lab icon by Felix Westphal
There are tons of great articles on how to do keyword research.
And rightly so. Finding the keywords that are most important to your business can be extremely valuable.
Unfortunately, most people’s attempts at keyword research ends up in a folder on their computer.
I’ve been guilty of this myself. I’ve delivered keyword research reports to clients and failed to help them to take action based on the findings.
So rather than attempting to describe the perfect keyword research process, the focus of this article will be to do keyword research that allows you to get your Adwords campaigns up and running.
To make the approach more practical I’ll do the actual keyword research to set up Adwords campaigns for my own online store, Apes In Space.
Let’s get started!
🛠 Bonus: follow along this post with your own keyword research worksheet. Grab it here!
Keyword research for Google Adwords vs SEO
As I said, my goal is for you to get your Adwords campaigns up and running. So I’m going to cut corners to speed up the whole process.
But before I show you which of the things I’m cutting out. I want to touch on how this is different from the traditional approach.
When you’re doing keyword research for SEO, you’re looking for the keywords that are worth investing time and resources in. You’re looking for the keywords that are valuable to rank for and then try to narrow down which are within your current potential.
For my own store, I sell space posters. I would start researching keywords like space posters, moon posters, nasa posters, etc.
When digging a bit deeper, I might discover that posters would be a super valuable keyword. But with a new site that’s just focused on one category of posters, it won’t be easy to rank for.
I do this for all keywords that I come across.
Then I would use this keyword research to optimize my site: make sure my homepage, category and product pages reflect these keywords. When that’s done I will start my content marketing process to rank for more of those keywords that I found.
My store sells posters, but I might blog about the best phone wallpapers. Or cover interesting developments in my industry as they happen.
Keyword research for Adwords is different because I will only research a subset of all possible keywords, the ones that have the highest potential ROI.
Let’s take a look at some differences between keywords.
The Different types of keywords
For the example in this section, pretend you are a seller of audio equipment.
Check out these 4 searches that someone used before they purchased one of your products:
- How to soundproof my room
- Best microphones for podcasting
- Blue yeti microphone black
Now let’s dig a bit deeper into each of these search queries.
Search query #1: “How to soundproof my room”
Main problem: this person wants to reduce the echo in a room.
We don’t know why, Maybe its because the room doesn’t feel cosy, or because they’ve heard people on the phone ask them if they’re in a hallway, instead of their lovely office. All we know is they want to know how to soundproof their room.
That means the purchase intent isn’t very strong. They’re trying to understand the exact problem and aren’t ready to settle on one solution yet.
So showing an advertisement for one specific product won’t be very effective.
Here is what the search results look like for that query:
The huge video and knowledge box below it shows that Google know that people looking for this search query have a problem they’re trying to solve.
There are some Shopping ads in the sidebar but these results are mostly focused on pointing people to the right place.
Search query #2: “microphones”
After heading off to YouTube and watching some videos, Leo (yes that’s our study object) has gotten a lot smarter about acoustics. He realizes that he can soundproof all his walls and still have poor quality.
So he wants to see if changing his microphone will actually improve the quality.
This is a very broad search, here is what that looks like in Google:
This broad category search is more commercial, you can see Shopping ads being featured more prominently.
But result #2 is wikipedia, so Google know this searcher is still looking for info.
Maybe he starts with the wikipedia pages to discover what the characteristics of a good microphone are and why some are cheap while others are expensive.
Search query #3: “best microphones for podcasting”
While researching, Leo has found that not all microphones are the same. Ones for singers are radically different from those used for podcasting, something he’s looking to get into.
So he now starts to dig deeper into the podcasting microphones.
In the organic search results, you can see a lot of lists, top 10, review sites:
Keyword #4: “blue yeti microphone”
From the previous search, he has learned a lot about podcast microphones and had made up his mind.
He wants to get the blue yeti microphone. And now wants to see where he can buy it and try to get the best deal.
In the results you can see pretty commercial listings: products pages, star ratings, pricings, etc.
I hope the long winded example from the previous section actually make it more obvious that there can be a lot of information packed into a small number of words. That’s what’s called keyword intent.
You can subdivide most queries into the following groups:
- Informational: how to, what
- Orienting: best, review, compare, etc.
- Transactional: product searches, price, buy
The most important lesson from the above is that not every search is equally valuable.
A visitor coming from a transactional search query will have a higher conversion rate and therefore higher value compared to an informational search query.
So if you have to pay for each click, it makes sense to only focus on the most valuable searches.
There often is little opportunity to advertise on informational queries on Adwords. You can see that when the Google search results show little to no ads (see search query #1 in the example above). In these cases, Google often doesn’t even bother to place ads, because it has seen from its experiments that users don’t click on them anyway.
But with other queries, people do click on the ads.
This difference between search queries is not a secret, Google knows it and so do your competitors. So if you’re going to advertise on Google Adwords, you’ll be focused on those orienting and transactional search queries.
