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How to Do Keyword Optimization for SEO (3 Steps)



How to Do Keyword Optimization for SEO (3 Steps)

Keyword optimization is the process of increasing the relevance of a webpage’s content to a given search query.

It’s a fundamental process in SEO because Google aims to serve the most relevant content to its users.

In this post, you’ll learn how to optimize your new and existing content for any keyword.

Step 1. Make sure you’re optimizing for the right keyword 

Whether you’re optimizing existing or new content, you need to make sure that keyword optimization is worth the effort and that your chances of ranking are good. 

This step is arguably the hardest part of the process, so here are some considerations to think about right from the start. 

Search traffic potential

Measuring the potential of a keyword to bring you traffic can be tricky. Most SEO tools try to solve this with search volume, but that’s not enough:

  • Some searches don’t result in clicks on pages For example, clicks on ads or searches that provide sufficient answers right on the SERP. 
  • Pages can rank for hundreds of keywords while being optimized just for one – So you can actually get more traffic than the search volume indicates. 

A better way is to estimate the traffic that the ranking pages get. In Ahrefs, this is automatically calculated with the Traffic Potential (TP) metric. 

The TP metric sums up traffic estimations from all keywords that the top-ranking page for your target keyword ranks for. This shows you how much traffic you could be looking at if you outranked this page.

Traffic Potential metric in Ahrefs
The TP for the keyword “submit website to search engines” is almost 10 times higher than the search volume.

Value to your website 

Optimize for keywords that can bring you valuable traffic. 

When picking a target keyword, ask yourself what is the practical use of attracting searchers. Is it direct sales, or maybe brand awareness, or building a readership? 

You can map each keyword on a scale that matches your overall goal. For example, your strategy may be to create content that helps the reader solve their problems using your product (aka product-led content). Then, your scale can look something like this: 

Business potential score

So while there will be no harm in generating traffic with 0 business value from time to time, you may want to focus on optimizing content with a high business potential score. 

Keyword difficulty 

Some keywords will be harder to rank for than others. 

To get a quick overview of the ranking difficulty of a keyword, look at the number of unique domains linking the top 10 ranking pages. The more linking domains, the harder it will likely be to rank because backlinks are still one of the most impactful ranking signals for Google.

In Ahrefs, Keyword Difficulty (KD) is calculated automatically based on backlinks on a scale of 0 to 100. 

Keywords with shoes, different keyword difficulty

So for example, if your website is new and doesn’t have a strong backlink profile yet, you may want to focus on low-competition keywords below KD 20.

There may be other factors that can come into play, such as familiarity with the brand. Learn more about estimating keyword difficulty here

Search intent 

Search intent is the reason behind the search. Usually, searchers either want to learn something, buy something, or find a specific website. 

Search intent matters for keyword optimization because Google tends to rank content that matches the dominating intent behind the query. 

Your task here is to identify what searchers are after and decide whether you can offer that and whether it’s worth it for you. 

To illustrate, it could be tough for a “non e-commerce” website to break the mold for a query like “women’s shoes.” It’s product pages from top to bottom. 

Top-ranking pages with the same search intent
The entire first page for “women’s shoes” shows product pages.

We’ll talk about search intent more in the next step of this guide. 

Your expertise 

In Google Search, the messenger is at least as important as the message. 

Google expressed philosophy on that through E-A-T principles (expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness). E-A-T is known to have a significant impact on queries in the Your Money or Your Life domain (i.e., health, financial topics, safety, etc.).

Google further emphasized the role of the authority of the website (maybe even gave it more significance) in the recent “helpful content” core update:

Does your content clearly demonstrate first-hand expertise and a depth of knowledge (for example, expertise that comes from having actually used a product or service, or visiting a place)?

Did you decide to enter some niche topic area without any real expertise, but instead mainly because you thought you’d get search traffic?

Google wants to show quality content to its users. Knowing that something comes from a trusted source simply makes it easier for a search engine to recognize quality content. 

So for example, a blog on health should ideally be written or at least reviewed by someone with formal medical training. Also, it should be reviewed and updated on a regular basis. 

Health article reviewed by an expert


If you’d like to learn more about finding, choosing, and prioritizing your keywords, we’ve got a full guide on that.

Step 2. Align with the search intent 

Let’s ask Google what kind of content searchers want to see. We call this analyzing the three Cs of search intent. 

