Single Theme Ad Groups: The Definitive Guide

The What, Why and How of Single Theme Ad Groups (STAGs)

Google Ads is constantly changing, and that means that the strategies PPC marketers use to organize their campaigns need to change as well.

Some strategies prove the test of time, others get phased out.

One particular change Google has implemented recently is extending 'close variants' to exact match, phrase match and broad match modifier keywords.

This has made it much harder to know whether the keywords your bidding on will actually match with the search queries your ads are shown for.

Google says this change is necessary because the ways people search are constantly changing and marketers miss out on relevant traffic.

They also say that marketers shouldn't need to manage huge lists of keywords that encompass every single syllable under the sun just to be able to run a campaign.

Others argue that this is Google's way of wresting control from account managers and keeping things deliberately confusing and vague.

After all, it is in Google's interest to have your ad shown on as many search terms as possible, since they make their money when people click. The fact that the click doesn't necessarily lead to a conversion for you, or is low-quality traffic, isn't what they have to deal with.

Regardless of what side of the debate you fall on, one strategy that has been affected by Google's close variants changes has been Single Keyword Ad Groups (SKAGs).

In the meantime, a new strategy has arisen, Single Theme Ad Groups (STAGs) which may be better suited to take advantage of close variants.

In this post, we are going to cover what exactly Single Theme Ad Groups are, and how they make sense as a Google Ads account structure in a close variants PPC world.

But first a bit of history.

What are 'close variants'?

Close variants are not a new thing.

They were first introduced by Google way back in 2014 to match your keywords with misspellings.

The rationale made a lot of sense. As Google explained at the time.

"People aren't perfect spellers. In fact, at least 7% of Google searches contain a misspelling...Whether it's 'kid scooters', 'kid's scooter', or 'kids scooters', people interested in buying a scooter for their child want to see the most relevant ads despite slight variations in their search query.'

It's hard to argue with that logic. And most marketers had no problem with 'close variants' at the time, since it largely did lead to an increase in traffic.

So far so good.

Enter 2017

Then 2017 came and Google again updated its definition of 'close variants'.

This time, word order and prepositions were the victim.

As Google explained at the time:

"Whether someone is searching for 'running shoes' or 'shoes for running', what they want remains the same; they're looking for running shoes. You shouldn't have to build out exhaustive keyword lists to reach these customers, and now you don't have to."

Some Google Ads managers complained at the time, but again, there was possibly a justification for it.

If your keyword was 'jobs in USA' and someone searched for 'jobs in the USA', did the 'THE' really matter that much. Why not have your ads show up for that search term.

And in most cases, marketers agreed that the change was okay, since it led to an increase in traffic.

Again, so far so good.

Enter 2018

And then the problems started in 2018.

Google announced that exact match keywords would no longer match with the specific words people use to search, but rather the intent of the search.

For example, if you bid on the keyword organic coffee, your ad will show up if somebody searches for 'all-natural coffee'. Since organic and all natural is basically the same thing...right?

Well, for many marketers this was taking 'close variants' once step too far, especially for those that relied on single keyword ad groups to isolate traffic.

With the update in 2018, Google said that words did not really matter when somebody performed a search, rather it was the intent of the searcher.

As Google put it: "Roughly 15% of the searches we see every day are new. With so many new queries, there's a good chance people are searching for your products or services with terms you haven't discovered...but you shouldn't have to manage an exhaustive list of keywords to reach these...consumers."

And then they further went on to state:

"Powered by Google's machine learning, exact match will now match with the intent of a search, instead of just the specific words. That means your exact match keywords can show ads on searches that include implied words, paraphrases, and other terms with the same meaning."

Here's where Single Keyword Ad Groups, or SKAGs, also began having problems.

First of all, one of the great things about SKAGs is that they create a tight match between a user's search term and the ad copy they ware shown.

Study after study has shown that CTR increases when a user is shown an ad that is a mirror image of their Google search, and along with that the quality score of your ad, because more clicks lead to a better score.

A user that searches for 'healthy energy drinks', and that is then shown an ad for 'healthy energy drinks' is much more likely to click on it.

But with the exact match change in September 2018, it is the intent that matters the most to Google. And therefore, if there are people out there searching for 'sugar-free energy drinks', according to Google, your ad qualifies and can be shown to those searches, since 'sugar-free energy drinks' and 'healthy energy drinks' are basically one in the same.

Enter 2019

For many that seemed like the end. But in the summer of 2019, Google expanded its 'close variants' formula once again.

This time, the victims were phrase match and broad match modifier.

Close variants of search terms would now apply to both phrase match and BMM match type keywords in your account.

As Google explained in their post about the change:

"To help you reach more consumers without the need for exhaustive keyword lists, we started allowing exact match keywords to match to close variants late last year...In the coming weeks broad match modifier and phrase match keywords will also begin matching to words within the search query that share the same meaning as the keyword."

See a trend here?

