Luckily, Google has a free keyword research tool that allows you to do just that: Google Keyword Planner (formerly the Google Keyword Tool).
Google Keyword Planner gets a bad rap, especially since Google removed the ability to see exact monthly search volumes. Now they just show a vague range.
You can get these back, but you have to run an AdWords campaign. This costs money.
But don’t let this put you off. Google Keyword Planner is an INSANELY powerful tool, and has some clear benefits. Not least, the fact that it suggests keyword ideas that you can’t find anywhere else. Trust me, I checked.
The problem? Most SEOs have no clue how to get the most from this tool.
In this post, I’ll show you how to get some serious SEO value from Google Keyword Planner. Who knows? There may even be a couple hacks for reviving exact search volumes… for free. 😉
Let’s start with the basics.
How to Gain Access to Google Keyword Planner (for Free)
Google Keyword Planner is 100% free to use. You need not spend a penny on AdWords ads to gain access. You just need a Google account.
But here’s what sometimes happens when you try to access the tool:
You’re asked to set up an AdWords campaign.
Google is so aggressive with this, in fact, that it can look like there’s no way to access the tool without first handing over some cash. Well, I have good news:
You CAN access the tool WITHOUT running an AdWords ad. You just have to jump through a few hoops.
To start, go here. Click “Go to Keyword Planner.”
Now here’s the important part:
When you see the “What’s your main advertising goal” screen, don’t choose any of the three options. Hit the small “Experienced with Google Ads?” link below instead.
Here’s yet another quirk in Google Keyword Planner: Google only displays this link in browser windows of a certain width.
If you don’t see the link, try resizing your browser window to make it wider.
As ridiculous as this is, it should then appear.
On the next screen, hit the “Create an account without a campaign” link. (It’s another small one.)
Hit the “Submit” button on the next page. (Don’t worry; Google won’t ask for credit card details.)
You should then see this screen:
Hit the “Explore your account” link.
Next, click the “Tools” link on the menu bar and hit “Switch to expert mode.”
Follow the prompt to confirm the switch.
Finally, hit the “Tools” link on the menu again, and you should see a link to the Keyword Planner.
You now have access! No need to enter billing info or run an AdWords ad.
Now let’s learn how to use it.
How to Use Google Keyword Planner
Google Keyword Planner gives you two options to get started, which are:
- Find keywords: Get keyword ideas that can help you reach people interested in your product or service;
- Get search volume and forecasts: See search volume and other historical metrics for your keywords, as well as forecasts for how they might perform in the future.
Both options take you to the Keyword Plan, but what you see will vary slightly depending on your choice. These are not two separate standalone tools.
Let’s explore each starting point in more detail.
Do you want to discover new keyword ideas? Start here.
As per Google’s instructions, just “Enter words, phrases, or a URL related to your business.” Google will then kick back some keyword suggestions.
Here are the suggestions for “SEO”:
There are 1,106 keyword ideas in total.
For each suggestion, you’ll see:
- Avg. monthly searches;
- Top of page bid (low range);
- Top of page bid (high range)
But you’re not limited to single words; phrases also work. And you can enter up to ten seed keywords/phrases at a time.
There’s also the option to use a URL or website as the seed.
Here’s another trick: you can enter up to ten seed keywords and a URL at the same time.
But whatever you do, Google will never show more than a few thousand keyword suggestions.
Even when I entered a maximum of ten seed keywords and a URL, I still only got 4,715 suggestions.
This is pretty poor when compared to other keyword research tools.
Ahrefs Keywords Explorer, for instance, kicks back 484,282 suggestions based on those same three seed keywords…
… that’s more than 102x what Keyword Planner gives us.
“Get search volume and forecasts”
Do you already have a list of keywords that you wish to see metrics for? Start here.
Just paste them in, hit “Get started,” and it’ll take you to the Forecasts section.
There are no keyword suggestions here. It shows how many clicks and impressions you can expect should you decide to run ads for your chosen keywords on Google AdWords over the next 30 days. You’ll also see estimated costs, CTR, and CPC.
Most of this data is clearly aimed at AdWords advertisers. But here’s a quick trick:
Go to the “Historical Metrics” tab and you will see 12‐month average search volumes for your keywords. These are the same ranges you see when starting with the “Find new keywords” option.
Not seeing the value in such ranges?
Keep reading. You never know, I might have a trick up my sleeve for unlocking exact search volumes. 😉
7 Google Keyword Planner Hacks (That Most SEOs Don’t Know)
Here’s what happened when I asked my Facebook friends for their top Google Keyword Planner hacks/tips:
So I digged deeper to try to understand why this was the case.
Fair point. But Google Keyword Planner has much more to offer than search volumes.
