The PPC Guide for Beginners, Part 4: Finding Your Keywords


This is Part 4 of a 5-part series. Read the rest of the articles here:

You use them to find what you want, to order what you want, and to get what you want. They can hurt you, infuriate you, or enrich you. And once you let them go, you can never get them back.


The internet is based on words, and Google earns billions of dollars per year from Ad “Words.”

Ask someone to help you plan a pay-per-click campaign, or for advice on how to get your website ranking higher in organic search results, and one of the first things you will be asked is, “Which keywords do you want to rank for?”

Words are essential to internet marketing—that is why there is so much focus given to finding and using the right ones.

This is a primer for those who want to cut to the chase. It is for those who want to succeed at PPC advertising and rank higher in the unpaid (organic) search engine results.

I’ll use a case example to talk about keywords here. Chances are really high that your business is not the same as the case study. That is one reason why I chose this particular business. But you can take the principles—the all-important, crucial fundamentals—and apply them to any endeavor you want.

A Business Is Born

Mike Carlson began working with leather as a hobbyist. He found the work relaxing and enjoyable. One day, Mike made a cover for one of his favorite books. It was handcrafted, hand-dyed genuine leather, and it was beautiful. One of Mike’s friends, a member of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), saw the book cover and said, “Wow, I would love to have one of those for my AA Big Book!”

PPC KeywordsSo Mike designed one. He even imprinted his friend’s initials and the AA triangle into the cover. Mike’s friend took the book to an AA meeting, where others saw it and wanted to know how to get a leather book cover of their own.

Mike’s hobby was now a business.

He made another cover for himself—this one to help shore up his time-worn old Bible. He took it to Church services with him. Folks wanted to know where he got it. “Why, from Mike’s Leather,” said Mike with a grin.

Now, business was beginning to boom.

Mike figured he could launch a website to let others know about his leather book covers. Maybe he could even quit his day job and work leather fulltime. That idea really got his engine going. But how could he do that?

Getting a WordPress site launched wasn’t too difficult, although the shopping cart took some doing, but how could he get his site to rank on the search engine results page (SERP) and draw more customers? Having something to sell is a start, but attracting buyers builds a business.

Mike needs to attract customers. Pay-per-click advertising and search engine optimization (SEO) can help him do that—but which words should he use to get the best results from his efforts?

Let’s look at the simple plan Mike is beginning to put into action. It is possible to go much deeper into each of the topics here. It is also possible to get overwhelmed and confused by them. Let’s keep it simple. Once you have the basics going, you can always bump the ante.

How to Find Keywords: A 3-Step Plan

Step 1: What are you trying to accomplish?

We spoke about goals in Part 2 of this series. It is essential to know what you hope to accomplish before you begin a job. Otherwise, you won’t know whether or not you succeeded.

Typical PPC goals include securing leads for the sales team, increasing direct sales, providing information to drive brand awareness, contributing to the SEO effort, reputation management, and so on.

The more specific and clearly defined you make your goals, the better chance you have of attaining them.

Mike’s primary goal is to get more orders, and he has a definite figure for gross sales in mind. He has also set a date for when Mike’s Leather will become his sole occupation.

Question: What is your primary goal?

Step 2: Who are you speaking with?

Marketing begins with the customer, and it is unlikely that “everyone” is going to need, want, and have the ability to afford your product or service. Before you know which words to use, you must know who you are speaking with—and you must know the language that person uses.

Mike used three tools to better identify his customer base:

