16 Expert Strategies for Researching Your Ad Campaign’s PPC Keywords

Author's avatar Marketing Jul 6, 2021 23 minutes read

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    Peter Caputa

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    Keywords are the bread and butter of a PPC campaign. They determine who sees your ads, and you want the right eyes on them. You have to choose the right keywords to get the best chance of maximizing your ROI.

    Easier said than done, right? Keywords seem simple at first glance, but you need deep knowledge of your audience to master them.

    Never fear. We consulted more than 40 digital marketers about their favorite PPC keyword research strategies to lend you a hand.


    Best of all, nearly half use Google Keyword Planner in their research — a free and accessible tool. The advice they gave us works well across keyword tools, too.

    PPC keyword research tools

    As you delve into these experts’ tips, keep in mind that most of them structure and segment their keywords. (In other words, they organize their keyword lists and analyze how different parts of a keyword contribute to their traffic.) This tactic will help you perform this blog post’s strategies more effectively.

    Do you structure and segment your keywords

    Now that you know the kind of folks we’re getting advice from, let’s dig into their tips. They had 16 to share:

    1. Start With Phrase Match, Then Expand Into Exact Match
    2. Check Your Organic Traffic
    3. Talk to Your Customers
    4. Start With Seed Keywords
    5. Research Your Competition
    6. Focus on Long-Tail Keywords
    7. Always Be Testing
    8. Leverage All the Tools You Can
    9. Keep Search Intent In Mind
    10. Play the Long Game
    11. Turn to Your Website and Landing Page
    12. Build a Negative Keyword List
    13. Shoot for High Volume and Low Difficulty
    14. Understand Your Product or Services
    15. Consider Competitor-Branded Search Traffic
    16. Create a Manual List

    Let’s go over each tidbit of knowledge.

    1. Start With Phrase Match, Then Expand Into Exact Match

    Google Ads has three keyword matching options: Broad match, phrase match and exact match. You can choose your matching format with the notations covered in this infographic:

    Google ads keyword match types
    Image credit: Google Ads Help

    But, when do you use each of these formats?

    At BlueTuskr, Andrew Maffettone takes a measured approach to keyword matching. “If there is no prior data, we start with using Semrush and digging into their different keyword tools to identify target keywords we would want to go after as well as what our competitors are currently bidding on. From there, we’ll typically start those keywords off as a phrase match type so we can learn the specific search term consumers are using and pivot those into exact match keywords in a separate campaign,” Maffettone explains.

    So, in other words, the BlueTuskr team begins with phrase match for precise targeting without excluding possible new keywords. Then, once they have more data, they create hyper-targeted campaigns with exact match keywords. By starting with phrase match, they can focus on more long-tail keywords that capture specific customers. 

    2. Check Your Organic Traffic

    Looking for inspiration for your audience targeting? Chances are, you have it right under your nose. Google Search Console shows what keywords your organic traffic uses to get to your site, which you can snag for your PPC campaigns.

    “One of our favorite ways of choosing keywords for our paid search campaigns is through Google Search Console,” confirms Jeff Moriarty of Moriarty’s Gem Art. “Because this tracks not only keywords, but the clickthrough rates of our organic listings, it gives us a good idea of what keywords customers are using and the search result content we show that they are most likely to click through on. This gives us data to not only use those keywords in paid search, but craft the ad as well.”

    Moriarity makes a great point about organic traffic informing ad design. When every part of your ad, including the copy and design, aligns with your audience’s interests, you’ll have a better chance of getting a clickthrough.

    Reminderband’s Christian Nelson uses a similar strategy to Moriarity that also involves Google Analytics. “First, look at what your best organic keywords are via Google Search Console and Google Analytics. This will provide a good baseline for keywords to target in PPC.” Nelson recommends.

    Nelson continues, “From there, check similar keywords and their search volume. They would also be likely to convert. You can also use a tool like Semrush to see which keywords your competitors are ranking for and bidding on. To keep costs manageable, start by running ads on your most likely to convert keywords.”

    Editor’s note: See which queries and pages perform well in your organic traffic with the Google Organic Search Performance dashboard for Databox. You’ll see what topics are working at a glance.

    Google Organic Search Performance dashboard

    3. Talk to Your Customers

    Speaking of keyword inspiration right at your fingertips, there’s another source available at any time — your customers. Have you ever tried asking them about their search behavior?

