The Insider’s Guide to PPC Keyword Research

So, you’re about to figure out which keywords to target in Google Ads (formerly known as Google AdWords) with ppc keyword research. But how do you do it effectively?

Our agency has experience running large Google ads accounts while also owning SEO content strategy, so we’ve done our fair share of keyword research. And the truth about paid keyword research is that it’s part art and part science. By understanding its nuances, you can minimize the fear of missed keywords and feel confident you’ve uncovered the most valuable opportunities.

The difference between organic and PPC keyword research

Most novices make the mistake of treating organic and paid search keyword research the same. What’s the big difference? You’re targeting keywords people search for either way, right? Why not just throw all your ideas into a PPC keyword research tool and call it a day?

First, there’s a distinct difference in intent. Organic keywords typically attract leads in the top or middle of funnel since they’re informational rather than transactional, buying keywords.

“Ready-to-purchase” or buying keywords work well for PPC because they convert better than informational keywords. (Think “buy Nike shoes” rather than “top ten Nike shoes this year” or “most fashionable Nike shoes”). Therefore, keywords that demonstrate a high buyer intent are more affordable for PPC because you can cover the costs more easily by making sales.

It’s difficult to convert traffic from informational keywords in PPC because the traffic isn’t ready. You often need layers of nurturing before a conversion happens, which can be tricky to get right. Testing out well-structured nurturing and retargeting campaigns can take a good amount of time and money, and success isn’t guaranteed. Higher-funnel nurturing is often where organic keywords work well because you can affordably build out pages and rank for these keywords.

While PPC keyword research strategy and SEO keyword research strategy can converge, they are never the same. The intersection of keywords usually occurs in the middle of the funnel, around words or phrases that indicate users are ready to give their contact info or, better yet, move forward with a purchase. Certain types of pages convert best for these keywords depending on the channel. For PPC, it’s usually an opt-in page or product page, and for SEO, it’s usually a service or product page.

While PPC keyword research strategy and SEO keyword research strategy can converge, they are never the same. Click To Tweet

So, what are the consequences of treating both types of keyword research the same? You can:

  • Waste a lot of money on ads that never convert.
  • Miss out on profitable keywords you didn’t consider targeting.
  • Waste a lot of time ranking for pages that don’t make sense for the buyer in that phase of the marketing funnel.

To be clear, PPC is best for targeting purchase-ready buyers because conversions are more likely to happen
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, which helps fund the ad budget. Organic keywords are generally better for high- to mid-purchase funnel prospects looking for topics in the awareness and research phases to build trust and brand recognition.

For more information on the differences between paid and organic strategies, read the post: SEM vs. SEO: What’s the Difference and Which is Right for My Brand?

Now, let’s cover what you can do to make your PPC keyword research as effective as possible.

7 tips for more effective PPC keyword research

So, now you know there’s a right and wrong way when figuring out how to do keyword research for Google Ads. As mentioned, you should start with low-funnel keywords. But what else can you do to optimize your PPC research process?

1. Use the latest tools.

There are free keyword research tools that will give you a variety of keyword ideas based on a seed keyword you enter, such as and Ubersuggest. There are also free concatenation tools that will automatically return all the possible variations of keywords based on the adjectives and nouns you enter, which is great for industries that have a lot of geo-modifiers or descriptors in their search terms. For instance, you may want all the variations for local search terms that’ll lead to your pizza chain, such as “stuffed-crust pizza Maryland,” “pan pizza Washington DC,” or “fast-delivery pizza Virginia.”

You can also use premium tools to identify what keywords competitor pages rank for organically and target with PPC. This is a good way to uncover the terms competitors feel are viable enough to test or target.

Use Alexa’s Competitor Keyword Matrix to find paid keyword gaps that competitors get traffic for, but you don’t. For this tool, we recommend starting with high-intent, buyer keywords to reach purchase-ready customers and boost PPC lead generation.

Alexa ppc keyword research tool

2. Align keywords with content.

To build out your PPC research properly from scratch, begin with the end in mind. Look at the landing page and other content you will be sending people to and brainstorm ideas from there. When thinking about how to choose keywords for PPC, make sure your content (landing pages, offers, etc.) aligns strongly with the keywords you select to increase the chances you’ll show up in a desirable spot and get prospects to convert. In turn, strong keyword/content alignment will also help improve your quality score, cost per conversion, CTR, and other metrics.

To build out your PPC research properly from scratch, begin with the end in mind. Click To Tweet

Ask yourself what problems your ideal customer has and what they search for when they’re ready to purchase. Use tools and creative thinking to identify the keywords and check if they have detectable search volume. Add the relevant keywords with suitable volume to your PPC strategy. Then, slowly work up to lower-intent, higher-funnel keywords to round out your holistic keyword research strategy.

3. Leverage the Search Terms report to find new keywords to target.

Great PPC keyword research doesn’t stop with the selection. Iteratively testing your theories against data is key to becoming a seasoned PPC expert. Even us veterans sometimes find out that keywords we thought would be great aren’t bringing in the right traffic or converting into sales.

To help you test keyword effectiveness, Google Ads lets you figure out the exact words people searched to find your ad. Once you’re in the interface, click into the Campaign and/or Ad Group you want, then click the Keywords button on the left sidebar, and then, click Search Terms on the top navigation menu.

google search terms report

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This Search Terms report is outstanding because it helps you understand the effectiveness of the keywords you target. You can look for and observe patterns to figure out which keywords drive traffic and with what type of intent. Since PPC keywords are often longer-tail, it’s clearer what searchers were looking for, which helps you understand their true intentions. For example, someone may search “I want a radio-controlled XLR drone,” which makes it clear that they probably don’t want to buy the XLR microphones you’re selling.

