This article was written with the Dutch SERP and Dutch version of Google Keyword Planner in mind. It might therefore not be 100% applicable to international SEO. Currently translated by Deepl.io.
I think it is one of the most frequently asked questions within SEO: “How do I do keyword research?”, “What tools can I use?”, “Who can do good keyword research?”. Yet in most cases I find keyword research for SEO far too overrated and indeed, if you sail blindly on it it sets you up for failure. Why do we love doing keyword research so much and why do I think there are very big drawbacks to it?
Why people like to do keyword research
There are several reasons why people do keyword research. The first reason is that it allows you to find out what people are searching for and what their needs are. You can see if people are looking for a recipe for that particular dish, if they are looking for a certain type of mattress and if they are looking for a certain product. It is also useful if you want to know whether people are searching for a product that you might want to include in your range. Suppose you sell swimming gear, but not yet snorkel masks. Through keyword research you can find out if there is search volume and therefore a demand for it. So far keyword research is a godsend. Because the tools also display volumes on synonyms, it is also useful because you know which word you can best use: jeans or jeans, jacket or jacket etc.
Once upon a time SEO was very visible on keywords
In the old days in particular, people would grab the word with the highest search volume (after all, that’s where the market was the biggest) and start optimizing for it. On those searches (keywords) was once good visibility in Google with SEO. It was therefore very useful to know which search terms had the highest search volume. Below is a print screen of the Dutch SERP from 2010 that immediately shows how well the SEO results were visible on important keywords. The results in the yellow section are the paid ads (and in the right bar) and everything in the middle was reserved for SEO.
But nowadays I hardly do any keyword research, yes I certainly still check something sometimes but keyword research is certainly not the basis for my SEO or content strategy. If you use the tools for what they are not intended for, you do yourself short. A number of problems around keyword research in a row.
Problem 1: Everyone uses the same keyword tools
Perhaps the biggest problem is that everyone uses the same tools. This leads to everyone in the market finding the same information in such a tool and therefore focusing on the same set of keywords. The competition is cut-throat and the parties tumble over each other to be number 1 for that one keyword with the highest search volume. Everything is pulled out of the closet for that top position, but the reality is that if you are number 1 on a keyword with high search volume, your competitor has probably also spotted that keyword. In addition, SEA departments also use the keyword tools, so you are competing with masses of websites for a little visibility on that one keyword.
Problem 2: Keyword research turns our content strategy into a one-size-fits-all affair
Where there is search volume, people write about it. It leads to the fact that content strategies aimed at SEO have become a huge uniformity sausage: we all write the same thing. There are hundreds of websites that all write the same thing about recipes, how to do something, how something works etc. They do so because everyone has found that information in a keyword tool. The result is that almost no SEO marketer thinks from the customer’s point of view anymore, but from keyword tools. Keyword tools seem to have become the truth, while the customer may be looking for much more. It also leads to the fact that we have all become lazy: customer research? No way, we have keyword tools.
We are so data driven at the moment that we also don’t want to put time into things that are not data driven. So we can set up a customer panel and see what customers would like to know, but yes what if the Google Keyword Planner says there is no search volume on it? Are we going to put time into it then? Probably not.
Problem 3: keyword tools think in keywords
The third problem and a logical extension of problem 2 is that we use keyword tools; the name says it all, they poop out keywords. The tools themselves are not without their critics, see below, but the downside is that everyone thinks there is nothing else but the keywords you get from a tool. So if you do keyword research as the basis for a content strategy, you miss out on a lot of search queries that are also out there in the market.
One of my clients has a page that had over 144,000 impressions according to Google Search Console. An impression means that you have been visible in the SERP. If you download the data and export to Excel, you will notice that you can only view 134,000 impressions. You can see how many keywords (search queries) are responsible for these impressions: in this case over 800. I have run them through the Google Keyword Planner to see if there is search volume. Of almost 350 keywords that generated impressions, the Keyword Planner says that there is no search volume on them. That’s nonsense, of course; there are searches otherwise the page could not have been shown on it.
I also wanted to know if I did my own keyword research for that page, what I would find in the Keyword Planner. After doing research for quite some time and adding suggestions from Google to the sheet, I still don’t come up with the 800+ terms that were sending traffic to my page. Several hundred keywords are proactively almost impossible to find in the Google Keyword Planner, unless you enter them yourself (but you don’t do keyword research for that, most people do it for inspiration).
I’m willing to bet that there are a lot more searches in Google than you can get from keyword tools, the information above already paints that picture. Below is a chart from SimilarWeb and SparkToro. It shows how clicks are distributed in Google. The black area are the searches that no longer lead to a click: people have already found their information in Google and clicking is no longer necessary. The purple area are the paid ads, notice how it’s only 1.59%? And where do you often see ads? Right, on short tail searches: the keywords.
