How important is the keyword in paid search?
7 mins read

How important is the keyword in paid search?

The key word is that it is both dying and thriving at the moment.

You play a key role in shaping our strategies.

Additionally, they are a core part of how the most popular form of digital marketing (search) works.

However, their mechanics have undeniably changed over the years.

Visual content is becoming increasingly popular and audiences are becoming an important targeting source.

This post examines the history of the keyword, its current status, and whether it remains relevant or gradually fades into obscurity.

No judgment is made on how keywords are used in today’s marketing strategies.

However, we will examine aspects that people continue to use despite diminishing benefits.

A Review: The Journey of Keywords

Historical mechanics of keywords

In the past, keywords had a very specific role. Each keyword represented a unique idea that corresponded to specific user queries.

For example, the phrases “dog walker,” “walking the dog,” and “walking the dog” would all be treated as different ideas. This allowed us to bid on how people think and search.

Traditionally, keywords act as our representatives in the auction every time a user enters a search query.

Based on the bid and quality score, we get an ad rank, which determines where the ad appears on the search engine results page (SERP).

Match types used to have a big influence on keyword theory due to their different properties:

  • Broad: As long as any part of the core idea matches, the keyword goes into the auction.
  • Modified Broad (RIP): Each word in the keyword had to be present, but could be in any order, and there could be terms before and after it.
  • phrase: The keyword phrase could not be broken, but there could be terms before and after it.
  • Exactly: Only the exact keyword would trigger the auction.

These keyword match types entered the auction at different times (exactly first, largely last), so it made sense to bid on all match types with different bids.

This would ensure coverage while communicating where the advertiser wanted their budget to go.

The rise of similar variants

A lot has changed in 2016. Google has removed the right-hand side of the search results page and introduced “close variants”.

Near variants have increased significantly in recent years, but were previously limited to quality of life adjustments.

For example, an advertiser would no longer have to bid on abbreviations or misspellings.

Search term reports showed whether the match type was vanilla or a similar variant.

This allowed us to see which keyword variation represented the best return on investment (ROI) without having to use every possible version of the keyword.

Fast forward to 2018-2019, and similar variants became even more disruptive. Implicit words and synonyms were acceptable in all match types. Additionally mod. The sunset was wide.

In the 2020s, broad consensus began to include audiences, which brought it back into popularity. Phrase and Exact Match are now equally popular with control-oriented advertisers.

Keywords as target groups

As search keywords underwent this shift, audience-based keywords began to make their way into display and video campaigns.

These keywords had different but equally powerful functions:

  • Topic and content targeting: Bidding on placements that match the content of the keyword.
  • Custom Intent: People who search in a specific way or show interest in the keywords you select.
  • Audience signals: In PMax campaigns, advertisers can build an audience signal based on desired keywords.

Negative keywords

Negative keywords are just as important as targeting keywords.

Like regular keywords, negative keywords also have match types:

  • Broad: As long as the negative words are present in any order, the ad will not take part in the auction.
  • phrase: The order of negative keyword phrases must be maintained to block traffic.
  • Exactly: The exact negative keyword (nothing added or removed) prevents the ad from participating in the auction.

Negatives retained their utility and never acquired similar variant characteristics.

This means that advertisers would have to include all variants as negatives if they wanted to block traffic.

This also made it more difficult to justify maintaining match-type campaigns and single-keyword ad groups (SKAGs), as many negatives would be required to protect these structures.

Keywords today

One of the reasons keywords are so important is because they provide a common ground for both SEO and PPC.

They can be used to co-create content and bidding strategies.

However, as the search term report begins to hide search queries, this commonality begins to disappear.

In today’s world where privacy is very important, we have to guess the best keyword concepts based on traffic predictions and performance.

Additionally, Performance Max represents an all-in-one campaign type that only uses keywords as an audience signal.

It is gaining momentum for several reasons:

  • More and more advertisers are being pressured to adopt it due to the discontinuation of features.
  • Real benefit for brands that want to communicate with their customers at all stages of the buying process.

Are keywords still the best guide for targeting strategies?

While keywords require people to search in certain ways, they may not always be consistent with the global focus on privacy.

In a world where protecting the consumer is a top priority, it may be better to focus on your target audience and the creative elements of your campaign.

This is especially true as the privacy-first web enforces greater protection of data shared with advertisers.

One of the reasons search terms are hidden from the report is because not enough people are searching that way.

Therefore, an advertiser would have no problem matching the exact way a person searched to the person who did or did not become a customer.

As this level of data becomes a privilege rather than a right, we need to become more familiar with cohorts.

However, you can still set up proactive protections (negative keywords and audience exclusions).

The future of keywords

Instead of focusing on the keyword, we may soon focus on target groups and develop strategies that meet customer needs.

Two examples of this shift are shopping campaigns and local services ads.

Shopping campaigns use Google’s algorithm to read your feed and match user queries based on information such as product title, description, and category.

Local service ads don’t use keywords at all, but instead focus on reviews, proximity, and how well a search query is likely to match a service you provide.

These ad types consistently provide high ROI and show that actively bidding on keywords is less important than understanding the people behind the searches.

Final findings

Keywords have long been an important part of digital marketing.

Although their role is definitely changing, they still play a central role in the campaign strategy.

Audiences and feed-based campaigns represent the future of active audiences.

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