    According to Erik Wright, the New Horizon Home Buyers team has an organic-first keyword strategy. “We are a local real estate investment company, so we try to optimize our keywords by talking directly with our customers. When someone contacts us, we always ask how they found us and what phrases they were searching online to find us. We use this data to adjust our PPC keywords accordingly,” Wright tells us.

    As you can see, getting this information from your customers doesn’t have to be a big ask. Consider integrating referral and Google Search source questions in your client questionnaire. You could also integrate these kinds of questions into your regular customer surveys.

    Ziflow’s Ryan Dunagan also begins keyword research with customer input. “Talk to customers and identify your core buyer intent keywords. From there, adjacent keywords will reveal themselves as you do keyword research,” Dunagan says.

    Dunagan leaves us with an additional tip to use after this research: “Segment your ad groups so that the landing pages are targeted to the keyword group to maximize quality score and chance for conversion.” Keep your keyword groups, landing pages and ad design consistent with the information you get from your customers.

    4. Start With Seed Keywords

    If you’re starting from scratch, how do you get ideas for specific keyword phrases? You want to home in on relevant searches, but you don’t want to exclude other long-tail keywords.

    Two respondents offered this advice: Start small with “seed” keywords.

    “We start with a ‘seed’ keyword list, which is literally us just writing down any keywords we think are applicable to the campaign objective and/or industry we are running in. After that, we fire up the Google Ads Keyword Planner Tool and drop in our seed list to get an idea of the search volume for the seed keyword list we created and how competitive they are,” Brodie Schroeder of Demand Machine explains.

    This tactic also helps the Demand Machine team generate new ideas. “We also use the Google Ads Keyword Planner Tool to find related keywords that we did not think of originally in our seed keyword list,” says Schroeder.

    Schroeder also pulls “seed” keywords from competitor websites. “After that, we’ll take a look at what some of our competitors are bidding on through a PPC spy tool such as SEMRush or Spyfu and drop those into Keyword Planner to understand the real volume and competition. Google Keyword Planner will always have the best data, so even if the tool you are using has this data — always cross-reference with Google Keyword Planner to get the real numbers before adding them to a campaign,” Schroeder advises.

    SEO marketing director and coach Robbie Richards also starts with “seed” keywords, but he uses SEMRush instead of Google Keyword Planner. “I work primarily with B2B SaaS companies, so I’ll build a master list of all the product, solution and feature seed terms, and then run through the Semrush Keyword Magic tool. Finally, I’ll add a ‘Keyword Contains’ filter with modifiers such as ‘software’, ‘tool’, ‘platform’, ‘for’ and ‘best’ across the returned list of topical keywords. This will often give me a nice list of high-intent terms directly related to the client’s product and/or persona,” Richards tells us.

    Richards prefers this strategy because it helps him find keywords with the highest search intent for the action he wants visitors to take. After running his “seed” keywords through Semrush, he looks for high-intent keywords that his competitors use. (We’ll talk more about competitor keywords in a moment.)

    You might have noticed that Richard combines his “seed” keywords with popular industry terms. Always keep your industry in mind when you’re looking for keyword inspiration — it can help you get through an idea block.

    5. Research Your Competition

    As you learn about keyword research and PPC, you might ask yourself, “what is my competition doing that I’m not?” It turns out you can find the direct answer to that question and adapt your competitor’s tactics for your campaign.

    SEO and PPC software often have competitor research features that you can use in your keyword research. Bruce Hogan of Software Pundit points out the usefulness of the competitor gap analysis features you’ll find on these platforms.

    “One of the most efficient ways to find high-value keywords is to do a competitor gap analysis using a tool like Semrush,” Hogan states. “These tools allow you to identify keywords that already perform well for your closest online competitors, but not your website. Knowing that they already work well for competitors provides more assurance that they’ll perform well for your site too.”

    At Growth Hackers Marketing, Jonathan Aufray uses a similar tactic. “A great way to find the right keywords is by analyzing what your direct competitors are doing. To do that, we enter the URLs of our competitors on SEMrush in order to find out which ones are running Google advertising campaigns,” Aufray explains.

    Aufray continues, “Then, we audit their keywords thoroughly to see which ones make sense for us. After that, we add power words to those keywords and focus on long-tail keywords and keywords with high intent.” The Growth Hackers team takes competitor keywords and tailors them to their campaigns for better success.

    If you don’t have room in your budget for a paid tool like Semrush, you can use a similar tactic in Google Keyword Planner. Ahrefs calls it “stealing keyword ideas from your competitors” in their Google Keyword Planner tips. Enter your competitor’s URL in Keyword Planner’s primary search box, filter out their brand name, and see what applies to your campaign.

