How to Get the Most Out of the Google Keyword Planner Tool

In Part 1 of my series, Keyword Research in Today’s SEO World, we left off with the promise that Part 2 would cover the tool that SEO specialists have been using for years to perform keyword research. Google updated the tool during the summer of 2013, changing the dashboard and adding new features.

This walk-through of the tool will give you hands-on exercises to prepare for Part 3 of this series. If you blog or have your own website – this is invaluable information that you can use to optimize your copy, meta data, headings & URLs.

There are other tools available for keyword research, and SEO specialists utilize tools like Google Suggests to enhance what they learn from the Keyword Planner. But this tool is still a work horse for research, and the principles you will learn here will help you better understand keyword data and user behavior.

Getting Started with Google AdWords Planner

Start by logging into the Google AdWords Keyword Planner Tool & click on Search for new keyword and ad group ideas:

(If you do not already have an AdWords account – there is much info on the web on how to start one.)

A screenshot of the Google Adwords Keyword Planner Tool

This is where you enter in the words or phrases to get search volume data:

A screenshot of the Keyword Planner Tool with field for entering products or services

Let’s use this very blog post as an example. The topic is: keyword research and understanding the Google AdWord Keyword Planner tool.

For this exercise, we will limit our additions to the primary phrases related to this topic:

A screenshot of the Keyword Planner Tool with a field filled out with example keywords

Then click the “Get ideas” button at the bottom of the screen:

A blue button that says get ideas

The tool will return words and phrases, distributing them into two sections: Ad group ideas & Keyword ideas. Ad group ideas comes up by default, and there are two tabs to toggle between the two choices:

Two tabs, one saying Ad group ideas, one saying Keyword ideas 

Part of understanding the basic function of the tool is to understand the differences between these two sections of the results.

The Keyword Ideas Tab

Let’s start with the Keyword ideas tab. (Until recently – this was all the Google tool gave to you.) At the top is the Search terms section where you can see the exact words and phrases that you entered. It will display their average monthly searches.

A screenshot showing keyword ideas for Keyword Planner Tool terms

What Have We Learned So Far About Our Search Terms?

People are referring to Google’s Keyword Planner Tool in search as simply “keyword planner.” A quick Google search confirms that the phrase “keyword planner” is now containing an additional unexpected meaning; most of the returns in the SERPs are related to the tool and not to something else. So, over 20,000 searches were for that phrase, and under 1,000 for the full formal name of the tool. This is good information to know.

There are substantially more searches for “keyword research” than there are for “researching keywords.” This is an example of how just flipping words can show the value of one phrase over another and/or the opportunities for targeting a more niche phrase. Sometimes with experience, this can be anticipated, but in some cases, it can be surprising which version of a phrase has a higher search volume.

Exercises for Selecting Keywords

Exercise: Search phrases that you can flip – like “NYC restaurants” & “restaurants in NYC” – and get a feel for the results. Some will be logical, and a few surprising.

Exercise: Experiment by searching words like “lawyer” and “attorney” or “car insurance” & “auto insurance.” Try some related to your own business focus. See if you can intuitively anticipate the result before they are displayed.

The Keyword (by relevance) Section

The lower and larger Keyword (by relevance) section displays words and phrases suggested by Google pertaining to the initial search terms entered. In our example we typed in five different phrases. This Keyword (by relevance) section is showing 800 keyword results.

They are displayed in the order that Google finds most relevant to the words and phrases that you originally entered. Here are the first few of the 800:

A screenshot of keywords by relevance in the Keyword Planner Tool 

What Have We Learned From Google?

We clearly see how people are searching for the tool – what keyword phrases they are using.

We are also receiving some insight into Google’s brain! Did any of our initial entries include the words “how to?” No – they did not. Did we imply that we were looking for info on “how to” use the Keyword Planner tool? Nope. Google is making these implications and connections based on the data they collect.

Next, scroll through the results by clicking on the right arrow on the very bottom right:

A screenshot showing 1-30 of 800 keywords toggle button

At some point, you will clearly see the results start to drift and stray from the original phrases entered. Below is what we start to see after the 200th word:

A screenshot showing 211-240 of 800 keywords toggle button A screenshot showing keyword results from the Planner Tool

What Have We Learned From These 800 Keyword Results?

We see that the initial keywords are relevant then they start to tail off and are somewhat related, but no longer on target. Depending on the particular search, this can happen anywhere along the line – but generally by the 100 – 200 words they change from immediate family and friends to second cousins once-removed.

Next, click on the Avg. monthly searches heading in the top tool bar for this Keyword (by relevance) section:

A screenshot showing Average monthly searches button 

Wow, everything changes. We get a different view of the world! The keywords are now ordered by search volume high to low. What do we do with this newly ordered information? How do we process it relative to everything we looked at up to now?

Exercises for Selecting Keywords

Exercise: Select keywords and download to organize, sort and create topical lists.

Search for the initial phrases you feel are most representative. In the top Keyword ideas / Search terms section – click the little arrow under Add to Plan next to each of your initial phrases:

A screenshot showing search term results for Keyword Planner Tool

This will send these keywords into a group that you will download out of the Keyword Planner Tool. You will see a little green check next to the keywords you pick. This is like going grocery shopping – you are putting these words in your cart.