If you’re doing keyword research for SEO, a lot of time is spent to find the keywords that will allow you to capture the long tail informational search queries.
But in what follows, we’ll skip that part and focus on orienting & transactional search queries.
Step 1: Seed Keywords
⏱ Time needed for this step: 30 mins – 1 hour
With all of that background, we can (finally!) start the keyword research.
To start, you’ll need to come up with some guesses for relevant keywords.
Look at your own site and take note of page titles, category, product names or brand pages. Look at the labels in your navigation.
The easiest ones are probably the 2-3 phrases that describe the category you’re in.
If you are selling your own or third party brands, youre seed keywords will include combinations of these: brand & brand + product.
For my own store I came up with these (mainly from my experience):
- Space posters
- Moon posters
- Nasa posters
- Spacex posters
If your store has been up for a while, you can crack open Search Console and see if you can spot interesting keywords there:
I haven’t got enough data in these reports to really discover new keywords. But they often contain very interesting keywords.
How To Steal Your Competitors Most Important Keywords
If you don’t have any idea about what keywords you should come up with, you can always head over to your competitors sites. Just plug in your top keywords into Google and go through your top 2-3 competitors.
The biggest ones have probably done their homework or spent $$$ on SEO consultants to get this right.
Here is a look at one of the biggest sites in the poster space: Allposters.com
I’ve found them through a Google Search for “space posters”.
Looking at the breadcrumbs of the page I landed on I can see that Space is probably not a big category for them:
It is grouped under the “other subjects” category its probably not a big category for them.
From their navigation and category pages I’ve seen a lot of other keywords:
- astronaut posters, including the name of the most famous ones.
- Apollo spacecraft posters
- Cassini Posters
- International space station posters
- Mars rover posters
- Space shuttle posters
- Space exploration posters
Probably the ONLY tool you need for keyword research is a spreadsheet. So that’s where I’ll be organising all of my information.
I’ve added all my own keywords and those from my competitor research to the first sheet:
Click here to see the actual spreadsheet, and copy it for your own research.
Step 2: Bring in the keyword tools
⏱ Time needed for this step: 1-4 hours
Now that we have our seed keywords, it is time to see if they make sense.
We’ll do that by using some keyword research tools. These will give us the search volumes and interesting alternatives like synonyms or related keywords.
Now the question that’s on everyone’s mind: which keyword tool should you use?
My default recommendation has always been Google Adwords’ very own Keyword Planner.
But the last couple of years it has lost a lot of its glory: it stopped showing all search queries, started grouping keywords into buckets for search volumes and made it a requirement that you have campaigns live in order to use it.
For SEO research I use some of the tools that I’ve listed below. But for Adwords I don’t need the data to be 100% accurate. So I still use it a lot, but I always keep in mind that the volumes aren’t accurate and that I’m not seeing all the keywords.
So I what follows I’m going to use the Keyword Planner. If you don’t have access or would like to use a different tool, great. The approach won’t be very different:
- Plug in a couple of related seed keywords
- Comb through the suggestions
- Add them to my list.
- Export list to your spreadsheet
For example: I start with space posters (If you’re paying attention you’ll see that I’m using All locations aka worldwide. For more accurate results it’s better to limit to the geographic region where you’ll be advertising in.)
You can see my seed keyword “space posters” up top. Next to it are a couple of columns: monthly searches, competition and suggested bid.
The monthly search volumes aren’t super accurate, but they give a good idea of the ballpark volume for any keyword.
Next I start scrolling.
From this first search I already stumble on a couple of interesting keywords I hadn’t considered: space prints, nasa prints, hubble prints, nasa space posters, nasa jpl posters, outer space posters, large space posters, etc.
I don’t know yet which keywords will be most interesting, so I save a lot of them to review and sort them in my spreadsheet later. Don’t just gloss over the first page, look on page 3 and 4 to find the gems.
If you spot obvious irrelevant keywords that are closely related to they keywords you’ve found, I also add them to my list. These will make a perfect negative keywords list to start out with. Otherwise I’d have to pay for that traffic to then exclude it.
Next I’ll repeat this process with the next keyword in my seed list: moon posters.
As you do this for all of your seed keywords, you’ll discover that you won’t add that many new ones, or the ones that remain have a low search volume (10-20 searches/month). That’s because the best ones are already in your list. Don’t worry about that and just keep expanding your list of keywords.
Then when you’re ready, export the list.
To see the full list, check tab 2 of the worksheet for the keyword dump from Keyword Planner.
If you can’t or don’t want to use Keyword Planner, you can also use other tools like Semrush or ahrefs. These will provide a similar set of keyword data. On top of that they will have extra features to discover the most valuable keywords. One of their biggest advantages is their competitor keyword research reports. That allows you to tap directly into your competitors Adwords campaigns.