    6. Focus on Long-Tail Keywords

    If you’re new to PPC keyword research, you might be tempted to use shorter keywords to cast a wide net. In reality, though, you’re often better off using longer keywords called long-tail keywords.

    Here’s how Jacob Fitzpatrick of Fitz Designz explains it: “Shorter keywords are very competitive because they aren’t specific enough and don’t narrow the user’s intent. Thus, the ROI can be relatively low. Instead, we try and focus on long-tail keywords.”

    So, why should you choose long-tail keywords? “With long-tail keywords, you can narrow down your target market better. This, in turn, allows you to serve more precise ads and relative landing pages and hopefully increasing quality score and lowering cost per click.”

    Don’t fret if you don’t have enough data to add long-tail keywords yet — you can scope in as you go with insights gotten from your paid search dashboard. “Sometimes, when a campaign is new, and we don’t have much historical data or individual experience in the given industry, we will start with short, broad match keywords to test. Once we have enough data, we expand the keywords to narrow our targeting with long-tail keywords in order to target lower funnel buyers,” Fitzpatrick concludes.

    7. Always Be Testing

    You hear this advice often in digital marketing because it’s important — keep testing your keywords. The internet and its users are always changing, so you need to keep an eye on your keyword performance over time.

    “There is a continuous process of testing and evaluating keywords to understand which are ‘right’ and which are worth bidding on,” says Monsido’s Jillian Als. “We always brainstorm our own ideas, including listening to customer calls, then use tools like Semrush and Google Keyword Planner for further inspiration. Ultimately finding the ‘right’ keywords requires bidding and testing to what will convert at or under the ideal cost per conversion.”

    Long story short — keep watching your keywords and campaign performance using these free ppc dashboard examples.

    Editor’s note: Check on your campaigns at any time with Databox’s Google Ads PPC Performance Dashboard Template. It gathers your main KPIs, ad group performance and keyword performance in one interface.

    Google Ads PPC Performance Dashboard Template

    8. Leverage All the Tools You Can

    There are tons of SEO and PPC tools out there for you to use. Why not try them out and use the software that fits your workflow?

    “I consult multiple sources when forecasting PPC keywords,” says Kelly Hawthorne Smith of Twelve Three Media. “I use data from Google, Spyfu, iSponiage, Ubersuggest, Semrush and Keywords Everywhere to find high-volume keywords as well as approximate CPCs. I will take this initial research to Google Ads Keyword Planner, where I can get city-level data for any campaign that is not nationwide.”

    The tools mentioned in this list range in price, so you’ll find an option regardless of your budget, and you can also explore centralised dashboards, such as these free paid ads dashboards . Since they pull from different data sources, try comparing data from more than one tool like Hawthorne Smith does.

    Jack Feldman from Caravan Digital combines the multi-tool strategy with organic traffic and competitor research. “Look through your website, competitor’s sites, and finally a combo of all your favorite research tools (I really like Ahrefs for finding organic and PPC keywords). Then choose the highest volume, neutral (non-branded), least expensive, highest intent keywords of the bunch,” Feldman advises.

    But, while you explore new keyword tools, don’t forget to go back to the source — Google. “Adwords offers what SEO tools can’t,” Filip Silobod of Honest Marketing Zagreb reminds you. “If you link Adwords and Analytics, you will see bounce rate, page per session and conversions for searched queries.”

    Adwords’ page-specific insights go beyond surface-level keyword research by showing you which keywords lead to higher interest and conversions. 

    9. Keep Search Intent In Mind

    Customers looking for a product or service fill out their Google search box with a goal in mind. When you know that user’s search intent, you’ll have a better shot at targeting keywords that feel relevant to them.

    “I follow the strategy of starting with a broad keyword and then breaking it to more narrow, ‘intent focused keywords’,” says Biking KnowHow’s Rohan Kadam. These intent-focused keywords serve many of the same benefits as long-tail keywords.

    Kadam continues, “For example, if I have to research keywords on the ‘mountain biking’ niche, I will start with a broad keyword ‘mountain biking’ and further break this term into variations like ‘how to start mountain biking’ and ‘Best mountain bikes under $500’. We can see how one keyword variation has more ‘informative intent’ and the other keyword variation has more ‘buyer intent’.”

