This list is intended for someone who is creating a new paid search advertising campaign. Much of it still applies if you are looking to grow an existing campaign or researching keywords for organic search engine optimization (SEO) purposes, but not all steps will apply in those cases. To keep things simple, I am only going to talk about Google. I usually do most of my research and testing in Google, then copy keywords and campaigns over to Yahoo and Bing.
This process can be fun and instructive if you think of yourself as a psychologist trying to understand how and when your prospects search for what you have to offer. I enjoy constructing theories about what’s in the head of searchers – I’m sure I’m mostly wrong, but it makes it more entertaining.
Spaghetti Against the Wall
When I’m building keyword lists, I don’t worry about how much volume each keyword drives or how much it costs to be in a top position. There’s really no downside to having a lot of keywords, and sometimes your best performers will come from places you don’t expect. I call it the spaghetti-against-the-wall approach – throw a lot of keywords out there, and a few will stick. Those are the ones I spend time optimizing.
It is very important that you understand how match types work if you are adding keywords to your account. For an explanation of match types, see the article How to Use Google AdWords Match Types.
On to the to-do list…
The To-Do List (& a PDF version of the list for printing)
- Get your ad groups going - Ad groups should correspond to individual products and/or services you offer as well as product/service groupings. For example, if you sell a variety of hammers, you should have an ad group for hammers in general, and ad groups for each type of hammer. Use your judgement regarding how specific to go – people might search for “ball peen hammers”, but they are less likely to search for “ball peen hammers with red handles”. The former merits an ad group, the latter probably not.
When you are first creating ad groups, you don’t need to come up with a big list of keywords for each. I usually create a bunch of ad groups at a time, and I don’t worry about researching keywords until I have them all live. For example, if I am creating an ad group for “ball peen hammers”, I’ll probably create it with the single keyword “ball peen hammers”. It’s more efficient to get ad groups going, then go back and add keywords using the following techniques.
- Add more keywords with the Google Keyword Tool - In the AdWords interface, go to Opportunities > Keyword Tool
The Keyword Tool is useful for coming up with variations on keywords, but it can also be slow and tedious to go through results. It doesn’t do a good job at all of sorting keyword suggestions by relevancy. I usually sort the results by the column “Local Monthly Searches” (by clicking on those words) to see what keywords get the most volume. “Local” here refers to the country in which you are searching.
At this stage, I’m mostly looking for high-volume variations. The Keyword Tool comes up with a lot of junk, but I usually find a few worth adding. Since I have sorted by search volume, I go down the list until I hit some reasonable volume threshold, say at least 1,000 searches per month. It may be more or less than that, depending on the category of keyword. To add keywords to an ad group, select the ones you’d like to add and click Add Keywords. You will be prompted to select an ad group.
It is very helpful that the Keyword Tool gives volume numbers, but take them with a grain of salt. It defaults to showing volume for broad match keywords, which can be deceptive. On the left-hand side there is an option to switch it to exact match, which will give you a better idea of how often each individual keyword is searched. The volume numbers are also pretty unreliable. It will often show that a search term gets very low volume when in fact it gets decent volume.
- Add even more keywords with Google’s Add/Edit suggestions - In the AdWords interface, go to Campaigns > Ad Groups > [select an ad group] > Keywords > Add Keywords
This functionality is similar to the Keyword Tool, but does a much better job of grouping and prioritizing keywords that are relevant to your ad group. Recently, I’ve been using this tool more than the Keyword Tool to build keyword lists. It works best after you’ve added some keywords to the ad group, so best to get things started with the Keyword Tool. Per above, I use the Keyword Tool to find high-volume keywords, then I use this tool to add more specific variations.
- Spy on your competitors - There are several tools that show which keywords are driving traffic to competitor sites. Looking at what your competitors are bidding-on and optimizing-for can be a good way to discover new categories of keywords and unusual opportunities that the Google tools won’t spot. Several to try are SEMRush, KeywordSpy and SpyFu. I lean towards SEMRush right now, but there is not much difference between the three. Each offers additional capabilities for a subscription, but try out the free versions first.
- Set initial bids - There are two ways to approach this. If you are on a tight budget, start by bidding low and collect some data before you start raising bids. The downside of this approach is that with low bids it may take a while to collect enough data to make a change. If you are not on a tight budget, bid keywords high enough to get a top 3 position and adjust bids up or down as you collect performance data. This approach will generate sales faster, but you will waste some budget on non-performers as you collect data. For more on setting bids based on ROI data, see this article: Paid Search Bidding Based on ROI
Using this process, I find I can get a typical campaign going in an hour or two. Over time, I’ll go back in and re-apply these techniques to expand ad groups that are performing particularly well, and to look for new opportunities. There are also a number of more advanced techniques people use. I’ll include a couple here as extra credit:
- The Search-Based Keyword Tool - Go to Opportunities > More tools … > Search-based Keyword Tool
I find this tool is very finicky, but useful if you can get it to work. It looks at your site and draws on Google Analytics data to come up with keywords relevant to your content. It also tells you which page each keyword is associated with, which can be very helpful for organizing keywords in to ad groups. Google won’t tell you this (as of this writing), but the tool only works if you are signed up for Google Analytics and have your Analytics and AdWords accounts linked. It also won’t work from an MCC login. If you don’t know what that means, you don’t need to worry about it.
- The Webmaster Tools Keyword Report - Log in to Webmaster Tools > [your domain] > Your Site on the Web > Search Queries
This report shows which keywords are driving traffic to your site via Google’s unpaid listings. This can be very helpful for identifying SEO opportunities, but also useful for paid search. You should be bidding on any keywords that are relevant to your business but for which you do not rank in the top few positions. In particular, this tool will show you keywords for which you are getting traffic, but rank poorly in organic search. For example, if you rank in position 9 for a keyword that is one of the top drivers of traffic to your site, you should add it to your paid search campaign. If you are not familiar with Webmaster Tools, click here to learn more: Webmaster Tools
There are also some subscription-based research tools that help the process of managing and growing keyword lists, Wordtracker and Keyword Discovery being two of the most well-known. I don’t believe these tools are worth it for an individual advertiser unless you find yourself spending many hours per month managing keywords.
Anyone have other suggestions for getting a keyword list put together quickly? I’d love to hear them if you do!
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