The Netsetter: The New Google Keyword Tool – Love It or Leave It

When Google updated the interface to the Google Keyword Tool a few months ago, its best feature was the link it contained to the previous interface, which was the one bookmarked and used by most keyword researchers, SEOs and internet marketers after the change. I tried several times in the interim to force myself to use the new interface, which was still in beta, knowing that I would have to adapt sooner or later. Each time I tried it, I couldn’t stand it for more than 20 minutes, and would revert to the previous interface, which featured one of the most elegant user experiences of any Google product.

Alas, what Google giveth, it taketh away. Last week, Google removed the beta status from the new interface and, with it, the link to the classic interface—with almost no announcement. Most users found out by repeatedly entering the previous URL into their browsers address bar, only to have it redirect to the new interface. The most frequently stated opinion was that “the new Google Keyword Tool is terrible“.

This was a bold change on the search giant’s part. While only a tiny percentage of the company’s users need or even know about the Google AdWords Keyword Tool, AdWords and adwords management is the core of their business. Google is basically eBay for advertisements on search terms (keywords) whose aggregate cost per click over the years has skyrocketed. Altering the usability of their portal to current keyword demand and pricing could have a huge impact in either direction on the company’s bottom line.

Two Debates

The change creates not one, but two issues that users have been debating over the last few days: the interface itself, as mentioned above, and the accuracy of the new data that’s being provided. Monthly search volumes on keywords no longer includes measures from Google’s search partners, so the numbers seem lower. So even if a keyword gets roughly the same number of searches as it did last month, and the month before that, the search volume as currently reported can make that keyword appear to not be worth advertising on anymore. On the other hand, some users insist that they’re find the new numbers to be much more in line with their experience.

There’s not much that anyone outside of Chez Google can do about the data except theorize, but you can bring yourself to minimize some of the new interface’s annoyances, which is what we’ll cover here.

Setting Your Columns

Like the previous interface, the default column layout of the Google Keyword Tool (GKT) gives too much and too little information for keyword researchers not in interested in running an AdWords campaign–that is, if you’re looking for keywords to make money on AdSense or affiliate advertising. Let’s change this.

Click the Columns button on the far left, double-click the “All Columns” checkbox to clear the defaults, then check Global Monthly Searches (or Local if you think it’s more relevant, such as with “hotel” keywords) and Estimated Avg. CPC. I’m used to seeing the CPC column on the left, and prefer it that way; so I order it by dragging the green block for CPC above the one for Search Volume, then click Save.

Enter a keyword you want to drill in the “Word or phrase” field, then click the Search button. If you’re used to the old interface, you’ll immediately see some unfortunate changes.

The Sort Problem

The classic interface collated results into two lists of two respective categories: keywords related to the terms entered (sometimes called “primary keywords” or “cousin keywords”), and additional results to consider (often called “secondary keywords”). The first list grouped keyword ideas by terms that had a literal relationship to what you entered. So a query for “wind power” would return results like “wind power for your home”, or “wind power for beginners”. The second list grouped keyword ideas that arguably had a semantic relationship, such as “wind generators” or “alternative energy”.

The new interface merges everything into a single list, irrespective of literal or semantic relationships. While the tool does allow you to sort by “Relevance”, you lose the ability to sort by search volume within the most relevant subset of keywords. When you sorted by search volume with the old tool, the top list automatically gave you the most relevant results in descending order of search volume. When the two parameters are mutually exclusive in a sort operation, the most searched keywords aren’t necessarily useful. For instance, when I put in “hair treatment” and sort by search volume, the top two results are “hair” and “wen” (a brand of hair product), which are either too broad or too specific.

Keyword researchers typically sort within relevant results by search volume, since there’s a rough correlation between the number of searches for a keyword and its commercial value. While high CPC values also suggest high commerciality, the market for them might not be reflected in the search volumes—just as steaks don’t have the same sales volume as hamburgers.

So how can you get a keyword list formatted the old-fashioned way? By using a method that’s slightly more labor intensive, but that also provides more usable results.

  1. Scroll down to the bottom of the list and change the “Show rows” dropdown to 100. You can get up to 800 keywords to download at a time if you’re signed in with a free AdWords account—which you should absolutely get of you don’t have one—but you can only ever display 100 at a time on the screen
  2. Click the checkbox to the left of the Keyword header to select all keywords, then scan through the list and uncheck any irrelevant results. Then click the Download button and selected the “Download selected” option. Unzip the folder and open the file in Excel (yet another annoyance: you use to be able to open the file directly into Excel with separately downloading and extracting it)
  3. Highlight and copy the keywords in the spreadsheet’s first column and paste them back into the tool. Before you click the Search button, expand the “Advanced options” controls. Under the “Show results for” parameters, click the “Ideas containing my search terms” radio button. I personally like to filter out all of the $0.05 CPC keywords (adjust for your currency), which I interpret as strictly informational queries with a non-commercial intent. To do this, under “Filter keywords”, select “Estimated Avg. CPC” from the dropdown, the enter “$0.05”. Go ahead an click Search
  4. Now you can click the Monthly Searches header (Global or Local, depending on what you chose) and sort in descending order. Now you have a list of only relevant results sorted by search volume
  5. For extra credit, you can export this list, feed the exported keywords back into the tool, and repeat the cycle any number of times to build a larger, richer list of relevant keywords

Deselect “Contains” Options

When I drill a keyword for the first time, I don’t set any filters beforehand. I want to see everything at first so I have a better context for what to remove. Instead of using the “Ideas containing my search terms” the first time around, I leave “All keyword ideas” selected when I hit Search. Then, on the left sidebar, I deselect any phrases I know I don’t want. I may know that I don’t want any hair treatment keywords containing “hair removal”. Then I’ll remove all the $0.05 clicks.

