The Ideal Number Of Keywords Per Ad Group

A while back, one of our new hires asked a great question over IM about the number of keywords in an ad group. Here’s a paraphrased version of how the conversation went down:

New Hire: I’ve been told an ideal number of keywords in an ad group is around 15. If you have much more than 15, what are the chances all the words are relevant? Are smaller ad groups better, like in the 5 word range? Does it just make it more tedious to manage having a lot of small ad groups?

Melissa Mackey: Yeah, there comes a point of diminishing returns when you go below 10-15 keywords. That said, I’ve had 1-keyword ad groups for a very high volume term. It just depends – like a lot of things in PPC.

NH: Ok, so you look at diminishing returns and term popularity.

MM: Right, as a rule that works. Also, you might want to isolate smaller groups of keywords to improve quality score. So for example, if you have a few keywords with decent volume and poor quality score, you’d move them to try to improve it.

NH: What if you have a small ad group where one term gets impressions/clicks and the other one is extremely light?

MM: That’s usually ok as long as quality score is relatively similar.

Was I right about that? I’ll get to that in a second.

The “right” number of keywords in an ad group is a subject of much debate. I found a Quora thread that had as many different “right answers” as there were commenters in the thread.

Brad Geddes weighed in on the magic number of keywords in an ad group on the Certified Knowledge blog. Short answer? There is no magic number of keywords – it depends.

A poster on the Adwords Community forum does a good job of illustrating the concept, but then says 5-15 keywords is the right number.

I agree with him, to a point. I usually strive for no more than 15 keywords per ad group. But I also have ad groups with 50 keywords or more, and that’s fine too. It just depends.

The difference comes in whether the ad group is large because there is a large number of related terms out there, or whether the ad group is large simply due to laziness or lack of time. I recently did some keyword research around healthcare marketing, and there are a LOT of variations of “healthcare marketing” that are all closely related.

So how do you decide if you should split up a large ad group into smaller ones?

Look for similarities.

The first thing I do is look for similarities: in keyword theme, performance, or quality score. In fact, while I often say you shouldn’t optimize based on quality score alone, you can use it as a guide here in ad group development. Often the quality score will tell you what Google thinks is similar about the terms.

Quality score also helps you think about ad copy and landing page needs. If you have a bunch of relevant keywords with a low quality score and you’re not in an industry with traditionally low quality scores, then maybe your landing page isn’t relevant. Or maybe your ad copy needs to be tightened up. Creating new ad groups can be a way to deal with both issues.

Consider grouping by match type.

Sometimes it makes sense to group keywords by match type, to aid in keyword research and control cost per click by match type. I’ve found this especially effective for smaller accounts in niche markets where it’s hard to mine for new keywords simply by using search query reports. In larger accounts, grouping by match type just makes for unnecessary management time.

In fact, too many ad groups often become cumbersome to manage. Even a couple hundred ad groups can be super time consuming – I speak from experience on this. Single keyword ad groups (SKAGs) do make sense, but your entire account shouldn’t be full of them. You don’t want to end up in a situation like this:

twitter convo

This example is less about too many ad groups and more about an unreal number of negatives, but you get the point.

To me, the ideal number of keywords in an ad group is…. It depends. Surprise!

What’s your rule of thumb on number of keywords per ad group? Do you have a rule of thumb, or do you decide on the fly? Share in the comments!

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4 Unconventional Ways To Do PPC Keyword Research

Ah, keyword research. It’s probably the most fundamental element of PPC, and one of the first things we all learned how to do. When I started doing PPC in 2002, keyword research tools were few and far between. I’m not sure Google even had a tool – or if they did, it was very rudimentary. I remember the GoTo/Overture keyword tool being more robust than Google’s, which is hard to believe now. We used paid tools like Wordtracker for PPC keyword research back in those days.

But enough of the walk down memory lane. Nowadays, PPC keyword research seems straightforward – just go to the Google or Bing keyword tool and take it from there. Or if you want to get really crazy, you might use Bing Ads Intelligence. These are great starting points, and I usually begin here as well. But there are a few drawbacks to using those tools:

•    Suggestions are intended to maximize the engine’s revenue, not yours
•    Your competitors are likely using the same tools and ending up with the same keywords
•    Sometimes, the suggestions are flat-out terrible

So what’s a good PPC manager to do? Here are 4 unconventional ways to do PPC keyword research.

