Update: Google AdWords has since been rebranded as Google Ads.

How Google Stripped Away Search Volume Data for Thousands of Users – And How You Can Get it Back

“Oh Google, what have you done now?” – Google Forum Comment

Man crying about Google's changes to the keyword planner and organic search ranking


As you can see from the sampling of user disapproval above, Google unleashed a veritable firestorm of criticism when they decided in August of 2016 to severely limit the availability of data in their AdWords Keyword Planner. The image shows only 4 comments, but the thread that they were taken from goes on for 21 pages, almost entirely negative. I would imagine it’s far from the only place where people expressed frustration and anger.

As of this writing the most recent comment was posted only days ago, so it’s apparent this story has, as they say in the news business, “legs.”

This post will (very) briefly explain what the hubbub is about (for those of you new to the subject) and then show you a solution for what ails you: the lack of keyword search volume data.

First, What Went Down with the Keyword Planner

For years we at the Search Engine Academy have spent a lot of time teaching students how to do high level keyword research. Keyword research is to SEO and search marketing what market research is to conventional marketing, which is to say it’s crucial to your organic ranking success.

One of the key facets of keyword research for organic search engine optimization depends on being able to see how much search volume is present for a particular keyword. In other words, how many times per month people tried to conduct a search using that keyword.

This is where Google’s Keyword Planner became the “go to” tool (I should hasten to add that there are a number of 3rd party tools that have various ways of showing search volume data). Keyword Planner reported these volume numbers, albeit in an estimated form, as “Average monthly searches.” With very low volume keywords the estimates became monotonous: Keyword Planner was famous for displaying a list of dozens of keywords, all showing a volume of 10 searches per month, which is hardly reassuring accuracy.

Nevertheless, given that the data was from Google, it was better than having no data at all.  And for higher volume keywords the figures were more granular and more believable, especially when it came to comparing one keyword to another.

Below is a search that I’ve used in an online course I taught to demonstrate the difference in search volume between phrases that might attract the same business attention.

Screen capture of AdWords Keyword Planner showing average monthly searches

Needless to say, being able to see that level of volume detail was invaluable in making decisions about which keywords are more popular, at least insofar as the number of searches run for those terms.

For years Google has provided this data to anyone who has an AdWords account, which is free and easy to set up (no advertising dollars need be spent to set up an AdWords account).

Well, things changed pretty radically last summer. Google apparently came to the conclusion that they were sharing too much data – unless you were spending a fair amount of money with them.  Google claims this is related to one thing, a lot of suspicious people claim it’s related to something else, but why Google restricted their data doesn’t matter here. The only part that matters is that, for smaller advertisers, or for business who weren’t spending anything on AdWords, what you see in the above screen shot has morphed into what you see in the screenshot below.

Behold, the new and NOT improved Keyword Planner for smaller advertisers

Screen capture of AdWords Keyword Planner showing average monthly searches as volume bands (bad for organic SEO)

Obviously the second screen shot shows data that is of limited value. If you have the “real” data available you will see that “Nike Shoes” gets searched more than 4 times as frequently as “Air Max,” yet in the second screen shot, they appear to be equivalent. The data in the second screen capture is, in my opinion, worse than useless. It is misleading.

As I mentioned above, the useless numbers apply if you’re a small advertiser or not an advertiser. Obviously one way to get the data back is to spend more on Google advertising (Funny how that works, isn’t it?).  But here’s another even more frustrating aspect to this: As of this writing no one seems to know, or at least aren’t telling, how much you have to spend to get the more accurate data. So I guess you just keep upping your spending until you suddenly start seeing the better volume numbers in your account.

(As I’ve blogged about before, Google is very fond of creating a black box that only they get to peer inside.)

The Keyword Research Work-Around

Never fear, all is not lost…you can get more precise keyword search volume data even if you’re not spending a dime on AdWords at the moment. It’s just that the data is not called “Avg. monthly searches,” as it is in the keyword suggestion tool.  Read on for how to find it.

The following step-by-step process will tighten up those ridiculous range estimates (you know, 1k – 10k, 10k – 100k, etc.) and give you the volume numbers you need to plan your SEO intelligently.

Step 1 – Add the terms you want to analyze to “the plan” (there’s also an “Add all” choice if that’s what you want to do)

Screen capture of AdWords Keyword Planner showing Add to Plan option

Step 2 – Click on “Review Plan”

Screen capture of AdWords Keyword Planner showing Review Plan button

Step 3 – Enter a bid and a date range

Screen capture of AdWords Keyword Plan showing date range setting

You want to enter a bid that’s high enough that Google would, if you actually paid it, show your ad for every search.  If you’re bidding on a term like car insurance or, heaven forbid, mesothelioma lawyer, you might have to enter a bid that’s so high you gulp (for mesothelioma attorney you’d need to plug in $1,000, believe it or not). Don’t worry, this is just a plan; you won’t actually be bidding on these keywords.

Close up of date range setting in the AdWords planAs for the date range, AdWords defaults to 7 days. On principle, I don’t trust such a narrow data sampling, so I change the date range to a month (although I usually don’t see it making much of a difference in the search volume they report). If you are dealing with a highly seasonal product, you may want to set the date range to a year, or do a sampling in both the off season and on season for your item to get an idea of the volume ranges.

Important: if you want to see your keyword search volume data by the month (which would be parallel to “Average monthly searches” in the keyword suggestion tool), you need to change the “Display forecast by” to “Month.”

Step 4 – Change the Match Type

This step is really, really important.  Scroll down and change the “Match type” to “Exact.”  If you’re used to getting keyword search volume through the keyword planner (back when it had more precise volume) the numbers were reported according to “Exact match” search.  In the planner it defaults to “Broad.”  BIG difference in volume, and even if you don’t really understand match types, broad match will not give you the precision you need for SEO keyword research.

Screen capture AdWords plan showing match type option

Once you’ve done all that you’re going to see the numbers you need in the “Impr.” (for “Impressions”) column. Since Google is reporting to you all of the times where your add will show up for a search, and if you have set your bid high enough to outbid everyone else, theoretically you should show up for the sum total of all searches.

In accounts where I still have keyword search volume data in the keyword suggestions tool, as before, I can compare this to what I get from the plan forecasts and see that they roughly parallel each other.  Although impressions is not exactly the same data as “Average monthly searches,” it’s close enough that I consider it possible to use impressions as a surrogate. Who knows, perhaps it’s even a better volume figure.

Screen capture of AdWords Keyword Planner showing Add to Plan option for organic ranking

This technique also works for those of you who are still getting the more precise numbers for average monthly searches, but have noticed how Google will give you the same volume for both the singular and plural forms of your keywords. The plan will reveal the differences between plurals and close variants.

Step 5 – Download for Better Keyword Research

This is an entirely optional step, although I consider it indispensable to my own research. You can download from the plan into a CSV file (i.e. a spreadsheet) just as you have been able to in the keyword suggestion tool. I find this the best way to view data because I can delete irrelevant columns and rows and only focus on the data I need to see.

So there you have it: a way to work around Google’s changes to get the data you need for your organic SEO efforts.  Now let’s hope they don’t take that away as well!

And by the way, do you have another method, or special experiences or troubles with this method that you’d like to share?  Please let us know in the comments below.

If you’re looking for more info on using the new Keyword Planner, this free webinar covers more info on Google’s changes and doing effective keyword research.