Why The Google Keyword Tool Is Useless For SEO, Even With Exact Numbers

Not quite on target... Recently there was a bit of a hubbub surrounding Google’s Keyword Tool External (the keyword suggestion portion of AdWords that was made public a couple of years back). It started when a few people, like Barry Schwartz from SERoundtable, noticed that the tool was showing specific numbers for search terms instead of just green bars. Even though at first the numbers only appeared intermittently for people, the official Inside AdWords blog reported the change as a permanent one later that night.

This of course made many people very happy, because if Google themselves were providing the approximate number of searches for keyphrases, then of course those numbers had to be much more accurate that services such as Keyword Discovery, Wordtracker, or Wordze could provide. One would think that, anyways. I mean, who better than Google would know how many times something was searched on, right?

The problem is, however, that those numbers are meant for people doing research into PPC traffic. The numbers shown have very little to do with what people actually search on using Google.com. I learned this the hard way about a year and a half ago, when I decided to try and use AdWords (the internal tool, the one that would actually show me estimated clicks based on position) to pick keywords that I might want to try and optimize for. I identified 3 phrases that I figured would be fairly easy to rank for (which they turned out to be). According to Google, being in the top 3 ad spots (which is as narrow as Google will estimate) I would get an estimated 141 to 180 clicks per day from all three phrases combined. Since natural serps get a slightly better CTR than ads usually do, I figured I would be golden if I could SEO my site to the top for those phrases. Not a ton of traffic, but with the conversion ratios I had on that site for targeted traffic, it would be more than worth it to spend the effort required to get those three phrases to the top.

I managed to make it to the #1 spot in Yahoo for two of the phrases and #3 for the third in a relatively short period of time. Since Yahoo has about 1/5th of the market share that Google does, even without factoring in that natural serps get clicked on more than ads do I should have gotten at least 30 clicks a day for all 3 phrases combined. What I actually got, for the 3 months I was at those positions, was a grand total of 5 clicks for those phrases.

As soon as I saw all of the excitement surrounding the new actual numbers that Google was displaying on the Keyword Tool, I was reminded of my disappointment back then. I decided to set up some testing, and track where all of the actual traffic came from, to help people better understand what those numbers meant, and how they really don’t apply to SEO. I figured I would use my poetry site for this, since I know most of those keywords won’t cost a fortune to test against. I chose 5 keywords, [friendship poems], [birthday poems], [wedding poems], [inspirational poems], and [best friend poems], using exact matches for each. I ran the test for 3 full days, so I could compare the impressions delivered against what the Keyword Tool estimated the search volume was (should be approximately one month’s worth of search volume divided by 3). Some of the phrases got impressions close to what the keyword tool suggested they might. For instance, for [birthday poems] the tool gave a number of 27,100 (which would be an average of 903 searches per day):

[birthday poems] estimated searches
(Click to enlarge.)

and bidding on that keyword for 3 days gave me 2,411 impressions (or 803 impressions per day):

[birthday poems] actual impressions
(Click to enlarge.)

This is fine and dandy if I am only concerned about getting traffic from AdWords, of course. The thing is, if I rely on this data for my SEO efforts I will at best be most likely wasting my time. At worst I will be seriously wasting my time. By analyzing the referrers on the clicks generated during this test we can easily see why this is so.

The Google “Search Network” is much larger than just Google Search

Google said that I had 93 clicks in that time period, but I only had 88 hits to my tracking URL. I’m pretty sure there were some bots thrown in there as well, but since the point of this wasn’t about getting charged for invalid clicks, I am going to ignore that fact for now. Filtering out those clicks would only more so make my point anyways, so as far as this experiment goes I am erring on the side of caution anyways. Of the 88 clicks that did register, only 42 actually came from Google or Powered By Google sites. Those are the only places where you could expect to get traffic from if you managed to rank in Google for your desired phrases. The rest of the clicks came from places such as Ask.com, search.bearshare.com (which appears to be powered by Ask), Shopping.com, etc.

Google includes traffic that wasn’t even generated by searches at all

That’s right, as part of the “search network”, Google will display your searches on parked domain pages. I got traffic from at least 2 of them, including birthday.com:

[birthday poems] actual impressions
(Click to enlarge.)

