Small business hit in the pocketbook by Google Keyword Planner changes

Google has been busy, busy, busy with its Keyword Planner tool these past few weeks. The fun began in June, when several users complained that it was suddenly mandatory to have at least one active Adwords campaign to access the Keyword Planner.

A few days of outrage later, Google clarified that this was a technical glitch and would be fixed.

Oops.  Hehe.

A week or so after that, Google made a real change to the Keyword Planner; this time with the way search volumes are showcased. While you could view traffic estimates for individual keywords previously, the Keyword Planner now consolidates these figures to include search variants as well.

For what it’s worth, this is in sync with what Google does already on Adwords – advertisers can no longer solely target exact match keywords and all such campaigns now inevitably target close variants as well.

So what are close variants anyway?

I love this, because this really is about targeting the user, not just one variation of the user. Let’s take the example of a keyword like “car wash”. There are a number of close variations here that convey the same meaning, such as:

  • car washing
  • car washers
  • car washer
  • carwash

Whereas you could look at the search volume for each of these keywords separately in the past, their volumes might be combined if Google thinks they are close variants.

Did you notice that I said “might be combined”, not always combined? This is because Google does not seem to apply the concept of close variants all the time. As Ginny Marvin points out in her SearchEngineLand blog, while “car wash” and “carwash” are considered close variants and are reported together, similar keyword pairs like “dog walker” and “dogwalker” are reported separately. Sometimes abbreviations are considered a variant of its expanded form while it is not in other cases.

Is this a problem?

As a matter of fact, yes. There is, of course, the frustrating question of inconsistency. But even if we were to assume for a moment that Google applies close variants uniformly across all keywords, it is still a problem. Here are a few reasons why.

Misleading data

First, close variants are misleading. Unless you have been diving deep into the Keyword Planner tool regularly, you may fail to notice these subtle changes with the way the search volumes are being reported. So when Google shows nearly 550,000 people searching for “car wash” and just as many people searching for “carwash”, one might falsely assume that the market is 1.1 million searches strong. In fact, it is only half that according to the Planner tool.

Google Keyword Planner lumps similar terms together

If the variants were shown together, it would be much clearer.  If you are listening Google, that one’s an easy fix.

Masked intent

The second problem with the change is that it masks the intent of the search performed. For instance, people who search for “car wash” are typically looking for service stations where they could take their cars for a wash.

On the other hand, people looking for “car washer” may be looking to buy equipment to wash their cars. These are two completely different markets.  Google no longer lets you know the number of people looking for service stations and washing equipment separately.

Higher costs for small business

Eren McKay, a Brazil based SEO expert, says this is a huge blow for small business.

“Although uniting the keywords may seem like a good thing to some larger corporations, for small business owners or bloggers, this is truly a huge blow to their ability to find less competitive long tail keyword phrases or ‘low hanging fruit’, as many in the industry call it. These phrases are considered golden nuggets to SMBs and aren’t usually targeted by large enterprises because of their low search volume.”

She notes that small business owners target several small streams of traffic. This converts into large amounts of traffic overall. When each post provides high quality content specifically targeted for a long tail keyword phrase, it makes the target audience happy.

If the author also uses co-occurrence words throughout the copy, and knows how to spread the words about that post, it will end up getting traction and many times ranking in the SERPs.

With Keyword Planner no longer showing us data for specific search terms, small business will have to pay for tools such as SEMRush to predict the traffic a long tail keyword phrase might attract. So Google’s change will cost small businesses money.

Bye bye long tail, Google Keyword Planner

Does this mean that the Keyword Planner is no longer a useful tool for keyword research? “Not at all,” says Nathan Gotch, a St. Louis based SEO expert.

“Google Keyword Planner has always been an estimator tool that is useful for benchmarking keywords or niches against one another. The changes with the Planner are in line with what you can already see in the Google Search results. Gone are the days when you needed to optimize for variants like ‘SEO’ and ‘Search Engine Optimization’ separately. Google already recognizes these different variations to mean the same and, therefore, the search results you see for these two search terms are not too different.”

I’ve never invested too much of myself in any keyword research tool. To me, such data always provides just a clue, a hint.  This is for several reasons:

  • You see just a snapshot of the past.  It is a predictor of the future, but an inaccurate predictor (sometimes very inaccurate).
  • The data is not always clean.  What about bots? What about repeat searchers?  So many issues.
  • Is Google really sharing its full intelligence with us?  Really?  For free?  Seriously?

Of course, at high volumes, this data is useful, at least to the extent of showing whether a search term really gets high volumes.  But for long tail searches, the data is IMHO not very useful. No data is very accurate with a small sample size, because the “confidence level” is low. This is the first thing you’ll learn if you ever try to conduct any market survey or public opinion research. The confidence-level rule applies just as much to search data.

Nevertheless, the latest development with Google Keyword Planner reflects the changes with organic search, as well. What shows as a close variant on the Planner is likely to be used as a variant even in the search results. That makes Google Keyword Planner more useful, in a way. You can use it to find out which search phrases Google sees as one, and that should help with your organic SEO.

So it’s not all bad.  But the more data lumped together, the less details you have access to.  On the whole, this is a step backwards for small business.  But it could be worse, as a few people noticed with panic in June.


  1. Hi, Seeing your first two line of post, I was shocked – if it ever happens that to use Keyword Planner one must have at least one active campaign in Adwords, than it would be a big blow to small business like us. Though I never noticed such things … However it’s a nice post and an eye opener for the small scale business in terms of close variations of keywords … Thank You

  2. We also got affected can’t able to find Search Volumes instead of we got Search Terms only. When i asked in the Adwords Forums they said like Froggy you should have one active campaign.

    So created one Adwords account with 1000Rs Indian Money(15.02$ USD)

    Then put an ad for very very low budget 10Rs(0.15$ USD)

    Now only able to see the search volume.

    But Google has a limitation on that paid customer too. In a single day we can able to check some limited amount of Search Volume only,

    In the middle of your blog if you cross the limit you should wait for one another day or need to pay for another one account.

    So frustrated guys…☹

  3. Also everyone said that it’s a pure “Greed” of Google,