Google Keyword Planner Exaggerates Impressions by 163%, According to a Revealing New Large-Scale Study

by | May 2, 2023

The team at Upgrow recently analyzed 33,377 ranking keywords over 16 months, tracking Google Search Console to see how they compared to search impressions in Google’s Keyword Planner.

Our goals?

To understand the differences between the organic (Search Console) and paid (Keyword Planner) search data provided.  More specifically, we to see why the numbers vary so wildly and when each tool is most useful for keyword research.

We gain new and actionable insights from the results.  And now, it’s time to share everything that we discovered.

Summary of Our Key Findings:

  • Keyword Planner exaggerated impressions across top-10 ranking terms by 163%
    • Due to keyword grouping of Google Keyword Planner’s impressions, the volume was overestimated in some keywords by millions.
  • Only 31 % of ranking keywords showed more impressions in Search Console
    • Though combined impressions were higher in Keyword Planner, those impressions consolidated into only 31% of keywords, since 71% of keywords reported more impressions from Google Search Console.
  • 24% of ranking keywords were highly overestimated in Keyword Planner
    • Keyword Planner overshot impressions by over 20% for nearly 1/4 of keywords.
  • 63% of ranking keywords were extremely underestimated by Keyword Planner
    • Conversely, Keyword Planner under-reported impressions for 63% of keywords by more than 20%.
  • 7% of keywords tracked in Search Console reported no impressions in Keyword Planner
    • Some keywords with thousands of impressions in Search Console report 0 impressions in Keyword Planner
  • Keyword Planner under-reported 23% of impressions for branded searches
    • Brand searches were consistently lower in Keyword Planner compared to Search Console impression data.
  • 72% of local ranking terms reported higher impressions in Keyword Planner, and 63% reported over 20% more impressions
    • Searches including cities, states, or “near me” reported much higher impressions for 72% of keywords.

——

I’ve provided details on our findings below.  

Before we go on, it’s important to understand how Google Keyword Planner impression data and Search Console keyword data compares.  Here are some differences to be aware of:

  • Google Search Console reports actual impressions when a user “views” your organic listing, meaning they scroll far enough to see your content ranking.
  • Google Keyword Planner estimates ad impressions based on historical search trends of the keyword.  It’s worth noting that the tool may group similar keywords together in their estimate, and it will also round search volume, so all their projections end in 0.  Another limitation is that Keyword Planner will not report on searches with special characters (eg, %$?), numbers, searches over 10 words, or mature content.

 

We also determined it could be more accurate to filter keywords to compare, so we evaluated top-10 ranking keywords (1-10 rank) with at least 100 average monthly impressions. We also removed keywords that Google Keyword Planner didn’t report impressions against.

With that primer, let’s proceed.

Keyword Planner exaggerated impressions across top-10 ranking terms by 163%

Background

Google Keyword Planner impressions and Google Search Console impressions are by no means an apples-to-apples comparison for the differences listed earlier.  However, by contrasting the data sources, we hoped to see to what degree the keyword impressions varied and which tool was over or under-projected most.

Because Search Console is purported actual viewed impressions after the fact, our expectation is that it would provide more accurate results.  The exception would be when a search result ends with only seeing ads, in which case Keyword Planner would count an impression, but Search Console would not.

By filtering to only the top-10 ranking terms with 100 or more impressions, we hoped to see more accurate results.

Results

Keyword Planner grossly overestimated impressions of top-10 terms by 163% and overestimated all combined 33,337 terms by more than 1000%.

Keyword Data Comparison Table

There are several factors likely contributing to Keyword Planner reporting more total impressions.

  1. Keyword Planner groups keywords and combines search volume into a single term, similar to Phase Match, whereas Search Console acts more like Exact Match.  This led to exaggerated results by millions of impressions in some cases.
  2. Search Console only reports impressions when ranking content is “viewed,” meaning if the ads section pushes organic results below a user’s view, no impression is reported.

Takeaway

Keyword Planner impressions are better estimates of keyword themes, whereas Search Console is more reliable for individual keyword search volume.  For commercial searches, the volume of Keyword Planner may also be much higher since more ads are typically present, pushing organic results tracked in Search Console out of view.

So, in summary, when doing topic keyword research, Keyword Planner is more reliable, but Search Console will better capture mid and longtail keywords’ true impressions.