Competitor Tools

Using a tool like SEMrush, Spyfu or Adgooroo, you can learn what keywords your competitors are bidding on. While the competition may have started their keyword research process with a Google or Bing tool, chances are that if they’ve been using PPC for a while, they’ve added new terms to their list that the tools didn’t uncover. Piggy-back off their efforts by using a competitor research tool to find your competitors’ keyword lists.

Here’s an example from SEMrush for Verizon:

Sure, a lot of the keywords on the list are branded terms – no surprise there. But as you dig down, you’ll see other terms that might work for you. Note the misspelling of “Verison” – that’s a gold mine in and of itself. If you’re up for bidding on competitor terms, misspellings can perform quite well.

While most competitor tools require a monthly subscription, they usually offer some type of free trial or free limited use. Here’s a snapshot from Spyfu’s free option:

The traffic info alone is valuable, and you can use the short list of keywords as a jumping-off point for further research.

Google News and Google Alerts

This one takes a little more work, but can pay off big. Set up Google Alerts for your brand, and read everything that comes through on it for a week or so. Set them up for competitors too. The idea is to learn how others talk about your brand and the products and services you offer. You might refer to your products as one thing, while your customers search for another.

The other great thing about Google Alerts is that it captures up-to-the-minute info on how people talk about you. This will help surface new keywords or phrases that are just coming into vogue.

Take some time to comb through Google News on your brand, and on key products as well. This is important not only for positive keywords, but for negatives as well. If a crime takes place at one of your places of business, for instance, you don’t want your ad showing up for searches for info on the crime investigation. Same thing goes for any key employees of your company that might be in the news, good or bad. Searches for these types of things generally do not lead to conversions, so add the phrases or names as negatives.

An added side bonus of watching Alerts and News is that you might find gems about your company that would be good to share in social media, and maybe even paid social.

Assist Keywords

This technique is a bit riskier, but can pay off with big rewards. If you’re using multi-channel funnels in Google Analytics, you can run a report that shows which keywords “assisted” a conversion – that is, keywords that people use on their way to completing a conversion.

People might search on broader keywords before eventually converting. Drill down in your multi-channel funnel report by filtering for organic search traffic only, and then find the keywords that generated assists:

In this list, you can see that most of the keywords come up (not provided). That’s a frustrating matter for another post. But there are still several gems here: actual search terms that generated assists, but few to no last-click conversions. These are the terms you want to add to your keyword list.

You usually won’t find many keywords this way, but some of these might be valuable terms that you wouldn’t find using other keyword tools.

Use PPC engine opportunities as negative keywords.

I wrote about this a few weeks ago, so I won’t go into the detailed how-to here. Suffice it to say that what the engines think are “opportunities” for keywords might not be ideal for your account, and many may not even be relevant. Instead of just rejecting the ideas, use them for negative keywords! I’ve found this to be a quick way to add lots of negatives without combing through search query reports.

Bonus resources!

If you’re looking for more keyword research tools, check out this post from Portent and this one from PPC Hero.

What’s your go-to keyword research hack? Share in the comments!

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3 Sneaky Ways To Bid On Competitor Keywords

In the advertising world, most businesses have to deal with competitors. In traditional media, many publishers offer competitive separation, where your ads will be separated by physical space (in print) or time (in broadcast) from your competition.

In search, though, your ads appear alongside your competitors. A search for books will yield ads from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and possibly local retailers. They’re all competing with one another, on the same web page, for the click.

Many PPC advertisers are interested in bidding on their competitor’s brand names. Why not try to take visitors away from the other guys? It seems easy to do – but quality score creates a challenge.

Anyone who’s ever tried to bid on competitor brands has probably gotten hit with poor quality scores. It makes sense – after all, if I searched for “Target stores,” why would I want to see ads from Walmart? The search engines know this, so they slap anyone who’s not Target with a quality score of 1 or 2.

