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Will the Keyword become extinct in Paid Search?

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Keywords are a fundamental part of what we currently do in search engine marketing. However, there is no denying that over the past few years we’ve seen product updates and tests that have made us question the future of the ‘Keyword’ as we know it. Does the evolution of search mean that the keyword could become extinct?

We are all in denial about it. But if you look at the trends, Google has been introducing new products and tweaking existing products in a move away from keywords for years. We advertise in a world where it matters more to fully understand user intent and the context to which they are in; its moment marketing and semantic search. Keywords can sometimes be problematic in trying to achieve this.

How has Keyword targeting evolved in recent years?

There are a few updates & tests that have happened in recent years that are particularly important here. It revolves predominantly around the Exact Match keyword.

Match Types Redefined

2014 – Close Variants, you can no longer opt out of including close variants and misspells for Exact Match or Phrase Match.

2017Close Variants expanding to include additional rewording and reordering; ignoring word orders and function words within your keyword.

Over the years the definitions of certain match types have loosened. The search terms that keywords can now be matched against are much broader to where it was a few years ago. This blurs the line between Exact, Phrase and Broad.

This change has forced us all to adopt more Audiences and Artificial Intelligence to target the right people at the right time, instead of simply relying on the keyword to match against the search query. Its now much more about targeting the right person. It’s personalised advertising with semantic search.

What’s accelerated the demise of the Keyword as we know it?

The idea of the ‘Keyword’ itself

Let’s think about it. Keywords are important to Google and it’s advertisers, but they also cause Google problems.

When you look at it from the advertisers point of view

We need to have keywords to target Brand, Generic or Competitor search queries. We are rewarded when we deliver a highly relevant experience for users on Google, penalised with a lower Quality Score and higher CPC when we don’t. So keywords give advertisers a lot of control over what they think is right for their customer and their paid search strategy.

For Google you could argue that they feel like they know what their users want, and that isn’t necessarily what we think (as advertisers) the users we want to target want

That’s why we are being pushed for certain product adoptions, whether it’s Mobile, Automated Bidding Solutions, or Audiences. Keywords give advertisers a lot of control, which could feel uncomfortable for Google at times.

At such a time in the market where competitors to Google (Amazon, Bing etc.) are being aggressive with their advancements, can the acceleration of change be hindered by the fact that advertisers have control over keywords? Pushing us to a different way of working from keywords could help Google take back control and continue to stay way ahead of their competition. They’ll do this by forcing more changes onto their products to force advertisers to drive their accounts forward and deliver better performance, the Google way. If advertisers see better performance, then they’ll invest more into Adwords therefore allowing Google to further invest into their product to keep ahead of the competition. The circle of paid search life.

Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence

The advancements in recent years by Google here have been phenomenal. Accelerated by the integration of DeepMind, this has fed into their products such as Adwords to help drive better performance out of every auction for advertisers.

As we saw in last year’s Google Marketing Next 2017, Machine Learning is a big focus for Google Adwords. It helps drive further relevance through the use of Data and Technology in understanding user’s intent, context, and identity to make smarter decisions in real time. In more recent examples, you can see how Machine Learning is being used successfully for Dynamic Search Ads, Audiences, Automated Bidding and more.

If you take keywords out of the equation, could Google Adwords be capable enough to find the right people for you based on a selection of campaign settings and AI instead?

Dynamic Search Ads as an Ad Group Type, not Campaign Type

We also don’t need to target keywords with Dynamic Search Ads. The move from being a campaign type to an ad group type helped to demonstrate how confident Google are with this as a product. This is also evidenced by the fact that Dynamic Search Ads can be used on sensitive verticals such as Pharma and Gambling. It’s obviously driving results for advertisers and Google, and could it be the future of search marketing? If this was the only option available to us, then it would force webmasters to create better websites and more quality content which would have benefits to SEO and ultimately your potential customers.

Google’s recent Local Search Ads Experiment helped to reiterate their intention to move towards a “keywordless” future

Some of you would have noticed a new campaign that was uploaded into your account around February time. This affected some of those accounts that have location extensions attached to them. This is actually from a test that Google Adwords was running called a ‘Local Search Ads Experiment Campaign‘. The test was to use Google My Business information (e.g. location address or category) to trigger relevant results in Google Search and Maps; without using keywords. Too soon to tell if this could be a product to use in the future. For now it’s a limited test across select countries.

Continued success of Google Shopping

We don’t use keywords in Google Shopping, instead search queries are matched against certain products using a combination of your product feed and the intent of the search query. There are even different ad formats for intent with the introduction of Showcase Shopping Ads for search queries that are higher up the funnel such as ‘microwave’.

The evolution of Audiences beyond just RLSA (Remarketing Lists for Search Ads)

Audiences are one of the most powerful levers we have to pull now that we have issues with the lack of keyword control. Using Audiences can help focus our Paid Search activity towards finding the right people, understanding their intent, and targeting them with a different message if needed. We use audiences to segment our audience into “buckets” to drive more efficient performance through bidding more aggressively for these audiences, or excluding them altogether. There are even new audience products we can utilise such as In Market Audiences for Search to segment our audience and bid more aggressively against people who have not yet visited the website, but are in market for our products.

The rise of Voice Search. Shopping Actions and the pay-per-sale model

Voice Search will help accelerate this change. Our searches are becoming more conversational, and do keywords work well here to target voice searches? We are already seeing Google move towards more of a pay-per-action model over a pay-per-click model for Voice Search via Smart Home Devices. As their adoption continues to grow, will we see an ad format for Voice Search Devices that don’t involve keywords?

What’s clear is that keyword based targeting in Paid Search just simply isn’t enough anymore to drive the best performance. 

So, does the evolution of search mean that keywords will become extinct?

Personally, I can definitely see a future without them. As AI and the technology behind this gets better, I can see a future where Dynamic Search Ads could be used and then we use levers such as Audiences, Location, Device to have further control over our campaigns. You could then overlay this with automated bidding strategies and only use keywords only for negatives. You could set campaigns up in a couple of clicks and a matter of seconds.

This is also affecting SEO. Every algorithmn update in recent times has moved more towards using Intent as a way to rank search results. From Panda to Hummingbird there have been changes to focus marketers on delivering the answers users need in the moment they are in.

Let’s not forget about Negative Keywords in Paid Search

I can’t see a future without negative keywords just yet. Having this helps advertisers and Google control paid search activity, no one here would want to suffer the consequences against delivering ad content against a search query they don’t want to appear on. Taking this away from advertisers would be a real pain in the ass for everyone.

What does this mean for you?

Keywords are definitely becoming less important. It’s about fully understanding user context and intent, keywords still help us to do this

A paid search world without keywords is a long long way off. Google are still trying to ensure that elements such as Audiences and Automated Bidding are at the foundation of what advertisers are doing with their strategies. Until this improves, they aren’t going to make any drastic changes that would impact their biggest revenue driver.

Those who will be winning in the future are the one’s that are continually looking to evolve their accounts. Test & Learn, adopt new technologies, continue to smash key performance metrics. Ultimately, you need to adopt a moment marketing strategy by understanding micro-moments.


Dan Roberts
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