With every change, Google has taken away manual control from Google Ads manager and given it to Google's algorithms. With each change, it is Google that decides what search terms your ad will appear for, and not the account manager.

Single Keyword Ad Groups in 2020?

So where are we today?

2019 is slowly drawing to a close. Do Single Keyword Ad Groups have any place in your PPC strategy for 2020?

Well, according to multiple testimonies from industry experts, yes they do. They just may be a little harder to manage.

In a popular post on SearchEngineLand, Frederick Vallaeys gave a convincing argument why SKAGs are still relevant in a close variants Google Ads world.

"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."

So, as we can see, not much has actually changed in terms of ensuring that a keyword you set up as a SKAG continues to appear on the search term you want it to. All you need to do is add that exact match keyword in a SKAG.

What has changed, is that now those advertisers can no longer control which additional close variants that same ad can be triggered for, without adding a huge number of negative keywords.

So overall, Single Keyword Ad Groups are still relevant.

Behold, Single Theme Ad Groups

But against the backdrop of all these changes, a new way to manage campaigns has arisen: Single Theme Ad Groups.

In Single Keyword Ad Groups, you put only one keyword in your ad groups.

In Single Theme Ad Groups, you have multiple keywords in ad groups centered around themes and sub-themes. However, the themes are kept very specific, and the keywords as closely related as possible.

Let's first look at some of the cons of Single Keyword Ad Groups, and see why in certain cases, Single Theme Ad Groups may be a better option.

Single Keyword Ad Groups Cons

  1. They are exhaustive: One keyword = one ad group. Pretty simple right? Wrong. The problem is that this can become really difficult to manage by yourself in the editor and some thrifty excel skills. SKAGs begin to look a bit like PPC marketer OCD when variations of every single keyword under the sun are added. What is the point of having a Single Keyword Ad Group for the search term "digital marketing tools" another one for "online marketing tools" and another one for "internet marketing tools" when all of these are essentially targeting the same search term: marketing tools on the internet.

  2. SKAGS create less impressions: Having keywords in single ad groups leads to less traffic, which can have its own consequences. If you have an ad group with five related keywords in there, all pulling in 100 impressions per week, leading to 500 impressions for the ad group overall, this will enable Google's machine learning algorithms to work better when it comes to smart bidding strategies. Google's algorithms thrive on data. But if you take that ad group with 500 impressions per week and split it up into five separate ad groups for each keyword, with 100 impressions per week, then it takes longer for Google's smart bidding strategies to work.

  3. It's harder to test ad copy: In a similar vain to smart bidding strategies not working well, it is harder to test ad copy with less traffic. When you have a well-performing ad group that gets a ton of weekly impressions, all you have to do to test a new ad with some creative ad copy is put it into the ad group and all of a sudden you can compare how the new ad performs based on consistent impression data. When you have SKAGs that don't have many impressions, it is diffiulct to test ad copy.

How Single Theme Ad Groups Are Structured

Given these restrains, a new way of organizing ad groups has arisen, called Single Theme Ad Groups, or STAGs.

Single Theme Ad Groups is where you organize your ad groups in tightly-knitted themes and sub-themes. Each theme has its own ad group with several different keywords and ads.

In other words, under STAGS the focus shifts from words to themes, with three-to-five similar themed keyword concepts per ad group.

As mentioned earlier, one drawback of SKAGs is that they can become unamanageable in the Google Ads Editor, especially for longer lists of keywords, although there are third-party tools that automize managing SKAGs.

Single Theme Ad Groups are easier to manage for the simple fact that keywords are grouped together, which results in less ad groups. It's important to keep these themes as closely-related as possible, in order to keep the CTR high for the ad group overall.

How to create Single Theme Ad Groups?

The process of creating Single Theme Ad Groups is similar to that of Single Keyword Ad Groups.

First, come up with a list of keywords that best describe your product.

After you have your list, take a hard look at it. Are there any keywords that overlap? Are there any broad themes within those keywords and sub-themes that could be one ad group?

Let's take a look at the example below of a newly opened bike shop.

The broad theme is 'bikes'.

But within that broad theme are several sub-themes for different type of bikes, including

In the example above, the ad groups would be 'road bikes', 'mountain bikes' and 'kids bikes' and the different colors would be the keywords.

If you were to SKAG the campaign above, you would have a seperate ad group for 'pink kids bikes', 'yellow kids bikes', 'black mountain bikes', 'white mountain bikes' and so forth.

And the benefit would be that in your SKAG for 'black mountain bikes', you could write some ad copy that would be super relevant to that specific keyword.

But is is really necessary to have a seperate SKAG for 'black mountain bikes' and a seperate SKAG for 'white mountain bike', if they could be grouped together into a STAG that targets the sub-theme 'mountain bikes' overall?

Sometimes not. In this case, you can group together all the different colors of mountain bikes your store offers, and then write ad copy that targets the fact that the user wants a mountain bike.