Notice the links on the side (and on the bottom of the pages, if you visit the site) labeled “related searches”. All someone has to do is click on a link (or visit a cached page that matches one of those links) in order for Google to register that impression as a “search”. It’s a pretty safe bet that a fair number of the “searches” showing on the keyword tool were generated in that fashion. Not only can you not opt out of having your ads showing on sites like that, there is also of course no way to filter them out of the keyword tool.

The number the keyword tool show are worldwide searches

When using AdWords you can of course opt to restrict your campaign to a given country. However, the keyword tool itself doesn’t allow you to filter the numbers like that. I allowed my campaign to run worldwide to illustrate the point. Of the 27 clicks that came in from Google, 1 was from Google Canada, 1 was from Google Books New Zealand, 3 were from Google Australia, 4 were from Google Ireland, and 11 were from Google UK. Only 7 actually came from Google US, and of those, 2 were Google Custom Search Engines (which can vary greatly in the serps they show). That means that when all is said and done, only about 5.68% of the traffic came from unmodified Google.com.

Now, while you might be tempted to do so, you cannot just reduce it down and say, “Ok, just take the number the Keyword Tool shows, and multiply it by 5.68%”. The keywords weren’t distributed at all evenly in that way. [best friend poems], for instance, didn’t receive any official Google traffic during this test. In the end, the Google keyword tool, even with the shiny new numbers it now displays, has to be taken exactly for what it is… a selling tool that acts as a gateway to getting people to sign up for AdWords. Anyone trying to use it as something else will wind up being sorely disappointed.

As for the other keyword tools available out there, they all of course still have merit. While it isn’t free, Wordtracker does have a 7 day free trial for anyone wishing to give them a shot. Li Evans recently turned me on to Keyword Discovery, a service owned by Trellian. And while they don’t have a free version, the Wordze Trial for $7.95 is very reasonable, and probably a good option for someone who only needs to do keyword research occasionally. Even if they don’t have direct access to Google’s secret numbers, at least none of them will try and pass off impressions on a parked domain as a “search” on their network. 😀

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92 thoughts on “Why The Google Keyword Tool Is Useless For SEO, Even With Exact Numbers

  1. I have never read an article talking about keywords as informative as yours.

    I, myself, unconvinced on how google exactly came up with the figures.

    I still trust Wordtracker and Trellian Keyword Discovery estimates in terms of the number of searches a particular keyword have in a month.

  2. It might be worth while you doing some reasearch into click through rates on organic listings. If you do that then it will show you that the #1 spot in the organic search results listings still only gets a 42% CTR (Source ACNielsen Online). Which funnily enough is close to the amount of traffic you got compared to the Google Keyword tool suggested traffic .. 😉

  3. Mike,

    nice post. Thank you for the fruits of your labor.

    I am interetsed in knowing how you feel about Google Insights.


  4. This was a very interesting post and it offers some in depth insight as to what exactly Google is up to. I have a totally different outlook on the keyword tool offered by Google and how to use it.

  5. Oh yeah, this was the harsh realization I stumbled onto once I moved away from WordTracker. Though it’s nice to think the Google numbers are representative…it’s just not the case for SEO.

    A disclaimer should be added to the tool.

  6. I have to disagree as well. We’ve had tons of success with the keywords on Google Adwords tool. The key being to Google the term “in quotes” to see how many competing pages there are first. We’ve found some real sweet spots, are ranked #1 on most of them and get about 200 new email subscribers per month from each of the landing page terms. 🙂

    We tend to go with the 3-word phrases rather then 2-word ones though, due to the competition for 2-word phrases.

  7. Wow, shatter all my dreams. Thanks. No really, thank you, since I’ve invested no money yet, but was planning to based on my excellent keyword results, using Google Keywords as my sole source of Keyword based SEO.

  8. Hi,
    I would like to share with you a strange (yet similar) case:
    Looking for key phrase “How to Play on Piano”

    See the different appear –


    Google AdWords free tool;

    Now, what would you do when having such a case?
    Google adwords – 450,000 a month !!
    Wordtracker – 6 a day!!!
    SEO tool (reporting Google daily searches – 9???

