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The Biggest Mistake SEOs Make With Keyword Research and Search Volume

7 min read

The use of search volume as one’s north star for all keyword research is the biggest mistake that I see from an ideation and a prioritization metric. It’s understandably natural because the volume of information in SEO convinces many that using it in isolation is good enough.

Google trained the market to believe this because their only keyword research solution they released was Google AdWords keyword planner, or GAK P as we love to call it. What it returns is their MSV or their search volume data.

It also has pay-per-click competition which, by the way, has nothing to do with organic search and SEO. It can give you a relative reference of commercial intent, but that’s about it. Plus they also offer their perspective on pay per click competition.

WATCH | Jeff Coyle on the danger of using search volume as your north star:

Jeff Coyle explains why content teams that rely heavily on search volume as an ideation and prioritization metric set themselves up for failure.

So this created a market where keyword research was driven by search volume as the North Star. Let me give you a walk through why this causes such tremendous problems, along with some examples of how this causes considerable problems for teams and significant competitive risks.

A while back we published a piece on our blog, Keyword Research and the Search Volume Illusion, that delves into greater detail on the folly of focusing on keywords with a particular level of search.

The reality of content strategy is that you need to build robust, comprehensive collections of content that exhibit expertise and tell the story that you understand the entire buyer journey. What that means is you’re going to write content that targets topics that have lower search volume naturally to round out that collection of content.

So what happens when a team is heavily focused only on search volume?

They’re not writing in-depth content that speaks to all the stages of the buy-cycle. They’re not covering really specific user intents that people are looking for, either in the content that they land on or the content that’s being linked to in that content.

Let me give you an example.

Imagine a jaw with teeth. You’re just writing high-level pages –  general guides, sometimes called pillar or power pages. In this case, you have no teeth, you just have a jaw. You’re not putting out content that follows through on the promise that you are an expert. You’re just a generalist with your content.

So teams that drive the bus with search volume, and some of these are major enterprise teams, won’t write an article unless the target keyword is above a particular search volume. They never get to do the stuff that really follows through and often drives extraordinary conversion rates for their team.

The second point here is that a great percentage of queries that Google receives are unique, one-time only. So this creates a situation where people do not understand the concepts that live underneath a topic or a keyword. This is sometimes referred to as the term pool multiplier. And what that means is underneath this topic, you have subtopics, right?

For example, if we’re talking about content marketing, target audience or buyer personas would be topics and related topics. But underneath each one of those there can be 1 to 100X unique queries that are frequently typed. And your page, if it’s comprehensively written, is getting the traffic from those searches too. These are things that can’t be reported on as recurring search volume.

So when you’re using volume as you North Star, you’re essentially missing out on these pools of terms. And if you disqualify a search phrase just based on volume, you’ll never have access to these variable pools of words. That can have a tremendous impact on the value for your company.

The third one I’ll mention is based on that term pool multiplier scenario. Here’s a challenge. Go look up the search volume for an article you’ve written that has a target query or topic and compare that to the actual traffic. You’ll find that search volume ends up being red herring for most teams because it ends up being a poor predictor.

Let’s say, as an example, you rank for the phrase “4k webcam,” and you’re basing your judgment entirely on the search volume of that term. The reality is that the page will also rank for many other phrases.

Just like our page on content strategy. As I write this, it ranks for over 180 different search queries.

That means you need to think about this as a pool of pages and a huge pool of words that all have to be there in order  to own this topic.

Ranking topics related to content strategy.

So the content that you create acts as a block – a cluster accumulating like a snowball of power on this huge pool of words. And I don’t deserve to rank for these high search volume terms unless I exhibit expertise throughout the buying cycle and through that entire term pool.

So teams that shoot for this particular word and don’t think about what’s underneath it, fail.

The sad part is, they don’t even understand why or they get lucky with one high volume term and they don’t know how to protect that page.

Here’s one more point from a competitive analysis perspective. If you’re my competitor and you sort descend by search volume with your keyword lists, I know exactly what you’re going to do. Now that’s wonderful for me but not so great for you.

In fact, strong SEO teams, I’m talking about the best publishers in the world, will look for that. They look for someone who’s looking for a keyword volume list, sort descend, and they’ve exhibited the pattern that they’re just walking down the list. Being on the wrong side of that situation puts you in a tremendously susceptible position to strong content teams.

When they have a publisher adversary, who’s doing this, or they’ve exhibited this signal in the clusters that they create. They will use multiple techniques in order to invade that person’s turf. They know the weaker competition isn’t going to write certain articles, even though they are vital to rounding out their clusters.

And there’s the opportunity.

So that’s four core ways that keyword research using search volume as the North Star can lead to mistakes, bad predictions, miss set expectations and ultimately huge competitive risks.

The hilarious reality here is when people are doing these predictive research using search volume as the North Star, they’re almost never right.

I’ve looked at so many people’s estimate programs, and there’s so many other factors that have to be involved. Should you use keyword research? Should you use search volume at all in your process? Absolutely. It is a very important directional message. It also help judge your ability to rank for a lot of other things, were you to gain authority on this high search volume term. While I need to do that research, recognizing that it’s truly a directional metric.

What do I mean by that?

Well, let’s say the search volume is very high, but it’s a zero click search. No one clicks on it. Now it could be what’s called a know simple intent. What’s the capital of North Dakota Bismarck, right? Click through rate on that query is extremely low because Google answers the question, right?

So you’ve got all different types of things that need to go into your analysis of words. Teams that work solely with keyword research as their North Star that drives the bus make mistake after mistake.

What you should do now

When you’re ready… here are 3 ways we can help you publish better content, faster:

  1. Book time with MarketMuse Schedule a live demo with one of our strategists to see how MarketMuse can help your team reach their content goals.
  2. If you’d like to learn how to create better content faster, visit our blog. It’s full of resources to help scale content.
  3. If you know another marketer who’d enjoy reading this page, share it with them via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook.
Co-founder & Chief Strategy Officer at MarketMuse

Jeff is Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer at MarketMuse. He is a cross-disciplined, data-driven inbound marketing executive with 18+ years of experience managing products and website networks; focused on helping companies grow. You can follow him on Twitter or LinkedIn.