    Google Ads freelancer Ryan Scollon considers intent one of the top elements to think about when researching keywords. “Does that keyword sound like someone is looking for a product/service? Or are they looking for information/advice? Keywords with a commercial intent will be more competitive but are more likely to convert,” Scollon says of user intent.

    Make sure you don’t mix up your customers with informative intent with those who intend to buy something. Your keywords should reflect what’s on your customers’ minds as they search.

    10. Play the Long Game

    When you check out your potential keywords’ volume and difficulty, you might consider shelling out for keywords that’ll give you a fast ROI.

    But, Branko Kral from Chosen Data asks you to think about playing the long game with a keyword that will grow organically. “In our SEO and PPC client projects, we’ve had success with picking PPC keywords that SEO takes longer to start ranking for. We love the strategy, as it is an effective way to make the organic and paid work in synergy,” Kral tells us.

    Since SEO and PPC keywords often affect each other, this strategy will help you strengthen your organic and paid traffic efforts. “The most competitive keywords are often expensive, but they always take even more money and effort to rank for organically. So, if you can start showing up for them with search ads, you’ll cover the gap, and you’ll also collect actionable data for making your organic rankings come sooner,” Kral concludes.

    11. Turn to Your Website and Landing Page

    Here’s another easy-to-find source for keyword inspiration: Your website.

    “Firstly, I will study the client’s website and their business nature, record down and target some keywords according to the landing page,” Zoewebs’ Catherine Foo says of the agency’s keyword research process. “After that, I use Google Keyword Planner to do keyword research based on my targeted keywords.”

    By plugging your website and landing page’s keywords into Google Keyword Planner, you’ll be able to look for opportunities to refine them for PPC.

    Jane Neo of KeaBabies emphasizes the importance of consistency between your ad keywords and landing page keywords. “Relevancy to the landing page is imperative when choosing a keyword for your PPC campaigns. If the keyword is grabbing enough for the customer to click on the ad then you need to have it integrated in the landing page,” Neo tells us.

    Neo advises, “Scan the landing page for the keywords that are the most valuable and grabbing. You will of course need highly researched SEO content on your website page.” You can also perform this process as you build your landing page: “When you are compiling your list of keywords for your website content, you can create a pile for PPC, too.”

    Think of your website, landing page and ads as different parts of a comprehensive experience — because they are. Your visitors’ journey from click to conversion should feel as consistent as possible to keep them moving through the marketing funnel.

    12. Build a Negative Keyword List

    One of the most important keywords lists you should have serves the opposite purpose of a standard keyword list. Negative keyword lists tell your campaign what searches to exclude for better precision.

    Let’s hear how Jettproof’s Michelle Ebbin puts it: “When it comes to the success of your PPC campaign, it is important to find the right keywords, but it’s equally as important to find the wrong keywords and add them to your negative keywords list. This will prevent you paying for clicks on irrelevant search queries and maintain your CPC budget for the right keywords.”

    So, how do you figure out what negative keywords to add? “The best way to find both [standard and negative keywords] is to use Google Keyword Planner, because this shows you keyword data from the Google Ads platform and you can see the queries Google sees as related to the terms you do want to be found for,” Ebbin answers.

    13. Shoot for High Volume and Low Difficulty

    Many of the marketers we surveyed brought up a classic PPC keyword practice: Look for keywords with high volume and low difficulty.

    For Andre Oentoro from Milkwhale, this strategy is key to success. “We usually take a look at what we’re currently ranking for or do some research on some keywords we want to rank. Then, we look at the keyword difficulty and volume. If the difficulty is low and the volume is high, there’s a high probability we would go with that keyword because it would be easier to rank and reach out to more people,” Oentoro says of Milkwhale’s keyword research process.

    Creatopy’s Csilla Borsos also prioritizes difficulty and volume in keyword research. “When choosing which keywords to target, I check both the search volume and the competition. In an ideal case, we should target keywords that have enough search volume and, simultaneously, they are not highly competitive. The higher the competition is for your keywords, the more expensive they get,” Borsos explains.

    But, according to Borsos, your volume and difficulty should also depend on your situation: “For starters, I like to target a keyword list that has a low/medium competition, although this depends on the budget as well. But if you want to be cost-efficient and show your ads at the same time, you shouldn’t start with the keywords that have the highest volume: chances are, you’ll miss out on opportunities since many businesses are bidding on those keywords. Once you have enough data, you can check your search term report as well, not only to exclude irrelevant searches, but also to get new keyword ideas.”