    I am sure many of you have noticed such cases, however this one is extremely odd.

  9. Nissim Ziv, take that phrase and look it up in the Google keyword tool again and go to “Match Type” select phrase or exact. You will notice that phrase has a 12 month avg of 3600 searches. That’s around 9 searches a day. So Wordtracker is close and SEO Tool is is right on.

  10. I personally like SEM Rush. But here’s the thing; if you really want to do well with SEO simply just think of what people will type into the search engines to find your article.

  11. I think the tool is wildly inaccurate sometimes. For example, I just searched for london Flight & it tells me there were 2,240,000 exact searches last month – clearly there wasn’t, and the trend graph shows a sudden jump over the last 3 months.

    Sometimes the numbers are realistic, sometimes they aren’t – but how do you know which is which?

  12. wow that sucks! I been trying to figure out myself how to get good keyword phrases also. I know that google keyword tool is the one tool mainly used too by seo people. I’ve been trying to get my site ranked for certain keywords and your post gives me some good insight…thanks very interesting.

  13. A great article, covering a topic that not many people seem to know about.

    I’ve found a classic example recently, for keyword research, using exact match, in my country (australia), the keyword tool reported a large number. I found this too good to be true, and it was.

    I started a adwords campaign, on google search only (not network) ran it for a day, and the search impressions was around 1/10th of what the keyword tool stated.

    When i enabled the search network, BANG, the impressions increased. Still nowhere near what the keyword tool reported they should be, but that could be seasonal.

    The keyword tool can be used to plan SEO Campaigns… but people should know it’s NOT ALWAYS ACCURATE, as you’ve stated, it’s showing searches done via google.com and the SEARCH PARTNERS. In fact, some searches (especially buying phrases with intent) are mostly generated on the search network alone. This was the example i found.

    I find it really surprising that this isn’t really spoken of. I have a tool called Market Samurai, and it USES google keyword tool data to help people plan SEO.

    It’s just not reliable, but people just don’t seem to get it.

    Now i know the secret sauce – use adwords to test real search impressions on promising search phrases to get the real data!

    Thanks for the write up, i didn’t know what was going on until i found your post, which i then verified with my own real life testing.


  14. I haven’t tried WordTracker’s paid for service very recently, although I did several months ago. It definitely has some features that Google’s Keyword Tool does not. It’s my opinion that adding WordTracker into the mix doesn’t hurt, if you can afford it.
    I still think that the fact Google is using a much larger sample size (their own search data), from a popular search engine (Google as opposed to the ones WordTracker uses for data that no one even uses today), and does not extrapolate results makes it more accurate than WordTracker, which is not to say that Google is 100% accurate.
    Like you said, the key is to look for relative trends. But there are many niche keywords and phrases that do not even appear on WordTracker, which is why I recommend it for more popular searches but not for specific ones.
    Thanks for your comment, I appreciate it.

  15. I always had a doubt on google keyword tool. Its not the perfect tool to measure. I had a wordtracker account while ago but it wasnt showing right numbers too.

  16. Great post I found it very useful especially when you stated effective keyword usage. This post gives me some GREAT research…thanks very good job!

  17. With all due respect, this is some of the worst data testing I’ve ever seen, and the testing model has more holes in it than swiss cheese.

    5 useless phrases on a non-commercial site? Please. 3 Days? Please. What about the quality of the page Titles and Meta Descriptions. Were they truly the best compared to the other results that showed up around them?

    No – this is nothing but a link bait article from 2 years ago with affiliate links buried in the article that aren’t disclosed.

