friends don't let friends use Keyword Planner for SEO competition

The only constant is vicious, rampant change in the world of SEO. While that’s the reality we know all too well, some facts do remain. Here are a few:

  • Keyword Planner 1 is a PPC tool.
  • Keyword Planner is made for PPC keyword research.
  • Keyword Planner is NOT intended for organic keyword research.

STOP using Google’s Keyword Planner to measure organic competition!

Ok, that was a little much. The point is it’s imperative to understand where Keyword Planner can be an effective tool for SEO keyword research and where it can lead you astray. One of those ways it can trip you up is by misunderstanding the “competition” score from the tool.

Straight from the mouth of Google, the Keyword Planner competition is:

The number of advertisers that showed on each keyword relative to all keywords across Google2

So the key here is monetization. Keywords with high purchase intent are going to generate more advertiser competition than keywords searched by those just browsing a topic. And that makes sense; if I’m paying for that traffic, I want to make sure it’s a profitable investment.

But with SEO, we get the luxury of paying once (the cost of producing the content) and reaping residual benefits as long as the page is live. This allows us to play at the top of the funnel with our content and develop a strong inbound marketing campaign. Of course we still want to rank for profitable keywords, and in those instances, you’re likely to see some parallels between organic and paid competition. But tread lightly as organic and paid competition can often go in opposition directions. Here are a few areas where this occurs most frequently:

1. Broad vs. specific keywords

Consider these three keywords. If you were trying to rank for them organically, put these in order from most to least difficult.

While Moz’s Keyword Difficulty score 3 isn’t the end-all-be-all in terms of measuring your organic competition, it’s a helpful metric that can offer an objective comparison for this exercise. Now let’s see how Google’s Keyword Planner compares.

Data pulled on 5/11/2016. Keyword Planner competition was multiplied by 100 because I was too lazy to figure out how to make a secondary axis.

This is extremely common when measuring competition between broad and specific keywords. Broad keywords are searched by those with a wide range of intentions. Searching “hockey” could mean you want to learn about it, watch it, play it or even use it in an SEO blog. Broad keywords typically generate a lot of searches. The wide spectrum of intent combined with the large search volume can lead to low-value money pits for PPC. Thus, the PPC competition will be low.

2. Branded keywords

Have you ever tried to rank for a competitor brand? It’s not easy, even for branded long-tail. Now, you might be wondering why you’d want to do that in the first place, but stealing (free) traffic from your competition can prove to be fruitful if well-executed. But don’t be fooled by the Keyword Planner competition. Here’s another example where organic competition is zigging where PPC’s is zagging… or sagging in this case.

Data pulled on 5/12/2016. Keyword Planner competition was multiplied by 100 because I was too lazy to figure out how to make a secondary axis.

3. SERP listing categories

Those previous two examples are not my opinion; they are fact. But this scenario is admittedly more subjective. Another area I believe Keyword Planner’s competition can hurt you is due to the differences between paid and organic search in who your competition is. With PPC, your competition is everyone who bids on the same keyword as you. It doesn’t matter if you’re local or worldwide, your article was recently published or a decade old, the content is long or short, or if it’s video, images or text. If someone is bidding on your keyword, they are your competition and you are theirs, period.

It’s not that simple with SEO. In many cases, Google is looking for a specific type of content. And if you’re not that type of content, the level of competition is somewhat irrelevant. The two most common examples of this are Query Deserves Freshness (QDF) and Query Deserves Diversity (QDD).

Query Deserves Freshness

Sometimes people want fresh results. Whether it’s a trending story, recurring event (concerts, presidential primaries, conferences, etc.) or anything that gets frequently updated 4, Google knows to favor recency much more heavily than in typical results. So if you’re trying to rank for a term in the QDF filter and don’t have fresh content, it really doesn’t matter if your page is quantifiably more authoritative. You just won’t be relevant enough.

Query Deserves Diversity

While I don’t believe QDD has ever been confirmed by Google, we all know it exists. The concept is simple. For some queries, it’s obvious what people are seeking.
query deserves freshness SERP example
“What’s the largest mammal in the world?” returns a giant answer card with a picture and headline of “whale”. That’s all the majority is looking for in this query. But what about something like “golf”? Am I looking for live results, the latest news, general information or a local course to play 5? Or consider “mbo”. I could be searching the acronym for “management by objectives” while you could be trying to purchase tickets to Captain America: Civil War at MBO Cinemas for your next trip to Singapore.

The point is certain terms force Google to hedge its bets by displaying a diverse set of listings because the intent is varied. So if you want to compare yourself against the competition for a term in QDD, I would just look at the listings similar to yours. The rest are likely off the table. Are there exceptions? Of course. There’s always going to be times when someone shouldn’t be eligible but finds a way in anyway.


Even in the world of (not provided), we have more data than we can handle. Where our problem often lies is in understanding what the data tells us, and equally important, what it’s not telling us. Keyword Planner is still a must-have when it comes to keyword research, 6 especially with its search volume data (although it has its problems as well). update: 10/29/2016 – After Keyword Planner has become even worse at volume estimations and Moz has gotten even better, I no longer feel Keyword Planner is a must-have. However, its competition metric can very well do more harm than good when it comes to organic keyword research.

So I know I left you hanging and didn’t offer an alternative to measure organic competition, but to be honest, this subject exhausts me. I’ve been harping on it for years and I still see SEO’s go down this path. But I promise I’ll eventually do a follow-up post outlining some of the best techniques to measure organic keyword competition.

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment below.

P.S. I want to give a shout out to the folks at H5P and Visualizer, who created some awesome WordPress modules that I used for the interactive question and graphs in the article.

  1. formerly called the Keyword Tool

  2. I think it’s implied that it is also relative to search volume for that keyword. A keyword that gets 5,000 searches per month and has a High competition probably attracts more advertisers than a keyword with the same competition but only generates 10 searches per month.

  3. newly improved and integrated into their new (and awesome) keyword research tool: Keyword Explorer

  4. smartphone reviews, social media stats, Justin Bieber’s hair

  5. By “play” I mean losing at least 8 balls and not hitting it past the ladies’ tee box at least once

  6. or at least its API