Use the junk keywords that come up to identify the types of keywords you should steer away from. Often, you’ll discover that some keywords used are too broad, which means you’ll have to get more specific with targeting or you must add negative keywords to filter out irrelevant traffic.

As mentioned, acronyms and brand names are a hotspot for diverging intent. That’s because the same word can represent different companies or products. For example, XLR may stand for a microphone cable or drone. Therefore, you should deeply examine short, broad keywords first to anticipate overlap. Once identified, you can tailor your keyword targeting and/or ad copy to attract the right prospects, rather than unqualified ones. Similarly, you can uncover keywords you never considered targeting that convert well and/or get high click-through rates.

4. Use the paid and organic reports in Google Ads.

Chances are you already have pages ranking organically for keywords. Google Search Console, a free tool, will tell you the exact keywords you rank for. Look at these keywords for inspiration to fill in any holes in your PPC keyword research strategy or find keywords to build off. Once again, make sure to stay low-funnel.

Working together with the search engine optimization side is crucial to having an aligned, holistic strategy. Brainstorm with your SEO expert or build both keyword strategies yourself if you understand both skillsets well.

Google Ads has a helpful, new feature that helps easily identify whether the organic version of your paid keywords are driving any conversions and vice versa. Once you link Search Console to Google Ads, you get access to the paid and organic report in the navigation menu at the top of the interface under Reports > Predefined reports > Basic > Paid & Organic.

organic and paid keywords report

Google and the Google logo are registered trademarks of Google LLC, used with permission.

As you can see in the picture below, Google Ads shows you organic and paid performance of each individual keyword.

organic and paid keyword performance report

Google and the Google logo are registered trademarks of Google LLC, used with permission.

With Search Console and the Paid and Organic report, you may even find hot, new product benefits that you never considered positioning your product around. For example, you may be selling hypoallergenic laundry detergent, but you may find that people search and convert through keywords like, “laundry detergent that cleans up grass stains.”

5. Don’t rely on tools alone. Talk to real people, too.

Tools are valuable but don’t rely on them solely to flesh out your keyword list. Sometimes, the best way of uncovering search gems is to know your business, industry, prospects, and customers better than anyone else. And there’s no better way to find out what people are searching for than from real people looking for or already using your solution. They’ll describe the problems and motives they’re concerned with at a level of detail you can’t find elsewhere.

Like tools, use real human input as a supplement rather than a stand-alone resource.

Pro Tip: Sometimes people can’t remember what they searched for to end up on your site. To help guide the conversation, focus your questions on the problems to be solved and feelings or thoughts they had rather than what they searched.

6. Don’t give up too soon if a keyword isn’t working.

Imagine this scenario. A keyword you’re targeting with Google Ads isn’t converting or getting clicks. Does that mean you pause the keyword after giving it a good amount of time and traffic? Not necessarily.

Poor performance can have many causes that don’t have to do with a keyword being irrelevant or unprofitable. Before you declare a keyword unsuccessful, follow these conversion rate optimization best practices to ensure you’ve optimized your ad copy or landing page both for quality score and to get people to take the action. Similarly, there may be technical reasons it’s not converting or getting clicks, like:

  • the reach isn’t high enough because the budget is too low
  • a frequency cap is in place, or
  • the terms don’t get enough traffic

Related: 6 Google Ad Examples Used by Top Brands

7. Don’t forget about branded keyword variations.

Brand name searches are often forgotten during keyword research for PPC campaigns since people assume they own the organic rankings already. Even if it looks like you rank first, you need to prevent competitors from usurping the top spot with their ads. It’s good practice to maximize the search results page “real estate” on your branded terms and show up for misspellings of your brand name (especially those you don’t rank well for).

Sometimes, brand keywords are the most overlooked and profitable keyword variations because you can purchase them more affordably than competitors. Since your brand name is throughout the site and usually part of the root domain, this naturally increases relevance, results in higher quality scores, and better paid performance. Combine the techniques mentioned with common sense to figure out whether certain misspellings are worth targeting — some will be, and some won’t.

Bonus tips for maximizing your PPC results

Hungry for more? There is almost always room to continue the keyword hunt. These tips will help you stay ahead.

Maximize search results space with this tip.

Target the same keywords with organic and paid to take up more of the space on the first page. The more “real estate” you own, the higher the chance searchers will click your listing, which means more traffic. You can do this with both brand and non-brand keywords.

Paid and organic research should be treated differently, but there are moments when keyword overlaps create golden opportunities to maximize your results. Where appropriate, leverage the keywords that matter to both PPC and SEO strategies for the highest impact.

Integrate PPC and SEO.

PPC keyword research is different from organic research, but that doesn’t mean you should silo SEO and PPC employees. Have both sides share their data and communicate often during the process. Better yet, have the same person checking in on both sides (but only if they understand both PPC and SEO well).

Communication between departments helps you sense new trends and find subtopics you might’ve missed, improving the intent of both channels. Little insights, such as discovering a relevant keyword doesn’t convert, are sometimes just what the other side needs to make a tweak that can enhance results. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Optimize your PPC keyword research strategy

Paid search keyword research is an often-overlooked art form. By understanding how to research with more care and tact, you can avoid missed sales. Moreover, great PPC keyword research can help you continue to tailor your keywords, ads, and landing pages. You can iteratively hone the customer journey towards the highest possible ROI.

To succeed, start by finding high-intent, purchase-ready keywords using premium or free PPC keyword research tools to get a thorough sense of the search marketplace. Then, test with data and communicate between SEO and PPC departments.

Ready to find your next PPC keyword opportunity? Sign up for a free trial of Alexa’s Advanced plan to get access to keyword research tools like the Competitor Keyword Matrix, and much more.

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