Content type

Content type refers to the goal the searcher is after. The content type will usually be one of the following:

  • Blog post/article
  • Product page
  • Category page
  • Landing page

The task here is to take top-ranking pages for your keyword and look for the dominating type of content among them. The top three ranking pages and SERP features (People Also Ask box, featured snippet) will be most impactful here. Then match that with your content. 

For example, for “best all season car tires,” we see almost only articles (except for the #1 result). So if you were to compete for this keyword, your best chance to do so would be with an article too because that’s the dominating content type.

SERP for "best all season car tires"
9/10 results are articles.

Content format 

Content format refers to how users seemingly prefer information served to them. The content type will usually be one of the following:

  • How-to” guide
  • Step-by-step tutorial
  • List post
  • Opinion piece
  • Review
  • Comparison
  • Product page (homepage or subpage)

For example, “home decor tips” is dominated by listicles; most of them have numbers in titles and/or the main content is structured in ordered lists. 

SERP for "home decor tips"

Analogically to the other Cs of search intent, the idea is to identify what content format dominates the SERPs and use it for your page. 


Note: SERPs are not always this obvious. Sometimes, Google ranks different types and formats of content. 

One reason for this may be that Google moves to serve search journeys rather than search queries. 

In SEO, this is called mixed or fractured search intent. See what you can do in such a situation: 

You may come across a chance to rank a different type of content from the dominating one. This usually happens in broad terms where people can look for different things. Indications of this can be found in:

  • Questions in the PAA box.
  • Presence of certain rich search results, such as the “Things to know.” 

There’s an interesting analysis of the “coffee” keyword by Kayle Larkin. I highly recommend it if you want to get a hint on how to spot these kinds of opportunities. A bet on that tactic, however, may be riskier.

Content angle 

Content angle is the unique selling point of a page. It should catch the attention of the searcher and indicate what is special about the page.

To illustrate, consider the query “how to become rich.” Some angles for this query are:

  • Before 30
  • In a smart way
  • Fast 
  • According to experts
  • Best
  • From nothing 
  • In five years
SERP for query "how to become rich"

Makes sense, right? That’s why the content angle should be tightly matched with the topic. A topic may require the freshest view of said topic, while another may require a list of free online tools. SERPs are again the best place to look for that information.

For example, it won’t make sense to use “before 30” or “in five years” for a query like “how to peel a banana.” We can see on the SERPs that what seems to be valuable to users is learning how to do it the right way (i.e., like a monkey).

SERP for "how to peel a banana"

Step 3. Follow on-page SEO best practices 

Once we have picked our target keyword and identified the search intent for it, it’s time to write our content with SEO in mind. 

For this, we need the so-called on-page SEO. In other words, tried and tested things that you can do on the page itself to help Google and searchers better understand and digest your content. 

If you’re optimizing old content, it’s a good idea to go through the process with a tool like Ahrefs’ Site Audit (also available for free in Ahrefs Webmaster Tools). It will help you catch all the missing tags, unoptimized images, and more.

All issues from the Content report in Site Audit

Give searchers what they want 

You may have a completely unique opinion on your topic. You may want to approach it in an unconventional fashion. That’s all fine because Google wants unique content. But if you want your content to rank, you need to meet searchers’ expectations too. Google is quite clear about it

Provide an appropriate amount of content for your subject … . So, for example, if you describe your page as a recipe, provide a complete recipe that is easy to follow, rather than just a set of ingredients or a basic description of the dish.

You can get a pretty good idea of what searchers want by looking at the topics covered by the top-ranking pages. The more commonalities between pages, the higher the probability that a given subtopic is important to the searchers.

You can automate this process using Ahrefs’ Content Gap tool. Simply enter the URLs of top-ranking pages and get the keywords that they rank for. The keywords will indicate subtopics that you should consider including in your content. 

Content Gap tool in Ahrefs
Step 1. Make sure to leave the last input blank.
Results from Content Gap tool
Step 2. Look at the keywords to spot topics and patterns.

You can then also adjust the “Intersect” settings to pick only the biggest commonalities. 

"Intersect" settings to filter Content Gap report results

This report also makes it easier to optimize existing content. You can add your page in the last field to see keywords that your content doesn’t rank for compared to your competitors. 

