Google’s Keyword Planner is the quintessential tool for keyword research. Marketers have relied on it for years but there’s always been a question mark hanging over the reliability of the data Google provides, since it has a vested interest in the keywords you bid on.
Scrutiny only increased in 2016 when Google started grouping keyword variants together and providing less accurate search volume estimates. Since then, Google has reduced keyword data even further and restricted access for low-spending accounts.
So how useful is Keyword Planner in 2020?
The main issue with Keyword Planner’s accuracy revolves around keyword variations. Before 2016, when you typed keywords into the tool, you would get separate search volumes for keywords and close variants. These would include things like acronyms, singular/plurals and UK vs US spelling, for example.
The point is you used to get separate search volumes for each of these variations. This doesn’t happen anymore. Then, in 2016, Google started combining the search volumes for all of these into one larger and much less accurate number.
So when we typed in “SEO” and “Search Engine Optimisation” as our keywords, we got something like this:
The most obvious problem with this is it now means you get inflated search volumes. This will be especially true for keywords that have obvious variants – like “SEO”. It also takes away the chance to see which variations are most commonly typed. For example, is “PPC” or “pay per click” more competitive and does one come with a lower suggested bid? There’s no way of knowing this anymore.
We also don’t know which variants are included within these search volumes.
Now, in 2020, when we type the same keywords in, Google ignores “Search Engine Optimisation” altogether.
We get the same results if we only type in “SEO”.
So Keyword Planner no longer distinguishes between close variants like “SEO” and “Search Engine Optimisation”. These are now the same keyword, and search volumes have been bundled into one figure.
Scroll down to the Keyword ideas section and the data isn’t much more helpful.
Google has never said anything official about the change to its keyword tool so we can only speculate. What we do know is that Google is more than capable of interpreting these types of keyword variants. So, if we publish an article on PPC, searches for “pay per click” and “pay-per-click” are just as relevant – even if the article doesn’t include the longer search terms.
Google started doing this with Hummingbird back in 2013 and increased its interpretation even further with RankBrain in late 2015. Initially, RankBrain only applied to around 15% of all searches but we now know it’s being used for every query. This news happened to emerge at around the same time we started noticing changes to Google’s Keyword Planner.
In 2019, Google improved its contextual understanding of keywords further, yet again, with the BERT update – which they announced as their “biggest leap forward in five years.”
Google is constantly moving towards a search platform where close variants play a reduced role. The search giant is moving away from the exact meaning of individual words and focusing more on the contextual meaning of entire search queries.
As this happens, we see longtail keywords playing a large role in both organic and paid search, allowing marketers to target specific nuances that exact-match keywords are unable to distinguish.
The biggest problem for marketers with the current Keyword Planner is that data is especially vague and inaccurate for campaigns that aren’t running live. Things are even worse for low-spending accounts and accounts not running any campaigns at all, for whom it gives search volume in very broad keyword brackets.
A less accurate Keywords Planner certainly isn’t going to help your search marketing efforts. But it’s not the end of the world as long as you know about it and adjust your keyword research process.
The truth is Google’s Keyword Planner was never that accurate anyway. Numbers were always rounded up to the nearest thousand and they’re only estimates anyway – not precise figures, making the Keyword Planner good for discerning estimates and giving you some steer on your keyword strategy. However, for more detailed planning it’s as important now as it ever was to get additional keyword data from outside Google.
Here are some tools you might want to look at:
SEMrush pulls in search data from multiple sources to provide deeper, more accurate data than Keyword Planner. You get better keyword suggestions and a clearer idea of how many impressions and clicks you can expect to generate.
Much like SEMrush, Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer collects search data from multiple engines and compiles it into a single dashboard. Not quite as much data as SEMrush has to offer but it’s pretty close and it wins some bonus points for its better UX design.
SpyFu focuses on analysing your competitors’ SEM strategies to see which keyword they’re targeting and content they’re publishing. This gives you an overview of where your own strategy fits in with the competition and helps you discover new opportunities to get ahead of the pack.
AlsoAsked finds its data by scraping the “People Also Asked” section on Google, providing you with a flowing chart of related questions based on your initial search term. This makes it a great tool for finding new keyword and content ideas, even if you don’t get the in-depth search data available from tools like SEMrush. We also like the similar tool AnswerThePublic, although it limits the number of free queries you can enter.
The Google Keyword Planner accuracy failures are reflective of a bigger data picture. Many single data points will have some degree of limitation when it comes to the accuracy and value derived from that data.
A solution for this is deeper data and multiple data sets, plus recombining data for actionable insight and overcoming some of the inaccuracies of single data points.
This is why we built our own platform, Apollo Insights, which does just that. We’ve built a comprehensive data analytics suite that gets data directly from your website and dozens of third-party sources to build a 360-degree picture of your search marketing performance.
Apollo helps you find new keyword opportunities, analyse your competitors, discover new ad campaign ideas, improve your existing pages and create content to maximise rankings for each content.
Click here to find out more about Apollo
Originally coming to us from a content background, Ben has made his career helping small businesses with their digital marketing and is one of our small business SEOs, developing and implementing SEO strategy for his wide portfolio of clients.