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Keyword Research and The Search Volume Illusion

7 min read

Keyword research software comes in all shapes and forms. We know because we created a review of 31 keyword research tools – and what we found was that they all take a similar approach. No matter what tool you use, the method tends to be the same.

The typical process is as follows:

  1. An initial seed keyword is input so that the tool can generate a list of keyword ideas.
  2. Filter the list, at some point, based on certain criteria, one of which is always monthly search volume.

It’s an oversimplification, but that’s the gist of it. Now the problem is that this keyword research process is flawed.

There’s a mistaken assumption that any keyword phrase with low search volume has correspondingly little value. That’s partly based on the belief that pages targeting those search terms get hardly any traffic. 

But nothing could be further from the truth. 

These phrases are often long tail keywords, some of which can be extremely valuable – not that I’m saying a long tail keyword strategy is necessarily the best approach. But when you eliminate these search terms from your keyword list you remove the ability to rank for a large number of search queries.

Content in the Post-Hummingbird World

To understand how Google analyzes and ranks content today, we have to consider four major updates to its systems.

1. Hummingbird

In response to rampant keyword manipulation by SEOs, Google introduced an algorithm update known as Hummingbird in 2013. Hummingbird signalled a change in Google’s index from a collection of keyword terms to a group of entities (people, places, things, dates, etc.).

2. RankBrain

RankBrain is a machine learning engine designed to interpret users’ search intent and serve the most relevant results. Confirmed by Google in 2015, it improved the way their systems understand the relationships between entities so that it can relate concepts that aren’t explicitly mentioned in a piece of content.

3. Quality Update

Poor quality sites, relying heavily on search engine optimization, continued to rank well. Google responded in 2017 by increasing the importance of key site quality signals in its rankings. 

4. The Topic Layer

On September 24, 2018, Google announced the addition of a topic layer to their Knowledge Graph. Many marketers still do not understand the implication of the topic layer. 

Google uses topic models to sort and prioritize the 130+ trillion web pages. Google’s topic layer analyzes all the content for a given topic, identifying hundreds or thousands of subtopics and their relational patterns. 

The aim of the topic layer is that Google wants to tailor its results to potential search intent profiles based on someone searching for a particular topic. With the Topic Layer, Google’s engineers are trying to provide semantically related concepts that help get searchers to the next step in their search journey. 

It can be considered an automatic topic outline that dynamically changes depending on the search term.

Google continually advances its ability to understand the content on a page. In 2020 alone, they mode over 4,500 improvements to Search.

What does this mean for content?

Google’s evolution, away from being a keyword-focused search engine and toward a semantic and topic-focused engine, means that the traditional ways of thinking about how to prioritize content are no longer as useful or relevant.

Most content strategists use metrics like Monthly Search Volume (MSV), Keyword Difficulty (which measures competition), and Domain Authority to gauge which content ideas are important and worth pursuing. The first metric, in particular, remains a major data point for content decisions.

The problem with this approach is that most sources of MSV data provide only the keywords that get trackable search volume, which out of the billions of searches that happen every day, is fewer than 10% of everything people are searching for. 



Keyword volume will never be a reliable roadmap to what it means to be “about” a topic, nor will they tell you the true potential of a piece of content. An authoritative piece of content on an authoritative domain can get significant organic traffic, even from low-volume keywords. 

This is where MarketMuse comes in. 

The Term Pool Multiplier

The term pool multiplier is the volume potential of a piece of content beyond the trackable volume of ranking keywords. It’s the organic search traffic a page gets from untraceable variant keywords (the term pool) it also ranks for, in addition to the totality of low-volume terms that add up to significant traffic.

90% of search volume comes from phrases with fewer than ten searches per month.

Why the Term Pool Multiplier Matters

Trackable volume that can be attributed to a single keyword is only a tiny fraction of what can be expected for page performance. 

Authoritative content will often rank for hundreds, if not thousands, of variant and related keywords. All of these queries can drive organic traffic to a page, even if the page isn’t explicitly about it. Thus, calculating the traffic volume potential for a specific keyword does not take into account the full traffic potential of the content.

Take, for example, the search term “how to buy a grill.” Only 110 people are searching for this topic per month.

SERP for the search term "how to buy a grill".

However, this page manages to pull in over 3,000 visits per month thanks to its ranking for over 1,000 keywords.

Screenshot showing keywords, traffic, and traffic cost for a web page.
Total traffic estimate for the page as seen in the SERP.

Notice how the iterations of the head term yield relatively low volumes as well.

Organic search position for the page https://amazingribs.com/ratings-reviews/how-to-buy-a-grill
Variations of the term “how to buy a grill” show low search volume.

Here’s another example for the search term “bar stool buying guide” which only has a monthly search volume of 10.

SERP overview for the search query "bar stool buying guide".
These pages ranks for lots of terms resulting in lots of traffic.

Notice how the competitive cohort in the SERP shows that the pages ranking for this term have a sizeable term pool multiplier – bringing their overall volume up as much as 700 times.

Are you not convinced yet? Here are some more low-volume keyword examples that generate significant traffic.

Building the Cluster Impacts the Term Pool Multiplier

Some content topics are considered to be competitive keywords. But despite having low MSV, support the cluster by raising the authority of the entire cluster.

By creating an integrated cluster of content that attends to all searcher intents, the “net” with which you can catch the term pool multipliers (and associated volume) is more extensive. From the perspective of the customer, you are adding content that services key user intents in the buyer’s journey. This allows people to contextualize their search for what they need and helps them make the right purchasing decision.

Authority Drives Organic Traffic

Google ranks content based on the “EAT” framework: Expertise, Authority, and Trust

This is how Google not only evaluates individual pieces of content but domains as a whole, making SEO that much harder. By creating lots of content that demonstrate expertise and authority, and by being a trusted source of information, you will find your content prioritized on the topics within your EAT wheelhouse.

The Takeaway

While Google has advanced, SEO has not. The keyword research process, in particular, is still stuck with an outdated one-page-one-keyword approach. It’s time content marketing caught up with search engines.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in November 2019 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.

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