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Keyword Search Volume as a North Star Metric (Why It’s a Black Hole)

5 min read

If you’re the type of person who considers search volume to be your North Star metric, I understand. I used to be that way too.

If you work for someone fixated on search volume, you have my condolences. I’ve been there, done that.

Keyword research is dead, at least in the traditional sense. But there is hope!

In this post, you’ll discover the massive untapped potential of search terms with low-to-no search volume. We’ll take a look at some long-tail keywords and show you how to make your case using competitive cohort analysis.

Don’t let that name scare you. Conducting competitive cohort analysis is deceptively simple.

The Fixation With Keyword Volume

Too many content marketers and SEOs are infatuated with keyword volume. There are two reasons for that.

First, it’s a single number that’s easy to grasp, and the logic seems reasonable. Why target search terms for which no one is searching?

Second, old habits die hard. Although search engines have advanced tremendously in recent years, many people still operate on the one-page-one-keyword principle. In other words, targeting a specific keyword with a particular page is all that matters. But there is so much more to keyword research.

The Hidden Potential of Zero Volume Keywords

Here’s the thing. Search engines have become more sophisticated. Authority is less about links and more about content.

You need to look at your site as a whole, not as a collection of individual pages. To do well on high competition keywords, you need a foundation and group of content that appeals to as many of the target user intent profiles. The content you create should support growth across all your other content.

To be recognized as a topical authority means addressing all possible intents, irrespective of search volume.

There’s something else to keep in mind.

The way search engines work, one well-written page comprehensively covering a search intent can rank for many other relevant keywords. The potential search volume the page can receive from those keywords can be substantial.

For these reasons, pursuing search volume as a North Star metric can have disastrous consequences. It’s harder to build topical authority because you can’t see the forest for the trees.

Let’s look at some examples to see how this works.

Low Search Volume Keyword Examples

I ran a competitive cohort analysis for search terms across eight diverse sets of topics. The table below shows these search queries. Each one contains the main topic and its search volume, a related topic with low-to-no search volume, and then the number of keywords and total search volume of the top 10 pages.

Let’s look at the first entry in this keyword list – “content marketing” with a search volume of 18,100. Related to this topic is the term “advanced content marketing strategy” with zero search volume. Those obsessed with search volume will find no value in this particular search term.

But the story changes when we look at the top 10 pages and see that they rank for 348 unique keywords with a combined volume of 50,400 searches per month. Suddenly, it seems more attractive.

The search volume is infinitely many more times (50,400 vs. 0) than initially assumed. If you create 10x blog post that’s better than the top 10 pages for this search term, you’ve got some decent traffic waiting in the wings.

The same goes for the other keyword ideas in the table.

competitive cohort analysis

How to Conduct a Competitive Cohort Analysis

While these examples are great, performing your own cohort analysis is even better. That way you can prove to all stakeholders involved that it’s worth the effort to pursue a particular search term with 0 monthly volume.

Here’s how to do it step-by-step:

  1. Find a long tail query or one targeting an explicit intent that’s related to your main topic (the one that has significant search volume)
  2. Enter the term into Google search.
  3. Take the URL of the first result and plug it into your favorite SEO tool. Analyze the page to see all the keywords for which it ranks and their search volume. Export that report as a CSV file (make sure the export contains the monthly search volume).
  4. Open up your favorite spreadsheet tool. Import that CSV file and append it to the current sheet. Don’t worry about duplicate entries as we’ll remove them all later.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 with the remaining URLs on the first page of Google search results.
  6. Now it’s time to remove all the duplicates. If you’re using Google Sheets, there are a handful of add-ons that will quickly do this.
  7. Use a formula to count the number of unique keywords. Use another formula to sum the search volume.
  8. You’re done!

If you need to justify creating content with a long-tail or targeted explicit intent with few searches, competitive cohort analysis makes the case every time. The upside potential of those items becomes readily apparent.

Everyone has their own metrics by which they swear. For some, it’s keyword search volume. That’s fine if they don’t buy into the whole “foundational content” concept. No point arguing. Just run a competitive analysis and show them the numbers.

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.

Stephen leads the content strategy blog for MarketMuse, an AI-powered Content Intelligence and Strategy Platform. You can connect with him on social or his personal blog.