The problems with keyword search volume

By Leon Tranter | SEO

Nov 26
keyword search volume

If you’re interested in blogging, content marketing and SEO (Search Engine Opitmization), you’re probably interested in keyword search volume. This is a much more complex and annoying topic than many people realize! In this article, I’ll explain the problems with keyword search volume, and some ways to get around those problems.

What is keyword search volume?

A lot of SEO (Search Engine Optimization) techniques, such as keyword research and content planning, involves estimating how popular search terms are. So people came up with the concept of keyword search volume.

This is basically the number of searches that are performed for a given keyword (read my article on keyword cannibalization if you’re not exactly sure what a keyword is) in a given timeframe.

That timeframe is usually one month, so search volume is usually given as a number of searches in a (recent) month.

This sounds simple, right? Well, no. There is, in fact, a big problem here: nobody knows what that number actually is. If someone says they do, they’re lying. There are a whole bunch of complexities lying under the surface. Let’s go through them.

The numbers are all wrong

There are a whole bunch of places to find search volume. A lot of people use Google Keyword Planner. Some people use the Keywords Everywhere browser extension (which is a pretty damn cool tool, especially since it integrates with Answer The Public, another favourite of mine). Then there’s the searchvolume.io website, Neil Patel’s Ubersuggest (a pretty great website), plus many other similar free online tools. Plus of course all the big fancy paid SEO / SEM tools like Ahrefs, SEMRush, Majestic, and so on.

But as you’ll quickly realise when you start using these tools, the numbers they give are all different! What’s going on here?

A couple of things. First, only one person really knows and that’s Google, and they’re not telling the truth. It is widely believed that Google is understating the search volume of many keywords, especially long tails keywords. That’s because they want to make it look like it’s not worth the effort to get organic search traffic by doing content marketing targeting long-tail keywords (which is my strategy).

Think about it – they don’t want you to do content marketing. They just want you to buy ads! If they tell you your long-tail keywords have a search volume of 50, you probably won’t bother. And they know and you know that going after the short-tail ones is way too hard (unless you have a serious budget). So the answer is pay per click ads!

And if Google isn’t telling the truth is, other people aren’t too, because most other sites just report Google’s made up numbers, or throw together some other random made up number, based on Google’s numbers plus who knows what other voodoo.

The other problem is that even if Google did want to tell the truth, they wouldn’t be able to. That’s because in all truth, not even they know. Because they only have access to Google search volume, and there are other search engines (like Bing, which we’ll get to later).

Seasonality can matter

Another problem is that depending on the keyword, search volume can vary hugely throughout the year. Sure, search for “content marketing” might be pretty much the same in March as they are in August. But if you think searches for “Halloween masks” is the same in October as it is in January, you’re very mistaken.

And it’s not just cyclical or seasonal patterns. What do you think the graph for searches for “Myspace” would look like? You can’t trust any data points older than a few months.

Location matters too

Then there’s local SEO (i.e. trying to rank for “Chicago plumbers”, especially for people searching from somewhere in or near Chicago). A search executed in one place has a very different value and intent than searches executed elsewhere. And don’t forget the over one billion people in China who barely use Google (they mainly use a Chinese search engine called Baidu – good luck optimizing for that!).

In fact, the Ubersuggest tool forces you to select a country when you put in keywords. And it will only show you (estimated) search volume for that country. Yet another reason why their numbers can be so different to the numbers in other search engine tools.

How to really find out keyword search volume

This is all sounding pretty grim. It seems like it is nearly impossible to find out how many people are searching for keywords. Well, there are two ways that will let you get pretty close.

Bing Intelligence

Yes, Bing really is a search engine and yes people do use it (it’s also the search engine used by Yahoo, which is also still a thing). Not as many as Google obviously, but an amount worth considering. There are also a couple of smaller search engines like Duck Duck Go, but they don’t have volumes really worth thinking about.

The interesting thing about Bing is that they have a very advanced Keyword Research tool (you can’t even access it online, you have to plug it into Excel as an addon). And, as far as anyone can tell, they are real numbers (from actual Bing searches).

There Bing Keyword Intelligence tool has a whole bunch of nifty features, which are the out of scope of this article. But if we can assume their numbers are real (and most people think that they are), then there is an interesting trick to play.

If you can (pretty accurately) determine what proportion of the search market Bing has, you could look at their search numbers for your keyword, and multiply it out by that proportion.

For example, this article estimates that Bing’s market share in the United States is 7%, or 12% globally. If you are interested in global search volumes, then you could take Bing’s monthly volume for a keyword (say it is 100), then multiply it by 100 divided by 12 (which is about 8.3). So then you’d be looking at about 830. That’s your total global search volume.

This obviously only works if Bing’s proportion of search volume for that keyword is the same as other search engines. This should usually be the case, but sometimes might not be.

Pay Per Click burner campaign

Another more expensive method is to do a “burner” (throwaway) PPC campaign.

You pick a keyword with hopefully low CPC costs. You put in high bids in Google and Bing PPC ads (enough that you would outbide any sane person), just for one day. Then you look at how many clicks you get!

This is good because it covers both search engines. The problem is that you have to estimate what proportion of the organic search traffic is clicking your ad. There are some averages for this number, but there are a lot of variables at play (how good your ad copy is, how bad the other ad copy is, how much of your traffic is from mobile, and so on).

The other disadvantage is that you have to spend a bunch of money on clicks. Hopefully, you’ve already set up some way to monetise that traffic. And at least you only have to do it for a day.

Why you don’t need to care about search volume (much) anyway

The good news is that you don’t actually have to care too much about the specific search volume. You only really have to know two things.

Firstly, are people searching for it at all. You can find this easily by typing the keyword into your browser and see if an autosuggest entry pops up for it. If it does, then it must have people searching for it.

It is also useful to know how popular it is relative to other search terms. To do that, just look at the numbers for those keywords in a couple of search tools.

If you’re trying to rank for keyword X (but are also considering keyword Y), then check out the numbers in search tools. If they tend to show that X gets 100 searches a month but Y gets 500, then you can be sure thay Y gets more.

It’s hard to know if X really gets 10 and Y gets 50, or X gets 200 and Y gets 1000, but you will know with a good degree of confidence that Y is more popular.

Summary

I hope you found this article helpful, and not too discouraging! Keyword search volume is a complex area (more than most people realize). If you have any more questions about this murky topic, please let me know in the comments!

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