Are SKAGs dead after Google’s latest match type changes?
Google recently announced that same-meaning close variants will soon apply to phrase match and modified broad match keywords. These match types join exact match, which was the first to start showing ads for close variants with the same meaning in September 2018.
I’ve shared what I believe are the three most important things to do ahead of this round of changes: automate bid management, enable a nonlast-click attribution model, and set up an automated monitoring system that checks close variants. You can even grab my script to automate the monitoring process.
But will Google’s change to how keyword match types work have any impact on other ways PPC accounts are managed? Or even more so, does this recent change obviate single keyword ad groups, commonly known as SKAGs? I’ll explain my reasoning in this post, but if you’re strapped for time, the answer I believe is that SKAGs will continue to play a useful role in boosting Quality Score, thereby reducing CPCs, and improving performance of PPC accounts.
What are SKAGs
SKAG stands for ‘single keyword ad group’. As the name suggests, it’s an ad group that has only one keyword in it, and often that one keyword will be an exact match keyword. For the purpose of this post, I am defining a SKAG exactly that way: an ad group with exactly one exact match keyword. This structure became popular as a way for advertisers to get more control over their accounts.
How SKAGs provide more control
Prior to the introduction of ‘close variants’ in 2014, using an exact match keyword meant the user had to type in exactly the same thing as the advertiser’s keyword in order for the ad to be eligible to appear. Thus by having only a single exact match keyword in an ad group, it meant the advertiser knew exactly what the user searched and so they could write a super targeted and relevant ad for that user’s search.
SKAGs boost relevance and Quality Score
Having this control over ad relevance helped advertisers boost their Quality Score (QS). By focusing on a single keyword at a time, advertisers could write more compelling ads, thereby boosting CTR and hence achieving a higher QS.
And as I’ve written before, QS is a big part of how Google determines the Ad Rank and can make clicks cheaper when the QS increases.
“Ad Rank is a calculation of max CPC, quality score (expected CTR, ad relevance, landing page experience), the expected impact of ad extensions and ad formats as well as other contextual factors like location and device. It determines if your ad is eligible to show and where it appears on the page relative to other ads.”
What makes close variants the enemy of SKAGs
The meaning of match types has been radically redefined by close variants where exact match keywords no longer mean that the user’s query must be an exact letter-for-letter match to the advertiser’s keyword for an ad to show.
Advertisers can no longer write an ad that is guaranteed to show for exactly one query. So it seems that the point of doing SKAGs has been made impossible by Google. But while control has been reduced, SKAGs still help indicate advertiser preferences and hence can still boost QS and reduce PPC costs.
What remains the same: SKAGs help control which ad is shown
Here’s the thing, an exact match keyword is supposed to be given preference in the ad serving priority over another keyword that is a same-meaning close variant match of the user’s search. This has not changed. An advertiser who wants to show a specific ad for a specific query can still put that query as an exact match keyword in a SKAG and know that it is as likely as before to trigger the intended ad and deliver the associated quality score benefits.
Long-term PPC pros may argue with that point because as we all learn after doing PPC for a long time, the ad prioritization algorithm is tricky and can’t be entirely relied on. This is why my company Optmyzr has long had optimization tools to add negative keywords automatically when it is found that Google is serving a different ad than the one intended by the advertiser.
But the complexity and reliability of this process aside, the introduction of close variants hasn’t changed how Google picks the keyword that enters the auction when there are multiple possibilities. To understand this better, read Ginny Marvin’s recent explanation of keyword prioritization.
What has changed: SKAGs need to be managed like non-SKAGs
What has changed is that SKAGs now need to be managed a bit more like non-SKAGs because the exact match keyword can all of a sudden show ads for a wider variety of queries than before.
Advertisers can control which ad will show for a particular query by adding that query as an exact match keyword in a SKAG, but they cannot control for which additional close variants that same ad may now also get triggered without adding a lot of negative keywords.
The query management process that used to only apply to broad, modified broad and phrase match keywords is now equally important for exact match keywords in single keyword ad groups.
Query management in a close variant world
The reason Google has so many match types to choose from is that they know it’s near impossible for advertisers to guess all the unique ways users will formulate queries, even when looking for the same thing. Providing only exact match keywords would lead to many missed advertising opportunities.
