Anastasia Osypenko
Sep 22, 2020 | 15 min read

Keyword research is the primary task of any SEO strategy and besides finding the most profitable keywords you can rank for, there’s a whole deal of work that goes into analyzing them before putting them to use. Clustering or grouping is the process that helps you sort the keywords you’ve collected, prioritize them and filter the irrelevant ones out. It maximizes your chances to rank well, and we will explain why.

What is keyword clustering?

Keyword clustering is combining similar, relevant queries into groups and using whole groups instead of separate keywords for site optimization. It helps clean up the semantic core by dividing it into manageable groups.

Clustering semantics has always been a major step in building a website. It became especially apparent with the shift toward topic-focused SEO in 2013, when Google rolled out its Hummingbird update and the algorithm started focusing on phrases instead of single keywords. The shift was supported further by the 2015 RankBrain update: the algorithm became smarter and could define themes of search queries and find multiple similar phrases. 

There are two major types of keyword clustering: 

  • lemma-based—that finds similarities in the meaning of phrases and their morphological matches
  • and SERP-based—that looks for matches among search results. 

Benefits of semantic keyword grouping

The beauty of keyword clustering is that it gives you a clearer picture of what content to create and how to organize it across pages, what phrases to rank for, and how to promote different segments of your site. 

By grouping your keywords, you can:

  • Better understand user intent. Topic-focused SEO offers a more thorough response to users: when you put similar phrases together, you target user intent instead of a single keyword and therefore you are more likely to cover this intent.
  • Maximize the number of keywords to rank for. With clusters, you can rank for a number of related keywords instead of targeting single queries separately.
  • Remove unnecessary keywords. Clustering makes a huge list of keywords more manageable and comprehensive—you will be able to spot irrelevant queries easily. SE Ranking’s keyword grouper software will provide you with ungrouped keywords that don’t match any topic the tool distinguishes and will let you recheck if you need them in your strategy. 
  • Understand the potential of segments. Clusters you receive as a result will help you understand how different pieces of content are or should be connected. This process will allow you to see your site from the search engine’s perspective and evaluate different categories you have or should better have. 
  • Create an effective site structure or analyze the existing one. Clustering helps you analyze semantic relationships between your pages and improve your site architecture.
  • Boost your site’s visibility and authority. Thanks to keyword grouping, you can have a better grasp of semantics and make your content more powerful, which, in its turn, will make your website more authoritative in the eyes of search engines.
  • Save time and eliminate errors. If done automatically, keyword clustering gives you all the above-mentioned benefits quickly and efficiently. 

Manual vs. automated grouping

There are plenty of tools for automating the grouping process, although some might still prefer doing it manually with the help of Excel or other programs. It’s one thing when you have a hundred words, but when research for a project leaves you with thousands of keywords, imagine how time-consuming it will be to manage all of them manually. Manual clustering will require you to break each keyword into terms, define their intent, and make lists of phrases based on the parameters you need. 

The automated keyword clustering tool in SE Ranking will save you time and effort and will get the job done for you. You’ll get insights into what your keywords comprise and how to segment them into usable groups without the hassle of going over each and every query you’ve collected.

How to group keywords with SE Ranking

Now that we know how powerful keyword clustering can be, let’s dive into the mechanics of doing it using SE Ranking tools.

Initial keyword research

To sort keywords into topic-centered groups, you need to collect a full list of keywords first. Collecting as many queries as possible is your first fundamental task in the process of building and promoting your website. The initial research process will help you explore what users are searching for in your niche and how your competitors handle keywords. 

There’s an array of free and paid tools that will help you find keywords for your website. Use Google Trends and Google Analytics to track top search queries and current tendencies in search results. While doing your research, note that there are different types of search queries: you can distinguish them by length and specificity (one-, two-, three-, and four-word phrases, as well as long-tail keywords) and by user intent (navigational, informational, transactional). These differences will give you an idea of how harsh the competition is for particular keywords and what are the chances of conversion.

Defining and analyzing your competitors is another major step in keyword research. Explore who’s leading in organic search results and what are their most profitable keywords and discover the best-performing PPC ads in your niche. Semantics comparison available in SE Ranking can show you keyword overlaps between different domains: phrases common for your major competitors will be on your must-target list. 

Semantics comparison in SE Ranking

SE Ranking’s Keyword Research tool includes Keyword Suggestions where you can find similar and related keywords. Explore the list of low-search-volume phrases to fully grasp your niche and expand the number of keywords to rank for. You can export your findings from SE Ranking and then sort keywords out in an xls. or csv. file.

