Recently, I wrote that the “right” keyword phrase to optimize your website for is what your customers are searching for. The point is that if you try to guess what people want, you’ll be wrong.

Instead, you want to try to do some “keyword research” which sounds really intimidating. There are many fine paid programs available to you, like WordTracker, Keyword Discovery, and Market Samurai. I personally use WordTracker all the time. But if you don’t want to spend the money, or just want to do some simple research, there are several free tools available for you to use. This isn’t an exhaustive list, as there are others. But it’s a list that will get you started.

When picking a tool, they each have good and bad points, strengths and weaknesses. There is no perfect tool to give you “the” right answer. Instead, use the tools you have as indicators and do your best without sweating the details. That’s really all you can do to try to predict what your customers are looking for on the search engines. So here is my list of five free tools, and why they’re each unique in what they deliver.

Google Trends

Difficulty Level: Moderate

This tool is somewhat specialized, but it can give you some great ideas for trending topics that have been happening over the last 24 hours or so. If something is big in the news, and it relates somehow to your business, you might be able to ride the coattails of that trend. Click on the “More Hot Searches” link and look for topics that might be related to your industry or business in some way. Use it as an idea generator for a blog post or press release that you can get onto the search engines very quickly. Make sure the phrase is in your Title tag (or headline), and get it on the Internet as fast as you can. If it’s relevant, people searching for that topic will find your article and click through to see what you know about it.

Google Suggest

Difficulty Level: Easy

As you type in the search box on Google’s website, they are kind enough to suggest five related searches for you. Google is giving you suggestions that a lot of other people search for, trying to anticipate what you’re actually searching for. This is great for you, because you can generate some other ideas for keywords. Shoot for keywords that are four or more words long – longtail keywords – because you’ll have less competition, the longer the phrase.

Next, type that phrase into Google, and see how many “results” they display (right below the search box). Whatever that number is, that’s your competition. If, for instance, it’s 50 million, that’s probably a pretty tough phrase to optimize for. If it’s 50,000 on the other hand, you’ve got a much better chance of getting found for it.

Google Insights for Search

Difficulty Level: Moderate

First, make sure you log in with any Google id. They’ll give you more data than without logging in. Use it compare up to five phrases to see which are more popular. Do people search for “San Francisco employment lawyer” or “San Francisco employment attorney” more? (It turns out they search for “attorney” more.) But if you type those phrases into Google (the “regular” Google), you’ll see that competition is far less for “lawyer” than attorney.

Now take out the “San Francisco” part on both searches, and down at the bottom, you’ll see ten “rising searches”. Use these as clues into what people are searching more for, because they’re trending upwards. Experiment to see what highly searched phrases you can find that have low competition. It takes a little extra work, but it’s really worth it.

Google Adwords Keyword Suggestion Tool

Difficulty Level: Easy

The Google Adwords tool just got a new look and functionality. It can generate some great keyword ideas for you, and gives you more than ten at a time. The problem I have with it, is that the data is from the advertisers’ perspective, and not from the searchers’. I want key phrases that have a lot of searches, not those that the advertisers are willing to pay high dollars for. But nonetheless, it’s worth a peek to generate some keyword ideas.

WordTracker Keyword Questions

Difficulty Level: Easy

WordTracker is a paid tool, but they do give you a little sip of some of their data with their free “Questions” tool. Type in a single word or a phrase, and they’ll generate a list of 100 questions that people type into Dogpile (where they get their data). Again, a great idea generator to see what your customers are typing into the search engines. It’s not data from Google, but can give you some great ideas.

Unfortunately, there are no tools that will give you “the” perfect answer to what your clients and customers are typing into the search engines. But these free tools give you some reasonable data that you can use to generate ideas for articles, blog posts, press releases, or another page of content on your website. You sure can’t beat the price too!