Despite a recent Ahrefs study that almost half Google Search Console (GSC) keyword click data is "hidden", the platform is an integral piece for SEO reporting, analysis, and strategy. In this article, we'll take a look at what value GSC offers, how to get more data for free, and why keyword attribution gaps will exist no matter what.
While there’s a ton of value in all of GSC’s reports, we’re going to focus on GSC’s performance reports.
Google Search Console (GSC) performance reports allow you to see how a website performs in Google Search, including: Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs), Google Discover, and Google News.
The most valuable metrics in GSC’s performance reports are:
- Impressions: someone saw a link to your website in Google’s organic SERPs
- Clicks: someone clicked a link to your website from organic search
Reports can show additional data, like user query or page URL, and the reports can be filtered by these dimensions.
A simple way to think about it is:
- Google Search Console measures pre-click performance—GSC can tell you what happens between a person searching and a website session
- Google Analytics measures post-click performance—GA tells you what happens when someone is on a website
SEOs use GSC for keyword performance reporting because it's one of the few places we can attribute the things people search on Google to a website ranking and getting clicks. If you’ve been in the SEO world long enough, you know that Google is historically stingy with its data [think: (not provided)]. And more recently, Google has used user privacy as reasoning for offering less information on Paid Search queries too.
GSC has been improving its UI and capabilities over the past couple years, for example, the introduction of in-platform REGEX filtering and an API for bulk crawling and indexing status by URL.
But, as highlighted in Ahrefs "Hidden Terms" study, there's another drawback: you’re not getting about 50% of the picture.
Overview of the "Hidden Terms" study
The "hidden terms" study refers to an Ahrefs study published in June 2022 that found 46% of website clicks reported in Google Search Console aren't included in keyword data. This means that almost half of the traffic your website receives from Google Search may not be attributed to any specific keyword.
Why is this happening?
There are a some possible explanations for why this is happening:
- People are using more natural language when they search. These keywords are often more specific and searched less often. They add up to fall outside of the stored data capacity (1,000 rows).
- Google is displaying more information in search results, which means that people are clicking on results without ever seeing the keyword they searched for. For example, if you search for "pizza near me", you may see a map with restaurant listings. You may click on one of these listings without ever seeing the keyword "pizza" again.
- Any of the reasons listed in this Google Support post.
- Google doesn't want to use additional resources to show us this data, so it shows us sampled data instead.
Related: learn about data retention limits in GA4 and why they're different depending on the report you're using.
What can you do about it?
Connecting GSC to a third-party tooI, like Ahrefs, Semrush, Similar.ai, or Google Sheets GSC connector, can give you more keyword data, because they use the GSC API. Even with tools that use or a custom implementation of the GSC API, you’ll never get 100% of the data. This is because the GSC API pushes out aggregated data for long-tail queries and blocks query data that may contain personal identifying information (PII). Robin Allenson breaks this down in a Similar.ai post on Search Console API Limits.
But, these paid tools don't tell you that you can unlock a lot of extra data from the Search Console API—for free! Just connect a Looker (Google Data Studio) report to your GSC property (free template below), configure some charts, add a few filters to segment, and you have a pretty powerful tool. Momentic's largest clients see 30,000% more keyword data in Data Studio than in the Search Console UI with this approach.
Did you expect to get 100% attributable keyword data from Google?
Free Looker (Google Data Studio) + Search Console Template
Looker Studio—formerly, Google Data Studio—offers a free solution to unlock more search console rows. I've put together a free template that you can use to see, filter, and export more keyword data from Google Search Console.
<div class="post-grade" role="note"><p>Just make a copy of the report (linked below), and connect your Google Search Console account to replace the placeholder data.</p><p>Get the <span style="text-decoration:underline;">free Looker Studio template from Momentic here</span> <span class="material-symbols-outlined">open_in_new</span>.</p></div>
“Google Search Console is still the best free tool for getting keyword data for a website. We've always used—and will still use—Google Search Console as a directional reporting and discovery tool to see how a website is performing—relative to itself—over time."
Tony Van Hart, CEO & President at Momentic and 'Introduction to SEO' Instructor at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee
What value does GSC still have?
Despite the fact that almost half of your website's Google traffic may not be attributed to any specific keyword, GSC is still a valuable platform for SEOs. Here's why:
- It's a fantastic directional tool. GSC provides performance reports, including click-through rate (CTR), average position, and impressions. This data can give you a good overview of how your website is performing relative to itself over time in search results.