Content Gap tool, comparing to existing content


Sometimes, you can smell an “optimized” text from a mile through keywords shoehorned into every second sentence. This kind of quasi-optimization is something you should avoid, as it’s based on two SEO myths: LSI and TF-IDF keywords. 

Here’s the thing. You don’t need to tactically sprinkle closely related keywords (the idea behind LSI), nor do you need to repeat them a certain number of times (TF-IDF). 

But mentioning related keywords, phrases, and entities in your text can boost your SEO. It has nothing to do with gaming the system. Rather, it’s about understanding what type of information searchers may be looking for. The difference may sound subtle, so feel free to learn more here.

Make your content easy to digest 

Easy-to-digest content in the SEO world means these three things:

  1. Writing in simple words, avoiding complex sentences – Of course, you can and probably should use technical terms when the topics require them. 
  2. Making content skimmable Two reasons: (1) Most people aren’t here for the whole thing—just specific info, and (2) people skim content to decide whether it’s worth their time.
  3. Using images They make content more comprehensive and break walls of text. 

Imagine Google serving results that most people can’t digest. If you were Google, that’s the kind of results you’d like to avoid. 

Learn more: Flesch Reading Ease: Does It Matter for SEO? (Data Study) 

Optimize page title 

Both searchers and Google use the title of the page to understand the context of the page. So you need to optimize the page title for both parties:

  • Make your target keyword part of the title – Just to be clear, Google is advanced enough to rank relevant pages that don’t use the search query in the title. But including the keyword in the title tag is your best bet here. 
  • Make the title informative yet attractive to the reader 
  • Not too short, not too long – Use a tool like SERPsim to check your titles before you publish. 

Learn more: How to Craft the Perfect SEO Title Tag (Our 4-Step Process) 

Match the H1 tag with the title tag

The consensus among SEOs seems to be that your H1 tag should be consistent with the title tag. This means two things.

First, these tags can be slightly different. However, it’s best if the H1 also contains the target keyword. 

For example, a product page can have a title tag that describes the value proposition of the product, while the H1 tag can be just a heading for the content that follows below. 

Similar title and H1 shown by Ahrefs' SEO Toolbar

But it’s perfectly fine if both the H1 and title tag are the same. This is a rule you may want to go with for blog posts. 

Write a compelling meta description

In case you’re wondering, what you put inside the meta description tag most probably won’t impact rankings. 

But it’s still a good idea to give that little piece of content some thought because it may entice readers to choose your page among others on the SERP.

Here are a few tips on crafting your meta descriptions:

  • Think about what searchers expect from a page found on the #1 page of Google – This comes back to search intent. It helps if you check your meta description on a mobile device. It’s more prominent there, so you’ll instantly know if the meta is enticing and helpful.
  • Mind the length – Use something like SERPsim. 
  • Write in newspaper headlines – For instance, compare this “TireHeaven has a wide variety of tires and wheels in stock. We have all of the top brands of passenger and truck tires, along with lawn, trailer, and tire …” to “Tires and wheels for all vehicles. Top brands. Fast and free shipping to an installer near you.” 
  • Take cues from descriptions on search ads – Marketers actually spend a lot of time tweaking those. 
  • Have a unique meta description for each page

Learn more: How to Write the Perfect Meta Description 


Google may still replace your title tag (study) and meta description (study) with something that, according to the system, fits the search query better. But writing your own title and meta is your best bet for displaying what you want and not what Google wants.

Use H2–H6 tags for subheadings

Here, the solution is straightforward: The best use you can make of tags H2–H6 is for subheadings. 

Subheadings are good for creating a skimmable hierarchy in a document. A good hierarchy should allow the reader to understand what they can find in the text just by skimming through the page. 

Create a user-friendly URL

Although John Mueller said not to worry about URLs, I think Google said it all with this in its SEO guide: 

Quote from Google's SEO guide

Bad URLs are a slant against Google’s grand design of serving helpful results. 

URLs do appear in the search results, and some users may read them to make sure they’re clicking on legit pages. But since Google doesn’t always show the full URL on the SERPs, I guess this is not something to ponder too much about. Just a clear, simple, and human-readable structure is all you need. 

So do this:


Instead of this:


Optimize images (filenames and alt tags)

It isn’t just text that’s important for keyword optimization. Images help Google understand what a page is about too. 

