Do you ignore zero volume keywords? If so, that could be a big mistake.
That's what I'm discussing today with a man who has 16 years of experience in SEO, having previously worked as a full time affiliate making and flipping websites. He's currently the director of Candour, a digital agency based in Norwich in the UK. And he's also the founder of Also Asked, a keyword research tool that served over 2 million people in the past two years. A warm welcome to the In Search SEO podcast, Mark Williams Cook.
In this episode, Mark will be sharing four steps to getting started with zero search volume keywords.
The steps are:
Forecasting with Zero Volume Keywords
Researching Zero Volume Topics
Planning Zero Volume Content
Discovering New Zero Volume Opportunities
Zero Search Volume Keywords
Mark: Thank you, David, for having me. Pleased to be here.
D: And thanks so much for coming on. You can find Mark over it withcandour.co.uk. So Mark, why is it sensible to target zero volume keywords?
M: That's a really good question. I've certainly dealt with my fair share of clients where we've spoken to that content before talking about what we're going to look at producing and ended up down that avenue as well. We decided not to write about that, because we did the research and it didn't have any monthly searches. I'm sure a lot of SEOs have been in that position. I think there are a few angles to this. If we rewind a little bit, how I really got my interest piqued in zero volume keywords was mainly two things. As some people know, we also produced alsoasked.com, which is a keyword research tool that uses Google's people also ask data. For those that don't know, when you do a search around 50% of the time, you'll get the inlay of people also asked with the related questions. Now, we know, of course, because it's coming from this data, that people are also asking these questions. But interestingly, when you run them through pretty much any tool to look at keyword volume, 99% or more will come back saying they have zero search volume, which is obviously incorrect. And we know, even the major platforms say that their keyword data isn't perfect. But this is a huge amount of keywords.
The second thing that really got me interested, especially over the last 12 months, was that I've seen dozens of spam websites that have got millions of pages and within 2-4 months are getting huge amounts of traffic. And they're doing this by just targeting all of these keyphrases that apparently have zero search volume. I don't want to mention any specific sites. The only one that I can share is lisbdnet.com. And I can share that because they've now already been penalized by Google for being naughty, but you can see the structure of the site. They got around 10 or 11 million visitors per month at one point. So I thought that this is obviously a particular area of interest to deep dive into.
And I think this relates actually back to several, but most interestingly, probably the Bert update with Google, which was obviously around understanding the nuance of queries a bit more. The effect I think that Bert has had is not necessarily with the ranking of websites, just that Google now better understands the queries we're typing in so it can more closely match that with a broader range of websites. Previously, our behavior as searchers was driven by the fact that we had to stick around this core phrase, because the search engine was still kind of dumb. And we needed to type in pretty close to what we're looking for. Now, what we tell clients is that it's more about intent volume, rather than search volume. So if you can think of a key phrase, one I use is ‘buy blue running shoes,’ that's got zero monthly search volume according to pretty much every keyword tool. But there are maybe 20 different ways you could rewrite that query to mean the same thing. And if in fact, each one of those had 20 searches a month, you've got an intent volume of 400 searches a month already, which lots of people will overlook. The very short answer to all of that is that there is actually huge amounts of traffic locked up in zero volume keywords.
1. Forecasting with Zero Volume Keywords
D: It's something that many SEOs that have a reasonable bit of experience would certainly agree with intuitively because over the years they've been used to Google taking more and more data away from them starting off with not provided keyword phrases, and maybe finishing up with restricted access to the Keyword Planner tool. And it's frustrating for SEOs from a commercial perspective, from Google's perspective, you can understand them not wanting to disclose all of their information, all of their data. But looking at it, present day, from an SEO perspective, maybe working in a business, working in a reasonably large operation, I guess they still have to find a way of estimating commercial value from these potential opportunities. Is there any way that you recommend for these kinds of SEOs to actually put some kind of estimate on the financial value of going about researching these keyword phrases and creating content based on them?
M: Yes, again, brilliant question. And I'm sure a lot of people will be able to sympathize with that, especially with sometimes larger clients, if you can't qualify it in pounds and pence on a spreadsheet, it's not going to happen. Forecasting is of key interest to a lot of people. I tend to start looking at this from the other side, which is what happens if we just base our forecast on key phrases that we know the search volume is at 500, 1000, or 5000 searches a month. Obviously, there are pros to being able to forecast but there are cons with blinkering yourself to whether you can put it on a spreadsheet or not what is actually reality.