Here are 7 hacks to help you get the most out of it, starting with the one you were all waiting for…
1. Unlock EXACT search volumes
Google’s reluctance to show exact search volumes is one of the most frustrating things about Keyword Planner. It’s why many SEOs no longer use the tool at all.
For example, look at these two keywords—both have a search volume range of 10K‐100K:
But if we check these two keywords in Ahrefs Keywords Explorer, we see that in reality one of these keywords gets a lot more searches than the other.
So here are two ways you can use to get some exact numbers… for free.
Method #1: Look at the estimated impressions for max. CPC
Begin by adding some keywords to your plan. You can do this by manually entering a list of keywords into the “Get search volumes and metrics” tool.
Alternatively, check some keywords in the Keyword ideas view and add them to your plan like that. Just make sure to select the “exact match” option when prompted.
Go to the Keywords view. You should see a box at the top that looks something like this:
Hit the drop‐down and make sure the max. CPC is set as high as possible. You can do this by clicking on the right‐hand side of the graph, like so:
Now pay attention to the “Impressions” column. This tells you the estimated number of impressions your ad would get over the course of the next month if you were to run it for those specific keywords.
Because you set the max CPC so high, these impressions should be pretty close to the actual monthly search volume for that keyword.
Let’s use Ahrefs Keywords Explorer to see check close these numbers are.
Not too far off at all. 😉
IMPORTANT: This is a very rough way of gauging search volumes. It is by no means definitive.
Method #2. Install Keywords Everywhere
Keywords Everywhere is a free Chrome extension that adds search volume and CPC to the websites you already use: Google, YouTube, Amazon, etc.
Here it is in action:
But here’s something a lot of people don’t know: it also brings search volumes to Google Keyword Planner.
Don’t believe me? Take a look:
Cool, right? The issue is that there’s no easy way to export this data.
But with a bit of XPath code and the Scraper Chrome extension, it is possible.
Whichever “hack” you use, I recommend taking the numbers with a pinch of salt.
To learn why, check out the two articles by Tim [Soulo] in the further reading section below.
2. See keyword ideas for more than ten terms at ONCE
Here’s what happens if you try to add more than ten seed keywords in Google Keyword Planner:
“No stairway, denied.”
But there is a way to get round this. Just do them one at a time. Then add them to your plan by hitting the checkbox at the top of the list, choosing the option to “select all XXX” and hitting “add to plan.
Try Ahrefs Keywords Explorer. 😉
Let’s do that for the 743 suggestions based off the keyword ”SEO.”
And then repeat for suggestions based on ten other keywords (so eleven seed keywords in total).
Now, if we go to the Historical Metrics tab under Keywords, we see ALL of the keywords we just added. And best of all, the list has been de‐duped automatically, so there are no repeated keywords.
By default, they’re shown in alphabetical order. But you can order by search volume, competition, whatever you like.
3. Steal keyword ideas from your competitors
Google Keyword Planner can generate keyword suggestions from a URL.
Do you see where I’m going with this? You can spy on your competitors and steal their keywords. Just grab one of their URLs, paste it in, and select “Entire site” from the drop‐down.
2,274 keyword suggestions.
If you see a lot of keywords related to the competing brand, as we do here, use the filter to exclude them.
Filter > keyword text > brand name
Rinse and repeat for multiple competitors for a never‐ending stream of fresh keyword ideas.
Looking to find keyword ideas for a particular page or blog post? Select “This page only” instead.
Let’s do that for a competing guide to Google Keyword Planner. (I know, how meta!)
Some nice ideas in there too. I think I’ll sprinkle a few of those throughout this guide—see if you can spot them 😉
4. Find the questions people are asking
But you don’t need to use a separate tool for this. With a little hacking, you can do this in Keyword Planner.
Filter > Keyword text > contains > enter one of the following: who, what, why, when, where, how.
Repeat the process for the other five suppositions. It should look like this when you’re done:
Result: 211 questions‐type suggestions.
There are some great content ideas in here, such as:
- what is link building;
- what is search engine optimization;
- what is the best seo tool;
How about 28,848?
That’s how many question‐type queries Ahrefs Keywords Explorer finds for the seed keyword “SEO.”
You may notice that these all have exact search volumes too. 😉
Rinse and repeat this process with different seed keywords to build up a BIG list of question‐based queries.
Just add the filtered results to your plan each time. You can even create an ad group specifically for these terms.
This makes it easier to filter for these terms in Excel / Google Sheets if you export your plan.
5. Find lucrative keywords by looking at suggested bid
Keyword suggestions are all well and good, but how do you know which are valuable to your business?
You could sift through them all manually but this is no fun, especially if you have hundreds or thousands of keyword ideas.
My recommendation? Use the “Top of page bid (high range)” column.