Makes sense if you think about it. If Google finds a lot of images about dogs on a page, it has a very good reason to think that the page is about dogs. 

Moreover, images can rank in Google Image Search. Additionally, your images may show up as previews in Search or in Google Discover

Google looks at a number of things when it comes to images. You can find the entire list here. In short: 

  • Use relevant images – It’s best if they’re original. 
  • Use descriptive, succinct filenames and alt tags – Avoid generic names, and don’t make them too long. Something like “house-on-a-hill.jpg” is better than “image1.jpg”.
  • Place your images close to relevant text 

Learn more: Alt Text for SEO: How to Optimize Your Images 

Link to relevant internal and external resources

When the content demands a link to some other page, don’t hold back. Both internal and external links help Google understand the context, and that’s a good thing for keyword optimization. They can also help establish E-A-T—just make sure you link to pages that you trust. 

Healthline linking to sources

But where you link to is not just about the context. Internal links can be used tactically to boost rankings because they are known to pass link equity. 

Learn more: Internal Links for SEO: An Actionable Guide

Optimize for featured snippets 

Featured snippets are bits of content that Google pulls from pages to answer search queries. 

Featured snippet example

Basically, when Google thinks there is a short and sweet answer to the question, it tends to show it right on the SERPs without making people click on anything. 

Optimizing for featured snippets is basically about:

  1. Providing the answer to the main question early in the text. 
  2. Making the answer succinct.
  3. Structuring your content in an organized, clear way.
  4. Using easy-to-understand language (avoiding jargon too). 

If you plug in your target keyword in Google, you will see right away if there’s a featured snippet you can optimize for. But if you’re working with a bigger list of keywords, you may want to use a tool like Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer. Simply enter all your keywords and set the “SERP features” filter to “Featured snippet.” You can do the same with your existing content and Ahrefs’ Site Explorer

 "Featured snippet" filter in Ahrefs

Learn more: How to Optimize for Google’s Featured Snippets 

Optimize for rich results 

Rich result is any type of visually enhanced search result with information pulled from relevant structured data. It likely doesn’t impact rankings. But it can make your page more eye-catching. 

Rich results example

Some content formats are eligible for special types of search results, such as this recipe carousel.

Rich results carousel

To make a page eligible for rich results, you need to add some simple code called schema markup. Each content format that supports rich results has its own set of markup properties. 

Here’s the process. You should: 

  1. Check available properties for your content in Google’s documentation.
  2. Deploy the code. Use a markup generator or write it yourself.
  3. Test the code using this Rich Results Test tool.
  4. Use the URL Inspection tool in Google Search Console to see if the site looks OK. If there are no issues, Google recommends using the request indexing tool to let it know about changes.

Final thoughts 

Keep in mind that the aim of keyword optimization is not to game the system in some cyberpunk fashion. The goal is to help Google and searchers find and understand your content.

So once you’re done with all the points from this guide, it’s a good idea to circle back and take this self-assessment test to make sure your content is “helpful, reliable and people-first.”

Once your content is live, here are two things you can do next:

  1. Build links to your content to boost rankings. Check our guide to link building to start off on the right foot. 
  2. Monitor your ranking progress to check if your tactics are working or when to update the content. But don’t do it manually on Google; rather, use a rank tracker. Here’s why.

Got questions? Ping me on Twitter

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Google Dials Back AI Overviews In Search Results, Study Finds




Photo of a mobile device in mans hand with generative google AI Overview on the screen.

According to new research, Google’s AI-generated overviews have undergone significant adjustments since the initial rollout.

The study from SE Ranking analyzed 100,000 keywords and found Google has greatly reduced the frequency of AI overviews.

However, when they appear, they’re more detailed than they were previously.

The study digs into which topics and industries are more likely to get an AI overview. It also looks at how the AI snippets interact with other search features like featured snippets and ads.

Here’s an overview of the findings and what they mean for your SEO efforts.

Declining Frequency Of AI Overviews

In contrast to pre-rollout figures, 8% of the examined searches now trigger an AI Overview.

This represents a 52% drop compared to January levels.

Yevheniia Khromova, the study’s author, believes this means Google is taking a more measured approach, stating:

“The sharp decrease in AI Overview presence likely reflects Google’s efforts to boost the accuracy and trustworthiness of AI-generated answers.”

