Single Keyword Ad Groups: The Definitive Guide in 2020

Are Single Keyword Ad Groups still relevant in 2020?

Single Keyword Ad Groups are a controversial Google Ads strategy.

On the one hand, you have PPC marketers that argue it is the best way to isolate high-quality traffic, lower cost-per-click and boost conversions.

On the other hand, you have PPC marketers that argue it used to be a good strategy, but Google's updates regarding exact match keywords now render them obsolete.

In the mean time, several tools have popped up in recent years promising a fast-track way to set up single keyword ad groups. For a price.

We are going to examine all these arguments and try to settle the debate once and for all.

It's 2020. Do Single Keyword Ad Groups have a place in your Google Ads marketing strategy?

What are Single Keyword Ad Groups?

Before we begin, let's get the basics out of the way. What exactly are Single Keyword Ad Groups, or as they are popularly known, SKAGs?

Single Keyword Ad Groups are where you treat your ad groups as if they are your keywords.

One keyword per ad group. That's it.

This breaks ways with Google's recommendations, which suggest ad groups should consist of 10-20 keywords per ad group.

Why go against Google's recommendations? After all, we are building GOOGLE ADS. Why not follow Google's guidelines?

As it turns out, there are several reasons why it might not be best to do so. But we will get into them later.

First, let's take a step back and give a broad overview of just how a Google Ads account looks like. And where SKAGs fit into this overall picture.


It's helpful to think of your Google Ads structure like a pyramid.

At the very top level you have the account.

This is where you control billing, user access, linked accounts and other settings.


One level down, within accounts, you get campaigns.

This is where you set the daily budget, locations you want to target, devices you want to target, bid adjustments and so forth.

It's usually helpful to have several campaigns to test different strategies, such as brand and non-brand and competitor keyword search campaigns.

Ad Groups

One level down, within campaigns, you get ad groups. At the ad group level you have keywords.

These keywords can have several different match types, such as exact match, broad match modifier, phrase match, or broad.

And each ad group can also have several different ads.

Whenever someone searches for something in Google, they use a search term. This search term is then matched to the keywords in your ad group, which then triggers a relevant ad.

There can be up to 20,000 ad groups in an account, and each ad group can have up to 10,000 keywords and 50 text ads.

Keyword Match Types & Search Terms

To really see the benefit of SKAGs, you need to have a clear understanding of match types, and how they relate to search terms.

Think about the potential customer you are looking to attract on Google.

What do they use Google for? To search for information.

How do they search for things? By typing in some words into the search bar.

Those words a user types into a search bar are the keys that connect your business with a potential customer.

But there's a problem. Because of changes Google has made to how it matches keywords to search terms, it is now almost impossible to control what search term your ad appears for.

Let's say your keyword is 'city bikes new york'

There are four match types you can put the keyword in.


This is the broadest match type. It shows on misspellings, synonyms, related searches and other relevant variations.

If your keyword was 'city bikes', then your keyword could appear on searches such as:

  • buy urban bikes
  • city cycling

Broad match modifier

To include a keyword in BMM, you have to use the special symbole +keyword.

A BMM keyword includes all terms designated with a + sign (or close variations of those terms) in any order. Additional words may appear before, after, or between the terms.

So with the key word +city +bikes, your ad would appear on searches such as:

  • good bikes for cities
  • city bikes and gear

Phrase match

The next keyword type is phrase match, indicated by adding your keyword in between quotation marks.

Phrase match keywords are supposed to match a phrase (or close variations of that phrase) with additional words before or after.

If your keyword was "city bikes" then your ad would appear on searches such as:

  • fast city bikes
  • buy city bikes
  • city bikes on sale

Exact match

Finally we have exact match, indicated by putting your keyword in between brackets.

Exact match keywords match your exact term or close variations with the same meaning.

If your keyword is [city bikes] then your ad could appear on searches such as:

  • city bikes
  • urban bikes
  • bikes for cities
  • bikes city

These are the four match types Google offers. Notice anything missing?

There is no option to have your ad appear on only one search term, your keyword.

And that's a huge issue in the PPC community.

How 'close variants' killed Google Ads

Up until a few years ago, you had the ability to bid on a keyword, such as 'city bikes', put the keyword as an exact match, and be almost 100% certain that your ad would only appear when somebody searched for that exact search term in Google.

This gave PPC marketers complete control over where their ads would be shown.

Then Google changed things in 2018 by introducing this idea of 'close variants'. Instead of [city bikes] matching exactly with that search term, Google now shows your ad to close variations of that exact term that have the same meaning.

For example, your exact match keyword [city bikes] can now be shown for the search term urban bikes as well.

