Google Keyword Planner used to be great for this. You could enter any ‘seed’ keyword and see tons of keyword suggestions, plus search volumes.
But Google has since restricted these numbers to ranges.
One solution is to use a tool like Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer that shows actual search volumes and tons of other SEO metrics.
But what if you’re starting out and can’t justify paying for any SEO tools?
Here are some free keyword tools to help kickstart your SEO with zero investment:
- Google Trends;
- Keyword Generator;
- Keyword Sheeter;
- Answer the Public;
- Keyword Surfer;
- Google Search Console;
- Bulk Keyword Generator;
Let’s delve deeper into each of these tools.
Google Trends visualizes the relative search popularity of a keyword over time.
For example, if we look at the term “costumes” for the past five years, we see that popularity spikes every October.
This is because of Halloween.
But how is this useful for keyword research?
For starters, it can help you plan your content calendar. Let’s assume you sell costumes online. Publishing or republishing a list of the “10 Scariest Halloween Costumes for 20XX” each September/October makes perfect sense.
Here’s a less obvious example:
Interest in “iPhone specs” peaks every September when Apple launches a new iPhone.
If you run a tech blog, it would make sense to update and republish any related posts every September.
Going beyond content calendars, Trends can also help avoid targeting the wrong keywords.
Take a look at these two:
If you could only create content for one of these keywords, which would you choose? It’d be the one with the highest search volume, right?
Not so fast, because search volumes are averages taken across many months or years.
If we check data for the past 12 months only in Google Trends, we see that searches for “apple watch series 5” recently overtook those for “apple watch series 3.”
So if you were running an ecommerce store and had to prioritize one of these keywords, it would almost certainly be “apple watch series 5.”
After all, searches for the Series 3 are only going to decrease as time goes on.
Keyword Generator finds up to 150 keyword ideas for any seed keyword.
For example, if we search for “bitcoin,” we get one hundred keyword ideas containing that word along with their estimated monthly search volumes.
We also see a list of 50 question-type queries.
For the first ten keywords on each list, we also show the Keyword Difficulty (KD) score. This is a number between 0–100 that estimates ranking difficulty. Generally speaking, the higher it is, the more backlinks you’ll need to rank.
Note that search volumes and KD scores are relative to the chosen country, which is the United States by default.
If you’re looking to rank elsewhere, just choose from one of the 170+ countries from the dropdown.
You can also use the Keyword Generator to find keyword ideas for Bing, YouTube, and Amazon. Just switch the search engine at the top of the page.
Keyword Sheeter pulls thousands of autocomplete suggestions from Google.
To get started, enter one or more seed keywords and click “Sheet keywords.”
If you want to generate a lot of keyword ideas fast, this is the tool for you. It pulls around 1,000 ideas per minute, and you can export the results for free in one click.
The only downside to Keyword Sheeter is that it’s quite basic.
It doesn’t show search volumes or trends data, and it doesn’t group keywords as Keyword Planner does.
But it does have one other notable feature: positive and negative filters.
The easiest way to explain how this works is to show an example. So let’s add “how” to the positive filter.
Now it only shows queries that contain the word “how”—i.e., informational keywords that might make for good blog posts.
The negative filter does the opposite and excludes queries containing certain words.
This is useful for eliminating anything irrelevant. For example, if you run a tech blog and scrape results for “apple,” then you probably only want to see keywords relating to Apple the company, not the fruit.
So you could exclude keywords like “pie,” “crumble,” “fruit,” and “cider.”
Answer the Public finds questions, prepositions, comparisons, alphabeticals, and related searches.
Confused? Let’s tackle each of these one-by-one.
We’ll start by entering a “seed” keyword—let’s stick with “protein powder.”
The first thing you’ll see are questions.
These are search queries containing who, what, why, where, how, which, when, are, and is.
- what protein powder tastes best?
- how protein powder is made
- are protein powders fattening?
- when does protein powder expire?
You’ll see a visualization by default, but you can switch to a regular list.
Next up, we have propositions—i.e., for, can, is, near, without, with, and to.
These are search queries that fit the [seed] [preposition] [______] format.
- protein powder without carbs
- protein powder for weight gain
- protein powder is it safe
We then have comparisons—i.e., versus, vs, and, like, or.
Once again, the format is [seed] [comparison] [______].
- protein powder versus meat
- protein powder or chicken breast
- protein powder like quest
And finally, we have alphabeticals and related.