Longer AI Overviews

Although the frequency of AI overviews has decreased, the ones that do appear provide more detailed information.

The average length of the text has grown by nearly 25% to around 4,342 characters.

In another notable change, AI overviews now link to fewer sources on average – usually just four links after expanding the snippet.

However, 84% still include at least one domain from that query’s top 10 organic search results.

Niche Dynamics & Ranking Factors

The chances of getting an AI overview vary across different industries.

Searches related to relationships, food and beverages, and technology were most likely to trigger AI overviews.

Sensitive areas like healthcare, legal, and news had a low rate of showing AI summaries, less than 1%.

Longer search queries with ten words were more likely to generate an AI overview, with a 19% rate indicating that AI summaries are more useful for complex information needs.

Search terms with lower search volumes and lower cost-per-click were more likely to display AI summaries.

Other Characteristics Of AI Overviews

The research reveals that 45% of AI overviews appear alongside featured snippets, often sourced from the exact domains.

Around 87% of AI overviews now coexist with ads, compared to 73% previously, a statistic that could increase competition for advertising space.

What Does This Mean?

SE Ranking’s research on AI overviews has several implications:

  1. Reduced Risk Of Traffic Losses: Fewer searches trigger AI Overviews that directly answer queries, making organic listings less likely to be demoted or receive less traffic.
  2. Most Impacted Niches: AI overviews appear more in relationships, food, and technology niches. Publishers in these sectors should pay closer attention to Google’s AI overview strategy.
  3. Long-form & In-Depth Content Essential: As AI snippets become longer, companies may need to create more comprehensive content beyond what the overviews cover.

Looking Ahead

While the number of AI overviews has decreased recently, we can’t assume this trend will continue.

AI overviews will undoubtedly continue to transform over time.

It’s crucial to monitor developments closely, try different methods of dealing with them, and adjust game plans as needed.

Featured Image: DIA TV/Shutterstock

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10 Tips on How to Rock a Small PPC Budget




10 Tips on How to Rock a Small PPC Budget

Many advertisers have a tight budget for pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, making it challenging to maximize results.

One of the first questions that often looms large is, “How much should we spend?” It’s a pivotal question, one that sets the stage for the entire PPC strategy.

Read on for tips to get started or further optimize budgets for your PPC program to maximize every dollar spent.

1. Set Expectations For The Account

With a smaller budget, managing expectations for the size and scope of the account will allow you to keep focus.

A very common question is: How much should our company spend on PPC?

To start, you must balance your company’s PPC budget with the cost, volume, and competition of keyword searches in your industry.

You’ll also want to implement a well-balanced PPC strategy with display and video formats to engage consumers.

First, determine your daily budget. For example, if the monthly budget is $2,000, the daily budget would be set at $66 per day for the entire account.

The daily budget will also determine how many campaigns you can run at the same time in the account because that $66 will be divided up among all campaigns.

Be aware that Google Ads and Microsoft Ads may occasionally exceed the daily budget to maximize results. The overall monthly budget, however, should not exceed the Daily x Number of Days in the Month.

Now that we know our daily budget, we can focus on prioritizing our goals.

2. Prioritize Goals

Advertisers often have multiple goals per account. A limited budget will also limit the number of campaigns – and the number of goals – you should focus on.

Some common goals include:

  • Brand awareness.
  • Leads.
  • Sales.
  • Repeat sales.

In the example below, the advertiser uses a small budget to promote a scholarship program.

They are using a combination of leads (search campaign) and awareness (display campaign) to divide up a daily budget of $82.

Screenshot from author, May 2024

The next several features can help you laser-focus campaigns to allocate your budget to where you need it most.

Remember, these settings will restrict traffic to the campaign. If you aren’t getting enough traffic, loosen up/expand the settings.

3. Location Targeting

Location targeting is a core consideration in reaching the right audience and helps manage a small ad budget.

To maximize a limited budget, you should focus on only the essential target locations where your customers are located.

While that seems obvious, you should also consider how to refine that to direct the limited budget to core locations. For example:

  • You can refine location targeting by states, cities, ZIP codes, or even a radius around your business.
  • Choosing locations to target should be focused on results.
  • The smaller the geographic area, the less traffic you will get, so balance relevance with budget.
  • Consider adding negative locations where you do not do business to prevent irrelevant clicks that use up precious budget.

