If you haven’t already noticed, Google Keyword Planner has severely limited access to its keyword data to marketers. Unless you have a consistent active Adwords campaign, when logging into Keyword Planner today, you’ll see wide ranges for average monthly search volume instead of an actual number.
A range like 100-1K is useless for most keyword research. If you are like most SEOs or marketers your exploration of your keyword space starts with Google Keyword Planner. So what is the alternative?
The decline of Google Keyword Planner
This change is just one of a series of changes that have occurred over the last couple of years that have diminished the usefulness of Google Keyword Planner. Here’s what many of us have seen and noticed:
- It used to be that you could filter your keywords by broad, phrase and exact match. In 2013 with the transition from Google Keyword Tool to Google Keyword Planner, you only got exact match volume results (searches that exactly matched the keyword in question). Taking a look at broad match results was useful to get a sense of the size of the niche.
- Traffic Buckets and Grouping: Today both “cat” and “dog” have the exact same search volume according to Google Keyword Planner: 3,350,000 which I find hard to believe. This is because the search volume for the two keywords is close enough to fit into one of Google’s “traffic buckets” which is obviously a rounded number. GWK also groups “cat” and “cats” into just “cat” with the message “Some keywords you entered and their close variants have been grouped into one row.”
- Moz published a widely read article showing that Google Keyword Planner doesn’t show you all possible keywords.
- And I have noticed many many cases where the monthly impressions shown in Google Search Analytics (a Google Search Console feature) doesn’t match up at all with the average monthly search volume in Google Keyword Planner shown for the same keyword.
So Google Keyword Planner has given you wonky data for quite some time now.
For Discovery, there are a lot of Cool Keyword Research Tools
I look at keyword research in two phases:
- Discovery: This is about not only exploring the keywords in your niche, but really getting a pulse on what your target audience cares about. What keeps them up at night? What is the language they use to describe their desires and problems? Good keyword research doesn’t just focus on one head term to find all the variants, it also finds lateral terms that could be equally important. In this post Hummingbird era, you should be building groups of related keywords that describe a topic – not just a long list. Many tools that are great for discovery are built on top of Google Suggest and there is several to choose from (see my list).
- Opportunity: At some point you need to understand the popularity (and yes the competitiveness) of the keywords you have found. There are many keyword tools that help with discovery, however there are not so many that give you search volume numbers that help you figure out what to focus on in your content and meta tags. This is where Google Keyword Planner was helpful, even with its wonky data. You would simply copy and paste your keyword list into the Search Volume box, get the search volume data and download.
So ask yourself: why are you doing keyword research? Are you initially exploring a new niche? Are you looking for content ideas? Even with the paid keywords tools, consider augmenting your research with other tools. Not all needs can be met by a single tool. So get the right tool for the job. If you want a more extensive list of keyword tools, check out my 22 keyword tool list to take your keyword research to the next level.
Long Tail Pro
When Google Keyword Planner updated to show search volume ranges for non advertisers, it not only rendered the tool mostly useless but it broke several other tools that used an API to fetch the search volume data from Google.
Long Tail Pro is one example. For over a month, subscribers to Long Tail Pro (I am one) got the same useless ranges as you see in Google Keyword Planner. However Long Tail Pro recently released “LTP Cloud” that sources keyword data from other sources so it is a viable tool again.
Paid Alternatives to Google Keyword Planner That Provide Search Volume Data
Unfortunately, like Long Tail Pro, many alternatives to GWP are paid solutions. Below I’ve listed three paid solutions that have features that help you with keyword discovery, assessing competitiveness and search volume. Two of these give you limited free data.
Update: November 23, 2016: If you just want search volume, check out Google Trends and SearchVolume.io which are both free. See below.
Moz Keyword Explorer: In May 2016, Moz announced Keyword Explorer. Just like Moz’s DA (domain authority) score has replaced Google Toolbar PageRank for measuring a site’s SEO authority, I think this tool has a good shot of becoming a defacto replacement for Google Keyword Planner. Moz has done a great job of providing an end to end keyword tool research tool solution, from discovery to volume metrics as well as difficulty metrics.
To get a screenshot for this post, I popped in a relevant keyword. Here you can see that for the keyword “google keyword planner alternative” the search volume is low. But in contrast, GWK actually shows 260 average monthly searches for “google keyword planner alternative”. While we should keep in mind that GWK groups together the variants (such as “google keyword planner alternatives”), it is still a large discrepancy.
