Victorious SEO Logo

The Essential Guide to PPC Keyword Research

Are you getting the best return on your PPC ads? Paid search campaigns are powered by keywords and bids, and poor keyword research can lead to underperforming campaigns and wasted budget. Here’s what you need to know about finding the right keywords for your paid search ads.

Jan 23, 2024

7 m read

If you want your target audience to encounter your ads during their search journey, you need to uncover the right keywords. Poor keyword research could lead to substandard keywords that fail to draw clicks and conversions and just waste your PPC budget.

Rigorous PPC keyword research allows you to hone in on keywords that provide enough traffic from the right audience while minimizing competition — all while preserving your precious budget and maximizing ROAS.

Why PPC Keyword Research Is Crucial

Not all paid search keywords are equal, and you shouldn’t necessarily target a keyword just because it has a high search volume. In fact, many high-volume terms provide relatively untargeted traffic, forcing you to do more work to drive conversions.

Ideally, you want keywords that meet the following conditions:

  • Decent traffic potential, balanced against other attributes
  • Targeted to your niche, customers, and products
  • Low cost-per-click (CPC)

So, how do you find these keywords for PPC? Well, you’ll need to do a little research using your preferred PPC keyword research tool. While sometimes tedious, this initial planning phase has many benefits for your PPC campaign, including:

  • Enhancing Target Audience Reach: Choosing keywords that don’t resonate with your target audience can reduce your returns as your products or services may not suit the customers you attract. Consider targeted keywords a shortcut through the earliest part of the conversion process because relevant leads will land on your website ready to shop. Basically, you’ll gain sales by doing less.
  • Improving Ad Relevance and Quality Scores: Google Ads uses a scoring system to reward ads that avoid spammy practices and match search intent. Because of this, you should always consider search intent optimization when choosing keywords and creating ad copy. Research helps you understand what users look for when they type a keyword into Google Search, granting you a higher Quality Score that the search engine will consider when deciding what position to rank your ads.
  • Boosting ROI and Cost-Efficiency: Doing keyword research for PPC allows you to gauge the expected costs required to leverage a keyword. Often, the best keywords — at least in terms of returns — have a good search volume for the level of competition involved and a lower cost per click. For maximum benefit, ensure keywords with those qualities also target relevant users.

Won’t Google Ads Pick Keywords for Me?

Google Ads uses AI to find relevant keywords based on terms you enter, your website’s content, or specific product categories. While AI has come a long way in recent years, it’s by no means perfect. The keywords Google recommends often won’t match your campaign goals or target audience.

Of course, you can still use many of the unsuitable suggestions as springboards for more ideas. With a little extra research, some of these terms can prove valuable to your campaign. Others may guide you to related and long-tail keywords that improve audience targeting.

PPC vs. SEO Keyword Research: Understanding the Differences

When learning how to do keyword research for PPC, you might wonder whether it resembles SEO keyword research. The two have some similarities, but what you do for your content marketing strategy won’t fully translate to your PPC campaign. It’s necessary to perform separate keyword audits for each strategy. However, you should look for opportunities to use data from either campaign to benefit the other.

Focus and Intent

Keywords you choose for your SEO strategy are typically informational, meaning when someone searches for these terms, they want to learn more about a particular subject. PPC keywords, in comparison, are transactional. Users come ready to buy and expect to find the product they’re looking for.

Sometimes, there’s overlap. For example, you won’t always target keywords with a purely informational focus for content marketing, as you’ll usually want to keep to what works for the specific strategy. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn more about your ideal customer through your content marketing campaign and use this data to inform your PPC methods.

Keyword Metrics: Volume, Competition, and Cost

The fundamental metrics you use to gauge the value of a keyword include the following:

  • Search volume
  • Competition
  • Cost

However, these metrics mean different things for PPC campaigns than SEO. Competition for paid search keywords reflects the number of businesses targeting these terms and how difficult it might be to gain a good ranking. In contrast, SEO competition indicates the difficulty of ranking high for a term based on factors such as competitor domain authority and content quality.

Search volume also works a little differently in a PPC campaign. While you still need to target keywords with sufficient traffic to reach your bottom line, you must also factor in whether those users want to buy what you’re offering. If they don’t, you’ll spend money to bring them to your site but won’t see a return.

Cost is sometimes considered a competition metric during SEO keyword research because it can reveal how many other businesses covet a specific term. In PPC, the cost also shows a keyword’s popularity while giving you an idea of how to budget your bids.

Timeframe and Results

Another key difference between PPC and SEO campaigns is the time frame involved. You expect to wait a long time to see a return from your SEO efforts since content marketing is all about growing your visibility over time.

However, PPC needs to show results more immediately because it’s an ongoing expense. A campaign that doesn’t provide short-term returns may simply cost too much to maintain.

How To Conduct Effective PPC Keyword Research

PPC keyword research is relatively simple but often time-consuming. However, it’s essential if you want to maximize your ROI. You just need to follow a few steps to cover everything you need.

Identifying Your Target Audience

Effective paid search keyword research begins with understanding who your customers are and what they want. While there are several ways to do this, creating customer personas is often easiest. These personas should cover important aspects of the audience you want to target, such as the following:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Location
  • Income level
  • Interests
  • Motivations
  • Goals

Think of your personas as digital portraits of the people most likely to become customers. The information in the persona, which defines who your customers are and how they behave, reveals helpful insights into search intent. You can use this information to reach your desired audience more effectively and solve their pain points.

