Thinking About Keywords for PPC Ads

You’ve optimized your web site for certain keywords to get to the top of the search engine results pages. Now you’re looking at doing an AdWords pay-per-click campaign, and you’re once again confronted with the issue of choosing keywords. Where do you start?

You probably have more questions than answers at this point. if you’ve tracked where your visitors came from to get to your site (and what search terms they used if they came from the search engines), you might have a good start at answering some of those questions. Since you ARE spending money on these ads by bidding on clicks, you need to choose carefully. Using keywords that are overly broad can bring in traffic that looks but doesn’t buy, while keywords that are overly specific might bring in too little traffic.

When Sandy Parish wrote about keyword ad strategies recently for Media Post Publications, she used an enlightening example to demonstrate the issue. She wanted to buy a birthday present for a tech savvy loved one – something that was different from what she usually got him. She wanted something unique, but she hadn’t even thought in specific terms about the type of gadget he might like. It was clearly time to go to the search engines and start thinking out loud.

The first search term she used was "unique gift," figuring she’d see "an interesting selection of unordinary gifts," as she recounts it. The ads that came back tried to sell her on the wonders of cologne and shaving products, which are hardly unique by anyone’s definition. So she attempted to get a little more specific by searching for a "unique gadget." That got her somewhat closer, turning up items such as digital music devices. But it still didn’t quite meet her needs.

It wasn’t until Parish went through a bit of trial and error that she found the winning search term: "unique high tech gadget." That was a very good, specific description of what she was looking for, and it "brought up an ad for a new invention-type item that suited my needs," she explained. Her story illustrates the kind of targeting you will need to do, and how you will need to think, to make the best use of your money as you choose your keywords.

When thinking about what kinds of keywords you want to use for your search ads, it helps to know what criteria Google uses to decide where to place its ads. Google uses an equation that takes two factors into account: the maximum cost-per-click of the ad for the particular keyword and the keyword’s quality score. The maximum cost-per-click is obvious, and the equation itself is actually pretty simple: your ad’s rank equals the cost per click multiplied by the quality score.

It’s the quality score that’s complicated. Google explains that the overall quality score "considers the keyword’s clickthrough rate (CTR) and the relevance of the keyword, your ad’s text, and landing page." As far as your ad’s ranking or actual position in the SERPs, important factors include your keyword’s CTR, ad text relevance, and your keyword’s relevance to a user’s search query.

It’s important to note that Google’s ad ranking system is not based solely on price; relevance plays a strong role. So at least in that sense, you won’t be "locked out" of the top position if you can’t afford to pay top dollar. Of course, a high CPC helps — but there are reasons you might not want to pay a lot of money (I’ll get to that in just a bit). Given the factors that go into your quality score, you want to make sure your keywords and ad text are relevant, and you want to build a strong click through rate. This is no surprise; Google wants to maximize its income, and the best way to do that is by putting ads that perform well near the top. You can get a higher position than ads with a higher click through rate than yours, but you’ll have to pay a lot more money to do that.

This really highlights the importance of making sure your ad, landing page, and products are truly relevant to your chosen keywords. Relevance is the more cost-effective strategy. As Parish explains, "It is never beneficial to pay top dollar to keep an ad in a high position for a keyword that isn’t highly relevant." Those cologne and shaving product advertisers may not have looked at it that way, but frankly, by targeting "unique gift" as a keyword, they were wasting their money. It isn’t so much that "unique gift is too broad of a keyword; it’s that it isn’t relevant enough.

If you’ve selected keywords for your web site, you’ve been through the process of keyword research before. You know that it starts with brainstorming as many candidate keywords as possible. Then you go through a process of elimination to choose the ones that are most relevant. Next you need to research your chosen keywords in the search engines (to check up on the competition). This is where Wordtracker or other keyword research tools can help.

So you may already have a list of keywords that work well for your web site in organic SEO. Fortunately, your goal with organic SEO and with PPC is the same, at least in part: attract visitors to your site. Especially with a PPC campaign, you want to attract visitors that are highly likely to convert. This is why making sure you use relevant keywords is so important.

Let’s go back to Parish’s example. Some of the advertisers who turned up when she searched on the phrase "unique gift" would have been wiser to invest their money in keywords such as "shaving products" or "electric razors." Perhaps not as many people would have seen the ad, but those who did see it would have been more interested in buying what they had to offer.

Let’s take a look at the winning example. "Unique high tech gadget" is a pretty specific keyword. That means it doesn’t turn up very much in searches, so it very likely attracts a lot less traffic than the keyword "unique gift." But the traffic is better targeted. Even though it’s a very specific keyword, it isn’t the specificity of the keyword that attracts visitors as much as the relevance. Someone performing a search on that keyword is very interested in buying (or at least has some very definite ideas about what he or she likes to browse!).

So how do you make sure your keywords are relevant? You need to think like a customer, and to do that you may need help from someone else. You may have your own ideas about what kind of search terms potential customers would use when looking for your product, but are they accurate? Check the tracking you’ve done on the visitors who came to your site from search engines; find out what searches they performed. Ask your friends what words they would use to describe your offering if they were searching for it in the search engines.

So does this mean that broad, general keywords are a waste of money? Not always. Keep in mind that you only pay when someone clicks on the ad, so you have a little room to experiment. You just might be able to find a creative way to make it work. Parish suggests that those who want to try a broad keyword "offer a lower bid amount, and make sure the ad copy describes how the keyword can be associated with the product." She comes back to the shaving products advertisers to offer some sample text: "Unique Acme Technology Shaves Close & Makes a Great Gift." You have to give the searcher a compelling reason to click on your ad.

Still, by and large, fine tuning your keywords is a very good idea; it will reduce competition and give you more targeted traffic. So don’t just sell widgets, sell "green widgets," or "high tech widgets," or "glass widgets," or whatever kind of widget is most likely to attract a click and a conversion…so long as you can show in your ad how your offering is highly relevant to that keyword. That’s not going to be easy given how little space you have, but it can be done.

While you’re at it, you should remember that "thinking like  your customers" means more than just thinking like some random person who wants to buy your products. You need to know where your customer is coming from (in more ways than one) to know how they will look for you. For example, if you’re trying to reach customers from a particular region, use that region’s terminology in your ad. Depending on the what part of the U.S. you’re from, for instance, that gloriously overstuffed sandwich is a "hoagie," a "sub," or a "hero." Get it right, especially if it affects what keyword you use.

What keywords are your competitors using? You can get some idea of this if you put in the keywords related to your product and check what comes up. You could also do a View Source on their web sites to see what kinds of keywords they’re using there for ideas.

Think like your customer. Keep it relevant. Remember that your goal is not only traffic but conversions. If you keep these thoughts in mind, they will help you build a successful foundation for your PPC campaign.

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