How to identify easy SEO opportunities using Google Search Console (for free!)

If you're a small business owner or early-career SEO freelancer, chances are you can't afford $100/month for fancy keyword research tools.

I've been working and consulting in SEO for 9+ years at this point, with one of my primary focuses being on strategic content (relying heavily on keyword research), and I don't own access to any of the popular tools: Ahrefs, SEMRush, Moz, etc. But I am still able to help most clients scale their organic blog traffic by 100% within a year. This is one of my favorite ways of finding low-competition keywords — for free.

Mining Google Search Console for keyword ideas

I find Google Search Console to be one of the most valuable resources in SEO, even compared to fancy paid tools.

Before we get started:

Google Search Console is a must if you have any interest in improving your website SEO. This technique assumes that you already have GSC set up, and that you have for a while. It also assumes that you already have some volume of content on your website.

If one or both of those things are untrue, begin by setting up GSC and allowing it to run for a few weeks, and make sure that you already have at least 10 articles or web pages published that are relevant to your business.

Download your search queries report

The first step is to go to your Search results > queries report in GSC. Last 3 months is a good time window to use, or you can do this on a monthly basis to continually find new opportunities.

Then, to make it easier, export the results to Excel or Google Sheets.

A screen shot of google search console showing where the search results > queries report is, and where to click to export the data

To make it easier on myself, I immediately create a filter and lock the first row into place.

a spreadsheet of keywords with the first row locked in place and filters set. The final column is labeled "opportunity", and is highlighted

Manually look through the data for interesting topics

Next, I go through the rows one by one to look for interesting topics. I create a new column labeled "opportunity", and when I find an interesting topic I bold it and enter "yes", like the example of "are jalapenos more spicy cooked or raw" above. You can label the new column with anything you want, this just makes it easier to filter all of the keywords you identify.

The most important things I look for are:

  • Topics that I have NOT exactly written about before
  • Topics that fit as a subtopic of an article I've already written, but that I haven't exactly answered
  • Topics that I think I have the expertise to write about or am confident in researching
  • Questions that, intuitively, I would guess that a lot of people are asking
  • Any terms that seem highly related to what I write about, but that I've never heard of

Things that are NOT important at this point in the process:

  • Clicks
  • Impressions
  • CTR
  • Position

Once I've gone through the entire list, I filter the opportunity column to show me only the queries I've identified.

A list of keywords in a spreadsheet with "yes" marked in the "opportunity" column

Normally I just paste these queries into a running sheet that I have, to come back to when I'm feeling inspired to write an article.

Flesh out the topics with Google and/or your favorite keyword tool

I do this step when I am ready to pick a specific article topic, sometimes days or weeks later, but you can also batch this process together with the data mining.

This is how to do it using only Google (free!)

The next step is to decide if the query is worth pursuing.

  • Google the first term on your list. Try searching logged in, and incognito.
  • Take a look at the competition. How many organic results are there? How specific are the articles to the topic you searched? How reputable are the websites in the top 10 results? Are there a lot of forums like Quora and Reddit?

After that, create a cluster of related topics to help you build your article outline.

From our example above, I've chosen the term "madame jeanette pepper". I chose this term because the site I'm writing for, Spicy Exchange has a directory of chili peppers, but I have never written about or mentioned the Madame Jeanette pepper before. The fact that my website was seen when someone searched for the term in itself indicates that the competition for the term is relatively low.

google search results for "madame jeanette pepper"

From this search alone, I know a handful of questions that people commonly ask about Madame Jeanette peppers: how spicy are they, where did the name come from, where to find them, related products (sauce, seeds), and substitutes for it.

From there I have the start of my outline, and can bolster it as I do more and more research!

How paid keyword tools fit into this process

You can also use your favorite paid keyword tool to look at volume and other recommended keywords. I find that the volume estimates for ALL of the major keyword tools are so inaccurate that those reports are almost worthless. Basically, if it registers in a keyword tool, that to me indicates that it has a high enough volume to warrant pursuing, even if the estimated volume is 0 searches/month. I find that the keyword volume, while inaccurate, is usually directionally correct, so it can be a helpful tool for prioritizing. For example, if the search volume shows as 0 for one term and 1,500 for a second term, assuming all other things are equal, I will prioritize the second term.

Paid keyword tools also give you an estimate of the competitiveness of the term. Again, this can be helpful at a glance especially if you are generating topics at a large scale, but I have never found it more accurate than eyeballing search results.

Finally, paid keyword tools can further help you find additional closely-related questions and topics that people are searching for, which you can incorporate into your outline or content brief.

Why this process works

I have had consistent success with this process for years, helping my own sites and the sites of my clients grow by up to 300% in 6 months. There are a few reasons that it is fool-proof in helping low-competition, yet moderate search volume terms.

The competition is low if your irrelevant article is ranking

With the example of "madame jeanette pepper", I immediately know that the competition is low just by the fact that I have a single impression. I know this because nowhere on the site do I mention the terms "madame" or "jeanette". This means that Google showed a user a webpage about a completely different pepper, and that there is an easy opportunity to rank if I create an article about Madame Jeanette peppers.

The caveat here is that sometimes the terms in this report will be completely irrelevant to the content of your site. Use common sense — if your website is about spicy food and the term in your report is "best cable company in Provo Utah", you don't need to create an article on that topic.

There is measurable search volume if you receive impressions

If someone is finding my site for a term that I have never written about, I take it to mean that there is some measurable traffic for that term. This is an opportunity to go back to your spreadsheet and prioritize terms based on the volume of impressions — if you've received 100 impressions, that's clearer implication that there is a higher search volume than if you received 1 impression.

There are a few other ways you can validate the search volume: using paid keyword tools, common sense, or the Google AdWords free keyword planner — again, I usually find eyeballing it just as effective as expensive tools.

The more content you publish, the more repeatable it is

As you add more content to your site on related topics, you will rank for completely different related-but-not-exact terms for the new pages you've created. The first time you do this process you will probably find tons of terms you can use, but I'm able to do this every few weeks and still find a handful of new terms. 

Limitations of this process

This process is limited in terms of scale and requires some existing web presence to be effective.

Google Search Console only provides 1,000 queries in this report, and out of that I typically will find 5-10 topics worth pursuing. I can repeat this monthly with good results. So, if you want to produce one article a week, this may fill up your entire content calendar, but if you are responsible for generating 100 or 1,000 topics a month, it has limited utility.

It also won't work if your website is extremely new and not yet ranking for any terms, because the reports won't have any interesting or actionable data.

Need help with strategic content for SEO?

If this process seems intimidating or too time-consuming, I offer strategic content management for small businesses, startups, and entrepreneurs starting at $2,500/mo. This is just one technique of many that I use to help your blog and business grow!

I find Google Search Console to be one of the most valuable resources in SEO, even compared to fancy paid tools.