the first places to find consumer pain points – by nature, they are looking for answers to their questions. So, it’s a great place to do research. But finding the keyword is not enough – you must also do a competitive analysis to determine whether or not your solution can be the best, or the cost-benefit may not be worth it.


For example, we built a marketing checklist and did comparative research: are there any other checklists out there? Do they compare to our proposed solution? What competitive advantages do they have? After determining we could create by far the best solution (not a requirement), we moved forward in building it.


Ross Hudgens, Founder of Siege Media

In the scenario above it’s not as much about the pain points as it is how different brains approach solving the same problem, and how content needs to be structured as a path toward a solution, regardless of which path is taken.

How SEO’s Currently Approach Keywords

The idea of using a keyword matrix is far from new at this point, but it really isn’t talked about much on the interwebs.

I wanted to get a sense of how important keywords were to some SEO’s when it came to producing content – as a litmus test for how much impact a strategic tool like a keyword matrix might have on their efforts.

Ross puts it beautifully:

Simply because a keyword exists and it could send you relevant traffic, does not mean you should build that page. Your competitors may simply be better positioned to rank for those keywords, both today and in the future.   The second part is semantic touch / IA / UX combination.


It’s hard to mix the usability / information architecture / SEO needs in a neat and non-obtrusive way, and that’s something that takes a lot of experience to get right / blend delicately.

How important is aligning keyword research with your content production efforts?

Understanding the possible intent of the searcher for each keyword we’re targeting allows us to have a better approach and purpose for the overall content.


Jason Acidre, Owner of Kaiser The Sage

In a recent article by Peep Laja, he said:

SEO is going to get increasingly harder. If you’re still doing SEO by optimizing for keywords, you should know: it’s not 2008 anymore. Things have changed! Google understands context, natural language, intent.

And he is completely right.

Expanding on head terms and focusing on traffic is not how you are going to win the SERP’s as we move into the world of 100% not provided and complete geo-personalized results.

But getting intent right is hard, and making sure you are developing the right content to support the right intent, at the right phase in the conversion funnel is even harder. But using research, analysis, and a dash of creativity gets the ball rolling…

Coming from an SEO background I’ve always felt that keyword research is one of the best sources for content development. Before Google stole our keyword data, leveraging your existing analytics could show popular topics that were performing well, but were under serviced.


For example, a marketing company may find articles around “Facebook Advertising” were generating 25% of their leads, but only made up 3% of their content. It’s a good indicator of topics you could possibly flesh out and create more content around.   Of course the other great use of keyword data is using tools like UberSuggest, Google Keyword Planner, Google Trends, Google Suggest, etc to build out a content plan around topics that are relevant to the personas you are targeting.


I’ve ran several workshops for teams of editors in big media companies and showing them how simple it is to get content ideas using tools like this really changed the way they approached their editorial meetings.   I’ve always been a big fan of owning a topic. If we are talking about keyword lists, then in my mind that’s a owning something like “best red widgets” as the core keyword, but it will have a bunch of secondary keywords hanging off it “best red widgets 2013”.


In these cases you are trying to create a relevant content campaign that has multiple pieces in different formats all focused around that central topic. If you split your campaign like this, interlink those pieces and have a solid plan to distribute links across the different pieces, it gives Google a better reason to rank your content. You can obviously just go for one stand out piece if targeting a big keyword.


Kieran Flanagan, Marketing Director at Hubspot

How to Build a Keyword Matrix

Initial keyword research is the first step toward building an informative keyword matrix.

So fire up keyword snatcher (or whatever keyword mining tool you fancy), drop in your head term (just one), and send it off to the races. The Excel file is designed to handle *any* keyword data, as it uses a natural language macro to look for signaling words (that you can manage in the key) to tag searcher intent.

Export to CSV > Filter out illegal characters > cut into lists of 10,000 keywords > Save CSV.

Upload into Google Keyword Planner > Get Ideas > Export to CSV.

Use keyword combiner to join all of your individual research files.

Open in Excel > Sort descending by search volume > Add a column for intent > Add a column for “Best” > Save.

Here’s where you should be at:


Tagging For Intent

Tagging for search intent is critical, this is where effective prioritization starts to really come into focus. Here is how I approach tagging for the 4 top-level buckets of user intent:

  • Informational – a specific question where the results are the information the searcher is looking for, may contain phrases such as:  info, more information, details, features, benefits, etc.
  • Navigational – contains the name of the brand, product, service, or a person at the organization.
  • Commercial Investigation – easiest to identify and least ambiguous, these queries contain specific parameters for researching a purchase, such as sizes, colors, versus, best, price, pricing, etc.
  • Transactional -indicative of shopping behavior further down the conversion funnel, at this point the searcher knows what they want – so look for terms like buy, purchase, sale, coupon, discount, or locations.

To make this easier on you, I’ve built an Excel macro that, with a bit of keyword specific tweaking, automates much of this process for you. You can watch a quick video of it in action here ›

And in case you want to use the macro, here is the VB code you will need:

Tagging For Best

Here’s the human component that is still needed to really analyze keyword opportunities for maximum impact and potential.

I call it my “best” column, and it is my process for manually reviewing and tagging the keywords that I believe are the priority targets for the campaign – and it is exactly as easy as it sounds.

Once I have gotten my Excel file laid out to my liking, I sort by type of intent and filter for keywords with a minimum monthly search volume of 1,000 or more.

Now based on the specific goals of the campaign, I tag my top priorities – the best keywords. This helps focus on a top tier of say 20 to 50 (at most) keywords.



I then run each keyword through SEMRush to look at the competitive landscape of that SERP.

And here’s what I’m paying attention to:

The Related Keywords Report


This report gives me an immediate sense of the commercial interest and general competitive landscape of this SERP (as well as offers some fantastic contextual suggestions for queries closely related to mine).

Which Websites Are in Top Organic Results

This is a quick and dirty tactic to get a sense of the SEO competitiveness of the term without having to actually inspect the SERP (and also without having to worry about personalization, localization, and all the other signaling algo’s that may affect what you see).

To get this data just use the default ‘Overview’ view on SEMrush, and scroll down:


Laying Out Your Matrix

Though I have seen people do this in Excel, I prefer the ability to quickly wipe away, move, change my mind, and finalize my concepts much like a figure artist with a sketchpad. For that reason I recommend a sketchpad or ideally a whiteboard.

I’m going to stick with my earlier example of building out keyword intelligence visuals for SLR  accessories since there are a lot of terms and a lot of potential variations for each stage in the intent funnel.

Once you’ve finished tagging all your keywords for best and intent, there’s one additional caveat that I like to add, occasionally, which I call content type. And this is exactly what it sounds like, it’s a human element that provides some context around what might be the best path for creating content around that keyword – and while there’s a lot of options, I tend to focus on blog posts, aggregate pages, and evergreen pages.

Here’s a quick look at what this might look like (click to enlarge):

SEO Nick Keyword Matrix

In the above view I have sorted the intent column by Average search volume > Search intent for commercial investigation > Best.

Next we move onto the keyword column to separate which keywords should be targets for organic versus PPC, because all keyword opportunities are not created equal. These are based on a few heuristics but really come down to average bid price versus AdWords competition on the PPC side, and search volume versus organic competition on the SEO side.

Here’s a peak at this list tagged for targets:


Making Cents of The Data

Now you have a enough data to start making informed decisions regarding your keyword targeting and timing. Using a keyword matrix gives you the ability to quickly refer back to a set of data (as long as you keep it up to date!) to drive your editorial calendar, your on-page content, when and which pieces warrant video, and any other opportunities for keyword optimization.

Happy hunting.