Most SEO professionals already know it: Google Keyword Planner is made for advertising and fails at keyword research for organic traffic.
There is still another free tool in the Google toolset that can be very helpful though.
Indeed Google Trends is better than ever for this task, that’s why I mostly recommend it now for starters instead of the many free or paid alternatives. By now it even allows you to determine local search traffic.
What’s the purpose of Google Trends?
The Google Keyword Planner is for advertisers who need to buy Google search ads (AdWords). Either they don’t rank yet or anymore on Google or because Google has hidden organic results below the fold altogether.
The Google Trends tool has been introduced to influence the general public. It was originally meant for normal people who don’t necessarily buy ads but want to find out what’s cool on the Web.
In a way Google Trends is a public relations tool for Google.
Later on Google Trends has been merged with another Google keyword tool, the so-called Google Insights for Search. While Google Trends initially only showed really large general trends, Insights for Search also showed granular data.
Now that Google Trends contains the more accurate data sets, it’s much more useful. Even though it was meant to be used by average people, it has some advanced features by now. Luckily you still don’t have to log in or worse sign up for AdWords to use it.
What’s more popular: sex or Facebook?
Google Trends is also far less biased and censored than Google Zeitgeist which has been created to garner mainstream media attention. While Zeitgeist is by now part of Trends, you can still get more accurate and truthful data from Trends. For example
Zeitgeist never features NSFW or navigational searches.
That way you won’t find out that searches for sex or Facebook were among or even the most popular for years in a row. You can check out the popularity of sex or Facebook manually on Google Trends though.
Spoiler alert: For almost 6 years, Facebook is more popular than sex. Sad, sad world!
Local search volume trends
Personally I always preferred Google Insights for Search and to some extent Google Trends to the other advertising oriented tools, even before they got worse. Recently I wanted to find out how the bike market performs over in New York City. I published a cycling blog as a hobby and I wanted to use this as an example close to home in my upcoming SEO 2.0 e-book.
I was delighted to get very accurate numbers from Google Trends on local search volumes for bikes.
When you search for [bike] on Google Trends, you get served the global data for the last decade by default. Intriguing but also to be expected insight: people search less for bikes during the winter! Other than that, the search volume seems to be stable.
There are no really intriguing insights other than that. The fun begins when you get local searches. That’s also what most small businesses like bike stores will care about. Let’s assume you want to make your dream come true and open up a new bike store somewhere in the US. You may want to check your favorite cities.
New York, New York
Cycling has been increasingly popular in many places in the US over the recent years. New York has been a leading by example force when it comes to this progress. A huge bike share program and many new modern bike lanes are just some improvements for the infamously congested original megacity. Thus,
I wondered how the growing cycling popularity impacted the overall demand for bikes over in the Big Apple.
First you need to click the “worldwide” breadcrumb menu item on top. It will show a drop down menu where you can select the “United States”.
When you click it and then scroll down, you’ll see a map of the US. On the right there is a list of states where the keyword is most popular. Strangely enough the two states in the case of [bike] are Colorado and Utah. The traditionally bike-friendly Washington and Oregon comes third and fourth.
We don’t want to focus on whole cities. That’s not really local yet. Just imagine that California alone is many time larger than many European countries. As initially stated, we are walking in the shoes of small business person trying to assess the market in an urban area or city. Luckily Google Trends lets you zoom in on metropolitan area and towns as well. The options are already visible in the partial screen shot above.
The three links of the submenu say “Subregion | Metro | City” while Subregion means states and is preselected by default. We just need to click the other two to learn more: I’ve found the “metro” data somewhat less useful. It may be just me but the areas with the highest “bike” popularity don’t seem to match up with reality as closely as expected. On the other hand,
the city data seems to be on point. How do I know?
As a bike blogger, I’ve read a lot about where exactly cycling is popular in the US. Guess what, it’s Portland of course! Portland, Oregon has an international clout of being a city with a healthy bike scene despite its by international standards still low share of cycling on overall traffic. In a way Portland is the US equivalent of Copenhagen on a much smaller scale.
Now as we know that the Google city data is quite accurate, we can take a look at other cities and NYC in particular. This is an embedded table straight from Google Trends:
In case you don’t see it, please click through to the actual post. Feed readers and other tools may not display the script-based content.
Ouch. As you can see, there is a list of ten cities where bikes are popular but no New York. Viewing the map on the left shows the biggest cities and when you hover your mouse over them a non-clickable “tooltip” will appear:
With a popularity of the [bike] keyword of “61”, NYC didn’t make it into the top 10 yet. To view New York data, you need to use the “United States” menu again. It shows states and cities with two more clicks:
What does 61 mean at all? When Portland has a popularity of 100, all other numbers only do make sense on comparison with the highest one. It’s like a percentage. Portland achieves 100% and the other numbers are relative.
These are not absolute predictions of keyword queries like in AdWords but just general “trends”. In case you compare the demand with another phrase, like say [car] when the graphs will look completely different. Thus it’s crucial that you know at least one number to be true and ideally it’s absolute size.
Whew! So here finally are the top 10 queries (7 of them pictured above without scrolling) when it comes to bike-related demand. There are some surprises here. For example, I’ve believed that Americans use the term [bike store] but it seems they prefer the rather British sounding [bike shop] or do they mean an online shop?
Also the demand for dirt bikes seems to be enormous. They even excel road bikes I took for granted as the most popular in NYC. After all the world-wide fixie (road bike) trend by stylish hipsters has been started in NYC.
You can click on each query to dive in deeper into the keyword popularity analysis. When we click on [bike shop] for example we will realize that it’s probably not an accident, all kinds of similar phrases are widely used:
OK, by now you should have a pretty good idea whether it makes sense to open a bike shop (not store!) in New York. Make sure to remember that the numbers are relative though. The absolute demand (as in how many actual people search for a term) can be better assessed using the Google Keyword Planner but by now I often don’t obsess about the “exact” numbers anymore. Even AdWords can not get you very far with its perceived accuracy these days.
Image credit: the “local bike search trends in NYC” illustration has been made by the excellent illustrators of Freepik.com