Whether you’re running pay-per-click (PPC) ads on Google or trying to use search engine optimization (SEO) to rank organically on the search engine results page (SERP), good keyword research is the key to effective search engine marketing.

However, PPC and SEO are fundamentally different marketing approaches.

With PPC, you pay for every click, so you can only afford to run ads on keywords you think will give you a good return-on-ad-spend.

In contrast, SEO clicks are free, which means you don’t have to worry about the immediate profitability of your keywords. Of course, a good SEO keyword strategy should produce sales, but when the traffic is free, every sale is profitable.

This key difference between PPC and SEO has important implications for keyword research. Let’s take a look at how PPC and SEO keyword research differ and how to create an effective keyword strategy for both marketing channels.


PPC: Intent-Based Marketing

The biggest difference between PPC and SEO keyword research is the level of search intent you target.

Because PPC is…you know…pay-per-click, you can’t afford to pay for clicks from people who aren’t ready to buy relatively soon.

For example, I once audited an AdWords account for a business that offered translation services for businesses (documents, international deals, etc). Since they were in the business of translating things, they figured it made sense to bid on the broad match keyword “translate”.

Now, on the surface, “translate” seems like a great keyword for this business. In addition to being directly related to their business, the keyword gets over 450 million searches a month!

google search volume

As you can probably imagine, they got a lot of clicks from this keyword. In fact, they spent $150,000 on clicks.

The only problem was, none of those clicks turned into new clients.

That’s right, they wasted $150,000 on a keyword that seemed like a perfect fit for their business. Why? Because the search intent was all wrong.

Just take a look at the organic search results for “translate”:


Ignoring the giant Google Translate option—which should have been a huge red flag to begin with—none of the search results on the first page have anything to do with business translation services.

In fact, it’s not until the end of the third page of search results that you see your first organic result for a translation company:


Now, Google’s entire business is built around figuring out what content people want when they type in a search and giving it to them, so what do you think all of those 450 million monthly “translate” searches are after?

Business translation services? Not likely.

Although “translate” was directly related to this business’s core offering, the keyword itself didn’t indicate the right search intent. People who were searching for “translate” simply weren’t looking for business translation services or—if they were—they weren’t ready to buy when they made that search.


Paying for High-Intent Traffic

Clearly, keywords with a lot of search volume aren’t always the best keywords for PPC. When it comes to PPC, intent is much more important than search volume.

Why? Well, as a general rule of thumb, people use different keywords when they want to buy vs when they want to acquire information.

For example, odds are that you didn’t find this article by searching for “SEO agency”. You’re probably reading this article because you wanted to learn more about how PPC and SEO keyword research differ and you searched for something like “ppc vs seo keyword research”.

What does this say about you? In a nutshell, a search like “ppc vs seo keyword research” indicates a pretty low buying intent.

If you wanted to hire an SEO agency today, you wouldn’t be searching for information on how to do your own keyword research (unless you’re currently working with such a bad agency that you feel like you have to do your own research—in which case, you should give Boostability a try…).

High-intent Keywords

Instead, you’d probably be searching for something like “best SEO agency” or “SEO company”.

These keywords indicate a much higher search intent. You know you need an SEO agency and you’re actively trying to find an agency that meets your standards.

As you can probably imagine, this sort of search is worth a lot more to an SEO agency than “ppc vs seo keyword research”. If you’re looking to hire an SEO agency and you visit their website, there’s a very good chance that you’ll become a paying customer.

Unfortunately, because these keywords come with such great search intent, they are also incredibly competitive, so it can be hard to rank organically for these keywords.

As a result, a keyword like “best seo agency” is great for PPC. Even if an SEO agency has to pay for the clicks, someone who searches for that keyword has a good chance of buying, so it’s worth paying to make sure that their business shows up for such a high-intent search.

Want proof? Search for “best seo agency” or “seo company” and see how many ads show up.

High-intent keywords are the bread and butter of PPC. This is especially true for smaller or newer companies that struggle to rank organically for those keywords. They deliver enough consistent value to justify paying for clicks, so they are well worth investing in.


SEO: Putting Yourself Out There

Now, all that being said, low-intent keywords are valuable. For example, while you might not be on Boostability’s website because you want to hire them (yet!), you’re still on their website.

You’re getting a feel for the quality of their content and how well they understand their craft. Hopefully you’ll walk away with a good impression of the company and return as a paying customer in the future.

It’s probably not worth it to Boostability to pay to get people to read this article and make that positive first impression. But it is worth having an article that ranks well for searches like “ppc vs seo keyword research”.

Because SEO clicks are essentially free, businesses can afford to try to rank on almost any relevant keyword they want.

Obviously, ranking for competitive, high-intent keywords like “best seo agency” is great. But low-intent keywords are also a valuable part of an SEO keyword strategy.

For example, if you search for “ppc company” (we leave the SEO to the experts at Boostability), Disruptive Advertising shows up:


However, while ranking organically for this high-intent keyword drives a lot of value for Disruptive, we also target a lot of lower-intent keywords.

For example, if you search for “banner ad sizes” on Google, you’ll see a link to this article:


Now, someone who is searching for “banner ad sizes” probably isn’t very likely to visit this article and submit a lead form (though it does happen), but this keyword produces thousands more visits to our site in a month than “ppc company”.

While paying for these clicks would be a waste of money, ranking organically for “banner ad sizes” is a great way to get more traffic to our site and familiarize people with our company.

In addition, all of that traffic also makes our overall website look better in Google’s eyes. This improves our odds of ranking well for higher-intent searches.

Overall, a good SEO keyword strategy is all about driving free traffic to your site that will eventually convert. Ideally, you want to rank well for high-intent keywords. However, when your goal is to attract relevant traffic, even low-intent keywords can help build your business.


PPC vs SEO Keyword Research

As you try to decide which keywords to target with your PPC and SEO strategies, keep the following questions in mind.

How Much are My PPC Keywords Worth?

With PPC keyword research, you are conducting a very direct cost-benefit analysis. Your clicks need to turn into new sales.

If a keyword doesn’t carry much buying intent, you aren’t very likely to get much direct value out of it. You should leave out these keywords from your strategy.

On the other hand, if a keyword has an acceptable search volume and a clear purchasing intent, it’s probably a great candidate for your PPC campaigns.

How Much Traffic Will My SEO Keywords Drive?

SEO keyword research is all about producing traffic volume.

This volume can come through a single keyword—like the “banner ad sizes” article we discussed earlier—or as an aggregate volume from many keyword with small search volume—like this “ppc vs seo keyword research”-focused article.

In either case, the goal of your strategy is to increase the overall amount of free traffic to your website. So if a keyword is relevant to your business and has reasonable search volume, it may well be worth trying to rank for that keyword.



Whether it’s PPC or SEO, keyword research is fundamental to any successful search engine marketing strategy. The trick is figuring out which keywords are best left to SEO and which ones are good candidates for PPC.

Fortunately, if you understand the intent behind a keyword, it’s easy to identify great PPC and SEO keywords to try. All you have to do is look at why people use your keyword to search online and whether or not that why is worth paying for!




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