A lot has been written about, and a lot of money spent on, keyword research tools. There are now countless free and paid keyword research tools available – SEM Rush, Ahrefs, Keywords Everywhere, LongTail Pro, to name just a few.
But do they actually deliver on what they promise? Can they provide accurate search volume figures for keywords and search phrases within a particular niche?
The reality on this is no keyword research tool can consistently provide accurate search volume for keywords and search phrases, since only Google has this information and they don’t give it out. The keyword tools are guessing the best they can, but most of the time they are wrong because they simply don’t have access to anywhere near the data that Google has.
We noticed some of the top ranking articles on this topic are from companies that themselves have their own keyword research reseach tools, like Ahrefs. This itself is a bit of a conflict of interest, since if they have a tool to sell, they are going to want to say that these tools are accurate and reliable.
But when you actually audit and test the keyword research tools, you will simply find that they do not accurately and consistently deliver keyword search volumes for users. They may get some right, but they will get many wrong.
This is across the board for all the different tools – both free and paid. We are not singling any particular one out. They are all off the mark because they are all relying on the same incomplete data sets.
Only Google has anything close to the full picture in terms of search volume, and they don’t release this data, so the keyword research tools are stabbing in the dark regarding search volume, just as everyone else is.
Let’s look in more detail at why this is the case, as well as a simple method you can test this assertion we make for yourselves.
The Truth About Search Engines & Search Volumes
The stark reality when it comes to search engines (and search volumes and user data) is that Google has by far the biggest market share in the Western world, handling upwards of 90% of search queries in most countries (source).
This simply means that Google is the only company that has a real, lifesize dataset in terms of how much each keyword term is searched online every day. No other company comes close to the data Google has, since no other search engine has anything close to the market share that Google has.
Moreoever, Google does not give out any information on search volumes for any keywords. So the only company that really knows is them. Not bloggers, not “industry experts”, and not keyword research tools.
The other well known search engines like Bing, Yahoo and DuckDuckGo do handle some searches, but their market share is typically in the low single digits percent in most countries. In other words, they simply can’t compete with Google for datasets of search volumes.
Google has the undisputed largest market share in searches and unparalleled data on search volumes. No one else has access to this data
Extend this now to keyword research tools, which have even less data than the smaller search engines! They collect data as best they can from limited user testing on search volumes and extrapolate.
But because they simply don’t have anywhere near the amount of data that Google does, they can’t guess anywhere near as accurately. They simply don’t have the raw data Google does, so they’re effectively stabbing in the dark for many search terms.
All of this adds up to mean that we simply cannot get reliable search volumes for keywords and search phrases before we write content.
On rare occasions, a keyword research tool may get volumes roughly correct based on their limited data. But most of the time they won’t.
How can we say this so confidently? Because you can actually test this theory out if you already have a website and can pick terms you can easily rank for. Let’s see how in the next section.
The Only Real Way To Reliably Find Search Volume
The reality is that unless you work in Google and have access to search volume data, the only way to reliably and consistently find out what search volumes are for certain keywords and phrases is after the fact.
In other words, simply by producing content that ranks number one (or close to it) and see the search volumes for yourself in your own website analytics. Then you can compare this to what the keyword research tool says the volume should be for that search term and/or related or adjacent search terms as well.
Do this a couple of times and you’ll see for yourself how inaccurate search figures from the tools can be. Sometimes they may be close; much of the time they’ll be way off and a search phrase that the tools said should receive little or no search volume actually has plenty once you actually write the content and see for yourself.
See the video below from the guys at Income school for more on this, plus a few anecdotal examples of their own on this issue of inaccurate search volume figures from tools.
“We have done this hundreds of times, where we take an article found our way to do search analysis, we will look it up in the tool, and the tool will say almost no one searches this. And then we actually go write the piece of content, because our (method) shows there’s search volume there, and we’ve seen multiple times where it’s bringing in 5000 page views per month, from one article, that the tool tells us has no search volume”
Jim, Income School – see here
How To Test Out Search Volumes For Keyword Phrases
The Income School guys explain this more in the video above, and we’ve explained it in general, but let’s break down the precise after-the-fact process by which you can test search volumes for keywords and phrases:
- Pick a search longer tail search phrase in your niche that you know is low competition and you can rank for.
- Put the phrase or keywords into a keyword research tool and note down the suggested search volumes. Keep this number safe. Also try including tangiential and closely related searches the term could rank for if you like.
- Even if the tool tells you there is zero or low volume, write the content anyway as long as it shows up as a Google Auto-Complete search term and you know you can rank for it.
- Wait for it to rank number one, or at least in the top 3, and then see how much traffic the article has on your website analytics. See here for linking Google Analytics to your website.