  1. He asked. This is the best, yet most difficult to enact, way to get information about your customers. Their favorite topic is the same as yours. Give them a chance to tell you all about themselves—whether by way of a customer opinion poll, customer service interview, or friendly chat at the cash register—and they won’t want to stop talking (or shopping). The primary thing you want to know is this: Why did your customers choose you? What is it about your business that draws their patronage?
  2. He performed some external database research. Databases are marvelous things. Armed with the customer information you already have (names, receipts, addresses, etc.) you can look closely at your customers to determine their profiles. The process is called data mining, and it has become big (albeit controversial) business. Can you accurately identify the attributes of the customers who spend the most money with you? Do you know their generational tendencies, their hobbies, and whether they are also shopping with your competitors? Data miners know all of that and more. Take a look at Nielsen’s Segment Explorer to see how the big boys do it. Learn more about demographics with Social Explorer. Get a quick glimpse at your website from Alexa. Or locate a public library with access to Reference USA. Data mining is not only for major corporations and government shenanigans anymore. You and I can join the fun.
  3. He considered internal analytics data for his website. Analytics programs mine data from your website. Analytics can uncover exactly which keywords prospective customers are currently using to find you. Analytics can not only tell you which words work (compelling people to stay and buy), but which words don’t work (compelling people to click away immediately). You can also determine which pages and posts on your website are gaining the most attention, where your visitors come from and where they go when they leave, the times of day and days of the week that are most (and least) active, where your visitors are located geographically, the impact of mobile devices on your business, and much more. Mike waited a while before adding analytics to He wishes he would have done it sooner.

Mike already knew his most frequent customers belong to groups centered on spiritual development and recovery issues. By looking deeper, he was able to better identify them by gender, age, income level, and a number of other key factors. He used that information to compile personas for his customers. That has given him a much better idea of how to approach each segment of his audience. When Mike sets his PPC strategy, these personas will be the primary differentiator for his Ad Groups.

Mike’s job will be to get his products noticed and then build desire for them. He knows, from field-tested experience, that those who own a special book, and see his book covers, invariably end up wanting one. The words and images he uses must attract the attention of those people.

With a resolute effort at identifying your customers, you can glean information that will allow you to focus your PPC marketing efforts in the right direction, at the right time, to the right people. You can spend less and earn more.

What are the attributes of your primary audience?

PPC Audience

Step 3: Perform a keyword search

This is the place most people begin. That is why so many fail. If you aren’t sure who you are speaking with or what they want from you, how can you choose effective words with which to communicate?

Mike’s audience lends itself to segmentation. Yours probably does too. Looking to his current sales, he sees that most of his orders are for AA Big Book leather covers. Next, in order volume, are Bible leather covers, then rare and specialty books covers. Let’s drill down to take a look at his best customer group: members of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Here is how Mike can reach his goal (and how you can reach your goal)

Mike wants more orders, and he knows that AA members, once they see his handcrafted leather Big Book covers, want to buy one. He first sets up a landing page to show photos of his work and make it super easy for a viewer to place an order.

His next job is to attract the attention of potential customers and convince them to click through to his landing page. To do that, he plans to keep it simple and use PPC text ads to begin. Later, he will develop display ads (to show off his covers) and use split testing to determine which method pulls more orders.

Mike begins by making a list of the primary words that relate to his product. What are the shortest possible keywords someone from his most promising audience could use to find him?

  • Big Book covers
  • AA book covers
  • recovery book covers
  • leather book covers
  • Mike’s Leather

He sets up a three-column Excel spreadsheet to record them, putting his primary keywords into the center column. In the first column, he lists words and phrases a searcher might use in front of the primary words:

  • where to find
  • best
  • where to get
  • good deal on
  • genuine

In the third column, Mike lists the words and phrases someone might place after his primary keywords:

  • for AA
  • for Alcoholics Anonymous
  • cheap
  • made in the USA
  • by Mike

If my memory of basic statistics is correct, these three columns of five entries each can potentially be arranged to make 125 different keyword entries. Mike’s on a roll.

PPC Keyword List

His next step is to ask as many AA members as he can corner (his primary audience for this cover, remember) which words they would use when thinking about getting a leather cover for a Big Book. That allows him to expand his list even further:

PPC Keywords

Mike now has 672 possible combinations. Better … but is he missing any others?

Mike looks to two more sources. First, he considers his website analytics data. Unfortunately, the guy who set up Mike’s WordPress theme failed to install any tracking, so Mike has to set up Google Analytics and wait. After a couple of weeks, he notices something much different from the keywords in his Excel chart. Some folks are finding his website by searching for “leather Big Book socks USA.” He adds that to his list of keyword phrases, but it makes him wonder about something else: how can he keep his ad from showing up when someone is looking for “boot socks”?