In my experience, SEO teams that build the strategies around getting an extra 50,000 clicks a month, because we're targeting this set of key phrases, because we think there's about 50,000 clicks there. A couple of things happen. Hopefully, it doesn't happen. But maybe in six or twelve months, when you're not quite hitting your targets, people start to panic. We were behind the target, what do we do? And everyone blows the dust off the strategy documents and says, "Okay, we're ranking for these keywords. It's these 10 that we're not ranking for that we need to focus on.” And already, what you've done is you've blinkered yourself strategically to what you're focusing on to your end goal, which is probably going to be traffic, conversion, sales, whatever it is, to that we need to rank for these keywords.
And this isn't including clients or managers that will fixate if you give them that list. So you'll go back and you'll try and rank for these mid or heads terms. And the issue there as well is that you probably hear a lot of people talking about things like Hub and Spoke content and building up topical authority. Perversely, sometimes focusing on these big terms isn't the best way to rank for them. Whereas you need to build up this longer tail, if you like the foundation of knowledge to demonstrate that you're an expert in that topic. And with all of those things collectively in your internal linking, then when you build that hub, or whatever page it is, is the thing that ranks for that head term. But it's very hard to get buy-in to do all of that extra work, if that isn't related to what you're trying to achieve.
It goes back to two things. Firstly, if you've got the data, you can actually go back and look at maybe some of your evergreen content, blog posts, whatever it is, and prove that your tools are saying they have zero search volume, but take a mean or median average of the traffic you are actually getting from these and apply a generic figure. Like we’re going to do 10 bits of content this month. And on average, similar content has earned this much per month. And just build that in. Even if it only contributes 10, 20, or 30% of overall traffic estimates. You've at least given yourself a strategic side door to go down where you're not going to trap yourself in an impossible situation.
The other downside to using these head terms is that it’s a zero sum game. If you knock someone off the number one position for a search term where they're getting 10,000 visitors a month, they're not going to sit there and say, "Oh, well, it was really nice when we ranked for that term and made all that money.” They're going to actively fight you for it. There's a lot of what I just consider to be dead ground of the topic as proven by the spam sites, which are hoovering it all up, that you can quite quickly now publish content that is relevant, is topical, and you can just get the traffic straight away. So in terms of meeting those objectives, which people are really going to care about, which is how much traffic we get and how much money we're going to make, in reality, you're likely to make a lot more progress with those things with these low zero volume keywords.
D: So that was step one of your four steps to get started with zero volume keywords, which was forecasting with zero volume keywords. Step two is researching zero volume topics. How do you go about exploring the topic side of things?
2. Researching Zero Volume Topics
M: There are loads of great tools available to help with this. One I commonly lean on is Answer the Public, which hopefully is a super well known tool. I still encounter people almost every month that haven't ever heard of it so I will continue to talk about it. Answer the Public essentially uses Google Autocomplete suggest data and kind of madlibs it for you. So you put in a core topic, which is usually one or two words, and it will prepend whatever you put in with things like how, can, should, and versus. And what it's doing is it's going to Google starting to type in that structured query and then giving you the autocomplete results. You might type in Bitcoin, and it will show what Bitcoin is and then it will show how Bitcoin works, how Bitcoin ATM works, things like that. And what this initially gives you is a huge amount of data to start exploring. And again, a fair chunk of this may well be very low search volume, or zero search volume data. And this is what I like to call my bird's eye topic overview. This is everything people are asking about. That's my starting point.
Depending how deep you go with that, there are some very helpful tools, such as keywordinsights.ai, which will help you with clustering and grouping these terms. Again, a really important thing to do at this stage and a very common question when you're getting these queries back is should these all be on one page? Should I make three pages to answer these three questions? On a small scale, you can do that normally fairly easily as a human and see what makes sense and what you would expect to be on the page. At large scale. You've got tools like keywordinsights that can do things like searches for those queries and see the differences between what Google considers to be a different intent or not, if it's returning different pages and give you some guidance that way. That's the initial research where you're going to start with that, rather than starting with just Googling head terms and looking at which one's got the most punch behind it.
D: And you kind of touched on step three, which is planning zero volume content. Putting a little bit more meat on that, how do you go about deciding how long a piece of content is going to be and other elements that should be within that piece of content as well?