69% of top-10 ranking keywords showed more impressions in Search Console than in Keyword Planner.

Background

In addition to reporting on total impressions, we wanted to see how many of our keywords reported more or fewer impressions with each tool.

Results

While the logical expectation is that with more total impressions reported, we would expect most keywords to report more impressions in Keyword Planner than in Search Console.  This was not the case.

more impressions in Search Console

Keyword Planner’s overestimated impressions were lumpy, meaning certain keywords were extremely exaggerated impressions, but nearly 70% of keywords reported fewer impressions compared to Search Console results.

Takeaway

Following only Keyword Planner for keyword research could easily guide advertisers and SEOs to over-focus on head terms while under-valuing mid and longtail terms.

24% of top-ranking keywords were extremely overestimated in Keyword Planner than in Search Console.

Background

In this data point, we wanted to see if Keyword Planner impressions were only marginally higher than Search Console.  Thus, we calculated how many were more than 20% higher.  Again, we focused on terms ranking in the top 10 and with 100 or more impressions.

Results

Keyword Planner severely overestimated impressions for 24% of top-10 ranking terms.  Some keywords showed as much as 172X more impressions projected in Google Keyword Planner than in Search Console.

We excepted to see a closer alignment in impressions for the top 1-3 ranked terms, but this was only true to a small degree.  This leads us to believe that the keyword grouping element of Keyword Planner leads to the most severe differences in impressions.

The extreme over-reporting of impressions by Keyword Planner came from multiple, similar terms re-counting the same impressions.

Here is a sample where Keyword Planner only sees 2 keyword themes and keeps reporting the same numbers, whereas Search Console sees 5 distinct keywords with 5 distinct impression counts.

  • Acne on chin meaning (GKP: 4,400 | GSC: 3,415)
  • Chin acne meaning (GKP: 4,400 | GSC: 1,072)
  • what does acne on cheeks mean (GKP: 2,900 | GSC: 1,678)
  • what does cheek acne mean (GKP: 2,900 | GSC: 1,159)
  • what does acne on the cheeks mean (GKP: 2,900 | GSC: 237)

Takeaway

This further solidified that Keyword Planner only reports in the style of “Phase Match” impression estimates, whereas Search Console reports closers to “Exact Match”.  So depending on your keyword research objective, each tool has different advantages.

However, when choosing how to phrase for SEO elements such as a meta title or H1, the exact phrasing to use is much better influenced by Google Search Console data if available.

63% of top-ranking keywords were extremely underestimated in Keyword Planner.

Background

We also evaluated keywords that under-reported impressions by more than 20% in Google Keyword Planner.  

Results

While Keyword Planner was more likely to overestimate impressions when it under-reported impressions, it was more likely to do so by a wide margin.

We believe there are several reasons why Search Console would have more impressions for 63% of keywords:

  1. Referencing a keyword research tool study conducted by Backlinko in February 2020, Google Keyword Planner provides less than 1% as many longtail keywords as other keyword research tools.  This would mean Keyword Planner consolidates all those longtail search keyword impressions into fewer head terms.  Thus, mid and longtail keywords report lower impressions in Keyword Planner.
  2. Google states that 80% of searches do not have ads above the organic results.  For these searches, we would expect Search Console to trigger an impression, but Keyword Planner may not.

Takeaway

Ad-free searches are most common in a few instances:

  • Brand searches
  • Non-commercial (informational) searches
  • Quick answer searches

In a way, these are less desirable if you’re trying to build a business on organic traffic, but ranking for ad-free searches will yield a higher clickthrough rate and more potential total traffic volume.  The ranking content just needs to do more work in converting colder traffic into conversions to be profitable.

7% of keywords tracked in Search Console reported no impressions in Keyword Planner

Background

We wanted to see if Keyword Planner completely misses keywords, so we filtered keywords that reported 0 impressions where Search Console did report impressions.

Results

7% may seem small, but there were some keywords with over 2,000 monthly impressions tracking Search Console where Google Keyword Planner reported none.  

We discovered a few common reasons Keyword Planner returned no impressions:

  • Numbered searches (e.g., mortgage payment on 100k, bedtime for a 7 year old)
  • Medical searches (e.g., herbal medicine, cause of acne on cheeks)
  • Technical searches (e.g., ddos attack, error 1045)

Takeaway

In addition to the keyword categories that are limited by Keyword Planner (mature topics, special characters, extra long queries), these are keyword categories are not reported in Keyword Planner.

