Nov 20 2018
Basis Technologies

10 Steps to a Higher-Performing Keyword List


You’ve done your keyword research. You’ve compiled a monster keyword list. You’ve run plenty of campaigns on that keyword list. You’ve worked hard trying to optimize your bids. You have analyzed and tweaked and done your best to make sense of the results.

But you can’t. Your ads don’t seem to produce the profits you seek, your keyword list isn't getting play and your superiors are wondering if you actually majored in marketing.

Nevertheless, this story is a familiar one to internet advertisers of all stripes. Keywords, while their harvesting and list-building is pretty straightforward, are actually monumentally difficult to make pay … at least until you know what you’re doing.

Luckily, there are some answers. In this article, we’ll discuss a wide variety of relatively simple tricks to help you boost your ads’ effectiveness. This includes understanding the difference between keywords and search terms, discarding irrelevant keywords, removing errors and extra characters in your lists, and tightening up your words and phrases.

It also will entail making ad groups more profitable by winnowing out underperforming keywords on your keyword list and organizing them more effectively, understanding the other uses of each keyword, using negative keywords to avoid bidding on them, and using your keywords and search terms on your site.

You likely know how to search for keywords, most likely using a free tool like the one provided in Google Ads, as well as how to segment your keyword list somewhat proficiently. Given that, we’ll provide you with tips to make them perform better and more efficiently during your campaigns.

Lastly, you probably already have outlined and executed a PPC strategy, even if it’s not yet paying off in the way that you want. If you haven’t, feel free to read and file these tips, although you might want to go back to basics first. Whatever stage you’re at amid your strategic PPC journey, you can benefit from these smart, easy steps. Let’s get started.

Step 1: Know the Difference Between Keywords and Search Terms

First and foremost, it’s critical to understand the difference between keywords you add to a keyword list and search terms. This is somewhat fundamental, but don’t feel offended: Many marketers still don’t understand the function of each. Simply put:

  • Search terms are what users actually type into their browsers when looking for something. When you open up Google, enter a word or phrase and run the algorithm, you have input a search term.

  • Keywords are words and phrases on which you bid to increase your chances of popping up when a user inputs a search term. When their search results display an ad for your product or service, it’s because you bid on that particular keyword.

This matters because a variety of search terms will funnel toward the same single keyword. For instance, if you sell prepackaged muffin mix, the following search queries might trigger any number of keywords. Once you run a campaign, you can look at the data to see which search queries triggered your keyword. This tells you two things:

  1. Which keywords are working (all in the first group and “best blueberry muffin mix” in the second group), which means you can add those search terms to your list as keywords.

  2. Which keywords aren’t working, namely “homemade blueberry muffin mix” and “blueberry muffin mix recipe,” neither of which are likely to interest a consumer in your prepackaged product

You can immediately add the pertinent keywords to your list. We’ll talk about what to do with the keywords that don’t work in Steps 5, 8, and 9.

Step 2: Understand What Your Ideal Customer Is Looking For

Understanding what your ideal customer is looking for and reflecting that in your keyword list is critical. First, that starts with researching queries rather than keywords on your keyword list. Keywords serve you, but only if you first make sure you’re serving prospects. And that comes from knowing their queries.

Again, you can perform this research in your own data. You can also use tools such as Google Trends, which will tell you what searchers are looking for. Once you have those queries, you can plug them into a keyword tool and see what you get.

The bottom line here is, what do you actually sell, and what are your ideal customers looking for? The more granular you can become with regards to defining intent, the further you go toward the long tail and low competition. It also nails the prospect’s experience when they hop online to do the research that will bring them to you.