    Brian Stewart of ProsperoWeb, LLC, points out that volume and difficulty also have a direct relationship. “When looking for PPC keywords, it’s best to look for ones with the least amount of competition. At the same time, finding keywords with a large search volume is useful because it implies you’ll reach more people if you rank for them. The keywords with the highest search volume have the most competition, making them more difficult to bid on for your company,” Prospero elaborates.

    According to Stewart, in most cases, these high-volume, high-competition keywords are shorter than less competitive words. “As a result, you’ll need to come up with keywords that strike a good balance between the two. You want to find keywords that have a lot of traffic but are also specialized enough to bring in trustworthy visitors,” Stewart concludes.

    14. Understand Your Product or Services

    To perform effective keyword research, you’ll need to know your product or services inside-out. As you look over your offering, you might come across ideas or connections that wouldn’t come up otherwise.

    Rory Davis, consultant for the Truck Driver Institute, considers this practice especially important for consultants working with small businesses. “To target effectively, keywords need to align with the small business’s services. Without proper onboarding and understanding between client and marketing firm, a PPC campaign will lack details,” Davis explains.

    Davis continues, “Choose the most important services and least difficult keyword options out of the business’s full service capability. If the majority of services prove high-volume keywords, consider prioritizing specific locations in keywords as small businesses find success in geographic targeting.”

    Every service or product that your company offers is a unique PPC opportunity. You’ll have to figure out which of those opportunities will deliver the most value.

    According to TopLine Film’s Jamie Field, this organization-centric approach also works well in B2B: “In a B2B business, search volumes tend to be quite low by comparison to B2C. But we try to turn this to our advantage by going for niche keywords with comparatively low search volumes – for example ‘testimonial video production’ rather than ‘video production’.”

    Field adds, “We find these keywords are less competitive, which makes them less expensive. But we also manage to weed out a lot of the suppliers and job seekers who use the more obvious search terms and then cost us a click every time they visit our site.”

    Thanks to their deep understanding of their position in the market, the TopLine Film team can attract the right visitors while redirecting bad fits.

    At Donorbox, Raviraj Hegde considers product and service research one component of an in-depth research strategy: “Understanding the product/service, our competitors and the competitive landscape puts us in a strong position to make informed decisions. Leveraging any existing data from alternative marketing channels or existing client base can often uncover opportunities for a new search campaign.”

    As you research your offering in the context of its market, remember to make it an ongoing habit. “Ongoing analysis, management and optimisation is key to maintaining growth and preventing any mis-allocation of budget,” Hedge recommends.

    15. Consider Competitor-Branded Search Traffic

    How do you get customers looking for one of your competitors to think about your product? Try competitor-branded search traffic. Branded search traffic is traffic that includes mentions of your brand, and it also applies to your competitors.

    Profit Guru’s Chris Taylor suggests using competitor-branded keywords, but you need to be deliberate with your approach. “The benefit of bidding on our competitors’ branded keywords, in my opinion, is that we can increase brand awareness among leads who are ready to buy but have never heard of us. The disadvantage is that if our competitor notices and dislikes what we’re doing, they may reciprocate,” Taylor says of their internal decision-making process

    So, before trying a campaign with competitor-branded keywords, research their marketing tactics and gauge your competitiveness with them. Your strategy could backfire if you go in over your head.


    16. Create a Manual List

    With so much PPC tech out there, it can become easy to lose track of your campaign goals or search intent. If you find yourself getting unfocused, try this tactic from Allie Burkey of Hurrdat Marketing: Build your keyword list manually.

    “When I’m choosing PPC keywords, I always start with building out a list manually,” says Burkey. “It sounds tedious, but it allows me to keep searcher intent and specific campaign goals in mind.”

    So, where does Burkey find keywords for manual lists? “A great place to start is the landing pages ads will be linking to. I typically scan those pages for potential keywords and use that as a jumping off point. Additional great sources of keyword inspiration are competitors’ landing pages and Google search results (suggested search terms, searches related to, etc),” Burkey explains.

    Keep in mind that Burkey still uses tools. “Once I have a list of at least 20 keywords, I will start utilizing keyword research tools to expand that list,” Burkey tells us. The key here is that Burkey starts with the manual approach to build a solid foundation of “seed” keywords.

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    Melissa King

    Melissa King is a freelance writer who helps B2B SaaS companies spread the word about their products through engaging content. Outside of the content marketing world, she writes about video games. Check out her work at melissakingfreelance.com.

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