Try Sorting by “Extracted From Webpage”

Like the old interface’s “Website content” field, the “Website” field in the new interface determines the keywords that Google finds most applicable to the content on a given URL. It is not scraping keywords from the page; it’s only comparing the content on that page with the taxonomy in Google’s former Search Based Keyword Tool (now morphed into the “All Categories” tree on the new interface’s left sidebar).

If you select the sort button next to “Sorted by”, you’ll find a new option: “Extracted From Webpage”. Google describes it thus: “This statistic appears for a successful keyword match to a relevant landing page.” These results often appear to be even more relevant than the top results on a standard Relevance sort. Try downloading the list and feeding the keywords back into the tool as described in steps 3-5 above.

Mind Your Match Types

Be sure to use the correct Match Type when running your searches, which are now located in the lower left corner of the tool. One nice feature of the new interface is the ability to view two or three match types side-by-side, which can give you some insight into the nature of the search demand. For instance, if the ratio between Phrase Match and Broad Match on a keyword is low (e.g. 70% of searchers are putting the keyword into Google with quotes), then there’s a higher chance of conversion on it. Because I monetize my sites primarily with AdSense, I only use Exact Match for keyword research.

The “correct” match type is the subject of endless debate in internet marketing discourse. Broad match results in the Keyword Tool, denoted by having no quotes around the keywords, indicate that the word within the keyword can appear anywhere on a web page or its HTML. A search for “library cards” (without quotes) could return a page indexed in Google with the title, “Returning Overdue Library Books”, that contains the sentence, “Libraries usually accept credit cards for payment”. In this case, you probably wouldn’t want to be running an AdWords campaign on “library cards” using broad match.

Phrase match results are denoted in the Keyword Tool with quotes around them. These are keywords whose component words are on a web page within a contiguous phrase, but not necessarily as a contiguous string, as is often believed. A search for “Parkinsons Disease” can retrieve “Parkinson’s Disease” as a phrase match result.

Phrase match is often confused with exact match, whose results are denoted by straight brackets around them. When an advertisers bid on exact match keywords, their ads are only triggered in the Google Search Network (the Sponsored Results on Google) or the Content Network (websites with AdSense) when the referring keyword matches character-for-character. An advertiser bidding on the exact match for “Parkinson’s Disease” doesn’t pay for clicks on “Parkinsons Disease” impressions.

A Work in Progress

Almost daily, Google is making discreet changes to the new Keyword Tool. Some of these changes are small steps forward, some aren’t, and some are frankly just bugs. Given these continual fluctuations to an interface that until recently went unchanged for years, it’s too early to write the last word on how to use the tool. Hopefully, you can learn to love the Google Keyword Tool a little bit more, or at least hate it a little bit less.

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Andre Kibbe currently works as a content analyst for Internet Brands. He can be found on Twitter: @andrekibbe


  1. Joshua Riddle on the 8th October

    This is a great post! not only did you cover the Google keyword tool, you actually gave a mini primer on industry wide standard SEO practices. I learned a lot from your post.

  2. Ko Ellay on the 8th October

    Google’s interface itself and the accuracy of the new data might be great for user part but seems harder and harder for web site and blog owners to follow the often changes of Google Keyword Tool.

    And not sure how accurate the search data is since Google changes almost everyday like you mentioned.

  3. Andre Kibbe on the 9th October

    @Joshua: Thanks. I have a lot more to say on SEO and IM best practices. Stay tuned for more installments of The Netsetter.

  4. Andre Kibbe on the 9th October

    @Ko: The interface changes, but the data doesn’t change so much. The main difference is that the search volumes in the new interface no longer include counts from sites using the Powered by Google search box. My theory is that search traffic from within websites doesn’t convert as well, since users have to be careful about choosing to search “The Web” or search within the site; so it wasn’t statistically relevant.

    • Ko Ellay on the 9th October

      Thanks Andre. Much appreciated for this info.

  5. Marjory on the 21st October

    Hi Andre,
    I was a little confused lately with all the buzz about Google’s ‘new’ tool because I’d been using it for some time. However, I see that there are a lot of great ways to leverage the information and get what you want.

    I particularly like your method of expanding your keyword list to the most relevant keywords specifically using your most important terms. I’m definitely going to give that a try.

    One question – do you notice a difference in the results you get when the number of seed words is very large as opposed to smaller?

    In other words, is there a maximum number of seed words you would input in Step 3 in the list above?

  6. Webmaster Forum on the 11th December

    Thanks for the in-depth explanation on the new Google keyword tool…it is quite frustrating to use at this point, but your tips will likely make it easier to use, and I will share it on the BizWebForum, as many of the members there, who are typically online marketers, have expressed a lot of frustration with it as well.

  7. Laminaat on the 13th January

    I can’t get used to the new interface. Same goes for Analytics!

  8. Idella Reichmann on the 25th June

    You are a exceptional author. Want any individual lots of good results inside your interests.

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