what is unbounce

Become a Better Marketer. Anytime, Anywhere.

Listen and learn on the go with Unbounce’s Call to Action marketing podcast. Tune in and get inspired in the car, while you cook, or at the gym.

The Noob Guide to Understanding Pay-Per-Click Marketing

SAGE Whirlwind Computer
Setting up your first PPC campaign can feel something like this. Image source.

Landing pages are obviously the most important element of any marketing campaign. They are a towering monument to the ingenuity of the human species; the logical endpoint to the digital marketing revolution that was ignited by the creation of ARPANET — the precursor of the modern internet — in 1969.

… Okay, I’m overselling it a bit. Landing pages are just one element of a great marketing campaign, but they wouldn’t be very useful if we didn’t have a way to actually get people to them.

And that’s where pay-per-click marketing comes in. It’s what’s responsible for those little text ads that appear when you search for something on a search engine (let’s be honest, it’s probably Google). PPC marketing is one of the best ways to reach the best prospects, at a moment that’s pivotal in their purchasing cycle.

Whether or not you’re planning on running PPC ads yourself, understanding the basics of how PPC works is critical to being a great marketer. After adding 12 new PPC-related definitions to the Conversion Marketing Glossary, we decided to offer this post as a primer on the core concepts every PPC marketer needs to know and, more importantly, understand. You’ll find links to the glossary entries, and each glossary page has links for further learning.

While we’ll be discussing these terms in the context of Google’s AdWords platform, most search engines use similar terminology.

It all starts with a campaign

If you’re running PPC ads, they’re probably part of a larger marketing campaign, a series of marketing activities working towards a common goal.

Ad Groups

But AdWords repurposes the word campaign to mean something slightly different. An AdWords campaign contains all of your ad groups, and those ad groups themselves contain your ads.

When you adjust the settings for a campaign, those settings affect every ad contained within. Of note is the budget setting – ad groups don’t have individual budgets, but instead all pull funds directly from the shared campaign budget.

While you can also adjust other settings like language, schedule and which display networks the ads will appear on at the campaign level (a complete list of all campaign settings can be found here), the real fun begins when we get to ad groups. Ad groups contain all of the ads that are targeted at a shared set of keywords, which are essentially a user’s search queries.

So, for example, one ad group might have 15 different ads all targeting the keywords “shoes,” “sandals,” “boots,” “gloves for feet,” “protect my delicate toes from the cruel earth beneath,” etc.

The different types of keyword matching

Because the way keywords are targeted is so important to the success of a PPC campaign, AdWords gives you a few ways to customize how your ads match up with users’ search queries.

Broad match is the default keyword matching option, and will target your ads at any queries with words that are synonymous, similar, or otherwise deemed relevant by Google’s algorithms.

While broad match can be tempting due to the wider reach, you lose a lot of control over who sees your ads, meaning you could end up paying for clicks that aren’t right for your offer.

Luckily, AdWords also offers broad match modifiers that allow you to target your ads only at queries that contain your broad match keywords or extremely close variations of them, like plural forms and misspellings. Modified keywords will also be targeted no matter the order they appear in the query.

Using a + symbol to designate broad match modifiers, +wear +shoes would target “wear shoes,” “shoes to wear,” “why wear anything other than shoes.

You could also try +wear shoes, which would ensure that “wear” or a close variation must appear in the query, but “shoes” could replaced with similar words like “boots” or “footwear”.

Phrase match is more exact in that it will only target queries that contain a specific phrase or a close variant thereof, in the order specified. For example, “wear shoes” (in quotations) would certainly target “how to wear shoes,” but definitely not “why wear anything other than shoes,” which is probably not the kind of person you want to engage with, anyway.

Exact match is even more, um, exact, in that it only targets queries that are identical to the keyword, barring exceptions for misspellings and pluralizations. If you target [wear shoes] (square brackets being the signifier for exact match) that’s all you’re going to show up next to.

Broad Match Modifier
Illustration of the different match types from Think with Google. Bonus points to whoever can explain what “figure not drawn to scale” means here.

While not precisely a match type, negative keywords are a crucial part of your keyword targeting strategy. They let you prevent your ads from being displayed next to queries that contain certain words. We live in a world where people buy shoes for their dogs, so consider adding -dogs as a negative keyword to keep them away from you and your human-sized shoe business.

Ensuring that your ads are being shown to people who are a good fit for your offering will save you money (because you’ll be paying only for qualified clicks) and time (because you won’t spend your days sifting through unqualified leads).

Discovering which keywords are worth targeting

Now you understand the different ways of matching keywords, but how do you decide which keywords to target in the first place?

That’s where keyword research comes in. This needs to be the first thing you do for every PPC campaign that you run. After all, it’s no good if all of your ads are targeting keywords that nobody actually searches for.

So how do you find out?

There are tons of great keyword research tools out there, but for beginners, AdWords’ built-in Keyword Planner does a great job. Not only will it suggest keywords to target based on terms relevant to your business, it will even give you historical search data and forecast estimated traffic and suggested bid amounts.

Sickest Cool Shoes Emporium — NO DOG ALLOWED
Welcome to the Sickest Cool Shoes Emporium, where there are no shoes for dogs.

