PPC Magic: 3 Steps To Turning Hundreds Of Keywords Into Millions

A couple of weeks ago in this course, we talked about The Blueprint Of The Modern Paid Search Account and what factors affect the way we build keyword lists. Basically, the long tail approach dictates that we not only use high-search volume, general terms, but also load up our accounts with many, many niche terms—the theory being that these tail terms are cheaper due to less competition and also more relevant so they drive higher engagement with users.

I’ve seen campaigns with a few hundred terms perform very well. I’ve also seen campaigns with millions of terms perform poorly. Remember, we test everything in search engine marketing! So, other than the actual logistics of managing a huge list, there really isn’t any drawback to adding and testing many keywords if you think they even have the slightest chance of providing value to your advertiser. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that for beginners to PPC, try to limit your lists to 10,000 to 20,000 max.

The key is using modifiers

So, how do we take the hundreds of terms we uncovered during our research and turn them into tens of thousands (and maybe even millions) of long tail terms? The secret is with modifiers. For example, if you’re selling used cars, you may take a core term like used car and add buying modifiers so now you have purchase used car, buy used car, shop for used car, etc. As search marketers looking for tail terms, we may combine our core words with multiple modifier lists. For example, if we matched up every term with the dealer’s car brands, we wouldn’t have just purchase used car, but also purchase used Saturn, purchase used Ford, purchase used Toyota etc.

Each advertiser will have their own set of modifiers that make sense. However, some common modifier directions include:

Buying cycle. Used for awareness/interest terms, modifiers such as info on or research could be used. For users further down the funnel, buy, shop, purchase and so on also make sense.

Adjectives. If you’re selling broadband service, then description words like fast, speedy, and quick could be important. For banks, it might be performance words such as high yield or safety-conscious words like insured.

Geographical. Lists of cities, towns, states, DMAs, metro areas, etc. If the advertiser is a U.S. based national brand, you may almost always use states and top DMAs as modifiers. Certainly car insurance Omaha should be treated differently than car insurance New York City. Similar geographical modifiers can be used elsewhere in the world.

Here are three steps to using modifiers to build giant keyword lists.

Step #1 – Identify your core terms. If you’ve been through all of the research ideas in this column, you will have already compiled a pretty comprehensive list of keywords from keyword tools, competitor research, and so on. So, you should be able to look through all of the terms and quickly pull out a high level list of core terms. If you’re an online retailer, maybe those core terms are your main categories. Or, if you’re a service company, you will probably have a handful of terms that are used most when people search for your company.

As an example, I’ll use a clothing retailer based in the western region of the U.S. Here is their core term list. Make sure to include plurals and any very common misspellings in the core list.

  • T-shirt
  • T-shirts
  • Jeans
  • Shirt
  • Shirts
  • Dress
  • Dresses

Step #2 – Generate your modifier lists. 5 lists that come to mind for this retailer are:

Sizes: Small, Medium, Large, XL, XXL
Color: Red, Blue, Green, Yellow, Brown, White, Black, Orange
Purchase terms: Buy, Shop, Browse, Purchase, Deal, Cheap, Inexpensive,
Qualifiers: Brand name, Designer, Name Brand, Quality, Chic
Western States: California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Montana

Step #3 – Generate permutations. You can use a permutation tool such as Keyword Lizard or Keyword Combinations to input your various lists. You’re always going to want to use your core terms in combination with modifiers where it makes sense. Here’s a screenshot from the free Keyword Combination tool:

Suddenly, you have tail term lists with designer jeans California, small blue shirt, and inexpensive XL t-shirts. In fact, from your seven core terms and five simple modifier lists, you can easily generate over 200,000 keywords.

Okay, here’s where the magic happens. Check the math: 7 Core Terms X 5 sizes X 8 colors X 7 purchase words X 5 qualifiers X 8 States = 78,400 variations of your core words.