Step 3: Learn More About Your Prospect’s Micro-Moments

Micro-moments are a fascinating new-ish idea stemming from Google’s research that “people are more loyal to their need in the moment, rather than any particular brand (as Tourism eSchool reports, 65% of smartphone users agree that when conducting a search on their smartphones, they look for the most relevant information regardless of the company providing the information)

What are your micro-moments? What do people come to search engines looking for in the moment, and how can you snag them when they need what you sell the most? For muffin mix companies, it might be school bake sales or holiday parties, Fourth of July picnics, or even a funeral, where no one has time to cook. It’s not your brand that will win them over, it’s your ability to take care of them in these situations.

So: What’s their time of need? How can you serve them in it? Now use the answers you come up with to run keyword searches, test them via campaigns and use the rest of these steps to keep the most valuable ones.

Step 4. Stop Wasting Closely Matched Keywords

While older PPC platforms used to reward variations of keywords, that’s no longer the case. Nowadays, search algorithms tend to weed them out using a rough version of the following rules:

  1. If at all possible, the system triggers an ad with a search term that is identical to the keyword.

  2. If you have multiple keywords on your keyword list with only slight variations (an alternate spelling such as “savory” vs “savoury” or an extra “s” on the end of a term), the system will still prefer the exact match.

  3. If several words on your keyword list appear to match, the system will choose the one with the highest Ad Rank.

  4. If a longer keyword containing a shorter keyword matches the search term equally well (e.g. “best muffin mix” vs “muffin mix”), the system will likely choose the longer keyword.

What does this tell you? That you’re not getting much out of your ad spend on words that are likely closely matched keywords, but are not in fact those words. So just cut them out entirely and stop the competition/wasted money.

Step 5. Discard Irrelevant Words From Your Keyword List

Remember when we talked about irrelevant keywords from your keyword list in Step 1? Well, there’s a good chance some of them are still on your list. How do we know? Because if you search “muffin mix” in Google Ads, you will pull up keywords that contain words such as “recipe,” “homemade” and “how to.”

These all tell you that searchers are looking to do something at home, probably right now (an irrelevant micro-moment). While a small subset of them might purchase your mix if it pops up, most will quickly look elsewhere ­– which means you’re ultimately wasting your ad spend.

You’ll also likely pull up terms relating to products that you, the “dedicated muffin mix maker,” just don’t carry. This begs the question -- do these keywords even have a place in your keyword list? Some marketers run their campaigns on the notion that any impression is a good impression. But is it? Are those impressions worth much if they don’t convert and steal spend from keywords that do?

The short answer is no, they do not have a place on your keyword list, and may in fact only be there because your marketing department has run lots of keyword searches, thrown everything into an Excel spreadsheet, and then failed to properly vet the list.

If you’re guilty of hoarding a long keyword list while also completely disinterested in combing through hundreds or thousands of keywords, we understand. Yet if you want your ads to perform, you must get those irrelevant keywords out of there.

Step 6. Tighten Up Your Keywords and Remove Errors

You can do further work to tighten up those words on your keyword list by weeding out misspellings and errors. Pure sloppiness is a waste of money, and because the system no longer rewards variations, the use of misspellings is low (if the system lets you input them at all).

Luckily, Google Ads is pretty good about returning clean keywords, as are most other research tools these days. (With the exception of some of the Amazon keyword-mining tools, which haven’t caught up.) Still, some misspellings do sneak in, as do duplicate spellings from other dialects.

In the case of a muffin mix vendor, the misspelling of “recipe” may not have been valid anyway, but the spelling of “savoury” has to go. So does anything along the lines of “mufin” or “bluberry” or any other obvious misspelling that’s just plain wrong.

Once you’ve removed errors and tightened up the words on your list, you will want to segment them appropriately to avoid keyword cannibalization. Perhaps you have ad groups dedicated to different flavors, how many ingredients they have to add, holidays, and school functions, among other things.

Step 7. Make Ad Groups More Effective by Removing Under-performing Keywords

This step is simple, but it’s not necessarily easy. In order to know which ads are under-performing, you need better tools to help you see which terms deliver results and which don’t, and to help you distinguish which is which. Machine learning and data science are probably your best bet because they create a wealth of usable data and deliver metrics you might never arrive at on your own. Plus, platforms that utilize such cutting-edge technologies do a better job of helping you maximize your ad spend and optimize the words from your keyword list that do work, so you can turn your attention to other aspects of your marketing, such as ad creative or search query research.