You’ll see that this process is pretty straight forward for branded and product keywords. Usually it’s the generic keywords that you’ll spend most time one. After all, there are many ways to describe a product 🙂
Now that you have your huge keyword dump imported in your spreadsheet, we’ll need to review and sort each keyword.
Step 3: Review time
⏱ Time needed for this step: 1 – 4 hours
The previous step has produced 279 keywords. This is not a lot by the way, if you’re selling 100 products you can easily have 200 keywords just from the brand and products searches. So it depends how in-depth you’re doing this.
To get them into an Adwords campaign I need to review and group the most relevant ones together. After these groups will turn in Adwords ad groups.
In SEO, very low search volumes aren’t worth the effort. But in our Adwords campaigns, less searches simply means less cost. But these less searched for longer tails are usually valuable keywords. So the volumes are less relevant, more as an indicator.
Take a look at the sorting process:
I’ve created 16 groups and besides the most obvious ones, I’m also creating a column for negative keywords & content. These will help me sort quicker.
Next you need to decide which keywords you want to start advertising on. For me I’m going to exclude the ones where I don’t have a good products for yet. I’ve marked them in red.
Because these generic keywords are of the orienting type, people still want to browse so if I don’t have a good collection, I’d rather not pay for the traffic.
The largest amount of keywords came from the retro NASA posters. NASA gives them away fro free so advertising on these keywords is going to attract a lot of people to the site that have no intent on buying anything, so I’m also excluding them.
Next let’s put these into a Google Adwords campaign.
Step 4: Setting up the Adwords campaigns
⏱ Time needed for this step: 1-4 hours
We’ve found the most interesting, transactional search queries for our store and we’ve sorted them in closely related groups.
The next step is to from these columns in the spreadsheet to working Adwords campaigns.
There are two things you need to decide: which campaigns and ad groups are you going to create.
Here are a couple of guidelines to help you decide that:
Set up separate campaigns for:
- Your brand name(s)
- Your competitors brands
- Other brands and products that you sell
- Generic keywords
Set up separate ad groups for keywords for:
- Different subjects (don’t mix keywords related to fridges and freezers)
- Different intents (people searching for discounts vs searching for specs)
These are just guidelines, you don’t have to follow them. You can go more extreme: single keyword ad groups or having huge ad groups.
But keep the number of keywords in each group limited. Otherwise you’ll have a tough time setting up advertisements that address the questions that searchers might have.
In the example I’ve been following in the previous steps, I will create two campaigns:
- Search – Branding – US
- Search – Generic – US
The columns that I created in step 3 were already good, but I’ve made them even more granular to really make sure that I know what the person is looking for with each search query.
Here is what my ad groups look like:
Search – Branding – US
- Apes in space
Search – Generic – US
- Space posters
- NASA posters
- Earth posters
- Mars posters
- Mars rover posters
- Moon posters
- Moon landing posters
- Apollo posters
- Saturn v postersk
- Apollo 8 posters
- Apollo 11 posters
- Apollo 12 posters
- Apollo 15 posters
- Spacex posters
- spacex retro posters
- Spacecraft poster posters
- Space Shuttle posters
If you want to have a look yourself, check tab 4 of the worksheet.
Getting to that level forces you to consider the validity of each keyword. I’ve created a whole new column with keyword: Future. Meaning they are good for my business, but I don’t have any products in my catalog yet to advertise on them.
That means that I should add them to my negative keywords for the time being.
Further you’ll see that I have 2 big ad groups: space posters and NASA posters. I might have to split these up when the campaigns go live.
So with said, the initial phase of the keyword research is completed and my campaigns are ready to go live.
Step 5: Keyword expansion
⏱ Time needed for this step: ongoing effort while optimizing your campaigns
Most people think they keyword research is done once the campaigns are live.
But with Google Adwords, keywords research only starts when you put your campaigns live. Because if you’ve set them up well, new keywords ideas will keep flowing into your account.
Both ideas for improving your campaigns: new interesting and highly relevant keywords, but you’ll also find plenty of keywords to add to your negative keyword lists.
Maybe one ad group has a lot of keywords and you want to break it up to write and ad and landing page that are even more specific.
Your goto source for this information is the Search Terms report in the Keywords section of your Adwords account:
You can get these reports on the account, campaign or ad group level.
If you spend a lot of time doing keyword research before you start your campaign, you won’t have that much work keeping up with new keywords.
But if you quickly skipped through the steps above, the ongoing campaign optimization will give you a lot more work.
We went from having a vague idea about keywords, to discovering some gems and actually putting it into an Adwords campaign.
Besides this, going through this process usually give a lot of good ideas. For me I have come up with new product ideas, new collections I can create (for kids for example) and new content I could create.
🛠 Bonus: if you want to do this for your own online store, grab the worksheet I’ve been working with and go through the whole process. I’m sure you’ll find a lot of interesting gems.
Got a different process or tool for finding interesting keywords? Let me know in the comments!