Google has said since 2003 that 15% of queries are unique and they reaffirmed this stat with data from May 2019. That stat doesn’t actually mean what you might think though; the 2019 stat says that on any given day 15% of queries happen only once. In the past, that stat applied to longer windows of time, sometimes 90 days. So there are actually fewer unique searches now than in the past and that may have something to do with autocomplete but that’s a whole different topic.
In the end, it’s still an important stat because even if you were able to add every possible keyword to your account, some keywords would be disabled for low search volume. And some advertisers would run into keyword limits for their accounts. So whether we like it or not, everyone has to rely on Google’s algorithms at some level to show ads for all relevant searches.
But that doesn’t mean advertisers should stop managing keywords and queries and just depend on Google. PPC pros should look at the search terms reports to identify queries to add as negative or positive keywords.
I covered this in my book, Digital Marketing in an AI World. Even when so much is automated, some PPC tasks remain important enough for human oversight – I describe this as the PPC pro playing a role similar to that of airline pilots.
Do I still manage keywords when Google seems to automate it all?
Let me explain why query management is still critical by providing the possible counter-argument. One could say negative keywords are not important when using smart bidding because the Google system automatically deprioritize queries that don’t lead to conversions by setting lower bids and that would cause bad search terms to stop triggering ads. Likewise, it could be argued the Google system for close variants is so good at identifying relevant queries that it’s no longer important to spend time developing good keyword lists. ‘Why bother if Google won’t respect exact match keywords anyway?’ one could say.
But over-reliance on these automations may be risky. Consider that Google changes its algorithms and thresholds periodically. This means that what is considered “same-meaning” today may not tomorrow.
Another risk is conversion tracking may break, or bad data may enter the system due to technical issues like a landing page outage. Automations depend on good data to make good decisions and even the best PPC experts can’t guarantee with 100% confidence that their data will always be good. There are too many external factors and other players involved.
Only by explicitly telling Google which queries you want your ad to show for, and which other ones are unlikely to lead to a high-quality lead, can you provide a level of safety against the aforementioned issues.
As part of day-to-day query management which I believe is still an important task despite all Google’s automations, once you identify a great new keyword in a search terms report, it may make sense to add it as a keyword so you won’t have to depend on continued traffic for this important search term by hoping Google’s machine learning continues to guess it is relevant. Better still, by adding it in a SKAG with an ad written for just this term, its QS can be boosted and it may achieve a higher ad rank than when it triggered ads as a close variant match to another keyword.
SKAGs need RSAs too
The purpose of a SKAG has always been to drive better QS with more relevant ads, and that hasn’t changed. The tools to do so, however, have. This has nothing to do with close variants, but everything to do with automated ads such as responsive search ads (RSAs).
Advertisers should add RSAs across all ad groups to drive more volume and better relevance. You can read more about how RSAs drive incremental volume and how to monitor their performance against expanded text ads.
Historically SKAGs have had several purpose-written expanded text ads to drive the best possible results for a single keyword. SKAGs should continue to contain these types of text ads. The text should still be written for the keyword without concern for the other queries it could now trigger due to same-meaning close variants. Continued query management as described above will ensure that good new queries get moved into their own SKAGs where they can also have a purpose-written, QS-boosting ad.
So won’t adding a responsive search ad to a SKAG dilute those QS benefits? It may seem so because RSAs are another example of advertisers ceding control to the machines. But the goal of RSAs is to show the most relevant ad so its goals are aligned with those of advertisers using SKAGs to improve QS.
When writing the components of the RSA (up to 15 headline variations and 4 descriptions), use ad text components that specifically reference the keyword itself as well as its benefits to users who did that particular search.
The advertiser’s task remains to write compelling text, it’s just that the text no longer has to be locked into a set order and the machines can recombine it in a way to maximize results.
SKAGs, or single keyword ad groups with one exact match keyword, continue to help advertisers craft a unique message for specific search terms. This can boost ad relevance, one of the components of Quality Score which can, in turn, reduce advertising costs.
Because exact match keywords may now trigger ads for a whole slew of same-meaning close variants, SKAGs now require search term management, something that wasn’t the case prior to 2014.
PPC pros who have used SKAGs before can continue to use them for the same purpose but can now leverage new ad formats like RSAs to further boost auction-time relevance.
So that’s the bottom-line, if you believed in SKAGs before, there’s no reason to stop believing in them now.
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