Negative keywords

Mike has come across a critical concept. There are not only words that describe your product or service well, there are words that do not. These “negative keywords” can cause confusion and lead to clicks you don’t want. That is why a fourth column is needed on the worksheet. Mike adds it, then thinks of some other words, related to socks, that could draw the wrong traffic.

Negative Keywords

Keyword tools

Mike is now at the stage in his search for keywords where most people begin. He is ready to use a keyword tool to help prioritize his list and, perhaps, help him to find even more appropriate words.

Google’s Keyword Tool is the one most newcomers use to begin. It is free, relatively simple to use, and returns some useful data. Google has announced, however, the sun is setting on the Keyword Tool. It will soon be replaced by a new tool, Keyword Planner, available only to those with an AdWords account. No one is sure when this transition will be complete. It may be reality when you read this. Right now (August 9, 2012, at 11:41 pm in Bend, Oregon), the following banner appears on site:

Google Keyword Tool

My own favorite tool is the WordStream Keyword Suggestion tool. Okay, I’m prejudiced, but I love the WordStream set of tools. It is a complete PPC tool chest that allows me to do much more than search for Keywords only. For instance, I haven’t mentioned looking at what the competition is doing. That is because WordStream has a tool for that.

Turning  there with Mike, to take a look at the possibilities, we see tools enough to make us feel like the only two guys at a Sadie Hawkins Day dance. Which one should we give a twirl first?

PPC Keyword Research Tools

Mike’s research has led him to believe that the keyword phrase most used by his best customers is “AA book covers.” He tests that theory by choosing the WordStream Keyword Suggestion Tool. Not only does he discover his hunch is correct, but the tool returns other vital information:

  • Search volume
  • Estimated cost per click
  • Level of competition for the phrase

Mike can now begin to get a feel for whether his business could profit from a PPC campaign—remember our discussion about Return on Investment (ROI), in the first article of this series? Mike wants to earn money, not lose it. The research and planning he does now can make or break his marketing efforts in the long run.

WordStream PPC Keyword Tool

Mike opens up the Keyword Spy to find out which keywords his competitors are using. This enables him to add to his own list (a never-ending process, by the way.) He uses the Related Keyword tool and finds more descriptors for his quickly growing list. And the Negative Keyword Suggestion tool helps him not only build his list of words he doesn’t want, but provides a bonus: Mike notices a word he can use to draw traffic from those who may not know his leather book covers are a big improvement from the covers they have been using.

Mike now feels he has enough information to begin building a pay-per-click campaign.  And, of course, WordStream has additional features to guide him through exactly how to do that.

There is a big difference between “can” and “should”

Should Mike really start using PPC, though? Can a business as small as Mike’s Leather—with only a few employees and sporadic sales—really take advantage of an opportunity many feel is within reach of professional agencies and big companies only?

Mike has done his homework. Searching on his keywords, he can see that others who sell leather book covers are using PPC. Moreover, the activity is not limited to the Amazons of the world only; some may be mom and pop stores and family businesses like his. Furthermore, Mike knows he can compete on both quality and price. His customers tell him they are more pleased with the covers Mike makes than any similar product they have ever used or seen.

Mike has determined his goal, he has identified his customers, and he knows how to speak their language. In his estimation, considering the data he has collected, PPC advertising can provide a significant return on investment … if he can manage the Mike’s Leather account well.

In the next article in this series, we’ll talk about the “Now what” of PPC. Is it possible to take a DIY approach to PPC, or is that a fool’s errand? At what point should a company consider hiring a PPC manager? Is there an in-between option that can work to deliver PPC results for smaller companies?

In the Age of the Internet, many barriers to entry are significantly lowered—and that is especially the case for entrepreneurship and advertising. Today, very little stands in the way of anyone with vision and the desire to succeed.

Find out how you're REALLY doing in AdWords!

Watch the video below on our Free AdWords Grader:

Visit the AdWords Grader.


Martin Quinlan
Aug 14, 2013

A very well presented article about ppc for beginners but there are 4 parts to it and i think honestly for a beginner to learn this process would take a long time.I also think it would take a lot of money. I think it would be more beneficial to outsource this to start with while learning the ropes as it were. You can find relatively cheap places to outsource this. Control your budget daily while you learn how to do ppc.