If the reporting reveals targeted locations where campaigns are ineffective, consider removing targeting to those areas. You can also try a location bid modifier to reduce ad serving in those areas.

managing ppc budget by location interactionScreenshot by author from Google Ads, May 2024

4. Ad Scheduling

Ad scheduling also helps to control budget by only running ads on certain days and at certain hours of the day.

With a smaller budget, it can help to limit ads to serve only during hours of business operation. You can choose to expand that a bit to accommodate time zones and for searchers doing research outside of business hours.

If you sell online, you are always open, but review reporting for hourly results over time to determine if there are hours of the day with a negative return on investment (ROI).

Limit running PPC ads if the reporting reveals hours of the day when campaigns are ineffective.

Manage a small ppc budget by hour of dayScreenshot by author from Google Ads, May 2024

5. Set Negative Keywords

A well-planned negative keyword list is a golden tactic for controlling budgets.

The purpose is to prevent your ad from showing on keyword searches and websites that are not a good match for your business.

  • Generate negative keywords proactively by brainstorming keyword concepts that may trigger ads erroneously.
  • Review query reports to find irrelevant searches that have already led to clicks.
  • Create lists and apply to the campaign.
  • Repeat on a regular basis because ad trends are always evolving!

6. Smart Bidding

Smart Bidding is a game-changer for efficient ad campaigns. Powered by Google AI, it automatically adjusts bids to serve ads to the right audience within budget.

The AI optimizes the bid for each auction, ideally maximizing conversions while staying within your budget constraints.

Smart bidding strategies available include:

  • Maximize Conversions: Automatically adjust bids to generate as many conversions as possible for the budget.
  • Target Return on Ad Spend (ROAS): This method predicts the value of potential conversions and adjusts bids in real time to maximize return.
  • Target Cost Per Action (CPA): Advertisers set a target cost-per-action (CPA), and Google optimizes bids to get the most conversions within budget and the desired cost per action.

7. Try Display Only Campaigns

display ads for small ppc budgetsScreenshot by author from Google Ads, May 2024

For branding and awareness, a display campaign can expand your reach to a wider audience affordably.

Audience targeting is an art in itself, so review the best options for your budget, including topics, placements, demographics, and more.

Remarketing to your website visitors is a smart targeting strategy to include in your display campaigns to re-engage your audience based on their behavior on your website.

Let your ad performance reporting by placements, audiences, and more guide your optimizations toward the best fit for your business.

audience targeting options for small ppc budgetScreenshot by Lisa Raehsler from Google Ads, May 2024

8. Performance Max Campaigns

Performance Max (PMax) campaigns are available in Google Ads and Microsoft Ads.

In short, automation is used to maximize conversion results by serving ads across channels and with automated ad formats.

This campaign type can be useful for limited budgets in that it uses AI to create assets, select channels, and audiences in a single campaign rather than you dividing the budget among multiple campaign types.

Since the success of the PMax campaign depends on the use of conversion data, that data will need to be available and reliable.

9. Target Less Competitive Keywords

Some keywords can have very high cost-per-click (CPC) in a competitive market. Research keywords to compete effectively on a smaller budget.

Use your analytics account to discover organic searches leading to your website, Google autocomplete, and tools like Google Keyword Planner in the Google Ads account to compare and get estimates.

In this example, a keyword such as “business accounting software” potentially has a lower CPC but also lower volume.

Ideally, you would test both keywords to see how they perform in a live campaign scenario.

comparing keywords for small ppc budgetsScreenshot by author from Google Ads, May 2024

10. Manage Costly Keywords

High volume and competitive keywords can get expensive and put a real dent in the budget.

In addition to the tip above, if the keyword is a high volume/high cost, consider restructuring these keywords into their own campaign to monitor and possibly set more restrictive targeting and budget.

Levers that can impact costs on this include experimenting with match types and any of the tips in this article. Explore the opportunity to write more relevant ad copy to these costly keywords to improve quality.

Every Click Counts

As you navigate these strategies, you will see that managing a PPC account with a limited budget isn’t just about monetary constraints.

Rocking your small PPC budgets involves strategic campaign management, data-driven decisions, and ongoing optimizations.

