Using Google Keyword Planner (and Other Tools Instead) for Keyword Volume
While far from a perfect tool (seriously skewed toward “commercial intent,” not always inclusive of trend data, difficult to drill down into local terms), the Google Keyword Tool was one of the best keyword research tools available. The keyword volume numbers were more trustworthy than other keyword tools, simply because they came right from the source—who better to know what kind of search volume keywords get than Google itself?
With Google’s recent announcement that their free Keyword Tool has gone away, replaced with their integrated PPC tool the Keyword Planner, a cry has gone up from SEOs: “What do we do now?”
Google Keyword Planner pros and cons
With the advent of the Keyword Planner, Google is making a strong statement that they’ll continue to focus on supporting PPC advertisers rather than organic search marketers. To that end, the Keyword Planner is heavily focused on PPC ads; you even have to sign up for an AdWords account to use it (although you don’t have to enter any payment information, and would only end up paying for the tool if you created and launched an ad). That said, the tool definitely retains some SEO utility.
Pros of Google Keyword Planner:
- Users can now view keyword volume on a hyper-local basis; I was able to view search volume not only for the Oklahoma City area, but even drill down into Norman, the smaller OKC-area town where I live. This is great for businesses doing local and hyper-local SEO to get a better idea of the volume and competition in their geographic area.
- The tool divides keywords up into suggested ad groups; this is designed to be a PPC-focused feature, but does provide some insight into which keywords Google deems to be semantically/topically related.
- The “multiply keyword lists” feature allows you to search on combinations of words from two different lists. This allows you to combine your terms with modifiers such as location or color and compare search volume without having to concatenate in Excel.
- Users can filter out keywords below a certain search volume, so you don’t even have to look at them.
- Since you have to be logged in to use the tool, users aren’t limited to 100 words like we were with the logged-out version of the old tool.
Cons of Google Keyword Planner:
- The ability to select Broad, Phrase or Exact match has been removed—only Exact match data is now available.
- “Average monthly searches” is calculated over 12 months, meaning the Keyword Planner isn’t a good place to research trending topics. Use Google Trends for that.
- The option to only search for words closely related to your term has been removed. However, Google has said they will probably add it back in.
- Device targeting is gone—no more segmenting volume for desktop vs. mobile searches. This means volume numbers are, in general, higher for the Keyword Planner than they were for Keyword Tool since those two buckets have been combined.
- “Local” vs “Global” search volume is no longer automatically displayed. Instead, Global (which Google is now calling “all locations”) is the default and users must drill down into specific locales for local search volume. To me, the added functionality around location targeting makes this a mixed blessing, but users will probably miss the easy comparison of seeing Local and Global side-by-side.
Alternative tools for keyword volume
Of course, for some of us, this latest example of data hoarding on Google’s part is the last straw. Here are some other places you can look for keyword volume. Since the Google Keyword Tool was free, I kept these options to tools that are free or have a free option (which is why I didn’t include the Moz Keyword Difficulty and SERP Analysis tool, even though I love it, since it’s only available to paid Moz subscribers).
Google Webmaster Tools impression data
Anyone with a Google Webmaster Tools verified site can view how often their site has shown up for certain keywords.
- This data still comes from Google itself.
- Because it only shows how many impressions your site got from a keyword, GWT Impression data can’t be used to research terms you’re not already ranking for.
- There are disputes about the accuracy of the data—the consensus among SEO pros is that it’s less reliable than the Keyword Tool data was.
Bing Keyword Tool
The Bing-provided alternative to the Google Keyword tool goes a long way toward making up for the tool’s departure. It’s what we use in our Keyword Difficulty and SERP Analysis tool.
- Users can narrow searches by date range, to more accurately track recent search data.
- Recent keyword volume trend data displays alongside other metrics.
- A “strict” filter acts like the old “closely related” filter in Google’s Keyword Tool.
- The tool is in Beta, so it’s likely we’ll continue to see more features and improvements as the Bing team keeps working on it.
