The Difference In Keyword Research For SEO vs. PPC

Often when I complete a keyword research project for a client, they ask me about keywords I may not have included, or they want to know what the relative competition on the keywords looks like. This happens often enough that I thought I would remind everyone that while research for SEO and PPC can go hand in hand, they’re actually very different.

First, think about what your goals are with each medium. What are you trying to do, and what constitutes success in that area? Next, think about how the keywords will be used. Where, when, how often?

Finally, consider what your margin for error is. If you don’t get exactly the right keyword, what’s the penalty?

PPC and SEO evaluation


What… Is Your Quest?

In SEO, your goal should be to understand the keyword landscape of a topic. What keywords do people search for, and what does this tell us about their intent? What can we learn from looking at keywords in a broader context?

For PPC, your goal should be to find the keywords that you can bid on. Which keywords are going to make you the most potential money for your cost-per-click investment?

You should focus on keywords that suggest a purchase (or goal completion), that represent a category area that is profitable for you, and that you can’t easily get ranked for in organic (most of the time – there are exceptions to this).

What… Is The Air-Speed Velocity Of An Unladen Swallow?

Let’s start with PPC this time. And no, I don’t know the airspeed of a swallow, laden or unladen, so I’d be thrown into the abyss. But I do know PPC.

You’ll use the keywords in your campaigns and ad groups, in your ad copy, and on your landing page. You want to have a very tight correlation between each so that your Quality Score is high. This is pretty much it in terms of how you will use your PPC keywords.

For SEO, you’ll use these keywords as the foundation of everything that you do. Ideally, you’ll correlate your existing content on your website with them, find the gaps, and decide if you want to create additional content to fill those gaps.

You’ll identify a focus keyword or two for each page on the website, and correlate the meta tags, title, and content to match the focus keyword. You’ll also use those keywords to track and benchmark your ranking progress. I’ve created a handy image below that explains this.

Uses for SEO and PPC

Keyword uses for SEO and PPC, plus the margin for error

Understand The Margin Of Error For SEO & PPC Keywords 

In SEO, your margin for error is very large. If you use a keyword in a way that just doesn’t work, you’ll adjust it and try again. You may find yourself ranking for or getting traffic for keywords you didn’t think about. Those are a bonus, and you can just add them into your reports as needed.

You’ll also want to refresh your keyword research every now and then to make sure there aren’t new advances, technologies, products or ideas that weren’t popular when you first did your research.

Since SEO doesn’t cost a fee per keyword, you won’t (or you shouldn’t) shy away from high competition words that you may not get. It doesn’t hurt you at all to continue competing for those, and if anything, it makes it easier to qualify for many longer tail keywords.

Plus, on the user experience side, it makes your site much cleaner, because instead of having headings like “Wedding Accessories for Dog Ring Bearers”, you can stick with “Wedding Accessories” or the more specific but still high volume “Ring Bearer Pillows”. It’s important to adjust the depth of the keyword to the depth of the site, with top level pages using broader keywords and sub-categories being much more specific.

Conversely, the margin for error in PPC is small. Every mistake costs you money. Every keyword that you bid on puts you in direct monetary competition with other sites. You need to go over your keywords with a fine tooth comb, cutting out any that aren’t working, adding negatives, expanding to new opportunities, and always with one eye on the cost per click and the other on the Quality Score.

You need to make sure your keywords are tightly categorized by theme, that your ad copy is performing as well as it possibly can, and that your tight ad group/keyword strategy extends to your landing page and the way keywords are used on it. The efforts must be meticulous and calculated.

So the next time you are tempted to ask your consultant why they didn’t include competition metrics in an SEO keyword list, or why PPC categories are done by keyword rather than intent, think about the differences between the two mediums. And remember that just because data is available, it doesn’t mean it is necessarily useful in all contexts.

Thanks to Monty Python and the Holy Grail’s Bridge of Death scene for being the inspiration for my headings.

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

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Google: SEO | How To: PPC | How To: SEO | Keywords & Content | Microsoft: Bing SEO | Search Marketing: Search Term Research | SEO: Writing & Body Copy | Yahoo: SEO


About The Author: is the President of an online marketing consulting company offering SEO, PPC, and Web Design services. She's been in search since 2000 and focuses on long term strategies, intuitive user experience and successful customer acquisition. She occasionally offers her personal insights on her blog, JLH Marketing.