Google's argument is that there are way too many different ways that people search for different products to have marketers hung up on the specific words people use. Instead it is the intent of a search that matters.

Urban bikes and city bikes are the same thing, in Google's eyes. A searcher who uses these two different terms is basically looking for the same thing: a healthy means of transport.

Loosening these match types saves advertisers from having to always thinking of new searches and add them in as keywords. No need for exhaustive keyword lists anymore.

According to Google, 15% of searches that happening every day are new. Marketers shouldn't have to spend their time researching and trying to find these new searches.

In this vain, Google extended the close variants option to both phrase match and broad match modifier keywords in 2019, stripping PPC marketers of even more control.

Now in 2020, we are left with a situation where it is almost impossible to have your ad appear only on the search term you want it to, and not appear on others.

Enter Single Keyword Ad Groups

We use the term almost impossible because in reality, there is still a way to do this through Single Keyword Ad Groups.

Single Keyword Ad Groups remain the only way for marketers to ensure that their ads are only appearing on the search terms they are paying for and nothing else.

But why is this the case? We need to look at how they are set up.

The structure looks like this:

Going one level down, you get to the ad groups, which will have only one keyword. But as we've mentioned before, there are four different keyword match types you can have.

Broad can safely be ignored. Then the question becomes, what match type to put your SKAG in: BMM, phrase or exact?

It's been our experience that it's best to add all three match types into a SKAG at the start, and then adjust things as more data comes in.

Going one level down, you will then have the ads.

The amount of ads you want to add varies depending on budget and the amount of impressions each ad is getting. In general you should have at least three ads per ad group. You can add up to six ads per ad groups if the ads are getting a lot of impressions (1,000 per week).

How to use negative keywords with SKAGs

When building SKAG campaigns, there is a big problem that arises. Cannibalization.

How do you ensure that traffic from one of your SKAGs isn't stealing traffic that from another SKAG?

And how do you prevent ads for different similarily-related SKAGs competing against each other and driving up the price of bids?

To prevent this from happening, you need to use negative keywords.

Negative keywords are needed to ensure that short-tail keywords aren't cannibalizing your long-tail keywords and draining the campaign budget.

When compared with short-tail keywords, the benefits of long-tail keywords are lower cost and higher relevancy to the search term. Because of increased competition, short-tail keywords are more expensive.

Long-tail keywords are exactly the type of keywords you want to build SKAGs around. Although the traffic is much lower, the increased relevancy to search terms more than makes up for it. Often times these can be the highest converting keywords.

In order to properly implement a SKAGs structure, you need to make sure that every SKAG has all of your other closely-related SKAGS added in as negative keywords to prevent overlap.

Take a look at the example below:

Ad group 1’s single keyword: iPhone X repair
Ad group 2’s single keyword: iPhone X repair screen
Ad group 3’s single keyword: iPhone X repair screen and battery

(Assume there are 3 match types for each keyword: broad match modifier, phrase match and exact match.)

Then, the broad match keyword for ad group 1 could cannibalize the exact match keyword from ad group 3.

To solve this, for each ad group, you need to add keywords from other ad groups as negative keywords.

Ad group 1’s single keyword: iPhone X repair
negative key phrases: “iPhone X repair screen”, “iPhone X repair screen and battery”

Ad group 2’s single keyword: iPhone X repair screen
negative key phrases: “iPhone X repair”, “iPhone X repair screen and battery”

Ad group 3’s single keyword: iPhone X repair screen and battery
negative key phrases: “iPhone X repair”, “iPhone X repair screen”

As you can tell, this can quickly get really complicated to set up in the Google Ads interface.

Luckily, there are tools out there that automatically add negative keywords to all of your SKAGs, which can speed up the process.

Why use Single Keyword Ad Groups?

Benefit #1 Search Terms: By pairing your keywords into their own ad groups, you can make sure that your ad is only shown for the search term that matches the keywords you bid on.

Benefit #2 Ad Copy: When you know exactly what search term your ad is being shown for, you can get super creative with your ad copy. High-quality ad copy, tailored specifically to a user's query has been shown to boost CTR. A searcher is simply more likely to click on your ad when there is a tight match between search term and ad copy.

Benefit #3 Landing Pages: Tailored landing pages. Because you know exactly what search term your ad is appearing for, you can not only create a really specific ad for that search term, you can also go one step further and create a specific landing page for that search term. This creates a smooth customer journey. A user that searches 'city bikes new york' is shown an ad that says 'city bikes new york' that takes them directly to a landing page called 'city bikes new york.' As a result, conversation rates skyrocket.

