Something’s Fishy in the State of Google’s New Keyword Tool [Data]

With the launch of Google’s New Keyword Tool, they are now taking mobile device searches into account when calculating search volume, indicating search volume should be increasing for virtually all queries.  Conductor’s research found that although the majority of keywords increased in search volume, 8% actually decreased, some by some substantial amounts, suggesting there is more going on than meets the eye.

Earlier this week Google completely turned off the old Adwords Keywords Tool as part of their migration to the new AdWords Keyword Planner. The Keyword Tool was a primary tool SEOs used to view search volumes for their keywords and discover additional keywords to optimize in the search engines.

Google’s statement on the change made it pretty clear that the new tool was about adding search volume from mobile devices, whereas before the switch, search volume was calculated only from desktop and laptops (emphasis added):

In general, you’ll notice that the average search volume data is higher in Keyword Planner as compared to the exact match search volume data you got with Keyword Tool. That’s because we’ll show you the average number of searches for a keyword idea on all devices (desktop and laptop computers, tablets, and mobile phones). With Keyword Tool, we showed you average search volume for desktop and laptop computers by default.

Logic would seem to dictate that the addition of a data source to an existing pool of data would result in that pool getting larger.  To test this hypothesis and to measure the extent to which the pool did or did not grow, we analyzed more than 550,000 keywords, a representative sample from our database in Searchlight, Conductor’s Enterprise SEO Platform.

We’re going to walk you through a number of charts, looking at the change from a number of different angles.  Hopefully, by the time you are done you will have a good sense of what happened. And, based on the resulting data we’ll give you a number of takeaways you should be thinking about in your own keyword strategy.

25% of Keywords Stayed the Same or Decreased

First, the high level view. Google has stated that the change is about accounting for searches across mobile platforms that were not previously accounted for.  That should mean that there are few if any keywords whose search volume decreases.

For the most part the data shows that that is fact the case with 3/4’s (74%) of keywords increasing in search volume.

Overall, individual keywords saw a 52% increase on average in search volume

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But, that leaves 17% of keywords that somehow stayed the same, and oddly, a full 8% of keywords whose search volume actually decreased.

Looking at this in a slightly different way, while the pie chart above shows the distribution of ‘up vs. down vs. stayed the same’, the scatter plot below nicely illustrates the movement of keywords pre and post change with the vertical axis showing the search volume prior to the change and the horizontal axis showing the search volume post change.

This view shows the 75% of keywords on the ‘increase’ side of the line, but it also shows that there are a cluster of keywords that decreased, many in a substantial way.

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Next, we look at a distribution of the keywords by ‘bucket’ of movement.  This view will tell us how much the keywords’ search volume changed. That is—how many increased by 21%-40% etc. vs. how many decreased by 21%-40% etc.
(Read the chart as the vertical axis shows the percent of keywords and the horizontal axis shows their range of movement.  So, for example, 4.22% of keyword search volumes increased by 1%-20%).

Looking closely, two observations that have the potential to impact the day to day life of the SEO stand out:

  • Fully a quarter (26%) of keywords increased by more than 60%
    While I’m sure Google has no, *ahem*, objection, to advertisers seeing a higher (read: much higher) search volume in their ad tool for a large percentage of keywords, with such a large number of keywords increasing, it pays for SEOs to download updated search volumes and compare to old numbers to get a handle on what has changed in their own individual landscape.
  • 8% of keywords went from zero search volume to a search volume of some kind
    Frequent users of Google’s Adword Tool are used to seeing the character ‘-‘  a lot—an indication that Google has no search volume for their keyword.  Of the total bucket of keywords we analyzed, 8% of the keywords  previously had no search volume and with the new tool now have a search volume of some kind.  This is another reason for SEOs to take a close look at how the change has affected them.

Another way to say this that will emphasize the degree to which things have changed is while the 8% metric above points out that of the total bucket of keywords–some of which change by x or by y–8% went from 0 to some search volume. Looking at the bucket of keywords that started out pre-change at 0, 35% now have a search volume of some kind.

