In PPC, we hear a lot about keyword search volume, yet far less attention is paid to this crucial metric compared to, say, click-through rate or cost-per-click. Although these metrics are important, search volume can be equally important – especially for SEOs.
In today’s post, we’ll be exploring everything you need to know about search volume: what it is, why it’s important, and how to use it in your marketing campaigns, all with real-world examples to illustrate the main points. We’ll be focusing on these concepts primarily from an SEO perspective, but we’ll also be dipping into some PPC-related topics, too.
As the term implies, keyword search volume refers to the volume (or number) of searches for a particular keyword in a given timeframe. Keyword search volume is typically averaged over a set timeframe to provide marketers with a general idea of a search term’s competitiveness and overall volume. This data is often contextualized within specific timeframes to allow SEOs and marketers to see how certain keywords drive traffic over time.
Seasonality often plays a significant role in keyword search volume. Yes, the most diligent bargain-hunters may begin their search for “Christmas gift ideas” in July, but most people will wait until October or November before conducting this kind of search.
Keyword Seasonality (Image via Energy Circle)
Other search terms are “evergreen,” meaning there’s no seasonal or timeliness associated with them, and their search volume stays steady over time. Of course, it’s worth remembering that an evergreen keyword in one country or region may be seasonal in another.
Search volume matters because search engines are one of the key ways that sites attract new visitors and traffic. For example, at WordStream, organic search drives about 70% of total traffic! So it’s crucial to target keywords in your content that actually have real search volume – if no one is searching for the keywords you’re targeting, no one will find your content. However, if you’re only targeting keywords with extremely high search volume, it will be difficult to compete with bigger sites and get your content ranking.
Access traffic source data in Google Analytics by selecting
Acquisition > Source/Medium from the main
Before you can start using keyword search volume data to inform your SEO or PPC strategy, you need to actually get your hands on it. You may want to check out our full list of the 18 Best Keyword Research Tools for Every Need (Paid and Free!), but are some of them:
With our Free Keyword Tool, you can enter your keyword or even a website or URL into the box and you’ll get a list of keywords with their associated volume. You can also filter by industry and location to increase your relevance.
SEM Rush is a competitive intelligence tool that offers users a wealth of useful data, including keyword search volume.
Tracking keyword search volume using SEM Rush
As you can see in the figure above, SEM Rush offers an at-a-glance dashboard overview for specific keywords, in this case “ski jackets”. We can see the approximate average search volume, as well as the CPC and competitiveness of the query. We’re provided a graph overview of how keyword trends change over time, as well as related and phrase-match keywords that are relevant to our original query.
Note that the above screenshot was taken from a completely free search. Subscription plans are available to users who need more robust functionality and in-depth data, but it’s a solid place to start looking for keyword search volume data.
Moz doesn’t just run one of the best SEO and search blogs in the business – it also makes a range of ass-kicking tools that make life easier for digital marketers of all stripes. One of Moz’s best tools for SEOs is its Keyword Explorer.
Moz Keyword Explorer
The above figure shows a sample dashboard from Moz Keyword Explorer for the same term we used SEM Rush to evaluate, “ski jackets”. Although there’s quite a breadth in terms of the overall keyword search volume – between 11.5k and 30.3k – we’re also provided with several other valuable data points, such as an intuitive indication of the term’s competitiveness (or “Difficulty”, as Moz puts it), suggested relevant keywords, as well as SERP analysis, which also shows both Page and Domain Authority scores (more on this shortly).
Similarly to SEM Rush, Moz Keyword Explorer can be used for free, but is bundled with the Moz Pro suite of tools for power users. Overall, one of the best ways to start examining search volume data.
Although it may not be as fully featured as SEM Rush or Moz Keyword Explorer, Google Trends can be used to evaluate keyword search volume data.
Google Trends offers some interesting perspectives on this kind of data, such as geographic popularity, growth and decline data for specific terms, and related topics, which can be extremely useful for identifying branded terms related to more generic keywords. Take a look at the Google Trends data for the term “ski jackets”:
Use Google Trends to track keyword search volume data
The figure above shows interest over time during the previous 12-month period for the search query “ski jackets.” This particular graph shows worldwide interest in that term, but this can be refined to display data for specific regions, as this graph does for the United States:
Tracking keyword search volume data across specific regions using Google Trends
And here’s some interesting data for both related topics and the comparative popularity of related search queries:
Evaluate the popularity of related search queries using Google Trends
As useful and interesting as this data is, it still doesn’t tell us the competitiveness of this search query. Not a bad place to start, but this isn’t inclusive or comprehensive enough for most SEOs and digital marketers.
You may have used Google’s Keyword Planner – part of the AdWords interface – to conduct keyword research in the past. It’s a great tool and offers a range of useful data, particularly if you’re conducting keyword research as part of a PPC campaign.
Google Keyword Planner Interface
The figure above shows how the Keyword Planner displays keyword search volume data. We can see average monthly search volumes over time (with specific timeframe parameters also available), and beneath this graph you’ll find the related keywords and ad group suggestions you’d expect from this kind of tool (not shown in the image above). You can also mouse over each column in these graphs to see tool-tip figures, which is handy.
It’s worth noting, however, that after recent changes to the AdWords interface, this data is now only available to users running active AdWords campaigns. If you aren’t, you’ll see a simplified, truncated version of the data, and no graphs or other visual representations of the data.
With that out of the way, let’s get back to the task at hand – working with your keyword search volume data.