Still, there may be good reasons to bid on your competitor’s brands. Maybe you’re new to the market and need awareness. Maybe there’s confusion between your brand and a competitor, and you’re hoping to capitalize on that. Whatever the reason, it is possible to bid on competitor brands and get decent quality scores and traffic. Her are 3 sneaky ways to bid on competitor keywords.

Bid on misspellings.

Does your competitor have a hard-to-spell or easily misspelled brand? Gather up all the possible misspellings and bid on them. Misspellings, to the search engines, are vague – do you mean the brand, or do you mean something else? When it’s not clear, your ad has a better chance of appearing.

Here’s an example:

I meant to search for “esurance” – the auto insurance company. But I typed “ensurance” instead. Esurance still showed up as the top ad.

But look at the second ad. It reads awkwardly – they’re probably using dynamic keyword insertion (DKI) – but the query I typed is in the ad twice, and therefore it’s bolded and stands out. They also have 6 sitelinks showing – more than the other advertisers in the top ads. And they’re promoting “Low Rates.” I had to read the ad carefully to realize it wasn’t for the company I meant to search for. Most users wouldn’t read carefully – they’d just click.

Clever use of DKI, along with features like sitelinks, can help your ad stand out on misspellings of your competitor’s brands.

Bid on “cancel” keywords.

I saw this tip on Twitter, and it’s revolutionized my competitor keyword campaigns:

tweet for cancel
What better way to reach disgruntled customers of competitors and woo them your way than by bidding on keywords used by those who want to cancel?

Not only is this tactic smart, it’s effective in counteracting the poor quality score usually seen on competitor terms. Here’s an example:

non cancel kws

Nearly every competitor brand name has a quality score of 2 and is rarely shown due to low quality score.

But look at the “cancel” keywords:

cancel QS

Quality score jumped from 2 to 4-5, and even 10 in one case! And the “cancel” keywords are getting click-through rates that are well above average. Better yet, they’re driving leads.

If you’re in a service or contractual business, adding “cancel” terms to your keyword list can dramatically improve results in your competitor campaigns.

Use all the weapons available to you.

It almost goes without saying that successful competitor campaigns need great ad copy. A killer offer and reasons to choose you usually perform well. I’ve seen competitors use exclusive, super-deal offers for competitor campaigns that aren’t promoted anywhere else, just to grab those conquest clicks.

Getting creative in your ad copy doesn’t hurt either. Look at the Olive Garden ad on the search for Applebee’s:

better ad copy

Not only is the Olive Garden ad clever, it’s also earned ad annotations from Bing Ads, showing they have 205,900 followers on Twitter and have been visited by 100K users in the past month.

While advertisers can’t control ad annotations, they can control ad extensions. Use them to make your ad stand out on the page. You’ll need to earn a spot on the top of the page for most extensions to show, but ad extensions can be a real differentiator.

Consider this search result for, ironically, search competitor intelligence tools:

competitor serp
Adgooroo isn’t bidding on their brand, and SpyFu is taking advantage. They’re using callout extensions and Google+ extensions to make their ad stand out on the page. I’ve also seen call extensions and location extensions used successfully on competitor ads – imagine if you discover that the business you were searching for is further away than a competitor offering the same thing!

Give the searcher every possible reason to contact you instead of the competition, and your competitor campaigns can be a good source of quality traffic and sales or leads.

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared at Search Engine Watch on December 16, 2014.

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Eliminating Ambiguity in PPC

Time for a pop quiz! What do the following have in common? You have 30 seconds to give your answer. Ready? Go!

•    Tesla
•    Madonna
•    Prince
•    Washington
•    Sam Adams
•    Chojuro

Did you figure it out? If you said “they’re all famous people,” you’re right. But only partially right.

All the names above are ambiguous. They have more than one meaning. Think about it: Madonna could be the singer, or the Mother of Christ, or a college, or a statue.

madonna search

When you say Tesla, do you mean the man, the band, or the coil?

tesla search

Prince and Washington have probably 100 meanings between the two of them. And so on.

In normal conversation, ambiguity is often eliminated by the context. If you’re talking about concerts you saw this summer, and you mentioned Madonna, it’s pretty clear who and what you’re talking about. Same thing goes for Tesla.

