Search Engine Keyword Analysis Pitfalls

Keyword analysis tools are great. Like spelling checkers, however, there are certain things that they won’t catch, such as the word’s context. Tom Dahm warns you about the issues you need to watch for if you want to use these tools to improve your standings in the search engines.


Keyword analysis is critical to successful search engine optimization. A top search engine ranking doesn’t mean much if no one is searching for your keywords. 

I started optimizing sites in 1998, when the concept of search engine optimization was new and before the advent of keyword tools. In those days, keyword selections were made strictly on instinct and without insight into how many people were actually searching for a word.

Today we have pay per click (PPC) engines like Overture and Google AdWords that let customers see their available keyword inventory. We also have tools like WordTracker that are specifically designed for keyword analysis. That’s a vast improvement over the old days.

But as valuable as these tools are, they can sometimes lead you astray. This article will cover some common traps of using analysis tools and tell you how to avoid them.

Going on Numbers Alone

The easiest trap to fall into is focusing on search popularity numbers alone. If a keyword tool shows that Word A gets 20,000 monthly searches and Word B gets only 5,000 searches, then Word A must be the better choice, right?

Not necessarily. Keyword relevance is at least as important as raw search popularity. As a rule, the more specific a search query, the better your chance of converting a search result into a sale, and sales are what it’s all about. 

Consider this example: Overture’s keyword tool say that a whopping 136,960 searches are conducted each month for the term “sports cars,” while only 2,545 searches are conducted for “Jaguar XK8.” But someone searching for “sports cars” is early in the buying cycle and may just be searching for information about different makes and models. Someone searching for a Jaguar XK8 has a clear idea of what they want. This is a much more valuable customer.

{mospagebreak title=Standing on One Leg}

Everyone tends to have his or her favorite keyword tool. It’s natural to prefer one tool, but it’s better to use multiple tools to crosscheck your data. Using a single tool makes you vulnerable to its biases.

Keyword tools draw their data from one or more search engines, and each search engine has unique demographics. Google is preferred by the technical community, Yahoo is popular in Middle America, and MSN is strong with homemakers. Unless you understand the sources from which each keyword tool draws its data, you risk skewing your analysis toward that engine’s demographics.

For reference, Overture reports data for its network, which includes Yahoo, MSN, and Alta Vista. Google AdWords covers Google, AOL, and AskJeeves.

The popularity numbers from Overture and Google can also be skewed by rank checkers and bid management tools that generate artificial popularity. Consider this scenario: a PPC advertiser is using a bid management tool to monitor his sponsored ad on Overture. He has set the bid manager to check his ad placement 4 times a day, which means his tool will execute 120 queries per month for that keyword, artificially inflating the popularity of that term. If he sets the bid manager to check rankings every hour, he could be generating 720 artificial searches per month.

If you only use the keyword tools available from these PPC engines, your numbers could again be skewed by these automated tools.

WordTracker draws its data from a cross-section of meta search engines such as DogPile. In practice WordTracker tends to give the most representative search popularity data. Nevertheless, it’s a good idea to double check even WordTracker’s data. I’ve seen too many cases where a keyword showed attractive numbers in one keyword tool, only to see those number evaporate when I check other tools.  It’s a good idea to spot-check your analysis.

Forgetting Seasonal Changes

The weather isn’t the only thing that changes with the seasons – keyword popularity does too. If your client is in the travel industry, keyword popularity can vary by 50% or more between summer and winter months. Do you have a retail client? Then you need to compare the popularity of spring and fall fashions. Does your client sell gifts and collectables? Then you need to know how Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Mother’s Day items compare in search popularity. 

Unfortunately, today’s tools report only a snapshot of keyword popularity, giving little insight into seasonal variations. If you run a keyword analysis with Overture during November, your results are based on searches during October. 

Of the tools available, only Trellian’s Priority Submit gives insight into seasonal changes in keyword popularity. Beyond that, your best approach is to ask your client about seasonal changes in their business. If they do twice as much business in summer as in winter, you can apply this as a weight factor in your keyword analysis.

{mospagebreak title=Getting Fooled by Broad Matching} 

If you use Overture or Google AdWords as your primary keyword tool, you should always keep in mind that these tools were made for pay per click advertisers and not for SEO research. Since they’re designed to support advertisers, these tools follow each PPC engine’s default matching options, and this means the engine will report keyword popularity using broad match results. That can greatly inflate your numbers.

Broad matching means that the your keyword will match search queries using either the singular and plural forms of your keyword, plus any longer queries that include your keyword. 

For example, if you check the search popularity of the phrase “health care” with Google AdWords, Google will predict a very attractive 22.0 clicks per day. But this number includes broad match results for phrases like “home health care,” “mental health care” and “health care center.” These phrases may indeed be ones you want to target in your SEO work, but you probably won’t win them by optimizing for the words “health care” alone.

To get the true picture of a keyword’s popularity from Google, you need to expressly wrap the keywords in brackets. Ask Google to predict the popularity of “[health care]” (with brackets) and you’ll get an estimated 5.5 clicks per day. That’s a big difference.

Similar issues exist when using Overture to check popularity. Overture ignores differences between singular and plural forms of words. Check the popularity of “Chicago hotel” and Overture will report 73,461 searches. Check the popularity of the plural form “Chicago hotels” and Overture reports exactly the same number. Even if you expressly wrap the phrase in brackets or quotes, Overture stubbornly reports the same number.

Just as importantly, Overture jumbles the order of your search terms, which means you have little insight into word order. That’s a shame, because word order is important for maximum optimization. Ask Overture for the popularity of “downtown Chicago hotels” and it reports a single number. You’ll have to use other keyword tools to get insight here.

Ask WordTracker the same question, and it will tell you that “downtown Chicago hotels” is more than twice as popular as “Chicago downtown hotels,” and three times more popular than “hotels in downtown Chicago.” That’s much more useful data.

{mospagebreak title=Misreading the Competition}

At one time a good SEO could make any page rank for any keyword. Those days are sadly gone. If you don’t factor competition into your keyword selection, you may end up choosing keywords that you just can’t win.

Today’s keyword tools offer limited insight into competition. WordTracker and a few other tools offer something called a Keyword Effectiveness Index (KEI), which assigns a single value rating to each keyword based on its search popularity and degree of competition. 

Unfortunately KEI is a broad metric that offers little insight into real competition. KEI is based on the raw number of results returned for a search query. The theory is that the larger the number of pages containing your keyword, the stiffer the competition will be. Run a query for the term “internet marketing” on Google and you’ll get 27,100,000 results. That’s a lot, so this keyword will have a low KEI, indicating that competition is tough.

A little reflection should tell you this is a flawed assumption.  If you run a Google query for “search engine optimization” and you’ll get only 7,400,000 results, which means it will have a better KEI than “internet marketing.”  Yet “search engine optimization” is perhaps the most hotly competed keyword on the Web. It’s not how many pages include your keyword, but how many of those pages have been optimized.

WordTracker is a great keyword analysis tool, but we need a better way to assess competition.

Consider using PageRank as your guide for judging competition. With the search engines making more and better use of off-the-page factors to determine ranking, a site’s PageRank determines the bracket in which it can compete.

A well-optimized web site can still beat un-optimized sites with a higher PageRank, but this is true only up to a point. Before selecting a keyword, consider the competition and make sure you can beat them.


Keyword analysis tools are incredibly useful, but ultimately they’re just tools. They provide insight that helps you make good decisions, but you need to understand how they generate their numbers and keep in mind that numbers don’t always tell the whole story. Good keyword analysis ultimately depends on your judgment. 

[gp-comments width="770" linklove="off" ]