Whether you’re an SEO, a PPC specialist, or a digital marketing generalist, keyword search volume is a crucial metric that is often overlooked in favor of other metrics such as click-through rate. However, keyword search volume should be part of the foundation upon which your efforts should be built – but how do you know which range of volumes you should be targeting?
When it comes to keyword search volume, there are two primary factors to take into consideration: volume and competitiveness. Keywords with higher volumes mean more potential exposure (or impression share), but will likely be much more competitive. This, in turn, makes it harder to rank for these terms as you’ll probably be going up against well-established publishers and sites, or higher CPCs if you’re bidding on these terms as part of a paid search campaign.
Evaluating the average monthly search volume for an ad group vs. the competition
of its keywords
Knowing which types of terms to target depends largely on your situation and goals. If you’re a brand-new website, you may want to begin by targeting low-volume, low-competition keywords as a starting point to establish some domain authority. Alternatively, if you’re a well-established site with strong organic rankings, you may want to delve into slightly more competitive territory to maintain your edge.
When it comes to SEO, there are potentially thousands of factors that can impact your rankings, not least of which include your location, the nature of your site or business, and the quality of your content (more on this shortly).
However, among the most important of these factors is your domain authority. Before we get into the weeds of how your site authority should inform your targeting strategy, let’s take a lightning-quick look at some of these terms.
Although domain authority is a general SEO concept, it’s also a defined metric created by our friends at Moz that evaluates the strength of a website (or domain) on a logarithmic scale of 0-100. The higher the score, the stronger the site.
Sample data for the domain authority of bbc.co.uk. Image via Moz.
Moz uses around 40 ranking signals, such as the total number of links to a given domain, to determine a site’s domain authority.
While Moz examines around 40 signals to determine domain authority, one of the most important is a site’s link profile.
Examining link profiles using Moz
Moz’s data (and independent research by leading SEOs around the world) strongly suggests a direct correlation between strong link profiles and higher organic rankings. Your site’s link profile is impacted by both the number of external links to your site – links to your website from other websites – and the quality of those links.
An external link from a well-known and respected domain such as a .gov domain or a site such as BBC News is worth significantly more than a link from a tiny upstart blog hosted on WordPress.com, for example. More high-quality links means a stronger link profile.
Now that we know a little more about domain authority, it’s time for the $64,000 question – which keywords should you be targeting?
The answer? It depends.
I know that’s not the answer you were hoping for, but unfortunately, as with virtually everything in digital marketing, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Ultimately, the keywords you choose to target will be affected by your domain authority, your goals, and the search volume and competitiveness of the keywords you’re going after.
This screenshot, taken from a Russian AdWords account, shows that the query
“jpg to pdf” has a healthy average search volume and low competition
However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any rough guidelines you can use when it comes to SEO. Newer sites or those with lower domain authority may want to target lower-volume, less competitive keywords to attract external links and establish more authority in your space. Over time, you can become more confident and/or aggressive in how you target keywords, but don’t forget to ensure that the keywords you’re targeting are relevant to your business and your website as a whole.
But what if you’ve set your sights on a highly competitive keyword with enormous search volume? Read on.
Whether you’re an SEO rookie or a seasoned veteran, going after keywords with high search volumes is always a challenge. On the one hand, these search terms can be immensely valuable to your business, bringing in tons of referral traffic and amassing a growing number of external links. On the other, these terms are often highly sought-after precisely because of the value they offer, meaning that competition to rank for them is intense.
Ranking for keywords with high search volumes can seem like a titanic challenge
Although it’s vital to optimize your content for maximum discoverability, your primary focus whenever attempting to rank for a keyword – regardless of its search volume or competitiveness – should be on creating the most exceptional content you possibly can. Every time, all the time, now and forever.
We don’t know exactly how Google’s algorithms work, or even the precise ranking signals it uses when evaluating a website or piece of content. We do know, however, that quality and relevance are two of the most important elements when it comes to organic rankings.
Think of it in the same terms you would for PPC. We know that at least some of Google’s ad auction algorithm is based on ads beating the expected CTR for a given keyword:
Google’s ad auction algorithm is based on ads beating the expected CTR for a given keyword [graph via WordStream]
As you can see in the figure above, AdWords accounts with higher Quality Scores typically exceed the expected CTR for a given search term. By beating the expected CTR for a search query, Google can infer that the ad in question is strong, given that more users click on those ads than others.
The same principle applies to content and SEO. Beating your competitors by achieving higher-than-average click-through rates tells Google that your content is relevant, of high quality, and deserving of greater visibility.
Although the figure above was created by examining WordStream customer data, this theory has been backed up by other sources. Check out this graph that originally appeared at Moz:
The impact of higher-than-average click-through rates, as corroborated by Moz
This graph demonstrates that search results with the highest click-through rates also occupied higher positions on the SERP. This reinforces the concept that content of higher quality will rank more highly than content with a lower CTR.
(To learn more about improving your “organic Quality Score,” check out this fascinating post by Larry about Google’s RankBrain.)
Keyword search volume is a complex topic, and one that varies from one business to another. Hopefully this post has cleared up some of the questions you may have had about search volume and how to leverage it in your SEO and PPC campaigns. As always, get at me in the comments with questions, opinions, or tips of your own.
Originally from the U.K., Dan Shewan is a journalist and web content specialist who now lives and writes in New England. Dan’s work has appeared in a wide range of publications in print and online, including The Guardian, The Daily Beast, Pacific Standard magazine, The Independent, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and many other outlets.
See other posts by Dan Shewan
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