35% of keywords that previously reported ‘zero’ for search volume, now have a search volume of some kind

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High vs. Low: Keywords with Already High Search Volumes Increased at Greater Rate than Low Volume

Next, we segmented the data by high vs. low volume keywords to see if there were differences in how search volumes changed based on the starting search volume of the keyword.  Although there are different ways to define “high vs. low volume”, and the scale can differ significantly by vertical, we set the threshold for high-volume as 10,000 monthly searches.

Looking at the data this way, we found that the rich very much got richer.  That is, those keywords that already had high search volumes increased at rates significantly greater than low volume queries.  Nearly half (48%) of high volume keywords increased by more than 60% compared to just 24% of low volume keywords increasing that much. And, many more low volume keywords remained low volume keywords, with no change at all in search volume.

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Head vs. Long Tail: Head Terms Increased at Greater Rate than Long Tail

Next we looked at head terms (queries with 1 or two words in the query) vs. long tail (queries with 3 or more words).

Here again we saw that head terms (which generally have higher search volume than long tail terms) had a higher proportion of terms that increased by more than 40% (48% to 40%) – although not nearly as wide a gap as high vs. low–suggesting keywords with more words in the term is not as absolute an indicator of search volume as the industry would sometimes have us think.

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Earlier we mentioned that we saw a number of keywords search volume drop significantly—which poses the question if the change is strictly the addition of mobile device search volumes as Google states.  Here are several examples of keywords whose search volume decreased significantly:

Could the huge drop in ‘facebook’ search volume be explained by mobile users increasingly turning to the mobile app vs. mobile search? And, the Oakland A’s are in first place in their division this year—could the search volume for their team have dropped by 113,000?

More likely the drops are indicators that there are still gremlins to be worked out in the system.

Likewise, there are several anomalies of disproportionate increases in search volume.  Here are several examples of keywords whose search volume increased by orders of magnitude that seem pretty impossible, unless there is a sudden rush to search for coffee and office equipment related products on a mobile phone:


When we consider what to make of all this, a cynical view would point out that if a key Google objective in rolling out a new keyword tool is increasing revenue by driving up search volume so advertisers would be compelled to spend more and CPC increases are more easily justified, then, mission accomplished.

The cynic might further point out that one way of viewing the skew in % increase of search volume to high volume vs. low volume terms is that if Google set out to increase revenue, they likely focused on increasing those terms that would have the highest return on investment while paying less attention to lower ROI terms.  A purely cynical take on things, but worth pointing out.

Even if we are not quite that cynical, given the percentage of keywords going down or staying the same rather than going up as we’d expect, together with the anomalies of keywords whose search volumes changed significantly, (a small sample of which we showed you) it certainly seems like there is more going on than just Google adding mobile search volume.

Taken together, the bucket of keywords going down or staying the same and the keyword anomalies, it certainly seems like there is more going on than just Google adding mobile search volume

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Rather, it seems more likely that Google has taken the opportunity of rolling out a new tool to tweak the way they calculate search volume, adjusting more inputs than just adding mobile searches.  And, the data and anomalies suggest that there is still more tweaking to do. Count on additional adjustments occurring over the coming weeks.

So what does all this mean for you?

As we mentioned above, take the opportunity now to evaluate for yourself what has changed in your own landscape. Look at your keywords by sorting on largest percent change so as to extricate those keywords with the largest before-after delta.

Users of Conductor Searchlight can easily access historical Google Monthly Search Volume and determine which keywords have experienced the greatest percent change. And, Searchlight’s advanced filtering functionality provides a deeper level of search volume analysis.

Once that’s done, some may have some decisions to make.  Say you’ve been focusing on keywords x, y and z. Now your analysis shows that keywords a, b, and c have a higher search volume than x, y and z.  What to do?

First, I wouldn’t make any hasty changes in strategy. As we pointed out, we expect Google to make continued adjustments in the post launch wake. Second, if over time you do find that the new search volumes do hold steady, avoid tunnel-visioning on search volume as a sole determinant.  Instead, look closely at metrics like conversions, and on-page time to determine which keywords give you the best bang for your buck and focus there.

At the end of the day, it’s Google’s world. We just play in it.