This article was first published on April 19th, 2018, and was updated January 2023.

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 fundamentally take different marketing approaches. One includes paying for your website to show up first and at the top of search results. The other takes time and effort to rise higher in SERP ranks.

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

Difference Between SEO and PPC

There is a significant difference between SEO and PPC. With PPC, you pay for every click. Meaning, you pay for ads that appear at the top of a search result for keywords you choose to pay for.

When your ad appears first in a SERP, users are more likely to click on it and lead back to your website. When you pay for these higher ranking spots, you’re paying for hopeful sales or leads to your website. 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.

Building SEO creates and then promotes content to get links, which then over time helps your site rank first on search engines. Building an SEO keyword strategy takes time, but can deliver long lasting results.

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

How to Use Keywords for SEO

In an SEO keyword strategy, the ultimate goal is looking for keywords that users will use in their search query to ultimately find your content. Your content can be informative, promotional, or looking to make a sale, but having an SEO keyword strategy is what gets you there. While any of these types of content are good for an SEO keyword strategy, informative pieces tend to be better for SEO over time. Only because they help answer questions and give more insight on where they can learn more.

When you know how to use keywords for SEO properly, your rankings will grow higher and you’ll start to see more traffic come in. SEO keywords focus more on gaining more traffic rather than making a sale. It helps grow your online presence in the long run, rather than a short period of time. SEO is all about focusing on strengthening your keyword strategy now and further in the future.

What is PPC Keyword Research?

PPC keyword research uses advertising at the top of SERPs to help get immediate attention and traffic to your business’s website. Most paid search intent-based marketing research is important for online lead generation. 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. That’s why it’s important to conduct PPC keyword research to find the right keywords that would help bring direct clients and traffic to your site.

For example, I once audited a Google Ads 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 and pay 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, this specific keyword gets over 450 million searches a month!

translate graph

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.

They wasted $150,000 on a keyword that seemed like a perfect fit for their business. Why? Because the search term intent was all wrong.

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

google 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:

Professional Translation Services

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 and services, 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. When you’re working on keyword research for a PPC campaign, be sure to choose keywords with high conversion rates and with searcher’s intent in mind.

Importance of Keyword Intent

Keyword intent represents the user’s purpose for the search. It’s what the user is likely to do when searching for a particular phrase. Or, to be more precise, it’s what we think the user is likely to do since we cannot always be sure.

When conducting research online, the keyword needs to be as clearly defined as possible. This needs to be done in order to narrow your search, be flexible, and applicable to a variety of topics. It also needs to be unchanging from search to search so that you get consistent results and be as general as possible to include all possible results. These requirements are crucial in keyword intent and research.

Keyword intent is extremely important when it comes to PPC and SEO campaigns. Let’s dive into different aspects that are important to consider for keyword intent within your strategies:

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, keywords are 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 “SEO vs PPC keyword research”.

What does this say about you? In a nutshell, a search like “SEO vs PPC keyword research” indicates a pretty low buying intent and looking for more of an informative piece.

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. With PPC keywords, it’s important to be paying for keywords that have high search volume in traffic towards your website.

High-Intent Keywords

With high-intent keywords, you’d probably be searching for something like “best SEO agency” or “SEO company”. These keywords indicate a much higher search intent. 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.

Low-intent Keywords

It’s important to know how to use a list of keywords for SEO. While they always may not seem like it, 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 “seo company” you will see a large list of companies trying to advertise their website under this keyword:

SEO company SERP

With less intent keywords, the competition isn’t as hard and there’s more room for your business to be seen.

While paying for these clicks would be a waste of money, ranking organically for less popular keywords 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 your overall website look better in Google’s eyes. This improves your 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, you should always 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 keywords 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.

Building an Online Presence

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 a better choice for an SEO strategy and which ones are good candidates for a PPC campaign.

Fortunately, if you understand the intent behind a keyword, it’s easier for you to identify great SEO and paid search keywords to implement and try. All you have to do is look at the searcher’s intent and why people use your keywords the way they do in SERPs. Then your business can decide whether or not those keywords are worth paying for!

For your clients, it’s important to partner with a white label SEO agency that knows what they’re doing and how to rank for certain keywords. If you’re looking for a partnership and need help with your SEO keyword strategy, Boostability is here to help! Get started with our Partner Program today!


Ansley is the former Content Marketing Manager at Boostability. Since graduating from Utah State University with two degrees in Communication Studies and Journalism: Public Relations, Ansley specializes in creating engaging and informative SEO content for readers, customers, and partners through different marketing channels. Along with creating new content, Ansley works to keep content organized and creates and executes new content strategies. When she’s not writing, she loves to travel, visit National Parks, and loves all things Disney.


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