Be sure to double-check these types of keywords for volume in an alternative keyword tool when doing keyword research.  Otherwise, you may miss a promising term simply not reported by Keyword Planner.

185% more total impressions were reported by Keyword Planner, with some terms showing up to 3.3M more impressions than Search Console.

Background

We wanted to see how the total impressions across all keywords added up compared across the tools.  We also reviewed where Keyword Planner may overestimate impressions in the most extreme keyword examples.

Results

It was discovered that when Keyword Planner is off, it’s way off.  And across all keywords, that variance is multiples higher than Search Console.

See some examples of specific keywords below, with all terms ranking in the top 10:

keyword table

It was also interesting that Keyword Planner seemed to favor the number 246,000.

Digging deeper into the specific SERP of these keywords, most have a valid reason why users may not make it down to view our organic results.

For example, “mortgage calculator” features a Google calculator tool that would meet most searcher’s needs without scrolling:

Gh ost is a SERP dominated by YouTube results:

gh ost SERP

Takeaway

It’s important to look at the SERP to see what type of results dominate and if you can create content that can outperform the current top results.  As observed, even by ranking on page 1 search Google may not yield very much traffic.

#1 ranking keyword impressions were 55% more for Keyword Planner.

Background

We wanted to see if the #1 ranking keywords would match more closely across the tools.  We believe it would be close since, in most instances, at least one organic result appears above the fold in the SERP.

Results

Though a variation of 55% is much closer than 185%, Keyword Planner still dramatically overestimated impressions across 675 keywords.

Takeaway

Not even #1 ranking keywords are excluded from the impact of Keyword Planner grouping keywords.

224% more impressions were reported for non-branded top-10 ranking terms by Keyword Planner, but Google Search Console reported 23% more impressions for Branded searches.

Background

Though it was a painstaking process to sort keywords by branded vs. non-branded, we wanted to see how these keyword groups performed.  Our assumption was that branded searches were higher for Search Console as there are fewer ads on branded searches, and our own brand should rank at the top of the page for nearly all organic searches.

We assumed Keyword Planner would report more impressions for non-branded searches.

Results

As expected, branded searches were an exception to Keyword Planner reporting more impressions.  Search Console reported 23% more impressions across 1,334 branded searches.

Many branded searches presumably fall into the 80% of searches that Google reports are ad-free.

Takeaway

Keyword Planner will underestimate your branded search volume but overestimate everything else.

72% of keywords reported higher impressions in Keyword Planner, and 63% reported more than 20% more impressions than in Search Console.

Background

We wanted to explore how Google’s Local Pack and other localized results may impact impression volume on both tools.  We did have to classify “local” only as the searches that included cities, states, or near me, though Google localizes results based on the user’s location, which we could not capture.  2,421 of the 33,374 keywords in our total dataset were classified as local using this criteria.

Results

72% of the keywords had higher impressions reported in Keyword Planner, with 63% reporting over by a margin great than 20%.

Takeaway

We concluded that Keyword Planner counts nationwide impressions of the keyword while Search Console only renders results triggering an impression when the search is local.  Further, the Local Results, often occupying most of the top of the SERP fall into Google Business Profile impressions data instead of Search Console.

In Conclusion

Our analysis led us to believe Keyword Planner is not an ideal tool for projecting keyword search volume as it is for keyword topic volume.  There are also a number of keyword instances where it is extremely unreliable.  

 

Because the SERP has become so dynamic with video, local, knowledge panel, image, tools, snippets, and other results, impressions in Search Console are also becoming muddled.

 

Using both tools as well as third-party keyword research tools such as Ahrefs and SEMRush, is the best and most well-rounded approach to comprehensive keyword research.

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Ryder Meehan

Ryder has been on a 16-year journey to master digital marketing from every aspect. His resume includes Razorfish, Slighshot, Fossil, Samsung Mobile and Tatcha before launching Upgrow. Ryder is the acting CEO, heading business development and account services. He has been featured as a digital marketing leader on Forbes, PRNews, Business.com, Workamajig, Databox, Fit Small Biz and other outlets.

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