While it can be tempting to go after keywords with the highest traffic, they won’t necessarily produce the best results. Competition for generic keywords is very high, and it can be difficult to create compelling ads for such generic queries. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to long-tail keywords.

These keywords don’t rank in the top 30% of searches, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t valuable. They’re often incredibly specific and can display a clear purchasing intent. Someone searching for “leather boots” may just be looking around, but someone searching for “size 8 leather zip boots” is likely ready to buy.

Once you’ve painstakingly researched all of your keywords, populated your ad groups with killer copy that targets only the most relevant searches and pushed your campaign live, everything’s good to go, right?

The unknowable, all-seeing Ad Rank

Every ad has an Ad Rank, and that rank determines the position of your ad on the page — and whether it’s displayed at all.

In typical Google fashion, the exact nature of how Ad Rank is calculated is shrouded in mystery, but its major contributing factors are:

While it’s impossible to understand exactly how Quality Score is calculated, we do know that it’s determined based on how “relevant” Google’s omniscient cloudbrain thinks your ad will be to those who see it, and the quality of the page that the ad brings them to.

Quality Score is also dependent on the account’s overall standing, which means that having poor Quality Scores in one ad group can weigh you down across all ad groups and campaigns.

To obtain a high Quality Score, PPC ads should:

  • be extremely relevant to what the user searched for in the first place
  • have a high predicted clickthrough rate, as evidence of that relevancy
  • lead to a landing page that is transparent about what it offers, and provides proof that it is trustworthy

It’s important to note in the end, all that matters is high-quality conversions; it’s okay if your Quality Score isn’t perfect if the ad is working well for you.

This is only the beginning

Now that you understand the terminology at the heart of PPC marketing, you’re primed to keep learning more. Our very own Ultimate Guide to PPC Landing Pages will not only teach you PPC marketing strategies you can start using today, it will also show you how to design landing pages that work hand-in-hand with your ads.

But before you decide which path you take on your journey to PPC mastery, you should prepare yourself by taking our new PPC Marketing Quiz. This short, 10-question quiz will put what you’ve learned here to the test, so I hope you were paying attention!

About Brad Tiller
Brad’s a writer at Unbounce, with a marketing background encompassing everything from community management to lead generation. He's obsessed with the little touches that take marketing campaigns from so-so to stellar. Find him on Twitter: @bradtiller
» More blog posts by


  1. Judy Schramm

    Excellent explanations! This is very useful, Brad! I’m going to send people who are new to PPC here to understand the basic concepts.

  2. Zack Bedingfield

    Great intro article for noobs Brad. Only thing that popped out as being 100% wrong to me was that the keyword planner won’t show “predicted conversion rates.” Otherwise I think this is a great.

    • Brad Tiller

      Thanks for your diligence, Zack! You’re totally correct, and how embarrassing for me to have left that in there. I’ve updated the piece.

  3. Sanket Gupta

    Now i understood what PPC really is.I used to be think that it’s a program where we can only invest to give products like amazon so noob i am.Great article!

  4. Harekrishna

    Really very informative article Brad.

    I would like to add one point. Selection of campaign type is also important to get good ROI. For example, If you are designing a campaign for ecommerce stores, then shopping campaign will be first choice while for B2B website text campaign will be more profitable.

    In Addition, Nice test for PPC marketing, I got 9/10!. Missed by one…

  5. Josh Garofalo

    *Puts smart-ass hat on…

    I’d like to take a shot at that bonus point. :)

    “Figure not drawn to scale” is referring to the fact that each rectangle’s size, in relation to the others, is not an accurate portrayal of how much broader/less broad the type of search illustrated within a rectangle is. If it were accurate, I imagine the most focused criteria, exact match, would be a dot the size of a pin compared to the more broad criteria and its rectangle. Or, if the “exact match” rectangle were left as is, the most “Broad” rectangle would blow up our screens with its mass.

    Instead, the size is just meant to communicate that a bigger rectangle represents broader matching criteria and a larger potential audience. It is also meant to show that the matching criteria represented by rectangle pertains to the criteria shown in that rectangle + the criteria in all rectangles it contains.

    *Takes smart-ass hat off, realizes the question was probably somewhat redundant, and that I’ve been had again.

    • Brad Tiller

      I am elated that someone bothered to answer this question, let alone answer it with such care. Thank you!

  6. Matt

    Test comment please ignore

  7. David Rothwell

    Dr. Hal Varian (Chief Economic Officer at Google) explains that CTR is 60% of keyword Quality Score in this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qwuUe5kq_O8

  8. Ivy Green - Timmermans

    Very helpful Brad. Thanks a lot. :)

  9. maria

    Really very informative article thanks for this`

  10. Nicholas Colombres

    Great article for anyone starting on Adwords. Thanks alot!

  11. Richard Rackham

    I’ve only just found this article, and have struggled to explain this to folk – so I will now be pointing folk here.

  12. Janis Mednis

    Thanks for this guide. Definitely good for beginners. Just in case anyone is interested, I shared analysis of how PPC marketing has changed for me over last 11 years (I started using it in 2004): http://www.nimblemerchant.com/how-pay-per-click-marketing-changed-in-ten-years/

    Hope it helps newbies understand how it evolved and possible future trends.