The untapped worth of qualitative key phrase information

30-second summary:

  • Starcom's director of strategy, Jack Telford, argues that it is easy to be overly reliant on search volume data when creating SEO strategies.
  • An approach that combines such information with the plethora of qualitative data available for low to no volume terms can open up a multitude of new possibilities.
  • Jack shares some tricks and recommendations to get you started with a higher quality approach to keyword research.

Analyzing search volume figures with tools like Google Keyword Planner is a central element of keyword research. However, contrary to popular SEO belief, the magic lies in qualitative keyword data, not quantitative. However, quantitative data shows numbers that help us filter out our seed list, show trends in the formulation people are using in their search, and highlight the great opportunities we should take advantage of. You will have a hard time finding a search professional who disagrees with this.

I would argue that most keyword research nowadays relies too heavily on this quantification of search behavior and therefore misses the tremendous value in studying search terms with little to no volume. A more qualitative approach opens up a multitude of new possibilities by examining what the existence of concepts can tell us, and not what the numbers assigned to them can.

Why is qualitative data important?

The main reason I prefer this approach is because of the inherent flaws in the data that search tools provide. If these tools were 100% accurate and comprehensive, we could use them as the sole source of data for developing a strategy. But the fact is, even the best tools we have don't give the full picture.

Why is that important? This means that many of the terms and topics that we ignore due to lack of search volume figures could actually represent great opportunities.

If you don't need to convince yourself of the limitations of search volume data, the How do we find quality keyword data? Move on. Otherwise…

The limitations of search volume data

I've mainly focused on Google Keyword Planner here as this is the tool that * I think * all SEO tools rely on at least in part.

  1. Google Keyword Planner groups semantically similar terms. This means that you can request data on frequently searched keywords and get no result within the platform just because this term is linked to others. Even if you get the grouped term back within the tool, you will not be able to tell the difference between the terms gathered in this category and therefore miss an accurate view of how many people are looking for them. This is compounded by the fact that phrases that have really different intentions are grouped together. Rand Fishkin of Moz highlights “types of light” and “types of light” as examples in this article, but there is much more.
  2. Google bundles the displayed volumes in certain areas. This means that ranges like "50" and "90" are often shown when the actual averages could be far from them. More importantly, with fewer than 10 searches a month, you will never get a number for anything. Given that 15% of searches have never been seen before, this is a massive gap in what the tool is showing you.
  3. The Google Trends data does not match the keyword planner. If you're looking for proof that Google isn't giving us the full picture, compare two terms on Google Trends and do the same thing on Google Keyword Planner. There's a good chance you'll see results entirely different. Some may not even show up on one platform or another.
  4. Google doesn't disclose a good share of keyword volume data. You can easily prove this for your own site. Choose strong content and pull the most clicked keywords out of the Google Search Console. Run them through the Keyword Planner and you will likely find two things. First, some of them won't show up in the Keyword Planner at all. Second, some of them have a lower search volume than you can see from your impressions.
  5. Google doesn't show data on many non-commercial terms. This stems from the main purpose of the Keyword Planner, to help advertisers plan their – largely commercial – PPC campaigns. However, these are often the very terms that we want to target with SEO awareness content.

There's an argument for tools like Ahrefs, which don't aggregate terms, but to some extent also ask Google for search data. In addition, they rely on clickstream, which is itself only a representative view of the search and is based on the analysis of the behavior of certain users.

How do you find qualitative keyword data?

OK, so we can't fully trust the numbers. We could see this as a problem, but we could also see it as an opportunity.

Suddenly, a 0 in the keyword planner is no longer a restriction. We can target a whole host of other tools and practices to inspire our targeting approach and address areas that we know from experience that our customers are interested in, even if the data doesn't seem to prove it. Here are a few approaches that I've found useful in the past.

  • Use Reply to the public & ok – – These tools search through Google's autosuggest capabilities to find a large number of long-tail keywords that you would miss in standard SEO tools. There are others out there too, including the aptly named Keyword Shitter
  • Use the search console – Often times, your Search Console account will show a variety of terms that you would totally miss if you relied on Keyword Planner. Here you also have the advantage of impressions, which give you a rough overview of the number of searches carried out.
  • My social channels and customer forums – See what people are saying online about your brand and brands similar to yours. There will likely be a lot of FAQ-inspiring questions and comments, as well as those that could enable more extensive information campaigns and even new product development.
  • Use autosuggest in google – It's a bit manual but this again helps you understand what others have been looking for in your category and can give some insight into the content that you have placed on your website. Try questions with things like "why is [brand]," "best [brand], and" which [brand] "as a starting point.

Remember that the fact that terms appear using these methods means that they will be searched for. With standard SEO tools, you can generate many clicks from terms without a recognized search volume.

How to combine qualitative with quantitative data

As I said at the beginning of this article, I am not suggesting that we should get rid of search volume data entirely as it is a useful guide to the most searched terms in your field. In reality, the combination of niche and high-volume targeting will be the key to long-term success.

My recommendation is to make sure that key pages on your website cover the most searched terms in your industry, but also complement this with content that takes into account the diverse and rich data you get from a more qualitative approach. Last but not least, qualitative keyword research enables you to better understand the breadth of interests and concerns of your audience. Must be worth a try.

Thanks for reading. Let me know in the comments below if you have any questions.

Jack Telford works as Owned Strategy Director at the global media network Starcom. He leads the entire SEO approach and SEO alignment of the clients and oversees a team of SEO specialists who work on content, technical and external plans. He can be found on LinkedIn.

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