Keyword suggestions in SE Ranking

Creating clusters

Now that you have a full list of keywords existing in your niche, it’s time to create manageable groups and eliminate the queries you won’t need. SE Ranking’s keyword grouping tool filters queries based on their SERP similarities. It looks for matches in the search results for given keywords and clusters phrases that rank for identical pages.

Let’s compare how grouping works if done manually and automatically and then review all the steps you need to take to cluster your queries in SE Ranking.

Manual keyword clustering

To create keyword clusters manually, you can filter the list by their semantics or type of intent. For example, you have a huge list of queries about ‘photo editing software.’ 

  • You can identify all the different terms appearing in the search results (say, ‘photo editor,’ ‘photo program,’ ‘picture editor,’ ‘collage creator,’ and so on) and group those keywords that contain identical terms.
  • You can group the queries based on their search volume, which will help you work on the site structure: high-volume keywords, brand keywords with lower volume, and low-volume keywords can represent, respectively, your site’s categories, subcategories, and filters.
  • You can look for different types of phrases focusing on the search intent (questions like ‘how to install a photo editor,’ ‘is there a photo editor for mac,’ specifications like ‘photo editor for free,’ ‘best paid photo editor,’ and so on). To check the keyword’s intent, Google it and visit the most popular sites from the search results—this way, you’ll get a full picture of searchers’ needs and will be able to segment the queries more effectively.
  • You can create tags for different aspects of a keyword: say, usage type (online and offline), transactional intent (buy, download, install, find, etc.), device specification (PC, Mac, Android, iOS, etc.). Then, you’ll have to cross-match the tags and create clusters.
  • You can just go over each keyword separately and group them based on any other criteria you want. Manual or automated, keyword clustering largely depends on your niche and particular SEO goals.

Automated keyword grouping in SE Ranking

To start clustering keywords in SE Ranking, you need to select your region and interface language. Focus on the regions you want to promote your website in and perform grouping separately for each language if you’re targeting several of them. Then, you have to choose the level of grouping accuracy and the grouping method—these are the factors that will influence your results.

Finally, you have to insert your keywords—you can add them manually or import from a file. Select if you want to check the search volume on top of grouping (it can also be uploaded separately) and run the tool. Now you need to wait a bit while our robot looks for matching results and groups your keywords based on the given number of identical pages in the top-10 results.

Choosing clustering method and accuracy

Now, let’s dig into how different settings work. There are two major parameters to select: grouping accuracy and method.

How does keyword grouping accuracy work

Keyword grouping accuracy (ranges from 1 to 9) indicates the minimum number of matching URLs for the queries. For example, if you set it to 3, phrases will be grouped together only if they have 3 identical URLs in the search results. The higher the accuracy is, the fewer matches there will be and the fewer keywords will be included in each cluster.

Similar queries naturally have SERP similarities:

SERP similarities

Let’s pass the same set of keywords through different accuracy settings and compare the results. We’ve taken 212 queries on the topic of photo editing software and clustered them using the soft method with the maximum (9) and minimum (1) level of accuracy.

High-accuracy clustering gives us more specific categories to work with and also leaves a lot of phrases ungrouped:

High-accuracy keyword clustering

We get the idea of different searchers’ needs with such settings: we can see that people are looking for photo editors for different operating systems, for online and offline mode of operation, and so on.

However, many clusters separated by the tool can be logically grouped together: ‘best photo edit software’ is semantically no different from ‘best software photo editing.’ So, we need to work on such keywords manually, as well as on the ungrouped ones.

By contrast, low-accuracy keyword grouping leaves us with broader clusters which doesn’t help much in categorizing different intents:

Low-accuracy keyword clustering

With such settings, you will probably need to manually regroup most of the keywords, matching their meanings. It’s generally a good idea to implement both automated and manual clustering techniques.

How different keyword grouping methods work

Method (hard and soft) defines how search queries are compared: soft clustering compares all queries against the one with the largest search volume, while hard clustering compares queries against each other. 

Soft clustering gives a more generalized idea of the niche and different keywords your competitors are targeting. With this approach, you will also get fewer ungrouped queries (shown at the bottom of the results page in the Ungrouped cluster)—those that you’ll have to sort out manually and decide if you want to use them in your SEO.

Hard clustering can help eliminate irrelevant search queries and distinguish many user intents. Comparing queries against each other gives a wider choice of specific intents and creates more groups even with the lowest level of accuracy:

Hard low-accuracy keyword clustering

However, low-accuracy clustering—even when done using the hard method—ignores many important differences inside each group. For example, a list grouped under ‘photo editing software free’ includes keywords that are not directly related to each other: ‘windows photo editing software,’ ‘easy photo edit software,’ ‘downloadable photo editing software’ represent different search intents.