A screenshot showing adding search term results for Keyword Planner Tool to plan

Next, go to the bottom Keyword (by relevance) section and click Add to plan for all the additional keywords that you feel are appropriate for the focus of your content. You have to start making some choices here. Indecision is not recommended.

For this exercise, only go through the first 50 – 100 keywords displayed.

Then, hit the Avg. monthly searches tool bar heading to regroup them by high to low search volume. Now go down those choices and see if there are any keywords with substantial search volume that you might have missed when using the other Google ranked view. Click the Add to plan to add these keywords to your other choices.

Now on the right side of the page, you will see My Keyword Ideas and next to it in parenthesis is the number of keywords you have chosen to export:

A screenshot showing the My Keyword Ideas tab

Click on the downward pointing arrow, and this new window will appear:

A screenshot showing how to download your keyword plan selecting from several options 

Click the Excel CSV button (as shown above) and keep the default Historical statistics checked to prepare to download your keywords into an Excel doc.

Next click the blue download button.

You will see this window:

A screenshot showing the save file button to download your keyword plan 

Click Save file.

On a PC you will see this next:

A screenshot showing how to open the keyword plan in Microsoft Excel

To continue your work now, keep the default setting Open with Microsoft Excel and click OK.

The Excel doc should open (if not – find it in your browser’s download list). It will look something like this:

A screenshot of a keyword plan in an Excel spreadsheet

Delete all the columns in the document except for Keyword, Avg. Monthly Searches & Competition. So in this (above) example I will delete columns A, C, D, E, H & I, and I will be left with a very clean looking three columns:

A screenshot showing a keyword plan in an Excel spreadsheet with only three fields

Next, click on one of the numbers in any Avg. Monthly Searches cell, right click and choose Sort AND THEN Sort Largest to Smallest:

A screenshot of a keyword plan in an Excel spreadsheet showing how to sort fields 

The keywords in your Excel doc will now be sorted by search volume.

At this point, I roll up my sleeves and start making my choices by color coding them. Remember our blog post is about keyword research and the Google AdWords Keyword Planner tool. Here are my top search volume choices – orange for the primary phrases and blue for the supporting ones:

A screenshot of a keyword plan in an Excel spreadsheet showing color coded keywords 

This gives you a solid overview of how to navigate through the process using the results of your entered keyword choices in conjunction with the Keyword (by relevance) section of the tool where Google is expanding on your terms.

Now we will add in another component that the Google Keyword Planner Tool offers.

Incorporating the Ad Group Ideas Function of the Tool

Click on the Ad group ideas button choice, and you will see Ad group (by relevance) appear:

A screenshot showing Ad group ideas by relevance

This is similar to the previously used Keyword (by relevance) section, except now Google is grouping its choices, and creating headings to segment them. Each group shown has a number of words and phrases in it, the amount varies based on what keywords Google deems appropriate for the each group it created.

How Do You Use This Section of the Tool?

When you use the Keyword (by relevance) section, you have to scroll through 800 choices and pick the ones you preferred. With the Ad group (by relevance) section you can expedite that process by scanning the title of the groups Google created and clicking on the ones that you feel are relevant. In the following example, if you click on the “Keyword Planner” group:

A screenshot showing Ad group idea results for Keyword Planner Tool

You will see the 42 keyword results:

A screenshot of keywords by relevance showing additional results

Now you can make your picks and put them into your choice bucket.

What Do You Do With the Competition Column?

I like to see it – but for SEO purposes – I don’t let a high completion value keep me from optimizing for those particular keywords. Sometimes I use it as a “tie breaker,” picking between two similar search volume phrases, and going with the lowest completion one.

There is a choice in the Google Keyword Planner called Set Match Type where you can choose between Broad, Exact & Phrase match. You access it by clicking on the little pencil icon above My Keyword Ideas:

A screenshot showing the My Keywords Ideas review estimates button

A screenshot showing the keyword planner tool selecting exact match 

This choice used to matter with the old version of this tool. But in 2014, you can just leave it set to the default setting (Broad) and not worry about clicking on the pencil icon. The results will be the same for our purposes.

Exercises for Selecting Keywords

Exercise: After this test drive through the functionality of the Keyword ideas section of the Google AdWords Keyword Planner tool, now go search for a new topic of your choice – it could be for a page on your website, or for a blog post you want to write. Follow all these steps and see what you get. The more you use this tool – the more comfortable you will get.

Keyword Planner Tool Summary

As you have probably already concluded, you can use the Ad group (by relevance) in conjunction with the Keyword (by relevance) sections or you can choose to use one or the other. Ultimately, you will start to develop an intuitive sense along with a better overall understanding of how to search, review, and pick your keywords, and you will use the tool like a musician uses an instrument, as a tool for your creativity.

There are many ways to use this keyword tool creatively. After much experimentation, I have given you my preferred method. The creatively is the wild card – and it has to come from you.

After you play around with the Keyword Planner Tool for a couple of weeks, and get skilled with the functionality of the tool – and just as importantly, gain some experience in anticipating the results and building “intuition” for this process – tune in back here for Part 3 of this series. I will address how to rewind back to the very start of this process before you even enter words and phrases into the tool, helping you learn how to determine the focus of a particular webpage or blog post. It seems simple, but when we teach keyword research and optimization at our workshops – we find that this is the most challenging thing for people to do, and thus the component in the process that most people get wrong.