In PPC, though, the context is in the mind of the searcher. When we search for something, we know what we mean – but the search engine may not. As a result, especially with one-word queries, you fall into the ambiguity trap. You might be paying for visitors who weren’t searching for Madonna concert tickets – they were interested in information about the local Madonna University.

Celebrity names aren’t the only ambiguous search terms out there. In a recent conversation about ambiguous keywords on the PPC Chat hashtag on Twitter, Bryant Garvin pointed out the fact that all of the Choice Hotel brands have fairly generic names:

•    Comfort Inn
•    Comfort Suites
•    Quality Inn
•    Sleep Inn
•    Clarion
•    Cambria Suites
•    Mainstay Suites
•    Suburban
•    Econolodge
•    Rodeway Inn
•    Ascend Hotels

Now, this is by no means a dig at Choice Hotels. They’ve built great brands that are recognizable and familiar to travelers across the US. Still, every single brand name except maybe Econolodge has multiple meanings – and that’s where the challenge for PPC’ers comes in.

Fortunately, there are several techniques for clearing up ambiguity in PPC.

Don’t Bid on One-Word Keywords

This is going to be your best bet for steering clear of those irrelevant and ambiguous meanings. Just don’t do it!

Make sure you’re bidding on long-tail phrases. Tighten up your match types so you don’t get broad-matched to the irrelevant searches by accident. Don’t give the search engines the chance to show your ad on ambiguous searches!

But let’s do a reality check. I know there are times where bidding on single-word keywords is a must. Maybe it’s your brand name (e.g., Madonna, Tesla, Prince). Maybe your CEO is insisting that you show up for that one word, no matter the cost. Maybe a lot of people really are looking for you when they search for that word. Let’s talk about some ways to rein in the ambiguity.

Find Out All the Other Meanings of Your Keywords

This may seem obvious, but I’d be willing to bet that nearly every PPC professional has stumbled across new meanings for their keywords that they weren’t aware of. Just today, for example, I learned that “spice” is a slang drug term. Who knew?

Here’s where your keyword research tools come in. Scan through the list of results to see if any weird ones show up.

Google the term and see what appears in the SERPs. Ask your friends and coworkers if they’re aware of other meanings for the word. Go old school: get out your good old dictionary (or go to and look up the word. Urban Dictionary is another great resource for alternative meanings of words and phrases.

Add the Irrelevant Meanings as Negatives

When you’re bidding on ambiguous terms, a huge negative keyword list is a must. Take all the irrelevant meanings of the word you can think of, and add them as negative keywords. Then add more.

A great source of common negative keywords can be found here. Add every single negative that doesn’t apply to you, so you can be sure to capture only the most relevant traffic.

You’ll also want to get into the habit of running search query reports. You may even want to run them daily (this can be automated – here’s how), at least at first. Relentlessly add every single irrelevant search query as a negative keyword.

Make Your Ad Copy Crystal Clear

Clear, concise ad copy is a best practice no matter what keywords you’re using. But with ambiguous terms, it’s vital to the success of your campaign.

Now is the time to go overboard with repetition. Repeating your keyword in context will go a long way in deterring irrelevant clicks on your ads.

For example, if you’re selling Madonna concert tickets, your ad could say:

•    Madonna Concert Tickets
•    Get Madonna Concert Tickets Here
•    Buy Madonna Concert Tickets Online

I know it looks and sounds ridiculous; but it will really drive home the fact that you’re not advertising about the Mother of Christ, college, or anything but Madonna the singer.

As with all PPC ad copy, testing is crucial. Test the ad above against another, more “normal” ad. See which performs better. Then test again.

With careful planning and testing, you can indeed eliminate, or at least greatly reduce, ambiguity in PPC.

What techniques have you used?

Author’s Note: Special thanks to #PPCchat participants Dennis Petretti, Bryant Garvin, Chris Kostecki, Luke Alley, and James Zolman for inspiring this post.

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on Search Engine Watch on August 28, 2012.

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A 12-Step Program to Improve Your CTR

It’s common to hear veteran search marketers at conferences and in social media talking a lot about PPC conversion rate — so much so that those new to PPC may think that conversion rate is the end all.