Different search intents within one keyword cluster

High-accuracy hard clustering, in its turn, might ignore the similarities between several groups. For instance, we got ‘best photo edit software’ and ‘best software photo editing’ as separate clusters, which doesn’t make much sense semantically.

Let’s sum up the characteristics of each approach to keyword clustering available in SE Ranking:

Number of clustersUngrouped keywordsIntent differentiationBest for
Soft method / Low accuracyMany big groupsAverage number of keywordsHigh relevance within groups; some similar keywords put in different groupsDiscovering your niche in general
Soft method / High accuracyMedium number of smaller groupsMost keywordsSome search intents missedSegmenting your niche
Hard method / Low accuracyMedium number of small groupsAverage number of keywordsMany intents detected; low relevance within groupsLearning different searchers’ needs
Hard method / High accuracyFew very small groupsMost keywordsSome search intents missed; high relevance within groupsSegmenting keywords to the fullest extent

Managing grouping results

Regardless of the chosen settings, each group is named after the keyword with the highest search volume. On the results page, you can access the information about the number of matching URLs, the top-10 results with the keywords included in groups, and snippets containing these keywords. If you choose to perform a search volume check, clustering results will also show this metric.

Once you know which groups work for you, check-mark and export them to your project. Under the project’s settings, you can create and name your own groups, as well as add comments to any keyword. There’s no automation in how to distribute the groups across the website’s pages: you can create several pages to cover a large keyword cluster, as well as combine a few clusters.

It’s reasonable to combine manual and automated approaches: by passing your keywords through an automated tool, you’ll be able to analyze how search engines see those phrases, and regrouping the clusters afterward will allow you to take into account your goals and a particular website’s structure.

Creating content and ads based on keyword clusters

Keyword clustering helps you sort out your semantics and build an effective website structure. Based on the groups you get as a result, you can develop your site’s page hierarchy, categories and subcategories, filters, etc. While clustering is a major step of making a structure, it also can facilitate your content and ad creation.

Having separate groups of keywords on your hands, you can maximize the number of phrases your content ranks for. When you decide which group corresponds to which page and section of your website, you can unlock more terms to include in your content: exploring the full list of keywords within a group will allow you to find some new concepts and intents to cover. This way, you’ll make your content more trustworthy and on par with the user’s expectations. 

The same applies to your paid campaigns. Google Ads allows you to create ad groups in a similar manner as you create keyword clusters. For each ad being shown, Google chooses it from ad groups based on relevancy to a particular search. 

Promoting your website’s offers with the help of keyword clusters is more effective. For example, if you’re targeting various ‘healthy snacks’ and don’t narrow your campaign down to several specific ad groups like ‘weight-loss-friendly snacks,’ ‘vegan snacks,’ ‘organic snacks,’ ‘healthy snacks for kids,’ and so on, you might end up with your ad being totally irrelevant to the search intent. And if your ads turn out to be useless for searchers, you will get a low Quality Score and Ad Rank. But keyword organizer tools can distinguish different intents and group similar ones together, as a result making your content and ads more helpful. 

Final words

Semantic keyword clustering is a powerful SEO tool that will help you organize the content, diversify your language, and rank for more terms. When you expand your list of keywords, break it down into separate closely related groups and use them to cover different user intents.

There are different approaches to clustering—you can sort out selected queries on the basis of their meaning or according to the number of URLs they have in common. Choose the method—hard or soft—and the level of accuracy depending on your SEO goals, be it gaining general industry insights, scrupulously selecting the most relevant phrases, or something else.

With Keyword Grouper in SE Ranking, you let the algorithm filter the queries for you, specifying your search engine’s preferences and clustering settings. While clustering gives you a better understanding of your niche and searchers’ needs, if done automatically, it relieves you from the additional effort and presents everything you need in one place.

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4 comments
    1. Thanks for your question, Tom. After exporting keyword clusters from SE Ranking and manually regrouping them using Excel or another program, you can import them to your project (in the Project settings or through the Rankings section) and distribute across the groups. Then you will be able to switch to the group mode while viewing your rankings and analyze how different keyword groups are performing.

  1. I have a question. If I’m making a new website and creating keyword groups, how can I prioritize them to optimize my content production? Should I just start from the groups that have the biggest search volume?

    1. Thanks for your question, Gabrielle! To prioritize topic clusters, check not only the keywords’ search volume but also their difficulty and cost per click to understand their ranking potential and monetary value. But before anything else, analyze the search intent and learn what would you like for searchers to look for while finding your website.

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