- Filters. Even though you may be missing the full picture, you can segment keywords to get an idea of how your website is performing relative to itself over time. My favorite simple way to segment GSC data for this purpose is to set up a Google Data Studio Dashboard and add a custom dimension to report on Branded vs. Non-branded traffic. Typically I'll pair it with a query filter that allows for on-the-fly discovery.
- Find quick wins! GSC can help you identify 'zero search volume keywords' that you may not have optimized for in a piece of content. improving visibility for keywords you already rank and are getting clicks for—regardless of if those keywords have any reported search volume—is much easier than starting from scratch.
- GSC has technical SEO benefits. GSC can help troubleshoot indexing issues on a website. Remember: if a URL isn’t indexed, it won’t show up in search results.
- GSC is one of the only mediums that Google uses to communicate with SEOs directly. If you’ve activated the “Enable notification by email” checkbox in GSC’s user settings, you’ll get automated reports about traffic changes and alerts about crawling, indexing, rendering, manual action, or security issues. “GSC helps us automate the process of identifying issues and verifying fixes—so a website can be more visible in organic search,” says Renee Girard, Associate Director, SEO at Crate and Barrel.
“GSC is really the only medium that Google uses to communicate with us directly”
Renee Girard, Associate Director, SEO at Crate & Barrel and CB2 Brands
Is GSC valuable for enterprise SEO?
Renee Girard explains some use cases of GSC for enterprise SEO:
“There are benefits to using GSC, but I only use it for things that aren't available through Botify RealKeywords, like Search Console Insights (SCI). SCI can be set up as an automated monthly email and provides you with your most-searched and top-trending queries for each web property!
I also like to leverage the GSC Discover reports to understand which pages are spiking in Google Discover feeds. Our company sale pages often surface in Google Discover, and it's helpful to see the types of content that get featured.
When not horribly sampled, GSC performance reporting is useful for measuring local SEO performance and rich results in organic SERPs.”
Industry influencers have used this study to complain about Google, but offer no solid alternatives.
Are there Google Search Console alternatives?
The short answer is: yes, there are alternatives, but there’s no single alternative that’s better.
Bing Webmaster Tools
Bing Webmaster Tools performance reporting is essentially the same tool as Google Search Console. But, keep in mind that significantly more people use Google over Bing, so your dataset in Bing will be a small fraction of what you'll see in GSC.
“I like Bing Webmaster Tools, because the dataset is based on the root domain, not an individual subdomain. This has allowed me to find lower environments that were accidentally indexed that created duplicate content and avoidable competition in organic search,” says Girard.
Common paid tools
There are paid tools that can help you understand how often and where your website shows up in the SERPs. The downside with the data from these tools is they're based on estimates. So, even with the use of these tools, you won't be able to get 100% accurate data. But, as Patrick Stox, author of, 'Almost Half of GSC Clicks Go to Hidden Terms - A Study by Ahrefs' explains, you’ll be able to get more data if you connect GSC with one of these tools. Examples of these tools include: Ahrefs, Semrush, and Similar.ai.
Custom enterprise tools
Renee Girard explains the value of enterprise SEO tools, like Botify RealKeywords:
“In Botify RealKeywords, the sampling rate of click data is around 89%, and the sampling rate of impression data is about 71%. This allows us to unlock a significantly larger dataset than GSC alone.
Botify RealKeywords saves historic GSC performance data, so you can build an index longer than the standard 16 months GSC allows. The tool automatically provides “winner” and “loser” keywords, and it can pull data based on pretty much any segment. It even segments by breadcrumb attributes—a must-have for an enterprise ecommerce website with product URLs that are merchandised across multiple categories.
You can set up logic to bucket branded vs. non-branded terms to track your SEO click share, and you can build your own keyword groups for quicker data pulls.”
When considering paid options, make sure to weigh your needs against
- Data segmenting abilities
- Built-in (or built-for-you) reports
- % data loss
- Lifespan of data in the database
I’d love to have 100% or even 89% of the data, but in most cases, I can‘t justify the cost to get there.
There's not a better or more powerful free tool for SEOs
Google Search Console is still the best free platform for SEOs. Access to the data is quick, you can segment it, and it's typically enough to support a hypothesis. We use GSC to support the work we do, and 99% of the time, the results we see in GSC align with KPIs on the business side.
GSC is free and valuable. And, it's simple to connect to other common SEO tools, like: Google Data Studio, Screaming Frog, Surfer SEO, and more.
My advice is: don't give up on GSC—use it as a tool in your larger tool box. Connect GSC to Google Data Studio to get more keyword data—I do. If you have the budget to spend on a tool that offers a GSC API with less data loss, do it!
Bottom line: I still love Google Search Console for what it does offer. I don’t hate it for what it doesn’t.