Step 8. Research the Other Uses of Your Keywords

Keywords can mean many things to many people. As we’ve seen, the keyword “muffin mix” can mean prepackaged or homemade.

According to the site, "I was looking through an Adwords account from another Adwords agency. One of the most used keywords was “Danish Swedish.” It was in the top 10 with most impressions, clicks, and cost. With that keyword people were searching for the search term “Danish-Swedish Farmdog” more than 80% of the time. It is all right if you are a dog breeder, but this client is a translation agency looking for big companies (It was not difficult to win that client after I show them this example).

Here’s where those terms from Step 1 – “homemade blueberry muffin mix” and “blueberry muffin mix recipe,” both of which may trigger your ad’s keyword “muffin mix” – come in again. To avoid these kinds of scenarios, make a chart of common search terms that might trigger your ad but aren’t related. Obviously, you’ll want to remove them from your keyword lists so you’re not bidding on them.

That said, you can use them in other ways

Step 9. Utilize a Negative Keyword List to Avoid Bidding on Unrelated Search Terms

Once again, we turn to the lesson in Step 1, that many search terms will trigger keywords even when the searcher isn’t actually interested in your product. If you want to save as much money and see the greatest results, you need to ensure irrelevant user searches can’t trigger your keywords.

This might seem similar to discarding irrelevant words, but it’s subtly different. That step means taking out keywords that don’t match your intentions, while this means actively blocking the keywords you do use from triggering search terms that don’t match your business and brand.

Let’s return to our muffin mix search. We’ve already crossed out the misspellings, because we don’t need those. Now we’ll focus on terms that could trigger your keyword “muffin mix,” but not for the right reasons.

First and most obviously, you want to avoid “muffin top,” because you’re not a fitness site, nor do you sell empire-waist shirts to hide your beltline. Most people who are searching for ways to make a streusel or something for the top of their muffins will search more specifically, and it’s likely that they still will be looking for a recipe. This is most obvious as a keyword (leave it off the keyword list!), but there’s still value in excluding it as a search term. While not that many searches for “muffin top” may trigger “muffin mix,” any that do represent waste.

Similarly, you might want to avoid the phrase “healthy muffin mix,” because someone who comes to your site and sees high-calorie treats geared toward holidays or birthdays will most definitely not be a customer.

When you do find those terms – healthy, recipe, muffin top, homemade, etc. – you can add them to a negative keywords list. That tells the system not to trigger your ads when someone searches for those words or phrases. That way, you’re not wasting your ad spend paying for people to see ads they don’t care about.

Step 10. Use Your Keywords on Your Site and Landing Pages

Ranking higher in organic search has value of its own, which is why it’s important to use good SEO practices. However, using a lot of those terms on your site will also help you achieve higher ad rank and provide more legitimacy for the human eyes that land on your pages. Incorporating an intelligent SEO campaign into your marketing efforts is critical if you want to see the most from your PPC endeavors, plain and simple.

In Summary

As with most things, putting in a little time up front to understand often subtle nuances in what makes keywords ideal for your campaign and what makes them irrelevant will quickly pay off both in the short and long term for your campaigns. While it might seem like common sense, taking the time for best practices such as removing errors and tightening up words and phrases, understanding exactly what your customer is looking for, researching other keyword uses, and removing under-performing keywords will make your campaigns more efficient and highly targeted -- which in turn, will lead to higher ROI and conversions. Ultimately, keywords define you, your brand, and your offerings to help you target the right customers in need of your products and services. Putting in the care to find the best keywords will give those customers a better path to find you as well.


To learn more about how you can build more effective, higher-performing keyword lists, connect with our digital media experts today.