How Keywords Are Used Differently in PPC And Targeted Display.


After working in the field of Search Engine Marketing for nearly ten years, to selling and training Targeted Display two years ago, I experienced a significant paradigm shift when it comes to keywords. It took me awhile to wrap my brain around the idea that keywords didn’t play the same role in both worlds. Here’s what I’ve discovered about how keywords play different roles in PPC and Targeted Display campaigns.

When I got Google AdWords Certified several years ago, I learned (and taught others) that long-tail keywords were the most “valuable” keywords when it came to delivering a PPC ad to the right audience at the right time.

A long-tail keyword is a keyword that is very specific, often containing three or more words as a keyword phrase. They imply more specific intent and also costs less in a pay-per-click environment. For example, the generic keyword “lawn service” is estimated to run about $7 per click while “sod installer” will cost you less than $2 per click. A little 3rd grade math tells us that three “sod installer” leads cost less to obtain than a single “lawn service” lead.

And you could argue that a person looking for a sod installer has a better idea of what she wants and is further down the purchase funnel, possibly even at the ZMOT (Zero Moment of Truth).

This lead us to believe that long-tail is the obvious choice, but there are two drawbacks to building a campaign on long-tail keywords alone.


First, when a potential customer searches using generic keywords, the search engines are able to provide more results – especially when it comes to location-based searches.

Search Engine Land recently featured a study that compared how Google, Bing and Yahoo deliver results for generic and long-tail keywords. Here’s the part that is relevant to our conversation: A search for generic local keywords generates 13% more results than does a long-tail search. Include location as part of the keyword and that discrepancy is even greater at 17%.

Or said another way, a search for the generic “lawn care Kansas City” will result in approximately 17% more results than “sod installer Kansas City.”


Here are the key findings:

• Generic keywords result in highest percentage of local results displayed.
• Long-tail keywords trigger fewest local results.


Google displays significantly more local results when a generic term is used over a long-tail search term. Whether a long-tail keyword is used on its own or with a geo-location, it is still the least likely search “type” to trigger local results.


You’ve probably experienced this when you did a search for something very specific and didn’t find what you were looking for. So you went back to Google and tried again with a more generic keyword.

Why are there more results for generic keywords? Let’s examine this scenario: The lawn care company that does sod installation would probably like to rank for both the generic and the long-tail keyword. But they see more opportunity in the keyword “lawn care” and probably focus their SEO efforts around that phrase. So even if they do sod installation, they probably have very little content on their site about that specific service.

With less content on the web for those long-tail keywords, Google really has no choice but to provide users less results for long-tail searches. That means…


Because our experiences on Google train us how to search, users tend to use more generic keywords more often than their long-tail brothers.

Using the example I provided earlier, Google estimates that 171 times as many people will search for “lawn service” than they will “sod installer”. A quick peek at Google’s Keyword Planner reveals similar discrepancies between long-tail and generic keywords in nearly every category.

Bottom line, there are just more people searching generic keywords than there are long-tail keywords. And if you’ve ever run either a pay-per-click campaign or a targeted display campaign, you’ve come to the realization that only using long-tail keywords can severely limit your reach.

By including generic keywords as a part of your targeting mix, you can reach a larger audience.


86% of users engage in ROBO. (Source ROBO stands for research online, buy offline.

Where does the majority of that research start? I think you’d agree that most of our searches begin on the major search engines, specifically Google.

I call this the “tip of the iceberg” search. It’s where we go when we start the shopping journey. After we leave Google we may find ourselves “under the water” on review sites, news sites, blogs and other places where we can complete our research before making a buying decision.

And everywhere we go, searching and reading about our particular product or service, we leave digital breadcrumbs. Let’s take a look at what some of those breadcrumbs may look like:

This user doesn’t know exactly what she wants just yet. Here are the results of a search for “lawn care”. She has scrolled past the paid ads because she’s not ready to buy.


Her “tip of the iceberg” search on Google leads her to these sites where she continues her shopping journey and leaves more digital breadcrumbs.

Three Lawn Care Web Pages

Now let’s imagine that you’re the lawn care professional who installs sod. Would you like to show your ads to this person? Of course you would! As she’s surfing the web over the next few weeks, your ads could influence her to visit your website or contact you.

But only… if you’re targeting a generic keyword like “lawn care”.

If you’re adamant that you only want to reach those long-tail searchers, you are limiting your reach and the time you have to influence them.

Display ads work like traditional media, in that the more users see them, the more impact they have on them.

Let’s go back to this user’s shopping journey. Let’s assume that she read content on these pages that indicates that sod installation is her best bet for a healthy, green lawn. So she finally does a search like this one:


What are the chances she’s going to click on one of these PPC ads? Sponsored results account for 64.6% of clicks for high commercial intent keyword searches. (Source: Wordstream) High commercial intent means the user is likely shopping as opposed to doing research. Would you agree that her search for “sod installation Kansas City” is of high commercial intent? Certainly more so than “lawn care”, agreed?

Which means that the PPC ads are likely to get the click. In other words, the user is nearing her ZMOT and there will be little opportunity left to influence her with a display ad.


Generic keywords mean the user is at the beginning of her shopping journey. She’s in a place in the purchase cycle where display ads can influence her purchase. This is where display ads thrive.

If the display ads wait until the user is searching with long-tail keyword phrases, they have less opportunity to influence the user and there’s a lot less inventory because again, the user is nearing the end of the shopping journey and leaving less digital breadcrumbs.

Should long-tail keywords be a part of a targeted display campaign? Yes, but they shouldn’t be the main focus of the campaign because display plays a larger part influencing earlier in the purchase cycle.

This chart outlines the differences between long-tail keywords and generic keywords when used for pay-per-click and targeted display campaigns:

Thanks for reading.

David McBee