How to Use the Google AdWords Keyword Planner: Google’s Free Fish Finder

Keywords drive SEO and AdWords. Users input keywords into Google, and even if they “talk” into their phone, Google parses their sentences to identify keywords and infer what they really want.In this video, I am going to use the metaphor of “Fish where the fish are.” You’re the fisherman (or fisherwoman), and you want to catch fish (your customers). So you need to “fish where the fish are,” and “catch yummy fish,” with the Google AdWords Keyword Planner tool being your “fish finder.” Let’s go fishing!

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Scenario: Knee Surgery

To give us something to work with, we’ll use this scenario:

Knee Surgery / Knee Surgeon – 

You work for an orthopedic surgeon, who specializes in knee surgery. She’s in San Francisco, and is a true specialist in arthroscopic knee surgery. In addition to knees, she does hips (though her primary focus is on knee surgery). She’s one of the best, top-rated knee surgeons in the San Francisco Bay Area with a specialty in sports medicine.

Keyword Planner

Photo credit: National Library of Ireland on The Commons via / No known copyright restrictions

You should see from the get-go, that keywords such as knee pain, knee surgery, and knee surgeon are highly relevant, as are synonyms like orthopedic surgeons plus helpers like top, best, top-rated. In addition, you have hip surgery / surgeon, and arthroscopic as a helper word not to mention sports surgeon.

(Obviously, you’ll substitute your own company and your own “business value proposition” for the above, and I recommend that you’ve brainstormed your keywords in advance of diving into the tool. Your best tool, after all, is your own God-given brain!)

Task #1 – Brainstorm Keyword Ideas! (Identify the Fish!)


Now, login to AdWords, and then go to the Tools > Keyword Planner on the menu. The first screen is a little dumb, but you enter some keywords into it to get started, for example, enter “knee pain” under “Search for new keywords using a phrase, website, or category > Your product or service.” Hit the blue “get ideas” at the bottom, and that gets you into the real tool.

Next, click on Ad group ideas, and then scroll and click down the left hand column. I recommend you open up a WORD or GOOGLE doc, and start just brainstorming keywords, by copy / pasting them into your document. Don’t worry about order at this point. Be on the look out for –

Core keywords = the minimum keyword necessary to make a logical search, such as “knee pain,” “knee replacement” “knee surgery,” etc. You’re especially interested in synonyms or adjacent words such as “knee surgery” and “knee replacement” as well as “knee doctor, knee surgeon, knee specialist.”  Even adjacent words like “hip” might be of interest (remember: she has a secondary specialty in hip surgeries).

Helpers = watch out for words like best, arthroscopic, arthritis, total, relief, joint., etc.  Look forward and pay some attention to which ones like “best” are very “transactional” vs. ones like “relief” which are very educational (and not so useful).

Circle back and take some of the newly discovered keywords, and re-enter them into the tool at the top.  If you want, you can enter them in a string separated by commas as in knee pain, knee replacement, knee surgery.

  • You can also use the “Multiply keyword lists to get new keywords” function if you like.
  • Also, on the left column, try Keyword options > Only show ideas closely related to my search terms if you want to lessen the clutter.

By the end of this exercise, you should have a very robust, if a bit messy, list of keywords.  I call this mess my keyword brainstorm document. You’re trying to get the total universe of potentially interesting keywords here, not put them in any order!  So don’t stress it.  Messy is good!

Task #2 – Keyword Volume: Fish Where the Fish Are!

Next, you want to circle back to volume. You want to optimize your SEO on high volume keywords, and volume is also important to AdWords. “Fish where the fish are,” as they say. So, take some of your keywords and try to organize them into a process string with educational on the left and transactional on the right, roughly speaking:

knee pain > knee surgery > knee surgeon > best knee surgeons

Enter these into the Keyword Planner separated by commas:

knee pain, knee surgery, knee surgeon, best knee surgeons

(If you get a message that Google has consolidated your keywords, say “Curses!” and then you’ll have to manually break them out one by one to do this exercise).