Keyword Explorer has some nice metrics, we can see that the Difficulty is medium (there are articles from large SEO industry sites that rank for this keyword) and the Potential (a calculated metric) is 50. The Opportunity metric measures whether there are Google SERP features (such as ads) that would get in the way of getting click throughs for searches on this keyword. In this case there are none, so I have a higher opportunity of getting clicks.
Based on the Moz data, this is perhaps not a great keyword to target for SEO – so it’s good I write these posts for reasons other than SEO 🙂
According to Rand’s annoucement, the tool’s volume estimates are more precise than Google’s traffic buckets and comes not only from Google but also from clickstream data. However based on just on reviewing this one keyword, I do wonder whether to believe the 11-50 estimate or the 260 figure that GWK gave me.
You get up to 2 searches a day, if you create an account you get 5 searches and of course if you are subscribed to Moz’s tools you get unlimited searches. You can find the tool at moz.com/explorer.
Market Samurai: I own Market Samurai and it was good to see that the recent change in Google Keyword Planner did not affect the tool.
Market Samurai (affiliate link) has some nice features you can use to gauge the the competitiveness of a keyword (such as its SEO Competition feature). Even though it doesn’t offer any data for free, I do like that I only had to pay once for the tool (and not every month), so that’s why I’m listing it as an alternative.
Semrush: Is another great tool but only shows limited data unless you have a paid account. Like Moz’s Keyword Explorer, you can get additional searches if you register (for free). That being said, the free version is useful to get info on top keywords and also for mining competitive info. You can see what keywords your competitors are ranking for as well as where their web traffic is coming from.
If you haven’t looked at Semrush, it’s quite a powerful tool even with the limited free version. For example check out the Keyword Analytics and Difficulty features.
Free Tools for Search Volume and a Hack
One of the nice things about putting your work out into the world, is that you get input. Since I published the original version of this post: I got to learn about a new free tool, and a G+ commenter reminded me about Google Trends. So I’ve updated this post to include both below.
When it comes to deciding whether you want to pay for a keyword tool it’s really a choice of whether you would like a tool that provides you with a comprehensive solution for both discovery of keywords and evaluating the opportunity, or you are Ok with using several tools in your keyword research and dealing with the potential data inconsistencies.
If you have a list of keywords and you want to get the search volume for them, there is a new free tool that does exactly that.
The reported search volume with this tool tends to be lower than what I see in Google Keyword Planner, for example SearchVolume.io reports 550,000 searches on “cats” while GWK reports “1,220,000” for “cat” (which it likely combined with “cats”) filtered for location US. It doesn’t find any search volume for “google keyword planner alternative”. However it’s pretty close with “sales plan” and “sales planning” (1,260) which GWK has combined into “sales plan” and reports 1,300.
This is not unexpected, all these tools use different sources (or use the same data differently) so the best approach is to focus on the relative numbers, and not take any numbers (including from Keyword Planner) as gospel.
Using searchvolume.io is very easy and straightforward. Just like you could with the “Search Volume” feature in GWK you can copy and paste a list of keywords into this tool and get the search volume for each keyword.
Google Trends might just be your new best friend. I used to think of Google Trends as only helpful with head terms, but that’s not true today.
For example I typed in my low search volume keyword, “google keyword planner alternative” into Google Trends:
Here I can not only see there is search volume for the keyword, but I can see the trend over time. The above screenshot shows us the weekly interest from searchers over time and that it is rising. For the week of November 20 – 26th (2016) the search volume was 100 which is higher than ever before. If you choose a longer timeframe you will get monthly numbers.
With Google Trends you can also compare keywords to each other.
Above I’ve compared “cat” and “cats” and found searches on “cat” are more popular and rising. So Google Trends does not appear to combine keywords like GWK does. This screenshot shows us monthly numbers since 2004.
The Hack to Get Rid of the Search Volume Ranges in GWK
So I don’t advertise on AdWords, yet I was able to look up search volumes in Google Keyword Planner. How did I do that? There is a rather convoluted hack you can try which involves creating a new account and becoming an AdWords manager of your original account. I did something similar to become a manager of one of my client’s AdWords account and it did work for me, although your mileage may vary.
Whether you get the hack to work or not, it’s time to move beyond our reliance on Google Keyword Planner and start using an alternative. It was good while it lasted but “dark Google” is a trend so plan on diversifying your sources of data. If you are fortunate to rank for your keyword, I suggest downloading and mining your Google Search Console Search Analytics Impressions data on a regular basis.