Using Keyword Research Tools

Keyword research tools for PPC let you convert your customer personas into targeted keywords. Most work similarly, and the basic steps to use them include:

  1. Pinpoint your goals and check the accuracy of your customer personas and information.
  2. Consider how your target audience might search for your products to create a few seed keywords.
  3. Enter your seed keywords into your favorite PPC keyword tool and filter the results for search volume, competition, and cost. (We share some here.)
  4. Choose ideal keywords by matching your customer’s search intent and persona while ensuring each term provides enough traffic and fits your budget.
  5. Add related long-tail and negative keywords for further refinement.
  6. Organize everything into ad groups. You now have an extensive keyword list!

Analyzing Competitor Keywords

Competitors — especially larger businesses — offer a treasure trove of insights. Rivals with their own PPC campaigns have likely already done the hard work when selecting profitable and relevant keywords.

To learn from your competitors, take these steps as part of your PPC keyword research:

  1. Find relevant competitors.
  2. Sort them into categories based on their target audience, what they sell, and where they do business.
  3. Use a keyword research tool to analyze the keyword portfolios and ad copy of the competitors that align most with your business.

Refining and Organizing Keywords

Organizing your keywords into appropriate groups helps improve ad relevance, granting you a higher Quality Score in Google Ads. It also makes it easier to remember how the individual parts of your PPC campaign work for simpler optimization once you collect enough data.

You can sort your keywords into manageable categories by taking the following steps:

  1. Review each keyword and organize them based on similar themes, search intent, target audiences, and product categories.
  2. Create new ad groups and add the most closely related search terms to specific groups.
  3. Decide what match type you want to use for specific keywords or groups and add negative keywords to filter the type of traffic your ads attract.
  4. Ensure your ad copy and landing page content align with each ad group.
  5. Collect data and optimize regularly.

ChatGPT can help you with these groupings and even assess how well your ad groups and landing page content align.

Ongoing Keyword Optimization

Like SEO, PPC requires frequent optimization. This is because the elements that contribute to a successful campaign change readily. Search intent may evolve, and user behavior may change to reflect technological evolutions.

Set a schedule to review keyword performance metrics and your ad Quality Score. If a particular keyword isn’t helping you reach your goals or offering enough of a return, it may be best to pause that keyword or remove it from your campaign.

You should also test new keywords occasionally — especially in response to market changes and trends. Run A/B tests regularly — both to gauge the effects of new keywords and to optimize and secure the performance of your top-performing terms.

Top PPC Keyword Research Tools

There are plenty of  PPC tools to help you manage a PPC campaign. Some of the best options include Google’s Keyword Planner, Semrush, and Ahrefs.

Google Keyword Planner

Google’s Keyword Planner is a free feature in its Ads platform, so it’s one of the most accessible PPC research tools. It’s also one of the most powerful.

Keyword Planner lets you generate ideas from seed terms, check metrics such as search volume and CPC, and even discover seasonal trends. More importantly, this is data from Google itself, making it highly relevant to your Google Ads research.


  • Eliminates the need for third-party tools
  • Highly accurate and reliable keyword data from Google
  • Budget-friendly


Semrush is a comprehensive digital marketing platform. It lets you manage most campaigns, whether content marketing, PPC, or social media-based, so you don’t need multiple tools to oversee your online presence.

Semrush’s Keyword Overview shows you metrics such as search volume and CPC for each term, alongside an analysis of user intent and common SERP features associated with each. Other tools, like Keyword Magic and Keyword Gap, help you fine-tune your research.


  • All-in-one content marketing and keyword research PPC tool
  • Extensive keyword data for accurate insights
  • Keyword Gap finds terms your competitors missed
  • Keyword Magic generates search term ideas
  • Keyword Manager stores and organizes your search terms


Although primarily an SEO tool, Ahrefs has some powerful PPC marketing features built in. Managing both types of campaigns with the platform allows you to integrate insights from either into the other with relative ease.

Ahrefs is also one of the few tools with detailed data for many search engines beyond just Google. The platform refines its data every month to ensure accuracy.


  • Keywords Explorer lets you find new terms from a 7-billion-keyword database
  • Includes location-specific data for 171 countries to aid global campaigns
  • Competitor Analysis tool reveals your rivals’ top-performing keywords and ad content
  • Content Gap helps you target less-saturated markets with weaker competition

Aim for Search-First

Despite their differences, SEO and SEM work together to improve your online visibility and generate leads. Don’t segregate your campaigns. Instead, take a search-first approach that prioritizes the overall performance of both campaigns. Utilizing data from one helps you optimize the other, beating the returns and efficiency of traditional siloed methods. Learn more about how a comprehensive SEO strategy can support your PPC goals. Schedule a free SEO consultation today.

In This Article

Recommended Reading


SEO and PPC don't have to be segregated. By combining your search efforts, you can improve your ROI. CGO Laurel Stewart explains how.

Facing an underperforming PPC campaign? Uncover what may be leading to lackluster results and apply our tips to improve your campaign performance.

8 m read

PPC ads underperforming? Seeing inconsistent results? Worried about wasted ad spend? Uncover issues and opportunities for improvement with our PPC audit checklist. Get started with our top tips below.