Pay attention to the “average monthly searches” column. And, on the top left, I recommend you have it set to a big country like United States or United Kingdom.  The tool doesn’t function well at micro regions like San Francisco, so really I wouldn’t go lower than a country.  Also set the date range to at least 12 months.

Scroll down the “Avg. monthly searches” column and take your keywords, putting them into an Excel or Google spreadsheet, and begin to pay attention to volume. You’ll see, for example, that there are 110,000 average monthly searches in the USA for “knee pain” vs. only 14o for best knee surgeons. However, be aware that the tool is counting only EXACT searches meaning it counts knee pain IF and ONLY IF that is ALL a person enters. To get a sense of related terms, use Google Autocomplete or and manually enter in the autocomplete terms as in:

knee pain, knee pain running, knee paind icd 10, knee pain remedies, knee pain when bending

You’d have to add ONE and TWO and THREE and four to get the “phrase match” approximation. It’s frustrating, but that’s how the tool works. So, again, use it as a heuristic and not an ironclad measurement of the “true” volume of keywords.

As you look at volume, copy/paste your keyword over, and start to organize them into groups of “core keywords” with related helper words, and then look at the volumes.  Make a note as to whether a keyword is intuitively educational or transactional.

Task #3 – Keyword Value: Catch Yummy Fish!

There are a LOT of tilapia fish in the world, and a LOT of sardines. But not so many salmon, and sadly not many red snapper fish at all.  But the “price per pound” at the fish market clues you into which fish are better to eat, even before you taste them (or try to catch them), right? So in other words, what people are willing to PAY for fish is a good indication of their value, right?

Similarly with the Keyword Planner, the “cost per click” as indicated by the “suggested bid” represents an average “price” of the keywords. Here’s the secret formula:

The more transactional a keyword is, the higher the CPC / suggested bid.

The more money to be made (higher ROI) a keyword is, the higher the CPC / suggested bid is.

Compare for example –

knee pain = $3.71 per click in the AdWords auction
knee surgery = $4.63
knee surgeon = $4.66
best knee surgeons = $7.09

The Keyword Planner is telling you (no, it’s shouting at you) that it’s far, far better to optimize for knee surgeons than for knee pain. Throw in some helpers, like best knee surgeons Bay Area and you really have a very focused, winnable target for your SEO and/or your AdWords!

Useless Things in the Tool: Go Figure!

Oh, and the tool has some useless features such as entering your landing page (or a competitors), as well as a product category. Try these out. I’ll wait.  Useless, no? Get search volume data and trends is also useless, as is “Plan your budget and get forecasts.” Who knows why this junk is in the tool.

  • If you find out why, let me know as I haven’t seen or figured out any real use for these features.

Extra Credit: Bing’s Keyword Planner

Bing has its own Keyword Planner. So try it out, too. You can find it here. You’ll need a Bing advertising account to use it, just like you do to use Google’s tool. It works in pretty much the same way, but is perhaps just a bit better at exploration (finding NEW keyword ideas than Google’s tool).

Happy keyword research!

Photo credit: National Library of Ireland on The Commons via / No known copyright restrictions

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About Jason McDonald

Jason McDonald is a top-rated San Francisco SEO Consultant. His consulting services include search engine optimization consulting, social media marketing consulting, and Google AdWords consulting. Jason's motto as a consultant is that he doesn't do SEO 'for you' but rather he does SEO 'with you.' That goes as well for his social media marketing consultant activities and Google AdWords consultant services. Besides serving clients in the San Francisco Bay Area, Jason consults with clients in Silicon Valley (San Jose), Oakland and other cities throughout the Bay Area. Beyond the Bay Area, Jason is available as an SEO consultant, Social Media Consultant, and as an expert witness in litigation involving social media marketing, search engine optimization and pay-per-click advertising.