How to Select Keywords for Pay-Per-Click Campaigns

By: Guest | August 20, 2012 | 

Today’s guest post is written by Brent Carnduff.

Search engine marketing (a.k.a. pay-per-click or PPC advertising) is an often-ignored element in small business Internet marketing.

When asked, small business owners typically give one of two reasons for not using PPC advertising: They have already tried it, lost money, and given up on it or they have considered trying it, think they will lose money, and have decided against it.

Despite the fact search engine marketing is easy to use, and simple in concept, the old poker expression “it takes only a minute to learn, but a lifetime to master” could just as easily be applied to SEM.

Recent data indicates, while organic search results normally receive 75 to 85 percent of all clicks during the critical “high commercial intent” searches – those searches used when consumers are READY TO BUY –  searchers actually click on pay-per-click ads 64.6 percent of the time!

Getting Started

Although many factors influence the success or failure of an AdWords campaign, keyword selection is often where the problem begins in many self-managed campaigns.

For example, if you wanted to start an AdWords campaign advertising  “search engine marketing services,” you might come up with an initial list like this one:

  • Search engine marketing
  • SEM
  • Pay-per-click advertising
  • PPC advertising
  • PPC
  • Google AdWords
  • AdWords advertising

Is this a good list? As an initial list to feed into a keyword research tool, it would be a good start. However, as a list of keywords for an AdWords campaign, it would lose money. These keywords are much too broad. None of them will be included in the final list of keywords.

Less is More

When selecting keywords for PPC campaigns, the goal is to select keywords that LIMIT your traffic!

As counter-intuitive as it sounds, you want to limit clicks – the clicks that you have to pay for – to the few keywords that are most likely to convert for your goal.

Analyze Your Keywords

The best way to do this is to put yourself in the shoes of the searcher. Ask yourself, “What is this person likely to be looking for? Are they deep in the sales cycle, or are they at the top?”

You’ll filter your keywords dependent on your budget and how aggressive you want to be. Because most small businesses are generally on a tight budget, I always recommend to start on the conservative side. You can grow your keyword list later on.

Look at Context

Ask yourself what the searcher is looking for when entering a phrase such as “PPC Advertising.” It may be to look for a marketing agency to manage a SEM campaign, or it may be trying to find out what PPC advertising is, looking for a new career, trying to learn how to do PPC advertising, or simply logging into a Google AdWords account.

This term is too broad so eliminate it and all others that are too general.

The term “search engine marketing” is often misunderstood and therefore misused. For that reason, remove it from your initial list. You can always add it back in and test later. Phrases mentioning both SEO and SEM also represent doubt as to what the searcher wants, so eliminate those from the list too.

The more specific you can be, the better.

Research has shown plural searches (i.e. SEM companies) often represent someone who is not as ready to buy as a singular search phrase (i.e. SEM company), so avoid plural keyword phrases if your goal is to attract people who are ready to buy.

Think about phrases that identify the service plus:

  1. A word indicating “company” (i.e. SEM firm, PPC agency, pay-per-click company); or
  2. A variation of manage, manager, management (i.e. SEM manager, manage PPC, pay-per-click management). A phrase such as “AdWords manager” may actually refer to a software program so you’ll want to keep that in mind.

The best keyword phrases combine both elements, such as “PPC management company,” but these are very expensive.

Once you decide the best phrases, you can go back to the keyword tool and dig deeper to find out about competition and price.

SEM offers many benefits. It gives you the opportunity to quickly appear on or near the top of page one for your targeted search terms, it puts you in front of the buyer when they are ready to buy, and it can be monitored, evaluated, and refined, quickly and easily.

Try and be as specific as possible in your keyword selection and put yourself in the shoes of searchers.

Remember, if you want to make money using AdWords, LESS IS MORE when it comes to your keyword selection.

What is your experience with PPC?

Brent Carnduff is the founder and president of Echelon Business Solutions and Echelon SEO. He is also the author of the Inbound Marketing Insider blog, and the Break Away Marketing blog. You can connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn , or his new favorite, Google+.

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Hi Brent, Thanks you so much for taking time to discuss it here. This will help me a lot as I got a hard time in selecting the best keyword for my PPC campaign. Good Job!


@ForthMetrics Thanks for the mention Forth Metrics!


Thanks, Brent, perfect timing as I'm just helping a client who is trying to identify their relevant keywords, not for PPC, but for defining and finding where their target audience resides on the internet. Another application to consider for keyword research in addition to PPC and SEO. I'll point them in this direction.


thanks a lot for this post... this has seemed to be of a great help to me


@JavierArronis @SpinSucks Thank you Javier - much appreciated!


@brentcarnduff We love having you! Thanks for the very technical post. These are things we need to know!


@ginidietrich Thanks for sharing the pay per click article. Venturing forth into that realm for a client this week!


Hi Brent! Thanks for the research about consumers preferring PPC ads over organic results when they're ready to pull the trigger. Intriguing! I'm going to read more. And your tips on narrowing keyword selection are absolutely on target. This is one time when you really don't need a big net to catch more fish.


I've learned that for the most consistent user experience (which increases the probability of conversion), it's critical to design custom landing pages to support your PPC ads. And the content has to include the keywords you just invested in. Sounds obvious, but I'm surprised how often people forget to do that.


Finally, I always recommend testing. Most PPC platforms make it pretty simple to set up split tests that rotate different ads for each keyword you've identified. You just have to be careful to adjust your settings so that the ads are displayed randomly to obtain the cleanest results. (And of course you want to test your landing pages too. So much to test ... so little time!)

Lisa Gerber
Lisa Gerber

Hey Brent, Thanks so much for this! It helps a ton - one question we get a lot is... how do you balance the competition level and the "number of monthly searches?" I know you don't want to go for high competition...


  1. […] Google keyword tool estimates search levels at approximately 2,400 per month. Can you guess how many clients they get from this in a year? A handful at best, because it takes a long time (and more than 12 visits) for a contractor to sign an accountant. The conversion funnel is huge as a result. […]

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