3. Planning Zero Volume Content
M: Sure. So once we've decided that this is a question we're going to answer, this is a topic we're going to dive down, we've maybe got something from Answer the Public… This is actually why we built Also Asked to assist with this tool, because Answer the Public is fantastic. But if you put in a fully formed question into it, you tend to get very few results back because it's not built to handle that when it starts madlibbing in the queries. So Also Asked will give you a really in depth breakdown of this tree structure of let’s say here are the first four questions in the People also ask that are related to this topic. And then of those four questions, here's another 5, 6, or 7. And this branches out. And with one query, you can get up to 100 questions back for that single topic.
Now, that's going to give you a really good insight into what you should be answering in that single document, in that single page, with that resource. Why I liked this approach so much is that you are using Google's own clustering, its own understanding of the search back on itself. When Google is saying, "Who am I going to rank for this question?” It also knows those People also ask questions. So from a probability point of view, what's the searcher going to be more satisfied with? A page that does or doesn't include these very closely related questions. Again, Google looks at time to result. How long does it take their searcher to satisfy their intent? If we can reduce that time, hopefully, we are going in Google's book. I use that as the first stop. How long it needs to be really depends on a few factors. But generally, it sounds lame, but I say it's as long as it needs to be in that you just answer that question. There are loads of guides out there for things like getting featured in Featured Snippets and PAAs. Look, you have a question, you try and answer it succinctly and quickly so people can scan-read it, and then you do your deep dive.
D: And step number four is discovering new zero volume opportunities as they happen.
4. Discovering New Zero Volume Opportunities
M: Yeah. One thing I noticed when we started monitoring the PAA data was they change really quickly. There is always an opportunity to beat people to the punch when it comes to SEO. There is a definite time gap between new trending questions or new questions surfacing. Google sees those questions and understands them, putting them as People also ask, and we know feature generation is kind of done at the back of the queue, after everything else is produced. There are a few different ways you can go about this, the cheapest, fastest, easiest way, which I'm a fan of, is using Google custom search engines. You can find them at cse.google.com. I think they're actually called programmatic search engines. What you have the ability to do there is essentially create your own mini version of Google that only searches a specific site or sets of sites. And why that's helpful, is you can actually get API access to the results that those custom search engines are generating. This gives you the ability to… if there are niche forums about the topic that your business is about, or if there isn't you can look wider. So popular choices are certainly things like Reddit and Quora work well where they've got massive user communities. And you can specify this custom search engine to only look at, say, the subreddit on Reddit that's relevant to your niche. And you run this custom search engine. And then every day you can automate a search for something like "How can” or "Can I”, the beginning of a question. And you can just return what the new questions people are posting on Reddit every single day, about your niche, about your topic.
And you can take this as many steps as you like. In its most basic format, you could say our niche is running, we sell running gear, and we're going to subscribe to the running Reddit subreddit. And every day, I want to see a list of brand new questions that people are asking, and have we got an answer to that question on our site? Or have we got a page about that? And that really is a way to get on top of questions before Google has even decided that they're a thing. And you can have the content, they're waiting, because there's no easier time to rank when nobody else has written content about it. Again, all related right back to the spam sites that we talked about at the beginning. The reason they're getting quite literally millions of visitors a month, is because they're writing very specific answers to questions that nobody bothered to or got around to answering. So it's a really good, low effort way, especially with content. Again, if you use monthly search volume, you're probably just going to be writing about what everyone else looking at monthly search volume is writing about. So you're going to struggle to get that traffic. You're going to have to make your content so much better, or you're going to have to work so hard on getting links to it. Whereas this is just easy.
D: You're behind the curve to begin with if you just rely on monthly search volume. Wonderful advice. Let's finish off with the Pareto Pickle. Pareto says that you can get 80% of your results from 20% of your efforts. What's one SEO activity that you would recommend that provides incredible results for modest levels of effort?
The Pareto Pickle - Internal Linking
M: I'm going to have to join the crowd and say internal linking. I know this, as I said, it's probably been said quite a few times before. But in terms of how often people get this wrong from an accessibility point of view, we see so many Click Here, Read More links on sites. And in terms of just the usability of the site, it makes a huge difference. Google has told us that you can't over optimize your internal anchor text. Well, obviously you can trip algorithmic penalties if all your kind of external backlinks have the same anchor text, but I think just healthy use of internal links. Good anchor text is probably the most powerful thing if you picked a random site that they could do.
You've heard it a few times, listener, so that must mean that there must be something in it.
M: Thank you for having me.
D: And thank you for listening.
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