Over the past several years, we in the SEO world have known that Google Keyword Planner was increasingly withholding keyword volume data, and that it was far more accurate from a paid search perspective than an organic one. Still, it was one of the best free keyword tools out there, so we learned to take its data with a grain of salt and use it responsibly.
The past few months though, Google has made several updates to the Google Keyword Planner (GKP) tool. Now it makes the SEO side of me want to run for the hills.
Here’s what you need to know about these updates and what it means for marketers, and some alternative tools that you can use to supplement your organic keyword research.
The Updates to Google Keyword Planner Tool
The updates to GKP tool started this summer, when Google began lumping similar terms together in AdWords.
According to The SEM Post, Keyword Planner began combining many search variants, including:
- plurals with non-plurals for any word in the keyword phrase (i.e. plate and plates)
- acronyms with longhand version (i.e. SEO and search engine optimization)
- stemming variants: -er, -ing, -ized, -ed etc keywords (i.e. designer, designing, designed)
- words that can be spelled with or without space (i.e. goodnight and good night)
- words with and without punctuation (i.e. kid toys and kid’s toys)
This became an issue for advertisers because it was hard to determine which variation of a term was most popular and thus which term(s) should be used in content and meta data (before the change, these variants could make a significant difference in terms of keyword volume!).
Finally, Google at least became more transparent about this grouping of search variants and began presenting users with a notification that said “Some keywords you entered and their close variants have been grouped into one row.” So, we no longer saw variants listed out on separate lines as the above screenshot indicated; instead – for the above example – we’d just see “seo” as one row, paired with a vague range of search volume. (click image to open in new window)
This change brings us to the final update (for now) of the GKP tool: monthly search ranges instead of more specific, individualized search volumes.
This change rolled out early last week (around September 12) and seems to be part of Google’s move to remove even more detailed data from search marketers.
Now, unless marketers are spending an (undisclosed) large amount on paid search through AdWords, non-advertisers and those below the threshold will only see general monthly ranges instead of the previously detailed search volumes they were able to see. Again, Google has not revealed what these threshold amounts actually are, but presumably they are high enough that those looking to spend a small amount (or just do organic keyword research) each month will not be able to see detailed monthly search data.
As an SEO professional, this feels like a huge loss, but I suppose it’s not totally unexpected. In 2014, Google got rid of exact match targeting with close variants for ad campaigns. Still, this change wasn’t as robust as the one we saw in June, and we still had more detailed search volumes for terms.
And while GKP data wasn’t 100% accurate to begin with, it was still detailed enough that we could get a general idea of which keywords and their variants performed best. Now, it seems to be an all-out guessing game with wide ranges and lumped keyword variants.
There Is Hope For Us Yet: Alternative Keywords Research Methods
Luckily, other third-party vendors have come to the rescue over the past few years, as they noticed an increasing gap for SEOs and accurate keyword data.
Here are some valuable free tools that you can use to still perform organic keyword research. As always, I use a combination of these tools to help craft both my keyword and content strategy for clients, and I focus on targeting a mix of long-tail and short-tail keywords when optimizing our websites and content.
- SEMRush (this is probably the tool I use most often for organic keyword research)
- Moz Keyword Difficulty Tool
- LSI Graph (good for semantic [related] keyword research)
Aside from these tools, I’ve also started using content and influencer discovery tools like BuzzSumo and Lumanu to uncover what topics are relevant and popular amongst influencers and audience members. To me, this is the ultimate form of keyword research because we are truly monitoring topic and term relevance straight from our audience’s mouth.
Additionally, as I like to always look for the silver lining, I think this change could be helpful for us search marketers, as it forces us to continue pushing the envelope at really getting to know our customers and how they talk about topics/products, and how they behave and interact online. It also focuses us to think bigger and be more focused on our overall digital strategy for our brands instead of being so narrowly focused on keywords and rankings.