"Sick of biking in the city? Check out these black mountain bikes
"Sick of biking in the city? Check out these white mountain bikes"

In this case, the ads you include in yout STAG for mountain bikes would be related to the type of bike the user wants, a mountain bike.

On other hand, you could create a STAG that doesn't target the type of bike, but rather the color of the bike. In this case, you could set up your ad groups by color, and have the keywords be the type of bike.

Here, the STAGs you create will be themed along color, and the keywords in each ad group will be the different types of bikes.

When you go to write ad copy, you would write ad copy that specifically targets the color of the bike, rather than its type. For the STAG targeting the color black, you can add three different ads with a description as follows:

"Ride at night at peace. Check out our black mountain bikes."
"Ride at night at peace. Check out our black road bikes."
"Ride at night at peace. Check out our black kids bikes."

Google's algorithms will naturally figure out to show the ad with the copy containing 'mountain bikes' to the keyword for 'black mountain bikes'.

By grouping these keywords together under a STAG, you then get more impressions for the ad group overall, which gives added benefits in terms of Google's machine learning and smart bidding strategies.

What are the benefits of Single Theme Ad Groups?

So what kind of benefits can marketers expect if they set up their Google Ads using STAGs?

STAG Benefit #1: Improved Quality Score

Single Theme Ad Groups give you similar benefits as Single Keyword Ad Groups, in that they improve your quality score. It is important to keep the keywords in your STAG as tightly-themed as possible, in order for the ad copy to keep the ad copy relevant. With ad copy that closely mirrors your keywords, and subsequently the query that a user searches for, you will see click-through-rate shoot through the roof, which in turn improves your quality score.

STAG Benefit #2: Better Product Data

By grouping products together in ad groups, it is easy to compare which of your products perform well for your customers and which do not. In the example above, if you were to include the keywords for kids bikes in the ad group for mountain bikes, then the only way to compare how your kids bikes perform against mountain bikes is by looking at the keywords. With a lot of keywords, this becomes harder to keep track of in the Google Ads Editor. By giving products their own ad groups, you can easily compare performance at the ad group level.

STAG Benefit #3: More organized

By grouping keywords into tightly themed ad groups, it becomes easy to add more keywords. You can easily find the ad group that is related to the new keyword you would like to target and add it to its corresponding ad group.

STAG Benefit #4: Bid at the Ad Group level

With similar keywords in each ad group, it becomes easier to bid on keywords at the ad group level, since similar keywords will have similar bid requirements. If you were to have an ad group with keywords related to both mountain bikes and kids bikes, it is possible that kids bikes would have a much lower bid requirement than mountain bikes. Then you would have to go into the ad group and set bids at the keyword level. But with STAGs, you could safely bid at the ad group level.

STAG Benefit #5: Better ad copy

A properly structured STAG will have the same benefits as a SKAG, in that you can get hyper-focused with your ad copy. For example, for the ad group kids bikes, you could write ad copy that specifically targets younger children and parents, for example: "Kids stuck at home all day? Buy them this red kids bike and get them outside!" However, if you were to have an ad group for bikes in general with mountains bikes too, you could not get this specific with the ad copy.

STAG Benefit #6: Target CPA works better

Target CPA is a Google 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 is eligible to appear. But in order for Google Target CPA to work well, it needs impression data. When you set up SKAGs, your ad groups will inevitably have less impression data. But by grouping similar keywords into a STAG, those SKAGs which on their own were getting only 100 impressions per week, suddenly can get 1,000 impressions per week at the ad group level. Google's smart bidding strategies will work more effectively, and thus save the PPC marketer a ton of time.

STAG Benefit #7: Works well with 'close variants'

Google has updated its exact match, phrase match, and broad match modifier match types in the past two years so that close variants of keywords can trigger your ad, as long as the intent of the searcher matches the keyword. The move has proven controversial, since old school PPC marketers that have been with Google since the early days of AdWords feel that manual control is being stripped away from them. Another potential victim is the SKAG setup. If SKAGs are set up in the traditional way in the editor or using an excel sheet, it can become very tedious to manage negative keywords.

In contrast, STAGs leverage Google's close variants updates and make them work for you. The keywords in Single Theme Ad Groups are, by their very nature, close variants of each other. Put differently, it is in your interest to have Google find close variant keywords in your STAG, because it could lead to more impression data. As long as the keywords Google finds match the overall theme of your STAG, then having Google show your ad to close variants will likely help your ad group overall by giving it more impression data.


Overall, Single Theme Ad Groups are a balancing act between Google's recommendations to put 5-20 keywords in your ad group and SKAGs which focus on only one.

STAGs are similar to Google's recommendations in that the ad groups should focus on themes, but are more specific as to what keywords should be added and how they are organized.

And they are better equipped to take advantage of Google's close variants updates, which have some marketers who have relied on SKAGs as a Google account structure worried.

Below is a video where you can see Single Theme Ad Groups being built in action.

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