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  • Aaron Levy

    I’d actually respectfully disagree with the Margin of Error point. In PPC you can fail fast. Drop a few keywords in, see what happens. Those don’t work, quickly tweak and try again, get more data and learn more.

    In SEO it takes months (years) to build up rankings for competitive keywords. What happens if you find out after two years of work, you’ve been targeting a keyword that doesn’t convert?
    Just my 2 cents!

  • jobs_in_digital

    good piece!! very informative

  • Jenny Halasz

    Hi Aaron, good point. So I was thinking in terms of dollars and cents, but it’s true that in terms of time investment, it’s actually the opposite. One of the many reasons it’s so much more helpful to do both PPC and SEO rather than one or the other.

  • Ted Ives

    People should think of their Title and Meta-Description as being like an Adwords Creative – you can use them to screen out people that aren’t really interested in what you have…

    This is a great approach for two-word phrases that have high volume but for which only a small percentage of those users care about your little slice of three-word phrases that flow from the two-word phrase.

    You can sort of afford to be lazy in the short run because those uninterested users aren’t costing you anything, so if you accidentally attract them, it’s not that bad – *but* in the long run it will hurt your enagement metrics (bounce rate etc) and likely affect your rankings.

    Also – what do you mean – African or European?

  • Gayatri Das

    very helpful article, especially about adjusting the depth of the keyword to the depth of the site, which is bang on!

  • Christopher Regan

    “Oh, but you can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you…”. Thank you, Jenny, your post adds perspective where some may need some re-footing and a re-sharpened sword.

  • enidus

    SEO and PPC should go hand in hand. The purpose is relly clear you can target high competition keywords in ppc and high conversion keywprds in ppc and in seo you can start with the phrases and then later once you build a reputation, one can go in for two phrases and single word keywords.

  • LeadsDubai

    I always thought adwods keyword research can give insights on seo keywords to rank for. but if keyword competition is high does it mean that others have already optimized and theres no room left for you for that keyword? i can go for long tail niches but how many are there? how to find them.. any clue?.. good Article this jenny

  • John Howard

    I believe what you’re saying is the margin of error is greater on SEO primarily because the cost per error is lower vs. PPC. Plus you can always adjust your SEO content ongoing with the benefit of the same or very similar content.

    BTW…What is your favorite color?

  • Longview Sources

    I completely agree with Aaron but I can see Jenny’s point as well. In both SEO and PPC, SEM Marketers need to invest a heavy amount of time. But with SEO, it may take months and years to reach the ranking you are shooting for whereas PPC, it can be optimized in a much shorter period.

    So with PPC, you can fail fast then quickly proceed to tweak your keywords, bid price, etc. However, in ultra-competitive industries like insurance where the cost per click can be up to $50-$60, the margin of error can be pretty darn small.

  • Meta Marketing

    Hi Jenny!
    Very good post! An interesting discussion is going out there. I would
    also like to say that, in an effort to deliver high-quality content and

    advertisements to internet users, have you selected appropriate

    The fact is the research that goes into picking keywords for SEO varies
    greatly from what goes into finding phrases for SEO.

    Port Elizabeth Internet Marketing

  • Sheldon Lobo

    That is true when you invest money for short time period on PPC you have no choices for any mistake, While in SEO we can improve keywords day after.

  • Rachel Jensen

    Great discussion! I’m going to agree with Aaron on this point, and in fact I’ll use PPC campaigns often as a jumping-off point to test what works for my overall SEO strategy. I can quickly determine what kind of keywords I want to hone in on and what kind of copy provides a better CTR.

    As Aaron said, I can “fail quickly” with PPC and then put in the laborious hours of building links for my honed SEO keywords.

    Great overall article though Jenny – I often explain the difference between SEO and PPC keywords and how ultimately they make work hand-in-hand but may try to achieve different goals.

  • Jenny Halasz

    I believe Google when they say that Adwords and Search Quality (SEO) teams have no connection to one another. I do not believe that spending money on Adwords will impact your SEO ranking at all.


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