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PPC Keyword Research: How To Do It The Smart Way

May 14, 2020
Will Haswell
written by Will Haswell
Digital Acquisition

PPC keyword research is an essential part of a PPC campaign. Our guide will show you how to find the right keywords – the smart way.

With anything you do in business, it’s important to have an action plan and know how to get there. Pay-per-click advertising (PPC) can help you reach those goals but you need to know what keywords to target in your ads. That’s where keyword research plays a critical role in effective PPC ads. Keywords are the foundation for everything in PPC, and if you’re smart about it, your research can achieve more success as a result.

What are PPC keywords?

Keywords are words or phrases that users search for on search engines like Google or Bing. When creating paid ads, you aim to target keywords so when people search for them, your ads appear at the top of the page. There are different types of keywords that you can have, and all can provide influence over how effective your PPC campaign is. There are keyword types like:

  • Branded keywords that include company names
  • Generic keywords that cover ambiguous terms
  • Transactional keywords that cover both strong and weak purchase intent
  • Locational keywords that cover a location and are great for those location-based companies
  • Informational keywords that cover people who are simply looking for information

You also have service/product-specific keywords and keywords with high intent (related to discounts or special days).

When you’re creating ad groups (which we’ll touch on later), it’s important to consider these keywords types and how you want to group them together.

Why is PPC keyword research so important?

PPC campaigns are more powerful with effective keyword research and the importance of research shouldn’t be overlooked. Here are 3 reasons why you should make it a priority:

1. It helps you to budget and forecast your cost-per-click (CPC)

Keyword research can help you figure out the right budget for your PPC campaign by letting you plan ahead with what you can and can’t spend and ways of working around it with alternative keywords. That saves money in the long run and prevents overspend and miscalculation.

2. It helps you to achieve campaign goals

As I said earlier, PPC campaigns should have goals that you want to achieve and keyword research can help you achieve them. It’s all about organisation and strategy.

3. Increasing ROI

Return on investment is a big factor because every ad contributes to it and should be optimised for the most clicks at the smallest possible cost, leading to the most conversions. Keyword research boosts your chances of achieving the best ROI.

Different approaches to keyword research

Someone on a laptop
There’s more than one way to do keyword research

Researching the best keywords for your campaign can be done in different ways. I’ve highlighted 3 types:

The analytical approach

This is the easiest and most common type of PPC keyword research. You’d select your keyword research tool, search for a keyword, expand it, and start looking at related longer-tail keywords you could target. This can be a beneficial approach because you have a clear idea when it comes to targeting keywords and therefore you can optimize your ads and align your campaigns with users with intent to buy.

The middle-ground approach

With the middle-ground approach, you’re looking at keywords based on analytical research but at the same time, you’re also monitoring additional keywords that you might be ranking for unintentionally. It happens a lot in SEO and it’s those “accidental” keywords that could give you “accidental” insights. Once you start seeing those organic keywords, you can tailor your PPC campaigns to include them or related keywords and grow even further.

The empirical approach

An empirical approach involves playing the long game and creating campaigns over time without any keyword research initially to see what organic keywords your site naturally ranks for. It’s a good way to save money as you’re relying on the power of SEO and it allows you to strengthen your position on those keywords and focus your efforts on PPC.

With Google’s recent change to its Google Ads search report, it’s now even more important to get your PPC keyword research right. In September 2020, Google Ads updated its search terms report to only display terms that were searched by a “significant number of users”. The decision has left many PPC marketers upset at the potential effect to their budgets.

A case study by Bethany Bey showed a reduction in the number of ad clicks in the report, from 95% in August to 33% in September. In terms of cost visibility, In August, she could see 93% of search ad spend but in September, it fell to 37%.

That means almost two-thirds of our current budget is being spent on search terms we can’t see, can’t evaluate, and can’t exclude from our campaigns.

While many are finding ways to try and mitigate this loss, Optmyzr has created a script that calculates the number of unidentified queries.

The script pulls daily metrics, lets you choose which metrics to focus on (impressions, clicks, or cost) and pulls data using an account report or a search query report. You can then compare the metrics from each report.

Negative keywords

Negative keywords are something many advertisers aren’t using for their PPC campaigns but they should. They prevent your ads from being triggered if a user searches for those terms. They ensure your ads are only shown to people who are likely to click and convert and saves your budget.

A good way of making a negative keyword list is to look at your main keywords and anything that isn’t relevant or appears on there, note it as a negative. The more you add, the more wasted clicks you could be saving..

PPC keyword tools

There are some fantastic keyword research tools to take advantage of, with lots of capabilities outside the confines of PPC.

If you want to know about tools specific to Google Ads, you should read our article on the best Google Ads tools.

Google Keyword Planner

Google Keyword Planner is a free tool that can help with keyword analysis. It’s a tool that’s very popular with SEO and PPC experts and a good reason as to why you should be using it for your keyword research. It’s one of the most reliable tools for PPC keyword research and analysis. It helps to show you search volumes by month, and if it’s used by SEO experts, it’s worth using for your campaigns.


SEMRush hosts one of the best tools suites in digital marketing and offers a great keyword tool for PPC marketers. Its PPC keyword tool can find missing keywords that your competitors are bidding on, search its database for relevant keywords and manage them into groups, and you can create your own charts for further analysis.


This keyword research tool can highlight competitor budgets on Google Ads, which can be beneficial to know for your selection of keywords.

How keyword research can help PPC and SEO

The main difference between PPC keywords and SEO keywords is the former is paid and the latter is free. But while the intentions and methods may be different, the research is effectively the same. At the end of the day, you’re aiming to get a good keyword list and entice users to your site with them.

It’s important for both that you are starting off with a list of starting terms (shorter tail in SEO, more specific in PPC since you’re paying for them and generic keywords eat up your budget). that you’re then expanding this list using keyword research tools, and then refining it with competitive research. This is a process that can be used when it comes to both PPC and SEO.

The more effort you can make on keyword research, the better your SEO will become when it comes to your website and helping your website and pages rank better.

SKAGs (single keyword ad groups) or STAGs (single theme ad groups)?

A picture of a stag
No, not those stags!

SKAGs (single keyword ad groups) are ad groups with one keyword in them. On the surface, that sounds counterproductive.

Why would you have an ad group with just one keyword in it?

The advantage of SKAGs used to be more control, higher performance, and a better Quality Score. They also made sure keywords in every ad matched the queries that triggered them and avoided the errors that came about from Dynamic Keyword Insertion (which has since been mitigated by Responsive Search Ads).

But the power of SKAGs has waned and they aren’t generally as effective as they used to be. A 2017 change in how match types work essentially killed off their effectiveness, paving the way for a new type of ad group: single theme ad groups, or STAGs.

STAGs (single theme ad groups) allow you to have multiple keywords in ad groups that are chosen around certain themes. These are easier to maintain because the keywords are grouped together and result in fewer, but more effective ads.

With SKAGs, you had more ad groups to monitor. But with STAGs, you keep the themes of your keywords close together and that can improve click-through rates (CTRs) for your PPC campaign.

Keyword research makes the creation of STAGs much easier as you can focus on one theme and, with tools like SEMrush’s Keyword Manager, group them all together.

Further resources


It’s clear to see that PPC keyword research is really effective, whatever your approach. So, to recap:

  • Consider the cost-effective and time-saving benefits of PPC keyword research and make it an essential part of your campaign building and management
  • Leverage the power of negative keywords
  • Use the best tools available and find the most relevant keywords for your campaigns
  • Think about how keyword research can help PPC and SEO together
  • Consider the idea of STAGs

Happy researching!

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