Actually, you have more than that. There are keywords that won’t contain every list. So you really add one more modifier per list that is a “blank space”. Once you do that, you get 186,624. Wow! In fact, if you were to add just one more keyword to one of those lists, the total available permutations would be 207,360! You won’t use all of those keywords, especially if you cap them at 3-4 words per keyword phrase. However, chances are you’ll be using many more modifier lists and core terms so the list could grow to millions very easily. Ultimately, you certainly will have plenty of great tail terms to test.

And, if you do it right, you can easily segment the keywords into groups and campaigns. For this example, there could be a “sizes campaign” or a “states campaign.” That way you can address similar words with the most relevant ad text and landing pages. Next week, we’ll dive deeper into campaign and ad group segmentation.

This week’s question: “How keywords do you think is excessive for an account? How many are too few?”

PPC Academy is a comprehensive, one-year search advertising course from beginning to end. Starting with the basics, PPC Academy progressively explores all of the varied facets of paid search, and the tactics needed to succeed and become an advanced paid search marketer.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEM | PPC Academy


About The Author: has been a search marketer since 2003 with a focus on SEM technology. As a media technologist fluent in the use of leading industry systems, Josh stays abreast of cutting edge digital marketing and measurement tools to maximize the effect of digital media on business goals. He has a deep passion to monitor the constantly evolving intersection between marketing and technology. You can follow him on Twitter at @mediatechguy.

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  • http://seorecruiter.com SEORecruiter.com

    Hi Josh,

    Another great post! I believe the answer to your question is “it depends on the specifics of the industry.” As an example, candidates who come from the online ticketing industry can work with keyword combinations in the millions, where in other industries, they may only work with tens of thousands. Further, I have met average folks who work with millions of combinations, and Rock Stars who work with 25K!


    Michael Adams

  • sdcdog

    Hey Josh, how is creating modifiers more effective than just phrase matching a term? Won’t phrase matching “jeans” get you in front of all the variations you want?

  • doogle

    Agreed it completely depends on the industry.
    It’s also worth remembering that if you have thousands of zero impression keywords in an adgroup it can affect the quality score of other keywords in that adgroup. This is what my google rep told me but I’d be keen on hearing any other thoughts on that.

  • http://www.venturen.net ventureN


    Great article. I love geo targeted search segments due to the huge number of combinations. It can very easily reach into the millions. Be sure you have a handle on that kind of keyword management. Keep it tight to start, create a system, and build from there.

  • Stupidscript

    EXTREMELY CRITICAL NOTE: ALWAYS and ONLY use these types of lists as Phrase or Exact matches … NEVER use any part of them as Broad match. If you place any of the terms in the list as a Broad match it will take precedence over the Exact and Phrase matches, it will cost more, and you will receive far fewer qualified visitors. Here’s a quick illustration of what I mean:

    Keyphrase: XL blue t-shirts

    If it is set as a Broad match, then it WILL be matched with any query containing “XL” (or even “OC”, if there are few other ads that match … amazingly), any query containing “blue” (or “green” or “red” or any other color), and any query containing just the word “t-shirt” (or “soccer shirt” or “shirt tail” or “t-ball” or … yaddayadda).

    Remember that Google’s (and the other SEs’) preference is to display your ads as many times as possible, and not just for the queries you hope it will display for. Also remember that the algorithm is very, very “greedy”, and will often display your broad-matching keyphrases for queries that are barely recognizable as being syntactically-related … and I do mean *barely*.

    So, fair warning … from one who has been there and back … NEVER use ANY of the terms generated by this kind of concatenation exercise as Broad matches. Stick strictly to Exact and Phrase, watch your budget and click-throughs closely, and be prepared to act quickly to remove keyphrases that turn out to be pigs. Google won’t help you manage campaigns of that size, and believe me, it’s no walk in the park.

    On a side note, we originally used this technique back in 2003 when we generated nearly a million terms and drove Google crazy getting them into hundreds of campaigns. (Sorry about that … we may have been one of the folks who caused G to place limits on such things.) My boss said, “If they don’t click, we don’t pay … and if they click, we want to pitch to them.” After a very short period of time, it became obvious that those ad clicks were a long way from income-generating clicks, as most of them came from unqualified visitors.

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