Don Sturgill
Aug 14, 2013

Thank you, Martin. Next week's article will discuss that very thing: Is it possible to successfully carry out a DIY pay-per-click campaign? Anyone who has done so, please get in touch with me. I would love to hear your story. There are definitely tools and resources available to help (WordStream is a prime example). My hope is that this series of articles has inspired readers, who may be overwhelmed by the idea, gain hope and confidence (Just like Mike).

David Rothwell
Aug 15, 2013

I think this is a great article. I particularly like the leather book cover story.I got started with AdWords in 2004 and became a professional AdWords Management Agency in 2005.I manage campaigns for clients the world over from my home office, car, hotel, or wherever I have Internet.I have also spoken at events hosted by Perry Marshall, Ken McCarthy, and Howie Jacobson.Since you asked to hear the story, I am submitting this reply here, so if you'd like to hear it, please contact me.(btw Larry Kim knows me)

Stuart Draper
Aug 14, 2013

This is a great series of posts for sending a beginner in PPC to read.  Looks like you have Mike on track for big time success at this point. Be careful that you don't use too many negative keywords in the beginning and that they don't inhibit impressions that you really would like to get.

Elisa Gabbert
Aug 14, 2013

Good tip! I'd also suggest that he make use of modified broad match so he doesn't to think of every possible keyword modifer (like "high quality," "good deals on" etc.)

Don Sturgill
Aug 14, 2013

Good stuff, Stuart and Elisa. Thank you. Mike is going to be shed of the day job before the year is out. HIs strategy is to start out tight instead of loose ... figuring it is better to not get as many impressions at first than to get way too many irrelevant placements. What do you all think of that approach?

Randall Magwood
Aug 14, 2013

Finding keywords used to be a pain, but i use a tool called "Keyword Discovery" to get me thousands of relevant keyword terms... costs me $67 a month though - but i feel it's worth it. The only problem with it is that alot of the keywords dont get bids/clicks. I alternate between google's tool and keyword discovery, but i guess i should test Wordstream's tool too.

Aug 15, 2013

This is one of the best articles I have ever read about using keywords. This can be very confusing sometimes. I have been using the tool in Google. However, this tool tends to confuse me even more. One of these days, I think the use of keywords will fall into place for me. Thanks to this article, this may be sooner than I think.

Don Sturgill
Aug 15, 2013

Your comments are appreciated, Randall and Charles ... and I feel your pain :) Randall, I definitely urge you to check out WordStream's keyword tools (note the plural ... there are several complimentary helps in the WordStream tool chest).One thing to remember: Keywords are not static, they are dynamic. Of the more than one billion searches on Google every day, about 15% are unique (never before entered). Keyword research is an ongoing process, ever changing, and full of surprises. Charles, I suggest learning at least one tool well. It's fine to check results on various platforms ... but get to know one favorite and drill down from there.

Mike Carlson
Aug 15, 2013

Don, Thanks for all your support and positive feedback. I appreciate you more than you know!

Don Sturgill
Aug 16, 2013

Your'e the man, Mike. I'm in awe of the work you do. I can't draw a stick man :) You are going to accomplish every goal you've set and then some. I look forward to watching your growth.

Alex willson
Aug 17, 2013

A very well presented article about ppc for beginners as i am also a beginner so i can understand the worth of this article.I have gone through all the 4 parts and found very helpful. sometimes finding keywords becomes very difficult even with the help of google tools and is also a bit of confusing.Thanks for such a nice article and would love to hear about various other aspects in SEO.

Don Sturgill
Aug 19, 2013

Thank you for taking the time to comment and let us know the series is helpful for you, Alex. In my opinion, SEO and PPC go hand-in-hand ... both are critical to getting found and recognized online. Learning to use good tools is an important part of success. (More about that soon.)

Mark M
Sep 16, 2013

I don't know if this will be covered in the final article, but the task of creating keyword combinations and then, match types is tedious.  I've not been successful with using an Excel macro. There are several free tools on the web one is "Jumbo keyword" and a slightly different tool is "Keyword Voila".   Why has Google not created something like this ?Looking forward to Part 5!

Leave a comment