4 Unconventional Ways To Do PPC Keyword Research

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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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  1. Great advice once again Mel,

    Finding numerous related keywords has always been fairly easy. The challenge for us is taking the time to determine what the intent is behind that keyword and how it relates to the focus or theme of campaigns and adgroups.

    At the start one important question we ask clients surrounds their tolerance for aggressive high risk, high volume, or conservative low risk lower volume deployment. You can start with a huge block of traffic and whittle it down over time into a fully optimized account, or you can build slowly with low traffic volume and a conservative campaign.

    If the account is new or light on data, then we can use data from similar accounts in the same vertical. This is when a client can find real value in using an agency that has a deep history conducting PPC in their vertical. We have accumulated a body of knowledge (all targeting criteria including keywors) that we can leverage into all new accounts.

    We generally employ a “service + activity” or “service + goal” , “Service + GEO” keyword modifier taxonomy.

    Mature accounts:
    I rely on the keyword details reports heavily to find insight into actual search terms. Most often its a source to build out negative keyword sets.

    • Melissa Mackey says

      Good points, Jerry – risk tolerance is a big factor in keyword buildouts. Some clients are fine with risk, others aren’t. And some industries have legal matters to consider around keywords as well. Thanks for your comment, great to hear from you as always!

  2. Loved the ideas. But you know I use keywords which properly finds my site pages but no visitors (clicks). It think those keywords are related to my offerings but people take other results more click worthy.
    This way paid results compensate for orgainic visitors.
    What is your views?

  3. Great ideas Melissa

  4. Jeff Clear says


    I love the assisted conversions idea for keyword research. But why would you just use the keywords that generated assists but few to none last click conversions? Why would you not use the keywords that generated assists and generated many last click conversions?

    Thanks for a great post!


    • Melissa Mackey says

      Well, theoretically the keywords that had last click conversions are already in your account. You might find some organic keywords with last click conversions that aren’t in there, and for sure you would add those. But with not provided being so prevalent, you probably won’t find many of those.

      • Jeff Clear says

        So is this analytics report tracking the organic traffic that converts on the same thank you page url that has adwords conversion tracking on it?

        • Melissa Mackey says

          No, the screen shot I showed is from Google Analytics, not Adwords. It shows organic traffic that converted on any conversion page throughout the entire site. This has nothing to do with Adwords conversion tracking, it’s all based on GA goals. Hope that clears it up!

  5. Indeed a great post about keyword research.

    It is true that keyword research is the very 1st step to target the right traffic from search engines like Google. I have seen so many people who never does keyword research and always keep themselves busy in writing articles on different different random keywords which is not good.

    If We really want to get potential traffic which can converts easily then we must have to target the right keyword.

    For a productive work, every expert suggest to target long tail keywords with having low competition. Because long tail keywords with low competition are easily to rank rather than short tail high competitive keywords.

    I always use Google Keyword Planner to check the keyword search volume and Long Tail Pro for keyword competition score. I am glad that You have covered such an indepth article on keyword research.

    Thanks for sharing it with us. 😀


  1. […] 4 Unconventional Ways to Do PPC Keyword Research: We all know the usual tool suspects. Here are a few ways to break out of the pattern and still get the keyword ideas you need. […]

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