Here’s Google’s definition of what this is:
“Top of page bid (high range)” shows the higher range of what advertisers have historically paid for a keyword’s top of page bid, based on your location and Search Network settings. The average CPC of your keywords may vary.
I know what you’re thinking:
Josh, that sounds like it’s for AdWords… how is that useful for SEO?
Simple. If people are willing to bid a lot for this keyword, it must be converting to sales. And if it’s converting cold Google traffic to sales or leads, it’s probably worth pursuing and trying to rank for.
To sort by this column, just click the column header. Make sure it’s sorted high to low as that way, the most lucrative keywords will rise to the top.
Nine times out of 10, this will instantly unveil the keywords with commercial intent.
Are you thinking of targeting one of these keywords? Always remember to check what businesses advertising are here before doing so.
You can do this by Googling the term and looking at the ads.
Are they selling the same products or services as you? Then it’s probably a good keyword to target.
Oh, and here’s a bonus tip:
Sort this column in ascending order to find informational search terms. These are often great topics for blog posts.
6. See keyword volumes for local areas… right down to the CITY level
Most keyword research tools are incapable of telling you how many people search for a term in specific states, cities and other localized areas. They just show search volumes for the entire country.
Such volumes are somewhat useless when it comes to local SEO.
Let’s say that you’re a plumber. Using the impressions → search volumes hack (#1), we can see that the term “plumber” will receive an estimated ~286K impressions over the next 30 days.
But plumbers don’t serve the entire country. That would be impossible.
The cool thing about Google Keyword Planner is that you can actually see the estimated impressions for much more localized areas. Even for specific cities.
Just start typing a location into the location filter at the top. Let’s try it for Los Angeles (city).
Now we see that “plumber” has just ~12K monthly impressions. Pretty neat, right?
This isn’t just useful for local businesses though. You can also use it to understand the most popular locations from which a term is searched.
Just add a keyword (or many) to your plan—I’ll go for “hendersons relish.”
Now go to the Plan Overview, select “All locations” in the locations filter, and scroll down to the Locations box. You will see a list of the top countries from which the keyword gets searched.
You can see that for “hendersons relish,” 94.5% of all impressions comes from the United Kingdom. Hardly surprising, as it’s a British condiment.
But you can go even deeper. Knowing that most searches come from the UK, we can set UK as the location in the location filter. Now the Locations box will show more localized areas.
93.1% of all searches are in England. Let’s use the drop‐down and narrow this down further… to counties.
17.1% in South Yorkshire, but also 8.7% in London—seems it’s popular amongst Londoners too (for some reason).
Now let’s look at cities.
8% in Sheffield. Again, hardly surprising—that’s where it’s made. 🙂
You can also use this feature to help figure out WHO you should create content for.
For example, 3.9% of all searches for “luxury car rental” come from the city of Los Angeles.
If you ran a luxury car hire company, it might pay to create content that would appeal to folk from Los Angeles… even if it wasn’t totally car‐related. This would be a great way to get on the radar of potential customers.
Good idea? The folk at Rentalcars.com seem to think so.
Note. I have no affiliation with rentalcars.com. It’s just an example.
Recommended reading: Local SEO: A Simple (But Complete) Guide
7. See which devices people are using (and which you should be optimizing for)
People use many types of device to browse the web these days, namely smartphones, laptops, and tablets. Each of these have very different screen sizes, which means it’s difficult to perfectly optimize your site for all of them.
To illustrate, here’s how a section of free keyword research tools post looks on desktop…
…and on mobile:
While the text is totally readable, some of the numbers on the screenshot are pretty difficult to read on a small screen size. This doesn’t make for the best user‐experience.
But here’s the thing: I know that most of the people who read this guide do so on desktop.
How? I checked in Google Keyword Planner.
To do this, add a keyword to your plan and go to the Plan Overview. Look at the Devices section, namely the Impressions bar. Rollover this and it will tell you what percentage of impressions come from each device category.
You can see that for the keyword “free keyword research tools,” 92% of impressions come from computers—devices with large screens.
So it makes total sense to prioritise the desktop user‐experience above all else.
For some keywords, it will be the other way round. Take “best restaurants near me” for example.
91.4% of all impressions come from mobile devices.
This makes sense. People Googling this are most likely just looking for a good restaurant for lunch/dinner while out and about.
Google Keyword Planner is clearly a powerful tool. I recommend incorporating it into your keyword research workflow. It’s packed with super‐valuable insights that you can’t get from any other keyword research tools.
But it does have its limitations, the lack of accurate search volumes being a BIG one.
Luckily, this can be solved with other keyword research tools, such as Ahrefs Keywords Explorer. Such tools combine data from Google Keyword Planner with clickstream data to generate accurate search volume estimations, and more.