Other Benefits of SKAGs

1. Higher CTR

The STAG structure itself will not automatically boost CTR, but it lays the foundation. Once you have your SKAGs in place, you want to create good ad copy tailored to the search term. The tight match between search term and ad will then boost CTR

2. Higher Quality Score

Quality Score is an assessment Google gives of how good your ads, keywords and landing pages are. It's based on a number of factors, including expected CTR vs actual CTR, ad relevance, landing page experience and so forth.

For example, if your ad brings in a lot of users, but then bounce right when they hit the landing page, this has a negative impact on your quality score.

The good news is, with SKAGs you can easily create landing pages tailored to exactly to what people are searching for.

3. Lower CPC

A higher quality score generally means lower CPC and lower cost per conversion. This saves marketers money.

4. Strong campaign foundation

With SKAGs it is easy to decide how to group your keywords, you don’t need to think about it. And when you want to add more keywords, you are just adding more ad groups. This simple and clean account structure makes maintenance easier.

5. Better control over your negative keywords

You can be more precise with your negative keywords at an ad group level because in your ad groups you will have one keyword (in 3 or 4 match types).

The drawbacks of SKAGs

However, not everybody agrees with Single Keyword Ad Groups being effective. Some drawbacks that people point out are the following:

1: More difficult to test ad copy

When you SKAG your campaigns you end up diluting a lot of data. Let's say you have a traditional ad group setup with 20 keywords that gives you 1,000 impressions every two weeks.

If you were to SKAG that ad group and make 20 separate ad groups for each of those 20 keywords, then all of a sudden you go from 1,000 impressions in the last two weeks for the entire ad group consisting of 20 keywords to perhaps 50 impressions for each ad group based on one keyword.

With so few impressions, it becomes really hard to test ad copy without a lot of data.

In contrast, the traditional ad group set up consisting of 10-20 keywords allows you to easily test new ad copy and instantly get data to see which ad copy brings results and which ad copy isn't effective.

If you have a big account where you are testing ads on a daily basis, it becomes impossible to test ads on all these different ad groups. Once you have a highly optimized campaign, one of the only things you can do to boost performance is to find that great ad copy.

2: They take forever to set up

Everything in life is an opportunity cost. So too with SKAGs

When a PPC marketer takes all of that time to SKAG his campaign, he is taking away time from something else he could be working on.

Some ad groups have as many as 100 keywords, some even more. And there are some PPC marketers that create SKAGs for not every keyword in their account, but each match type for each keyword as well.

Things can quickly spiral out of control, with SKAGs looking more like a collective case of PPC marketer OCD than a best practice.

3: Target CPA doesn't work

Target CPA is a Google Ads Smart Bidding strategy that sets bids to help get as many conversions as possible at the target cost-per-acquisition (CPA) that is set. The strategy uses advanced machine learning to automatically find an optimal bid for your ad each time it's eligable to appear.

The problem is, for Google's Target CPA to work well, it needs impression data. If you take an ad group with 20 keywords and 1,000 impressions and slice it up into 20 ad groups with 50 impressions, you may not be able to use Target CPA and be forced to perform manual bids, thus taking up more of your time.

4: Google is pushing smart bidding solutions and AI

Google is pushing hard to get marketers to use their AI and smart learning solutions.

While the benefits of SKAGs are that they give more control to the PPC marketer, it must be balanced with the amount of time you lose if you just hand over the keys to Google.

Google's smart bidding operates on a ton of data. This data can predict the likelihood of a conversion at the query level and decide when to show an ad arguably better than the most seasoned PPC marketer.

5: Responsive Search Ads

RSAs use Google's AI technology.

They allow you to upload 15 different headlines and 4 different descriptions and then Google's algorithm will decide which combination is most likely to convert.

Although RSAs have gotten a lukewarm reception by the PPC community, with some arguing the combinations don't always work, there's no way around the fact that they do save time.

The Best SKAG Tools

While you can certainly set up your SKAGs in the Google Ads Editor interface, it is definitely not the fastest option, especially if you have large number of ad groups.

Here you can find a video that compares setting up Single Keyword Ad Groups in the Editor versus using a designated SKAG tool which automizes much of the setup.

As you can see, a dedicated SKAG tool can significantly speed up the creation process for SKAGs.

Our tool Aori is specifically designed to create hundreds of SKAGs in minutes by automatically adding negative keywords to closely-related ad groups and synchronizing with Google Ads where quick changes can be made. You can give it a try here.

Whether or not you choose to build SKAGs with a tool or not, SKAGs remain an effective strategy in 2020, in so much as they allow you to have your ads appear only on the search terms you want your ads to appear for.

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