As an SEO, you rely on data to make informed and calculated decisions. One of the most well-known metrics that marketers and SEOs are familiar with is the search volume of keywords.
Although the metric seems to be everywhere, one constant question remains: “What is the true search volume?”
You’re not alone if you’re increasingly frustrated at the lack of a proper answer. Truth be told, there can’t be a concrete answer to the question because, really, there is no such thing as “accurate search volume” – even when it comes to Google’s estimates.
Yes, search volume is an excellent tool for directionally understanding relative demand, but there are so many challenges that are associated with search volume that you need to know about. Let me walk you through it …
What is Search Volume?
Search volume is a broad estimate that search engines (usually Google) provide that indicates how many times the users of that search engine searched for a particular keyword over a certain amount of time. Google’s numbers come from their Keyword Planner, which is a tool that was built specifically for Google Adwords and PPC efforts – that is, to help advertisers choose the right keywords to target – but SEOs leverage it in order to understand the terms that have a high demand. This information then allows them to prioritize keywords for their organic search efforts.
In Google, the numbers are updated once a month – usually between the 15th and the 20th for the previous month’s data. But remember, Google Keyword Planner is an estimate.
Note: Search volume numbers that come from Google's Keyword Planner are always rounded (e.g. 500 instead of 517, or 1,000 instead of 1,225).
Types of Search Volume
There are two different kinds of search volume estimates. The first is average search volume, which is the average of the past 12 months’ worth of search volume numbers. This version of search volume is the default metric reported in the Adwords Keyword Planner.
The second type of search volume is monthly search volume. This method and metric is each keyword’s search volume listed individually by the month. This approach can be great for identifying trends in seasonality, since different months will have different highs and lows depending on major events, holidays, etc. Take a look at the chart below, for example. This is the search volume for the keyword “winter jackets” in our Topic Explorer. The term has little to no demand in the summer, and an increase in demand that starts in September leading into the winter months.
Recommended Reading: SEO Metrics: Why to Trust Weighted Average Rank Over Average Rank
(Search volume for the keyword “winter jackets” in Topic Explorer)
The Drawbacks of Search Volume
Search volume may seem like a precise and trustworthy metric because of its prevalence, but there are many drawbacks to search volume that you need to know. These problems, after all, could have a large effect on your overall SEO strategy.
1. There is No Correlation Between Search Volume and Traffic
You’ve probably been in this situation yourself: you’re conducting keyword research and tag those with the highest search volume to go after. After all, if there is more demand for those keywords, that must bring more traffic to your site, right? Well, not always.
High search volume does not guarantee high traffic. Especially with the rise of zero-click searches, where users can find the relevant information they need directly on the SERP. (The converse can also be true, where a searcher does not see anything relevant and conducts a new search without having clicked anything.)
But just because a keyword has a low search volume does not make it useless – it can very much be worth targeting. You still want to build your content cluster around a main topic to prove your topic authority on the subject matter as a whole, so don’t dismiss small search volume keywords. (More on this below.) Plus, you sometimes will have a better understanding of your business than the information Google presents to you.
2. Search Volume is a Sampling of Billions of Queries
As previously mentioned, search volume is a very broad estimate. But how broad, exactly? Search engines use an exceptionally small sampling (3% based on Google's knowledge base) of the billions of queries that take place on their search engine to estimate the search volume. It is in no way an accurate representation of true search volume.
3. Adwords Combines Keywords, Even if Those Keywords Have Different Search Intent
Search volume has no understanding of the context behind search queries – it’s a purely quantitative metric. For example, consider the query “apple.” Does it refer to apple.com, information about the fruit, images of apples? Of course the searchers themselves know, and those potential meanings are vastly different search journeys. So although the search engine tries to understand search intent and present relevant information, the search volume estimate has no understanding of this, and will group all different intents into one number.
Search intent informs the type of content that you should create to target customers along their respective search journeys. Being limited when it comes to search volume and its relation to search intent creates roadblocks and confusion, and yet again reinforces the fact that true search volume does not exist.
4. Information for Brand New Keywords Will Be Skewed
When dealing with average search volume (data of the past 12 months) there is inherently going to be some issues when new keywords arise throughout the year. If a product was launched in December, for example, the search volume will be much lower than it actually is, simply because there were no searches for that (at the time, non-existent) product for the past 11 months.
Consider the iPhone X. Released in November 2017, there were not too many searches prior to this date (besides perhaps searches made speculating about product release dates and features). After its release, searches for this product surged, but since there were 10 entire months with little to no searches, the average search volume skewed low.
Tip: In this situation, look at monthly search volume instead to get an understanding of the searches on a month-to-month basis.
5. Search Volume Cannot Be Sorted By Device Type
It’s not enough to create a list of keywords and track them – knowing which device the search occurs on is arguably just as important as the search itself. You cannot forget about the push toward mobile as websites continue to become mobile-friendly and the amount of mobile search users continues to rise. Unfortunately, search volume cannot be categorized by device type, which limits your understanding of how the user conducts the search.
6. Google Shows the Same Search Volume for Variations of the Same Keyword
Google began to group similar variations of keywords together in Q2 of 2016. This of course is another reason that there can be no “true search volume.” Unfortunately, the grouping of similar keywords can lead to ill informed decision making for your team. Let’s take a look at an example. The keywords “pricing of iphone x,” “price iphone x,” and “price for the iphone x” may all have different search volumes, but since Google lumps them together and presents the same search volume for all of them, we’ll actually never know – even though that information could help inform your SEO strategy.
7. GSC Data Does Not Match Google AdWords Data
This may be the most telling sign that accurate search volume is a myth: Google’s own data contradicts itself! While the data that comes from Google Search Console says one thing, the data from AdWords says something else entirely.
In fact, a research study published in early February 2020 that compared third-party keyword research tools used Google Search Console data as the “source of truth.” Rand Fishkin called out the discrepancy in Google’s data (and therefore the perceived flaw in this research) on Twitter.
This uses GSC as the "true" numbers? They don't match paid impression counts in Google Ads well enough for me to trust 'em, so that really throws a wrench in this research.— Rand Fishkin (@randfish) February 6, 2020
Working Around the Problem at seoClarity
At seoClarity we get our data from Google Keyword Planner – it’s the data that the source supplies. However, you need to be aware that you shouldn’t always be working keyword to keyword, search volume to search volume.
Note: In seoClarity, our data retrieval and mining allows us to retrieve the correct, specific search volume instead of the broad ranges for all keywords tracked in platform. For our keywords, we pull in the monthly search volume from Google.
Focus on creating clusters around your main topics. This topic cluster approach proves your complete authority in the subject area. With our Topic Explorer, you can understand a searcher’s journey and find missing content. Then, build out that content to grow your cluster and have a piece of content for every stage of the buyers' journey, no matter what the intent is.
Plus, Topic Explorer makes it easy to do this, with the ability to narrow down our keyword database by industry, and visualize the keywords with a word cloud and landscape view. The example below shows potential search journeys for the keyword “iPhone X” that can inform your content marketing strategy and topic cluster approach.
(Landscape view in Topic Explorer.)
Topic Explorer also allows you to filter down the keywords by keyword length. So, for example, you can specify that each keyword be greater than 2 words to find long-tail keywords. Build out your content centered around long-tail keywords to start becoming an authority with your clusters, and then start to go after high search volume keywords.
As Google continues to evolve, it takes a more holistic approach to determine rankings, so search volume is not the end all be all. However, it should not be entirely disregarded – just be aware of its drawbacks as you move forward with your SEO strategy.