The blue area are the clicks to organic results; over 33% share. So there are 20x as many clicks on an SEO result than on an ad. But if SEO is so poorly displayed on search around a keyword and people have to scroll to find them: do so many people do that? Or are there possibly a lot of searches on which you don’t see ads and that people massively still click on an SEO result precisely there?
So would there be more to it than keywords? Definitely! For example, I see in my Google Search Console that my website is showing up on the following Dutch search query, “why did I drop in Google”.
But what shows the Dutch version of Google Keyword Planner? No search volume for that query.
To me, this is a sign that you are never going to find real inspiration in Keyword tools or surface search queries that are out there. At least, not in Dutch. Maybe this works differently in the English version of the GKP. But the Dutch version of the Keyword Planner thinks in keywords and comes back with keywords. Is that a problem? No, you should not use it for things it is not intended for, such as getting inspiration for a content strategy. You would probably never have found the whole topic of “descending into keywords”. In this screenshot you see some different queries in dutch all related to losing positions in Google.
Problem 4: Keyword tools rarely provide new insights
We’ll continue the rant about keyword research for a while. Indeed, the next problem, as far as I’m concerned, is that keyword research rarely yields new insights. To illustrate this well, I have actually done keyword research. The goal then is to get ideas for an article on keyword research. There are several tools that give you insight into search volumes and searches such as the Google Keyword Planner, Ubersuggest, Keywordtool.io and the immensely popular tool Answer the public. But Google around and you’re sure to find more. For this article, I consulted these four tools.
Google Keyword Planner
Let’s take a look at the Google Keyword Planner first. Because if you want to know search volumes, there is only one source that really knows how often something is being searched for and that is Google itself. I entered the words on lines 4 and 5: keyword research and keyword research. Then Google comes up with keyword ideas:
When I look at this list, I don’t really see anything that I couldn’t think of myself or that really helps me along. That people are also looking for ‘tools’ seems obvious. No keyword research without tools, everyone thinks. I could have come up with ‘Google adwords’ because that’s where the information comes from and for this form of marketing, of course, keyword research is also done. Semrush is a well-known tool that often gives you some more nice insights, as well as for example ahrefs etc. And finally: that people are looking for free tools, you can actually guess that. You can scroll through the whole list (do it yourself if you want to see it with your own eyes), but the chance that you will find something new is very small.
Ubersuggest is a tool from SEO guru Neil Patel. You can use part of it for free, for in-depth information you need a subscription. These free suggestions also provide few new insights. Right?
The last tool I cover is keywordtool.io. As with Ubersuggest, you can view some for free, for more information you need a subscription. However, looking at the suggestions in the list below, I again see few innovative ideas.
Now of course you may think: but I have a subscription so I get more data. Yes that’s right, but everyone with a subscription gets the same data. And so everyone is using the same list of keywords to create content and tick off keywords.
Answer the public
You could possibly use the Answer the public tool to gain insight into search queries that may be on people’s minds, see the image below. It takes the keyword you entered and puts who, what, when, why and how in front of it. Well, I can think of that myself. Don’t forget that this tool can also be used by anyone. This requires thirteen-in-a-dozen content that you can find on any website.
Problem 5: What are you going to do with the keywords?
What I know after this keyword research is that people are probably searching for: tools, using the various tools by name, they want to know where it can be done for free, and they want to do it themselves and have an example. And so now everyone is going to write about “keyword research. That really everyone in the search engine industry is focusing on this topic is immediately obvious because this is what the SERP looks like. See at the top that only in Dutch already 2.9 million websites say something about keyword research?
You could now choose not to go for the short tail top keyword, but for a long-tail search like, “How to do keyword research?” But take a moment to see if this will make you happy. Okay, the competition is a lot less with 220,000 results, but it still looks very crowded.
It’s clear: half the world is writing tips on how to do keyword research. What is your article going to add to the world?
So if you find yourself in such a position, what are you going to do? Are you going to write the same thing as everyone else, or are you going to choose your own path? If you -like me- want to write something about keyword research, choose a different angle. So I chose to take as my starting point: why keyword research is overrated. There is less search volume on that, but at least it is an original approach and besides that I really think everyone should stop attaching too much importance to keyword research. But perhaps most importantly: for this article, I shouldn’t aim for visibility in SEO. The chances that this article will rank for the term ‘ keyword research’ are just really, really slim. The competition is cutthroat and my website still has little authority. So I’m writing this article not so much to attract SEO traffic but mainly to share on social media and start the conversation about this. So sometimes you have to accept that SEO for a certain topic is not (anymore) the place to be, especially for small parties or newcomers.
Problem 6: The SERP has become a carnival
Another problem is that the Search Engine Result Page on coveted keywords has become an outright carnival. You can already see it above in the screenshot. You first see 4 ads, then you see a featured snippet where Google is already giving away information, then you see 2 SEO results and then a People Also Ask. If you decide that you are going to write about keyword research because there is a lot of search volume on it, you are going to be disappointed because ranking is not easy and on top of that Google is targeting all kinds of things above the SEO results. Even if you are ranked 1, you will have a hard time. Why should you do keyword research if this is what you can get?