In the dynamic landscape of paid search advertising, every click counts, and with the right approach, every click can translate into meaningful results.

More resources: 

Featured Image: bluefish_ds/Shutterstock

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What Are They Really Costing You?




What Are They Really Costing You?

This post was sponsored by Adpulse. The opinions expressed in this article are the sponsor’s own.

As managers of paid media, one question drives us all: “How do I improve paid ad performance?”. 

Given that our study found close variant search terms perform poorly, yet more than half of the average budget on Google & Microsoft Ads is being spent on them, managing their impact effectively could well be one of your largest optimization levers toward driving significant improvements in ROI. 

“Close variants help you connect with people who are looking for your business, despite slight variations in the way they search.”

Promising idea…but what about the execution?

We analyzed over 4.5 million clicks and 400,000 conversions to answer this question: With the rise in close variants (intent matching) search terms, what impact are they having on budgets and account performance? Spoiler alert, the impact is substantial. 

True Match Vs. Close Variants: How Do They Perform?

To understand close variant (CV) performance, we must first define the difference between a true match and a close variant. 


What Is a True Match? 

We still remember the good-old-days where keyword match types gave you control over the search terms they triggered, so for this study we used the literal match types to define ‘close variant’ vs ‘true match’. 

  • Exact match keyword => search term matches the keyword exactly. 
  • Phrase match keyword => search term must contain the keyword (same word order).
  • Broad match keyword => search term must contain every individual word in the keyword, but the word order does not matter (the way modified broad match keywords used to work).   


What Is a Close Variant? 

If you’re not familiar with close variants (intent matching) search terms, think of them as search terms that are ‘fuzzy matched’ to the keywords you are actually bidding on. 

Some of these close variants are highly relevant and represent a real opportunity to expand your keywords in a positive way. 

Some are close-ish, but the conversions are expensive. 

And (no shocks here) some are truly wasteful. 

….Both Google and Microsoft Ads do this, and you can’t opt-out.

To give an example: if you were a music therapist, you might bid on the phrase match keyword “music therapist”. An example of a true match search term would be ‘music therapist near me’ because it contains the keyword in its true form (phrase match in this case) and a CV might be ‘music and art therapy’.

How Do Close Variants Compare to True Match?

Short answer… poorly, on both Google and Microsoft Ads. Interestingly however, Google showed the worst performance on both metrics assessed, CPA and ROAS. 

Image created by Adpulse, May 2024

1718772963 395 What Are They Really Costing You

Image created by Adpulse, May 2024

Want to see the data – jump to it here…

CVs have been embraced by both platforms with (as earlier stated), on average more than half of your budget being spent on CV variant matches. That’s a lot of expansion to reach searches you’re not directly bidding for, so it’s clearly a major driver of performance in your account and, therefore, deserving of your attention. 

We anticipated a difference in metrics between CVs and true match search terms, since the true match search terms directly align with the keywords you’re bidding on, derived from your intimate knowledge of the business offering. 

True match conversions should therefore be the low-hanging fruit, leaving the rest for the platforms to find via CVs. Depending on the cost and ROI, this isn’t inherently bad, but logically we would assume CVs would perform worse than true matches, which is exactly what we observed. 

How Can You Limit Wastage on Close Variants?

You can’t opt out of them, however, if your goal is to manage their impact on performance, you can use these three steps to move the needle in the right direction. And of course, if you’re relying on CVs to boost volume, you’ll need to take more of a ‘quality-screening’ rather than a hard-line ‘everything-must-go’ approach to your CV clean out!


Step 1: Diagnose Your CV Problem 

We’re a helpful bunch at Adpulse so while we were scoping our in-app solution, we built a simple spreadsheet that you can use to diagnose how healthy your CVs are. Just make a copy, paste in your keyword and search term data then run the analysis for yourself. Then you can start to clean up any wayward CVs identified. Of course, by virtue of technology, it’s both faster and more advanced in the Adpulse Close Variant Manager 😉.


Step 2: Suggested Campaign Structures for Easier CV Management  

Brand Campaigns

If you don’t want competitors or general searches being matched to your brand keywords, this strategy will solve for that. 

Set up one ad group with your exact brand keyword/s, and another ad group with phrase brand keyword/s, then employ the negative keyword strategies in Step 3 below. You might be surprised at how many CVs have nothing to do with your brand, and identifying variants (and adding negative keywords) becomes easy with this structure.