Conversion rate is important, to be sure. I’d even say it’s very, very important. But before a PPC ad can generate a conversion, it needs to generate a click. PPC ads are no good if no one clicks on them.

If you’re new to PPC, or if you want to improve your click-through rate (CTR), here’s a 12-step program to help you.

Step 1: Bid on Relevant Keywords

PPC beginners are often tempted to bid on high-volume keyphrases that are only marginally related to their business. Take, for example, a hotel/casino that wants to bid on “Texas hold-em.” While people indeed play this game at a casino, it isn’t relevant if the goal is to sell hotel room nights.

Don’t fall into this trap. Searchers have gotten sophisticated. If your ad isn’t relevant to the search phrase, they just won’t click on it and your CTR will suffer.

Step 2: Bid on Specific, Not General, Keywords

This is related to Step 1, yet is slightly different. Taking the hotel/casino example, you might be tempted to bid on “hotels.” While this term has significant search volume, it’s too general and is unlikely to drive many, if any, clicks.

Step 3: Use 2, 3, or 4 Word Keyphrases

Years ago, one-word searches like “hotels” were common. Nowadays, searchers have become more specific in what they search for, and it’s common to see search queries with four or more words.

Jason Tabeling wrote an informative article with research showing that CTR was highest on keywords containing two, three, or four words. Our experience has been similar: one word is not specific enough, but more than five shows diminishing returns.

Step 4: Create Small, Tightly-Themed Ad Groups

Tightly-themed ad groups make it easy to write relevant ad copy that will generate clicks. A common rule of thumb is 10-15 keyword phrases per ad group.

This ensures that your ads will be relevant to the search phrase, and increases the chance of a click. This in turn will help drive a good quality score.

Step 5: Include the Keyphrase in Ad Copy Whenever Possible

If you’ve set up your ad groups as described in Step 4, this should be relatively easy to do. Search engines bold the search phrase in both organic and paid results, so including the keyphrase or keyphrases in the ad copy ensures they will be bolded, which helps your ad stand out. Ads that stand out get better CTR.

Step 6: Use Dynamic Keyword Insertion

Dynamic keyword insertion (DKI) is a feature that automatically inserts your bidded keyphrase into your ad text. It’s a great way to make sure Step 5 above happens.

That said, use DKI with caution: make sure you’re not inserting misspellings or other awkward phrases into your ad copy!

Step 7: Include a Price in Your Ad Copy

An old adage in classified advertising says that if you don’t include a price in your ad, people will assume you’re selling something expensive.

Calm those fears by including the price in your ad upfront. Even better, include the price in the ad headline — it’ll attract attention and clicks.

Step 8: Include Action Words in Your Ad Copy

Including action words (e.g., exclusive, limited time, online only, 1-day sale, etc.) adds a sense of urgency to your offering. Adding urgency encourages click-throughs.

Step 9: Include Symbols in Your Ad Copy

If applicable, include symbols such as ©, ™, ®, and even the plus sign (+) or ellipses (…) can make a significant difference in CTR. Symbols make your ad stand out on the page.

Step 10: Use Ad Extensions

Google offers several different types of ad extensions: Location, Phone, Products, and Sitelinks. Take advantage of them. While these don’t display on every search, you’ll take up valuable screen real estate when they do show up.

Step 11: Be Creative With Your Ad Copy

Let’s face it: There’s not a lot of space in PPC ad copy. With only 25 characters for a headline and 70 for a description, it’s tempting to put “just the facts” in your ad copy and forget about being creative.

Don’t! When I’ve tested ad copy that I thought was too “wacky” to be effective, I’ve often been surprised by the results.

Remember, PPC often generates results in a short period of time, so if an ad isn’t working, you can always pause it. You might even try an ad like this:

Step 12: Engage in Ad Copy Testing

Ad copy testing is one of the biggest benefits of PPC, yet I’m always surprised by the number of advertisers who don’t take advantage of it. The most successful PPC advertisers are continually testing and refining ad copy — take a page from their book and set up your own tests now!
Go ahead — give a few of the 12 steps a try!

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Search Engine Watch on March 23, 2011.

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