Problem 7: keyword tools tell you little about your customer
And then – as far as I’m concerned – the last problem: short tail keywords that you get from tools tell you little about your customer, because what is someone looking for who is looking for chocolate, e-bike or a slow cooker.
The medium tail keywords tell you a little more: keyword research free, keyword research tools, keyword research example. You can often get these keywords from keyword tools as well. But given the traffic in the SERP, especially longtail searches are really interesting and you often do not get them from tools. You can see this in the example above with the search query ‘why dropped in google’. So this query is really alive, but it doesn’t show up in keyword tools.
So, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a really good step to not base your SEO content strategy solely on what you bring up from keyword tools. Think about your customer yourself, what position they are in and how you could help them further. If you have regular contact with your customer, then you should have no problem writing down a number of topics that are really alive and where you can do more with it. If you really can’t work it out, just Google the keyword you have in mind and see what Google comes up with in the People Questions as well, often you’ll find great leads. The downside, of course, is that even this “tool” can be used by anyone, so many people will use this information as the basis for their content strategy.
When I do keyword research
There are probably enough reasons to do keyword research. I’ll also say right away: I still do it from time to time. But it is never the basis of my content strategy and I prefer to avoid keywords as much as possible, precisely because the search results pages are bulging. My plea is therefore not to use keyword research as the basis for your SEO or content strategy. When I do do it?
To find input for new products or services
At the very beginning of this article I mentioned that if you sell swimming gear and you’re thinking about adding snorkel masks to your product range, you can look into tools to see if there is demand from the market. That way it can help you determine your assortment.
Another reason to check the Google Keyword Planner sometimes is to be able to set priorities. Suppose I want to write a blog and have two topics in mind: 1) doing keyword research or 2) the requirements for a CMS. Now if I would have time for only 1 article then it’s useful to just dive into keyword tools and gain insight into search volumes.
The downside is that you never get a lot of information because as I said above the Google Keyword Planner only limits itself to a few terms, but you do get an indication: it clearly shows that the market of searches around a keyword research is much larger than the market of searches for a suitable CMS. You would then be better off taking topic 1 (but do check the SERP before you start to see if you actually have a chance of competing in SEO).
What do we call something?
Another reason is to check how people call something: bra vs bra, jeans vs jeans etc. Another example: suppose you work for a travel company and you sell beach vacations. In such a case, I look up whether we Dutch call it a beach vacation or a sun vacation. If I know that, then I use that term in my menu structure, a large part of the internal links, the URL and in the title tag. I prefer that to the other term, but the other term will definitely come back. After all, Google is thinking more and more in semantics and so synonyms and related terms belong on a page about that one term.
You’re probably thinking: but don’t you need kewords to keep track of rankings? That’s right, if you want to monitor rankings you need keywords. But rankings monitoring is another thing I almost never do. I have several reasons for this which I will explain in a separate blog but this article will give you a sneak peek: Developments in SEO 2020.
How to get your input for your SEO content strategy
You’re probably asking yourself right now, “If you don’t do much, if any, keyword research, how do you get input for your SEO strategy? How do you come up with a list of words to use in the text?” That’s actually quite simple: I use my own creativity and combine it with that knowledge about my client. For about 7 or 8 years I’ve been working according to this method, so all that time I’ve been doing hardly any keyword research with tools. The results we later achieve in SEO often amaze clients. How is that possible? It’s because we write about subjects that also have search volume, but that you don’t get from keyword tools. There is much less competition and it is often mega relevant.
Tip 1: come up with your own keywords
If you look again at the screenshots above, it is clear that you could have come up with almost everything yourself without consulting 4 tools. So start with common sense and write down everything you can think of: short tail keywords, medium tail keywords and long tail keywords. Then cluster them by topic so you can make a to do list. If you want to make sure you haven’t missed any terms, now is the time to dive into a keyword tool and see if there is a term you had missed. Now you might be thinking: that’s the same as doing keyword research in tools, right? No, this works the other way around. By not starting in tools but thinking for yourself, you avoid getting blinders on and sailing blindly on what tools tell you. Now you only check afterwards if you have forgotten something.
Tip 2: crucial questions about your customer
The crucial questions you should ask yourself about your customers will help you understand your target audience or customer and find out what they are looking for. With these questions you will find out what is going on with your target group. You will gain insight into long-tail searches that no one has insight into and relevant search questions. Once you know these topics, you can use that knowledge to create content that really distinguishes you from the rest. That is an important criterion for Google: relevant content that helps the user! You do not want to create content that is already on 100 other sites, because that is as good as no chance to be visible within SEO.