In Praise Of Small Keyword Lists

In the world of pay per click marketing, conventional wisdom states that you need to have a huge keyword list to get all of the search traffic you can possibly get. The theory goes that long-tail queries will generate lower search volume, lower competition, and lower costs per click, resulting in conversions that come in at a drastically lower cost per conversion than more common and competitive keywords. This is generally true, but I want to play devil’s advocate for a change and extol the virtues of having a small keyword list.

I’ve worked in a lot of different PPC accounts in a lot of different industries, and one of the first things I notice in a lot of accounts is that whoever set them up just ran a few keywords into a keyword tool and exported 100% of the suggestions into their PPC account. To someone just starting out in the PPC world, this may seem like a great idea just because it’s so easy to do. But, adding hundreds (or thousands) of marginally relevant or irrelevant keywords to your account is probably going to screw you in the long run. Even if you get a lot of long-tail keywords in there, you’re probably also going to get a lot of junk that will just get a low click-through rate, drive unqualified traffic, and drive down your quality scores for your account, campaigns, and ad groups.

Another obstacle is that adding a huge amount of keywords to your account makes it a lot harder to manage. It’s obviously easier to monitor performance on 100 keywords than on 1000. And unless you’re paying some serious cash on PPC management software, you’re going to be wasting a lot of time adjusting bids and doing analysis on a lot of keywords that will probably never give you any good results. Heck, you’ll probably end up spending more time cleaning all the crap keywords out of your account than you will spend optimizing the ones that actually work.

So what’s the solution? Start small. It’s a lot better to start off with a small, manageable keyword list that you can actually control than to have a behemoth of a keyword selection that needs a lot of maintenance. By only using a few keywords at first, you can be intimately familiar with every element of your account, and be able to adjust things accordingly. As time goes by, you can expand your keyword list in the ways that your statistics indicate you should go.

I bet some of you are thinking, “but what about search volume? I want to capture it all!” Sure, that’s a noble goal. But there are better ways to go about it. For example, you could start off with an ad group of 5-10 broad match keywords that will drive a lot of traffic, and then review search query reports to figure out your next keyword selections. A lot of advertisers are way too eager to dominate the search results right out of the gate. It’s a great way to get noticed, but it’s also a great way to go broke really quick. I advocate a slow and steady approach to expanding your keyword list. That way, you can keep costs down as you move forward, and you avoid wasting time fixing mistakes you shouldn’t have made in the first place.

About Shawn Livengood

Shawn Livengood is a search engine marketing professional based in Austin, Texas. He has extensive experience managing pay-per-click ad campaigns for clients in various industries, from small home-based businesses to large international companies. You can connect with Shawn on Google+.
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3 Responses to In Praise Of Small Keyword Lists

  1. Hi Shawn,

    Even though you’re playing devil’s advocate, I see your point, an agree it’s often better to start at a level which is manageable, before naturally expanding as search query data and keyword opportunity research allows.

    But I think the number of keywords to start with ultimately comes down to the granularity of the campaign / ad group structure and the ability of the PPC advertiser to manage those keywords.

    If a highly-granular and strategic approach is taken from day one, I can’t see any problem with starting relatively big. Although if starting big is at the expense of ad text relevancy and good Quality Scores, then you’re right, small keyword lists could be highly effective.


  2. Aimy Wiley says:

    I agree! I do long-tails but short bursts. I have about 30 minutes to spend on pay per click per week and I’ve been happy with just doing the basics really well.

    Love your blog, Shawn!

    - Aimy

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