Don’t forget to add your phrase match brand negatives to non-brand campaigns (we love negative lists for this).

Non-Brand Campaigns with Larger Budgets

We suggest a campaign structure with one ad group per match type:

Example Ad Groups:

    • General Plumbers – Exact
    • General Plumbers – Phrase
    • General Plumbers – Broad
    • Emergency Plumbers – Exact
    • Emergency Plumbers – Phrase
    • Emergency Plumbers – Broad

This allows you to more easily identify variants so you can eliminate them quickly. This also allows you to find new keyword themes based on good quality CVs, and add them easily to the campaign. 

Non-Brand Campaigns with Smaller Budgets

Smaller budgets mean the upside of having more data per ad group outweighs the upside of making it easier to trim unwanted CVs, so go for a simpler theme-based ad group structure:

Example Ad Groups:

    • General Plumbers
    • Emergency Plumbers


Step 3: Ongoing Actions to Tame Close Variants

Adding great CVs as keywords and poor CVs as negatives on a regular basis is the only way to control their impact.

For exact match ad groups we suggest adding mainly root negative keywords. For example, if you were bidding on [buy mens walking shoes] and a CV appeared for ‘mens joggers’, you could add the single word “joggers” as a phrase/broad match negative keyword, which would prevent all future searches that contain joggers. If you added mens joggers as a negative keyword, other searches that contain the word joggers would still be eligible to trigger. 

In ad groups that contain phrase or broad match keywords you shouldn’t use root negatives unless you’re REALLY sure that the root negative should never appear in any search term. You’ll probably find that you use the whole search term added as an exact match negative much more often than using root negs.

The Proof: What (and Why) We Analyzed

We know CVs are part of the conversations marketers frequently have, and by virtue of the number of conversations we have with agencies each week, we’ve witnessed the increase of CV driven frustration amongst marketers. 

Internally we reached a tipping point and decided to data dive to see if it just felt like a large problem, or if it actually IS a large enough problem that we should devote resources to solving it in-app. First stop…data. 

Our study of CV performance started with thousands of Google and Microsoft Ads accounts, using last 30-day data to May 2024, filtered to exclude:

  • Shopping or DSA campaigns/Ad Groups.
  • Accounts with less than 10 conversions.
  • Accounts with a conversion rate above 50%.
  • For ROAS comparisons, any accounts with a ROAS below 200% or above 2500%.

Search terms in the study are therefore from keyword-based search campaigns where those accounts appear to have a reliable conversion tracking setup and have enough conversion data to be individually meaningful.

The cleaned data set comprised over 4.5 million clicks and 400,000 conversions (over 30 days) across Google and Microsoft Ads; a large enough data set to answer questions about CV performance with confidence.

Interestingly, each platform appears to have a different driver for their lower CV performance. 

CPA Results:

Google Ads was able to maintain its conversion rate, but it chased more expensive clicks to achieve it…in fact, clicks at almost double the average CPC of true match! Result: their CPA of CVs worked out roughly double the CPA of true match.                 

Microsoft Ads only saw slightly poorer CPA performance within CVs; their conversion rate was much lower compared to true match, but their saving grace was that they had significantly lower CPCs, and you can afford to have a lower conversion rate if your click costs are also lower. End outcome? Microsoft Ads CPA on CVs was only slightly more expensive when compared to their CPA on true matches; a pleasant surprise 🙂.

What Are They Really Costing You

Image created by Adpulse, May 2024

ROAS Results:

Both platforms showed a similar story; CVs delivered roughly half the ROAS of their true match cousins, with Microsoft Ads again being stronger overall. 


1718772963 395 What Are They Really Costing You

Image created by Adpulse, May 2024

Underlying Data:

For the data nerds amongst us (at Adpulse we self-identify here !) 

1718772963 88 What Are They Really Costing You

Image created by Adpulse, May 2024


Close variant search terms consume, on average, more than half an advertiser’s budget whilst in most cases, performing significantly worse than search terms that actually match the keywords. How much worse? Read above for details ^. Enough that managing their impact effectively could well be one of your largest optimization levers toward driving significant improvements in account ROI. 

Image Credits

Featured Image: Image by Adpulse. Used with permission.

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