  18. Actually, Alan, with all due respect I think your habit of skimming articles instead of reading them is showing. As I said in third paragraph this test was after my real life experience using the tool on a commercial site over a three month period, for natural seo, with disastrous results. I wasted a good amount of time based on the results of the tool, so when all of the buzz started about how wonderful it was that the tool showed exact numbers, back when this article was written, I figured I would share my experiences with people in the hopes of helping to keep them from making the same mistake I did. I threw together a short test and shared those numbers. If the fact that I inserted some affiliate links at the end (which were, btw, an afterthought… believe that or not as you will) makes you doubt the genuineness of the article itself, then I suggest that you perhaps practice what you preach, Alan…

    If, for some reason, any claim, accusation, or “fact” I make in one of my articles is not accurate, upon receipt of irrefutable proof that this is the case, I will gladly make a retraction. – Alan Bleiweiss, on what he thinks people should do if they think he is wrong

    If you think my test was insufficient, and therefore wrong, you are free to test yourself. I will tell you though that 2 years later others are still testing this, and still coming to the same conclusion:


  19. Michael,

    I don’t have to test. I already know. Anyone who uses keyword tool numerics to then determine real world click through rates is making a mistake in the first place. That’s the biggest single issue I have here. While you say you based all this on a bigger test you did, the fact is that you show data from your example test. As if that example proves your point.

    Since your example data and testing model itself is flawed, I can not, as an intelligent person, then comfortably believe that your example is enough to prove your point. And since I can not see your data from the larger commercial test, I have no basis of using your link-bait quality headlined article for anything other than entertainment value.

    Now – as to your attempt to distract readers by trying to call the kettle black, I’ll say this. +1 for you. Yet since I’ve never once written a “review” article with embedded links, nor do I ever intend to, -3 for you.

  20. And Michael

    Rather than trying to use that article of proof that you’re right, read my comments on the Dave Naylor site. You’ll see I’ve responded there as well. Because flawed logic is flawed logic.

  21. Alan, I don’t sell seo or marketing services. In the 3 1/2 years I have been writing this blog I have dropped affiliate links in the posts exactly 3 times, and never once were they the focus of the post. The vast majority of what I write is either for entertainment (sometimes just my own) or to help people.

    With you, on the other hand, every single post or comment you write is an attempt in one way or another to get people to believe that you know wtf you’re talking about so they will hire you, while apparently in reality you are a blowhard who won’t back up what he says. If I knew nothing else about you that would be enough for me to steer people away from listening to you, period, let alone purchasing your services. I mean, for fucks sake Alan, you flat out agree with the conclusion and say you don’t need any test data to back it up, so what possible reason could you have then to go around belligerently slamming these tests on other people’s blogs if not for self promotion?

    Either way, I am done discussing it with you.

  22. Alan,

    Nobody owes you anything. If you think the data is flawed, move on. Do you own tests. Come to your own conclusions.

    Coming here and insulting Michael only shows you have nothing better to do with your time then to tear down others. Why don’t you go and do something constructive, instead of destructive?

    I for one appreciated this post because it confirmed my own findings. Thanks Michael!

  23. My findings as well. Although G may say there are 500 Exacts for Red Widgets which will be inflated (grossly) BUT there will be long tails that you do not know about that you should get that includes the exact match. This traffic helps to offset the exact match inflated numbers.

  24. I have found the google keyword tool to be a bit hit and miss in the past to say the least and wordtracker to be more accurate – but with wordtracker you have the cost but I think it is worth it.

    In the past i have done exact searches for words in google keywords free tool and have found that the initial search would show hundreds of thousands of searches for that word or phrase.

    However when i have checked back in a few months later the results for seaches are in the hundreds in some instances so there is a massive difference.

    I have not mad a mistake and have used the exact keyword option every time – has anyone elas encountered this with the google tool?

  25. It is flawed and totally innacurate and only gives VERY rough guidelines. All it is is a marketing tool for google to sell more adspace as they are a money making machine. Any suggestions on better tools?

  26. this bloated keyword issue is potentially debilitating. I’ve only been doing seo for a few months, and I’m constantly learning more information. And i can tell you it takes some serious filters on my part, in order to distill whatever little worth knowing information I can gather.

    One main issue that maybe all of us are overlooking, is the fact that seo is by definition a type of savaging act. Its entire premise is built on beating the system. The fact that all these tools are not very dependable is only disconcerting to the people in this field. After all, google’s entire premise is to serve visitors the best possible content. This is simply not an seo’s job.

    Anyway I’m done with my passive aggressive rant 🙂 thanx for the info on the subject!

  27. I guess it has changed a lot over the years, today the tool is awesome for giving indications of trafic (if you are able to get top 2)

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