- Because this data comes from Bing, which has fewer users, all search volume numbers will skew lower than they would in Google.
- Geographic drilldown is only available at the country level.
- Users must be signed in to a Bing Webmaster Tools account with a verified site in order to use the tool (but you should be checking Bing Webmaster Tools anyway, it’s free and there’s a lot of good stuff in there).
Good old WordTracker. This was the first tool I ever used for keyword research and it’s still plugging along.
- Their proprietary Keyword Effectiveness Index gives a gauge of how competitive each keyword is for the amount of search volume it generates.
- WordTracker partners with SEMRush to provide paid users with paid search data as well.
- Users can filter results by match type: “keywords in any order”, “exact keyword inside a search term” and “exact keyword only” as well as “related terms.”
- The full tool requires a paid subscription (starting at $69/month) to use—however, there’s also a free version that offers less functionality: Global searches only, no SEMRush data, and only 50 results per search.
- Users must create an account with a valid email address to use the free tool.
- Depending on which version of the tool you’re using, WordTracker data comes from one of two sources: a “major search engine advertising network,” or from metacrawlers such as DogPile, which search multiple search engines at one time. Since only a small portion of searchers are using metacrawlers, the sample of searches may be skewed based on the demographic of people who use them.
Full disclosure: I blog occasionally for SEMRush and am part of their customer feedback team, which means they have generously provided me with free access to their PRO tool.
- The free SEMRush keyword research tool provides PPC and SEO information in one view, which can be useful for marketers running hybrid PPC/SEO programs.
- SEMRush surfaces up both the root domain and the specific URL that rank for your keyword term in the first 20 slots.
- Related and phrase match terms, along with volume, are also served up in an individual keyword’s report.
- Keyword volume data comes from the Google Keyword API, making it one of the more trustworthy sources of keyword volume data.
- Users must create a login with a valid email address to use the tool—but it’s free.
- SERP information doesn’t take into account local, video, carousel or other non-text result types.
- Geographic drilldown is only available at the country level.
- Despite the related and phrase match keyword info, this tool is more effective at researching individual keywords, once you already have them, than it is at generating lots of new keyword ideas—so keep that in mind.
Don’t Hit Enter
I’d be remiss if I didn’t include one of my favorite keyword brainstorming tools, first introduced by Wil Reynolds at MozCon last year: Just start typing one of your core terms into Google, don’t hit enter, and see which keywords are suggested. Then “start the next word” by typing different letters to get further suggestions.
- Discover the results that Google is most likely to drive users to (since many users will use Google Suggestions that are close to their original query if they come up).
- No “related terms” data—everything that comes up will start with that first word.
- No keyword volume data. You’ll have to use one of the other tools listed above for that!
- Your suggestions may be skewed based on your location and search history.
The Future of Keyword Volume
I don’t really think any one tool is going to cut it in this day and age—I’d always recommend using more than one tool for something like keyword volume research, especially since the data can vary so much depending on where the data comes from. The best (safest) way to use keyword data from any tool, including Google, is at a directional level to make inferences about Google: If Keyword A has 10 times as many searches as Keyword B in Bing, and 5 times as many searches as Keyword B in WordTracker, Keyword A will most likely also be more popular in Google. This kind of directional approach is much more likely to be successful than treating the numbers from any one tool as gospel.
There are a few other things to consider in your keyword volume research. For one, increased personalization in search results means that even if you rank very well for a keyword most of the time, you may not show up every time that term is searched; there’s no way for keyword volume tools to predict how often you’ll be personalized in or out of people’s SERPs. Also, keep in mind that certain terms may be important to target even if they’re lower in volume, whether because they’re important to your brand or because they convert so highly that the lower traffic numbers don’t matter.
I’ll probably be using Google’s Keyword Planner in conjunction with one or two of these other tools, plus Moz tools, for my keyword research going forward. How about you? Any awesome free tools I’ve missed? Feel free to let me know in the comments!