- Does your actual traffic match what the keyword tool said there should be?
- Do this for more search terms – low, medium and high competition – and you will often find the same results – the tools are wrong in the search volumes they give.
- Once you have enough experience doing this and have seen it enough times, you will understand what we mean when we say keyword research tools don’t give accurate volumes.
Whilst we understand this method does require a “leap of faith” in the sense of trusting in the process without immediate verification; of doing something and waiting a long time for a result, you will see for yourself how it proves the point that no one except Google has accurate search volumes.
The Income School guys are brilliant at explaining this, and I have personally seen this time and time again on many articles I have written across my blogs. See their latest video where they test this out again and find exactly the same results – keyword tool search volume is often way off on the low side for many search terms.
Rarely do keyword research tools come anywhere close to accurately estimating search volumes for keywords, both long and short tail. Far more often than not, they are wrong, and cannot be relied on for accurate data.
Moreover though, this is not bad news; it’s actually good news! Let’s look at why below.
Implications of This For Content Creation
If keyword research tools can’t reliably provide accurate search volume figures, then how to we go about deciding which content to write for our blogs, and which keyword phrases to go after?
The answer is really very simple – you have to do a bit of research the more manual way rather than using a tool which only has a miniscule dataset compared to Google. And it’s really not that hard to do.
See the great video below where Jim and Ricky from Income School go through a really simple method of playing around with Google Auto-Suggest on their searches to find keywords and phrases which have search volume, and going after lower competition ones you can rank for.
Income School on Keyword Research
Keyword Research – The Common Sense (Income School) Way:
- Play around with Google Auto-Complete on search terms in your niche. By this, we mean Google automatically completes search phrases as you type.
- Look for search terms which Google completes for you around halfway through you typing them, or at least with a few words left.
- This always indicates search volume, since by completing it for you, Google is already telling you that other people are searching it.
- Assess the competition of the results for that search term. If it’s low quality results at the top (forums, short articles, thin content, not directly answering the query) and you know you can write a better post, then you have something you could rank for.
- If you can tick all these boxes, write the article. Don’t worry if the keyword research tools tell you there is little or no search volume. As we’ve covered, they are often wrong on this because they don’t have enough data.
- By using this simple method, you’ll often be able to take advantage of keyword phrases that others skip over, because they are using the (false) information from keyword research tools that tell them there is zero search volume when in fact there is plenty.
- See the video above for some good examples of this simple method in practice.
“The reason that market (for keyword research tools) is out there is because they want you to pay money to fix your problem, and you can’t – you need to do a little work. But it’s really not that hard to do”
Jim Harmer, Income School
What Are Keyword Research Tools Useful For?
Let’s not totally beat up on keyword research tools though. Are they not good for some things? Yes, they are. Here are some things keyword tools can do quite well.
1. Larger Volume Searches – Keyword tools can sometimes give quite accurate results for higher competition search phrases, where they have enough data that they can extrapolate reasonably correctly.
However, these type of high volume search phrases are generally not the ones you want to after anyway, because they will be super competitive, with lots of big sites already writing long posts on them. These are not generally worth going after unless you have a site with big domain authority.
2. Backlink Profiles – Keyword research tools can be excellent for examining the backlink profiles of sites, especially larger ones where they have more data. In other words, seeing which other websites are linking to them, and how many backlinks they have from other sites, as well as the quality of these backlinks.
3. Top Articles – Again on older, well established sites where they have more data, some keyword tools are reasonably accurate at telling you which posts on a site bring in the most traffic. Can be good for deciding which keywords to go after (or not go after if too competitive).
4. Ideas – Keyword tools can give you some ideas in terms of general keywords and concepts to pursue in your niche. Can give some ideas on related phrases to check out using the more manual method we described above.
5. Creative/Brainstorming – Again the general process of playing around with keywords and phrases with the tools can open up more ideas in terms of topics and subtopics within niches you could explore further. They can help open up “corners” of a topic or niche that maybe you hadn’t thought of before.
So we can see that keyword research tools can be useful for some purposes – just not for reliably and consistently providing search volumes for phrases within your niche.
They may get the odd one right, but using the after-the-fact testing method we have laid out in this article, you will soon enough see for yourself that they don’t consistently deliver accurate numbers in this regard.
Use this to your advantage as the Income School guys always say! Go after these under-served keywords that everyone else is skipping over because the tools told them to. There are great SEO opportunities for bloggers who do their keyword research the more manual way.
If you like the sound of the Income School approach, check out their Project 24 program, where they lay out their clean SEO strategy for making a full time income online.
They are honest, decent, down to earth guys and explain everything with the beginner in mind – a gold mine in today’s internet world that is full of shysters, “gurus” and con artists.