Alphabeticals are Google autocomplete suggestions.
And related, well, who knows?
In my experience, the number of suggestions in the related category is almost always ~20. I have no clue how it derives those keywords. But it does kick back a few gems from time to time.
But where does ATP get its data from?
As far as we’re aware, that would be Google Keyword Planner and Google autosuggest.
Answer the Public gives 160 question-type queries for the phrase “cat.”
If we plug the same seed into Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer, we get 626,768 keywords—that’s 3,900x times more.
Of course, we’re flexing our big data muscles here. For most people, Answer the Public has more than enough keyword suggestions. But when your site grows bigger, there’s always Keywords Explorer.
Keyword Surfer is a free Chrome extension that shows estimated global and monthly search volumes for any query typed into Google.
Right now, Keyword Surfer shows local search volume estimates for 19 countries. These include the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Brazil, France, and Germany.
There’s also an option to turn global search volumes on or off.
That said, these aren’t true global search volumes. It’s the total sum of searches from the 19 countries currently in their database.
Beyond this, the extension also adds search volume estimates to the autocomplete results:
And shows 10 “similar” keywords in the search results:
The only downside is that there’s no way to get search volumes in bulk.
That said, bulk research isn’t the aim of this extension. It’s more for assessing queries as you browse the web.
Keyworddit is a unique tool that pulls keyword ideas from Reddit. Enter a subreddit, and it’ll mine the titles and comments of threads to find up to 500 keywords.
This tool is a fantastic starting point if you know little or nothing about a niche.
For example, if you want to start a blog about paleo dieting but know nothing about the topic, pull ideas from /r/paleo.
This tells you that paleo dieters care about things like:
- Low carb meals;
- Slow cooker recipes;
- Grass-fed produce;
It also tells you what kind of language they use to describe such things.
Beyond ideas, the tool pulls estimated US monthly search volumes for each keyword. That helps give you some idea about the popularity of each subtopic.
To learn more about a keyword, hit the “Context” link to pull up the threads in Google that the keywords were derived from.
Paste interesting keywords from Keyworddit into Keyword Sheeter or Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer.
For example, if we paste “red yeast rice” into Keyword Sheeter, we see ideas like:
- red yeast rice benefits
- does red yeast rice lower your cholesterol
- does red yeast rice thin your blood
- can red yeast rice make you tired
- how much red yeast rice should you take a day
These may be good ideas for individual blog posts, or even for a “complete” guide.
Google Search Console helps you track your website’s performance in organic search. This means it shows a lot of data about the keywords that you already rank for.
For example, take a look at the “Search results” report from our account. It shows the keywords that have sent the most traffic to the Ahrefs Blog over the past three months.
Let’s also toggle the “Average position” and “Average CTR” columns. These show each keyword’s average ranking position and click-through rate.
You can get a lot of useful insights from this report.
For instance, let’s say that you’re getting a lot of traffic from a keyword despite ranking in position 3–10. You may want to focus on ranking higher for that instead of targeting new keywords.
If your CTR is low despite ranking high, your page may be less than enticing in the search results. You can often fix this by improving your title tag or meta description.
But what about finding new keywords?
Sort the report by CTR from low to high. This often uncovers keywords that you’re ranking for but never targeted. If any of these have lots of impressions and a low click-through rate, it could be worth targeting that keyword with a new page.
For example, we rank in position 8 for “most searched person on Google.”
The page that ranks for this keyword is our list of the top 100 Google searches.
This is only a semi-relevant result for this keyword. We may rank higher with a blog post about the most Googled people, not things.
Recommended reading: How to Use Google Search Console to Improve SEO (Beginner’s Guide)
Questiondb finds the questions people are asking about a specific topic. It pulls these from a database of 48M questions sourced from Reddit.
Questions are sorted by popularity, but you can also sort by topic. This is a super useful feature because it also groups questions together.
For instance, let’s search for “protein powder” and sort by topic. All questions about vegan protein powder are now grouped together.
Same goes for those about keto protein powders:
This is useful when writing blog posts, as it helps you understand which questions to answer.
Speaking of answers, if you check the box to “Show source link,” a clickable link appears next to each question. This takes you to the thread itself.
If you browse the comments, you can often find answers fast, which speeds up content research.
All questions are exportable to CSV at the touch of a button.
Bulk Keyword Generator is a keyword research tool for local SEO. It generates keywords based on industry type.
