Google says bots are the main target of Keyword Planner changes, a lot of questions remain

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When Google announced last week it was limiting access to Keyword Planner data, it raised more questions than it answered. Will new advertisers be able to get detailed Keyword Planner data before setting up and launching campaigns? What does “lower monthly spend” even mean — $100 per month, $1000 per month? That’s just a start.

As a refresher, the notice from last week (bolding added):

“Advertisers with lower monthly spend may see a limited data view in the Keyword Planner. For example, you may see values such as 0, 1-100, 100-1K, 1K-10K, 10K-100K, 100K-1M, 1M+ in the average monthly searches column. In addition, other advertisers may trigger the limited data view by reaching a limit on the number of searches for search volume data (specifically, requests to our API)”

The explanation given — “These changes will ensure that AdWords advertisers are able to get the data they need to optimize their accounts.” — seemed to belie the action taken by penalizing smaller advertisers. The move was clearly aimed at non-advertisers using the tool for research (SEOs, etc.) and third-parties querying on a heavy basis via the API. But following the vague criteria given, the explanation didn’t square with many advertisers either.

On Thursday, CassieH, the Google representative who has been communicating these changes on the AdWords Community forum, added more detail (bolding added),

“This change was made so that we can consistently give advertisers the data they need to optimize their accounts, while preventing ‘bots’ and other services from abusing the intended use of Keyword Planner. The search volume estimates, though displayed differently in some cases, still provide an accurate and helpful view of how many clicks and impressions keywords may receive.”

This latest explanation puts the emphasis on the high frequency abuse, not the individual researchers using the Planner. If frequent pings by bots are the main problem, is this really the only way to handle them? Why cut off access to all non-paying accounts – many of which are held by high-paying agencies — if high-frequency abuse is the real reason for the change? And, there’s of course an argument to be made that the broad ranges of search volumes given when detail is not available do not “provide an accurate and helpful view” of potential volume.

It’s understandable why Google won’t provide explicit thresholds on query frequency — those executing the bots could potentially adjust to come under the maximum limit. But it still doesn’t explain the pay-to-use policy coupled with frequency limits unless it is also aimed at SEOs and other researchers using the tool for free.

To add to the confusion, Google’s execution of this change came amid technical glitches and a switch to reporting the same search volumes for close variants. When users started seeing warnings that they’d need an active account to use Keyword Planner earlier this summer, Google assured Search Engine Land in June that this was not the case. Turns out it is.

Among the concerns advertisers have expressed on the AdWords Community Forum following the news last week:

Paul R: “many people inside an agency may use the KW planner tool for research but do not use the account in which they manage clients’ account.”

Bill H: “The basis of my worry is how a move like this could create an even more tilted playing field, favoring large companies over SMBs or startups.”

Steph W: “How are we able to figure out new budgets if the account hasn’t even started yet?”

CassieH has reiterated that “most advertisers running paid campaigns will not be affected by this change”. I have still been able to access full Keyword Planner data in accounts that have never had or don’t currently have active campaigns. I assume that access to detailed data will end after a certain number of queries in the Planner, but it makes me wonder if new advertisers, at least, will have running room to do initial research before launching. Google has not responded to a request for comment on this.

The restriction of course is another blow to SEOs, who started losing access to organic query data starting in 2011, culminating in 2013 with 100% “not provided”. The reality is Google’s keyword research tools were designed for advertisers to help advertisers develop their search campaigns. The availability of the External Keyword Tool for years, however, set expectations that it should be open and available to all.

A few milestones in the evolution of Google’s keyword tools:

  • In 2005, Google launched the AdWords Keyword Suggestion Tool, which required account login. The older, less sophisticated Google AdWords Keyword Sandbox eventually became the External Keyword Tool that anyone could access.
  • In 2010, Google rolled out a big update to the Keyword Tool. At SMX East that year, a Google representative clarified that the keyword tool was only providing data on “commercial” keywords, i.e. queries that would trigger ads.
  • In 2013, Google sunsetted the Keyword Tool and launched Keyword Planner, which combined Traffic Estimator and Keyword Tool. With that change, Keyword Planner became accessible only through AdWords, eliminating the External Keyword Tool. As a workaround, non-advertisers simply signed up for an AdWords account and didn’t activate any campaigns.

With this latest change, bots and services using the API appear to be the primary targets. The question remains how advertisers and agencies who use the Planner in no- and low-spend accounts and those with MCCs that do heavy research will be affected.

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Author: Ginny Marvin

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