To start, follow step 1 and choose a business type from the dropdown.
You will then see a list of keywords relevant to the services or products you offer.
For example, let’s set “plumber” as the business type. We see queries like hot water installation, gas installation, drain cleaning, and drain relining.
Now, most businesses that offer these services will mention so on their website. But many fail to create or optimize individual pages for these service-type queries.
To illustrate, take a look at this plumbing company’s homepage:
It states that they offer drain relining services, yet they don’t have a page about this service. As a result, they’re outranked by those that do.
In step 2, the tool appends the chosen services with locations (e.g., London).
However, this isn’t particularly useful because it doesn’t reflect the way people actually search.
For instance, most Londoners wouldn’t search for “drain relining services in London.” They’d search for “drain relining” or “drain relining services.” Google serves local results either way, and the latter is quicker.
This is also why there’s often little or no volume for such terms in tools like Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer.
So here’s a smarter idea:
- Copy a handful of service-type keywords from the tool that apply to your business;
- Paste the raw list into Google Keyword Planner;
- Set the location to a relevant city or area.
For example, let’s type “drain relining” into Keyword Planner and set the location to Nottingham. There are 10–100 monthly searches.
Google is perhaps the most powerful keyword research tool on the planet.
There’s the autocomplete feature for generating an almost infinite number of keyword ideas. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to using Google for keyword research.
For starters, take notice of the “People also ask” box that shows up for some searches.
These are questions that Google knows searchers are asking and want to know the answers to.
And here’s a quick trick:
Click on any of these questions, and Google will load more.
Keep doing this, and you can generate an almost infinite list of questions people are asking.
But Google’s use as a keyword research tool doesn’t end there.
Let’s say that there’s a keyword you want to rank for. There are a lot of factors at play when it comes to SEO, but one thing is certain:
If you want to rank, then your content needs to align with search intent.
In other words, don’t try to rank a gym homepage for a query like, “how to lose weight?”
People who perform that search aren’t in buying mode. They’re in learning mode.
Google is your best friend when it comes to understanding search intent. Just look at the search results and the presence of SERP features.
For example, imagine that we’re an email marketing tool and want to rank for “email marketing.”
Looking at the search results for that query, we notice two things:
First, there’s a featured snippet.
This is almost always a sign of informational intent. Searchers are in learning mode and want to see blog posts and guides, not product pages.
Second, there are quite a few beginner’s guides.
That tells us that most searchers are email marketing noobs who want to learn the absolute basics of email marketing.
So, that’s what we should create if we want to rank for this keyword.
Now, if we search for something totally different like “dress,” we see the opposite:
All the results are ecommerce product or category pages, and Google even shows shopping ads.
This tells us the searcher is in buying mode.
Bottom line? Don’t overlook Google as a keyword research tool. Keyword research is about more than just finding keywords. It’s about understanding who is searching for them and what they want to see.
Free vs. paid keyword tools: how do they compare?
It’s simple: free keyword tools are limited compared to paid tools.
That’s not to say that free tools don’t have their uses. But the number of keyword ideas and data they give access to will always pale in comparison to paid tools.
Because of this, paid tools allow you to go way deeper and do more advanced marketing research.
To illustrate, here’s what happens if we type “protein powder” into Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer:
123,000+ “phrase match” suggestions from our database of 9.9 billion keywords.
No free keyword tool runs on a database that large.
We also show tons of data points, including:
- Estimated monthly search volume;
- Keyword Difficulty (KD);
And everything is searchable, filterable, and returned in seconds.
Doing this with free keyword tools would be next to impossible.
Plus, to make any real decisions on the competitiveness of a keyword, you should analyze the top 10 ranking pages.
To an extent, you can do that using Google. But in Keywords Explorer, we show backlink data and traffic stats for each of the top 10 results.
Just scroll down to the SERP Overview.
FYI: As far as we’re aware, no other keyword tool, free, or paid, can do this.
Don’t get me wrong; you can find some good keywords with free keyword tools.
But doing so can be very time-consuming. And time is money.
The reality is that time spent mining Google autocomplete for queries is time wasted. The same is true of merging data from multiple free keyword tools in spreadsheets. You should aim to use that time for more important stuff, like creating content or link building.
Bottom line: free keyword tools are good when you’re starting out, but as you grow your site, you’ll need paid tools to keep up with the competition.
Did we miss any good free keyword research tools? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter.